The Dead Rider: Crown of Souls


By Kevin Ferrara (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978- 1-61655-750-8

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

I think that it’s all about tone and themes and timbre; motivation and resolution, rather than just slavish attention to genre forms. Trappings and locations are not as important as the Why and the How…

A fascinating case in point is Dead Rider. Conceived and crafted by writer, artist and historian Kevin Ferrara (Aliens/Predator, Green Lantern, Creepy) it offers a miasmic merging of classical EC-styled tongue-in-cheek horror with grittily familiar cowboy themes and locales, resulting in a beautifully rendered if somewhat meandering yarn about true love, magical misery and vengeance forestalled, but never escaped…

Originally released as two issues the saga came to an abrupt ending before concluding, but in this graphic album the entire tale is finally told…

Near the frontier town of Magruder, Nevada in the 1890s a vile owlhoot calling himself the Cobra is hunting a man. Having successfully diverted a similarly employed cavalry troop into a wild goose chase, the villain relishes the prospect of tackling the legendary gunman known as the Dead Rider. He has no idea what he is about to confront, or that his prospective prey is being watched over by an Indian shaman with much more than skin in the game…

After brutalising and terrorising the entire township, Cobra secures the lead he needs and rides off to his date with destiny whilst the shaman rushes to warn the much sought after rider who currently resides in an old iron mine. The décor doesn’t trouble the wanted man much. After all, he’s been an ambulatory rotting corpse for years now and physical feeling is long-forgotten luxury…

Once, Jacob Bierce was a gentle, loving man whose only desire was to wed his adored paramour Sarah. However, due a string of cruel accidents and malign misfortunes, Jacob fell under the power of a scheming and manipulative Bog Witch who made him immortal by turning him into a walking corpse. The downside was that he retained his mind and conscience, even during those appalling and frequently recurring moments when the sorceress possessed his body to go on killing sprees…

Thus the revenant’s formidable reputation, the authorities pragmatic despatching of deranged General Cavanaugh and a troop of soldiers to capture the notorious Dead Rider and Cobra’s obsession with immortalising his own reputation by killing the zombie fugitive…

Now all the disparate players are converging for a final showdown, but the Witch has one last eldritch card to play: she has been collecting the last vestiges of the dead to build a potent artefact known as the Crown of Souls but has not fully appreciated the power of true friendship, love from beyond the grave and the obsessive nature of glory-crazed military men…

Although the plot contains some gaping inconsistencies and the dialogue is often uninspired, The Dead Rider is rendered in a spectacularly lush manner reminiscent of the best of Graham Ingels, Bernie Wrightson, Scott Hampton or Thomas Yeates and fairly rockets along, offering plenty of action and wry humour as well as a classic tragedy-laced horror hero that would certainly score well with today’s movie-going genre aficionados.

Fast, fun and fabulous, this turbulent tome comes with a Gallery of sketches, roughs, covers and unused art pages complete with accompanying commentary and is a sure-fire guilty pleasure for fans looking for quality art and a tale outside the tried-&-true comicbook mainstream.
© 2007, 2008, 2015 Kevin Schnaper. All rights reserved.

Hellboy volume 9: The Wild Hunt


By Mike Mignola, Duncan Fegredo, Dave Stewart & Clem Robins (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-431-8

On December 23rd 1944 an uncanny baby was confiscated from Nazi cultists by American superhero The Torch of Liberty and a squad of US Rangers moments after his unearthly nativity on Earth. The Allied forces 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. This “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 Professor trained the 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 all 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 unfolded, 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 ninth necromantic collection re-presents the climactic 8-issue miniseries Hellboy: The Wild Hunt from 2008-2009, drawing together many subtly scattered clues disseminated throughout his innumerable tempestuous exploits and at last providing the conclusion to more than fifteen years of slowly boiling magical suspense… as well as the incredible answers to the enigma of the horrific hero’s doom-drenched double destiny…

Creator Mignola reunites with illustrator Duncan Fegredo – supplemented as always by colourist Dave Stewart and letterer Clem Robins – as the fey folk and other creatures of ancient mythology and legend are fading into non-existence in the face of a rising of witches.

The malevolent hags have a new queen who promises blood and slaughter and domination of the world by her kind whilst the only being who might stop her inexorable ascendance is missing…

Following an Introduction from Mark Chadbourn the drama opens in rural Italy as Hellboy receives a letter from a most ancient and august society. The paranormal paragon has been hiding; avoiding having to deal with a hard-wired cosmic fate which will not let him go…

Nevertheless, on receipt of the missive Hellboy returns to England and meets the oldest members of the aristocratic secret society known as the Wild Hunt.

They have been clandestinely defending the Sceptr’d Isles from mystic assault for centuries and – more aware of Hellboy’s destiny-drenched antecedents than the hero himself – want him to join them in exterminating a band of giants set to ravage the Realm…

Sadly the entire affair is a trap, but the mortal warriors are no match for Hellboy who defeats his duplicitous opponents before also despatching the giants in an uncontrollable burst of warrior-madness…

In a faraway place the ensorcelled goblin known as the Gruagach of Lough Leane reflects on the long-ago slight inflicted upon by Hellboy which has been the cause and trigger of all the carnage and world-shattering destruction about to unfold when the new Queen of Witches is ready. Perhaps he repents it all, just a shade…

The subject of his hate is currently in Ireland, renewing the acquaintance of Alice whom he saved from being abducted as a baby by the Little People. The decades have been uncannily kind, as if some elfin magic rubbed off on her…

As the Red Queen cruelly consolidates her power in England, Hellboy and Alice are visited by former pixie potentate Queen Mab who reveals another missing part of a decades-long puzzle and hints that there might be way to thwart this oppressive, inescapable destiny.

However when another supposed ally betrays them and Alice is wounded unto death, Hellboy is approached by ancient legend Morgan Le Fay who offers to trade for the mortal girl’s life.

She reveals that although the hell-born hero is certainly the son of the devil his human mother could trace her own line back to Arthur Pendragon. Hellboy is the doom of mankind but also the True King of England and she is his many-times removed grandmother…

If he wants to save humanity from an army of darkness he has his own to call upon – one comprising millennia of the noble dead of Britain. All Morgan’s heir has to do is take up the Sword in the Stone. It should be easy. His new occult opponent – now calling herself the Mor-Rioghain – also wants to awaken the dragons from the beginning of time and wipe out humanity: the fore-ordained role Hellboy has sworn never to enact…

With horror Hellboy realises he has not been running from one unwanted Destiny, but two…

With his fate closing in all around him Hellboy is uncharacteristically nonplussed, but an ethereal visitation prompts him to ferocious action and as he confronts his own inherently evil nature he finally throws off all the sly influences attempting to sway him and once again chooses his own path…

Offering astounding supernatural spectacle, amazing arcane action, mounting mystical tension and the imminent end of decades of slowly unfolding wonderment, this epic adventure is supplemented by a copious Sketchbook Section from Mignola and Fegredo, offering unused covers, roughs, designs, and informative commentary.

