The Jack Kirby Omnibus volume 2 – starring The Super Powers


By Jack Kirby with Joe Simon, Mike Royer Paul Kupperberg, Adrian Gonzalez & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3833-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic Entertainment… 9/10

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, Jack Kirby was an astute, imaginative, spiritual man who had lived through poverty and gangsterism, the Depression, Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject. He also always believed that sequential narrative was worthy of being published as real books beside mankind’s other literary art forms.

Looks like he was right, and – as usual – just ahead of the times, doesn’t it?

There’s a magnificent abundance of Kirby commemorative collections around these days (though still not all of it, so I remain a partially disgruntled dedicated fan). This particular magnificent hardback compendium re-presents most of miscellaneous oddments of the “King’s Canon” crafted for DC – at least those to which the company still retains rights.

The licenses on stuff like his run on pulp adaptation Justice Inc. (or indeed Marvel’s 2001: A Space Odyssey comic) will not be forthcoming any time soon…

This massive tome begins with pages of hyper-kinetic Kirby pencil pages and a moving ‘Introduction by John Morrow’ before hurtling straight into moody mystery with a range of twice told tales.

On returning from WWII, Kirby reconnected with his long-term creative partner Joe Simon. National Comics was no longer a welcoming place for the reunited dream team supreme and by 1947 they had formed their own studio. They enjoyed a long and productive relationship with Harvey Comics (Stuntman, Boy’s Ranch, Captain 3-D, Lancelot Strong, The Shield, The Fly, Three Rocketeers and more) and created a stunning variety of genre features for Crestwood/Pines supplied by their Essankay/Mainline studio shop.

These included Justice Traps the Guilty, Fighting American, Bullseye, Police Trap, Foxhole, Headline Comics and Young Romance amongst many more (see the superb Best of Simon and Kirby for a salient selection of these classic creations): a veritable mountain of maturely challenging strip material in a variety of popular genres.

One of those was mystery and horror and amongst that dynamic duo’s “Prize” concoctions was noir-ish, psychologically-underpinned supernatural anthology Black Magic and latterly a short-lived but fascinating companion title Strange World of Your Dreams. These comics anthologies eschewed the traditional gory, heavy-handed morality plays and simplistic cautionary tales for deeper, stranger fare, and – until the EC comics line hit their peak – were far and away the best mystery titles on the market.

When the King quit Marvel for DC in 1970, his new bosses accepted suggestions for a supernatural-themed mature-reading magazine. Spirit World was a superb but poorly received and largely undistributed monochrome magazine. Issue #1 – and only – launched in the summer of 1971, but editorial cowardice and back-sliding scuppered the project before it could get going.

Material from a second, unpublished issue eventually appeared in colour comicbooks Weird Mystery Tales and Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion but with his ideas misunderstood, ignored or side-lined by the company, Kirby opted again for more traditional fare. Never truly defeated though, he cannily blended his belief in the marketability of the supernatural with flamboyant super-heroics to create another unique and lasting mainstay for the DC universe. The Demon only ran a couple of years but was a concept later, lesser talents would make a pivotal figure of the company’s continuity.

His collaborations with fellow industry pioneer Joe Simon always produced dynamite concepts, unforgettable characters, astounding stories and huge sales, no matter what genre avenues they pursued, blazing trails for so many others to follow and always reshaping the very nature of American comics with their innovations and sheer quality.

As with all their endeavours, Simon & Kirby offered stories shaped by their own sensibilities. Identifying a “mature market” gap in the line of magazines they autonomously packaged for publishers Crestwood and Prize they saw the sales potential for high-quality spooky material. resulting in the superb and eerily seminal Black Magic (launched with an October/November 1950 cover-date), supplemented in 1952 by boldly obscure psychological drama anthology The Strange World of Your Dreams: a title inspired by studio-mate Mort Meskin’s vivid and punishing night terrors.

Dealing with fantastic situations and – too frequently for comfort – unable or unwilling to provide pat conclusions or happy endings, cosmic justice or calming explanations were seldom available to avid readers. Sometimes the Unknown just blew up in your face and you survived or didn’t… and never whole or unchanged.

Thus, this colossal compendium of cult cartoon cavortings commences with DC’s revival of Black Magic as a cheap, modified reprint title.

The second issue #1 launched with an October/November 1973 cover-date, offering rather crudely re-mastered versions of some astounding classics. Far better reproduced on the good quality paper here is ‘Maniac!’ (originating in Black Magic #32 September/October 1973); an artistic tour de force and a tale much “homaged” in later years, detailing how – and why – a loving brother stops villagers taking his simple-minded sibling away. This is followed by ‘The Head of the Family!’ (BM #30 May/June 1954, by Kirby & Bruno Premiani), revealing the appalling secret shame of a most inbred clan…

DC’s premier outing ended with a disturbing tale first seen in Black Magic #29 (March-April 1954). Specifically cited during the1954 anti-comicbook Senate Hearings, ‘The Greatest Horror of them All!’ told a tragic tale of a freak hiding amongst lesser freaks…

DC’s second issue – cover-dated December 1973/January 1974 – opened with ‘Fool’s Paradise!’ (BM #26, September/October 1953) wherein a petty thug stumbles into a Mephistophelean deal and revealed how ‘The Cat People’ (#27 November/December 1953) mesmerised and forever marked an unwary tourist in rural Spain before ‘Birth After Death’ (#20 January 1953) retold the true story of how Sir Walter Scott’s mother survived premature burial, and ‘Those Who Are About to Die!’ (#23 April 1953) sketched out the tale of a painter who could predict imminent doom…

‘Nasty Little Man!’ (#18 November 1952) fronted DC’s third foray and gets my vote for creepiest horror art job of all time. It saw three hobos discover to their everlasting regret why you shouldn’t pick on short old men with Irish accents. ‘The Angel of Death!’ (#15 August 1952) then detailed an horrific medical mystery far darker than mere mystic menace…

As the 1950s editions grew in popularity, Simon & Kirby were stretched thin. Utilising a staff of assistants and crafting fewer stories themselves meant they could keep all their deadlines…

The ‘Cover art for Black Magic #4, June/July 1974’ sensibly segues into ‘Last Second of Life!’, from Black Magic volume 1 #1, October-November 1950) wherein a rich man, obsessed over what the dying see at final breath, learns to regret the unsavoury lengths he went to in finding out: their only contribution to that particular DC issue.

There were two in the next release. ‘Strange Old Bird!’ (Black Magic #25 June/July 1953) is a gently eerie thriller of a little old lady who gets the gift of renewed life from her tatty and extremely flammable feathered old friend and ‘Up There!’ from the landmark 13th issue from June 1952 – the saga of a beguiling siren of the upper stratosphere scaring the bejabbers out of a cool test pilot…

DC issue #6 reprises ‘The Girl Who Walked on Water!’ (BM #11 April 1952) exposing the immense but fragile power of self-belief whilst the ‘Cover art for Black Magic #7, December 1974/January 1975’ (originally #17 October 1952) provides a chilling report on a satanic vestment ‘The Cloak!’ (from BM #2 December 1950/January 1951) and ‘Freak!’ (from the aforementioned #17) shares a country doctor’s deepest shame…

DC’s #8 revisited The Strange World of Your Dreams, beginning with “a typical insecurity nightmare” ‘The Girl in the Grave!’ (from #2, September/October 1952). The Meskin-inspired anthology of oneiric visions eschewed cheap shocks, mindless gore and goofy pun-inspired twist-ending yarns in favour of dark, oppressive suspense soaked in psychological unease and inexplicable unease: tension over teasing…

Following up with ‘Send Us Your Dreams’ from the same source (requesting readers’ ideas for parapsychologist Richard Temple to analyse), DC’s vintage fear-fest concludes with # 9 (April/May 1975) and ‘The Woman in the Tower!’ as originally seen in The Strange World of Your Dreams #3, (November/December 1952) detailing the symbolism of oppressive illness…

Kirby continued creating new material with Kamandi – his only long-running DC success – and explored WWII in The Losers whilst creating the radical, scarily prophetic, utterly magnificent Omac: One Man Army Corps, but still could not achieve the all-important sales the company demanded. Eventually he was lured back to Marvel and new challenges such as Black Panther, Captain America, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man and especially The Eternals.

Before then, though, he unleashed a number of new concepts and even filled in on established titles. As previously moaned about, however, his 3-issue run on Justice Inc. adapting licensed pulp hero The Avenger is not included here, but at least his frankly astounding all-action dalliance with martial arts heroics is…

Debuting in all-new try-out title 1st Issue Special #1 (April 1975, and inked by D. Bruce Berry), ‘Atlas the Great! harked back to the dawn of human civilisation and followed the blockbusting trail of mankind’s first super-powered champion in a blazing Sword & Sorcery yarn.

