Archie & Friends All Stars volume 5: Archie’s Haunted House


By Fernando Ruiz, Batton Lash, Dan Parent, George Gladir, Stan Goldberg, Mark McKenna, Henry Scarpelli, Rich Koslowski, & various (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-879794-52-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Family Friendly Fear Fest for Kids of All Ages… 8/10

Archie Andrews has been around for more than seventy years: a good-hearted lad lacking in common sense whilst Betty Cooper, the pretty, sensible girl next door – with all that entails – waits ardently nearby, loving the great ginger goof.

Veronica Lodge is a rich, exotic and glamorous debutante who only settles for our boy if there’s nobody better around. She might actually love him too, though.

Despite their rivalry, Betty and Veronica are firm friends. Archie, of course, can’t decide who or what he wants…

Archie’s unconventional best friend Jughead Jones is Mercutio to Archie’s Romeo, providing rationality and a reader’s voice, as well as being a powerful catalyst of events in his own right. That charming triangle (with significant additions over the years) has been the basis for decades of funnybook magic and the concept is eternally self-renewing…

Adapting seamlessly to every trend and fad of youth culture since before there even was such a thing, the host of writers and artists who’ve crafted the stories over the decades have made the “everyteen” characters of utopian Riverdale a benchmark for childhood development and a visual barometer of growing up.

In this paperback and digital collection, the warring gal-pals and extended cast of the small-town American Follies are again plunged deep into whimsy and fable as writers Fernando Ruiz, Batton Lash, Dan Parent & George Gladir delve into the Dark Side for a selection of spooky spoofs and all-ages arcane adventure…

The weird wonders begin with Ruiz & Mark McKenna’s ‘…Clothes Make the Monster’ (Archie & Friends #135, September 2009) as the gang opt for a Halloween costume party at Riverdale High only to fall foul of a sinister sorceress whose bewitched outfits transform the kids into the monsters they’re dressed as…

Thankfully resident genius Dilton Doily has a plan and an unsuspected talent…

An extended gothic extravaganza that ran across a host of titles follows. The epic and episodic ‘…This Old House…’ was devised by Lash, Stan Goldberg & Henry Scarpelli) and opened in World of Archie #17, December 1995, with succeeding chapters erupting in Archie #442 (December 1995), Betty and Veronica #95 and Archie’s Pal Jughead Comics #93, both out for January 1996.

When Reggie vandalises a ramshackle, condemned property it sparks heated debate amongst the gang, all of whom have sentimental memories of the old pile from their younger days.

With the city council being urged to finally pull it down the teens are divided between demolition and declaring it a local landmark…

The politicking ensues in ‘House of Riverdale! Part 1’ even as Archie is plagued by nightmares of the dilapidated dwelling’s old occupants. Second chapter ‘Thou Protest Too Much…’ finds the gang on a picket line preserving the building until Veronica’s dad delivers the good news. The place has been saved for posterity. It turns out that it might not be good news, though, as in a nearby town Sabrina (the Teenaged Witch) pores over ancient records of the original inhabitants and readies herself to intervene…

The tension increases in ‘House of Riverdale! Part 3’ as Betty also does a little digging and connects the seemingly-benevolent name Father Riverdale to a nasty piece of work named Leander van Dermeulen whose 19th century crusade against progress resulted in a magic cult, a police shootout and a dying curse…

Fourth chapter ‘Worn Out Welcome’ finds the terrified Archie reversing his position and petitioning the council to tear down the house before the curse can be reactivated – with the expected reaction from the adults. Betty meanwhile, sneaks into the house to find some of her friends already there and totally ensorcelled…

‘House of Riverdale! Part 5’ sees Archie call on trusted comrade Jughead for help only to lose him to the dire domicile before everything comes to a head in ‘Fall of the House of Riverdale!’ As the malign ghost of van Dermeulen meets his match in ultra-nonconformist Juggy, unlikely hero Archie takes drastic action to save the day in the estate’s ghastly grounds…

With the main event concluded, lighter fare follows as B&V discover ‘An Axe to Grind’ (Betty and Veronica Spectacular #85, November 2008) with Dan Parent & Rich Koslowski revealing how the boys’ plans to crash a girls-only Halloween party go appallingly awry…

The same issue also provides a gallery of faux movie posters ‘Riverdale Style’, fashions and tips for ‘The Ultimate Halloween Bash!’ plus recipes and treats for all ‘Archie Zombies’ before the spooky shenanigans conclude with Gladir, Ruiz & Koslowski’s ‘For Monsters Only!’

First seen in Tales from Riverdale Digest #30 (December 2008) this sly shocker finds Archie and Jughead in full vampire ensemble but stumbling into a sinister soiree for actual devils, demons and creatures of the night…

Co-starring all the adorable supporting characters we know and love, these smartly beguiling skits are a marvellous example of just why Archie has been unsurpassed in this genre for generations: providing decades of family-friendly fun and wholesome teen entertainment – complete with goblins, ghosts and ghouls as required…
© 2010 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Rex Generations


By Ted Rechlin (Rextooth Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-59512-229-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Marvellous Monster Madness and Science with a Bite… 9/10

I’ve never met a kid who didn’t love dinosaurs, and that gleeful fascination doesn’t fade with age or what we laughingly regard as maturity.