Unfolding with the pace of a mythic epic of enthralling power, the saga and mystery of Hellboy is a true landmark of comics storytelling and one every fan and aficionado should read.
™ and © 2008, 2009, 2010 Mike Mignola. Hellboy is ™ Mike Mignola. Introduction © 2010 Mark Chadbourn. All rights reserved.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters


By Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-959-2

Once upon a time, comics were ubiquitous and universal and scorned by most people.

Gradually people came to realise that there were gems amongst the dross, and a critical arena grew where graphic novels could be judged on their own intrinsic merits and afforded serious consideration as Art.

Every so often an example of purely perfect sequential narrative emerges which reshapes the Artform and forces the entire world to sit up and take notice: Maus, Persepolis, American Splendor, Watchmen

I’m pretty certain as I read my review copy (for the third time in two weeks) that My Favorite Thing is Monsters is soon going to be automatically added to that list of ground-breaking, world-shaking graphic masterpieces whenever people talk about the absolute best that sequential graphic narrative has to offer…

Crafted over decades, this massive onion-skin of tales-within-tales ostensibly details a murder mystery, but conceals within its astoundingly illustrated layers a “you-are-here” historical perspective of the social chaos resulting amongst the impoverished and disenfranchised after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a crushing examination of child abuse, an impassioned discourse on the nature and role of Art, a chilling coming-of-age experience, a telling testament of the repercussions of survival for Holocaust victims and a mesmerising trek through the psyche of a very troubled little girl on the cusp of leaving the security of childhood forever…

The viper’s nest of stories is delivered through the beguiling conceit that we are reading the diary of an extremely intelligent, artistically gifted little girl who has inscribed and illustrated in her spiral-bound notebook the far-from-mundane recent events of her life: an unedited, unexpurgated stream-of-consciousness account, just as the events happened…

Karen Reyes sees monsters. She sees them everywhere but that’s okay because most of them are her friends or at least not overly hostile and besides, she’s a monster too…

In 1968 Chicago, our 10-year-old protagonist/narrator is obsessed with movie and comicbook creature features, to the point of seeing herself as a cute werewolf (much in the mould of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things).

She is also worldly-wise beyond her years perhaps blessed with synaesthesia: able to smell colours, taste the tone or character of places and enter the many paintings her artist brother takes her to see at the gallery…

The single-parent family lives in Chicago in 1968 in a tenement owned by local gangboss Mr. Gronan. The mobster’s wife is one of the many women Karen’s brother Deeze regularly shares his bed with, not the wisest of things to admit to…

Despite his social shortcomings Deeze is a brilliant artist who has always shared his passion with his gifted sister, but as the story opens he is keeping a secret from Karen. Their adoring mother is dying…

Karen’s cool reserve is frequently tested. Many kids at school bully and abuse her whilst their parents scorn and despise her. At least she has a few trusted outcast associates in her corner. It’s no wonder though that she prefers the clannish world of screen and comicbooks to what reality offers up daily…

Blithely unaware of how painful the world can be, the dutiful daughter’s world shifts from filmic fantasy to real life tragedy when troubled tenant Anka Silverberg dies. Karen, who has shared a special relationship with the concentration camp survivor for years, realises it must be murder, not the inevitable suicide most of the adults say it was.

The Werewolf-girl thus resolves to use her gifts to find the killer and embarks on an horrific voyage of discovery. With the unwittingly aid of befuddled sot Sam Silverberg and her own uncanny, wise-beyond-her-years instincts, Karen stalks her elusive prey, slowly gaining an understanding of the real-world atrocities Anna endured before reaching America and her inescapable date with doom…

Moreover, as Karen continues to investigate the life and death of Anka, the increasingly violent real world gets a stronger hold on her inner landscape, distracting the monster girl from her self-appointed mission…

Astoundingly complex and multi-layered, and accessing a phenomenally intricate interior landscape blending the shocking squalor, deprivation and social unrest of mid 1960’s Chicago with the thoughts and impression of a brilliant child and natural outsider, My Favorite Thing is Monsters offers a stunning examination of loss and what it means to be human. Moreover, the barrage of intertwined stories never obfuscates, but always offers some snippet of revelation and does so with warmth, humour, great heart and inspirational passion.

Best of all, this tome is only the beginning and the story will continue in a sequel…
© 2016 Emil Ferris. All rights reserved.

Seekers Into the Mystery – the Complete Collection


By J. M. DeMatteis, Jon J Muth, Glenn Barr, Michael Zulli, Jill Thompson & various (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-80843-7

Isn’t everybody looking for ultimate truth and a bit of personal revelation?

That spiritual quest for enlightenment has moved millions of souls, thousands of philosophers, thinkers and mystics and – at conservative estimates – hundreds of writers and artists over the centuries.

At the dying fringes of the 20th century spiritually invested thinker and writer J. M. DeMatteis convinced a high-powered publishing company to let him look for Revelation in the pages of a comicbook.

As detailed in his Introduction ‘And Ye Shall Find’ – which details the origins and simultaneously troubled yet blessed release of the tale as a periodical publication from DC Comics’ creator owned Vertigo imprint – his story concerned a modern man lost and yearning for something greater than his sorry self and pointless, dead-end existence.

In the nature of such things, the series briefly blossomed and – like so many spiritual moments – tragically faded before a clean, clear-cut culminating finish.

However, viewed as an instructional excursion in this new complete compilation from Dover Books, Seekers into the Mystery is a superb fantasy-drenched magical mystery tour that asks big questions with no real answers through a cast of utterly amiable characters you’ll wish were real.

DeMatteis, whose other works include long runs on numerous mainstream costumed champions such as Justice League, Defenders and Spider-Man, introspective, genre-warping serials such as Moonshadow and a string of uniquely quirky graphic novels such as Blood: A Tale, The Last One, Brooklyn Dreams and Greenberg the Vampire, is a smart scribe with a solid appreciation of the light side of life as well as comics’ usual trendy angst-driven nihilism.

Thanks to that broad vision, SITM abounds with human warmth, sentimental uplift and wild whimsy to counterbalance the horrific sight of a man who slowly drives himself through hell and madness in pursuit of a dream…

This is not a book you want me to be too specific about. Like the adage goes, it’s all about the journey, but here at least are few directions you might appreciate…

Seekers into the Mystery gathers all fifteen episodes of the Vertigo series, subdivided in a sequence of self-contained Books which open with ‘The Pilgrimage of Lucas Hart’ as a washed up, crashed-&-burning Hollywood screenwriter begins to see that he is not just destroying himself, but also taking with him his devoted girlfriend, ex-wife and daughter as well as everyone who ever knew or cared about him.

