Basil Wolverton’s Culture Corner


By Basil Wolverton (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-308-8

Basil Wolverton was one of a kind; a cartoonist and wordsmith of unique skills and imagination and one whose controversial works inspired and delighted many whilst utterly revolting others.

Born in Central Point, Oregon on July 9th 1909, Wolverton worked as a Vaudeville performer, reporter and cartoonist, and – unlike most cartoonists of his time – preferred to stay far away from the big city. For most of his life he mailed his work from the rural wilderness of Vancouver, Washington State.

He made his first national cartoon sale at age 16 and began pitching newspaper strips in the late 1920s. A great fan of fantastic fiction and the swiftly-developing science fiction genre, Wolverton sold Marco of Mars to the Independent Syndicate of New York in 1929 but the company then declined to publish it, citing its similarity to the popular Buck Rogers feature.

Equally at home with comedy, horror and adventure fantasy material the young creative dynamo adapted easily to the concept of superheroes, and began working extensively in the new medium of comicbooks, where he produced such gems as Spacehawks and Disk-Eyes the Detective for Circus Comics, plus a brace of minor hits and unabashed classics: the grimly imaginative (but unrelated) sci fi cosmic avenger Spacehawk for Target Comics and RockmanUnderground Secret Agent for Timely/Marvel’s USA Comics.

Seemingly tireless, Wolverton also produced an apparently endless supply of comedy features, ranging from extended series such as superman/boxing parody ‘Powerhouse Pepper’ to double, single and half-page gag fillers such as ‘Bedtime Bunk’, ‘Culture Quickie’ and ‘Bedtime Banter’.

In 1946 he infamously won a national competition held by Al Capp of Li‘l Abner fame to visualise “Lena the Hyena”; that strip’s “ugliest woman in the world”, and during the 1950s space and horror boom crafted some of the most imaginative short stories comics have ever seen. He also worked for Mad Magazine.

Wolverton had been a member of Herbert W. Armstrong’s (prototype televangelist of a burgeoning Christian fundamentalist movement) Radio Church of God since 1941. In 1956, he illustrated the founder’s pamphlet ‘1975 in Prophecy’ and two years later produced a stunning illustrative interpretation of The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last.

Soon after he began writing and drawing an illustrated six-volume adaptation of the Old Testament entitled ‘The Bible Story: the Story of Man’ which was serialised in the sect’s journal The Plain Truth. In many ways, these religious works are his most moving and powerful – and will the subject of a forthcoming review…

In 1973 he returned to the world of comic books, illustrating more of his memorably comedic grotesques for DC’s Plop!, but the aging artist suffered a stroke the next year. Basil Wolverton died on December 31st 1978.

In 2010 Fantagraphics collected a spectacular haul of Wolverton’s very best gag features in a uniquely informative hardback which is now also available in a fancy-shmancy sci fi digital edition.

Culture Corner ran as a surreal and sublimely screwball half-page “advice column” in Whiz Comics as well as The Marvel Family and The Daisy Handbook from 1946 to 1955, when publisher Fawcett sold off its comic division to Charlton Comics – including the very last unpublished strips. The hermit-cartoonist was clearly a meticulous creator, and his extensive files have bequeathed us a once-in-a-lifetime insight into his working practice and the editorial exigencies of the period.

Wolverton sent a fully pencilled rough of each proposed episode to Will Lieberson and Virginia Provisiaro (Executive editor and Whiz Comic’s editor respectively) who would comment, then commission or reject.

The returned pencils would then form the skeleton of the instalment. This marvellously madcap tome re-presents the full-colour strips with (almost) all of the original pencil roughs, – diligently stored by Wolverton for decades – as counterpoint and accompaniment, revealing the depth not only of Wolverton’s imagination at play but also his deft facility with design and inking.

Also included are some extra roughs and all the extent rejected ideas – still some of the most outrageous tomfoolery ever unleashed even after all these years.

Basil Wolverton was something of an inventor and DIY maestro, according to his son Monte’s illuminating introduction, and turned the family home into a dream-house Rube Goldberg or our own Professor Brainstawm would be proud of, and that febrile ingenuity is clearly seen in the advisements of Croucher K. Conk Q.O.C. (Queer Old Coot) as with awesome alliteration and pre-Rap rhyming riffs, the surly savant suggests solutions for some of life’s least tiresome troubles.

Among the welter of whacky wisdoms imparted here, some of the most timelessly true are ‘How to Raise Your Eyebrows’, ‘How to Eat your Spaghetti without Getting Wetty’, ‘How to Clap without Mishap’, ‘How to Stop Brooding if your Ears are Protruding’, ‘How to Bow’ and ‘How to Grope for Bathtub Soap’: prominent amongst more than a hundred other sage prescriptions, so whatever your age, alignment or species this crazy chronicle has something that will change your life – and often for the better!

Graphically grotesque, inveterately un-sane and scrupulously screwball, this lexicon of lost laughs is a must have item for anyone in need of certifiably classy cheering up.
© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Eagle Classics: Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent


By John Ryan (Hawk Books -1990)
ISBN: 978-0-94824-822-1

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

It was during this time that he began contributing strips to comics such as Girl and legendary weekly comic The Eagle.

On April 14th 1950 Britain’s grey, post-war gloom was partially lifted with the first issue of a glossy new comic that literally shone with light and colour. Mesmerised children were soon understandably enraptured with the gloss and dazzle of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, a charismatic star-turn venerated to this day as well as a plethora of strips illustrating some of their favourite radio shows.

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

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

Pugwash, his harridan of a wife and the useless, lazy crew of the Black Pig ran until issue #19 when the feature disappeared. This was no real hardship as Ryan had been writing and illustrating Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent which began as a full page (tabloid, remember – an average of twenty panels a page, per week!) in #16.

Tweed ran for three years as a full page until 1953 when it dropped to a half-page strip and deftly repositioned as a purely comedic venture. For our purposes and those of the book under review it’s those first three years we’re thinking of.

Tweed was a bluff and blundering caricature of the “military Big Brass” Ryan had encountered during the war. In gentler times the bumbler with a young, never-to-be-named assistant known only as ‘Boy’, solved mysteries and captured villains to general popular acclaim. Thrilling and often macabre adventure blended seamlessly with sly yet cheerful schoolboy low comedy in these strips, since Tweed was in fact that most British of archetypes, a bit of a twit and a bit of a sham…

His totally undeserved reputation as detective and crime fighter par excellence, and his good-hearted yet smug arrogance – as demonstrated elsewhere by the likes of Bulldog Drummond, Dick Barton – Special Agent, or Sexton Blake somehow endeared the arrogant, posturing buffoon to a young public which would in later years take to its heart Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army and, more pointedly perhaps, Peter Sellers’ numerous film outings as Inspector Clouseau.

Ryan’s art in these strips is particularly noteworthy. Deep moody blacks and intense, sharp, edgy inking creates a mood of fever-dream intensity. There are anachronistic echoes and nuances of underground cartoons of more than a decade later, and much of the inevitable ‘brooding, lurking horror’ atmosphere found in the best works of Basil Wolverton. Ryan knew what kids liked and he delivered it by the cartload.