Ted Rechlin clearly ascribes to that belief too, and has made it his life’s work, whether it’s in his six – and counting – books (including End of the Ice Age, Jurassic and the award-winning Sharks: A 400 Million Year Journey) or in freelance commissions for the likes of DC Comics, Dark Horse or Dover Publications.

Rex Generations is an incredibly informative and engaging book about family, rendered with great deftness, gleeful aplomb, and packed with the latest scientific thinking regarding arguably the most famous species of big lizard (or is that bird?) on Earth.

In case you weren’t paying attention, the clan in question is thundering great tyrannosaur Cobalt and his feisty mate Sierra, just getting by in what is nowadays Hell Creek, Montana.

This stunning full-colour hardback, however, opens in the Mesozoic bit of the Cretaceous Period, or approximately 66 million years ago on a very special night. Here our anxious apex predators proudly celebrate the hatching of four eggs, heralding the start of the next generation, after which we’ll closely follow the pack over the next decade or so. The parents teach and provide in a dangerous environment packed with a wide variety of dangerously capable prey, rival predators and unknown perils of every description.

This is dinosaurs and natural history, not Lady and the Tramp with really big teeth, so brace yourself and your own youngsters with a little spoiler alert: not everybody present at this antediluvian nativity is going to make it…

Compelling, beguilingly educational and splendidly entertaining, T. Rex Generations is a glorious celebration of Earth’s Saurian inhabitants and our enduring love affair with them. More, Please!
© 2018 Ted Rechlin. All rights reserved.

Rip M.D.


By Mitch Schauer, Mike Vosburg, Michael Lessa, & Justin Yamaguchi (Lincoln Butterfield/Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-369-9

Here’s a dark gem that sadly got missed by the greater reading public when it first came out in 2010, but as it’s the season for revenants and resurrections…

Ripley Plimt is a bright lad with a hobby. Ever since he can remember he has adored classic monster movies. He’s an absolute expert on trivia, minutiae and lore. Now he’s eleven and all grown up he’s come to one inescapable conclusion… it’s all true!

When the kind-hearted lad mends a little bat’s broken wing one night it changes his life forever. Bitten by the fixing bug (but not the bat – that would be ungracious) little Rip applies his unsuspected new skills to repairing the mouldering zombie corpse that shows up later – with the understanding and grudging approval of his parents and Uncle Will.

Soon needy werewolves, protoplasmic blobs and ghost cats are all turning up to complicate the creepy kid’s life…

The only real flies in the ointment are repulsive mortal kids Pretoria and Stanley DeMann, who used to live in Rip’s house and are prepared to go to extraordinary, murderous lengths to force the easy-going Plimpt family out…

Their millionaire dad is even worse, orchestrating a campaign of very human terror to get his way, almost driving Rip to abandon his unconventional dreams. However, the unscrupulous autocrat has some dark secrets of his own and Limbo the dead cat and a pretty little vampire girl know how best to exploit them…

Writer, artist, producer, designer and Emmy® Award-winning animator Mitch Schauer (creator of Angry Beavers and Freakazoid!, and supervising director of the Super Hero Squad Show) is a founding member of Lincoln Butterfield, an independent animation company also comprising Robert Hughes and painter Michael Lessa.

Comics veteran Mike Vosburg, who inked Schauer’s pencilled art here, has a glittering prize or two himself: as well as his funnybook career (Savage She-Hulk, G.I. Joe, Lori Lovecraft), he won his own Emmy® for directing Spawn cartoons and was chief storyboard artist for the Narnia movie franchise as well as dozens of movies and shows you’ve loved over the years.

Co-producing this snazzy graphic novel with electrically eclectic comics publisher Fantagraphics Books is LB’s first foray into print – but hopefully not their last.

With painted colour effects from Lessa & Justin Yamaguchi and including a wonderful developmental art section, this spectacular, spooktacular romp is a fabulously punchy, action-packed, wickedly funny treat for kids of all ages that will leave every reader voraciously hungry for more…
© 2010. All Rights Reserved. A joint production between Fantagraphics Books and Lincoln Butterfield.

Faceache volume one: The First 100 Scrunges


By Ken Reid, with Ian Mennell & various (Rebellion Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-601-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Masterfully Macabre Mirthquakes… 10/10

If you know British Comics, you’ll know Ken Reid.

He was another of those rebellious, youthful artistic prodigies who, largely unsung, went about transforming British Comics: entertaining millions and inspiring hundreds of those readers to become cartoonists too.

Reid was born in Manchester in 1919 and drew from the moment he could hold an implement. Aged nine, he was confined to bed for six months with a tubercular hip, and occupied himself with constant scribbling and sketching. He left school before his fourteenth birthday and won a scholarship to Salford Art School, but never graduated. He was, by all accounts, expelled for cutting classes and hanging about in cafes.

Undaunted he set up as a commercial artist, but floundered until his dad began acting as his agent.

Ken’s big break was a blagger’s triumph. He talked his way into an interview with the Art Editor of the Manchester Evening News and came away with a commission for a strip for its new Children’s Section. The Adventures of Fudge the Elf launched in 1938 and ran until 1963, with only a single, albeit lengthy, hiatus from 1941 to 1946 when Reid served in the armed forces.

From the late 1940s onwards, Reid dallied with comics periodicals: with work (Super Sam, Billy Boffin, Foxy) published in Comic Cuts and submissions to The Eagle, before a fortuitous family connection (Reid’s brother-in-law was Dandy illustrator Bill Holroyd) brought DC Thomson managing editor R.D. Low to his door with a cast-iron offer of work.

