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.

Loveless Vol 2: Thicker Than Blackwater


By Brian Azzarello, Marcelo Frusin, Danijel Zezelj, Werther Dell’edera & various (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1250-6

Hitching its wagon firmly to the grimy, gritty, excessively dark and overwhelmingly nihilistic end of the Western genre, Loveless is a bleak and brutal confection, utterly unsanitised and unsuitable for kiddie consumption, but one that seems far closer to historical truth than any six-gun shootout on Main Street or rhinestone spectacle…

In this second stunning collection (still as yet not in digital form) Brian Azzarello and Marcelo Frusin, who did so much to revive and revitalise crime comics genre with 100 Bullets and returned a razor-sharp hard edge to urban supernatural horror in Hellblazer, take a further good hard look at the Western with results both breathtaking and horrific…

The mysteries continue and deepen as the spiritually bereft and morally bankrupt town of Blackwater further festers under Union occupation in the days and months after the American Civil War. The freed slave population are no better off under Northern rule, returning southern men have taken to wearing white sheets whilst exacting bloody reprisals, and the ordinary citizens are terrified that their lives and their secrets will be found out by either the Yankees or ,worse yet, returned Confederate hard man Wes Cutter.

Nobody is sure what Cutter wants. He’s asking uncomfortable questions about the fate of his missing wife, and he doesn’t want to be anybody’s friend. Moreover, since the military commander and his Carpetbagging bosses have insultingly appointed Cutter sheriff of Blackwater, he’s a traitor with the authority to get away with whatever he wants.

How the guilty-as-sin townsfolk react to Occupation Forces, former slave/Union soldier turned bounty hunter Atticus Mann, and the rabble-rousing, murderous renegade Confederate returnees, let alone the despised sheriff, is chillingly and graphically depicted by Danijel Zezelj, Werther Dell’edera and Frusin when the citizens become victims of a sustained campaign of murder…

Combining classic Western themes with contemporary twists such as flamboyant serial killers and protracted murder mysteries, Azzarello even manages to include hot-off-the-presses contemporary political metaphor in this twisted, stark and uncompromising series (collecting issues #6-12 of the monthly Vertigo comicbook).

A brilliant Western and a dazzling adult comic strip.

Get it if you’re old enough and tough enough.
© 2006 Brian Azzarello & Marcelo Frusin. All Rights Reserved.

Secret of San Saba: A Tale of Phantoms and Greed in the Spanish Southwest


By Jack Jackson (Kitchen Sink Press)
ISBN: 978-0-87816-080-8 (HB)                    978-0-87816-081-5 (PB)

I’m reading lots of graphic novels digitally these days, and it’s clear how much superb classic material – especially genre works with war and western themes – isn’t much of priority to content providers yet.

You try tracking down Sam Glanzman’s The Haunted Tank or Joe Kubert Sgt. Rock compilations, or even a relatively well-exposed screen property like Jonah Hex (other than the admittedly superb Justin Grey/Jimmy Palmiotti books of recent vintage) and see what joy you get…

Another such classic omission is this stunningly impressive western/horror mash-up from the inimitable Jack Jackson, still tragically only available in the original oversized (277 x 201 mm) monochrome softcover and hardback album editions, originally published by Kitchen Sink as part of their Death Rattle Series.

Known as ‘Jaxon’ since his Underground Commix heyday, Jackson’s infectious fascination with the history of Texas is a signature of much of his work even from the earliest days. Here the Commix legend expertly combines a love of historical documentary with the fabulous Lovecraftian horrors of the cosmic void, resulting in a breathtaking and wonderful period supernatural thriller, skillfully woven into the fabric and lore of the Southwest desert lands…

When a silvery entity crashes to Earth in a blazing fireball, it galvanises the fading dreams of Xotl, a young Faraone warrior who had lost faith in his gods.

As the years pass, the natives worship the fearsomely fulgent power of the star-fallen thing, and when the mighty Apaches conquer the Faraone, the twice-defeated tribe turn to the newly arrived Europeans for help. This is a tragic mistake, revealed too late, after the tribe finds that Priests and Colonists might speak of God but only truly worship wealth.

