From Headrack to Claude – Collected Gay Comix of Howard Cruse


By Howard Cruse (Nifty Kitsch Press/Northwest Press)
ISBN: 978-0-578-03251-1 (TPB)

It’s long been an aphorism – if not an outright cliché – that Gay (or we could be contemporary and say LGBTQ) comics have long been the only place in the graphic narrative business to see real romance in all its joy, pain, glee and glory.

It’s still true: an artefact, I suppose, of a society seemingly obsessed with demarcating and separating sex and love as two utterly different and possibly even opposite things. I prefer to think that here in the 21st century – at least in most sensible, civilised parts of it – we’ve outgrown the juvenile, judgemental, bad old days and can simply appreciate powerfully moving and/or funny comics about people of all sorts without any kind of preconception, but that battle’s still not completely won yet. Hopefully, compendia such as this will aid the fight…

Oh, and there’s sex and swearing so if you’re the kind of person liable to be upset by words and pictures of an adult nature (such as joyous, loving fornication between two people separated by age, wealth, social position and race who happily possess and constantly employ the same type of naughty bits on each other, or sly mockery of deeply-held, outmoded and ludicrous beliefs) then go away and read something else.

In fact, just go away: you have no romance in your soul or love in your heart.

Howard Cruse has enjoyed a remarkable cartooning career which has spanned decades and encompassed a number of key moments in American history and social advancement.

Beginning as a hippy-trippy, counter-culture, Underground Comix star with beautifully drawn, witty, funny (not always the same thing in those days – or now, come to think of it) strips, his work has evolved over the years into a powerful voice for change in both sexual and race politics through such superb features as Wendel and his masterpiece Stuck Rubber Baby – an examination of oppression, tolerance and freedoms in 1950s America.

Since then he has become a columnist, worked on other writers’ work, illustrating an adaptation of Jeanne E. Shaffer’s The Swimmer With a Rope In His Teeth and continued his own unique brand of cartoon commentary.

Born in 1944 the son of a Baptist Minister in Birmingham, Alabama, Cruse grew up amid the smouldering intolerance of the region’s segregationist regime; an atmosphere that shaped him on a primal level. He escaped to Birmingham-Southern College to study Drama in the late ’60s, graduating and winning a Shubert Playwriting Fellowship to Penn State University.

Campus life there never really suited him and he dropped out in 1969. Returning to the South he joined a loose crowd of fellow Birmingham Bohemians which allowed him to blossom as a creator and by 1971 was drawing a spectacular procession of strips for an increasingly hungry and growing crowd of eager admirers.

Whilst working for a local TV station as both designer and children’s show performer he created a kid’s newspaper strip about talking squirrels, Tops & Button, still finding time to craft the utterly whimsical and bizarre tales of a romantic quadrangle starring a very nice young man and his troublesome friends for the more discerning college crowd he remained in contact with. The strips appeared in a variety of college newspapers and periodicals

He was “discovered” by publishing impresario Denis Kitchen in 1972 who began disseminating Barefootz to a far broader audience in such Underground publications as Snarf, Bizarre Sex, Dope Comix and Commies From Mars: all published by his much-missed Kitchen Sink Enterprises outfit.

Kitchen also hired Cruse to work on an ambitious co-production with rising powerhouse Marvel Comics, attempting to bring a somewhat sanitised version of the counter-culture’s cartoon stars and sensibilities to the mainstream via The Comix Book: a traditionally packaged and distributed newsstand magazine. It only ran to a half-dozen issues and, although deemed a failure, provided the notionally more wholesome and genteel Barefootz with a larger audience and yet more avid fans…

As well as an actor, designer, art-director and teacher, Cruse has appeared in Playboy, The Village Voice, Heavy Metal, Artforum International, The Advocate and Starlog among countless others, yet the tireless storyman found the time and resources to self-publish Barefootz Funnies, two comic collections of his addictively whimsical strip in 1973.

Here in a captivatingly forthright grab-bag and memoir gathering the snippets and classics left out of previous must-have collections The Compete Wendel and Early Barefootz, Cruse traces his development through his cartoons and strips, all thoroughly and engagingly annotated and contextualised by the author himself and fondly, candidly explored through a backdrop of the men he loved at the time.

This book was originally self-published in 2008 and is now available digitally – with updates and extra material – from those wonderful people at Northwest Press.

Acting as an historical place-setter, Cruse’s informative ‘Preface’ sets the ball rolling, laconically tracing his artistic career and development and using domestic autobiographical strip ‘Communique’ (from Heavy Metal) as a smart indicator of his home life at the time before a more detailed exploration overview of the Queer comics scene in ‘From Miss Thing to Jane’s World’ before the book truly begins.

