Portugal

By Cyril Pedrosa with additional colour by Ruby; translated by Montana Kane (NBM/Fanfare)

ISBN: 978-1-68112-147-5 (NBM)                 978-1-91209-703-6 (Fanfare)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The Perfect Family Holiday Getaway… 10/10

I read a lot of graphic novels. Some books are awful, many are pedestrian and the rest I endeavour to share with you. Of that remaining fraction most can be summarised, plot-pointed and précised to give you a clue about what you might be buying if I’ve done my job right.

Sometimes, however, all that kerfuffle is not only irrelevant but will actually impede your eventual enjoyment. This is one of those times…

Cyril Pedrosa was born in Poitiers in 1972, a child of Portuguese extraction. After pursuing science jobs and a career in animation (at Disney he worked on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules), in 1998 he moved into the world of comics with Ring Circus, following up with Les Aventures spatio-temporelles de Shaolin Moussaka, Three Shadows, Equinoxes and much more…

Since 2008 Pedrosa has devoted much of his time to fictionalised autobiography, beginning with with Autobio in Fluide Glacial, and that fresh string to his bow is at play in this newly translated, magnificently oversized (312 x 234 mm) hardcover (or digital edition): a moving and intoxicating graphic assessment of a crucial time in the illustrator’s life…

Through the vehicle of artistic analogue Simon Muchat, Pedrosa revisits a moment of his own history when he had lost the taste and verve for creative expression. In France, Simon’s relationship with his partner is breaking down; he’s living through a crippling writer’s block – and doesn’t care. Muchat makes a pittance teaching art or disconsolately doing little ad or design jobs. There seems no point to anything, but then he grudgingly attends a minor comics convention in Portugal and is suddenly reawakened to the intoxications of Existence…

Uncontrollably subject to recurring memory-snatches of childhood visits to his ancestors’ homes, Simon inexplicably beguiles himself into staying. His interest in storytelling is revived through one-sided conversations (he can’t remember much of the language) and before long he’s relocated to the sunny land of shiny, happy people…

Divided into three acts – ‘According to Simon’, ‘According to Jean’ and ‘According to Abel’ – the euphoric images cascade through picturesque hamlets and towns, country scenes and beaches – and bars of all types – as the gentle pace of life and friendly folk break down Muchat’s crust of indifference.

He even loses sight of his own troubles after gradually immersing himself in the cacophonous hurly-burly of his large extended Portuguese family and becomes increasing absorbed in discovering how and why his father moved to France.

That taciturn, work-obsessed worthy is still around (albeit, only in brief, breathless bursts between meetings) but has never and will never provide Simon with the answers he craves more than food or air…

And then, just when he thinks he’s made his peace with that onion-skin enigma, Simon finds another, deeper, more insoluble mystery to gnaw on…

This a truly breathtaking venture, a book full of humour, warmth and conflict, but one where nothing really happens. It does, however, happen with such joyous and compelling style and amiability that you cannot help but be swept along in its wake…

Enchanting, redemptive and captivatingly rewarding, Portugal is a book to chase away all winter blues and existential glums and a reading experience you must not deprive yourself – or your family – of.

© Dupuis 2011 by Pedrosa. Dupuis 2015 for the English translation.

Portugal will be released on December 1st 2017 and is available for pre-order now.

A UK edition from Fanfare will be available from November 30th.

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

The Complete James Bond: OCTOPUSSY – the Classic Comic Strip Collection 1966-1969


By Ian Fleming, Jim Lawrence & Yaroslav Horak (Titan Books)
ISBN: 987-1-78565-325-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Truly Traditional Licence to Thrill… 9/10

There are sadly few British newspaper strips that can rival the influence and impact of the classic daily and Sunday “funnies” from America, especially in the field of adventure fiction. The 1930’s and 1940’s were particularly rich in popular, not to say iconic, creations and you’d be hard-pressed to come up with household names to rival Popeye, Dick Tracy or Flash Gordon, let alone Blondie, Little Orphan Annie or Popeye – and yes, I know I said him twice, but Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre was funny as well as thrilling, constantly innovative, and really, really good. You should really read them if you haven’t yet…

What can you recall for simple popularity let alone longevity or quality in Britain? Rupert Bear? Absolutely. Giles? Technically, yes. Nipper? Jane? Garth? I’d hope so, but I doubt it. The Empire didn’t quite get it until it wasn’t an empire any more. There were certainly many wonderful strips being produced: well-written and beautifully drawn, but that stubborn British reserve just didn’t seem to be in the business of creating household names.

Until the 1950’s…

Something happened in the Britain of the New Elizabethans – and I’m not going to waste any space here discussing it. It just did. Now we’re moving on.

In a new spirit that seemed to crave excitement and accept the previously disregarded, comics got carried along on the wave. Eagle, Lion, the regenerated Beano and girls’ comics in general all shifted into visually receptive high gear… and so did daily newspapers at a time when print was everyone’s major source of staying in touch with the world…

Thanks to another canny and comforting luxury repackaging – just in time for the Christmas presents rush! – I can once more communally reminisce about one of British strip-cartooning’s greatest triumphs, since Titan Books have a new addition to their line of lavish, oversized (294 x 277 mm) monochrome compilations of Ian Fleming’s immortal James Bond.