And then the universe reaches out to him, in the form of visions and visitations: bombarding Hart with every kind of hint and message and above all else a recurring image of a gentle beatific man all the new age weirdoes suddenly afflicting him refer to as “The Magician”. More obnoxious and certainly most noisome is the recurring appearance of a foul, homeless lunatic dubbed Charlie Limbo who might just be God’s agent on Earth…

Illustrated by Glenn Barr with an Epilogue Chapter crafted by Jon J Muth, the horrors and wonders Lucas experiences inescapably lead to a shocking revelation that his memories of an idyllic childhood are all false: his formative years were actually the stuff of nightmare he has forgotten that he forgot, leading him to make a leap of faith and search out a woman who actually knows the Magician…

Michael Zulli (with Muth again contributing an Epilogue segment) beatifically illuminates the next stage of our suffering pilgrim’s progress as ‘Falling Down to Heaven’ traces the writer’s search for Absolute Truth and the elusive Man Who Knows Everything; encompassing encounters with psychics and mediums, confrontations with Angels, Aliens, Elves and Demons, and a shocking revelation that Lucas’s daughter Aimee has been seeing all theses impossible visitors since the day she was born…

The journey culminates with Hart reaching a tipping point in his own re-creation, but that only gives rise to his greatest challenge yet in Book Three as ‘God’s Shadow’ (art by Jill Thompson) makes her presence known.

Maya, the malevolent Spirit of Illusion, is determined to derail Lucas’ evolution towards enlightenment and employs torment and seduction in equal measure to achieve her aims. She has not, however, fully appreciated the power her intended victim’s loved ones still exert over him and his own desire for ultimate clarity and truth…

When all the illusions are at last undone, Lucas is in possession of the totality of his occluded memories for the first time in decades, but one last horrifying recollection indicates that there is only one possible outcome which manifests in ‘Finale: The Death of Lucas Hart’. As is normal for this story that does not mean what you think it means…

Supplemented with a cover gallery by Barr, Muth, Zulli and John Bolton, plus a large selection of Character Sketches from the series’ artic originator Glenn Barr, this monumental voyage of miasmic self-discovery is a weird, thrilling, disquieting, scary, enlightening and magnificently engaging walk on the astral wild side: one that readers in search of a different comics experience will be well-rewarded by…
© 1996, 1997, 2017 J. M. DeMatteis. Introduction © 2017 J. M. DeMatteis. All rights reserved.

Seekers Into the Mystery will be released February 24th 2017 and is available for pre-order now. Check out www.doverpublications.com, your internet retailer or local comics-store or bookshop.

Graveslinger


By Shannon Eric Denton, Jeff Mariotte, John Cboins, Nima Sorat & various (IDW Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-60010-364-3

The iconography and intrinsic philosophy of the western is so strong that it will readily mix-&-match with any other narrative genre.

Space Cowboys? Done.

Murder mystery? War?

Culture clash; political thriller; buddy movie; coming-of-age-drama; romance; epic quest? All covered in landmark cowboy books and/or film tales.

However – probably due to the brutal nature and subtext of the Wild West mythos – the most effective genre-mash-ups have always involved broad humour or supernatural shock.

Intriguing case in point is this short, sharp saga written by Shannon Eric Denton (The Revenant) and Jeff Mariotte (Desperadoes), beguilingly brought to un-life by illustrators John Cboins and Nima Sorat, with the whole chilling confection coloured by Chris Wood & Carlos Badilla with lettering courtesy of Ed Dukeshire.

Originally released in 2009 as a 4-issue miniseries, the tale is by no means an original one, but is stylishly undertaken (that’s a freebie from a veteran punslinger, folks) and rattles along at a breakneck pace to its gory conclusion…

The drama begins in ‘The Devil’s Playground’ as a strangely gaunt man closes in on a night-time campfire. With little ceremony the top-hatted old timer despatches the man-like things basking in the fire’s glow and dumps them unceremoniously in the coffin on the wagon pulled by his trusty mule Lucifer

In the growing daylight Frank Timmons meets some riders whilst crossing spartan cattle country and learns that a range war is brewing between the independent ranchers and merciless cattle-baron Harvey Newell.

Frank has no time for their petty problems as he is involved in a relentless pursuit. He used to be the undertaker at Gila Flats Territorial Prison and, after a recent incident, has been tasked with tracking down some very dangerous escapees…

As Timmons heads on, one of the cowboys joins him. Will Saylor already suspects something nasty is occurring and, since the manhunter’s course is in a direct line for his own stead – where his wife and daughters are waiting – Will thinks he ought to be heading home…

As they near the ranch Will’s worst suspicions are confirmed. Timmons is no normal bounty killer and the things threatening his family stopped breathing a long time ago. They also seem immune to his bullets and crave living human flesh…

The old man does have a few advantages of his own, however, and before long has the dead men on the run and the women-folk back with the horrified Will…

The hunter’s problems grow in ‘The Undertaker’s Lament’ as Frank shares a few more unwholesome truths with Will, even as miles distant, the bulk of the risen dead Timmons has been following introduce themselves to local tyrant Newell.

Timmons was not a good man when he worked at Gila Flats: abusing his position for profit and living the high life with a local woman named Dorothy. Things started to go bad in 1878 when Frank was cursed by hardened killer Bart Bevard as he fought the noose around his neck. They then got much worse when Frank desecrated the corpse of Mexican witch-man El Brujo to steal the shaman’s fancy amulet.

That night 117 corpses dug themselves out of the Boneyard and went on a ravenous killing spree, slaughtering an entire town… including Dorothy…

And that’s when something truly diabolical spoke to Frank: offering him a deal he could not refuse. Hell wanted its escaped souls back and, if Frank delivered them. he might be reunited with Dorothy…

As Frank and Will reach the local town to spread a warning, they are caught in a lethal ambush. However it isn’t Bevard’s corpse gang but Newell’s bully boys gunning for them. Faced with ‘The Good, the Bad, & the Undead’ Frank needs to make a quick decision about temporarily abandoning his unholy mission…

After an horrific gun battle he manages to convince a few cowed survivors to join him in a raid on Newell’s ranch for a showdown with the human monster before his own final apocalyptic confrontation with Bevard and ‘The Malevolent Six’ zombies he still commands…

And when the shooting stops Frank and Lucifer the mule head for the sunset, painfully aware that they still have 107 more soiled souls to send to the inferno before they can rest…

Simple, straightforward, eerily evocative and leavened with just the right amount of gallows humour, Graveslinger was quickly optioned for eventual movie glory – although to me it smacks more of numerous TV episodes rather than 120-odd minutes of supernatural shoot-outs – but the original comicbook inspiration has all but vanished from sight, despite its welcoming premise, solid action ethic and the vast gallery of guest art (three dozen potent and powerful pieces by the likes of Adam Archer, Bloodworth, Francesco Francavilla, Michael Geiger, Phil Noto, Tom Mandrake and others) that came with the collected edition.

If you’re in the mood for spooky six-gun thrills, Graveslinger is well worth tracking down in either printed or digital editions.
© 2009 Shannon Eric Denton and Jeff Mariotte. All rights reserved

Frankenstein: The Mad Science of Dick Briefer


By Dick Briefer & various (Dark Horse Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-688-4                  eISBN: 978-1-63008-186-7

The Golden Age of American comicbooks is usually associated with the blockbusting birth and proliferation of the Superhero, but even at the headiest heights of costumed crusader craziness other fantastic fantasy fashions held their own. Some of the very best – like Jack Cole’s Plastic Man and the unlikely weird warrior under discussion here – also managed to merge genres and surmount their origins through astounding graphic craft, a healthy helping of comedic legerdemain and a deft dose of satire…

Richard Briefer was born in Washington Heights, Manhattan on January 9th 1915. He was a pre-Med student who also studied at the Art Student League in New York City and got into the fledgling comicbook business in 1936, working for the Will Eisner/ Jerry Iger shop after selling work to Wow, What a Magazine!, and others.