For a better, fuller understanding you’ll really want to see both the Wendell and Barefootz collections but for now we relive history in first chapter ‘Artefacts & Benchmarks’ Part 1: 1969-76 blending contextualising prose recollection with noteworthy strip ‘That Night at the Stonewall’, advertising art, abortive newspaper strip sample, an episode of Tops & Button, and other published work plus gay sitcom feature ‘Cork & Dork’.

An early example of advocacy comes from wry cartoon homily ‘The Passer-By’ before more reminiscences and picture extracts take us to an uncharacteristically strident and harsh breakthrough.

Preceded by explanatory sidebar ‘Backstory: Gravy on Gay’ we are introduced to Barefootz’, way-out friend confidante and openly gay hippy rebel Headrack in ‘Gravy on Gay’: in which the laid-back easy-going artist is confronted with the ugly, mouthy side of modern living as voiced by obnoxious jock jerk Mort

The march of progress continues in Artefacts & Benchmarks’ Part 2: 1976-80, detailing a variety of comics jobs from Dope Comix and Snarf to the semi-legitimacy of Playboy and Starlog and first meeting with life partner and eventual husband Eddie Sedarbaum before My Strips from Gay Comix 1980-90 traces his editorial career on the landmark anthology by reprints his own strip contributions.

It all begins with ‘Billy Goes Out’: recalling the joyous – or it that empty and tedious? – hedonistic freedoms of the days immediately before the AIDS crisis…

Incisive cloaked autobiographical fable ‘Jerry Mack’ takes us inside the turbulent mind of an ultra-closeted church minister in full regretful denial after which further heartbreak is called up in devious tragedy ‘I Always Cry at Movies…’ and home chores are dealt with in a manly manner in ‘Getting Domestic’.

Some historical and political insight is offered in ‘Backstory: Dirty Old Lovers’ before the outrageous and hilarious antics of the oldest lovers in town scandalise the Gay community in ‘Dirty Old Lovers’, whilst the thinking behind clarion call ‘Safe Sex’ is detailed in a ‘Backstory’ article prior to a straightforward examination of Acquired Immune-Deficiency Syndrome and its effects on personal health and public consciousness…

Surreal comedy infuses the tale of a man’s man and his adored ‘Cabbage Patch Clone’ after which faux ad ‘I Was Trapped Naked inside the Jockey Shorts of the Amazing Colossal Man!’ and Matt Groening spoof ‘Gay Dorks in Fezzes’ closes this chapter to make way for Topical Strips 1983-93.

With Cruse’s particular brand of LGBT commentary reaching more mainstream audiences through publications such as The Village Voice, a brief ‘Backstory’ relates the author’s ultimately unnecessary anxiety to inviting in the wider world through polemical sally ‘Sometimes I Get So Mad’ and wickedly pointed social and media satire ‘The Gay in the Street’. Both that oracular swipe and ‘1986 – An Interim Epilogue’ are also deconstructed by Backstory segments (the latter being a 2-page addendum created for the Australian release of ‘Safe Sex’ in Art & Text magazine) before ‘Backstory: Penceworth’ reveals one of Margaret Thatcher’s vilest moments. In 1988 her government attempted to send back sexual freedom to the Stone Age (or Russia, Nigeria and other uncivilised countries today) by prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality”. The law in Britain – (un)popularly known as Clause 28 – was resisted on many fronts, including the benefit comic AARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia). Invited to contribute, Cruse channelled Hillaire Belloc’s Cautionary Verses and excoriatingly assaulted the New Nazism with ‘Penceworth’: a charming illustrated poem like a spiked cosh snuggled inside a velvet slipper…

Luxuriating in righteous indignation and taking his lead from the New York Catholic Church’s militant stance against the LGBT community, Cruse then illuminated a supposed conference between ‘The Kardinal & the Klansman in Manning the Phone Bank’ and targeted similar anti-gay codicils in America’s National Endowment for the Arts in ‘Homoeroticism Blues’

Another Backstory explains how and why a scurrilous article in Cosmopolitan resulted in ‘The Woeful World of Winnie and Walt’ – a complacency-shattering tale in Strip AIDS USA pointedly reminding White Heterosexuals that the medical horror wasn’t as discriminating as they would like to believe…

That theme is revisited with the kid gloves off in ‘His Closet’, after which ‘Backstory: Rainbow Curriculum Comix’ and ‘The Educator’ clarify how School Board rabble-rouser Mary Cummings set back decades of progress in American diversity education through her oratorical witch hunts. Cruse’s potent responses ‘Rainbow Curriculum Comix’ and ‘The Educator’ follow…

Cruse has been relatively quiet in recent years, and the artist’s Late Entries 2000-08 follow, including a full-colour rebuttal fromm Village Voice to Dr. Bruce Bagemihl’s study on animal homosexuality. ‘A Zoo of Our Own’ is accompanied by a fulsome Backstory and is followed by wry and engaging modern fable ‘My Hypnotist’ and semi-autobiographical conundrum ‘Then There Was Claude’ before the bemused wonderment wraps up with prose article ‘I Must Be Important ‘Cause I’m in a Documentary (2011)’ and a superb Batman pin-up/put down…

This is a superb compilation: smart, funny, angry when needful and always astonishingly entertaining.
© 1976-2008 Howard Cruse. All rights reserved.