This too-slim, oversized (324 x 234mm x) paperback compilation is all that’s readily available these days, but surely in these days of electronic publishing some enterprising fan with a complete Eagle Collection can link up with a perspicacious publisher someway, somehow and produce a comprehensive compilation of the nation’s most self-lauded sleuth?

I know a lot of aging 10-year olds and their grandchildren who would leap at the chance to see the old team back in action…
Harris Tweed © 1990 Fleetway Publications. Compilation © 1990 Hawk Books.

George McManus’s Bringing Up Father: Forever Nuts – Classic Screwball Strips


By George McManus, edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt (NBM)
ISBN 13: 978-1-56163-556-6

One of the best and most influential comic strips of all time gets a wonderfully lavish deluxe outing thanks to the perspicacious folk at NBM as part of their series collecting the earliest triumphs of sequential cartooning. Look out for Happy Hooligan and hunt down Forever Nuts: Mutt and Jeff to see the other strips that formed the basis and foundation of our entire industry and art-form.

George McManus was born on January 23rd 1882 (or maybe 1883) and drew from a very young age. His father, realising his talent, secured him work in the art department of the St. Louis Republic newspaper. The lad was thirteen, and swept floors, ran errands, drawing when ordered to.

In an era before cheap and reliable photography, artists illustrated news stories; usually disasters, civic events and executions: McManus claimed that he had attended 120 hangings – a national record! The young man spent his off-hours producing cartoons and honing his mordant wit. His first sale was Elmer and Oliver. He hated it.

The jobbing cartoonist had a legendary stroke of luck in 1903. Acting on a bootblack’s tip, he placed a $100 bet on a 30-1 outsider and used his winnings to fund a trip to New York City. He splurged his windfall wager and on his last day in the big city got two job offers: one from the McClure Syndicate and a lesser bid from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

He took the smaller offer, went to work for Pulitzer and created a host of features for the paper including Snoozer, The Merry Marceline, Ready Money Ladies, Cheerful Charlie, Panhandle Pete, Let George Do It, Nibsy the Newsboy in Funny Fairyland (one of the earliest Little Nemo knock-offs) and eventually, his first big hit (1904) The Newlyweds.

This last brought him to the attention of Pulitzer’s arch rival William Randolph Hearst who, acting in tried and true manner, lured the cartoonist away with big money in 1912. In Hearst’s stable of papers The Newlyweds became Sunday page feature Their Only Child, and was soon supplemented by Outside the Asylum, The Whole Blooming Family, Spare Ribs and Gravy and Bringing Up Father.

At first it alternated with other McManus domestic comedies in the same slot, but eventually the artist dropped Oh, It’s Great to be Married!, Oh, It’s Great to Have a Home and Ah Yes! Our Happy Home! as well as his second Sunday strip Love Affairs of a Muttonhead to fully concentrate on the story of Irish hod-carrier Jiggs whose vast newfound wealth brought him no joy, whilst his parvenu wife Maggie and their inexplicably beautiful, cultured daughter Nora sought acceptance in “Polite Society”.

The strip turned on the simplest of premises: whilst Maggie and Nora feted wealth and aristocracy, Jiggs, who only wanted to booze, schmooze and eat his beloved corned beef and cabbage, would somehow shoot down their plans – usually with severe personal consequences. Maggie might have risen in society, but she never lost her devastating accuracy with crockery and household appliances…

Bringing Up Father debuted on January 12th 1913, originally appearing thrice-weekly, then four and eventually every day. It made McManus two fortunes (the first he lost in the 1929 Stock Market crash), spawned a radio show, a movie in 1928, and five more between 1946-1950 (as well as an original Finnish film in 1939) and 9 silent animated short features.

…And that’s not counting all the assorted marketing paraphernalia that fetches such high prices in today’s antique markets. The artist died in 1954, and other creators continued the strip until May 28th 2000, its unbroken 87 years making it the second longest running newspaper strip of all time.

McManus said that he got the basic idea from The Rising Generation: a musical comedy he’d seen as a boy: but the premise of wealth not bringing happiness was only the barest foundation of the strip’s explosive success. Jigg’s discomfort at his elevated position, his yearnings for the nostalgic days and simple joys of youth are afflictions everybody is prey to, but the true magic at play here is the canny blend of slapstick, satire, sexual politics and fashion, all delivered by a man who could draw like an angel. The incredibly clean, simple lines and superb use – and implicit understanding – of art nouveau and art deco imagery and design make this series a stunning treat for the eye.

This magical monochrome hardback – collecting the first two years of Bringing Up Father – covers the earliest inklings of the formation of that perfect formula, and includes a fascinating insight into the American head-set as the fictional and fabulously fractious family go on an extended (eight month) grand tour of the Continent in the months leading up to the Great War.

Then, as 1914 closed, the feature highlights how ambivalent the New World still was to the far-distant “European War”…

An added surprise for a strip of this vintage is the great egalitarianism of it. Although there is an occasional visual stereotype to swallow and excuse, what we today regard as racism is practically absent. The only thing to watch out for is the genteel sexism and dramatically entrenched class (un)consciousness, although McManus clearly pitched his tent on the side of the dirty, disenfranchised and downtrodden – as long as he could get a laugh out of it…

This is a wonderful, evocative celebration of the world’s greatest domestic comedy strip, skilfully annotated for those too young to remember those days and still uproariously funny. Get it for grandma and swipe it while she’s sleeping off the sherry and nostalgia…
No © invoked.

Forever Nuts: Happy Hooligan


By Frederick Burr Opper (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-542-1                  978-1-56163-542-9

Frederick Burr Opper was one of the first true giants of comic strips: a hugely imaginative, highly skilled and immensely well-regarded illustrator and political cartoonist who moved into the burgeoning field of newspaper cartooning just as the medium was being born. His pictorial creations (and even more so, his dialogue) have enriched western culture and the English language.

Born in 1857 the son of Austrian immigrants, Opper grew up in Madison, Ohio, and at age 14 joined the Madison Gazette as a printer’s apprentice. Two years later he was in New York. Always drawing, he worked briefly in a store whilst studying at Cooper Union independent school before obtaining a position as student, and eventually assistant to illustration colossus Frank Beard.

Opper sold his first cartoon to Wild Oats in 1876, swiftly following up with further sales to Phunny Phellow, Scribbner’s Monthly, Harper’s Weekly, The Century, St. Nicholas Magazine and Frank Leslie’s Weekly, before joining prestigious premier periodical Puck in 1880. He drew everything from spot illustrations, gags, political cartoons and many of the new, full-colour, Chromolithographic covers. He was also a book illustrator of major renown, an incisive humourist, poet and creator of children’s books.