He adapted literary classics such as the Hunchback of Notre Dame and, as Dick Hamilton, created early super-team Target and the Targeteers for Novelty Press. Briefer wrote and drew Rex Dexter of Mars, Dynamo, Biff Bannon, Storm Curtis, Crash Parker and more for a range of publishers. For Timely he co-created The Human Top and, as Dick Flood, produced anti-Nazi strip Pinky Rankin for The Daily Worker; the newspaper of the American Communist Party.

Another criminally near-forgotten master craftsman, Dick Briefer is best remembered amongst comics cognoscenti these days for Frankenstein; a suspense strip which debuted in Prize Comics #7 in December 1940 before gradually evolving into a satirical comedy-horror masterpiece which offered thrills and chills whilst ferociously sending up post war America.

A truly unique vision, Briefer’s Frankenstein ran intermittently until 1954 when the toxic paranoiac atmosphere of the anti-communist, anti-comics witch hunt killed it.

The author moved into advertising and latterly portraiture and, despite numerous attempts to revive the strip, never published any more of his absurd and acerbic antics…

Dick Briefer died in December 1980.

Here, however, as part of the wonderful Dark Horse Archives series, you can enjoy the superbly surreal strip in all its manic glory from its horrible heyday; either as this sterling and sturdy full-colour hardback or as an eBook.

Re-presented for your delectation are the contents of Frankenstein #1-7 (spanning January 1945-May 1947) with Briefer at the peak of his powers, writing and drawing the deliciously demented delights that have made him a legend amongst comics creators if not the general public.

After gleaning a few salient facts from appreciative devotee John Arcudi in his Foreword, and relishing some ultra-rare original art from Briefer and Alex Toth, the merry madness begins with issue #1 as we reveal ‘Frankenstein’s Creation’

When a bored mad scientist reads an old book he decides to create his own version of the infamous creature. Sadly, despite scrupulously following the recipe, the malevolent modern Prometheus’ secret formula only manifests a loving, protective nature in his super-strong homunculus and the hulking Frankenstein monster soon becomes a boon to his community and embarrassment to his malignant maker.

Left to his own devices, the artificial Adam is then drawn to the quiet little everytown of Mippyville where the populace are fighting off a supernatural invasion of atrocious arcane predators. ‘Frankenstein and the Ghouls and Vampires’ sees the creature – originally mistaken for a “Bobbysox” pop singer by the town’s screaming teenagers – hilariously clean up the infernal infestation before setting up home in a ramshackle abandoned mansion.

Only one thing is missing to complete his dreams of domestic bliss but, after a brief dalliance with the local spider saleswoman results in her becoming ‘Frankenstein’s Wife’, the man-monster soon learns why a hasty marriage often leads to repentance at leisure…

Mippyville is a place that just attracts weirdness, and the first issue concludes with another mad doctor as deranged surgeon Professor Hugo von Hoogenblotzen kidnaps Frankie and attempts to graft him to an elephant in ‘Frankenstein and the Manimals’

The second issue begins with ‘Frankenstein!’ – a quick recap of past events – before our unlikely hero tracks down a mad mass-murderer who wants others to suffer for his art in ‘Frankenstein and the Statue Maker’ after which the animal-loving oaf is accidentally mistaken for a mere beast and purchased by a moody millionairess. She puts him on a leash to one-up her pals in the Exotic Pets Club but ‘Frankenstein’s Job’ soon teaches them all the true value of animal companionship…

Eventually restored to his own home, ‘Frankenstein’s Ark’ then sees the towering titan re-enact the building of the fabled lifeboat to save his animal chums but end up clashing with a hoarding hermit and his mutant allies…

Issue #3 (July/August 1946 and with scripting assistance from Bruce Elliott) introduced ‘Frankenstein’s Family’ as the big guy won gainful employment as a junk man whilst his new boss tinkered with salvaged machines from a devil doctor’s lab. This resulted in an army of molecularly-unstable juvenile duplicates of Frankie and a great deal of gross chaos…

A legion of escaped horrors attacked Mippyville in ‘Frankenstein and the Monsters’ only to find the town’s ghastly defender too much to handle whilst in ‘Frankenstein and the Mummies’ a quick jaunt to Egypt finds the monster befriending a quartet of ancient, entombed pharaohs before ‘Frankenstein and the Time Machine’ apparently sends the credulous colossus into the furious future and perilous past. This time, however, all is not as it seems…

The regular cast expanded in the fourth issue (September/October 1946) as ‘Frankenstein and Awful Annie’ finds the mellow monster aiding the local purveyor of potions and charms to the city’s supernatural community when her long-lost son wants to come home for a visit. He then makes another odd acquaintance when ‘Frankenstein Meets the (Terrible) Werewolf’ which debuts the gentlest magical man-eater on earth…

Another whirlwind romance goes awry after ‘Frankenstein Sees the Effect of the Youth Restorer’ and makes an amorously ill-advised move on a once-elderly neighbour, before his mystic mates throw the monster a birthday party in ‘Frankenstein and the Sorcerer’ and almost start a magic war that only subsides after the gentle giant accidentally lands a job as a photographic model…

Briefer was an inveterate tinkerer, always looking for innovative new ways to present his mirthful material, and Frankenstein #5 (November/December 1946) trialled a new format of interlinked yarns beginning with ‘Act 1: How I Rehabilitated Maladjusted Ghosts’ as the monster became a troubleshooter for the restless dead and unmasked a murderer.

In ‘Act 2: How I Had (and Lost) a Pet Dinosaur’ he accidentally hatches an antediluvian egg and manages to switch it with a parade-balloon doppelganger whilst ‘Act 3: How I Became a Genii in a Magic Bottle’, saw the monster mysteriously abducted by a street-corner hustler before escaping to save the town from a malicious malady in concluding ‘Act 4: How I Conquered a Terrible Plague’. The experiment was dropped for a more traditional anthological format in the sixth (March/April 1947) issue…

Here the madcap merriment opens with ‘The Last Smile’ as Frankie is mistaken for an escaped murderer and placed on death row after which he hunts down ‘The Ghostnapper’ abducting spirits and stealing their big white sheets…

The rising cost of funerals informed the riotous case of ‘One Small Bier’ as the monster tries a new career as a mortician before heading into the country to investigate accursed, self-propagating automobiles going on an uncanny ‘Joyride’

The final issue reprinted here comes from May/June 1947 #7 and opens with ‘Silas Grunch Gets His’ – co-written with Ed Goggin – as a conniving miser tortures kids by building a funfair children can’t get into… until the Big Guy steps in…

The monster plays cupid and brings two bizarre, lonely people together in ‘The Strange Love of Shirley Shmool’ and romance also informs Frankenstein’s laying of ‘The Curse of the Flying Dutchman’ when the giant goof opens a Lonely Hearts Agency and matches the immortal wanderer with the girl of his nightmares…

This leads to a clash with atom-age seductress ‘The Lorelei’ and a hideous trade of jobs and gender roles before politics rears its ugly (multiple) heads as Frankenstein is convinced to run for President of the Magician’s Guild only to endure the voodoo ‘Pins and Needles’ of a frustrated rival…

A truly unmissable treat from a singular and utterly eccentric creative force, Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein is remarkable work by a one-of-a-kind creator. If you love to be scared, love to laugh and love comics, this is a book you must see.
Frankenstein: The Mad Science of Dick Briefer. Dark Horse Books® and logos are registered trademarks of Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.