1st Issue Special #5 (August 1975, Berry) highlighted the passing of a torch as a devout evil-crusher working for an ancient justice-cult retired and tipped his nephew – Public Defender Mark Shaw – to become the latest super-powered ‘Manhunter’

A rare but welcome digression into comedy manifested as ‘The Dingbats of Danger Street’ (1st Issue Special #6, September 1975) with Mike Royer inking a bizarre and hilarious revival of Kirby’s Kid Gang genre starring four multi-racial street urchins united for survival and to battle surreal super threats…

Always looking for work Kirby – and Berry – stepped in for #3 of troubled martial arts series Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter (August/September 1975). Scripted by Denny O’Neil, the savage shocker pits the lone fighter against an army of assassins in ‘Claws of the Dragon!’

‘Fangs of the Kobra!’ comes from Kobra #1, released with a February/March 1976 cover-date. The tale is strange in both execution and delivery, with Kirby’s original updating of Dumas’ tale of The Corsican Brothers reworked by Martin Pasko, Steve Sherman and artists Pablo Marcos & Berry.

It introduces brothers separated at birth. Jason Burr grew up a normal American kid whilst his twin – stolen by an Indian death cult – was reared as Kobra, the most dangerous man alive. Sadly for the super-criminal, young adult Jason has been recruited by the authorities because of his psychic connection to the snake lord: a link which allows them to track each other and also feel and experience any harm or hurt the other incurs…

When Simon & Kirby came to National/DC in 1942 one of their earliest projects was revitalising the moribund Sandman strip in Adventure Comics. Their unique blend of atmosphere and dynamism made it one of the most memorable, moody and action-packed series of the period (as you can see by reading complete Sandman edition which is a companion to this volume).

The band was brought back together for The Sandman #1 (cover-dated Winter 1974); a one-shot project which took the name and created a whole new mythology…

Scripted by Simon and inked by Royer ‘General Electric’ revealed how the realm of dreams was policed by a scarlet-&-gold super-crusader dedicated to preventing nightmares escaping into the physical world. With unwilling assistants Glob and Brute, the Sandman also battled real world villains determined to exploit the unconscious Great Unknown. The heady mix was completed by frail orphan Jed, whose active sleeping imagination seemed to draw trouble to him.

The proposed one-off was a minor hit at a tenuous time in comics publishing, and DC opted to keep it going, even though the originators were not interested. Kirby & Royer did produce the ‘Cover art Sandman #2, April/May 1975’ and ‘Cover art Sandman #3, June/July 1975’ before returning to the series with #4.

‘Panic in the Dream Stream’ – August/September 1975 – was scripted by Michael Fleisher, and revealed how a sleepless alien race attempted to conquer Earth through Jed’s fervent dreams: a traumatic channel that even allowed them to invade the Sandman’s Dream Realm. The next issue (October/November 1975) heralded an ‘Invasion of the Frog Men!’ into an idyllic parallel dimension before the next issue reunited a classic art team. Wally Wood inked Jack for Fleisher’s ‘The Plot to Destroy Washington D.C.!’, with mind-bending cyborg Doctor Spider, subverting and enslaving Glob and Brute in his eccentric ambition to take over America…

Although Sandman #6 (December 1975/January 1976) was the last issue, another tale was already completed and it finally appeared in reprint digest Best of DC #22 in March 1982. ‘The Seal Men’s War on Santa Claus’ with Fleisher scripting and Royer handling the brushwork was a sinister seasonal romp with Jed’s wicked foster-family abusing the lad in classic Scrooge style before the Weaver of Dreams seconds him to help save Christmas from bellicose well-armed aquatic mammals…

During the 1980s costumed heroes stopped being an exclusively print cash cow. Many toy companies licensed Fights ‘n’ Tights titans and reaped the benefits of ready-made comicbook spin-offs. DC’s most recognizable characters became a best-selling line of action figures and were inevitably hived off into a brisk and breezy, fight-frenzied miniseries.

Super Powers launched in July 1984 as a 5-issue miniseries with Kirby covers and his signature characters prominently represented. Jack also plotted the stellar saga with scripter Joey Cavalieri providing dialogue, and Adrian Gonzales & Pablo Marcos illustrating a heady cosmic quest comprising numerous inconclusive battles between agents of Good and Evil.

In ‘Power Beyond Price!’, ultimate nemesis Darkseid despatches four Emissaries of Doom to destroy Earth’s superheroes. Sponsoring Lex Luthor, The Penguin, Brainiac and The Joker the monsters jointly target Superman, Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and Hawkman

The combat escalates in #2’s ‘Clash Against Chaos’ with the Man of Steel and Scarlet Speedster tackling Luthor, whilst Aquaman and Green Lantern scupper the Penguin as Dark Knight and Winged Wonder confront a cosmically-enhanced Harlequin of Hate…

With Alan Kupperberg inking, an inconclusive outcome leads to a regrouping of evil and an attack by Brainiac on Paradise Island. With the ‘Amazons at War’ the Justice League rally until Superman is devolved into a brutal beast who attacks his former allies. All-out battle ensues in ‘Earth’s Last Stand’, before the King steps up to write and illustrate the fateful finale: cosmos-shaking conclusion ‘Spaceship Earth – We’re All on It!’ (November 1984, with Greg Theakston suppling inks)…

A bombastic Super Powers Promotional Poster leads into a nostalgic reunion as DC Comics Presents #84 (August 1985) reunited Jack with his first Fantastic Four.

‘Give Me Power… Give Me Your World!’ – written by Bob Rozakis, Kirby & Theakston (with additional art by the legendary Alex Toth) – pits Superman and the Challengers of The Unknown against mind-bending Kryptonian villain Zo-Mar, after which the ‘Cover art for Super DC Giant S-25, July/ August 1971’ (inked by Vince Colletta) segues into the Super Powers miniseries, spanning September 1985 to February 1986.

Scripted by Paul Kupperberg the Kirby/Theakston saga ‘Seeds of Doom!’ recounts how deadly Darkseid despatches techno-organic bombs to destroy Earth, requiring practically every DC hero to unite to end the threat.

With teams of Super Powers travelling to England, Rome, New York, Easter Island and Arizona the danger is magnified ‘When Past and Present Meet!’ as the seeds warp time and send Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter back to days of King Arthur

Super Powers #3 (November 1985) finds Red Tornado, Hawkman and Green Arrow plunged back 75 million years in ‘Time Upon Time Upon Time!’ even as Doctor Fate, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman are trapped in 1087 AD battling stony-faced giant aliens on Easter Island.

Superman and Firestorm discover ‘There’s No Place Like Rome!’ as they battle Darkseid’s agent Steppenwolf in the first century whilst Batman, Robin and Flash visit a future where Earth is the new Apokolips in #5’s ‘Once Upon Tomorrow’ before Earth’s scattered champions converge on Luna to spectacularly squash the schemes-within-schemes of ‘Darkseid of the Moon!’

Rounding out the astounding cavalcade of wonders, are a selection of Kirby-crafted ‘Who’s Who Profiles’ pages from Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe 1985-1987: specifically, Ben Boxer, the Boy Commandos, Challengers of the Unknown, Crazy Quilt, Etrigan the Demon, Kamandi, the Newsboy Legion, Sandman (the Dream Stream version from 1974), Sandy, the Golden Boy and Witchboy Klarion.

Jack Kirby was and is unique and uncompromising: his words and pictures comprise an unparalleled, hearts-and-minds grabbing delight no comics lover can possibly resist. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind.

That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s life’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American comics scene – and indeed the entire comics planet – affecting the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour for generations and is still winning new fans and apostles every day, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. His work is instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep and simultaneously mythic and human.

He is the King and will never be supplanted.
© 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 2013 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Steve Ditko Archives volume 2: Unexplored Worlds


By Steve Ditko & various, edited by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-289-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Immaculate Yule Yarn-Spinning… 9/10

Once upon a time the anthological title of short stand-alone stories was the sole staple of the comicbook profession, where the plan was to deliver as much variety as possible to the reader. Sadly, that particular vehicle of expression seems all but lost to us today…

Steve Ditko is one of our industry’s greatest talents and one of America’s least lauded. His fervent desire to just get on with his job and to tell stories the best way he can – whilst the noblest of aspirations – has always been a minor consideration or even stumbling block for the commercial interests which for so long controlled all comics production and still exert an overwhelming influence upon the mainstream bulk of comicbook output.

Before his time at Marvel, young Ditko perfected his craft creating short sharp yarns for a variety of companies and it’s an undeniable joy today to be able to look at this work from such an innocent time when he was just breaking into the industry: tirelessly honing his craft with genre tales for whichever publisher would have him, utterly free from the interference of intrusive editors.

This superb full-colour series of hardback collections (also available as digital editions) has reprinted those early efforts (all of them here are from 1956-1957) with material produced after the draconian, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority sanitised the industry following Senate Hearings and a public witch-hunt.

Most are wonderfully baroque and bizarre supernatural or science fantasy stories, but there are also examples of Westerns, Crime and Humour: cunningly presented in the order he completed and sold them rather than the more logical but far-less-revealing chronological release dates. Moreover, they are all helpfully annotated with a purchase number to indicate approximately when they were actually drawn – even the brace of tales done for Stan Lee’s pre-Marvel Atlas company.