On April 18th 1953 Roger the Dodger debuted in The Beano. Reid drew the feature until 1959 and created numerous others including the fabulously mordant doomed mariner Jonah, Ali Ha-Ha and the 40 Thieves, Grandpa and Jinx among many more.

In 1964 Reid and fellow unappreciated superstar Leo Baxendale jumped ship and began working for DCT’s arch rival Odhams Press. This gave Ken greater license to explore his ghoulish side: concentrating on comic horror yarns and grotesque situations in strips like Frankie Stein, and The Nervs in Wham! and Smash! as well as more visually wholesome but still strikingly surreal fare as Queen of the Seas and Dare-a-Day Davy.

In 1971 Reid devised Faceache – arguably his career masterpiece – for new title Jet. The hilariously horrific strip was popular enough to survive the comic’s demise – after a paltry 22 weeks – and was carried over in a merger with stalwart periodical Buster where it thrived until 1987. During that time he continued innovating and creating through a horde of new strips such as Creepy Creations, Harry Hammertoe the Soccer Spook, Wanted Posters, Martha’s Monster Makeup, Tom’s Horror World and a dozen others.

Ken Reid died in 1987 from the complications of a stroke he’d suffered on February 2nd, whilst at his drawing board, putting the finishing touches to a Faceache strip.

On Reid’s passing the strip was taken over by Frank Diarmid who drew until its cancelation in October 1988.

The astoundingly absorbing comedy classic is a perfect example of resolutely British humorous sensibilities – absurdist, anarchic and gleefully grotesque – and revolves around a typically unruly and unlovely scrofulous schoolboy making great capital out of a unique gift, albeit often to his own detriment and great regret…

Ricky Rubberneck early discovered an appalling (un)natural ability of scrunching (or “scrungeing”) up his face into such ghastly contortions that he could revolt, disgust and terrify anyone who gazed upon him. Over the weeks and years, the modern medusa worked hard to polish his gifts until his foul fizzog could attain any formation. Eventually his entire body could be reshaped to mimic any creature or form, real or imagined. Naturally, he used his powers to play pranks, take petty vengeances, turn a temporary profit, deal with bullies and impress his pals.

Just as naturally, those efforts frequently resulted in the standard late 20th century punishments being dealt out by his dad, teachers and sundry other outraged adults…

This stunning hardback (and eBook) celebration – hopefully the first of many – is part of Rebellion’s ever-expanding Treasury of British Comics and collects all 22 Jet episodes (spanning May 1st – 29th September 1971, plus the remaining 78 from Buster & Jet beginning with October 2nd and concluding with March 24th 1973.

The potent package is garnished with an appreciative Introduction by Alan Moore – ‘The Unacceptable Face of British Comics’ – a fondly intimate reminiscence in Antony J. Reid’s ‘My Father Ken Reid’ and a full biography of the great man…

What follows is an outrageous outpouring of raw cartoon creativity as Reid, writing and drawing with inspired effulgence, spins a seemingly infinite skein of comedy gold on his timeless theme of a little boy who makes faces at the world.

Weekly deadlines are a ferocious foe however, and a couple of strips reprinted were written by unsung pro Ian Mennell, whilst – between January and September 1972 – a fill-in artist (possibly Robert Nixon?) illustrated 16 episodes, presumably as Reid’s other commitments such as Jasper the Grasper, The Nervs or his numerous funny football features in Scorcher & Score mounted.

In these pages though, the accent is on madcap tomfoolery as the plastic-pussed poltroon undergoes a succession of fantastic facial reconfigurations: terrifying teachers, petrifying posh and pushy landowners, mimicking monstrous beasts, outraging officious officialdom and entertaining an army of schoolboy chums and chumps.

Orchards are raided, competitions are entered, plays and school trips are upstaged and aborted and even actual spooks and horrors are afforded the shocks of their unlives as Faceache gurns his way through an endless parade of hilarious hijinks.

These cartoon capers are amongst the most memorable and re-readable exploits in all of British comics history: smart, eternally funny and beautifully rendered. This a treasure-trove of laughs that spans generations and deserves to be in every family bookcase.
© 1971, 1972, 1973 & 2017 Rebellion Publishing Ltd. Introduction © Alan Moore. Faceache is ™ Rebellion Publishing Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Guide to Groot – a Sound Book


By Matthew K. Manning & Nicholas Rix (Becker & Mayer! books/Quarto)
ISBN: 978-0-7603-6217-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Sheer Delight for Youngsters of Any Age… 9/10

Technically speaking, Groot is one of Marvel’s oldest characters, having debuted as a woody alien invader in Tales to Astonish #13 (cover-dated November 1960), a good year before Fantastic Four #1.

Crafted by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers, ‘I Challenged Groot! The Monster from Planet X’ revealed how a studious biologist saved humanity from a rapacious rampaging tree intent on stealing Earth cities and shipping them back to his distant world. That tale’s not in this tome, because in the intervening decades the deciduous despot cleaned up his act, pruned off the bad wood and now resides firmly on the side of the good guys…

As a beloved star of print and screen, the leafy legend has profoundly planted himself in the hearts of kids everywhere and this nifty marriage of sound and vision allows readers to enjoy a succession of cool narrative image scenarios by Nicholas Rix whilst Rocket Raccoon (in his identity of author Matthew K. Manning) clarifies the intricacies of Groot’s seemingly limited vocabulary in text. And all while Groot emotes right in your ears!