Debut 007 novel Casino Royale was published in 1953 and subsequently serialised in the Daily Express from 1958: initiating a sequence of paperback novel adaptations scripted by Anthony Hern, Henry Gammidge, Peter O’Donnell and Kingsley Amis before Jim Lawrence (a jobbing writer for American features who had previously scripted the aforementioned Buck Rogers) signed on for The Man with the Golden Gun to complete the transfer of the authorial canon to strip format.

When that mission was accomplished, Lawrence was invited to create new adventures, which he did until the strip’s ultimate demise in 1983.

Illustration of the feature was always of the highest standard. Initially John McLusky provided art the until 1966’s conclusion of You Only Live Twice and – although perhaps lacking in vivacity – the workmanlike clarity of his drawing easily coped with the astonishing variety of locales, technical set-ups and sheer immensity of cast members…

He was succeeded by Yaroslav Horak, who also debuted on Golden Gun; instituting a looser, edgier style, at once more cinematic and with a closer attention to camera angle and frenzied action that seemed to typify the high-octane vim and verve of the 1960’s. Horak illustrated 26 complete adventures until 1977 when The Daily Express ceased carrying Bond and the then-running case suddenly switched to The Sunday Express (from January 30th until conclusion on May 22nd).

Here, however, the heady brew of adventure, sex, intrigue and death is at an all-time high in this addictively accessible fourth volume which finds the creators on top form as they reveal how the world’s greatest agent never rests in his mission to keep us all free, safe and highly entertained…

The frantic derring-do and dark, deadly last-ditch double-dealings commence once superstar screenplay writers Neal Purvis & Robert Wade (The World is Not Enough; Die Another Day; Casino Royale; Quantum of Solace; Skyfall and Spectre as well as Johnny English) share some secrets and observations in their Introduction ‘Adapting Bond’.

Then ‘Octopussy’ (Daily Express 14th November 1966 – 27th May 1967) unfolds: a classic Ian Fleming tale. Originally a short story, under the skilful hands of Lawrence & Horak, a simple smuggling caper in the West Indies blossoms into a complex tale of Nazi Gold, murdered agents and exotic deaths in exotic locales as Bond pits his wits against deplorable rogue Major Smythe….

Bowing to the wave of popularity caused by the blockbuster films of the time, there are even a few Q Branch gadgets on offer. Horak excels at the extended underwater sequences and the action is frenetic and non-stop. Moreover, thanks to the enlarged landscape pages of this edition, every picturesque detail is there to be drooled over…

The sea also plays a major role in ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’ (29th May – 16th December 1967) which details the true fate of a new Royal Navy robot weapon which seemingly fails but has in fact been stolen by flamboyant millionaire and career sadist Milton Krest. At his most dashing undercover best, Bond infiltrates the wealthy sicko’s glamorous circle in a terrific tale full of innovation and intrigue. You won’t believe how many ways there are to kill with fish!

Having exhausted Fleming’s accumulated prose canon, all-original material begins with ‘The Harpies’ (4th October 1968 – 23rd June 1969) as Bond adopts he persona of ex-copper Mark Hazard to infiltrate defence contractor Simon Nero’s factory and rescue a kidnapped scientist whilst seeking to end the depredations of a deadly gang of female flying bandits.

Here Horak’s extreme design style and dynamic lines impart tremendous energy to scenes that must labour under the incredibly difficult restrictions of the 3-panel-a-day newspaper format.

Wrapping up the sinister espionage shenanigans is Lawrence’s second addition to 007 lore – and what a cracker it is! In ‘River of Death’ (24th June – 29th November 1969) Bond must penetrate the Amazon River stronghold of a maniacal oriental scientist and former Red Chinese torturer Dr. Cat. This latest madman is supplying trained animals to international criminals for the purposes of robbery, espionage and murder…

Horak’s intense illustration is approaching a career peak here and easily copes with action, mood, cutting edge science, beautiful women and exotic locales as diverse as the Alps, sultry Rain Forests, London’s underworld and Rio de Janeiro at Carnival time.

James Bond is the ultimate secret agent. You all know that and have – thanks to the multi-media empire that has grown up around Ian Fleming’s masterful creation – your own vision of what he looks like and what he does. That’s what dictates how you respond to the latest movie, game or novel. Here, however, is James Bond at his suave and savage best and as close to his original conception and roots as you will ever find.

Fast, furious action, masses of moody menace, sharply clever dialogue and a wealth of exotic locales and ladies make this an unmissable adjunct to the Bond mythos and a collection no fan can do without. After all, nobody does it better…

Octopussy © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1966. The Hildebrand Rarity © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1967. The Harpies © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1969. River of Death © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd. 1969. James Bond and 007 are ™ of Danjaq LLC used under licence by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
The Complete James Bond: OCTOPUSSY – the Classic Comic Strip Collection 1966-1969 will be published on November 24th and is available for pre-order now.

Temperance


By Cathy Malkasian (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-323-1

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a charismatic leader drags an entire nation into a phony war, manipulating facts, twisting good people’s lives, destroying their innocence and fomenting an atmosphere of sustained paranoia and unthinking patriotism – if not literal jingoistic madness.

Then he shuffles out of the picture and lets his – generally incompetent – successors deal with the mess he’s created: those remnants divided equally into well-meaning but clueless ditherers and now-fanatical disciples who think only they can run the show…

The land is in turmoil. Pa is raising a ruckus trying to get his monstrous ark built before the ruthless invaders begin the final attack. Eldest girl Peggy and little Minerva follow as he carves a wake of destructive energy through the landscape. Pa has galvanised the local villagers and they await his command to enter the fortress-city within the monolithic edifice, dubbed “Blessedbowl.”