Sadly, there’s no indication of how many (if any) were actually written by the moody master…

This second sublime selection reprints another heaping helping of his ever-more impressive works: most of it courtesy of the surprisingly liberal (at least in its trust of its employees’ creative instincts) sweat-shop publisher Charlton Comics.

And whilst we’re being technically accurate, it’s also important to reiterate that the cited publication dates of these stories have very little to do with when Ditko crafted them: as Charlton paid so little, the cheap, anthologically astute outfit had no problem in buying material it could leave on a shelf for months – if not years – until the right moment arrived to print. The work is assembled and runs here in the order Ditko submitted it, rather than when it reached the grubby sweaty paws of us readers…

Following an historically informative Introduction and passionate advocacy by Blake Bell, concentrating on Ditko’s near-death experience in 1954 (when the artist contracted tuberculosis) and subsequent absence and recovery, the evocatively eccentric excursions open with a monochrome meander into the realms of satire with the faux fable – we’d call it a mockumentary – ‘Starlight Starbright’ as first seen in From Here to Insanity (volume 3 #1 April 1956) before normal service resumes with financial fable ‘They’ll Be Some Changes Made’ (scripted by Carl Wessler from Atlas’ Journey Into Mystery #33, April 1956) wherein a petty-minded pauper builds a time machine to steal the fortune his ancestors squandered, whilst a crook seeking to exploit a mystic pool finds himself the victim of fate’s justice in ‘Those Who Vanish’ (Journey Into Mystery #38, September 1956 and again scripted by Wessler).

Almost – if not all – the Charlton material was scripted by the astoundingly fast and prolific Joe Gill at this time, and records are spotty at best so let’s assume his collaboration on all the material here beginning with ‘The Man Who Could Never Be Killed’ from Strange Suspense Stories #31, published in February 1957. This tale of a circus performer with an incredible ethereal secret segues into ‘Adrift in Space’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #8 June 1958) wherein a veteran starship captain pushes his weary crew over the edge whereas ‘The King of Planetoid X’ – from the previous MoUW (February) details a crisis of conscience for a benevolent and ultimately wise potentate…

The cover of Strange Suspense Stories #31 (February 1957) leads into ‘The Gloomy One’ as a misery-loving alien intruder is destroyed by simple human joy before the cover to Out of This World #5 September 1957 heralds that issue’s ‘The Man Who Stepped Out of a Cloud’ and an alien whose abduction plans only seem sinister in intent…

Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 (October 1957) tells the story of a young ‘Stowaway’ who finds fulfilment aboard a harshly-run space ship after which the cover for Out of This World #3 (March 1957) leads to an apparent extraterrestrial paradise for weary star-men in ‘What Happened?’

Next up is a tale from one of Charlton’s earliest star characters. The title came from a radio show that Charlton licensed the rights to, with the lead/host/narrator acting more as voyeur than active participant. “The Mysterious Traveler” spoke directly to camera, asking readers for opinion and judgement as he shared a selection of funny, sad, scary and wondrous human-interest yarns, all tinged with a hint of the weird or supernatural. When rendered by Ditko, whose storytelling mastery, page design and full, lavish brushwork were just beginning to come into its mature full range, the contents of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler were always exotic and esoteric and utterly mesmerising…

From issue #2, February 1957, ‘What Wilbur Saw’ reveals the reward bestowed on a poverty-stricken country bumpkin who witnessed a modern-day miracle after which Out of This World #3 provides a cautionary tale of atomic mutation in ‘The Supermen’

The eerie cover to Out of This World #4 (June 1957) leads to a chilling encounter for two stranded sailors who briefly board the ‘Flying Dutchman’ and Strange Suspense Stories #32’s cover (May 1957) dabbles in magic art when a collector is victimised by a thief who foolishly stumbles into ‘A World of His Own’. From the same issue comes a salutary parable concerning a rich practical joker who goes too far before succumbing to ‘The Last Laugh’, after which ‘Mystery Planet’ (Strange Suspense Stories #36, March 1958) offers a dash of interplanetary derring-do as a valiant agent Bryan Bodine and his comely associate Nedra confounds an intergalactic pirate piloting a planet-eating weapon against Earth!

A similarly bold defender then saves ‘The Conquered Earth’ from alien subjugation (Out of This World #4, June 1957) whilst in ‘Assignment Treason’ (Outer Space #18. August 1958) the clean-cut hero goes undercover to save earth from the predatory Master of Space whilst in Out of This World #8 (May 1958) ‘The Secret of Capt. X’ reveals that the inimical alien tyrant threatening humanity is not what he seems to be…

The cover to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #3 (April 1957) gives way to a trio of fantastic thrillers beginning with ‘The Strange Guests of Tsaurus’ as an alien paradise proves to be anything but and ‘A World Where I Was King’ sees a clumsy janitor catapulted into a wondrous realm where he wins a kingdom he doesn’t want. Diverting slightly, Fightin’ Army #20 (May 1957) provides a comedic interlude as a civil war soldier finds himself constantly indebted to ‘Gavin’s Stupid Mule’ before ‘A Forgotten World’ wraps up the MoUW #3 contributions with a scary tale of invasion from the Earth’s core…

‘The Cheapest Steak in Nome’ turns out to be defrosted from something that died millions of years ago in a light-hearted yarn from Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #7 (February 1958) after which the cover to MoUW #4 (July 1957) precedes more icy antediluvian preservations found in the ‘Valley in the Mist’ whilst the cover to Strange Suspense Stories #33 (August 1957) leads into a bizarre corporate outreach project as the ‘Director of the Board’ attempts to go where no other exploitative capitalist has gone before…

It’s back to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #3 for a brush with the mythological in ‘They Didn’t Believe Him’ before ‘Forever and Ever’ (Strange Suspense Stories #33) reveals an unforeseen downside to immortality and Out of This World #3 sees a stranger share ‘My Secret’ with ordinary folk despite – or because – of a scurrilous blackmailer…

cover Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 October 1957

‘A Dreamer’s World’ from Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 (October 1957) follows the chilling cover thereof as a test pilot hits his aerial limit and discovers a whole new existence, before Unusual Tales #7 (May 1957) traces the tragic path of ‘The Man Who Could See Tomorrow’ whilst the cover of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #4 (August 1957) opens a mini-feast of the voyeur’s voyages beginning with that issue’s ‘The Desert’ a saga of polar privation and survival.

Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #3 (May 1957) offers the appropriate cover and a ‘Secret Mission’ for a spy parachuted into Prague after which TotMT #4 offers ‘Escape’ for an unemployed pilot dragged into a gun-running scam in a south American lost world; ‘Test of a Man’ sees a cruel animal trainer receive his just deserts and ‘Operation Blacksnake’ grittily reveals American venality in the ever-expanding Arabian oil trade…

Returning to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5, ‘The Mirage’ torments an escaped convict who thinks he’s escaped his fate whilst Texas Rangers in Action #8 (July 1957) sees a ruthless rancher crushed by the weight of his own wicked actions in ‘The Only One’, after which the stunning covers to Unusual Tales #6 and 7 (February and May 1957) lead into our final vignette ‘The Man Who Painted on Air’: exposing and thwarting a unique talent to preserve humanity and make a few bucks on the side…

This sturdily capacious volume has episodes that terrify, amaze, amuse and enthral: utter delights of fantasy fiction with lean, plots and stripped-down dialogue that let the art set the tone, push the emotions and tell the tale, from times when a story could end sadly as well as happily and only wonderment was on the agenda, hidden or otherwise.

These stories display the sharp wit and contained comedic energy which made so many Spider-Man/J. Jonah Jameson confrontations an unforgettable treat half a decade later, and this is another cracking collection not only superb in its own right but as a telling tribute to the genius of one of the art-form’s greatest stylists.

This is something every serious comics fans would happily kill or die or be lost in time for…
Unexplored Worlds: The Steve Ditko Archive Vol. 2. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2010 Blake Bell. All rights reserved.

Misty featuring Moonchild & The Four Faces of Eve


By Pat Mills, Malcolm Shaw, John Armstrong, Brian Delaney, Shirley Bellwood & various (Rebellion)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-452-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Spooky Treats for Every Stocking… 9/10

Like most of my comics contemporaries I harbour a secret shame. Growing up, I was well aware of the weeklies produced for girls but would never admit to reading them. My loss: I now know that they were packed with some great strips by astounding artists and writers, many of them personal favourites when they were drawing stalwart soldiers, marauding monsters, evil aliens or strange superheroes (all British superheroes were weird and off-kilter…).

I actually think – in terms of quality and respect for the readership’s intelligence, experience and development – girls’ periodicals were far more in tune with the sensibilities of the target audience, and I wish I’d paid more attention to Misty back then…

Thus, I’m overjoyed to see this superb first collection from what originating editor Pat Mills reveals in his Foreword was intended to be as iconoclastic and groundbreaking a publication as his previous creation.