This is all achieved via a selection of 10 pushbutton activated sound files, each revealing the utterance nuances of the titanic timber-man’s 3-word vocalisations.

Following Rocket’s Introduction, the lessons commence with “I Am Groot” which of course means ‘Hello’ whereas the second spoken “I Am Groot” reveals just how the super sapling says ‘Did You Mean This?’

You get the picture – and they’re all beautifully rendered illustrations of key moments featuring Star-Lord, Gamora, Mantis, Drax, Rocket and other old favourites – as they are followed in close order by ‘I Gotcha’, ‘Nope. Not Gonna Happen’, ‘Geez. Leave Me Alone, Already’, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Trust Me. I Got This’, ‘I Want That!’, ‘Face My Wrath, Chumps!’ and ‘I Love You’

This is a marvellously accessible addition to any fan’s library or toybox so it’s a shame that Guide to Groot is not available in the UK yet. Still, as I’m sure you know the internet is your friend in situations like these…

I am Groot I am Groot I am Groot, I am Groot I am Groot I Am Groot I am Groot-I am Groot I am Groot I am…
© 2018 Marvel. MARVEL and all characters, names and distinct likenesses thereof ™ & © 2018 Marvel characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Gillbert volume 1: The Little Merman


By Art Balthazar (Papercutz)
ISBN: 978-1-5458-0144-4 (HB)                    978-1-5458-0145-1 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Captivating and Charming Cartoon Wonderment… 9/10

Art Baltazar has come long way since his self-published The Cray-Baby Adventures. Along the way he has crafted – singly or in conjunction with similarly fun-loving artisans – a veritable storm of books and comics for kids: magical and award-winning, sublimely strange, instantly engaging tomes and series such as Tiny Titans, Itty Bitty Hellboy, The DC Super Pets, Action Cat, Adventure Bug and so many more.

Throughout all the multicoloured madcappery, he has remained a dedicated and passionate advocate of children’s literacy and adhered to a set of unswerving principles: keep it fun, keep it funny and keep it accessible.

That’s certainly the case in this new venture with family publisher Papercutz. Gillbert, The Little Merman introduces a charming wide-eyed little prince about to embark on his initial learning experience…

After opening a bottle floating in the ocean, Gill finds a message from the surface world and wants to read it. None of his finny, scally, gelid or amphibian friends can help him, so he returns home to Atlanticus to consult his mum and dad, Queen Niadora and King Nauticus. They however, expect him to wait until later…

Impatient and overexcited, Gill is soon lured away by an enigmatic mermaid who says she can help. Before long Anne Phibian is escorting him to many new and thrilling places such as submerged party house Wewillrocktopolis and the Sub-Atomic Awesomator, but all the while Gill is blithely unaware that his world is increasingly imperilled by a swarm of Fiery Pyrockians: blazing meteor creatures with a grudge against his father…

Anne and her allies are on the ball though: they have unsuspected connections to the royal family and are taking steps to ensure everything will be okay, especially with Gill’s help…

Available in hardback, soft cover and digital formats, Gillbert offers a rapturous escapade of thrills and frolics to delight any imaginative reader of any vintage.

My copy even includes a tantalising free glimpse at another all-ages star with captivating cartoon pages from the upcoming Gumby: 50 Shades of Clay release. So I’ll bet yours will, too…
© 2018 Art Baltazar. All Rights Reserved. All other material © 2018 Papercutz.

Gillbert volume 1: The Little Merman will be released on October 30th 2018 and is available for pre-order now.

Adventures of Tintin: The Black Island


By Hergé & various; translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-806-2 (HB)                    : 978-1-40520-61-1 (PB)

Georges Prosper Remi – AKA Hergé – created a true masterpiece of graphic literature with his many tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and the Hergé Studio, Remi accomplished 23 splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art.

Like Charles Dickens with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hergé died in the throes of creation, and final outing Tintin and Alph-Art remains a volume without a conclusion, but still a fascinating examination and a pictorial memorial of how the artist worked.

It’s only fair though, to ascribe a substantial proportion of credit to the many translators whose diligent contributions have enabled the series to be understood and beloved in 38 languages. The subtle, canny, witty and slyly funny English versions are the work of Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi worked for Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. The following year, the young artist – a passionate and dedicated boy scout – produced his first strip series: The Adventures of Totor for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine.

By 1928 he was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécles children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme and unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette when Abbot Wallez urged Remi to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

And also, perhaps, highlight and expose some the Faith’s greatest enemies and threats…?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate this simple yet effective innovation into his own work.

He would produce a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments, running until May 8th 1930.

Accompanied by his dog Milou (Snowy to us Brits), the clean-cut, no-nonsense boy-hero – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul (a soldier in the Belgian Army) – would report back all the inequities from the “Godless Russias”.

The strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was an actual foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme

The odyssey was a huge success, assuring further – albeit less politically charged and controversial – exploits to follow. At least that was the plan…

Originally published as monochrome strip Le Mystère De L’Avion Gris (The Mystery of the Grey Plane) from April 15th to November 16th 1937, the stirring saga was rerun in French Catholic newspaper Coeurs Vallaint from April 17th 1938. Its doom-laden atmosphere of espionage, criminality and darkly gathering storms settling upon the Continent clearly caught the public imagination…

Later that year Éditions Casterman released the entire epic as L’Île noire in a hardback volume that Hergé hated. It was eventually re-released in 1943, reformatted, extensively redrawn and in full colour and was greeted with rapturous success and acclaim.