For further information and great stuff check out Howardcruse.com

Tramps Like Us volume 1


By Yayoi Ogawa (Tokyopop)
ISBN: 978-1-595321-39-8

Returning to TV screens in 2017 – for the second adaptation since the manga originally debuted – this intriguing, introspective love story offers a beguiling and surprisingly tasteful exploration of modern relationships at the margins of societal norms.

Eventually wracking-up 14 collected volumes, the series originated from stand-alone story ‘Pet’ published in the June 2000 issue of Kiss Carnival. It quickly reappeared in expanded form in Kiss as ‘Kimi wa Pet’: running to 82 chapters between December 2000 and October 2005.

The serial was a global comics hit, translated into many languages and spawning a Japanese live action TV drama series airing in 2003 and a South Korean movie in 2011 plus – as previously mentioned – a new television iteration.

Sumire Iwaya is a thoroughly modern woman, with a good job, promising prospects and all her priorities properly sorted. But like so many career women – especially in Japan – the romantic side of her life is problematic.

Comfortably situated but still recovering from a messy affair with the boss’s son, she is constantly evaluating her admittedly high relationship standards. What this actually means is that most of the time now she’s tired, stressed and terribly, terribly lonely.

For no reason she can explain then, when she one day discovers a beautiful young man inhabiting a dumpster, Sumire grudgingly gives him shelter in her home. The full-grown waif appears to be an utter innocent: vital, energetic and totally without guile – or manners…

Fed up with her life and with the kind of men she seems to attract, the salary woman enters into a bizarre pact with the vagrant. Naming him Momo – after a dog she had as a child – Sumire adopts him as her secret pet.

She will feed, bathe and pamper him in return for companionship, warmth and the kind of unconditional love only an animal can provide.

But what is “unconditional”? As her life proceeds, with friends, career and even a new boyfriend all piling their respective pressures on, her secret pet increasingly becomes her only haven of contentment. But Momo is not a dumb animal. He has his own life no matter how ardently he might seek to deny it….

And in this classic When Harry Met Sally dilemma the couple are being compelled by their own incessantly and increasingly inharmonious natures to reassess their relationship and thereby endanger the only emotional refuge each can retreat to…

Sharp, charming and strikingly drawn, this out-of-print saga is long-overdue for revival: a proper grown-up comics story that manages to be mature and sophisticated whilst still being decorous.
© 2000, 2004 Yayoi Ogawa. All Rights Reserved.

One Year Affair


By Byron Preiss & Ralph Reese (Workman Publishing Co.)
ISBN: 978-0-91110-486-8

It seems cruel to point it out if you’re currently unpartnered or between dalliances, but love is in the air at this time of year. It’s also wise to reiterate that even though your grand passion is comics, maybe your current inamorata is more indulgent and understanding than equally addicted to masks, tights or batmobiles…

So, even though we’re going to be talking romantic comics for the next week, why not consider flowers (and not from a garage forecourt), exotic excursions or shopping somewhere other than a comicbook store over the next few days?

Before beginning his own attempts to invent the Graphic Novel, Byron Preiss worked on a number of projects including a comic strip for the American humour magazine National Lampoon. With celebrated cartoonist and illustrator Ralph Reese he produced a wry, charming and oddly engaging examination of the contemporary dating scene, circa 1973.

Steve is just some guy and his casual meeting with the so-with-it, so-sexy Jill over a dropped feminine hygiene product leads to a funny, quirky and thoroughly readable modern romance of the type we’d call a RomCom nowadays.

From one-night stands to open relationships, through engagements to the ending (and I’m not telling you just in case you find a copy of this criminally overlooked and out-of-print item) this little treat shows with crushing warmth and superbly beguiling artwork (like Mort Drucker meeting Jack Davis with Wally Wood and Dick Giordano doing the catering) how human mating rituals have never really changed since men eschewed Big Wooden Clubs and tried to grow “A Good Sense of Humour” instead.

