Silent Invasion volume 1: Red Shadows


By Michael Cherkas & Larry Hancock (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-174-1

The 1980s were an immensely fertile time for English-language comics-creators. In America a fresh wave of creativity had started with the birth of dedicated comics shops and, as innovation-geared specialist retailers sprung up all over the country, operated by fans for fans, new publishers began to experiment with format and content, whilst eager readers celebrated the happy coincidence that everybody seemed to have a bit of extra cash to play with.

Consequently, those new publishers were soon aggressively 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 began creeping in and by 1983 a host of young companies such as WaRP Graphics, Pacific, Eclipse, Capital, Now, Comico, Dark Horse, First 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 shoestring companies and foreign outfits had a fair shot at the big time and much great material came – and almost universally, just as quickly went – without getting the attention or success they warranted.

By avoiding the traditional family sales points such as newsstands, more mature material could be produced: not just increasingly violent and with nudity but also far more political and intellectually challenging too.

Moreover, much of the “brain-rotting trash” or “silly kid’s stuff” stigma had finally dissipated and America was catching up to the rest of the world in acknowledging sequential narrative as a for-real, actual Art-Form, so the door was wide open for gosh-darned foreigners to make a few waves too…

One of the most critically acclaimed and just plain enjoyable features came from semi-Canadian outfit Renegade Press. They had spun out by a torturous and litigious process from Dave Sim’s Canadian Aardvark-Vanaheim enterprise, and set up shop in the USA before beginning to publish at the very start of the black and white comics bubble in 1984.

Renegade quickly established a reputation for excellence, picking up amongst others a surprisingly strong line of creator-based properties and some genuinely remarkable and impressive series such as Ms. Tree, Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire, Normalman, Flaming Carrot, the first iteration of Al Davison’s stunning Spiral Cage autobiography and a compulsive, stylish Cold War, flying-saucer paranoia-driven thriller series entitled The Silent Invasion.

This last was a stunningly stylish retro-Red Scare saga bolting 1950s homeland terrors (invasion by Commies; invasion by aliens; invasion by new ideas…) onto Film Noir chic and employing 20-20 hindsight to produce a truly fresh and enticing concept in the Reagan-era Eighties.

The series was eventually collected as four superbly oversized monochrome tomes (a whopping 298 x 2058 mm), re-presenting the lead story from the first dozen issues of The Silent Invasion wherein co-creators Michael Cherkas & Larry Hancock concocted a delightful confection combining all the coolest genre elements of classic cult sci-fi, horror, spy, conspiracy theory, crime, romance and even comedy yarns…

Now, after far too long a wait – and with America once again enduring internecine struggle amongst the citizenry, corruption, collusion and cover-ups at every level of government and the press under attack from the people and traditions it seeks to inform and safeguard – the first two volumes have been re-released in a more manageable paperback size (or fully adjustable eBook format) with the expressed intention of catching up and finally completing the tensely compelling epic.

The 1950s in American were a hugely iconic and paradoxical time. Incredible scientific and cultural advancements, great wealth and desperate, intoxicating optimism inexplicably arose amidst an atmosphere of immense social, cultural, racial, sexual and political repression with an increasingly paranoid populace seeing conspiracy and subversive attacks in every shadow and corner of the rest of the world.

Such an insular melting pot couldn’t help but be fertile soil for imaginative outsiders to craft truly incisive and evocative tales dripping with convoluted mystery and taut tension, especially when wedded to the nation’s fantastic – and then-ongoing – obsessions with rogue science, flying saucers, gangsterism and espionage…

They were also obsessed with hot babes and bust sizes, but more of that elsewhere…

This first volume gathers prior collections Secret Affairs and Red Shadows and opens with Max Allan Collins’ expansive Introduction ‘Dick Tracy, Tintin and Serious Comics’, this titanic tale kicks off in April 1952 with ‘Chapter One: Atomic Spies’ within a dark desert landscape 22 miles outside Union City, USA.