Further revisions came after Tintin crossed the channel into British bookstores. The Black Island required a number of alterations to suit British publisher Methuen, leading to Herge’s assistant Bob De Moor travelling to England in 1961 for an extensive and extremely productive fact-finding mission which resulted in a new revised and updated edition that appeared not only here but was again serialised in Europe.

One evening as Tintin and Snowy are enjoying a walk in the country, a small plane experiences engine trouble and ditches in a field. When the helpful reporter offers assistance, he is shot…

Visited in hospital by bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson, the patient discovers they’re off to England to investigate the crash of an unregistered plane. Putting the meagre facts together Tintin discharges himself, and with Snowy in tow, catches the boat-train to Dover.

The young gallant is utterly unaware that he’s been targeted by sinister figures. Before journey’s end they have framed him for an assault and had him arrested. All too soon the wonder boy has escaped and is hounded across the countryside as a fugitive.

Despite the frantic pursuit, he makes it safely to England, having temporarily eluded the authorities, but is still being pursued by the murderous thugs who set him up…

He is eventually captured by the gangsters – actually German spies – and uncovers a forgery plot that circuitously leads him to the wilds of Scotland and a (visually stunning) “haunted” castle on an island in a Loch.

Undaunted, the bonny boy reporter goes undercover to investigate and discovers the gang’s base. He also finds out to his peril that the old place is guarded by a monstrous ape…

And that’s when the action really takes off…

This superb adventure, powerfully reminiscent of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, guarantees the cherished notion that, as always, virtue, daring and a huge helping of comedic good luck inevitably leads to a spectacular and thrilling denouement…

It’s hard to imagine that comics as marvellous as these still haven’t found their way onto everybody’s bookshelf, but if you are one of this underprivileged underclass, now is the time series to rectify that sorry situation.

The Black Island: artwork © 1956, 1984 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai.
Text © 1966 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Lola – a Ghost Story


By J. Torres & Elbert Or (Oni Press)
ISBN: 978-1-934964-33-0 (HB)                    978-1-93266-424-9 (PB)

These days young kids are far more likely to find their formative strip narrative experiences online or between the card-covers of specially tailored graphic novels rather than the comics and periodicals of my long-dead youth.

In times past the commercial comics industry thrived by producing copious amounts of gaudy, flimsy pamphlets subdivided into a range of successfully, self-propagating, seamlessly self-perpetuating age-specific publications.

Such eye-catching items generated innumerable tales and delights intended to entertain, inform and educate such well-defined target demographics as Toddler/Kindergarten, Younger and Older Juvenile, General, Girls, Boys and even Young Teens, but today the English-speaking world can only afford to maintain a few paltry out-industry, licensed tie-ins and spin-offs for a dwindling younger readership.

Where once cheap and prolific, strip magazines in the 21st century are extremely cost-intensive and manufactured for a highly specific – and dwindling – niche market, whilst the beguiling and bombastic genres that originally fed and nurtured comics are more immediately disseminated via TV, movies and assorted interactive games media.

Happily, old-school prose publishers and the burgeoning graphic novel industry have a different business model and far more sustainable long-term goals, so magazine makers’ surrender has become their window, as solid and reassuringly sturdy Comic Books increasingly buck the pamphlet/papers trend.

Some of the old-fashioned publishers even evolved to join the revolution…

Independent comics mainstay Oni deftly made the switch to sturdy stand-alone one-offs at the end of the last century, publishing a succession of superb illustrated tales splendidly pushing the creative envelope whilst providing memorable yarns that irresistibly lure young potential fans of the form into our world…

That looks quite creepy in type-form but that’s okay – this is a beguilingly spooky story and you should be on your guard…

Aimed at readers of seven and above, Lola – a Ghost Story follows young Canadian Jesse as he returns to the rural Philippines farm where his parents grew up. It’s not his first visit, but it is the saddest. They’re going back for the funeral of his grandmother…

In the native Tagalog language Lola means “grandmother” and Jesse’s was pretty scary. She was old and ugly, had a hump on her back and – he thinks – she tried to drown him when he was a baby…

Grandma Lola also saw dead things and monsters and the future… just like Jesse does.

Despite all this he loved her very much and really doesn’t want to accept that she’s gone forever.

After hours of exhausting travel into the forbidding wild region Jesse and his folks at last arrive at the old farmhouse which has seen so much tragedy. The little visitor fulsomely greets his uncle and cousin Maritess, but won’t acknowledge her brother JonJon. That kid’s acting like a jerk as usual, and besides he’s been dead for over a year and no-one else can see him…

Soon the family are gathered together: eating, memorialising the departed and telling stories of Lola – like the time she saw the giant devil-pig and saved the entire family from financial ruin. Despite the convivial atmosphere, Jesse is still ill at ease. Even though everyone here believes his grandmother had second sight and blessed gifts, the sensibly modern boy can’t bring himself to believe the things he sees are real…

Maritess believes though, and she suspects what Jesse won’t admit even to himself…

After JonJon teases him some more and taunts him with the giant bestial, cigar-smoking Kapre lurking at the window, Jesse finally drops into an exhausted, nervous slumber.