A genuine lost masterpiece of sequential narrative, the strip and this collection was followed up by tragically uncompleted sequel Two Year Affair. Just like true love for most carbon-based lifeforms it was simply destined not to be…

Still you can always console yourself with this book, a big box of tissues and gallons of chocolate ice cream…
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 Byron Preiss Visual Publications, Inc., by arrangement with Ralph Reese & Byron Preiss. All rights reserved.

Breaking the 10 volume 2


By Seán Michael Wilson & Michiru Morikawa (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-117-8

If God exists, why does he hate us?

It’s a question that has been asked countless times and – naturally – there has never been a universally satisfactory answer, but it’s made for plenty of philosophical and theological debate. It’s also provided many superb dramatists, satirists and comedians with a platform to create challenging and engaging stories of what might happen when the specimens in the cosmic Petri dish start complaining about the way we’ve been treated…

Scottish émigré and citizen of the world Seán Michael Wilson is a past master of “Deep” comics confronting real issues (Portraits of Violence – An Illustrated History of Radical Thinking; Goodbye God? – an Illustrated Examination of Science Vs Religion with Hunt Emerson) but is equally at home with more mainstream strip material such as The Story of Lee, Sweeney Todd or AX: Alternative Manga.

In the first volume of Breaking the 10 he combined fundamental life questions with an enticing manga sensibility to craft a powerfully absorbing tale of crushed hope, bitter disillusionment and grief-filled reaction. Simultaneous funny and thought-provoking, Breaking the 10 shared the tale of bereaved survivor and (formerly) devout Christian David

Compounding the heretical soul-searching here is award-winning illustrator Michiru Morikawa, who previously collaborated with Wilson on Yakuza Moon, Demon’s Sermon, Musashi and The Faceless Ghost and affords a sleek, seductive pictorial allure to the sordid affairs…

When David’s wife and child were cruelly taken from him by a hit-&-run driver, the tragic survivor broke inside. Grieving and enraged, he demanded a meeting with God and a chance to force Him to explain His actions and motivations. With no response to prayer and no other recourse, David resolved to become a sinner, methodically and systematically breaking the Ten Commandments.

Regardless of the harm he inflicted upon others around him, the aggrieved apostate meticulously contravened the first five – Thou shalt not… steal; …Covet your neighbor’s house, wife, male servant, female servant, ox, donkey, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s; Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy; Thou shalt not make for yourself a graven image’ and ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbors’ – despite the unwarranted and repeated interventions of two strangers fostering their own agendas…

As the campaign of heresy unfolded, these two antithetical gentlemen moved from merely watching David to actively offering counsel and unwelcome advice. Mr. Black and Mr. White are as different as two people can be: each propounding a harsh, doctrinaire and unequivocal stance at opposite ends of the emotional and religious spectrum…

David listens but will not heed either one, nor does he believe them the supernatural advocates they seem to be. Whilst they bicker over him or debate with him, it’s clear that they don’t know what the true game plan actually is and – as his celestial attention-getting antics escalate – they are proved to be utterly ineffectual in influencing him one way or the other…

Nothing is as it appears: White may well be the agent of an Interventionist creator, but his opposite number claims to be a simple disciple of a modern humanist rationalism rather than an operative of any supernatural Infernal Antagonist…

David doesn’t really care: his first assaults upon scripture might have offended all the Abrahamic religions and gained him a certain notoriety in the media but he’s no closer to God than before. It’s time to up the ante and hope the intransigence silence ends before he gets to the Tenth Commandment…

In Chapter one, while still pondering his course, David is approached by Mr. Black who helpfully points out that the sinner is labouring under an accounting error and has actually broken six Commandments thanks to how he dealt with the Coveting one. David will not hear it, and carries on planning how best to tackle ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’, but the heated arguments Mr. Black makes are irrefutable…

With his mind shredding as much as his life has, David heads for the local church for ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’, but is intercepted and physically contained by Mr. White. Shrugging off the beating, David fitfully shares his doubts with the scripture-spouting intercessionary: in a world where profanity and blasphemy are commonplace and ubiquitous how can he break this one? Lulled into a discussion on how politicians might use god and religion to further their own ambitions, Mr. White inadvertently gets lured onto other Christian “hot-button” topics and provides David with his answer and plan of attack, leading directly into the truly appalling and sacrilegious actions necessary to destroy the edict ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’

With God still a no-show David then must steel himself for what is an incomprehensibly difficult task. Having overcome his scruples to harm innocents is one thing, but the things he says to his own parents before satisfactorily flouting ‘Honor your father and your mother’ leaves him dazed and furious…

With only one Commandment left unsullied, David again demands his meeting with the Supreme Being and is astonished when he finally has a vision. Sadly, after debating with God he wakes up in hospital and cannot accept that his unsatisfactory hallucination counts…

After Black and White contentiously visit him and sow more discord and confusion, David realises he must go the distance…

This is in many ways the most straightforward Commandment to break. Obtaining a gun, David heads for the local primary school, with ‘Thou shalt not kill’ burning in his brain…

Merging theosophy, political critique, a razor-sharp crash-course in ethics and responsibility whilst confronting faith, rationalism and religion in a genuinely funny and scary tragedy of everyday melodrama, Breaking the 10 asks hard questions in a deceptively easy-going manner.