Clearly a forward-looking and perspicacious creator, Opper first dipped his toe in the world of newspaper strips with an abortive and short-lived feature for the staid New York Herald in 1897, but after making few inroads he returned to magazine illustration. Undeterred by the failure and after 18 lucrative, influential and solid, steady years, Opper was finally lured away by William Randolph Hearst, joining his growing stable of bold comics pioneers in 1899.

Starting on the New York Journal’s Sunday Color Supplement, he devised a wealth of different features beginning with Happy Hooligan which debuted on 11th March 1900. Although not a regular feature at the start – many cartoon strippers of the fledgling art form were given great leeway to experiment with a variety of ideas in those early days – before too long the feature became simply too popular to miss and Opper settled into a stable tenure that lasted until 1932 when the artist’s failing eyesight led to his retirement and the tramp’s demise. Opper passed away at the end of August 1937.

The grand master never used assistants, but his imagination and unsurpassed creativity made Hooligan – and his other creations – household favourites around the world, appealing equally to Presidents and public alike. His next strip – Mister Henry Peck (1901) – was followed by the highly popular Alphonse and Gaston (1901-1904), Our Antediluvian Ancestors (1903-1904) and the astoundingly madcap Mule strip And Her Name was Maud which began in 1904. Maud continued intermittently for decades and, on May 23rd 1926, became the regular “topper” to Happy Hooligan, running above the strip until both concluded with the artist’s well-earned retirement on October 14th 1932.

Other strips included, The Red Rig-a-Jigs (1906), Adolf from Hamburg (1906), King Jake (1907-1908), His Name is Ebenezer/His Name is Smith (1908), Ship Ahoy! (1908), Howsan Lott (1909-1914), Is Boggs Cheerful? He Is! (1908), Scuse Me, Mr. Johnson (1909), The Swift Work of Count DeGink (1916) and perennial trier The Dubb Family/Down on the Farm (1918-1919, 1921-1923, 1925-1927), but none had the appeal or phenomenal staying power of Happy or Maud and had perforce to be abandoned.

Happy Hooligan is an affable, well-meaning but painfully bumbling tramp who wears an old tin-can for a hat. Always ready and eager to assist and wishing nobody ill, this gentle vagrant is constantly made the inadvertent tool and plaything of far more fortunate folk who should know better, or cops a little too fond of the truncheon and nightstick, and – in general – generally a harsh, unforgiving cosmos of ill-fortune.

It’s a strip brimming with invention, pathos, social commentary, delightful wordplay and broad, reckless slapstick. More than one source cites Happy as having a profound influence on Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in both content and tone…

This classy hardback (sadly not available yet in any digital form I can find) presents a selection of strips from 1902-1913 in the varying forms of colour (two, three and full colour depending presumably on the budget of the local papers these rare survivors were culled from). The tome is compiled and edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt with a fascinating introduction and biography from Allan Holtz who, with collector Cole Johnson, provided the majority of the strips included here.

These range from June 8th 1902 to September 7th 1913 and although by no means complete or comprehensive afford a tantalizing glimpse at this iconic, influential and groundbreaking feature. Many of the reprints come from the highly productive and hilarious “Grand Tour” years of 1904 and 1905, (see also Happy Hooligan 1904-1905) and follow the sedentary sad-sack across after many abortive, knockabout attempts, across the sea to England and then on to the unsuspecting continents of Europe and Africa before returning to America in 1906.

With brothers Montmorency and Gloomy Gus, plus a burgeoning family of nephews and hangers-on, this too-slim tome ends with some of the optimistic poltroon’s foredoomed attempts to woo Suzanne, the patient and amazingly egalitarian daughter of the Duke of Cabaret. As always, these hysterical, rowdy escapades are often exacerbated by occasional visits from the ultra-polite Alphonse and Gaston, Opper’s legendary French gentlemen of extreme etiquette elitism…

Crossovers were not Opper’s only innovation. Happy Hooligan is considered as the first American strip to depend on word balloons rather than supplemental text, and the humble, heartwarming hobo was also the first strip character to jump to the Silver Screen in six movie shorts from 1900-1902. He was also probably the first mass-market merchandising comics star…

Sadly, Opper and his creations become less well-known with each passing year, but the quality of the work can never fail to amuse and inspire. Hopefully one day soon. superb graphic appetisers such as this will lead to further, more comprehensive collections (in print or electronically – I ain’t fussy), and as this book also contains a healthy selection of Opper’s other works from the early Wild Oats and Puck to the aforementioned genteel Gallic gadabouts and the mulish Maud, perhaps we can also look forward to compendia of his other seminal sketches and comedy classics…
Published in 2009 by NBM. © not invoked.

Captain Pugwash: A Pirate Story


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures in the Rifle Brigade


By Garth Ennis, Carlos Ezquerra & various (Image Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-63215-802-4

Garth Ennis is a huge fan of the English and Scottish war comics he grew up reading. Films avidly consumed during a typical British childhood of my generation have also clearly left their mark. He grew up to become a writer with a distinct voice and two discrete senses of humour.

The black sardonic ironies of Preacher and True Faith are not present in this compilation of the two Rifle Brigade miniseries he produced with veteran combat illustrator Carlos Ezquerra for Vertigo way back in 2001 and 2002.

What you get here in this new-&-improved compilation collecting Adventures in the Rifle Brigade #1-3 and Adventures in the Rifle Brigade: Operation Bollock #1-3 (also available as eBook editions) is the cruel, ultra-violent gross-out stuff that made Hitman, The Boys and A Train Called Love such guilty pleasures.

If you were wondering, (Regimental) colours come courtesy of Patricia Mulvihill & Kevin Somers, Clem Robbins stencils in all them words and the book is aptly augmented by a spiffing cover gallery from Brian Bolland and Glenn Fabry…

It’s the height of World War II. The Rifle Brigade are Blighty’s top special ops combat unit, dealing death and destruction to the Hun wherever they can find them – and that’s pretty much everywhere. They’re also the worst congregation of deviants and psychopaths ever gathered under one roof, giving the creators the opportunity to lampoon every cliché you’ve ever seen in a war movie.

The balloon goes up in ‘Once More Unto the Breach’ as the bombastic chaps parachute into Berlin during a shattering air raid, bluffing their way through the battered hordes of Boche only to be captured by the infamous SS…

Left to the tender mercies (Hah! It iss to Larff, Tommy!) of chief torturer Gerta Gasch and SS overlord Hauptman Venkshaft, the lads soon realise things are ‘Definitely Not Cricket’. As yet unaware that there is division in the enemy ranks thanks to publicity-hungry Golden-boy of the Wehrmacht Oberst Otto Flasschmann who claims the notorious Rifle Brigade are his prisoners, the embattled boys make plans…

Their captors’ dissent soon leads to an unmissable opportunity, outrageous chaos, confusion and carnage and the triumphant victory cry ‘Up Yours Fritz’

The excessive violence and vulgarity resumes in sordid sequel ‘Operation Bollock’ with the team sent ‘Back to Blighty’ before being promptly despatched to locate a missing artefact the Germans believe will regain lost initiative and finally win them the war.