The funeral next day is horrible. Everybody is sad, the church is filled with so many shockingly damaged spirits and Jesse is afflicted with a vision of being trapped and burning which makes him run screaming from the ceremony.

Still traumatised that evening, he finds JonJon’s old toybox on his bed and Maritess guesses what has happened.

She tells her cousin the story of the bloodsucking Manananggal which attacked Lola’s mother, causing her unborn daughter’s hump-back and magical sight. Such gifts and curses usually skip a generation and Maritess always assumed she’d be the one to get the sight, but now that it’s clear Jesse is the one to inherit the power, she’s determined to give him all the help he needs.

The box is full of JonJon’s toy cars, and after playing with them Jesse and the dead boy romp over by the farm wall – the one where nobody is allowed to go anymore…

Jesse’s uncle isn’t doing very well: all the tragedies have made him very sad and he’s drinking an awful lot.

There are other problems bothering Jesse. The entire family have stories about his grandmother and it’s clear that she was brave and determined and fought monsters all her life: is that, then, why she tried to drown him when he was a baby?

Maritess tells her Canadian cousin about the time little Lola saved her school friends from a predatory Tiyanak – a baby-shaped carnivorous monster – and he readies himself to ask her if she thinks he might be evil. Just then her father comes in very drunk and shouts at him for leaving JonJon’s cars in the garden.

They are all he has left to remember his son and the boy’s favourite one is already missing. Jesse knows which one it is… the striped one JonJon calls “Zebra” which he wouldn’t share with him last night by the wall…

Uncle Tim hates the wall. It had something to do with his son’s death and Jesse knows he’ll get into trouble if he goes over it. But Uncle is so sad. He misses his boy and really wanted to bury Zebra with JonJon, but it’s gone and the man is so drunk and angry all the time now…

Jesse’s fear that Lola saw something evil in him is assuaged by Maritess who thinks he should use his gift to help people – just like just their grandmother used to – so when JonJon appears again, Jesse climbs the hated wall and vanishes into the wild unknown beyond…

With Jesse’s first good deed successfully accomplished, JonJon can rest and Uncle Tim is at peace. The troubled psychic is even a little less disturbed by his power and his apparent destiny, but that all changes on the trip back to the airport when Jesse sees something utterly horrifying…

Evocative, compelling, gently enthralling and with a genuinely scary shock ending, this superb kid’s chiller is filled with a fascinating new bestiary of monsters and bogey-men to bedazzle Western eyes and imaginations, but mostly relies on captivating art and top-notch storytelling to draw readers in.

I loved it and so will you…
Lola is ™ & © 2009 J. Torres. All other material © 2009 Oni Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Bunny vs Monkey Book 5: Destructo and Other Ridiculous Stories


By Jaime Smart (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-055-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Never-Ending Mirthful Madness… 9/10

Since its premiere in 2012, The Phoenix has offered humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a traditional-seeming weekly comics anthology for girls and boys. The vibrant parade of cartoon fun and fantasy has won praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only people who really count – a dedicated and growing legion of totally engaged kids and parents who read it avidly…

The publishers would be crazy not to gather their greatest serial hits into a line of fabulously engaging album compilations, but they’re not, so they do. The latest of these is a fifth fractiously frenetic paperback bout of ongoing conflict troubling a once-chummy woodland waif and interloping, grandeur-hungry, hairy-brained simian…

Concocted with feverishly gleeful inspiration by Jamie Smart, Bunny vs. Monkey has been a Phoenix fixture from the very first issue: recounting a madcap vendetta between animal arch-enemies set amidst an idyllic arcadia which masquerades as a more-or-less mundane English Wood.

Destructo and Other Ridiculous Stories sees the war of nerves and mega-weapons intensify as the unruly assortment of odd critters littering and loitering around the bucolic paradise shift and twist into ever-more unstable factionalism. They all seem to have forgotten that the rapidly encroaching Hyoomanz are now well underway in building something called a motorway right through the sylvan glades and apparently unprotected parks…

All that tail-biting tension began when an obnoxious monkey gatecrasher popped up after a disastrous space shot went awry.

Having crash-landed in Crinkle Woods – a scant few miles from his blast-off site – lab animal Monkey believes himself the rightful owner of a strange new world, despite the continual efforts of reasonable, sensible, genteel, contemplative Bunny to dissuade him. For all his patience, propriety and good breeding, the laid-back lepine just cannot contain the incorrigible idiot ape, who is a rude, noise-loving, chaos-creating troublemaker…

All these collected volumes dispense disaster-drenched doses of daftness in six-month courses of ill-treatment and this book describes Year Three: January to June as transcribed on another vivid Contents page and commencing after a glorious poster-style spread of our bestial Dramatis Personae page…

This tranche of turbulent two-page episodes begins with tiny terror Monkey manifesting more mayhem and almost turning his own stomach inside out whilst attempting to weaponize some very nasty stuff he finds under his feet in ‘Gross!’

With snow on the ground Monkey then finds a way to spoil the Great Sled-Off in ‘Tobog-Gone!’ and latterly set back mammal-robot relations by picking on newcomer ‘Metal Steve 2!’, before a seemingly new menace manifests to worry the woodland folk in the dark guise of evil arch-villain ‘Destructo!’