When Pa begins once more to assault his oldest lass, only hapless Minerva and the trees are witness to the unleashed savagery. Suddenly, a young man rushes to Peg’s rescue, captivating forever the cowering Min. His name is Lester, but despite a terrific struggle the rescuer is no match for Pa’s maniacal vigour. The young man is left brain-damaged and maimed.

Pa bids Min see to Lester. The Doomsayer is lost in his preparations again. The Crisis has arrived…

Three decades pass. Min has married Lester and a thriving community exists within Blessedbowl, a permanent subsistence/siege economy built on paranoia: isolated and united by a common foe that has never been seen and is therefore utterly terrifying.

Moses-like, Pa remained behind when the ark was sealed, to fight a rearguard action. Min is now his regent, efficiently running the closed ecology and economy, bolstered by the devoted attention of Lester, the amnesiac war-hero who lost so much when the invisible enemy launched their final assault…

Min controls the community through reports from the distant front and Lester guards the city within Blessedbowl’s hull. But now his befuddled memory is clearing, and Min, hopelessly in love with him, faces the threat that all that has been so slowly built may come crashing swiftly down…

And this is just the tip of the iceberg in a vast story that – despite being almost a decade old – could well be the best thing you’ll read this year. Created during America’s longest-running war (9 years and by some assessments still running but with another name…) this multi-layered, incisive parable examines how families and countries can be twisted by love, fear and the craziest lies leaders can concoct and yet still seemingly prosper.

As much mystical generational fantasy as veiled allegory, Temperance will open your eyes on so many levels. As events spiral beyond all control the astounding outcome, whilst utterly inevitable will also be a complete surprise… and just wait until you discover the identity of the eponymous narrator…

Mythical, mystical, metaphorical, lyrical, even poetic, here is a modern, timeless tuned-in epic blending Shakespearean passions with soft Orwellian terrors. King Lear and 1984 are grandparents to this subtly striking tale of freedom and honour – personal and communal – foolishly but willingly surrendered to a comfortable, expedient slavery.

Combining trenchant social commentary with spiritually uplifting observation, illustrated in the softest pencil tones – reminiscent of English World War II cartoons (particularly Pont and Bateman, but also the animations of Halas and Batchelor) – this is joy to read, a delight to view and a privilege to own.

We must all do so …
© 2010 Cathy Malkasian. All right reserved. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Satania


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mercenary – The Definitive Editions volume 1: The Cult of the Sacred Fire


By Vicente Segrelles, translated by Mary McKee (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-124-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Mythic Masterpiece Returns… 9/10

Born in Barcelona in 1940, Vicente Segrelles Sacristán is a renowned illustrator of magazines and book covers on three continents and the creator of one of the world’s most popular graphic novel series.

His first comics album ‘El Mercenario’ (The Mercenary) was released in 1982; the tale of an itinerant knight-for-hire fighting his way through a fantastic world of science and sorcery, often on the back of a flying dragon.

Rendered initially in lush oil-paints (before graduating to creating art digitally from 1998 onwards), the epic tales blend visual realism and accuracy with fable, myth, historical weaponry, contemporary technology and classical science fiction themes. All these fantastic scenes are screened through the visual lens of a natural architect and engineer. Fourteen albums were released between 1982 and 2003, most of them seen by English-language readers through the auspices of publisher NBM.

Hugely in demand for his painted covers since the 1970s, Segrelles has created book covers for the works of such authors as H, Rider Haggard, Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny, Alistair McLean, Desmond Bagley, G. F. Unger, Andre Norton, Joel Rosenberg, Charles DeLint, C.H. Guenter, Jason Dark, Terry Pratchett and a host of others.

European prose readers may also know him as the cover artist of Italian science fiction magazine Urania.

The artist came to comics relatively late in his career and the reasons for that can be learned in a prodigious “behind-the-scenes” section at the back of this stunning hardcover (and eBook) remastered reissue entitled ‘Meet Vicente Segrelles’, relating his life and career and breaking down his working methodology. That includes how this volume and the Mercenary series came into being, augmented with a wealth of illustrations from the artist’s early days, discarded paintings and drawings plus many detail-shots taken from the story that precedes it.

Originally serialised in Spanish magazine Cimoc in 1980, El Mercenario was one of the earliest European series NBM published in English and to celebrate forty years in business the company have finally rereleased the series in fabulous oversized (314 x 236 mm) remastered hardcover albums to once more set the world alight. If you prefer, you could instead pick up a thoroughly modern digital edition.