Said arcane item is Hitler’s long-missing testicle and the fanatical foe are closing in on it in the desolate desert kingdom of Semmen

The hunt intensifies once British Empire boots are back on the ground in opulent Sidi Boomboom where the local Sultan proves rather duplicitous and the hidden Hun devilishly keen on machine-gunning everyone. Also complicating the affair is a new rival for the baleful ball: treasure seeker Maryland Smith is apparently after the thaumaturgical thingummy for the specific benefit of good ol’ Uncle Sam…

The excursions all converge and hit a bad spot when an old enemy resurfaces with the testicle in hand. Amidst the confrontations and consequent slaughter that follows, the only choices are ‘Spit or Swallow’

A potent pastiche and superb send-up of the sub-genre (American war cinema has its own deliciously lampoonable idiosyncrasies!), the scripts, one-liners, and action sequences here are not simply hangers to drape an avalanche of bad taste jokes on. The spoof comes from a place of guilty love and is well up to Ennis & Ezquerra’s usual high standards, resulting in a marvellous marriage of our beloved saucy Carry On films and post-empire Battle of Britain movies, but whether it’s an enjoyable experience depends on what kind of humour you prefer.

Definitely Not one for the easily offendable, politically po-faced or retired Colonels currently residing in the Home Counties…
© 2016 Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra. All rights reserved.

Valerian – The Complete Collection volume 3


By J.-C. Méziéres & P. Christin with colours by E. Tranlé and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-357-4

Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent blasted off in 1967 in the November 9th edition of Pilote (#420) in an introductory tale which ran until February 15th 1968. Although a huge hit, graphic album compilations only began with second tale – The City of Shifting Waters – as the creators concerned considered the first yarn more a work-in-progress and not quite up to their preferred standard.

You can judge for yourself, by getting hold of the first hardcover compilation volume in this cinematic tie-in sequence…

The groundbreaking series followed a Franco-Belgian mini-boom in science fiction comics triggered by Jean-Claude Forest’s 1962 creation Barbarella. Other notable hits of the era include Greg & Eddy Paape’s Luc Orient and the cosmic excursions of Philippe Druillet’s Lone Sloane, which all – with Valérian – boosted public reception of the genre and led in 1977 to the creation of dedicated fantasy periodical Métal Hurlant.

Valérian and Laureline (as the series became) was a light-hearted, wildly imaginative time-travel adventure-romp (a bit like Doctor Who, but not really so much), drenched in wry, satirical, humanist and political social commentary, starring (at least at first) an affable, capably unimaginative by-the-book cop tasked with protecting universal time-lines and counteracting paradoxes caused by casual, incautious or criminally minded chrononauts…

In the course of that debut escapade Valerian picked up fiery, far smarter Laureline, who originated in the 11th century before becoming our hero’s assistant and deputy. The indomitable lass was hot-housed as a Spatio-Temporal operative and soon accompanying Val on missions throughout time and space… luckily for him…

Valérian adventures were initially serialised in weekly Pilote until the conclusion of 13th mission The Rage of Hypsis (January 1st-September 1st 1985) after which the mind-bending exploits simply premiered as all-new, complete graphic novels, until the saga ended in 2010.

(One clarifying note: in the canon “Hypsis” is counted as the twelfth tale, due to the collected albums being numbered from The City of Shifting Waters. When Bad Dreams was finally released in a collected edition in 1983 it was designated number #0).

This terrific third oversized hardback compendium – released to capitalise on the summer’s spectacular movie adaptation from Luc Besson, and also available as an eBook – once again boasts a wealth of text features, including the final chapter of ‘Interview Luc Besson, Jean-Claude Méziéres and Pierre Christin’.

Stan Barets highlights the creative highpoints and methodology of illustrator Méziéres in his essay Méziéres, or the Art of Bande Dessinee’ with plenty of epic examples, garnishing those delights with sidebar ‘Méziéres Seen by Christin’ before throwing a well-deserved spotlight on ‘Évelyne. Tranlé: The One by Whom the Colour Comes’…

‘And Meanwhile’ then explores the artist’s mid-1970s other strips: specifically, semi-autobiographical ‘Mon Ameriqué à moi’ (Pilote, 1974) and sci fi shorts ‘Les Baroudeurs de l’espace’ (1976) and ‘Retour à la nature’ (1979), both seen in aforementioned Métal Hurlant. This is backed up by Méziéres’ own photo-feature reminisces of his 18 months living the American dream as a cattleman in Montana, Wyoming and Utah as recounted in ‘Far West 67 – The Adventures of a Parisian Cowboy’, before ‘The Stories in this Book’ provides context and a taste of things to come in the stories that follow…

Once more re-presenting a trio of classic formative fantasy-fests, the fabulous fun resumes here with Ambassador of the Shadows originally from Pilote July to October 1975.

The craftily subversive story finds the wide-ranging Spatio-Temporal agents assigned to an arrogantly obnoxious Terran diplomat transferring to the cosmically cosmopolitan space edifice known as Point Central.

Over eons many races and species have converged there for commerce and social intercourse by the simple expedient of bolting their own prefabricated and constructed segment to the colossal, continually expanding higgledy-piggledy whole…

With no central authority, different species take turns presiding over the amassed multitudes via the immense Hall of Screens. However, no decent species would ever physically leave its own tailor-made environment…

And now it is Earth’s turn to take the lead, but, as they vector in for landing, the pompous martinet they are escorting informs Valerian and Laureline of a slight modification in their orders. They are still to act as the Ambassador’s bodyguards but must stay extra-vigilant as Earth is going to uses its term in office to bring “order and discipline” to the lackadaisical way the universe is run.

Think of Britain in the months leading up to the Brexit referendum, if you like…

The assembled races will be invited to join a federation run – and policed – by Earth …and just to make sure, there’s a Terran space fleet of 10, 000 warships manoeuvring just out of Point Central’s sensor range…

Laureline is outraged, but like Valerian can do nothing except acquiesce. For her pains, she is put in charge of the mission’s funds: a Grumpy Transmuter from Bluxte, which can mass-excrete any currency or object of trade or barter forcibly swallowed by its always-scowling other end…

All kitted-out, the human trio and living cash-machine spacewalk to Point Central, but before the mission can begin an alien ambush occurs. Mystery warriors using Xoxos cocoon guns inundate the attending officers and dignitaries and only Valerian escapes plastic entombment.

As the raiders make off with the Ambassador, the Spatio-Temporal Agent gives chase but is easily captured and dragged off too…

By the time Laureline breaks loose they are long gone and she is left to pick up the pieces with stiff-necked human bureaucrat Colonel Diol, Under-Chief of Protocol. Determined but with little to go on, Laureline is cautiously optimistic when a trio of aliens come knocking. Ignoring Diol’s protest at the shocking impropriety, she invites the scurrilous Shingouz into the Earth Segment. They are mercenary information-brokers and claim to have been invited by the Ambassador before his abduction…

From them – and thanks to the discomforted efforts of the Grumpy Transmuter – she purchases a few hints and allegations as well as a map of Point Central which might lead to Earth’s secret allies in the cosmopolis…

With the constantly bleating Diol reluctantly in tow, Laureline undertakes a quest through the underbelly of the station, seeing for the first time the mute but ubiquitous Zools: a much-ignored under-race who have been maintaining Point Central for millennia.