When the weather clears up, Monkey’s Double-Barrelled Supercharged Snow-Cannon-Tank is suddenly deprived of ammo until the devilish pest repurposes his toy to fire chutney. Sadly, even this resultant chaos is insufficient to his comprehending ‘The Message!’

A brief and sudden return of ‘Skunky!’ only leads to disappointment, but his crazed influence remains to monsterize the ‘Pretty Flowers!’ whilst the debut of cyborg bounty hunter ‘Alan!’ (Armoured Locating Armadillo Network) threatens to destabilise the ongoing conflict until the big bully gets on the wrong side of gentle, peace-loving Pig’s ice cream…

Too much of the good life eventually slows down our friends so they convince Le Fox to help them ‘Get Fit!’ just in time for the awful ape to celebrate (or desecrate) Easter by eating all ‘The Wrong Eggs!’

The wee woodlanders then face Skunky’s robotic Vulturaptors in ‘Terror from the Skies’, but when night falls huge ‘Bobbles!’ from the sky spark fears of alien invasion…

The good guys then try to infiltrate Skunky’s new high-tech HQ ‘The Temple!’, just in time for ‘The Audition!’ to join the musky mastermind’s new gang the League of Doom.

Sadly, the only one to make the grade is meek misfit Pig in his new gruesome guise of ‘Pigulus!’

History horrifically repeats itself when another crashed space capsule ejects an even more destructive newcomer in ‘The Evil Monkey!’ Sadly, that only incites the previous incumbent to up his aggravating game…

When the genteel inhabitants of the wood start enjoying ‘Picnics!’ they have no conception that the day will end in chaos after Skunky’s escaped Grasshopalong induces the science maverick to attempt recapture with a giant Tarsier…

Sometime ally Le Fox cultivates an air of mystery, but when the League of Doom unleash a deadly custard assault his annoying old ‘Uncle Fox!’ quickly proves to be the real superspy deal after which Monkey’s latest property deal lands bunny with an obnoxious ‘Bad Neighbour!’ in the form of musician Bert Warthog. But not for long…

When Skunky unleashes his devastating, colossal De-Forester 9000, the unthinkable occurs as Bunny and Monkey declare ‘The Truce!’ that leads to the mega-machine’s demise but by the time Action Beaver becomes ‘The Messenger!’ for the skunk’s poison letters, all bets are off again and it’s every critter for himself…

More mad science sees the launch of a weather station and an unseasonal snow barrage, but Skunky’s malignant fun is ruined after Weenie Squirrel demonstrates astounding piste pizazz in ‘Ski-Daddle!’, before a lost little skunk destabilises the wicked stinker.

Thomas is unmoved by monster robots like the rampaging Octobosh and truly gets to the emotional soft side of his newfound ‘Uncle Skunky!’

Perhaps that episode is what prompts his invention of ‘The Truthometer!’, but when Skunky hears what the woodlanders actually think about him, he soon regrets ever thinking of it…

The Quantum Bibble Fobbulator also goes wrong, tearing ‘Wormholes!’ in the forest fabric, but somehow the woodland residents still make the best of the situation, whilst the skunk’s size-changing ray only makes his victims too tall to tackle in ‘The Embiggening!’

The rural riot concludes with a frankly disturbing insight into our simian star’s softer side as he administers first aid to an ailing Bunny and subsequently descends into megalomania as the truly terrifying ‘Nurse Monkey!’

To Be Continued…

The absolute acme of absurdist adventure, Bunny Vs Monkey is sheers bonkers brilliance and well past definitely on the way to becoming a British Institution of weird wit, insane invention and captivating cartooning. This is another utterly irresistible package of total delight for grown-ups of every vintage, even those who claim they only get it for their kids…
Text and illustrations © Jamie Smart 2018. All rights reserved.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam!”


By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-779-7

HAPPY 90th BIRTHDAY POPEYE!

Call me an idiot (you know you want to) but for years I laboured under the misapprehension that comics’ first superhuman hero debuted on January 29th 1929. Eventually. thanks to a superb collection of archival albums from the wonderful folk at Fantagraphics, I was disabused of that erroneous notion. Those mammoth oversized compendia are still the best books about the old Swabbie ever published…

Thimble Theatre was an unassuming comic strip which began on 19th December 1919; one of many newspaper features that parodied/burlesqued/mimicked the silent movies of the era. Its more successful forebears included C.W. Kahles’ Hairbreadth Harry and Ed Wheelan’s Midget Movies (later and more famously renamed Minute Movies).

These all used a repertory company of characters to play out generic adventures firmly based on the cinema antics of the silent era. Thimble Theatre’s cast included Nana and Cole Oyl, their gawky daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor, and Horace Hamgravy, Olive’s sappy, would-be beau.

The series ticked along for a decade, competent and unassuming, with Castor and Ham Gravy, as he became, tumbling through get-rich-quick schemes, gentle adventures and simple gag situations until September 10th 1928 (the first strip reprinted in this astonishingly lavish and beautiful collection), when explorer uncle Lubry Kent Oyl gave Castor a present from his latest exploration of Africa: a hand-reared Whiffle Hen – most fabulous of all birds. It was the start of something groundbreaking.

As eny fule kno Whiffle Hens are troublesome, incredibly rare and possessed of fantastic powers, but after months of inspired hokum and slapsick shenanigans, Castor was resigned to Bernice – for that was the hen’s name – when a series of increasingly peculiar circumstances brought him into contention with the ruthless Mr. Fadewell, world’s greatest gambler and king of the gaming resort of ‘Dice Island’.