What’s it about?: in the mediaeval world, a region of Central Asia lies all but undiscovered. The Land of Eternal Clouds is an isolate region where life has taken a different turn at the highest mountain levels. Here reptilian fliers dubbed dragons abound and the outposts of humanity have turned them into beasts of burden. This setting is the backdrop to introduce a nameless action hero and problem-solver who is engaged in this premier tome by the puissant potentate of one super-cumulus city-state to rescue his queen from vile abductors…

Riding a gigantic bat-winged lizard, The Mercenary plucks the unfortunate lady from peril and defeats the dragon-riding guards who give chase but only at great personal and financial cost…

Happily, the wary warrior has made prior contingency plans and – even after they go awry following a clash with a predatory beast – is smart enough to build a mechanical flyer to replace the ones he has lost to this ill-fated mission…

This initial yarn is actually a tryptic of three interrelated vignettes, and the second begins once the hero-for-hire returns the comely bride to her rich but old and flabby husband. Safely re-ensconced in the lap of luxury, she repays her dutiful saviour for spurning her amorous attentions by accusing him of assaulting her…

Although the Mercenary escapes to his hastily constructed contraption, it is not enough to keep him airborne and slowly he plunges into the swirling cloud mass from which no man has ever returned…

Crashing to earth he finds a whole new and undiscovered world, and an old sage with a handy potion that soothes his wounds and allows him to breathe better in air that cloys like soup. He soon returns the favour when the oldster shares his woes: the family have also suffered a recent kidnapping.

This time a young woman has been taken by a mystery group demanding as ransom all the alcohol the village contains…

Soon the tireless adventurer has broached the cage in which she hangs above certain death only to find himself also a captive: this time inside a colossal and all but invisible floating city ruled by mysterious cloaked figures claiming to be the Cult of the Sacred Fire…

Before long the doughty champion has discerned the incredible rational secret behind all the seemingly magical phenomena and set the city on a course of appalling destruction and personal vengeance…

To Be Continued…

Although sometimes considered a little static, Segrelles’ vibrant, classical realism set a benchmark for illustrative narrative that has inspired generations of artists and millions of readers. This landmark series is a long overdue and welcome returnee to our bookshelves and seems certain to garner a whole new legion of fans and admirers.
© 2015 Vicente Segrelles. English Translation © 2017 NBM for the English Translation.

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

Streak of Chalk


By Miguelanxo Prado, translated by Jacinthe Leclerc & Mary McKee (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-116-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: For Magic All Year ‘Round… 10/10

With the season of moody weirdness well upon us now I’m absolutely delighted to focus on a work of truly groundbreaking import and astounding beguilement making a welcome return to bookshelves and whatever their digital equivalents are. I’m also pretty stoked to be adding a Magical Realist work of genuine global importance to our annual Halloween spooky soiree…

Miguelanxo Prado was born in A Coruña in 1958, and studied architecture before moving into the comics industry. The multi award-winning Galician graphic prodigy has worked for Les Humanoïdes Associés and other European publishers, and released numerous albums such as Chienne de Vie (1988), Manuel Montano (1989), Chroniques absurdes and Ardalén (2012).

He illustrates for others – such as Esquivel’s The Law of Love – and in his other lives writes novels, works as a commercial painter and makes animated movie such De Profundis. If you mainly read mainstream English-language comics you might have enjoyed Prado’s phenomenal painted storytelling on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Endless Nights where he limned ‘Dream: The Heart of a Star’.

His most celebrated work is unarguably Trait de craie, which took Europe by storm in 1993, garnering a boatload of prestigious prizes and trophies from the numerous translated editions (including the one I can read) as Streak of Chalk, which became NBM’s initial ComicsLit Imprint release in 1994…

Now, to celebrate 40 years in the business, NBM have released a new-&-improved hardback edition packed with all-new extras that you’d be bonkers to miss.

A moody lyrical and deliciously brooding dark affair, the story deals with a remote island and its effect on the two regular inhabitants when strangers arrive…

Beautiful and desolate, the expansive rock appears on no maps and offers little more than an abandoned lighthouse, a general store and a huge jetty where occasional visitors (seldom more than two boats a year) scrawl graffiti messages and bon mots before sailing away again…

When solitary sailor Raul ties up at the height of summer, the wall of scrawls fascinates him. Soon he is sharing the sullen but expansive hospitality of the trading post/hotel run by dowdy Sara and her brutish son Dimas. Everyone seems to be mutually looking for company, gossip and something else. Something intangible…

There is another mariner visiting, but she is a returnee and a woman who fiercely treasures her privacy. Despite Raul’s awkward preoccupation with Ana, the blond enigma wants nothing to do with the newcomer. His conviction is that persistence will eventually win her over…

The sultry, sluggish tension grows more oppressive when a third vessel arrives, carrying two boisterous and unsavoury men. Sara is even more withdrawn: nothing good has ever happened when three boats moor at the same time…

Tragically, she is quickly proved right in the most appalling manner, but after the bloodletting stops, Raul incredulously discovers that something impossible is happening and that he is bewilderingly mired right in the middle of it all…

Enticing and intoxicating, this tale unfolds at the pace of a seeping wound and is as impossible to ignore. A graphic narrative masterpiece in every sense of the term, Streak of Chalk gets under your skin and stays with you long after the final page is turned.

However, before that happens this expanded Second Edition offers an enchanting Epilogue chapter plus an Afterword by Prado, a tribute sequence set on the island starring International Treasure Corto Maltese in ‘A Tribute to Hugo Pratt’ and a wealth of Additional Material, offering sketches, roughs designs, maps of the island, framing studies in ink and paint and covers for various foreign language editions.

One of comics’ most powerful achievements, this is a grown-up book no fan should ignore.
© 2003, 2017 Miguelanxo Prado, represented by Norma Editorial S.A. © 1994, 2017 NBM for the English translation.