Moreover, unlike previous graphic novels addressing this timeless theme – such Eisner’s A Contract with God or Garth Ennis & Warren Pleece’s True Faith – David’s eventual epiphanies and ultimate fate come more from pliable, tractable human nature than resolute divine order or intervention

Enquiring, engaging and utterly entertaining, this is a parable no saint or sinner should miss and every questing thinker should consider.
© 2018 Seán Michael Wilson & Michiru Morikawa.
Breaking the 10 volume 2 will released on February 2nd 2018 and can be pre-ordered now. It is also available in all e-book formats.
For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

Doing Time


By Kazuichi Hanawa (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
ISBN: 978-8493340902

Something of an obscure recommendation, this, but I wanted to highlight something different in manga, as I’m a little burned out with big eyes, big explosions, and big hair at the moment.

Doing Time doesn’t fall into any generally perceived Western stereotype of Japanese comics. For a start it’s an autobiography and bleak admonitory documentary. It’s a journal along the lines of Samuel Pepys’ with disquietingly intimate revelations calmly and casually rolled out at every available juncture. The account is also a moving insight into the psychology of the Japanese culture and mind-set as the pages unfold in relentless understatement with a complete lack of flash, dazzle or grand showmanship.

Born in Saitama Prefecture in 1947, Kazuichi Hanawa began creating manga in 1971, generally specialising in historical tales, Buddhist legends and fantasy subjects. A keen collector of imitation firearms, in 1994 Mr. Hanawa was caught firing a remodelled pistol in an isolated wooded area. The creator then served three years in prison for possessing and using replica guns, which seems pretty stern to me, but clearly retribution he feels he deserved every moment of…

At the risk of being accused of racism, I cannot imagine the thoughts here portrayed coming from an individual of any other culture. Mr. Hanawa constantly and genuinely bemoans the quality and quantity of the food. It’s too good for the miserable likes of him…

“Is it right for us to live so well in spite of having perpetrated such misdeeds?” he asks. The attention to detail and meticulous cataloguing of minutiae almost makes this a cookbook and journal planner. The narrative structure is so fluid that all one comes away with is a fine pattern of detail and no big picture… probably just like being banged up in jail…

On its release AX Magazine in 1998 and in 2000 as collected book Kemusho no naka (In Prison), the visual and philosophical diary swiftly garnered domestic and international acclaim and was made into a live action movie All Under the Moon.

I have to admit that I was bewildered and captivated in equal measure with this collection of strips drawn with astounding veracity and authenticity. Japanese prisons – at least at that time – apparently allow no records of any sort (including drawings) to be kept by inmates, so the chilling pages here were produced from memory, and to my mind read like moments you’d prefer to forget, but if you’re of an adventurous mien this may brighten your jaded day and will certainly open your eyes to the power and potential of the comics medium.
© 2000, 2004 Kaziuchi Hanawa & Ponent Mon.

Tales from the Dreamspace


By Luke Melia, Vinny Smith, Bobby Peñafiel, David Anderson, Dennis O’Shea, Timothy Conroy, Steve Andrews, Rees Finlay, Jonny Pearson & various (Dreamspace Comics/CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)
ISBN: 978-1-97629-398-6

As I’ve frequently proclaimed, I’m a huge fan of creators with the drive and dedication to take control of their own destinies and that’s why it’s such a delight to see another splendid home-grown tome from Luke Melia and his trusty band of cartoon collaborators.

Comprising comic strips, illustrated prose pieces and a scattershot selection of short, sharp, mood-setting epigrams, this particular package of perils stems from a communal spooky story session which grew into an online competition and resulted in the blood-curdling book of fearsome phantasms before us today.

Committed to full-colour paperback form as a macabre and unsettling graphic grimoire, the uneasy experiences begin with the true story of Dreamspace’s inception, after which a few tone-teasing text titbits lead into a darkly twisted hostage situation with ‘It’s in the Basement’.