Hellboy volume 8: Darkness Calls


By Mike Mignola, Duncan Fegredo, Dave Stewart & Clem Robins (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-896-6

As a baby Hellboy was confiscated – on December 23rd 1944 – from Nazi cultists by American superhero The Torch of Liberty and a squad of US Rangers moments after his unearthly nativity on Earth. The Allied forces had interrupted a satanic ritual predicted by parapsychologist Professor Trevor Bruttenholm and his associates…

They were ready and waiting at a ruined church in East Bromwich, England when an abominable infant with a huge stone right hand materialised in a fireball. Raised by Bruttenholm, the child grew into a mighty warrior fighting a never-ending secret war. The Professor trained the infernal foundling whilst forming an organisation to destroy supernatural 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 destroying unnatural threats and supernatural monsters as lead agent for the BPRD. “Hellboy” rapidly became its top operator… the world’s most successful paranormal investigator…

As the decades unfold, Hellboy gleans snatches of his origins, learning he is a supposedly pre-corrupted creature of dark portent: born a demonic messiah and destined to destroy the world and bring back ancient powers of evil.

It is a fate he despises and utterly rejects…

This eerie eighth archive re-presents the 6-issue miniseries Hellboy: Darkness Calls from 2007 and includes two epilogues created especially for the collection. It is especially noteworthy as creator Mignola here surrenders visual autonomy over his legendary character to illustrator Duncan Fegredo – with evocative support as always from colourist Dave Stewart and letterer Clem Robins – whilst moving the years-in-the-making saga towards its long-awaited conclusion…

Following an Introduction from Jane Yolen the drama opens beneath rural Italy as accursed wizard Igor Weldon Bromhead hastens the destruction of humanity by summoning and binding the malign witch-goddess Hecate. Bromhead wants revenge and doesn’t care if the world burns in his getting of it…

In faraway England the ripples of his acts alert the fey folk and other supernatural entities that the End Times are finally upon them…

Hellboy is in Britain; visiting old friends and desperately seeking to sidestep the fate the universe is pushing him towards. Restless, he wanders into the woods, seemingly oblivious to the strange signs and portents dogging his heels until he encounters a strange trio of sinister characters and is drawn into a living history lesson…

After also meeting the ghost of witchfinder Henry Hood, he is made painfully aware of a rising of the covens as the congregated creatures of the night attack him in an abandoned church. After a climactic battle – and more painful revelations of his past and ordained future – the paranormal paragon is suddenly yanked away into the infernal arctic domain of his terrifying nemesis Baba Yaga: the Russian witch-queen sworn to destroy him…

In England, witches continue to gather, urged on by minor demon Gruagach; another unclean creature with a grudge against Hellboy. He advocates waking a long-buried queen of the dark to lead their final assault on the world and will not be dissuaded…

Meanwhile in Baba Yaga’s land of eternal chill, Hellboy is holding his own against the sorceress’ legions but is about to meet his match against her greatest thrall: an indomitable, unstoppable warrior dubbed Koshchei the Deathless.

The captive is not without allies. Fallen god Perun, giant wolves and a rebellious Domovoi (house spirit) all offer what aid they can but it’s the ministrations of little dead girl Vasilisa which provides Hellboy with an opportunity to escape the endless war and return to the physical world.

While he has been gone however, events have moved on. The hags and weird folk have succeeded in freeing the one who will lead them in the final clash with humanity, and the benign spirits who have sheltered Man for so long see that their own long, long lives are finally done…

Offering astounding supernatural spectacle, amazing arcane action, mounting mystical tension and the imminent end of decades of slowly unfolding wonderment, this epic adventure is supplemented by a copious Sketchbook Section from Mignola and Fegredo, offering unused covers, roughs, designs, and informative commentary.

Proceeding with epic pace and enthralling power, the saga and mystery of Hellboy is a true landmark of comics storytelling and one every fan and aficionado should read.
™ and © 2008 Mike Mignola. Hellboy is ™ Mike Mignola. Introduction © 2008 Jane Yolen. All rights reserved.

Lobster Johnson volume 1: The Iron Prometheus


By Mike Mignola, Jason Alexander, Dave Stewart & Clem Robbins (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-975-8

Lobster Johnson started out as a moody maguffin in the gloriously expansive universe inhabited by Hellboy, the B.P.R.D. and other assorted marvels from the mind of Mike Mignola.

He was initially introduced after his death: the unquiet spirit of a lost and forgotten 1930s hero who solved his last case from beyond the grave. The character was created as an amalgam and analogue of Doc Savage, The Shadow, The Spider and all those other uncompromising, two-fisted pulp crusaders who smashed crime and slew monsters…

Whenever a really talented creator or team pay proper attention to little details, the result can generally stand on its own two feet and, after continuing to pop up in further tales, the craftily-conceived Lobster eventually proved popular enough to star in his own string of miniseries, fabulously celebrating the heyday of mass-literacy fiction and hard-core horror-heroes. This first collection gathers the 5-issue saga of Iron Prometheus with script by Mignola, art by Jason Alexander, colours courtesy of Dave Stewart and letters by Clem Robbins.

Leather-clad, gun-toting and implacably invincible, the Master of Justice and his small team of agents wade through a mountain of enemies malign, mystical and/or murderously mundane; delivering a mesmerising wild ride in the manner of a cliff-hanging movie-serial Chapter Play which opens in New York City in 1937…

A worried young man is being hunted by incredible creatures. However, as a brutal yeti attacks, the Lobster intervenes to save the kid but looks like he’s finally met his match. Happily Jim Sacks activates the incredible armoured suit he’s wearing and fries the beast…

Before the embattled Yanks can catch their breath, German agents move in and a pitched battle erupts with the bewildered Jim again displaying the suit’s incredible powers to great effect.

In a brief lull Johnson astounds the kid with his knowledge: somehow the leather-helmeted mystery man knows Jim was a tailor’s dummy and guinea pig for eccentric Professor Kyriakos Gallergas – but not that the inventor and his daughter Helena were recently attacked and made him flee with the outfit to keep it from unspecified enemies…

Before long Sacks is brought to the Lobster’s underground lair, even as in the city above the hero is in Chinatown consulting prophets. They warn of deadly danger, doom and dragons and offer a name to trace… Memnan Saa

Back below Jim is telling all he knows about his mighty Vril Energy Suit – which isn’t much – when the Lobster returns with a lead to a warehouse downtown.