You know the one… 2000AD

Despite never living up to his expectations – for all the traditional editorial reasons that have scuppered bold new visions since the days of Caxton – Misty was nothing like any other comic in the British marketplace: a Girls’ Juvenile periodical addressing modern issues through a lens of urban horror, science fictional and historical mysteries and tense suspenseful dramas. It was also one of the best drawn comics ever seen and featured stunningly beguiling covers by unsung legend Shirley Bellwood, a veteran illustrator who ought to be a household name because we’ve all admired her work in comics and books since the 1950s even if we’ve never been privileged to see her by-line…

Unlike most weeklies, Misty was created with specific themes in mind – fantasy, horror and mystery – and over its too-short existence introduced numerous self-contained features serialised like modern graphic novels, rather than the continuing adventures of star characters.

Although adulterated from Mill’s original design, the comic launched on February 4th 1978 and ran until January 1980 whereupon it merged with the division’s lead title Tammy, extending its lifeline until 1984. As was often the case, the brand also continued through Annuals and Specials, running from 1979 until 1986…

The first of a series working under the umbrella of The Treasury of British Comics, this compact monochrome softcover compilation offers two complete part-work novellas from the comic’s canon of nearly 70 strip sagas, starting with the gripping history of Moonchild. Scripted by Mills and illustrated by John Armstrong (Bella in Tammy; The Secret Gymnast in Bunty; Grange Hill), the eerie adventure was based on Stephen King’s Carrie, and ran as lead feature in issues #1-13.

The turbulent coming-of-age of abused and confused schoolgirl Rosemary Black: born into a family afflicted with an apparent curse. All the women who bore a hereditary crescent birthmark on their foreheads were eventually consumed by burgeoning psychokinetic powers…

Rosemary’s mother brutally and zealously tries to suppress her daughter’s growing abilities but with sociopathic mean girls Norma, Dawn and Freda making her a constant target for bullying and humiliation, the force inside Rosemary keeps expressing itself in ever more violent manner…

Moreover, when school physician Doctor Armstrong realises the truth about the girl so often sent to see him, he sees nothing but an opportunity to be exploited…

When Norma’s bullies embark on their most ambitious scheme to torture Rosemary, sheer disaster is barely averted when the Moonchild’s long missing grandmother suddenly appears with a shocking secret to reveal…

Following a handy hints feature – how to make a Witch’s Hat – The Four Faces of Eve carries on the chilling bewilderment.

Created by Malcolm Shaw (Misty’s Editor and writer of dozens of strips in Britain and Europe) & Brian Delaney (Hart to Hart; Grange Hill; The Professionals) this marvel of malign medical malpractice ran in issues 20-31, tracing the seemingly paranoid path of Eve Marshall, recently discharged from hospital still suffering partial amnesia.

Despite returning to her home and her high-powered scientist parents, Eve remains troubled, especially by horrifically vivid dreams of other girls who died painful, violent deaths…

Inconsolable and increasingly suspicious, Eve snoops around the house she doesn’t remember and discovers mounting evidence that the Marshalls are not her real parents. When the house is later burgled the police forensics team uncover another impossible anomaly: Eve’s fingerprints match a thief who died months ago…

Scared and haunted by traumatic dreams, Eve runs away and hides in a circus, only to be tracked down and dragged back home by her faux parents. However, the pieces are inexorably falling into place and she soon has to face the appalling truth she has deduced about herself and the monsters she lives with…

Also including a fulsome tribute to ‘Shirley Bellwood – An Unsung Heroine of British Comics’, creator biographies and one final activity page (‘Misty Says… Be a Devil – and Here’s How’) this slight but supremely engaging tome is a glorious and long-overdue celebration of a uniquely compelling phenomenon of British comics and one that has stood the test of time. Don’t miss this second chance to get in on something truly special and splendidly entertaining
Misty © Egmont UK Limited 1978. All rights reserved.

Satania


By Vehlmann & Kerascoët, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-143-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Daring Dip into the Dark Underside of Life… 9/10

Vehlmann was only born in 1972 yet his prodigious canon of work (from 1998 to the present) has earned him the soubriquet of “the Goscinny of the 21st Century”. As Fabien Vehlmann, he entered the world in Mont-de-Marsan and grew up in Savoie, growing up to study business management before taking a job with a theatre group.

In 1996, after entering a writing contest in Spirou, he caught the comics bug and two years later published – with illustrative collaborator Denis Bodart – a mordantly quirky and sophisticated portmanteau period crime comedy entitled Green Manor. From there on his triumphs grew to include amongst others Célestin Speculoos for Circus, Nicotine Goudron for l’Écho des Savanes and major league property Spirou and Fantasio.

Since then his star has grown brighter and brighter, especially on his collaborations with husband-&-wife team Kerascoët: Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset, who work in advertising, animation and fashion when not rendering such glorious comics treats as Beauty, Beautiful Darkness, Miss Don’t Touch Me and the epically expansive Dungeons franchise of inter-linked albums.

Their most recent joint escapade is Satanie, translated into English as the equally disquieting Satania. A seemingly bright and shiny bauble, the tale offers a dark glimpse into inner worlds both physical and psychical as troubled Charlie convinces a disparate band of potholers to help her find her missing brother Christopher.

Rendered in a captivating primitivist style that conceals a potent emotional punch, the unfolding saga finds young Charlotte, elderly priest Father Monsore, Mr Lavergne, Legoff and a handful of other intrepid souls delving deep beneath a mountain in search of the young scientist.

Scientist Christopher held radical evolutionary theories positing that Hell is real and exists far beneath the earth, populated by corporeal beings adapted over eons of natural selection to their harsh subterranean existence. The devils and demons of history and superstition are simply fellow creatures awaiting our discovery and classification and extended arms of friendship and welcome…

However, when a flash flood fills the caverns and forces the explorers deep into uncharted regions, an incredible series of tribulations and revelations begin. A fantastic underground odyssey with lost human civilisations, incredible monsters and unimaginable macro-organisms is boldly undertaken, but as ill-fortune and death constantly dog the party, the survivors quickly realise that although the fantastic creatures they encounter may not be supernally evil, the god-fearing humans have brought their own demons with them into a fresh kind of hell …

An astounding voyage of discovery with breathtaking vistas and inventions, Satania explores the human condition in ways both uncomfortable and wondrous.
© Editions Soleil/Vehlmann/Kerascoët 2016. © 2017 NBM for the English Translation.

For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

Hellboy in Mexico


By Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, Mick McMahon, Fábio Moon, Gabriel Bá, Dave Stewart & Clem Robins (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-897-0 (TPB)       eISBN: 978-1-63008-217-8

Happy Dia de los Muertos!

Let’s wind down our own Halloween celebrations and enjoy the more life-affirming Day of the Dead with a fabulously pertinent tome, formatted for your edification in both trade paperback and digital editions…

Towards the end of World War II an uncanny otherworldly baby was confiscated from Nazi cultists by American superhero The Torch of Liberty and a squad of US Rangers moments after his eldritch nativity on Earth. The good guys had interrupted a satanic ritual predicted by parapsychologist Professor Trevor Bruttenholm and his associates who were waiting for Hell to literally come to Earth…

The heroic assemblage was stationed at a ruined church in East Bromwich, England when the abominable infant with a huge stone right hand materialised in an infernal fireball. “Hellboy” was subsequently raised by Bruttenholm, and grew into a mighty warrior engaged in fighting a never-ending secret war against the uncanny and supernatural. The Prof assiduously schooled and trained his happy-go-lucky foundling whilst forming and consolidating an organisation to destroy arcane and occult threats – the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.

After years of such devoted intervention, education and warm human interaction, in 1952 the neophyte hero began hunting down agents of the malign unknown, from phantoms to monsters as lead agent for the BPRD. Hellboy rapidly became its top operative; the world’s most successful paranormal investigator…

As decades passed, Hellboy gleaned snatches of his origins and antecedents, learning he was a supposedly corrupted beast of dark portent: a demonic messiah destined to destroy the world and bring back ancient powers of evil.

It is a fate he despised and utterly rejected…

This eerily esoteric collection of tales concocted by Mike Mignola and friends re-presents a selection of short stories as originally published Hellboy In Mexico, Dark Horse Presents Volume 2 #7, 31-32, Hellboy 20th Anniversary Sampler, Dark Horse Presents Volume 3 #7, and Hellboy: House of the Living Dead, collectively spanning 2010 and 2015. The premise is that in 1956 Hellboy was working south of the border and, thanks to booze and an unspecified crisis, went way, way, wa-aay off the reservation…

With each piece preceded by some informative commentary from Mignola, the arcane action begins with ‘Hellboy in Mexico or, A Drunken Blur’, (May 2010) illustrated by Richard Corben with colourist Dave Stewart & letterer Clem Robins applying their own seamlessly fitting contributions to the mix…

In 1982 Hellboy and amphibious ally Abe Sapien are winding down after a strenuous mission in Mexico. Looking for a quiet drink they amble into a ramshackle cantina and discover a sort of shrine comprising a Holy Virgin statue and hundreds of faded photos, posters and tickets for luchadors (masked wrestlers).