John Constantine, Hellblazer volume 1: Original Sins (New Edition)


By Jamie Delano, Rick Veitch, John Ridgway, Alfredo Alcala, Tom Mandrake, Brett Ewins, Jim McCarthy & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-300-6-7

Originally created by Alan Moore during his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing, John Constantine is a mercurial modern wizard, a dissolute chancer who plays like an addict with magic on his own terms for his own ends. He is not a hero. He is not a nice person. Sometimes though, he’s all there is between us and the void…

Given his own series by popular demand, Constantine premiered at the height of Thatcherite Barbarism in Britain, during the dying days of Reaganite Atrocity in the US, to become a founding father of DC’s adult-oriented Vertigo imprint.

This collection is available in paperback and digital formats, collecting John Constantine, Hellblazer #1-9 plus crossover chapters from Swamp Thing #76-77; cumulatively spanning January to October 1988 and beginning a renaissance in comicbook horror that thrives to this day.

Back in 1987 Creative Arts and Liberal Sentiments were dirty words in many quarters and the readership of Vertigo was pretty easy to profile. British scripter Jamie Delano began the series with a relatively safe horror-comic plot about an escaped hunger demon, introducing us to Constantine’s unpleasant nature and odd acquaintances – such as Papa Midnite – in a tale of infernal possession and modern voodoo, but even then, discriminating fans were aware of a welcome anti-establishment political line and metaphorical underpinnings.

‘Hunger’ and ‘A Feast of Friends’ also established another vital fact. Anyone who got too close to John Constantine tended to end very badly, very quickly…

‘Going for It’ then successfully equated Conservative Britain with Hell, with demons trading souls on their own stock market and Yuppies getting ahead in the rat race by selling short. Set on Election Day 1987, this potent pastiche never loses sight of its goal to entertain, whilst making telling points about humanity, individuality and society.

Constantine’s cousin Gemma and tantalising splinters of his Liverpool childhood are revealed in ‘Waiting for the Man’: a tale of abduction and ghosts which introduces disturbing Christian fundamentalists the Resurrection Crusade, and a mysterious woman known only as Zed.

America is once again the focus of terror in ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ as the Vietnam war breaks out again in rural Iowa, before we pop back to Blighty for ‘Extreme Predjudice’.

Skinheads, racism demons and more abound as Delano cannily joins up lots of previously unconnected dots to reveal a giant storyline in the making. The Damnation Army are up to something, but nobody knows who they are. Now everything’s going bad and somehow Zed and the Resurrection Crusade are at the heart of it all…

Brett Ewins & Jim McCarthy briefly replace magnificent regular artist John Ridgway for the first three pages of ‘Ghost in the Machine’, before the beautifully restrained and poignantly humanistic stylism returns with Constantine further unraveling the Damnation plot by catching up with the Coming Thing: the cutting edge mysticism dubbed cyber-shamanism.

In Delano’s world the edges between science and magic aren’t blurred – they simply don’t exist…

Alfredo Alcala signs on as inker with ‘Intensive Care’ and the drama ramps up to a full gallop as the plans of both Crusade and Army are revealed, and the value and purpose of Zed are finally exposed. All Constantine can do in response is make the first of many bad bargains with Hell….

The volume then takes a stranger turn due to the nature of periodical publishing…

The storyline in Hellblazer #1-8 ran contiguously, before converging with Swamp Thing, wherein the wizard reluctantly lends his physical body to the planetary plant elemental so that the vegetable guardian can impregnate its human girlfriend Abigail Arcane.

Thus, in the ninth issue, there’s a kind of dissolute holding pattern in play as the weary wizard confronts the ghosts of all the people he’s gotten killed to allow all the pieces to be suitably arranged. ‘Shot to Hell’ (Delano, Ridgway & Alcala) then neatly segues into Swamp Thing #76-77 for the conception of a new messiah. Sort of…

The post-Alan Moore Swamp Thing comics were long neglected after the author’s departure, but eventually fans realised that writer-artist Rick Veitch – aided by veteran inker Alcala – produced a stunning sequence of mini-classics well worthy of serious scrutiny. The issues built on Moore’s cerebral, visceral writing as the world’s planet elemental became increasingly involved with ecological matters.

Having decided to “retire”, Swamp Thing (an anthropomorphic plant with the personality and mind of murdered biologist Alec Holland) was charged by his ephemeral overlords in “the Green” with facilitating the creation of his/its successor. However, the ancient and agonising process was contaminated by consecutive failures and false starts, leading to a horrendous series of abortive creatures and a potentially catastrophic Synchronicity Maelstrom.

Alec, “wife” Abigail and the chillingly charismatic Constantine are eventually compelled to combine forces – and indeed some body-fluids – in ‘L’Adoration de la Terre’ (Swamp Thing #76, by Veitch & Alcala) – to create a solution before the resultant chaos-storm destroys the Earth.

The process is not with risk – or shame – but the affair is brought to a successful conclusion in ‘Infernal Tringles’ (Swamp Thing #77, and with Tom Mandrake pencilling) and with terrestrial order restored, the participants go their separate ways… but the events have affected them all in ways that will have terrible repercussions in the months and years to come…

Rounding out the so-sophisticated spook-fest is an original covers gallery by Dave McKean and John Totleben, and an “in-world” exposé of Constantine by faux journalist Satchmo Hawkins in ‘Faces on the Street’.