The Earthlings’ perambulations take them to the centaur-like Kamuniks: barbaric feudal mercenaries allied to Galaxity and appreciative of humanity’s martial prowess. Over a lavish feast – liberally augmented by another painfully exotic payment courtesy of the overworked Transmuter – the warriors steer Laureline towards potential suspects the Bagulins: low grade muscle-for-hire who frequent the tawdry red-light sector run by The Suffuss

Despite Diol’s nigh-apoplexy, the adamant and inquisitive Laureline follows the trail to the sin segment where she experiences the particular talents of the hosts: amorphous shapeshifters who can make any carnal dream literally come true.

Well into overtime now, the exhausted Grumpy buys the help of one Suffuss who smuggles the junior Spatio-Temporal operative into a Bagulin party and the next link in the chain…

And so it goes as, with occasional prodding from the Shingouz, Laureline gets ever closer to the enigmatic beings truly pulling all the strings on Point Central whilst elsewhere Valerian frees the Ambassador from bizarre, ethereal captivity only to find the doctrinaire war-maker is undergoing a peculiar change of heart.

Seemingly landing their deserted ship on a paradisiacal “world with no name” they bask in an idyllic paradise and converse with noble primitives who have an uncanny aura of great power.

These beings built the original section of Point Central – and ruled the universe – before withdrawing from mundane material affairs, but they still maintain a watch over their creation from the shadows and won’t allow any race or species to dominate or conquer their pan-galactic melting pot of space…

In a more physical portion of reality, Laureline follows her final clues to reach the strange central area where Val and the Ambassador lie dazed and confused. By the time they all return to the Earth Segment a few major changes have taken place in the governance of the immense star station but, oddly, the Ambassador doesn’t seem to mind…

Socially aware and ethically crusading, this is one of the smartest, most beguilingly cynical comics tales to catch the 1970s wave of political awareness and still ranks amongst the very best to explore the social aspects and iniquities of colonialism.

And, of course, there’s the usual glorious blend of astounding action, imaginative imagery and fantastic creatures to leaven the morality play with space-operatic fun-filled, visually breathtaking and stunningly ingenious wide-eyed wonderment…

On the False Earths first ran in the newly monthly Pilote (issues #M31 to M34, from 30th November 1976 to March 1st 1977) before being collected as seventh album Sur le terres truquées – spectacularly reinforcing the “Spatio-Temporal” aspect of our heroes through a beguiling cosmic conundrum…

The mission starts in frantic full flow as a very familiar figure fights valiantly and dies ignominiously during a pitched battle in 19th century Colonial India. He doesn’t go easy, however, using his ray gun to disintegrate an attacking tiger before beaming back crucial data stolen from a sinister maharaja equipped with technology he simply shouldn’t have…

In deep space, distraught Laureline sees her man die, but her protests are ignored by heartless, man-despising historian Jadna. The scholar cares little for the oafish warrior undertaking a top-secret mission for her. After all, there’s plenty more where he came from…

That’s literally the case as, a little later, another Valerian infiltrates Victorian London Society; breaking into a swank Gentleman’s Club and crashing a meeting of the Empire’s greatest movers and shakers. Once again, these potentates are communicating with a hidden high-tech master, and once again the star-cop expires trying to determine the mastermind’s exact whereabouts.

He resurfaces in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1895 where enquiries arouse the wrath of the local tongs. This Valerian perishes after noting an increasing number of anachronisms – such as an Easy Rider on a chopped Harley Davidson motorbike…

From their secure vantage point on a vast satellite, Jadna and Laureline see their agent expire in another artificially constructed historical microcosm. The callous historian ruminates on their mystery opponent: a being capable of reshaping matter, crafting perfect little worlds and recreating human eras with the skill of a master artist whilst remaining utterly hidden from all their probing searches.

If the enigma hadn’t been detected rifling through Terran time zones – presumably for research – no one would even know of its existence…

The enigmatic creator’s simulacrums are progressively advancing through brutal yet always significant periods of Terran history, but each visit by Valerian brings the investigation team closer to the mysterious maker’s actual location. Soon our hero is cautiously exploring a slice of Belle Époque France, but his enigmatic quarry is cognizant of the constant intrusions and has taken a few liberties with verisimilitude.

Waiting in ambush for Valerian are American gangsters with Tommyguns…

Rubbed out before he can even begin, Valerian is swiftly replaced by another short-lived duplicate whilst the original and genuine lies comatose in a clone-command tank. This last rapid substitution, however, finally allows the watching women to zero in on their target’s true location and they instantly shift their ship through the Universal Continua to reach the incredible being’s astounding base… and none too soon, as Jadna posits that the creature’s next construction will most likely be World War I…

She is proved painfully correct. As they ready themselves for a confrontation with the maker, Laureline and the scholar realise that the astral citadel is a perfect replica of a Great War battlefield. Seizing the initiative, Jadna activates and musters all the remaining clones – as well as the original real McCoy – programming them to play the marauding “boche” in an apocalyptic re-enactment simply as a diversion to allow her to get to the impossibly powerful being she so admires…

Caught up in the incomprehensible slaughter and its bizarre aftermath the Spatio-Temporal agents can only watch in astonishment as Jadna and the seemingly all-powerful artisan discover just how much they have in common…

Trenchant, barbed, socially aware and ethically crusading, Valerian and Laureline stories never allow message to overshadow fun and wonder and On the False Earths is one of the sharpest, most intriguing sagas Méziéres & Christin ever concocted, complete with a superb twist in the tale to delight and confound even the most experienced starfarer…

Wrapping up the interstellar ultra-cosmic antics is Heroes of the Equinox: a sparkling, over-the-top spoof of superheroes and political ideologies which also found time and space to take a good-natured, gentle poke at the eternal battle of the sexes. It was originally serialised in monthly Pilote #M47 – M50 (covering March 21st to June 27th 1978) before being collected later that year as eighth album Les héros de l’équinoxe.

Spectacularly designed and inspirationally conceived, the story starts as a quartet of vastly disparate planetary champions depart for the distant and distressed world of Simlane, where an ancient and cultivated civilisation is experiencing a uniquely tragic crisis…

The heroes comprise three dedicated nigh-fanatical supermen, whilst Galaxity – far more concerned with courting public opinion than actually helping – have packed off a handy and presently unoccupied Spatio-Temporal agent named Valerian, just to show willing…

With Laureline mocking him for the entire trip, Earth’s Prime Champion touches down on Simlane to be greeted by a crowd of effusive doddering oldsters from a glorious city of once-magnificent but now crumbling edifices all with an incredible story to tell.