One of them features Hellboy and three grinning, hooded grapplers…

Shocked and stunned, Hellboy’s mind drifts back to a barely-recalled drunken binge three decades ago…

And thus is revealed an untold tale of sterling comradeship and collaborative chaos-crushing, as the Demon Detective joins a trio of fun-loving masked brothers who combined their travels on the wrestling circuit with a spot of monster-hunting and devil-destroying. Sadly, Hellboy also remembers how it all fell apart after young Esteban succumbed to the deadly embrace of vampiric bat-god Camazotz

With the golden times over, Hellboy indulged in an epic, memory-eradicating booze-bender until months later BPRD agents found, dried out and brought home their errant top gun…

Of course, since he was missing for months, there might be other exploits still unrecalled…

From Dark Horse Presents Volume 2 #7 (December 2011) – and fully crafted by Mignola – ‘Hellboy versus the Aztec Mummy’ returns to that lost time in Mexico as the powerfully pixilated paranormal paragon hunts down a devil-bat only to find himself overmatched in a clash with godly Quetzalcoatl, after which marvellous Mick McMahon picks up the illustrator’s brushes to render Mignola’s outrageous drunken tall tale ‘Hellboy Gets Married’ (DHP #31-32, December 2013 to January 2014).

This time the demon drink led to the infernal gladiator falling into an unlikely matrimonial match with a ghostly shapeshifter. Their wedding night was the stuff of nightmares…

Relentlessly following on is ‘The Coffin Man’ (by Mignola and Fábio Moon from March 2014’s Hellboy 20th Anniversary Sampler). Here another cantina night was interrupted by a little girl whose recently interred uncle was being pilfered by a sinister Brujo (witchman). Hellboy’s best attempts to take back the beloved cadaver were insultingly inadequate…

The sequel ‘The Coffin Man 2: The Rematch’ was illustrated by Moon’s twin brother Gabriel Bá and first appeared in Dark Horse Presents Volume 3 #7 (February 2015). A fortnight after that initial encounter the still smarting AWOL B.P.R.D. agent went looking for the corpse-stealer and yet again came off embarrassingly second-best…

‘House of the Living Dead’ originally emerged as an eponymous one-off graphic novel crafted by Mignola, Corben, Stewart & Robins. It was devised as loving tribute to the golden age of Universal monster movies, their Hammer Films descendants and legendary actors Boris Karloff, Glenn Strange, John Carradine & Lon Chaney Jr.

The saga starts during that hazy sun-drenched fugue season with Hellboy still revelling in the heady thrills of the travelling wrestling ring. That only makes him a target for a cunning plan that begins with the offer of a lucrative private bout. After refusing, our soused champion is convinced to comply when the stranger shows him the photo of the girl who will be killed if he doesn’t fight…

Soon he is reluctantly entering a dilapidated hacienda and climbing into a ring to clash with a mad doctor’s recently animated corpse-monster. And then vampires show up and the rising full moon bathes the deranged genius’ manservant…

A light-hearted romp with a potent twist and dark underpinnings, it’s no wonder Hellboy carried on drinking after all the grave dust settled…

Moderated and annotated by editor Scott Allie, the ‘Hellboy Sketchbook’ closes this festive fear fiesta, revealing story-layouts, doodles, roughs, designs and pencilled pages accompanied by creator comments and garnished with a full cover gallery.

Delivered as a succession of short, sharp shockers of beguiling wit and intensity, this potent piñata of horror history is a perfect example of comics storytelling at its very best: offering astounding supernatural spectacle, amazing arcane action and momentous mystical suspense – something every fear fan and adventure aficionado will enjoy.
™ and © 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 Mike Mignola. Hellboy is ™ Mike Mignola. All rights reserved.

Mr. Monster Presents…The Secret Files of Dr. Drew


By Jerry Grandenetti, Marilyn Mercer, Abe Kanegson with Will Eisner, compiled and edited by Michael T. Gilbert (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-532-0 (HC)                    978-1-62115-999-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless Moody Magnificence… 9/10

Superheroes pretty much carried the American comicbook business in the early years, but after WWII the Fights ‘n’ Tights boom started to fade and new kinds of champions from more traditional forms rose to the fore.

As had happened following the end of the Great War, the public’s entertainment appetites turned from patriotic adventure to crime and supernatural themes with funnybooks quickly cashing in on the trend.

Alongside dedicated horror anthology titles, regular comics publications also dabbled in monsters (such as The Heap in aviation adventure title Airboy for example) and a new kind of two-fisted ghostbuster began manifesting in lots of different publications.

One of the very best was sagacious supernatural sleuth Dr. Desmond Drew who appeared bimonthly in Ranger Comics from June 1947 to August 1951: 14 captivating cases crafted by Will Eisner’s top creative crew, writer Marilyn Mercer, artistic wunderkind Jerry Grandenetti and master calligrapher Abe Kanegson.

Although never a breakout hit or cover feature, the startlingly effective tales – spanning Ranger Comics #47-60 – were frequently reprinted before publisher Fiction House finally closed its doors. The adventures had a life-altering effect on modern comics auteur Michael T. Gilbert who claims these eerie escapades as a major influence on his own Mr. Monster character.

The hows, whens and whys of the Ghostbreaking Guardian – as well as his eventual fate – are all unravelled in the fascinating and abundantly illustrated ‘Introduction: The Secret Files of Dr. Drew!’ Scrupulously compiled by Gilbert for this superb hardcover archival collection (also available in eBook editions) the history lesson is the perfect aperitif before the fabulously chilling and enthralling tales are disclosed here.

Once you’ve absorbed all there is to know from a fan man devoted to sharing his great knowledge, the curious Case Files commence with an arcane parable of greed and vengeance as – preceded by a 2-page cartoon intro from Mr. Monster himself – ‘The Strange Case of the Absent Floor!’ (Ranger Comics #47, June 1949) opens…

The “Stalker of the Unknown” was visually based on actor Basil Rathbone in his role of Sherlock Holmes, and arrived sans origin tale: fully-formed with much idiosyncratic baggage to flesh him out. From his foreboding mansion atop brooding Bone Hill the consulting detective of all things unnatural would sally out in an old-fashioned horse-drawn buggy to tackle ancient horrors in the new Atomic Age especially in the twisted streets of the city stretched out below his daunting abode…

This initial escapade finds him rectifying a long-standing miscarriage of justice after an elevator operator begs him to investigate a previously unsuspected floor in the old Wainwright Building: an edifice which never boasted a thirteenth storey until the night an oddly dressed couple boarded his lift…

Incredible peril lurked much closer to home in ‘The Philosopher’s Stone!’ (#48, August) since Drew actually owned the potent talisman. However, as he could never get it to work, the doctor had no qualms in lending it to his old friend Gordon Kyle. When Kyle was then found instantly aged into decrepitude, a frantic hunt for a remorseless ancient predator began…

A young woman paralysed and in utter agony draws the ghostbreaker into battle against a vicious spurned lover employing ‘The Witch’s Doll!’ (#49, October) to gain vengeance, before ‘The Devil’s Watch!’ (December) pits Drew against his greatest adversary when he attempts to deny the Devil a legally-purchased old soul which just happens to now reside in an innocent young musician…

When an ethereal fog heralds a spate of debilitating sickness, victims – all male – are heard to utter ‘The Gypsy Girl!’ (#51, February 1950) before sinking into death. It takes all of Drew’s resources to connect the outbreak to a witch-burning three centuries previously, and achieves critical personal importance after he learns that his own ancestor had been one of the witnesses at Gypsy Anna’s trial. Thankfully, fate and wisdom provided the key to banishing the vengeful ghost in the nick of time…

The hardest part of his struggle against a Balkan bloodsucker haunting a movie set is being dragged out of Bone Hill and flown to Hollywood in ‘The Mark of the Vampire!’ (#52, April) but his clash with bizarre cult ‘The Order of Elusa!’ (Ranger Comics #53, June) proves far more arduous as the primordial murderous sect is located at the bottom of the sea and the immortal wizards almost seduce and corrupt the paranormal paragon with his greatest weakness: ancient, undiscovered secret knowledge…

When an aqueduct project falters, the construction bosses call in the dark detective to dispel a shipfull of land-locked phantom buccaneers in ‘The Pirates of Skull Valley!’ (#54, August) after which ‘The Curse of the Mandibles!’ (#55, October) finds a desperate client trying to prevent his imminent murder by a spirit which has decimated his entire family over centuries.

The true culprit behind the string of deaths is even stranger and more incomprehensible than can be imagined…

‘Sabrina the Sorceress!’ (#56, December) is a common criminal charlatan but when the fake medium is accused of murdering her client she suddenly faces true supernatural terror beside – and despite – Dr. Drew, after which the man of mysteries saves an anxious bridegroom from dying at the hands of his spectral bride in ‘Druid Castle!’ (Ranger Comics #57, February 1951).