Also included are other relics of the antihero’s sordid past such as the lyrics from Venus of the hardsell – a single from John’s aberrant punk band mucous membrane – plus extracts from the magician’s medical file whilst he was an inmate of the Ravenscar Secure Psychiatric Facility

Delivered by creators capable and satiric, but still wedded to the basic tenets of their craft, these superb examples of contemporary horror fiction – inextricably linking politics, religion, human nature and sheer bloody-mindedness as the root cause of all ills – are still powerfully engaging. Beautifully constructed, they make a truly abominable character seem an admirable force for our survival. The art is clear, understated and subtly subversive while the slyly witty, innovative stories jangle at the subconscious with scratchy edginess.

This is a book no fear-fan should be without.
© 1987, 1988, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Dope


Adapted by Trina Robbins from the novel by Sax Rohmer (It’s Alive/IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-957-8

The 1980s were a hugely fertile time for American comics-creators. An entire new industry started with the birth of the Direct Sales market and – as dedicated specialist retail outlets sprung up all over the country (operated by fans for fans) – new companies experimented with formats and content whilst eager readers celebrated the happy coincidence that everybody seemed to have a bit of extra cash to play with.

Most importantly, much of the “kid’s stuff” stigma finally dissipated. America was catching up to the rest of the world in acknowledging that sequential narrative might just be a for-real actual art-form able to handle sophisticated themes and notions…

Consequently, many new publishers were soon competing for the attention and cash of punters who had grown resigned to getting their on-going picture stories from DC, Marvel, Archie and/or Harvey Comics. European and Japanese material had been creeping in and by 1983 a host of young companies such as WaRP Graphics, Pacific, Capital, Now, Comico, Vortex, First, Dark Horse and many others had established themselves and were making impressive inroads.

New talent, established stars and fresh ideas all found a thriving forum to try something a little different both in terms of content and format. Even smaller companies had a fair shot at the big time and a lot of great material came – and too often, as quickly went – without getting the attention or success it warranted.

At the forefront of the revolution – and a perfect example – was publisher Eclipse Comics who entered the arena at the start in 1981 with a black-&-white anthology magazine, quickly followed up by a terrific line of genre titles crafted by the industry’s top talents and emerging superstars.

Although the fledglings were gone a decade later, their influence lives on, as does much of the material they originally released, picked up, reprinted and expanded upon by more fortunate successors…

The latest long-overdue returnee is a decades-anticipated and awaited (by me at the very least) cartoon compilation of a scarce-remembered book adaptation. The inspirational tome was a scandalous classic of crime and debauchery from a semi-mythical era penned by Sax Rohmer who is mostly remembered for inventing the ultimate personification of stranger-danger Fu Manchu.

Starting its serialised run in oversized monochrome anthology Eclipse (The) Magazine and concluding in the pages of full-colour indie anthology Eclipse Monthly, Sax Rohmer’s Dope was deftly adapted by pioneering cartoonist Trina Robbins, beginning in the second issue (July 1981) and featuring all the rest until the 8th and final one (January 1983). Uncompleted, the saga continued and climaxed over the first three issues of Eclipse Monthly (August – October 1983) before promptly vanishing from view despite its magazine stablemates such as Ms. Tree, I Am Coyote, Ragamuffins, Masked Man and others all going on to greater success – and collected editions…

Here then at last is Trina Robbins’ lost masterpiece: a moody interpretation of a rather infamous and groundbreaking book – sensationally based on the first recorded celebrity death due to drugs abuse and available as a sturdy monochrome hardback or digital edition…

The stark shenanigans are preceded by an effusive Foreword from artist and publisher C. Spike Trotman, and a revelatory, reminiscing Introduction by Robbins herself, disclosing the origins of her adaptation whilst confronting head-on the dreadful truth: Dope was a book of its time, unashamedly racist, as was its author.

Trina then makes a rock solid and potently valid case for why we elevated 21st centurians should read it anyway…

The astounding black-&-white shocker opens in ‘London, 1919’ as sound fellow Quentin Gray meets up with fellow swells Mrs. Irvin and her raffish companion Sir Lucien Pyne before being introduced to the seductive and tantalising half-world of the High Society drugs scene as disseminated through the machinations of ostensible perfume trader Sheikh El Kazmah

It’s the same old story: flighty Rita Irvin has succumbed to addiction but has no more money. Yet still she baulks when the seedy dealer suggests another manner of payment…

‘Chapter Two: The Fatal Cigarette’ opens a little later when Quentin greets formidable government official Commissioner Seton (recently returned from the east where he earned the title “Pasha” for his services to the Empire). The wise authoritarian has come to view the recently expired corpse of Pyne: stabbed to death soon after Gray left him and now lying in Kazmah’s apartments. Of Rita there is no sign…

On later meeting Rita’s physician Dr. Margaret Halley, Quentin’s disquiet grows. The boldly modern young woman even demands he throw away the cigarettes Pyne gave him before she speaks further. Of course, he had no idea until she warned him that they were laced with opium…

‘Chapter Three: A Star is Born – and Falls’ relates the sad tale of rising theatrical sensation Rita Dresden and how the nightly pressures of performing were temporarily assuaged by the scheming Pyne who offered her comfort and calming chemical gifts: comforts that she soon could not do without…

Rita’s fall retroactively continues in ‘Chapter Four: Pipe Dreams’ as she is introduced into a dope ring of well-heeled degenerates: attending the “poppy parties” of Mr. Cyrus Kilfane and encountering the striking and sinister Lola Sin

Fleeing that debauched debacle, Rita literally ran into well-meaning Monte Irvin and was almost saved.