Scripted by Luke Melia and illustrated by Bobby Peñafiel, the monster is designed by Christopher Wallace. It’s not what you’re thinking…

Following more zingy scary word-salads, Melia then segues into prose to propose a morally confounding challenge with a devastated mother failing in her own eyes and subsequently taking horrific steps to correct ‘The Imbalance’ before David Anderson & Steve Andrews resort to potent monochrome to expose – and expedite – a distressingly Kafkaesque ‘Skeleton in the Closet’

The micro-yarns are by many and varied contributors and suitably divide all the longer tales, which resume now with Dennis O’Shea’s prose piece ‘Motel’ revealing the awful aftermath of a well-nasty Boy’s Night Out, whereas coal black humour and sordid surreality colour an extended strip-saga splatter-fest of misbegotten youth, vengeance paid in full and the ‘Bath time Bastard’, courtesy of Melia, Vinnie Smith & Peñafiel…

Anderson switches to prose mode for a macabre tale of dystopian survival in ‘The Rat Queen’ after which Rees Finlay & Jonny Pearson illumine a shocking plunge into detention, demonic delirium and ‘Damnation’ before Melia & Timothy Conroy revisit Beauty and the Beast via the wedding vows with ‘In Sickness’ to bring the shock therapy to a close…

Like previous outings Oculus and The White Room of the Asylum, this compendium of bloody wit, dark humour and caustic circumstance is judiciously rendered in a range of palettes from full colour to black & red to overwhelmingly stark black-&-white, all combining to highlight the morbid power of narrative in service to night terrors: a menu of compulsive and terrifying tales you’d be absolutely crazy to miss, but wisest to peruse with the doors locked and all the lights on.
© 2017 Luke Melia. All rights reserved.

The Books of Magic


By Neil Gaiman, John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess & Paul Johnson (DC/Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3781-3 (HB)                :978-1-4012-4686-0 (PB)
:978-1-85286-470-5 (Titan Books Edition)

Way back when Neil Gaiman was just making a name for himself at DC, he was asked to consolidate and rationalise the role of magic in that expansive shared universe. Over the course of four Prestige Format issues a quartet of mystical champions (thereinafter known as “the Trenchcoat Brigade”) took a supposedly typical London schoolboy on a Cook’s Tour of Time, Space and Infinite Dimensions in preparation for his long-anticipated ascendancy. This meant becoming the most powerful wizard of the 21st Century, and an overwhelming force for either Light or Darkness.

Shy, bespectacled Timothy Hunter is an inoffensive lad unaware of his incredible potential for Good or Evil (and yes, I know who he looks like but this series came out eight years before anybody had ever heard of Hogwarts, so get over it).

In an attempt to keep him righteous, the self-appointed mystic guides provide him and – through literary extension – us, with a full and dangerously immersive tutorial in the history and state of play of “The Art” and its major practitioners and adepts.

However, although the four guardians are not unanimous or even united in their plans and hopes for the boy, the “other side” certainly are. If Hunter cannot be turned to the Dark, he has to die…

Thus, following an Introduction by master fantasist Roger Zelazny, the thaumaturgical thrills begin in Book I, painted by John Bolton.

Here the Phantom Stranger conducts his youthful charge on a trip through ‘The Invisible Labyrinth’ revealing to Tim the history of magic with introductions to Lucifer, Atlantis, and other Ancient Empires, Jason Blood and the boy Merlin as well as mid-20th century crime-busting mystics Zatara and Sargon the Sorcerer.

Scott Hampton picks up the brushes for the second chapter, wherein irrepressible urban trickster-wizard John Constantine hosts a trip to ‘the Shadow World’ of the then-established DCU: introducing the wide-eyed lad to contemporary paranormal players such as Deadman, Madame Xanadu, the Spectre, Doctor Fate, Baron Winter (of Night Force fame), Dr. Terry Thirteen (AKA the Ghost-Breaker) and mystic super-hero Zatanna, who boldly organises a trip to a mage’s bar where the likes of Tala, Queen of Darkness and the diabolical opportunist Tannarak attempt to take matters – and Tim – into their own wicked hands…

For his third work-experience trip, Dr. Occult (created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster years before Superman debuted) escorts the messianic boy on a voyage to the outer lands and Realms of Faerie, courtesy of Charles Vess in ‘The Land of Summer’s Twilight’. This ethereal, beautifully evocative segment would inform much of Timothy Hunter’s later life in the Vertigo comicbook series and graphic collections that inevitably spun off from this saga. Cameos here include Warlord/Travis Morgan, Nightmaster, Amethyst and Gemworld, Etrigan the Demon, Cain, Abel and the (Gaiman-originated) Sandman Morpheus.

Bringing the initial educational experience to a close, ‘The Road to Nowhere’ is painted by Paul Johnson and concludes the peregrinations as ruthlessly fanatical zealot Mister E whisks our astounded boy to the end of time, where the sightless fanatic attempts to twist Tim to his own bleak, black agenda. Beyond Darkseid and the climactic battles and crises of our time; progressing even forward past the Legion of Super Heroes, to the end of Order and Chaos, unto the moment Sandman’s siblings Destiny and Death switch off the dying universe, Tim sees how everything ends before returning to make his choice: Good or Evil; Magic or mundane?