Inside it, a sinister mage is indulging in a spot of torture and suggesting to Gallergas that Helena might be next. After Jim, Johnson and his gang embark on their rescue mission, the VES is again the deciding factor in an uneven battle, but only until the inexperienced Sacks steps into a carefully prepared booby-trap.

This leaves Johnson at the mercy of old enemy Doctor Waxman and a terrifying cyborg thug even as Jim finds himself conversing with Helena in a spectral arctic landscape she calls the Grave of the Emperor of the World

As the Lobster mops up his opponents, in that icy other-place Jim succumbs to arcane assault, but when the sagacious mage turns his attention to the masked man the wizard learns that high explosives carry their own extremely effective magic…

Jim comes to in a Hoboken warehouse and sees with horror what has been done to Professor Gallergas. The monstrously misused scientist reveals the secret of Vril and how his abductors plan to use the ancient energy to awaken an antediluvian evil. The traumatised boy also discovers what has been done to him too, just as Lobster and his team burst in…

As Jim struggles with a brute gradually transforming into a diabolical monster, deep inside that house of horrors Lobster battles a maniac to rescue Helena, but they are too late: the dragon has risen…

The mage wants 368 more just like it but the Vril has unleashed supernatural forces on the side of Good too, and Sacks and the Professor are ready to fight to save their world, even if they are no longer truly part of it…

Johnson is determined to deliver his own harsh brand of justice, but pursuit of the mage leads him into distracting clashes with monsters and zombies which are not nearly as devious as the Nazi agents coolly waiting to ambush him…

Knocked unconscious, the Lobster somehow confronts the mage on an eerie, icy plane before seemingly succumbing to dark rites and awakening in the custody of the German agents who have also been seeking the Vril suit since the beginning. They seem oblivious to the actions of the sinister sorcerer, however, and are far more concerned with taking what fragments of armour they have scavenged and covering their escape by eradicating New York City…

Lobster Johnson has one last play if he is to save himself and the unwitting millions residing in the sleeping city…

Interspersed with compelling faux magazine articles on ‘The True History of Lobster Johnson’ – detailing the various media incarnations of the macabre man of mystery – and topped off with a vast Lobster Johnson Sketchbook section displaying working drawings, roughs, model-sheets and layouts from Mignola, Armstrong and contributing designer Guy Davis; this is a potent and powerful supernaturally-tinged action romp to quicken the hearts of every aficionado of fantastic adventure.
™ & © 2007, 2008 Mike Mignola. Lobster Johnson™ and all other prominently featured characters are trademarks of Mike Mignola.

Savage Sword of Conan volume 1


By Robert E. Howard, Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Pablo Marcos, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Niño & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-59307-838-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Rare Bird Well Worth Carving Up… 9/10

During the 1970’s the American comic book industry opened up after more than fifteen years of cautious and calcified publishing practises that had come about as a reaction to the censorious oversight of the self inflicted Comics Code Authority: a publishers’ oversight body created to keep the product wholesome after the industry suffered their very own McCarthy-style Witch-hunt during the 1950s.

One of the first literary hardy perennials to be revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from them came the creation of a new comics genre. Sword & Sorcery stories had been undergoing a prose revival in the paperback marketplace since the release of softcover editions of Lord of the Rings in 1954 and, by the 1960s, revivals of the two-fisted fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Fritz Lieber and others were making huge inroads into buying patterns across the world.

The old masters had also been augmented by many modern writers. Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter and others kick-started their prose careers with contemporary versions of man against mage against monsters. The undisputed overlord of the genre was Robert E. Howard with his 1930s pulp masterpiece Conan of Cimmeria.

Gold Key had notionally opened the field in 1964 – and created a cult hit – with Mighty Samson. Then came Clawfang the Barbarian’ in Thrill-O-Rama #2 in 1966. Both steely warriors battled in post-apocalyptic technological wildernesses but in 1969 DC dabbled with previously code-proscribed mysticism in Nightmaster (Showcase #82 -84), following on from the example of CCA-exempt Warren horror anthologies Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella.

Marvel tested the waters with barbarian villain – and Conan prototype – Arkon in Avengers #76 (April 1970) and the same month went all-out with short supernatural thriller ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ in their own watered-down horror anthology Chamber of Darkness #4.

Written by Roy Thomas and drawn by fresh-faced Barry Smith (a recent Marvel find who was just breaking out of the company’s still-prevalent Kirby house-style) the tale introduced Starr the Slayer – who also bore no small resemblance to the Barbarian-in-waiting…

Conan the Barbarian debuted with an October 1970 cover-date and – despite some early teething problems, including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month – the comic-strip adventures of Howard’s primal hero were as big a success as the prose yarns they adapted. Conan became a huge hit: a pervasive brand that prompted new prose tales, movies, TV series, cartoon shows, a newspaper strip and all the other paraphernalia of global superstardom.

And American comics changed forever.

In May 1971, Marvel moved into Warren’s territory for a second time, after an abortive attempt in 1968 to create an older-readers, non-Comics Code Spectacular Spider-Man monochrome magazine.

Savage Tales offered stories with stronger tone, mature sexual themes, less bowdlerised violence and partial nudity. It was the perfect place to introduce Futuristic Femizon Thundra and the macabre Man-Thing whilst offering more visceral vignettes starring the company’s resident jungle-man Ka-Zar and red-handed slayer Conan…

The anthology had an eventful reception and the second issue didn’t materialise until October 1973 as part of Marvel’s parent company Curtis Distribution. Conan starred in the first five issues before spinning off into his own adult-oriented monochrome magazine which debuted in August 1974. Free of all Code-mandated restrictions, The Savage Sword of Conan became a haven for mature storytelling with top flight artists queuing up to flex their creative muscles.

In 2007, after winning the license to publish Conan comics, Dark Horse began gathering Marvel’s Savage Sword canon in a series of Essentials-style, 500+ page volumes.

This first titanic tome – also available as an eBook – collects pertinent material from Savage Tales #1-5 and Savage Sword of Conan #1-10: collectively covering May 1971 through February 1976; a period when the character was swiftly becoming the darling of the comics world and his chief scribe Roy Thomas was redefining what American comics could say, show and do…

It all starts here with a much-reprinted classic.

‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’ is a haunting, racy tale written by Howard and originally adapted in line and tone by Barry Smith for Savage Tales #1. It was later coloured and adulterated for the all-ages comicbook (#16) as it detailed how a lusty young Cimmerian chased a naked nymph into the icy winter and found himself prey in a trap set by gods or monsters…

By the time Savage Tales returned after a two-year hiatus, Barry Windsor-Smith had pretty much left comics but agreed to illustrate ‘Red Nails’ if he could do it his way and at his own pace.

The result was an utter revelation, moody, gory, soaked in dark passion and entrancing in its savage beauty. With some all-but invisible art assistance from Pablo Marcos this journey into the brutal depths of obsession and the decline of empires is the perfect example of how to bow out at the top of one’s creative game.