The inhabitants of the derelict tourist trap are uniformly old, sterile and desperately in need of a new generation of children to repopulate the world, but their manner of achieving their goal is unique. For the lifetime of their civilisation, every hundred equinoxes the best and bravest males of Simlane venture to isolated Filine, Island of Children in a fierce and often deadly competition. The winner then somehow spawns a whole new generation in incredibly quick time, who sail back on little boats to re-people the world.

That didn’t go entirely according to plan last time, so the planetary leaders have invited four prime specimens from other worlds to do the necessary this time – much to the anger and dismay of a creaky host of crotchety, doddering indigenous elderly would-be sire-heroes…

At the packed but painfully weathered Great Theatre the assembled geriatrics are treated to a destructive floor show as the brazen alien warriors display their prowess.

Bombastic Irmgaal of Krahan is a godlike superman wielding a flaming sword whilst proletarian technological wonder Ortzog of worker’s paradise Boorny reveals the power of a united people through his blazing, flailing chains. Mystic nature boy Blimflim of elysian, Arcadian Malamum calmly displays the gentle irresistibility of the spirit harnessed to willpower. Each couldn’t be more different yet the result of each display is catastrophic destruction.

When eager eyes turn to Galaxity’s representative, Valerian simply shoots a chip off a distant stone cornice with his blaster… to tumultuous disinterest…

Dwarfed by Herculean alien supermen, he shambles off to prepare for the great contest and dawn finds him with his fellow contestants, ready to brave the stormy skies for the grand prize and glory…

This is one of the most visually extravagant and exuberant of all the albums, with a huge proportion of the book dedicated to the fantastic foursome overcoming their particular challenges and monstrous foes in astounding demonstrations of bravura puissance and awesome might… well, three of them anyway. The earthman’s travails are generally nasty, dirty, smelly and ingloriously dangerous…

Eventually however, all the warriors prove themselves a credit to their particular lineage and system before facing one final test. It’s in the form of a simple question: “If you sired the next generation how do you envision their future?”

Each strange visitor propounds a glorious agenda of expansion according to the customs and principles of his own culture but it’s the rather diffident and lacklustre vision of the Terran slacker that wins the approval of the incredible being who is the eternal mother of Simlane’s repopulation…

When the trio of failed supermen wash up on the shores of the city, the people realise who has fathered their soon-to-arrive new sons and daughters and patiently wait for the equinox tide to bring them over.

Laureline, horrified to discover that each successful father is never seen again, quickly sails to the Island of Children and navigates with comparative ease the trials which so tested the wonder men. She arrives at the misty citadel atop Filine in time to see an army of disturbingly familiar-looking toddlers tumble into little sailboats…

Broaching the idyllic paradise further she finally meets the Great Mother and sees what the breeding process has made of her reprehensible, sleazy, typically male partner…

Reaching an accommodation with the gargantuan progenitor, Laureline negotiates the release of her partner and soon they are winging home to Terra, with him having to listen to just what she thinks of him whilst praying Galaxity’s medical experts can make him again the man he so recently was…

Sharp, witty and deliciously over-the-top, this tale is a wry delight, spoofing with equanimity human drives, notions of heroism and political and philosophical trendiness with devastating effect.

Whether super-heroic fascism, totalitarian socialism or even the woolly mis-educated, miscomprehensions of new age eco-fundamentalists who think aromatherapy cures broken legs or that their kids are too precious to be vaccinated and too special to share herd immunity, no sacred cow is left soundly unkicked…

However, no matter how trenchant, barbed, culturally aware and ethically crusading, Valerian and Laureline stories never allow message to overshadow fun and wonder and Heroes of the Equinox is one of the most entertaining sagas Méziéres & Christin ever concocted, complete with a superb sting in the tale…

These stories are some of the most influential comics in the world, timeless, thrilling, funny and just too good to be ignored. The time is now and there’s no space large enough to contain the sheer joy of Valerian and Laureline, so go see what all the fuss is about right now…
© Dargaud Paris, 2016 Christin, Méziéres & Tran-Lệ. All rights reserved. English translation © 2016 Cinebook Ltd.

Explainers


By Jules Feiffer (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN13: 978-1-56097-835-0

Jules Feiffer has always been much more than “just a comic-book guy” even though his credits in the field sound and are suitably impressive. As well as working with Will Eisner on The Spirit, he created his own Sunday strip ‘Clifford’ (1949-51) before eventually settling at the The Village Voice.

Novelist, playwright, animator, children’s book creator (why isn’t there a single-word term for those guys?) and screenwriter, he turned his back on cartooning in 2000, but the 42-year run of his satirical comic strip in The Village Voice ranks as some of the most telling, trenchant, plaintive and perspicacious narrative art in the history of the medium.

The strip, originally entitled Sick, Sick, Sick, and later Feiffer’s Fables, before simply settling on Feiffer was quickly picked up by the Hall Syndicate and garnered a devoted worldwide following.

Over the decades the strip has generated many strip collections – the first book was in 1958 – since premiering. The auteur’s incisive examination of American society and culture, as reflected by and expressed through politics, art, Television, Cinema, work, philosophy, advertising and most especially in the way men and women interact, informed and shaped opinions and challenged accepted thought for generations. They were mostly bloody funny and wistfully sad too – and remain so even today.

Fantagraphics Books began collecting the entire run in 2007 and this first volume of 568 pages covers the period from its start in October 1956 up to the end of 1966. As such, it covers a pivotal period of social, racial and sexual transformation in America and the world beyond its borders and much of that is also – sadly- still painfully germane to today’s readers…

Explainers is a “dipping book”. It’s not something to storm your way through but something to return to over and again. Feiffer’s thoughts and language, his observations and questions are fearsomely eternal – as I’ve already mentioned, it is utterly terrifying how many problems of the 1950s and 1960s still vex us today – and the Battle of the Sexes my generation honestly believed to be almost over still breaks out somewhere every night.

Best of all, Feiffer’s expressive drawing is a masterclass in style and economy all by itself.

If you occasionally resort to Thinking and sometimes wonder about Stuff, this book should be your guide and constant companion… and it will make you laugh.
© 2007 Jules Feiffer. All Rights Reserved.

The Lyrical Comics of Dillies Set: Betty Blues; Bubbles and Gondolas; Abelard


By Renaud Dillies & various translated by Joe Johnson (NBM/ComicsLit)
Pack ISBN: 978-1-68112-106-2

Renaud Dillies belongs to that cool school of European artists who are keenly aware of the visual power imbued by using anthropomorphic characters in grown up stories – a notion we’ve all but lost here in Britain, and one primarily used for kiddie comics and pornography in the USA and Asia.

Dillies was born in Lille in January 1972, the inveterate dreamer, artist and storyteller in a brood of five kids. Music was a big part of his parents’ lives: British Pop – especially The Beatles and John Lennon – and Jazz: mostly Big Band, Swing and Satchmo. The impressionable lad listened, learned and inwardly digested…

After college – studying Humanities, Graphic and Decorative arts at Saint-Luc School of Fine Arts in Tournai – Dillies began his comics career, like so many others, at Spirou. He drew backgrounds for prolific cartoonist Frédéric Jannin (Rockman, Germain et Nous and many more) whilst also inking Frédéric “Clarke” Seron on sublime sorceress comedy Mélusine.