When the newcomers learn of the Cosmic Slug that fell from the stars, all they can see is the overwhelming wealth its silver mantle represents…

The decades-long battle between Apaches and Missionaries to control the slimy silver wellspring makes for a powerful if cynical tale, full of the intoxicating artistry, spellbinding storytelling, and the mesmerising aura of authenticity that is Jackson’s most telling narrative tool.

Based on the ancient Texas stories and legends of ‘Blanco’ and ‘Negro Bultos’ (supernatural treasure mounds), this most fantastic story should be, has to be true, if only because he has drawn it.

Superbly compelling, this is a must-read item for any serious fan of both comics and horror fiction, so let’s have it back and out in every format possible, pretty please…
© 1989 Jack Jackson. All rights reserved.

Pyongyang – A Journey in North Korea


By Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly Books/Jonathan Cape)
ISBN: 978-0-22407-990-7

The world is always on the brink of extinction. That’s just the way it is. However, it’s perhaps comforting to be reminded that even the most demonised of boogeymen are fundamentally human too. So let’s take a peek at some graphic reportage from a temporary insider once au fait with and allowed access to a nation currently running equal first in the highly-competitive “Earth’s craziest ruler” stakes…

The only things I knew about North Korea I picked up from too many comics (mostly American) and television, so this engaging book was a rather surprising delight. As much lyrical travelogue as pithy autobiography, it relates the bemused culture shock of inveterate traveller and Canadian animator Guy Delisle, who, whilst possessing a French work-permit, was invited behind what was once dubbed “the Bamboo Curtain” to train and supervise Korean artists as a film production supervisor.

Cheap animators, as you are probably well-aware, are one of the few resources that North Korea can use as a means of securing capital from the decadent West – well, at least at the time this anxious odyssey was recorded…

What Delisle discovered and illustrates here both reinforces and explodes much of the modern mythology surrounding the world’s only communist dynasty.

Using a simplified, utilitarian style he depicts and deconstructs an utterly alien environment that is nevertheless populated with people who are so very similar to ourselves, even though the citizens do their utmost not to let it show. Pyongyang is stuffed with nuggets of revelation, dryly observed by the innocuous author.

Gently-paced and often dream-like in quality, the humorous tone and genteel accessibility of the illustration accentuates an oddly-strictured, constantly buttoned-down sense of foreboding.

Allowed only one book (in his case, perhaps unwisely, Orwell’s 1984) which must be donated to the State on leaving the country, and a CD Walkman (as personal radios are banned) Delisle’s airport interrogation is sheer mental torture.

Only once we’ve been thoroughly immersed in the culture and experienced the personal foibles of the limited number people he is allowed to meet does the placidly compliant Delisle surprise us by revealing that he risked everything by rashly smuggling in a tiny radio so he could get more than state-controlled information – and entertainment!

Subtly playing with the ominous reputation of part of “The Axis of Evil”, Delisle has produced a readable, gentle, non-discriminating reverie that informs and charms with surprising effect.

In this period of heightened thermonuclear tensions, this is a tale more timely than ever.
© 2003, 2005 Guy Delisle and L’Association. All Rights Reserved.

Adventures in the Rifle Brigade


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sgt. Rock: Between Hell & a Hard Place


By Joe Kubert & Brian Azzarello (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0053-4 (HC)                   978-1-4012-0054-1 (PB)

Sgt Rock and Easy Company rank amongst the greatest and most influential – if not enduring – creations of the American comic-book industry. The gritty meta-realism of Robert Kanigher’s ordinary guys in life-or-death situations captured the imaginations of generations of readers, young and old.

Most closely associated with those characters is legendary creator Joe Kubert, who worked as artist, writer, editor and educator since the earliest days of the medium. So, after a hiatus of many years, when a new Rock edition was announced in the early days of the 21st century, the artist was never in doubt.

Brian Azzarello was one of a vanishingly small pool of potential scripters for the proposed venture and the results of their collaboration was a powerful, if simplistic, morality play about the nature of killing. And, most importantly, it’s a damn’ fine read.

War is hell, but the killings are somehow justifiable if your country tells you so. How then does a moral man, a soldier, react when the life-taking moves beyond the acceptable parameters laid down by his superiors?