The adaptation began in ST #2 as Conan and pirate queen Valeria survive a trek through scorching deserts to fetch up in a vast walled city. Stealing inside they find immense riches casually ignored as the last members of the tribes of Tecuhlti and Xotalanc pick each off or wait for the monsters infesting the place to take them…

Soon they are embroiled in a simmering, oppressive war of extinction…

The third issue completed the ghastly epic as the slow war between rival branches of a decadent race explodes into a paroxysm of gore and aroused monsters…

Savage Tales #4 (May 1974) held a brace of tales. ‘Night of the Dark God’ was limned by Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Marcos & Vince Colletta from Howard’s tale The Dark Man. It revealed how Conan came hunting the abductors of his childhood first love and found them just as a terrify mystery idol began exerting its own malefic influence on a hall full of already-enraged warriors…

‘Dweller in the Dark’ was Smith’s swan-song and saw the wandering warrior become a plaything for lascivious Queen Fatima of Corinthia. Her lusts were matched only by her jealousy, however, and it wasn’t long before she had turned against Conan and tried to feed him to the monster lurking below the city…

The fifth and final Conan appearance in Savage Tales was ‘Secret of Skull River’: a wry and laconic yarn Thomas adapted from a John Jakes plot, illustrated by Jim Starlin & Al Milgrom. The barbarian sell-sword is hired to remove a wizard whose experiments are polluting a town. The reward Conan claims for his murderous services surprises everybody…

From there it was only a short jump to his own mature-themed starring vehicle, but although Savage Sword starred Conan it was initially a vehicle for numerous barbarian themed yarns – such as a serialised reprinting of Gil Kane’s epic Blackmark – and other Howard properties such as Bran Mac Morn or Red Sonja. Those aren’t included here, but are well worth searching out too…

The SSOC experience opens with the first issue and ‘Curse of the Undead-Man’ by Thomas, John Buscema & Pablo Marcos, adapted from Howard’s short story Mistress of Death. Here Conan encounters old comrade Red Sonja amongst the fleshpots of The Maul in Zamora’s City of Thieves before falling foul of sorcerer Costranno: a mage for whom being chopped to mincemeat is only a minor inconvenience…

Thomas wrote all the SSOC Conan material included here: blending adaptations of Howard’s stories – Conan’s and his other two-fisted fighting men as well – and such successor authors as Lin Carter or L. Sprague de Camp with original tales.

A stunning visual tour de force, ‘Black Colossus’ in #2 was illustrated by Buscema & Alfredo Alcala; detailing how antediluvian priest Natohk returns from death to imperil the kingdom of Princess Yasmela until stalwart general Conan leads her armies to a victory against armed invaders, uncanny occultism and a legion of devils…

SSOC #3 held two tales, beginning with Buscema & Marcos’ ‘At the Mountain of the Moon-God’ with Conan high in Yasmela’s court and attempting to head off the kingdom’s annexation from encroaching neighbours and encountering mountain-dwelling bandits and a demon pterosaur…

The issue concluded with ‘Demons of the Summit’ – an adaptation of People of the Summit by Björn Nyberg & de Camp – turned into comics by Thomas & Tony DeZuniga as an encounter with more high-living brigands brings the Cimmerian into conflict with a dying race of wizards who want his latest curvy companion to mother their next generation…

Issue #4 features Howard’s ‘Iron Shadows on the Moon’ realised by Buscema & Alcala. Having lost a war whilst leading a Kozak horde, Conan flees into the Vilayet Sea with escaped slave Olivia after killing enemy general Shah Amurath.

On an uncharted island they then encounter ancient statues which come to life at the moon’s touch. The bloodthirsty horrors fall upon a band of pirates watering on the island and after leading them to victory against the supernatural fiends Conan manoeuvres himself into the captain’s role and begins a life of freebooting piracy…

Howard’s ‘A Witch Shall Be Born’ took up most of Savage Sword of Conan #5. Illustrated by Buscema and The Tribe (DeZuniga; Steve Gan; Rudy Mesina; Freddie Fernandez and others) it saw virtuous Queen Taramis replaced by her demonic twin sister Salome, who debauched and ravaged the kingdom of Kauran whilst her accomplice Constantius has her guard captain Conan crucified. After (almost) saving himself, the Cimmerian recuperates with the desert-raiding Zuagirs, and after ousting their brutal chieftain Olgerd Vladislav returns to save Taramis and revenge himself upon the witch…

The epic is balanced by two shorter tales in the next issue. ‘The Sleeper Beneath the Sands’ is a Thomas original with art by Sonny Trinidad and reveals how Olgerd encounters a caravan of clerics en route to pacify an elder god buried since time immemorial beneath the desert. The rejected bandit-lord senses a chance for revenge but soon regrets allowing the beast to wake and luring Conan into its path…

Howard’s Celtic thriller ‘People of the Dark’ is radically adapted by Thomas and stunningly illustrated by master stylist Alex Niño next as, in modern times, Jim O’Brien plots to kill rival Richard Brent to win the hand of Eleanor.

However, a fall into an ancient cavern transports the would-be killer into antediluvian prehistory where – as Conan – he battles the debased descendents of things which were once men. In that forgotten hell a burden is placed upon him and, once returned to the present, O’Brien faces another monster and pays a millennial debt…

‘The Citadel at the Center of Time’ by Thomas, Buscema & Alcala in #7 finds the Cimmerian leading his desert-raiding Zuagirs and attacking a caravan only to be confronted by a sabretooth tiger.

After despatching the wanton killer, Conan learns from the surviving merchants of a great ziggurat with vast riches and only attendant priests to guard them.

Ever-needful of loot to placate his greedy followers, Conan leads an expedition against the eerie edifice but soon finds himself captured and offered up as a sacrificial tool to time wizard Shamash-Shum-Ukin and battling dinosaurs, beasts and brutes from many ages before finally settling his score with the time-meddler…

SSOC #8 offered a wealth of short sharp shockers beginning with ‘The Forever Phial’, illustrated by Tim Conrad doing his best Windsor-Smith riff. Here immortal wizard Ranephi desires to end his interminable existence and manipulates a certain barbarian into helping him out…

The main part of the issue continues Thomas & Kane’s adaptation of Howard’s King Conan novel The Hour of the Dragon, which had begun in Giant-Size Conan but faltered when Marvel ended their oversized specials line.

‘Corsairs Against Stygia’ – inked by Yong Montano – resumes the tale with shanghaied King Conan leading a slave revolt on the ship he’s been abducted upon. Back in Aquilonia a cabal of nobles backed by Stygian wizard Thutothmes have usurped his throne… Having taking control of the ship Conan opts to infiltrates the evil empire to rescue the stolen talisman known as the Heart of Ahriman and end the conflict…

Wrapping up this segment is Lin Carter’s evocative poem ‘Death Song of Conan the Cimmerian’ adapted by Thomas and Jess Jodloman…

Issue #9 offered another new tale by Thomas & Marcos as Conan’s Zuagirs raid another priest-packed caravan and come under the diabolical influence of a small statue with great power. ‘The Curse of the Cat-Goddess’ corrupts, divides and promises many great things: causing the doom of many brothers in arm before the iron-willed Cimmerian ends its seductive threat…

The adaptation of The Hour of the Dragon finally concludes in this hefty tome’s final chapter as SSOC #10 reveals how ‘Conan the Conqueror’ (rendered by Buscema & The Tribe – a loose agglomeration of Marvel’s Filipino art contingent (Tony DeZuniga; Steve Gan; Rudy Mesina; Freddie Fernandez and others)) sneaks into Stygian capitol Khemi to defeat snake-worshipping priests, immortal vampire queen Akivasha and Thutothmes’ inner circle before stealing back the Heart of Ahriman and heading home to occupied Aquilonia to destroy wizard king Xaltotun and his human lackeys and reclaim his stolen throne…

With a painted covers gallery – reproduced only in black-&-white here – by Buscema, Marcos, John Romita, Adams, Boris Vallejo, Mike Kaluta, Niño, Frank Magsino, Frank Brunner and Bob Larkin, plus pin-up/frontispiece art by Marcos, Adams and Esteban Maroto, this weighty collection provides a truly epic experience for all fans of thundering mystic combat and esoteric adventure.