Books of Magic still stands a worthy primer for newcomers who need a little help with decades of back-story which cling to so many DC tales, even today. Despite an “everything and the kitchen sink” tone, this is still a cracking good yarn (available in hardback, trade paperback, eBook and even a British edition from Titan Books), offers useful grounding for all things supernaturally DC and still has overwhelming relevance to today’s much rebooted continuity.

© 1990, 1991, 1993, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

HWY.115


By Matthias Lehmann (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-733-9 (HB)

This stirring and deeply disturbing, psycho-thriller combines the not-so dissimilar forms of road movies and buddy flicks with straight crime thrillers as hardboiled private detective René Pluriel hits the highways of France in pursuit of the deadly “Heimlich Killer”.

He hasn’t gone far before he picks up flamboyant hitch-hiker Agatha, who reveals that she too is a detective on the trail of the notorious serial murderer.

As they wend their way through the back roads and, consequently, history of France, diligently interviewing the killer’s associates and survivors, they build a tense picture not just of their quarry but also of each other, and inevitably realise that the conclusion of the quest won’t be happy for everybody.

Lehmann’s dark voyage is gripping and often surreal, and the tension is augmented by the spectacular, moody art, stylishly etched in a powerful scraperboard style. The narrative is blistered with flashbacks, literary diversions and hallucinogenic asides that amplify the dissociative feel of this ostensibly simple tale. This award-winning fear-fable was the author’s first original graphic novel and it remains a bravura performance almost impossible to top; I eagerly await the attempt.
Characters, stories & art © 2006 Actes Sud. All Rights Reserved. This edition © 2006 Fantagraphics Books.

Unlikely


By Jeffrey Brown (Top Shelf Productions)
ISBN: 978-1-89183-041-4                  978-1-89183-041-9

If you’re a fan of Jeffrey Brown’s cartoon exploits you might understandably admit to a small degree of confusion. In 2012 he scored his first global best-seller with a hilarious spin on the soft and nurturing side of the Jedi experience in Darth Vader and Son, following up with equally charming and hilarious sequels Vader’s Little PrincessStar Wars: Jedi Academy and others. He followed that up by contributing to the franchise’s dramatic comics canon with Star Wars Jedi Academy; Star Wars Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan and Star Wars Jedi Academy: The Phantom Bully (2013-2015).

He has also directed music videos, created film posters, worked for public radio and co-written the feature film Save the Date.

Before that another Jeffrey Brown was the sharply sparkling wit who had crafted slyly satirical all-ages funny stuff for The Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror, Marvel’s Strange TalesIncredible Change-Bots and similar visual venues.

There is yet another Jeffrey Brown: instigator and frequent star and stooge of such quirkily irresistible autobiographical Indy comics classics as BigheadLittle ThingsMome, Funny, Misshapen Body, Undeleted Scenes and the four-volume “Girlfriend Trilogy” (of which this is the second), comprising ClumsyUnlikelyAEIOU and Every Girl is the End of the World for Me

Whichever Brown’s your preferred choice, he’s a cartoonist of rare insight and unflinching integrity who still makes you laugh out loud when not prompting you to offer a big consoling hug…

Brown was raised in Michigan; relocating to Chicago in 2000 to attend the School of the Arts Institute and study painting. Before graduating he had switched to drawing comics and in 2002 Clumsy was released. A poignant and uncompromising dissection of a long-distance relationship, it quickly becoming a surprise hit with fans and critics alike.

A little later – and in the same vein – he produced Unlikely (or How I Lost My Virginity) – a True Love Story.

In both paperback and digital formats it describes a succession of painful torments, frustrations and moments of unparalleled joy as “250+ pages of young love, sex, drugs, heartbreak & comedy” involving the long and agonisingly extended process of “becoming a Man”…

The material is both delicious and agonising in its forthright simplicity: a sequence of pictorial snippets and vignettes detailing how a meek, frumpy, horny, inoffensively average film-fan art-student – and long-overdue virgin – cautiously navigates his first fully-sexualised relationship with a girl.