Summoned to the local penitentiary, the thaumic troubleshooter faces body-snatching refugees from the fourth dimension in ‘The Dartbane Horrors!’ (April) before voyaging to Paris to clash with despised rival psychic Salazar whilst solving a string of murders perpetrated by an unworldly fiend who favours ‘The Ancient Reek of Brimstone!’ (June). The Keeper of Knowledge ends his comicbook crusade in London, bringing a theatrical monster to justice with the assistance of a ghostly actress who holds the crucial secret of ‘Sandini’s Trunk!’ (Ranger Comics #60, August 1951).

This fabulous book harbours further delights such as reminiscence-packed reverie ‘The Jerry Grandenetti Interview!’ (conducted by Gilbert before the master draughtsman died in 2010) as well as ‘The Secret Files of The Spirit’s Ghosts!’: a section copiously investigating ‘The Creators!’ and even laying to rest a true enigma of comics history by explaining the abrupt disappearance of Abe Kanegson who completely dropped off the map in 1950 and was never seen again by his comics colleagues!

Rendered in the unmistakeable style of classic Eisner Spirit episodes, with mature scripting from Marilyn Mercer (who left comics to become a writer, journalist and fashion editor) and Kanegson’s flamboyantly expressive lettering graphics, these are astonishingly compelling comic treasures no fan of the medium or lover of sinister suspense should dismiss. There’s even a selection of Ranger Comics covers and original inked art.

Eerie, gripping and timelessly enthralling, this is a minor masterpiece of monster-mashing comics fiction and one you’d be thrice-damned and really quite accursed to miss.
Mr. Monster Presents…The Secret Files of Dr. Drew™ © 2014 Michael T. Gilbert. Introduction, Jerry Grandenetti interview and creator biographies © 2014 Michael T. Gilbert. All rights reserved.

The Baker Street Peculiars


By Roger Langridge, Andrew Hirsh & Fred Stresing (KaBOOM!)
ISBN: 978-1608869282 (PB)             eISBN: 978-1-61398-599-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Fresh New Romp to Enjoy Forever After… 9/10

Roger Langridge is a very talented gentleman with a uniquely beguiling way of telling stories. He has mastered every aspect of the comics profession from lettering (Dr. Who) to writing (Thor: The Mighty Avenger) to illustration (Knuckles the Malevolent Nun, Zoot!).

When he combines them (Fred the Clown, Popeye, Abigail and the Snowman), the approbation, accolades and glittering prizes such as Eisner and Harvey Awards can’t come fast enough.

He is also a bloody genius at making folk laugh…

The Baker Street Peculiars started life as an all-ages comicbook miniseries before being gathered in a titanic detective tome and craftily references a glittering reservoir of cool concepts encompassing the mythology of Sherlock Holmes, 1930s London, cosy crime mysteries, kid gangs and rampaging monster movies. Moreover, thanks to Langridge’s keen ear for idiom and slang, every page resonates with hilarious dialogue any lover of old films or British sitcoms will find themselves helplessly chortling over – if not actually joining in with…

Blimey, Guv’ner!

Illustrated by Andy Hirsch (Science Comics: Dogs, Varmints, Adventure Time, Regular Show) and coloured by the inestimable Fred Stresing, ‘The Case of the Cockney Golem’ opens in foggy old 1933 London Town, which is currently enduring an odd spot of bother. Exceedingly odd…

‘A Beast in Baker Street’ reveals that famous statues are going missing. Now, as one of the bronze lions in Trafalgar Square comes to life and bolts away down Charing Cross Road -unlike the crowds rushing about in panic – three wayward children (and a dog) chase after it. Soon they are embroiled in the story of a lifetime… perhaps several lifetimes…

Tailor’s granddaughter Molly Rosenberg, orphan street thief Rajani Malakar and neglected filthy rich posh-boy Humphrey Fforbes-Davenport (and his canine valet Wellington) are all out long after bedtime and keen on a spot of adventure.

Having individually chanced upon the commotion, they spontaneously unite to doggedly track the animated absconder to Baker Street where they enjoy a chance encounter with a legendary investigator…

Molly is especially intrigued: she has read all the exploits of the famous consulting detective. When he rubbishes their claim of moving statues – and claims to be too busy with other cases – she angrily suggests they act as his assistants. The detective complies, but is actually hiding an incredible secret not even his fanciful new deputies could ever imagine…

As Molly’s grandfather suffers another visit from thugs running an extortion racket for the nefarious Chippy Kipper “the Pearly King of Brick Lane”, the kids’ bizarre quest continues in ‘The Lion, the Lord and the Landlady’ after the junior sleuths meet up at 221B Baker Street. Although consoled with a fine meal, they are disappointed to find their hoped-for mentor absent.

Receiving further instructions from the great detective’s elderly cook Mrs. Hudson, the youthful team learn that Mr Holmes believes the statues are simply being stolen and that he wishes the dauntless children to post guard on Boadicea at Westminster Bridge and Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square…

Their sentinel duty bears strange fruit, however, as East End thugs perform a strange and dangerous ritual and the beloved tourist attractions come to menacing life. As the kids follow the ambulatory landmarks back to Kipper’s hideout, Molly strives to recall a story her grandfather used to tell her: a fable about a Rabbi in old Prague who used a scroll to bring a giant avenging clay statue to life…

As the colossal Chippy shares his own unique origins with his army of thugs and sculptures the youngsters sneak in but are quickly captured. Stuck in a cell they can only watch in horror as Kipper uses ancient magic to make a new kind of monster…

‘The Old, Hard Cell’ brings the plot to a bubbling boil as the terrified tykes swallow simmering resentments and work together to escape their predicament, even as elsewhere, other, more mature truth-seekers are forced to change their stubbornly-held opinions…

Someone else with a keen eye and suspicious mind is enterprising lady journalist Hetty Jones of The Mirror. Her own patient, diligent enquiries have brought her to Baker Street in time to collaborate with the aged detective-in-charge. With all eventualities except the impossible exhausted, the grown-ups must accept the truth and soon track down the missing lion. It’s probably too late though, since an army of animated marble and bronze artefacts are rampaging through London towards the East End, with only three kids (and a dog) ready to confront them…

With Chippy Kipper in the vanguard, the chilling regiment invades Molly’s home turf but ‘The Battle of Brick Lane’ is no one-sided affair. The plucky tyke has remembered the secret of the Rabbi’s Golem and has conceived a daring stratagem to immobilise the monstrous invaders. As for Kipper’s human thugs, they’ve underestimated the solidarity of hundreds of poor-but-honest folk pushed just a bit too far…

And when the dust settles, Sherlock Holmes has one last surprise for his squad of juvenile surrogates…

Adding to the charm and cheer is a cover-&-variants gallery by Hirsch and Hannah Christenson, sketch and design feature ‘Meet the Peculiars’ and a delicious sequence of all-Langridge strips starring his unique interpretation of the Great Detective in ‘The Peculiar Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’.

Reverently refencing and spoofing beloved old films and our oh-so-idiosyncratic manners and parlance with a loving ear for an incongruous laugh, The Baker Street Peculiars is a sheer triumph of spooky whimsy, reinventing what was great about classic British storytelling.

Fast, funny, slyly witty and with plenty of twists, it is an absolute delight from start to finish and another sublime example of comics at its most welcoming.

Don’t be surprised if it turns up as a movie or BBC TV special one of these days…
™ & © 2016 Roger Langridge & Andrew Hirsch All rights reserved.

Buster Book of Spooky Stories 1976


By various (IPC Magazines)
ISBN: 85037-199-6

Considering that Halloween is a still a children’s festival (tabloid press and TV reports of bingeing adult excess notwithstanding) I thought I’d re-review this delightful package that epitomises the veritable End of Days of the traditional post-war English Comics industry.

By 1975 the Halcyon era of the children’s periodical publishing business was swiftly fading. Accepted Wisdoms dictating that comics were only read by children who would eventually move on to better and more acceptable forms of entertainment (and these were opinions held by the monolithic managements which produced them!) were gradually being eroded by more creative types within the industry. They still saw potential in the medium and were backed up by an increasingly vocal fan movement which kept on buying and reading the iniquitous, garish little pamphlets even after they had all “grown up.”

Fleetway was an adjunct of the IPC (at that time the world’s largest publishing company) and had, by the early 1970s, swallowed or out-competed all other English companies producing mass-market comics except the exclusively television-themed Polystyle Publications. As it always had been, the megalith was locked in a death-struggle with Dundee’s DC Thomson for the hearts and minds of their assorted juvenile markets – a battle the publishers of the Beano and Dandy would finally win when Fleetway sold off its diminishing comics line to Egmont publishing and Rebellion Studios in 2002.

In 1974 Fleetway’s hidebound, autocratic bureaucracy still ruled the roost, even though sales had been steadily declining in all sectors of the industry (Pre-school, Juvenile, Boys and Girls, Educational) since the end of the 1960s, and increasingly the company were sanctioning niche products to shore up sales rather than expand or experiment.

A dashing young sub-editor on Buster, Dez Skinn – who would go on to produce a number of successful independent publications such as Starburst, House of Hammer and Warrior as well as partially reviving the fortunes of the moribund reprint house Marvel UK – proposed a kids horror comic called Chiller to fill a perceived gap in the market, even preparing new and revised reprint material to show the “higher ups.”