Private eye Dick Mallet sees a strange light in the skies and in the morning the cops find his crashed car. There’s no sign of the infamous and distinguished Dick…

A month later reporter Matt Sinkage is still unhappy with his piece on “The Truth Behind Flying Saucers” but his mutterings and musings are interrupted by a hot blonde banging on the door of his foreign-sounding neighbour Ivan Kalashnikov.

Arriving at his desk on The Sentinel, Sinkage can’t believe the audacity of the Air Force’s official line about “marsh gas” and starts screaming at his Editor Frank Costello. The irascible bossman just bawls him out – again – and sends him off to cover real news…

Instead Sinkage heads out to the site of the latest sighting and starts interviewing local yokels. That night fiancée Peggy cooks him a meal but his mind is elsewhere, on that night six months back in Albany when he saw a UFO and impetuously chased after it: a night everyone but him remembers…

Later, in a bar, Matt continues badgering Frank until the booze gets to him. Eventually Sinkage slinks back to his apartment. Ivan’s door is open and a quick glance reveals the foreigner and others in front of a huge, weird machine and Matt realises they must be Reds! Atomic spies!

Before the reporter can react, Kalashnikov pulls a really strange gun and shoots. Next morning Sinkage awakes with another sore head and more fuzzy memories…

Days later Matt again collides with Mr K’s pretty friend Gloria Amber, but fails to get another look inside his neighbour’s place. Undeterred, he resorts to asking her out to lunch which somehow provokes the old guy into taking a sudden trip out of town. Things get even stranger when Gloria comes running to him, being chased by what she claims are Red agents…

Spiriting her away and stashing her somewhere safe, Matt doesn’t hear the pursuers accosting his landlord, claiming to be Federal Men…

‘Chapter Two: Secrets and Insidious Machinations’ finds the fugitives deep in the suburbs with Matt’s sedate brother Walter. The weary reporter is still seeing flying saucers and can’t understand why everybody else thinks they’re just jets. Meanwhile back in Union City, Frank is getting a grilling from FBI Agent Housley.

They’re old acquaintances. The G-Man regularly pops by to suppress one news item or another…

This time though the Feds want the vanished Sinkage and are not happy that Costello has no idea of the gadfly’s current location.

Back in suburbia, things are none too comfortable either. Stuck-up sister-in-law Katie is convinced Matt and his new floozy are up to no good and wants them out. At least she doesn’t know the FBI are scouring the city for them. Enigmatic Gloria, however, is more concerned that Sinkage is sleepwalking and having strange nightmares… just like Kalashnikov feared he might…

Matt and Gloria are just heading out in Walter’s borrowed car when Peggy pops by. She can’t understand why her man is with a flashy trollop and pointedly won’t talk to her. Gloria told Matt the real Reds are after Kalashnikov’s memoirs and convinced him to drive her to a quiet town in the desert where a “contact” will protect them both.

Mr K meanwhile has called in his own heavies to chase the couple, unaware that the FBI have visited Walter and Katie. A net is closing around Sinkage and the mystery woman he implicitly trusts… but really shouldn’t.…

The tension mounts in ‘Chapter Three: The Stubbinsville Connection’ as a mysterious Council of shadowy men convenes to discuss the Sinkage problem. As Housley’s report continues, when it becomes clear the reporter was also involved in the Albany event near-panic ensues…

In a cheap motel Matt’s suspicions are back. Gloria vanished from their room for a while during the night and hasn’t mentioned it…

They’re confirmed some time later when she helps Kalashnikov’s hoods Zanini and Koldst abduct her and rough him up. Back at Walter’s house the FBI turn up to interview them about Matt. They claim they’re the only Feds working on the case and no other government officials have been there before them…

Katie has had enough and spills all she knows. The agents instantly go into overdrive and organise all their forces to head for sleepy, remote Stubbinsville. Matt, meanwhile, has recovered and called the only guy he still trusts, his researcher Dan Maloney. That worthy warns him of the confusing profusion of agents all claiming to be working for the government, before sharing the same info with Frank Costello…

As Housley’s team fly in, Matt has decided to go on, hitchhiking to the rendezvous with a quirkily affable farmer who happily joins him in “pranking” the cops who have just arrested Zanini, Koldst and Gloria…

Reunited with his oddly-compliant mystery amour, Matt hurtles on to Stubbinsville in a stolen car, but with less than 100 miles to go Gloria falls ill. She makes him promise to get her there at all costs…

As the assorted pursuers converge, she directs Matt to a lonely wilderness area, but the forces of law and order have spotted them and follow. As the net closes a fantastic and terrifying lightshow ignites the dark skies. By the time Housley reaches the specified target area, all he finds is a comatose Sinkage.