Bernice clearly affected writer/artist E.C. Segar, because his strip increasingly became a playground of frantic, compelling action and comedy during this period.

When Castor and Ham discovered that everybody wanted the Whiffle Hen because she could bestow infallible good luck, they decided to sail for Dice Island to win every penny from its lavish casinos. Sister Olive wanted to come along but the boys planned to leave her behind once their vessel was ready to sail. It was 16th January 1929…

The next day and in the 108th instalment of the saga, a bluff, irascible, ignorant, itinerant and exceeding ugly one-eyed old sailor was hired by the pair to man the boat they had rented, and the world was introduced to one of the most iconic and memorable characters ever conceived. By sheer, surly willpower, Popeye won the hearts and minds of every reader: his no-nonsense, grumbling simplicity and dubious appeal enchanting the public until by the end of the tale his walk-on had taken up full residency. He would eventually make the strip his own…

The journey to Dice Island was a terrible one: Olive had stowed away, and Popeye, already doing the work of twelve men, did not like her. After many travails the power of Bernice succeeded and Castor bankrupted Dice Island, but as they sailed for home with their millions Fadewell and his murderous associate Snork hunted them across the oceans. Before long, Popeye settled their hash too, almost at the cost of his life…

Once home their newfound wealth quickly led Castor, Ham and Olive into more trouble, with carpetbaggers, conmen and ne’er-do-wells constantly circling, and before long they lost all their money (a common occurrence for them), but one they thing they couldn’t lose was their sea-dog tag-along. The public – and Segar himself – were besotted with the unlovable, belligerent old goat. After an absence of 32 episodes Popeye shambled back on stage, and he stayed for good.

Although not yet the paramour of Olive, Popeye increasingly took Ham’s place as a foil for the sharp-talking, pompous Castor Oyl, and before long they were all having adventures together. When they escaped jail at the start of ‘The Black Barnacle’ (December 11th 1929) they found themselves aboard an empty ship and at the start of a golden age of comic strip magic…

Segar famously considered himself an inferior draughtsman – most of the world disagreed and still does – but his ability to weave a yarn was unquestioned and it grew to astounding and epic proportions in these strips.

Day by day he was creating the syllabary and graphic lexicon of a brand-new art-form, inventing narrative tricks and beats that a generation of artists and writers would use in their own works, and he did it while being scary, thrilling and funny all at once.

‘The Black Barnacle’ introduced the dire menace of the hideous Sea-Hag – one of the greatest villains in fiction – and the scenes of her advancing in misty darkness upon our sleeping heroes are still the most effective I’ve seen in all my years…

This incredible tale leads seamlessly into diamond-stealing, kidnappings, spurned loves, an African excursion and the introduction of wealthy Mr. Kilph, whose do-gooding propensities would lead Castor and Popeye into plenty of trouble, beginning with the eerie science fiction thriller ‘The Mystery of Brownstone Hill’ and the return of the nefarious Snork, who almost murders the salty old seadog a second time…

The black and white dailies section ends with ‘The Wilson Mystery’ as Castor and Popeye set up their own detective agency: something that would become a common strip convention and the perfect maguffin to keep the adventures tumbling along – even Mickey Mouse would don metaphoric deerstalker and magnifying glass (see Mickey and Donald and The Lair of Wolf Barker among many others).

These superb and colossal hardcover albums (200 pages and 368 mm by 268 mm) are augmented with fascinating articles and essays; including testimonial remembrances from famous cartoonists – Jules Feiffer in this first volume – and accompanied by the relevant full colour Sunday pages from the same period.

Here then are the more gag-oriented complete tales from 2nd March 1930 through February 22nd 1931, including the “topper” Sappo.

A topper was a small mini-strip that was run above the main feature on a Sunday page. Some were connected to the main strip but many were just filler. They were used so that individual editors could remove them if their particular periodical had non-standard page requirements. Originally entitled The 5:15, Sappo was a surreal domestic comedy gag strip created by Segar in 1924 which became peculiarly entwined with the Sunday Thimble Theatre as the 1930s unfolded – and it’s a strip long overdue for consideration on its own unique merits….

Since many papers only carried dailies or Sundays, not necessarily both, a system of differentiated storylines developed early in American publishing, and when Popeye finally made his belated appearance, he was already a fairly well-developed character.

Thus, Segar concentrated on more family-friendly gags – and eventually continued mini-sagas – and it was here that the Popeye/Olive Oyl modern romance began: a series of encounters full of bile, intransigence, repressed hostility, jealousy and passion which usually ended in raised voices and scintillating cartoon violence – and they are still as riotously funny now as then.

We saw softer sides of the sailor-man and, when Castor and Mr. Kilph realised how good Popeye was at boxing, an extended, trenchant and scathingly funny sequence about the sport of prize-fighting began. Again, cartoon violence was at a premium – family values were different then – but Segar’s worldly, probing satire and Popeye’s beguiling (but relative) innocence and lack of experience kept the entire affair in hilarious perspective whilst making him an unlikely and lovable waif.

Popeye is fast approaching his centenary and still deserves his place as a world icon. These magnificent volumes are the perfect way to celebrate the genius and mastery of EC Segar and his brilliantly imperfect superman. These are books that every home should have.
© 2006 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2006 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.