His always reactionary and overly cautious bosses nixed the idea but decreed that the prepared material would be used in one-off annuals as part of occasional themed series “The Buster Book of …”

These one-offs had begun in 1970 with “Gags” and provided cost-effective, profitable items with a longer shelf-life for the lucrative Christmas and summer holiday markets.

Of course, I knew none of this when I picked up this second Buster Book of Spooky Stories in 1975 (UK annuals are forwarded-dated), a period when I was far more interested in girls and beer than funnybooks.

It was a remarkable experience: instant, brand new nostalgia…

Behind its gaudy, soft card covers lay a delightful blend of novel and comfortably familiar; comedy strips, fact-features and scary adventure yarns that had been the stuff of my formative Christmas experiences throughout the 1960s.

The jollity commences with a Reg Parlett ‘Rent-A-Ghost Ltd.’ 2-page howler, teasing essay ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts?’ and more ghost gags before the first lengthy scare-fest begins…

‘The Ghostly Guardian’ follows the trials and tribulations of young Jim Frobisher who escapes the home of his abusive foster-uncle and takes up residence with a stray dog and his own deceased ancestor – 17th century freebooting pirate Firebrand Frobisher.

This is a resized weekly serial collected from I know not where, but is still resonates with thrills, spills and comedy chills, delivered in beautiful moody monochrome as rendered by the Solano Lopez studio (sadly these credits are mostly guesswork as the work was deliberately un-attributed at the time).

Our eponymous star contributes the first of two ‘Buster’s Dream World’ episodes, followed by a Ken Reid ‘Face Ache’ yarn, the first of numerous ‘Spooky Scrapbook’ fact-files and a short tale of ‘Horace the Hopeless Haunter’ before the real gem of the book begins: the first of two paranormal exploits featuring Cursitor Doom; jazzed up for the sinister seventies by re-jigging them as cases of Curtis Bronson: Ghost Hunter.

Cursitor Doom first appeared in the revamped Smash in 1969, created by Ken Mennell and illustrated by the indescribably brilliant Eric Bradbury, an elderly mystical troubleshooter (Doom not Bradbury) who hires burly he-man Angus McCraggan to be his agent on the physical side of an eternal battle against manifest evil.

Here Angus has been redrawn to resemble contemporary anti-hero Charles Bronson and in ‘The Phantom Friar’ goes solo to defend a couple of damsels in distress from a spectral monk and greedy relative.

The next comedy tranche comprises ‘Angel Face and Dare Devil’, ‘The Creepy Crawleys’, ‘Whacky Waxworks’, ‘Chilling Chuckles’, an extended jape ‘The Mummy’s Curse’ and ‘The Scareys of St. Mary’s’, neatly bisected by terse text terrors ‘Ghost Stories of the Sea’ and another ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts?’ article before the original spooky thrill-fest resumes with ‘The Ghost of Gaunt Manor’ and a suitably themed ‘Puzzle Page’.

Stalking another ‘Spooky Scrapbook’, Ken Reid returns with an hilarious ‘Davy Jones Locker’ gag-strip before nefarious Buster regular Charlie Peace debuts in a Victorian shocker ‘The House of Thrills’.

Then tyrannical 15th century warlord Ungar the Merciless comes a cropper when he tries to steal ‘The Mystic Fountain’, after which ‘Rent-A-Ghost Ltd.’, ‘The Scareys of St. Mary’s’, ‘Whacky Waxworks’ and yet another ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts?’ precede the second and final instalment of ‘The Ghostly Guardian’.

More ‘Angel Face and Dare Devil’, ‘Puzzle Page’ and ‘The Mummy’s Curse’ swiftly follow and a ‘Creepy Cackles with ‘The Scareys of St. Mary’s’, after which ‘The 13th Man’ – a brief western terror-tale – provides some all-new thrills, balanced by more ‘Davy Jones Locker’, ‘Horace the Hopeless Haunter’, ‘Do You Believe in Ghosts?’, ‘The Creepy Crawleys’, ‘Face Ache’ and ‘Ghost Stories of the Sea’

The serialised Mummy’s Curse then concludes as the final section opens with a last witchly romp for ‘The Scareys of St. Mary’s’ whilst ‘Curtis Bronson meets The Snake Mummy’: a Bradbury drawn drama which tingles with menace in which Cursitor Doom makes a telling appearance, albeit in the trendier guise of with-it witch man Septimus Drood.

Just to ensure there’s not too many nightmares ‘Rent-A-Ghost Ltd.’, ‘Spooky Scapbook’ and the other ‘Buster’s Dream World’ take their last bows before the book ends with an activity page, the ‘Haunted House Escape Game!’

In 1984 Fleetway released the short-lived Scream!, an excellent weekly kids horror anthology modelled on the inexplicably (to management, at least) successful 2000AD, but the supernatural zeitgeist of the 1970s was long gone and the comic foundered and was cancelled after four months, which probably means something, but I’m too polite to say what…

This book is a delightful monster-mish-mash and one that will delight older fans and deliver lots of laughs and shivers to the young. Well worth tracking down and rapturously reading over and over again.
© 1975 IPC Magazines. All rights reserved.

Jack Kirby’s Spirit World


By Jack Kirby with Mark Evanier, Steve Sherman, Sergio Aragonés Vince Colletta, Mike Royer & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3418-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Sheer Imagination Wrapped In Perfect Pictorial Plumage… 10/10

Jack Kirby is the master imagineer of American comics and his collected works provide a bundle of astounding narrative delights for any possible occasion. One ideal and seasonably timely tome is this magnificent hardback compendium re-presenting the complete “King’s Canon” of one of his least known, most misunderstood and mishandled DC creations.

Famed for his larger than life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, Jack “King” Kirby was an astute, spiritual man who had lived through poverty, gangsterism, the Depression, World War II and the rise and fall of the Space Age.

He had seen Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject.

On returning from service in World War II, Jack – reunited with long-term creative partner Joe Simon – began producing genre material for older audiences. They famously invented Romance comics, and amongst that dynamics duo’s other concoctions for Prize/Crestwood Publications was a noir-ish, psychologically underpinned supernatural anthology reflecting the tone and trends of those changing, globally Post-Traumatic times.

Black Magic (and its short-lived but fascinating companion title Strange World of Your Dreams) eschewed traditionally gory, heavy-handed morality plays and simplistic cautionary tales seen in other comics and concentrated on deeper, stranger fare. They were – until the EC comics line hit their peak – far and away the best mystery titles on the market.

Changing tastes and an anti-crime, anti-horror witch-hunt quashed the comics industry, so under a doctrinaire, self-inflicted conduct code, publishers stopped innovating and moved into more anodyne areas. This established holding pattern persisted until the rebirth of superheroes.

Working at a little outfit that used the name “Atlas”, Kirby partnered with Stan Lee and, when superheroes were revived, astounded the world with a salvo of new concepts and characters that revitalised if not actually saved the comics business.

Kirby understood the fundamentals of pleasing his audience and always toiled diligently to combat the appalling state of prejudice about the type-and-picture medium – especially from insiders and professionals who despised the “kiddies’ world” they felt trapped in.

However, after a decade or so, costumed characters again began to wane. Public interest in the supernatural was once more peaking, with books, television and movies all exploring the unknown in gripping and stylish new ways. The Comics Code Authority was even ready to slacken its censorious choke-hold on horror titles to save the entire industry from implosion as the 1960s superhero boom fizzled out.

Experiencing increasing editorial stonewalling and creative ennui at Marvel, in 1970 Kirby accepted a long-standing offer from arch rival DC Comics…

Promised freedom to innovate, one of the first projects he tackled was a new magazine format carrying material targeting adult readerships. For the full story of how that worked out, you can read Mark Evanier’s acerbic article at the centre of this glorious and oversized (282 x 212 mm) hardback compilation. He was there and knows a lot of the secrets…

Reflecting the mature experimentation of Black Magic in a superb but poorly received and largely undistributed monochrome magazine, Spirit World #1 – and only – launched in the summer of 1971, but as happened all too often, editorial cowardice and back-sliding scuppered the project before it could get going.

At least when the original 1940s-1950s Black Magic was revived as a DC reprint anthology in 1973, it got a couple of years to properly test the waters…

Material from a second, never-to-be published, Spirit World issue eventually appeared in colour comicbooks but with most of his ideas misunderstood, ignored or side-lined by the company, Kirby opted to return to more traditional formats.

Never truly defeated though, he cannily blended his belief in the marketability of supernature with flamboyant super-heroics to create another unique and lasting mainstay for the DC universe: one that lesser talents later made a pivotal figure of the company’s continuity: Etrigan the Demon. There’s a complete Kirby compendium of the Hellish hero’s adventures out there too if you’re interested…

This eclectic, long-awaited Spirit World collection, however, eschews costume continuity in favour of plot and mood-driven tales, opening with the published premier issue which combined primarily comics stories (because DC wouldn’t spring for colour photography) with prose and monochrome “Foto-Features”, all deliciously driven by the King’s hungry, questing imagination and unique perspective…

Printed in eerie blue monotones, the arcane explorations unfold with Kirby & Vince Colletta’s pictorial investigation into the power of precognition. Preceded by a stunning 3-page Kirby collage, ‘The President Must Die!’ – narrated by erudite host and parapsychologist Dr. E. Leopold Maas – recounts and interprets the chilling dreams of an unnamed woman in the days leading up to the assassination of JFK.