As days pass, Matt finds himself free with all charges dropped, but he’s oddly content. Despite another blatant cover-up and no clue as to who all the various parties hounding him actually were, he knows what he knows and wonders when Gloria will be back…

By the time of ‘Chapter Four: A Pink Slip for a Pinko’ a little time has passed. It’s June 1952 and Matt Sinkage is tormented by nightmares of lights in the sky, Housley hunting him and Gloria beseeching him to join her kind…

His life has gone rapidly downhill. Stories of his being a “Commie” are everywhere, FBI agents shadow his every move and the oppressive tension is becoming overwhelming. When he gets a phone call from long-missing Dick Mallet, Matt arranges to meet the PI, and consequently notices that sister-in-law Katie is always listening recently and has become very chummy with his ominously ever-present G-Man surveillance detail…

First, though, Matt has to get the last of his belongings since the “Red” smear has allowed his landlord to terminate his lease. Aided by faithful fiancée Peggy and ever-friendly custodian Mr. Schneider, Sinkage collects his things and has an uncomfortable meeting with Kalashnikov. Almost in passing, Matt notices that he now has a different team of “Feds” dogging him.

When he finally meets Mallet, the gumshoe shows him an incredible set of photos: interior and exteriors shots of the flying saucers taken by the aliens…

At the Sentinel, Dan Maloney has made progress investigating Kalashnikov and Gloria but wants to finish his research before sharing. Sinkage has bigger problems though. His fellow workers have sent him to Coventry and the paper’s owner wants the “Commie” fired.

Costello is fighting back though. He suspects Housley is behind the disinformation and smear tactics targeting Matt.

Staying with Walter and Katie isn’t helping Matt’s mental state. As visions of the Albany event haunt him, his life takes another plunge when he finds Mallet murdered. Housley is there but frankly admits he knows Sinkage is innocent and (probably) the patsy of a cunningly contrived frame-up.

That doesn’t stop him trying to pump Matt for further information – just as his Council bosses ordered him to…

When Matt is finally fired and Maloney is killed in a freak accident the harried journalist knows is a case of Murder-By-Aliens, Sinkage feels the walls closing in and makes a run for it…

‘Chapter Five: Identity Crisis’ opens one night in July 1952 with Matt holed up in Maloney’s old hunting shack. He’s been utterly alone for weeks but is still seeing flying saucers in the night skies. He’s also reliving past events, helplessly mixing memories of Gloria with other moments. He’s so confused that when Peggy suddenly turns up, he mistakes her for his missing blonde mystery-woman…

Peggy visits him every night, offering food and company. She seems so different; warm and vivacious, but is always gone when he blearily wakes up in the morning.

Back in Union City, Housley and his secretary Meredith Monroe are reviewing the verifiable facts and reach a disturbing conclusion. Somebody on Phil’s team has their own agenda. He fears it’s his own boss – and Council stooge – Buzz Brennan but can’t find reasons to ignore their orders. Both his official employers and the secret ones above them want Sinkage found at all costs…

In the wilderness, Matt is starting to crack. Anonymously buying a gun from a local store he travels back to the city for Dan’s funeral and sees Housley and Brennan clash with Costello. He then sneaks back to his old building and breaks into Kalashnikov’s apartment. Sinkage finds a cache of files and as he reads them experiences a horrifying flashback: he’s strapped into some sort of brainwashing machine in a spaceship…