If the clash of arms, roar of monsters, gloating of connivers and destruction of empires sets your pulses racing and blood rushing, this titanic tome is certainly your cup of mead. There are plenty of Thrones in peril, but this all-action extravaganza of sex, slaughter, snow, sand and steel is no Game. Get it and see what real intrigue and barbarism are like…
Savage Sword of Conan® and© 2007 Conan Properties International, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Through the Habitrails: Life Before and After My Career in the Cubicles


By Jeff Nicholson (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-80286-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic Self-Exploration and Terrifyingly Revelatory Erudition… 9/10

To cheekily hijack a common aphorism, Comics Will Eat Itself whenever an opportunity occurs. The way creators, readers, devotees and collectors respond to the medium is infinitely fascinating to us and has formed the basis of many stellar strips and novels: not just in the arena of Graphic Autobiography but also in other picture/prose genres…

For a brief while and every so often, Jeff Nicholson was a comicbook creator. His most well known works are probably 1980s self-published satirical parody series Ultra Klutz and the award-winning Colonia. After this last concluded in 2006, Nicholson quit comics.

Somewhere in between those two radically different creations, he produced one of the scariest yet most compelling ruminations on the experiences and compulsions of making picture stories and working as an artist-for-hire ever put to paper.

From 1990 to 1997 Through the Habitrails appeared episodically in Steve Bissette’s groundbreaking horror anthology Taboo and there has never been a better examination of an (extra)ordinary guy being creative on command, turning visual tricks and drafting wonders whilst under corporate pressure and an obsessive personal need to make art…

Moreover, he crafted the experience as a mesmerising blend of autobiography and toxic, paranoid terror-tale; rendered even more isolating and crushing by adopting a fiercely bleak science fictional tone and deeply symbolic method of illustration…

After Matt Fraction qualifies the vicissitudes of the modern work experience in his ‘Foreword’ Bissette’s Introduction offers history, context and untrammelled appreciation in ‘Never on Monday: Through the 21st Century Habitrails’ and ends by explaining how Nicholson was persuaded to return to his sinister seminal work to update – if not placate – his growing legion of (perhaps unwanted) admirers…

Lettered throughout by Chad Woody, the cartoon catharsis begins with ‘Increasing the Gerbils’ as a literally faceless wage slave – drawing to order in a corporate studio which is only a small division of a massive mercantile monolith – describes his increasingly intolerable life. The office is crammed and ponderously industrious and incorporates tubes and tunnels in the walls where creepy rodents run maze-like from room to room: a Byzantine and barely explicable connection with the serried, unknowable Powers That Be…

None too slowly, the line between employee and subject beast of burden begins to blur…

Another unwholesome aspect of the job is how Management wanders the halls, arbitrarily tapping the workers and consuming their vital spirit, as grimly revealed in ‘It’s Not Your Juice’

The steps taken to remain an individual are touched on in ‘No End’ and pitifully laid out in ‘Jar Head’ as the worker describes the use and variety of intoxicants used by the not-quite-captive Creatives to maintain output before his attention shifts to describing the fate of ‘The Doomed One’: the worker who did not bend to an oppressive, self-selected yoke but instead tried to rebel. Her fate was incomprehensible and appalling but not unexpected…

Such pressure to perform can not be endured forever and our pictorial peon eventually found release in walking and wandering in his downtime. The shocking repercussions of ‘Escape #1: “El Muerte”’ were expansive but still tantalised him with a promise of better… once he returned to work…

Not all needs can be met by the benefits of being a corporate drudge. Nevertheless, it’s the most likely place to meet potential mates. When ‘Futile Love’ happens and goes horribly wrong, naturally it provokes another deviation from protocol and ‘Escape #2: “The Dry Creek Bed”’ quietly carries him far away but ultimately only back to where he started from…

The unshakable drive to resist only brings uncomfortable attention from the managers who simply demand ‘Be Creative’, but after another pointless close call the worker heads home and in a barren wasteland discovers a possible answer to all his problems: a weapon he secretes as a tiny, prospective notion of rebellion he chooses to call ‘Animal Control’

With a glint of hope and a possible ally in reserve, the thought that one of his fellows might be untrustworthy begins to dominate, but the truth about and fate of ‘The Infiltrator’ leaves nobody wiser or happier…

The hunger for space and wish for clarity push the artist into ever-greater unsanctioned ventures but ‘Escape #3: “Concow”’ again proves that no matter how far you go, what awaits is never going to be a welcome surprise…

A near-escapee who was dragged back into the fold attempts to rationalise his twice-lost liberty with the suffocating security of wage slavery and constant draining by creating an exposé. Sadly his assumptions about the value and efficacy of his ‘Dark Spiral’ can only end one way and the artist must resort to collusion with his dark side as delineated by ever-encroaching sometime ally ‘The Gerbil King’

With work and notional reality fully at war, a catastrophic climax approaches as ‘Jimmy’ enters his life and changes everything forever…

Was that all a little vague? I certainly hope so because this is something you really need to work your way through on your own. The tone fits though: don’t read this unless and until you’re psyched up and suitably apprehensive…

The material has been collected a number of times since it first appeared but this superb Dover Edition offers what we smart-arse cognoscenti never expected: a continuation of the tale and dialogue with the creator from a place and position far less dark than that animal-infested region of the 1990s.

Preceding an ‘Afterword by Jeff Nicholson’ and the now-mandatory ‘About the Author’ feature, the comics self-diagnosis concludes with ‘Epilogue 1: Beyond the Habitrails’ and ‘Epilogue 2: Ghost Town Studio’: bringing us up to date in an equally abstracted but far more upbeat manner and supposing that at the end of some tunnels – or tubes – there can be light, not darkness…

Barbed with allegory, using metaphor like a scalpel and employing all the darkly surreal glamour and oppressive verve of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, this potent dose of exploratory surgery for the soul simultaneously dissects why comics are made and why some of us must make them whilst telling one of the scariest tales of modern times.

Although certainly an acquired taste, Through the Habitrails is a must-see, never-forget graphic novel for anybody with a vested of intellectual interest in the Ninth Art.
© 1994, 1996, 2016 by Jeff Nicholson. Foreword © 2016 Matt Fraction. Introduction © 1996 Stephen Russell Bissette. All rights reserved.