Again sporting a collage intro, ‘House of Horror!’ grippingly relates what happened when Dr. Maas was invited to visit the phantom-plagued Calder House

Children of the Flaming Wheel!’ is a fumetti-work (photographic comic strips big in Europe and an area of storytelling The King was desperate to develop) depicting the astral journey of a supposed modern cultist, after which the tireless Dr. Maas shares his discoveries on the nature of reincarnation by opening ‘The Lorca File!’

As “transcribed” by Kirby’s editorial assistants Steve Sherman & Mark Evanier, ‘The Spirit of Vengeance!’ relates in a terse prose piece Maas’ interaction with a most unquiet and petty revenant before Kirby & Colletta illuminate the astounding accomplishments and warnings of ‘Nostrodamus!’ – including all those predictions still pending confirmation…

The issue was concluded with a page of ‘Weird Humor’ strips by Sergio Aragonés (and possibly Dave Manak) plus a free wallposter, included here for veracity’s sake and because they’re still pretty cool…

Following that tell-all article from Evanier, the greater contents of the proposed second issue then follow in standard black-&-white. The strips are taken from their eventual last resting place in DC’s anthologies Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion #6 and Weird Mystery Tales #1-3, and still have insets and copy from other hosts such as Destiny of the Endless, but the art, plots and most of the scripting is all Kirby…

With Mike Royer inking all these later yarns, ‘Horoscope Phenomenon or The Witch Queen of Ancient Sumeria’ opens the fearsome festivities as a bizarre regal apparition visits many modern men and women and changes their fates forever, after which the lugubrious Dr. Maas probes a primordial artefact and speculates upon the barbaric life and cataclysmic demise of ‘Toxl, the World Killer’ – a rousing fantasy warrior yarn co-plotted and scripted by Evanier.

Accompanied by photomontage inserts, ‘The Burners’ pits Maas against a sudden spate of deaths by spontaneous combustion – and possible alien incursion – before the mystery and imagination culminates with uncanny cases of ‘The Psychic Bloodhound’.

Co-plotted by Evanier & Sherman, this graphic fictionalisation of a detective with extra-sensory perception is probably based on the exploits of controversial Dutch celebrity sleuth Peter Hurkos)…

Jack Kirby always was and remains a unique and uncompromising artistic force of nature: his words and pictures are an unparalleled, hearts-&-minds grabbing delight no comics lover could resist. If you’re not a fan or simply not prepared to see for yourself what all the fuss has been about then no words of mine will change your mind.

That doesn’t alter the fact that Kirby’s work from 1937 to his death in 1994 shaped the entire American scene and indeed the entire comics planet – affecting the lives of billions of readers and thousands of creators in all areas of artistic endeavour for generations. He’s still winning new fans and apostles, from the young and naive to the most cerebral of intellectuals. In this, his centenary year, Jack’s work is still instantly accessible, irresistibly visceral, deceptively deep whilst simultaneously mythic and human.

Wherever your tastes take you, his creations will be there ready and waiting. So, if fear and mystery are your meat, you can wonderfully upset your complacent equilibrium with this classy classic…
© 1971, 1972, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Guns of Shadow Valley


By James M. Clark, Dave Wachter & Thomas Mauer (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-435-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Forward-Looking Traditional Fun You Must Not Miss… 9/10

Westerns are very much in the eye of the beholder. Some of my very favourites include The Seven Samurai, The Thirteenth Warrior and Outland …and not a six-gun or Stetson in the bunch.

Actually, the form’s all about tone and timbre: motivation and resolution you see; trappings and locations are not as important as the Why and the How…

And as such, they lend themselves perfectly to crossing genres such as detective thrillers or horror. A superb case in point is superbly enchanting superhero shocker The Guns of Shadow Valley.

Concocted by Dave Wachter, James Andrew Clark and letterer Thomas Mauer and originally disseminated as a web-comic which began in 2007, the stunning saga was eventually collected as a sturdy landscape format hardback tome (with attendant eBook edition). It is one of the moodiest, most beautifully realised tales you’ll ever see.

The chills start with a freakish attack on a couple of surveyors foolishly assaying isolated Shadow Valley before ‘Welcome to Malice’ introduces Bill Dawson, sheriff of that lonely outpost of civilisation and a man with a strange secret.

When superfast shooter Frank BreakneckKelley hits town, the laconic lawman and his assistant “Killshot” prepare for a confrontation. Dean Cooper is an unmatchable marksman, and when using his 1874 Sharps Rifle is the most accurate and deadly long-distance shooter in the world.

However, the showdown goes down in a most unexpected manner and the permanently-drunk Kelley ends up in jail. Eventually Bill learns the speedster can outrun his own bullets and stays soused only so that he can slow down enough to interact with other people…

And not too far distant, an atrocity occurs. US Army Colonel Thaddeus Bale lost his left arm in the war and replaced it with a lethally multi-purposed artificial limb. A fanatical zealot, he runs a covert unit with special dispensation from President Grant to tackle problems and crises no decent soldier would countenance.

With his ruthless division of veteran soldiers and malignant metahuman servants Scorpion, Wurm and Shane Langston, Bale claims to be doing the Lord’s work and is getting ever-nearer to Malice, hunting an impossible dream hidden in the remote and forbidding region…

The cast and scope expand in ‘Incident at Holden Pass’ as a stagecoach is hit by something indescribable whilst at a nearby railroad navvy camp, cruel Chinese wizard Feng finally loses the trust and confidence of his super-strong disciple Shoushan.

Back in Malice meanwhile, blacksmith Clyde Elliot is showing off the properties of a strange mineral found in the valley. Clyde is a driven tinkerer and master maker, devising and building incredible devices to solve any conceivable problem. He’s never seen anything like the stone currently in his workshop…

If the sheriff knows what’s going on, he’s keeping it to himself, but that doesn’t stop him bringing Killshot and Breakneck with him when he inexplicably attacks a prison stagecoach to liberate a convicted felon.

Pearl Rivera is a gunfighter and gambler; risky careers for a woman but made a little easier because of her uncanny empathic abilities and talents as a human lie detector. Even she is unprepared for the effect of her runaway armoured coach when it smashes into the startled but ultimately unharmed oriental giant who has recently quit the railroad building business…

And Bale’s column gets closer, now transporting an unearthly child as the sole spoils of his many depredations…

‘Leave the Bottle’ offers hints into an ancient Indian tragedy that underpins all the mysterious events as Bale’s expedition reaches the valley and uncovers some of the mystery mineral. In Malice, wizened Indian outcast Kuecan the Crow haunts the main street whilst, in the desert scrub outside, Bale mystically confers with his true paymaster.

Robber Baron industrialist Thomas Percival Dumont is the most powerful man in America, a position gained by ruthless acts, devious planning and his powers of mind-manipulation. He wants to own and exploit whatever incredible energy-source rests in Shadow Valley and is now close to fulfilling his greatest ambitions. The wicked plotters are unaware that ferocious animal guardians afflicted by an ancient curse are watching them…

The black hats are the first to act as Bale’s sadistic multi-armed mercenary rides into town in ‘Tail of the Scorpion’. The brutal carnage he inflicts in Malice is reflected at the rail camp after Bale hands over his juvenile prize to Feng, but answers are equally unforthcoming. The only real result is a drawing together of lawmen and outlaws in the beleaguered town. Dawson now notionally leads the strangest posse in the annals of the West…

A dawn-age prairie myth becomes chilling reality as the true history of the region unfolds in ‘The Crow, the Coyote, and the Eagle’ with a supernal primordial – and largely mythological – event re-deciphered by modern eyes when the foredoomed Neci Indians, (shapeshifters accursed for eternity and awaiting the return of their tribe’s spirit and soul) finally make their move just as ‘The Best Laid Schemes’ presages the beginning of The End…

Dawson finally comes clean about what he’s been hiding as the forces of evil converge on Malice and battle is joined…

The arcane action escalates to a cataclysmic, revelatory conclusion in ‘Fools of Time and Terror’ before a tantalising ‘Epilogue’ set decades later posits that even when it’s over, it ain’t over…

Along with a Foreword by Gabriel Hardman and Afterword from Dave Wachter, plus full creator biographies, this blockbuster book also offers a large and fulsome Cast of Characters feature providing informative backstory and insight on all the major – and most of the minor – players.

Grandiose, ambitious and utterly compelling, The Guns of Shadow Valley is the best Sci-Fi/Horror/Western/Superhero summer-blockbuster action movie never made. You’d be an absolute gol’ dang fool not to at least read the bloody thing as soon as you can.
™ & © 2014 Dave Wachter and James Andrew Clark. All rights reserved.