Matt is roused from the memories by Ivan’s return and bolts, leaving the scattered files behind. He then visits Peggy’s house where her mother’s hostile reception confirms a suspicion that has been growing in his mind…

His intended is waiting in the truck he borrowed, and as they furtively drive out to the country Matt drops his bombshell. He now believes he’s an alien consciousness improperly overlaid on a human mind and he knows Peggy is too: the same mental invader he used to know as Gloria Amber…

‘Chapter Six: What We Really Know about Flying Saucers’ pushes the drama into overdrive as Peggy frantically tries to dissuade Matt. He is adamant and, as Peggy storms off, Matt goes to Costello. They compare notes, unaware that the Council is mobilising all its covert assets in Housley’s FBI team to get Sinkage at all costs…

It might have worked had not Matt surprised everybody by turning himself in to share what he saw in Kalashnikov’s files with Housley and Meredith. Sadly, as he’s being taken to a safe-house Zanini and Koldst kidnap Sinkage and drag him back to Ivan… and Peggy!

By the time Housley realises what’s occurred and rushed to the apartment, it’s too late. The files are gone, but no one can determine whether they were cleared out by the foreigners or simply lost in the fire set by the Council’s inside man…

Matt has a different story. He survived the conflagration by rushing to the roof where he saw a saucer pick up one of his abductors, coldly leaving the rest to perish. It is a story he sticks to, even after he is committed…

To Be Continued…

Potently evocative, impeccably tailored and fabulously cool, The Silent Invasion remains a unique, boldly imagined and cunningly crafted adventure. Rendered in a style then considered revolutionary and even today still spectacularly expressionistic, this is a classic epic long-overdue for a modern revival: an unforgettable gateway to an eerily familiar yet comfortably exotic era of innocent joy and a million “top secrets” which no fan of fantastic thriller fiction should ignore.
© 1986, 1987, 2018 Michael Cherkas & Larry Hancock. Introduction © 1988, 2018 Max Allan Collins. All rights reserved.

Silent Invasion: Red Shadows will be published on September 25th 2018 and is available for pre-order now. For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

Hearts and Minds – A Vietnam Love Story


By Doug Murray & Russ Heath (Marvel/Epic Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-699-4

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Russ Heath last week, so I’m repurposing an old review today to commemorate his astounding career and achievements. It’s an easy thing to do as his work was always amongst the rarefied top rank of illustrators to grace the American comics scene…

Russell Heath Jr. was born in New York City on September 29th 1926 and was raised in New Jersey. Influenced by cowboy artist Will James and others, Heath was self-taught and fiercely diligent, demanding authenticity of himself in all his work. This helped him break into the comicbook industry while still at High School (episodes of naval strip Hammerhead Hawley for Captain Aero Comics beginning with volume 2, #2 in September 1942).

Eager to serve, Heath left Montclair High School early in 1945 for the Air Force. Whilst in the military he contributed cartoons to the Camp newspaper before shipping out.

When peace broke out, he worked briefly as a gofer at an ad agency until in 1947 he landed a regular job with Timely Comics. Now married he soon started working from home, drawing Kid Colt and Two Gun Kid, offerings for the dwindling superhero market and sundry horror stories and covers.

He hit an early peak in the 1950s, with a wealth of western and horror features as well as co-creating Marvel Boy, working on crime and romance tales, Venus and the Human Torch during the abortive attempt to revive superheroes in 1953.

He branched out to other publishers: trying his hand on EC’s Mad and Frontline Combat, 3D comics for St. John’s and earned a reputation for gritty veracity in his war and adventure stories (such as Robin Hood and Golden Gladiator for DC’s The Brave and the Bold).

He began contributing to DC’s new war line in early 1954, with strips appearing in Our Army at War #23 and Star Spangled War Stories #22.

It was good fit and he spent the next decade and a half working with writer/editor Robert Kanigher, with whom he co-created The Haunted Tank, The Losers and Sea Devils. All along he remained a stalwart of anthological short war stories, guested on and eventually took over full time illustrating on the prestigious Sgt. Rock.