The young creator soon blended his twin passions for comics and music in his first solo work. Betty Blues – published by Paquet in 2003 – consequently took the “Best Debut” award at that year’s Angoulême Comics Festival.

He followed up with Sumato, Mister Plumb (with Régis Hautière) and Mélodie du Crépuscule (Melody of Twilight) before switching to publisher Dargaud in 2009. Here he devised Bulles et Nacelle ably assisted by colour artist Christophe Bouchard (available in English and reviewed below as Bubbles and Gondola) and, in 2011, created Abélard (again with Hautière and also available in translation from NBM/ComicsLit, as well as part of this gift-set package.

During this period Dillies still toiled as a jobbing Bande Dessinée creator. Under the pen-name “Jack” he drew comedy sports features Les Foot Maniacs and Tout sur le Rugby for Bamboo and illustrated some of Arboris’ erotic short stories for the series Salut les coquinas.

With three of the very best of these eccentrically exotic confections now available in a supremely economical shrink-wrapped gift-set, you’d be crazy to not make the acquaintance of such a scintillating scribe/scribbler…

Betty Blues
Coming from the same dark place and cultural wellsprings as Benoît Sokal’s wry, bleak and witty Inspector Canardo detective duck tales, Betty Blues is both paean and elegy to the unholy trinity of Modern Cool and Shattered Idealisms: Noir, Jazz and Lost Love, all focused through the mythologising lens of cinematic Fifties Americana.

The tragic, flawed star of this intoxicating fable is Little Rice Duck, possibly the greatest bird ever to blow a trumpet in the seedy clubs and wild environs of the West Wood. Starring at the nightspots and making music are his life, but his hot girlfriend Betty is getting pretty tired playing second fiddle to his art.

She’s a pretty bird who needs lots of Loving Attention, the Good Life and Expensive Champagne, so on yet one more tedious night when Rice is deep in the spotlight blowing hot and loud, she calamitously listens to an unctuous, sleazy fat cat at the bar who offers her plenty of all three before sneaking off with him…

Her disappearance hits Rice as hard as he subsequently hits the bottle, and his all-too-late regrets shake him to the core. Going downhill fast, the despondent and always-angry little guy throws his magnificent trumpet – the thing which has cost him true love – off a high bridge and hops a train heading “anywhere but here”…

The hurtling horn hits a boat-riding sap and thus begins to affect the lives of a succession of other poor schnooks whilst, elsewhere uptown, Betty begins to reconsider her hasty decision as the downsides of being a rich guy’s trophy – or pet – start becoming apparent…

For Rice, the end of the line finds him deep in a forested nowhere-land dubbed “Kutwood” where he is befriended by the owl Bowen who is both lumberjack and radical environmental terrorist.

Slowly the broken musician is drawn into the affable agitator’s world of violence, sabotage and anti-capitalist polemic, but all he is really thinking about during so many late-night conversations is the tatty old trumpet nailed high up out of reach on Bowen’s cabin wall…

And Jazz: sweet, hot Jazz music…

Back in the city Betty starts to fear for life, soul and sanity on the chubby arm of her mercurial plutocrat-cat, as the portentous trumpet begins to reshape the lives of many ordinary folk innocent and venal. And then one day Betty meets an old friend of Rice’s who tells her he’s gone missing…

Sad, grim, brooding and surprisingly suspenseful, this captivating riff on complacency, ill-considered aspirations and lost chances is beguilingly constructed and subtly realised, with a smart undercurrent of bleakly cynical humour counter-pointing the Noir flavour and motif of inescapable doom.

Betty Blues will delight mature readers with a well-honed sense of the absurd and an abiding taste for the dark…

Bubbles and Gondola
A penetrating examination of the creative urge and the price of following a muse, Bubbles and Gondola follows the strivings of a mouse named Charlie who is gripped by an insatiable hunger to write great things. To better accomplish this, the mouse resides in a bleak windy garret in splendid isolation, ignoring the distractions of the world, and spending his brief moments of down-time strumming his guitar.

He constantly reminds himself that “solitude is cool” but as a crippling writer’s block increasingly torments him and the outside world insufferably impinges on his tortured brooding, Charlie’s views begin to imperceptibly shift.

That sense of change intensifies after a small blue bird named Mister Solitude starts to repeatedly show up uninvited. The debilitating ennui seems to abate – just a bit – and the author even leaves his lonely den on occasion just to watch a festival or dine with family… However, the unwanted but comforting creature eventually becomes a casualty of the writer’s creative frustration and vanishes after a bitter clash in the attic. Conflicted and inexplicably bereft, Charlie seeks help for his avian companion, but cannot find his solitude anymore. The mouse is compelled to search high low for his supposedly unwanted comrade, embarking on a life -changing odyssey…

A beguiling argosy and visual tour de force allegorically challenging preconceptions about work-life balance and simple human companionship, Bubbles and Gondola is a delicious treat tinged with bittersweet revelation.

Abelard
Far more poignant and concealing a far more painful message, Abelard is ostensibly a simple fable of unrequited love in simpler times. The eponymous hero is an impressionable young chick living in a swampy backwater. He has a hat which grants him a prophetic epigram every day, but other than that he is quite unremarkable.

The little lad’s life changes forever when a group of rich city types in search of good fishing briefly vacation in the morass he calls home. Although she barely notices him, Abelard’s meeting with the so-sophisticated Eppily sets the poor young fool on a path he cannot escape…

Her companions seal his fate by trying to let the lovesick fool down easily. Fyodor warns the chick that girls like Eppily can only be seduced by those who offer her the moon or suchlike. Abelard has never heard of a metaphor…

Determined to win his true love, buy unable to supply the goods, the little dreamer hears the older swamp inhabitants discussing the news from America. Two ingenious fellows have invented a flying machine. That’s Americans for you: before long they’ll be wanting to go to the moon…

With love as his spur and a suitably encouraging message from his hat, Abelard turns away from the swamp and starts walking westward…

His patient peregrinations bring him into the company of a band of gypsy performers and he shares their life and the painful prejudice they endure. Eventually he leaves them, unwilling to accept the reading of the heartbroken fortune-teller who peers into his tomorrows…

A lonely nomad, he goes into a bar and meets a bitter, broken, belligerent bear. Foul-mouthed surly scrapper Gaston has seen it all, hates everyone and has nothing but bile for the entire world.

He, too, once knew an Eppily…

Against all odds the old warrior and untutored waif implausibly unite and head for America together, taking ship on a migrant vessel where fate plays the cruellest trick on them…

Ultimately both travellers get to fulfil their dreams, but not in way they ever expected or wanted…

Beautiful, moving and eternally optimistic in the face of crushing experience, Abelard philosophically examines the unrelenting trials of life and demonstrates the power of hope and poetic idealism against insurmountable odds.