As is always the case, his prospective partner comes with baggage that is at first beguiling and charming – or at least overlook-able – but which soon becomes a major sticking point. More telling, however, is what Jeffrey learns about himself in the process…

Every young man who’s gone gagging for it, gone for broke when the opportunity arose, and gone off to college or elsewhere to lick his amorous wounds has been through this, and for every inflammatory romance that makes it, there are a million that don’t…

Drawn in his deceptively effective Primitivist monochrome style with masterful staging, a sublime economy of phrase and a breathtaking gift for generating in equal amounts belly-laughs and those poignant lump-in-throat moments we’ve all experienced and regretted forever-after, this is a potent procession of crystallised moments which establish one awful truth. This is Not The One…

We’ve all been there, done that and then relentlessly reviewed and revised in our heads and wished we’d done it all differently…

Through dozens of individual episodes with titles like ‘Things of Mine She Still Has’‘I’d Do Her’‘No, This is Jeff’‘Virgin Alert’‘Talking and, Talking’, ‘All Nighter’, ‘I Had a Weird Dream’, ‘Will you Still’, ‘Sex’, ‘Sweetness Frustration’, and ‘The Last Time’: a web of triumphant relief, fractious accommodation and eventually, inevitably disappointment and fresh awareness for Jeff and Allisyn …

Brimming with portentous discovery, hopeful revelation and the shattering angst us oldsters can barely remember now let alone understand, Unlikely is a powerful delight for everybody who has confused raging hormones and intimate physical contact with love, and a sublime examination of what makes us human, hopeful and perhaps wistfully incorrigible…
© 2007 Jeffrey Brown.

James Bond™ volume 2: Eidolon


By Warren Ellis, Jason Masters, Guy Major & Simon Bowland (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-5241-0272-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Stunning Blockbuster Fun… 9/10

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. This is one of the better ones and as much worthy of your attention as any movie, game or novel.

There are also some exceedingly enjoyable comicbook and newspaper strip versions detailing the further exploits of Agent 007 which have never really found the appreciation they rightly deserve. This collection is just one of the most recent, compiling the second six issues of the James Bond comicbook series from licensing specialists Dynamite Entertainment.

Thanks to uber-action scribe Warren Ellis, it’s one of the best Bond adventures ever seen…

Dumping decades of gaudy paraphernalia that’s grown around the brand, Ellis, illustrator Jason Masters, colourist Guy Major and letterer Simon Bowland have opted for a stripped-down, pared-back, no-nonsense iteration that means nothing but business.

The shocking saga opens with Britain’s Powers-that-Be still working to close the Double-O department, and labouring under a Home Office ruling depriving Bond and other agents of their weapons whilst on British soil.

Despite fighting hard, M is losing this battle…

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Bond’s latest mission is interrupted by old comrade Felix Leiter.

The CIA operative has a friendly warning for his old pal. The supposedly-routine mission to extract a mole whose cover has been blown has acquired hidden ramifications…

Later, as Bond scoops up blithely unaware Cadence Birdwhistle, enraged Turkish security forces are only seconds behind and a savage battle ensues. Barely getting out alive, Bond notices the heavies are sporting CIA-issue guns…

Cadence is baffled. Her field is forensic accounting and whatever the cloaked financial pipeline she recently uncovered in the Turkish Consulate’s finances is, it should not justify the murderous response she and Bond have barely survived. It’s just some illegal money transfers to an account in Britain. An account dubbed “Eidolon”…

After a brief period of lying low, Bond and Birdwhistle head for LAX only to be attacked by a CIA hit team. By the time the refugees reach Britain, the bodies have been discovered and Bond is in trouble with the boss. Again…

When another band of assassins attack before they even exit Heathrow Airport carpark, it’s clear that whatever Cadence uncovered is something far from conventional and by no means inconsequential…

The clear-up afterwards confirms it. Thus far the unknown assailants have involved three countries and utilised agents, tactics and weapons from the Turkish Secret Police, CIA and now the British SAS and SBS. The conspiracy – whatever it is – has its claws in the very heart of the international security community…

As MI5 officiously insert themselves into MI6’s investigation and claim jurisdiction, Bond and M realise there is no one they can trust, even as Birdwhistle uses Q branch’s technology and computer specialists to crack the dark money trail. The breadcrumbs lead to a secret, subterranean arms dump long believed to be a secret service myth and yet another cataclysmic shooting war…

Illegally armed by Q, Bond’s investigation deep beneath British soil suddenly exposes an uncanny and unexpected secret army of the disenfranchised at the heart of the nation’s ruling elite, sponsored by SPECTRE to rise if the covert organisation ever fell. Now long-dormant terror cells have embarked on a horrific “Death or Glory” mission to excise the British intelligence hierarchy and strike a shattering blow against the seat of democracy…

The end when it inevitably comes is deadly, up close and extremely personal…

With a gallery of gripping covers by Dom Reardon, this sleekly sinister paranoid plot is fast, furious, brutally bellicose and potently ferocious: another witty, superbly smart and impeccably stylish perfect James Bond thriller.

Bond Will Return and you should be ready…
© 2017 Ian Fleming Publications, Ltd. James Bond and 007 are ™ Danjaq LLC, used under license by Ian Fleming Publications, Ltd. All rights reserved.