Infamously, many of his panels were co-opted by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein as the basis of his paintings (specifically Whaam!, Blam, Okay Hot-Shot, Okay!, and Brattata). Heath’s other contributions to American pop culture include iconic ads for toy soldiers and a stint on Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder’s ubiquitous Playboy satire strip Little Annie Fanny.

Eventually he moved into animation and out to the west coast, but remained in contact with his comics roots, providing occasional returns on titles such as Planet of the Vampires, Mister Miracle, Ka-Zar, The Punisher, Shadowmasters, G.I. Joe and. the Immortal Iron Fist among others.

Having been awarded almost every award going, Heath was in semi-retirement when he died on the 23rd August 2018.

At the end of the 1980s Marvel began extending the scope of the Original Graphic Novels line and this potent and uncompromising fable was the impressive result.

Hearts and Minds – A Vietnam Love Story tells of a half-caste French/Vietnamese peasant girl, whose husband is killed by proselytizing Viet Cong Guerrillas, but who finds a kind of love with a green American college drop-out trapped in The Draft and sent to kill Commies for Uncle Sam.

Of course, it doesn’t end well…

1965: Despite himself Lieutenant Jim Brett is fitting in. He has an aptitude for the soldier’s life and has found his One True Love in the Officers’ Brothel. The half-white Nhi is overjoyed to have been purchased by the handsome young Lieutenant and looks forward to her new life in America as Mrs. Brett. But when the Viet Cong stage a successful assault on the city of Hue she discovers that her first husband is still alive and now a fanatical Guerrilla leader. And then the frantic Brett bursts into the house…

The examination of the greater conflict through a doomed romance is both subtle and evocative, and the hyper-precise drawing and bright happy colours of the artwork savagely underpin the oppressive brutality and doomed futility of the tale. Hearts and Minds is an anti-war tale with all the punch and poignancy of an artillery round, favouring no side whilst counting the human cost and yet still managing to balance blazing action with passionate intensity.

Concerned parents should note that if this is a novel for adults with graphic nudity and violence.

Russ Heath is a name that should be household, but is sadly someone who will only probably be missed by those of us fortunate and broadminded enough to have roamed beyond the attention-grabbing superhero comics ghetto. He is also an immortal talent whose work will live on as long as we keep seeking hyper-real, ultra-precise, breathtakingly powerful narrative graphics.

Remember the name and look for it when buying your old comics and albums in future.
© 1990 Doug Murray & Russ Heath. All Rights Reserved.

The Graphic Canon volume 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons


By Many and Various, edited by Russ Kick (Seven Stories)
ISBN: 978-1-60980-376-6

Once upon a time in the English-speaking world, nobody clever, educated or in any way grown-up liked comics. Now we’re an accredited really and truly art form and spectacular books like this can be appreciated…

The Graphic Canon is an astounding literary and art project, instigated by legendary crusading editor, publisher, anthologist and modern Renaissance Man Russ Kick, which endeavours to interpret the world’s great books through the eyes of masters of crusading sequential narrative in an eye-opening synthesis of modes and styles.

The project is divided into three periods roughly equating with the birth of literature and its evolution up to the rise of the modern novel. Debut volume From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons covers literature from ancient times to the end of the 1700s in stories and poetry. Much of the material here has been taken from already extant or ongoing projects: indeed, as editor Russ Kick explains in his Introduction, it was a realisation that so many creative individuals were attempting to publish their own graphic responses to global heritage literature that led him to initiate this mammoth project in the first place…

Rather than simply converting the stories, the artists involved have enjoyed the freedom to respond to texts in their own way, producing graphics – narrative or otherwise, monochrome or something else, sequential or not – to accompany, augment or even offset the words before them and the result is simply staggering…

Make no mistake: this is not a simple bowdlerising “prose to strip” exercise like generations of Classics Illustrated comics, and you won’t pass any tests on the basis of what you see here. Moreover, these images will make you want to re-read the texts you know and hunger for the ones you haven’t got around to yet. You will of a certainty marvel at the infinite variety of the artistic responses the canonical works inspired…

They certainly did for me…

Each piece is preceded by an informative commentary page by Kick, and the wonderment begins with a colourful and outrageously engaging ‘Three Panel Review: Hamlet’ by Lisa Brown after which grateful Acknowledgements and that aforementioned Editor’s Introduction lead directly into a delirious snippet from The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Like many contributions collected here, The Bull of Heaven – as adapted by Kent & Kevin Dixon – was already in production when invited into this book. The finally-completed saga has recently re-manifested and you can read of it here.