Almost…

Chapter Five: Limehouse Blues’ relates how the triply-addicted (veronal, cocaine and opium) Rita decides to marry Monte but cannot shake the corrupting influence of Pyne, his circle of privileged peers and the implacable beast her addiction has become…

Even her marriage proves no bulwark and ‘Chapter Six: To the Brink’ sees the new bride drawn into a cycle of abuse and exploitation as Madame Sin and her enigmatic husband fleece the newlywed and seek to use her to expand their clientele…

Events rush towards a sordid yet inevitable conclusion in ‘Chapter Seven: Mollie Gets Amorous’ as Gray, Seton and formidable Police Chief Inspector Kerry close in on the poppy club and the nefarious dealers; leading to a daring Limehouse raid in Chapter Eight: A Visit to Sin’ with shocking disclosures in Chapter Nine: Above and Below’ and the exposing of even darker secrets and an intoxicating conclusion in Chapter Ten: The Song of Sin Sin Wa’

Following an in insightful Afterword from groundbreaking cartoonist Colleen Doran, Jon B. Cooke offers a wealth of background and historical context in ‘Sax, Drugs, and the Yellow Peril’: describing the nativity of Rohmer’s novel and the very real scandal of London actress and Society ingenue Billie Carleton whose death from a cocaine overdose rocked the Empire and beyond in 1918.

The photo-filled feature section also offers “Background Dope” sidebars on Rohmer’s ‘The Red Kerry Mysteries’, ‘Her Other Drugs of Choice’, ‘Slumming in the East End’ and ‘The Devil Doctor in Comics’ as well as a captivating ‘Trina Robbins Biographical Sketch’ and other contributors.

Potent, innovative, powerful and – in comicbook terms at least – a damned fine read, Dope is a sheer delight no lover of the graphic medium should miss and this hard-hitting stylish hardback may be the best thing you’ll buy this year.
Dope © 1981-2017 Trina Robbins. Foreword © 2017 C. Spike Trotman. “Sax, Drugs, and the Yellow Peril”, Trina Robbins bio © 2017 Jon B. Cooke. Afterword © 2017 Colleen Doran. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: The Killing Game


By Peter O’Donnell & Enric Badia Romero (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78565-300-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Blockbuster Derring-do and the Perfect Postprandial Tonic… 9/10

Infallible super-criminals Modesty Blaise and her lethally charming, compulsively platonic, equally adept partner Willie Garvin gained fearsome reputations heading underworld gang The Network. They then retired young, rich and healthy.

With honour intact and their hands relatively clean, they cut themselves off completely from careers where they made all the money they would ever need and far too many enemies: a situation exacerbated by their heartfelt conviction that killing was only ever to be used as a last resort.

When devious British Spymaster Sir Gerald Tarrant sought them out, they were slowly dying of boredom in England. The wily old bird offered them a chance to have fun, get back into harness and do a bit of good in the world. They jumped at his offer and have been cleaning up the dregs of society in their own unique manner ever since …

From that tenuous beginning in ‘La Machine’ (see Modesty Blaise: the Gabriel Set-Up) the dynamic duo went on to crush the world’s vilest villains and most macabre monsters in a never-ending succession of tense suspense and inspirational action for more than half a century. And now this final 30th collected paperback album completes their astounding run of newspaper strip escapades leaving us dedicated devotees delighted and simultaneously bereft…

The inseparable associates debuted in The Evening Standard on 13th May 1963 and over the passing decades went on to star in some of the world’s most memorable crime fiction, all in approximately three panels a day.

Creators Peter O’Donnell & Jim Holdaway (who had previously collaborated on Romeo Brown – a lost strip classic just as deserving of its own archive albums) crafted a timeless treasure trove of brilliant graphic escapades until the illustrator’s tragic early death in 1970, whereupon Spanish artist Enric Badia Romero (and occasionally John Burns, Neville Colvin and Pat Wright) assumed the art reins, taking the partners-in-peril to even greater heights.

The series has been syndicated world-wide and Modesty has starred in numerous prose novels, short-story collections, several films, a TV pilot, a radio play, an original American graphic novel from DC, a serial on BBC Radio 4 and in nearly one hundred comic adventures until the strip’s conclusion in 2001 with the trio of titanic tales collected in this volume.

The pictorial exploits comprise a broad blend of hip adventuring lifestyle and cool capers; combining espionage, crime, intrigue and even – now and again – plausibly intriguing sci fi and supernaturally-tinged horror genre fare, with ever-competent Modesty and Willie canny, deadly, yet all-too-fallibly human defenders of the helpless and avengers of the wronged…

Reproduced in stark and stunning monochrome – as is only right and fitting – Titan Books’ superb and scrupulously chronological serial re-presentations of the ultimate cool trouble-shooters conclude here, with O’Donnell & Romero offering three last masterpieces of mood, mystery, mayhem and macabre mirth. The high-octane drama is preceded by a brace of preambles: affecting reminiscence ‘Modesty and Me’ from O’Donnell’s grandson Paul Michael and the true secret of writing the perfect comic strip in the author’s own ‘All in the Mind’, penned before his death in 2010.