When Rock and his men capture four enemy officers after a frantic battle, the Nazis are taken prisoner and treated according to the Articles of War. The next morning three are dead and the fourth is missing. The Germans have all been executed at close range whilst confined…

Immediately a cloud of suspicion descends on the previously close-knit unit of G.I.s. Was it the missing prisoner, or is one of their own capable of the kind of atrocity they’re all fighting to end?

…And even so, don’t these monsters possibly deserve it? Rock must find all the answers. Not simply to restore his faith and trust, but because it’s the right thing to do.

As much detective mystery as war story, this is a searching and haunting re-examination of the most telling quandary of conflict. Why is dealing death right sometimes and not others? I can’t promise you answers, but the questions have seldom been asked in as striking or beautiful a manner.

Miraculously still available in both hardcover and paperback editions – but you’re plain out of luck if you like to revel in the delights of an electronic reader – challenging combat tales such as this one seem set to make a comeback considering the parlous state of world affairs, so why not get ahead of the curve now?
© 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Quitter


By Harvey Pekar & Dean Haspiel (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1401203993 (HC)                        978-1401204006(PB)

Before finding relative fame in the 21st century, Harvey Pekar occupied that ghastly niche so good at trapping truly creative individuals: lots and lots of critical acclaim and occasional heart-crushingly close brushes with super-stardom (which everyone except him felt he truly deserved) but never actually getting enough ahead to feel secure or appreciated.

In the 1970s, whilst palling around with Robert Crumb, Pekar began crafting compelling documentary narratives of ordinary, blue-collar life – primarily his own – and over successive decades invented “literary comics”. Despite negligible commercial success, the activity fulfilled some deep inner need and he persevered in his self-publishing and soul-searching.

One of those brushes with the Big Time came in the 1980s with the release of two compilations by mainstream publisher Doubleday of selected strips from his American Splendor comicbooks. To this day those tomes remain some of the most powerful, honest and rewarding comics ever seen.

By mercilessly haranguing, begging and even paying – out of his meagre civil service wages, and the occasional wheeler-deal or barter bonanza – any artists who met his exacting intellectual standards, Pekar soldiered on, inadvertently creating the comics genre of autobiographical, existentially questing, slice-of-life graphic narratives. And that was when he wasn’t eking out a mostly solitary, hand-to-mouth existence in Cleveland, Ohio.

How the irascible, opinionated, objectionable, knowledge-hungry, self-educated, music-mad working stiff came to use the admittedly (then) impoverished comicbook medium to make a fiercely vital social commentary on American life for the “ordinary Joe” is a magical journey into the plebeian far better read than read about, so go do that if you haven’t already.

Life picked up late for Harvey Pekar – mostly through an award-winning movie of his career and the publication of Our Cancer Year (a stunning documentation of his and third wife Joyce Brabner’s response to his disease).

This all led to an elevated and celebrated glitterati status, allowing him the opportunity to produce even more personal and compelling tales such as The Beats, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me and The Quitter.

For all of that time he lived in Cleveland, Ohio and the city is as much a character in all his autobiographical works as the man himself. An irrepressible autodidact in the truest sense of the term, Pekar made it his business to learn everything about anything he was interested in… and he could be initially interested in everything.

Harvey Pekar died in 2010, aged 70.

First released in 2005, The Quitter is a bleak, coldly funny and often painful self-examination of a troubled and driven young outsider in a society gradually becoming a bit of a disappointment. All the trademark Pekar concerns are present: success with women, financial security, success in relationships, history, literature, success in a culture that won’t tolerate failure – or even mediocrity – and respect, all viewed through the fresh eyes of a troubled adolescent.

Harvey Pekar was never ordinary, and here he turns the autobiographical spotlight on his shameful early propensities to avoid potential failure by pre-emptive surrender and seek trouble or disputes he could settle disputes with his fists. The result is intellectual and emotional dynamite…

Pekar’s subtle mastery, gloriously illustrated by the simply magical monochrome artwork of Dean Haspiel, is to convey these dark themes in a compelling and frankly joyous manner.

Always gripping, never depressing, and utterly absorbing, The Quitter is, as its hype describes, some of his best work yet, and I’m aggrieved beyond explaining that his unique narrative voice has finally been stilled.

Still available in hardback or paperback editions, but not regrettably in digital form yet…
© 2005 Harvey Pekar & Dean Haspiel. All Rights Reserved.