Those august remnants of lost Babylonian Tablets are followed by a delicious retelling of the origin of the stars in ‘Coyote and the Pebbles’. The beguiling and witty Native American Folktale is given a compelling reworking by Dayton Edmonds & Micah Farritor and leads seamlessly into a double dose of Homeric grandiloquence.

Alice Duke samples the duel between Paris and Menelaus from The Iliad after which Gareth Hinds dips into The Odyssey to re-present the monstrous duel between the lost Greeks and the ghastly Cyclops, after which we stay firmly in the cradle of civilisation to enjoy Sappho’s ‘Poem Fragments’ as embellished by Alessandro Bonaccorsi before Tori McKenna sums up the vengeful force of Euripides’ ‘Medea’.

Aristophanes’ still-shocking and controversial play Lysistrata is potently and hilariously précised in strip form by Valerie Schrag before J.T. Waldman powerfully synthesises the erotic vision of ‘The Book of Ester’ from the Hebrew Bible and Yeji Yun translates Plato’s Symposium into stark yet effective pantomimic visuals.

Fred Van Lente & Ryan Dunlavey have adapted numerous deep thinkers in their series Action Philosophers! ‘Tao Te Ching’ as dictated by Lao Tzu is both wickedly funny and thoughtfully compelling and perfectly offset by Matt Wiegle’s colourful heroic snippet ‘The House of Lac’ from The Mahabharata.

Van Lente & Dunlavey bring us some Analects and Other Writings of Confucius – called here ‘Master Kong’ – before the Hebrew Bible provides Benjamin Frisch with the golden-hued inspiration for dreamy fable ‘The Book of Daniel’, after which Tom Bilby & Jonathan Fetter-Vorm (AKA Two Fine Chaps) graphically discourse On the Nature of Things as originally cited by Lucretius.

Michael Lagocki captures the graceful ferocity of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ – specifically the founding of Rome – before master cartoonist Rick Geary astoundingly encapsulates the entirety of ‘The Book of Revelation’ from the New Testament and Sharon Rudahl restores calm and sanity with ‘Three Tang Poems: Frontier Song by Wang Han, A Village South of the Capital by Cul Hu and Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon by Li Bai’

Gareth Hinds grittily adapts the battle between hero and monster in Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem Beowulf after which idyllic romance is referenced by Molly Kiely through a series of portraits of some of the many erotic conquests of an ideal Japanese prince as inspired by Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji.

Far darker and more troubled love guides the images crafted by Ellen Lindner to illustrate ‘The Letters of Heloise and Abelard’ after which Kiely illuminates the profoundly eco-activist poem ‘O Nobilissima Viriditas’ by Hildegard of Bingen (look her up, you really should…).

Andrice Arp puckishly illustrates stories within a story for ‘The Fisherman and the Genie’ from The Arabian Nights, after which the same source – albeit the unexpurgated translation by Sir Richard Burton – provides racy and outrageously wry ‘The Woman with Two Coyntes’ as adapted by Vicki Nerino.

Coleman Barks translates a wonderful plenitude of ‘Poems’ by Sufi sage – and advocate of a loving universe – Rumi for Michael Green to spectacularly illustrate, after which a double dose of Dante Alighieri begins with Seymour Chwast’s smart and sassy take on The Divine Comedy. Hunt Emerson than adds his own unique spin to ‘The Inferno’ (The Eighth Circle, if you’re keeping score) whilst Sanya Glisic sustains the post-viva theme by offering views of the Eastern afterlife as cited in Padmasambhava and Karma Lingpa’s translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol).