This trio of anthropomorphic tales comprise a masterclass in graphic narrative used to explore the nature of humanity: offering pride, wonder, resilience and heart as an antidote to the worst reality can challenge us with. They are also stunning lovely to look at and every fan of art or storytelling should see so for themselves.

Betty Blues © 2003 Editions Paquet. English translation © 2013 NBM.
Bubbles and Gondola © 2009 by Dillies – Dargaud Benelux. English translation © 2011 NBM.
Abelard © – 2011 Dillies – Hautière – Dargaud Benelux. English translation © 2012 NBM.

Justice League International volume 2


By Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, John Ostrander, Kevin Maguire, Bill Willingham, Luke McDonnell & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2020-4 (TPB)

Way back in 1986 DC’s editorial leaders felt their then-vast, 50-year continuity was stopping them winning new readers. The draconian solution was a colossal braided-mega series to streamline and redefine whilst adding even more fresh characters to the mix.

The worlds-shattering, reality-altering bombast of Crisis on Infinite Earths resulted in such spectacular commercial success, those movers-&-shakers felt justified in revamping a number of their hoariest icons for their next fifty years of publishing. As well as Superman, Flash and Wonder Woman, the moribund and crucially un-commercial Justice League of America was earmarked for radical revision.

Editor Andy Helfer assembled plotter Keith Giffen, scripter J.M. DeMatteis and untried penciller Kevin Maguire to produce an utterly new approach to the superhero monolith: they played them for laughs…

The series launched as Justice League with a May 1987 cover-date before retitling itself as Justice League International with #7. The new super-team was formed from the ashes of the old on the basis of events comprising follow-up DC crossover-event Legends. The gathering comprised a roster of newcomers and relative second-stringers as America’s newest champions – Black Canary, Blue Beetle, Captain Marvel, Guy Gardner/Green Lantern, Dr. Fate and Mr. Miracle with heavyweights Batman and Martian Manhunter J’onn J’onzz as nominal straight-men.

As the often-silly saga unfolded the squad was supplemented by Captain Atom, Booster Gold, Dr. Light and Russian mecha-warrior Rocket Red. In many ways the most contemporary new pick was charismatic, filthy-rich manipulator Maxwell Lord – who used wealth and influence to recreate the super-team…

The creators took their time, crafting a convoluted mystery over the first year and this second volume of the (as-was) All-New, All-Hilarious Justice League completes that saga as insidious entrepreneur and1980’s archetype Lord reshapes the World’s Greatest Super-team for his own mysterious purposes and is transformed himself in the process…

The stories gathered here (Justice League International #8-13, Justice League Annual #1, and corresponding crossover issue Suicide Squad #13) are taken from a period when comics publishers were first developing the marketing strategies of the “Braided Mega-Crossover Event.”

That hard-on-the-pockets innovation basically crafted really big stories involving every publication in a company’s stable, for a limited time period – so a compilation like this perforce includes adventures that seem confusing because there are in truth “middles” with no beginnings or endings.

In this case the problem is deftly solved by inserting (mercifully) brief text pages explaining what’s happened before and elsewhere. It also doesn’t hurt that being a comedy-adventure, plot isn’t as vital as character and dialogue in this instance…

The merriment begins with ‘Moving Day’ (deftly inked by regular embellisher Al Gordon), wherein the heroes endure a catalogue of disasters whilst taking possession of sundry new UN embassy premises: a slyly cynical tale of institutionalized ineptitude and arguably one of the funniest single stories in American comicbook history.

Here, the main episodes are supplemented by brief back-up vignettes drawn by Giffen and ‘Old News’ deals with the abrupt and precipitous closure of previous UN superhero resource The Dome – summarily axed when the League achieved international charter status. The dismissals leave a very sour taste in the mouths of previously valiant and devoted defenders of mankind…

‘Seeing Red’ is the first of two episodes forming part of the Millennium crossover hinted at above. Broadly, the Guardians of the Universe are attempting to create the next stage of human evolution, and their robotic enemies the Manhunters want to stop them. The heroes of Earth are asked to protect the Chosen Ones, but the robots have sleeper agents hidden among the friends and acquaintances of every hero on the planet.

Millennium was DC’s first weekly mini-series, and the monthly schedule of the other titles meant that a huge amount happened in the four weeks between their own tied-in issues: for example…

The Rocket Red attached to the JLI is in fact a Manhunter, who first tries to co-opt then destroy the team by sabotaging an oil refinery, but by the second part, ‘Soul of the Machine’, the JLI are jarringly transplanted to deep space and attacking the Manhunter homeworld as part of a Green Lantern strike force.

Nevertheless, the story is surprising coherent, and the all-out action is still well-leavened with superbly banter and hilarity.

The back-ups follow the suddenly unemployed Dome hero Jack O’Lantern as he travels to terrorist state Bialya in ‘Brief Encounter’ and then show an unfortunate training exercise for Blue Beetle and Mister Miracle in ‘…Back at the Ranch…’

JLI #11 started exposing all the mysteries of the first year by revealing the secret mastermind behind the League’s reformation. With ‘Constructions!’ – and the concluding ‘Who is Maxwell Lord?’ in #12 – the series came full circle, and the whacky humour proved to have been the veneer over a dark and subtle conspiracy plot worthy of the classic team.

The drama and action kicked into overdrive and the characters were seen to have evolved from shallow, albeit competent buffoons into a tightly knit team of world-beating super-stars – but still pretty darned addicted to buffoonery…

Giffen illustrated #13, wherein the team ran afoul of America’s highly covert Suicide Squad (convicted and imprisoned super-villains blackmailed by the government into becoming a tractable metahuman resource – and happily lacking the annoying morality of regular superheroes).

‘Collision Course’ found US agent Nemesis imprisoned in a Soviet jail with the UN-sponsored League forced into the uncomfortable position of having to – at least ostensibly – fight to keep him there even as the Suicide Squad seeks to bust him out.

Written by John Ostrander and illustrated by Luke McDonnell & Bob Lewis, concluding chapter ‘Battle Lines’ originated in Suicide Squad #13 and offers a grim and gritty essay in superpower Realpolitik which remains a powerful experience and chilling read decades later.

This volume wraps up with an out-of-chronology yarn from the first JLI Annual. Drawn by Bill Willingham and inked by Dennis Janke, P. Craig Russell, Bill Wray, R. Campanella, Bruce Patterson & Dick Giordano, ‘Germ Warfare’ is an uncharacteristically grim horror tale involving inhuman sacrifice and all-out war against sentient bacteria, with oodles of savage action and a tragic role for new team leader J’onn J’onzz…

This collection was – and still is – a breath of fresh air at a time where too many comicbooks are filled with over-long, convoluted epics that are stridently, oppressively angst-ridden. Here is great art, superb action and a light touch which mark this series as a true classic. So, read this book and then all the rest….
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