The pulse-pounding pictorial perils premiere with ‘The Last Aristocrat’ (originally running in The Evening Standard from December 16th 1999-19th May 2000), as old – and mostly unwanted – acquaintance Guido the Jinx embroils Willie, Sir Gerald and Modesty in his last journalistic scoop.

Sadly, the stakes this time are terrifyingly high, as a former criminal rival returns selling grotesque bacterial weapons of mass destruction forcing the dynamic duo to infiltrate an island fortress to prevent a disastrous terrorist coup…

As ever each tale is introduced by a connected celebrity: Daphne Alexander who plays Modesty in the BBC radio series adds her thoughts to the first and final adventures whilst eponymous central story ‘The Killing Game’ (22nd May June-October 17th) benefits from the insights of Radio Drama Producer Kate MCall.

Here Modesty and Willie are abducted from an innocent British Church Fete by a cabal of ultra-rich, exceedingly jaded “sportsmen” (and woman), intent on spicing up their annual safari by including the proverbial Most Dangerous Game on their private tropical preserve and in their sights…

Marooned in New Guinea, our heroes experience a debilitating setback when they find a stray teenager and her newborn baby obliviously squatting in the killing fields, but as always, Modesty and Willie are up to the challenge and soon turn predators into prey…

The themes shift to criminal skulduggery and doomsday cults – with just a hint of bloody vengeance – in ‘The Zombie’ (October 10th 2000 to April 11th 2001) as an old associate from Modesty’s Network days is kidnapped for use as leverage…

What seems to be a simple turf war between gangs squabbling for markets get decidedly nasty and strange as the kidnappers are revealed as adherents of computer pioneer Professor Nicomede Katris, whose dream is to replace all the world’s fallible, venal governments with an incorruptible super-computer of his own design.

He knows he’s right: after all, his years of programming his doctrines have transformed his own daughter Leda into a coldly logical killing machine and ideal tool of societal transformation.

The wily Prof only ever made two mistakes: ordering his human zombie to guard empathic, charming abductee Danny Chavasse and presuming he could extrapolate and predict the actions of Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin when they inevitably come for their friend…

These are incomparable capers crafted by brilliant creators at the peak of their powers; revelling in the sheer perfection of an iconic creation. Startling shock and suspense-stuffed escapades packed with sleek sex appeal, dry wit, terrific tension and explosive action, these stories grow more appealing with every rereading and never fail to deliver maximum impact and total enjoyment.

And, hopefully, now that the entire saga has been compiled, we can soon expect sturdy hardback deluxe collections in the manner of the companion James Bond volumes…
Modesty Blaise © 2017 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

Scalped Vol 1: Indian Country


By Jason Aaron & R.M. Guéra (DC Comics/Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1317-6

The Western is a tricky genre to pin down: all at once infinitely re-inventible, compellingly human and shockingly mythic. The genre also enjoys a chameleonic gift for subsuming the unique memes and tropes of other forms of story-making and pitting them against each other.

There are horror westerns, space westerns, comedy westerns and – because time and location aren’t key to our definition – especially crime stories that can be fully acknowledged as being pure Cowboys and Indians…

These revelations have always been best explored in the relatively recent phenomenon of “grim and gritty” comics. Initially the preserve of Good-Guys-In-Tights savagely slaughtering really bad folk instead of arresting them, now the tarnished grime of über-realism can be seen where it belongs – in tales of darkly desperate people facing their greatest challenges.

You don’t need a history degree to know that Native Americans have had a pretty crap time since Europeans colonized their country. However, in recent decades lip-service and guilt have been turned into some minor concessions to the most disadvantaged ethnicity in the USA, and contemporary Federal mandates that allow gambling on officially designated Indian Land have meant a cash bonanza for various tribes on reservations throughout the country. The Indians are getting rich.

Well, some of them are…

Disenchanted son of a 1970s Native American activist, Dashiell Bad Horse ran away from the desolate squalor of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation as soon as he turned fifteen. Now he’s back and although there’s a snazzy new casino, “the Rez” is still a hell-hole and sordid Demilitarized Zone where his people subsist in crushing poverty, still prey to every self-destructive social toxin money or favours can buy or bestow.

Reluctantly Dash takes a sheriff’s job, but he knows he’s actually just another leg-breaker for current Tribal Leader and fully-installed crime boss Lincoln Red Crow. Still, whilst wiping out rival drug and booze gangs for his brooding boss, he is slowly growing closer to the all-powerful Indian Godfather…

The job even provides a number of tantalising, too-tempting fringe benefits, which facilitate Bad Horse finally getting to really know the former rebel who was once his mother’s closest ally in the all-but-forgotten freedom movement.

And that’s good. After all, that’s why the FBI planted him there in the first place…

As concocted by writer Jason Aaron and potently limned by R.M. Guéra, this slow-boiling saga is seedy, violent, overtly sexual and ferociously compelling: a darkly brutal, modern-day Western Noir.

The oddly familiar yet fiercely exotic locale and painfully unchanging foibles of people on the edge make this tale an instant classic and one still available as a either trade paperback or eBook.

Scalped: Indian Country is an uncompromising thriller that hits hard, hits often and hit home. Best of all, it’s just the opening salvo in a lengthy sequence of compulsive confrontations and unwrapped mysteries so why not hold on to your hat and jump right in?
© 2007 Jason Aaron & Rajko Milošević. All Rights Reserved.