Safely back among the living, we turn to the outrageous lifestyle of French poet and courtier François Villon, who penned in a jailhouse ‘The Last Ballad’ illustrated here by Julian Peters long before his actual end. It’s followed by another medieval masterpiece as Seymour Chwast deftly tackles the ‘Wife of Bath’ from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Staying in England, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur is given a stunning treatment by Omaha Perez who illumines the parable of ‘How the Hart was Chased into a Castle and There Slain, and How Sir Gawaine Slew a Lady’

The reason we have so much European and Asian literature today is the sheer fact that it wasn’t deliberately eradicated. That’s tragically not the case for the pre-Columbian Americas and a great pity since sole surviving Incan play Apu Ollantay – adapted here by Caroline Picard – is a smart and potent family star-crossed love affair worthy of the Greeks or even Shakespeare…

Outlaws of the Water Margin is a vast and sprawling epic of heroes battling against corruption and injustice in ancient China. As Shi Nai’an’s opus is far too large to handle here, illustrator Shawn Cheng has instead offered a rogues’ gallery of some of the heroic characters who feature in the portmanteau classics, whereas Isabel Greenberg has time and space to lyrically adapt Japanese Noh play ‘Hagoromo (Celestial Feather Robe)’ in full.

Roberta Gregory then pictorialises the decidedly more wholesome and charming creation myth from Popul Vuh – the Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya – and Edie Fake illuminates ‘The Visions of St. Teresa of Ávila’ as first seen in the Spanish religious reformer’s autobiography.

Almost forgotten English poet George Peele penned his own interpretation of the drama of Solomon and Bathsheba centuries ago, a snippet of which is here transformed by Dave Morice into stunning op-art masterpiece ‘Hot Sun, Cool Fire’. Conor Hughes then expertly covers in more traditional form ‘The Sun Rises’ from Wu Cheng’en’s revered Chinese epic Journey to the West before Michael Stanyer adapts and Eric Johnson illustrates a mere fragment from Edmund Spenser’s unfinished opus The Faerie Queene.

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream must be one of the most popular comic strip topics of all, but Maxx Kelly & Huxley King still add fresh zest and contemporary sparkle to the scene where Titania and Oberon haggle over the fate of an abducted child…

Ian Pollock then tackles The Bard’s darkest drama as King Lear challenges the heavens themselves before Will Eisner lends his unique light touch to Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Robert Berry and Josh Levitas then translate Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18’ to an effectively modern setting whilst Aidan Koch applies a more esoteric approach to the eternally-mystifying ‘Sonnet 20’ before Noah Patrick Pfarr supplies a suitably raunchy setting and quirky twist to John Donne’s erotic poem ‘The Flea’.

Andrew Marvell’s equally celebrated devious love-ploy ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is given a sentimental 19th century makeover by Yien Yip after which real-life Restoration-Era Wonder Woman Aphra Behn provides moody inspiration for artist Alex Eckman-Lawn through her poem ‘Forgive Us Our Trespasses’.

John Milton’s magnificent Paradise Lost – specifically ‘the Fall of Satan’ – is astoundingly depicted by Rebecca Dart after which ‘Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag’ sees Gareth Hinds lovingly limning an extract from Jonathan Swift’s satirical salvo Gulliver’s Travels whilst Ian Ball uses abreaction to hammer home the finer points of Voltaire’s Candide.

Modern graphic crusader Peter Kuper then lambasts us with a lethally edgy visualisation of Swift’s brutally critical A Modest Proposal.

Benjamin Franklin’s scandalous epistle ‘Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress’ is accompanied by a sumptuous painting from Cortney Skinner before James Bosworth’s shocking and sordidly biographical London Journal is captivatingly interpreted by comix pioneer Robert Crumb in ‘A Klassic Komic: excepts from Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763’.

Veteran cartoonist Stan Shaw then captures the wryly scatalogical spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels (AKA ‘Fart Proudly’)’ and van Lente & Dunlavey return with another Action Philosophers! titbit clarifying Mary Wollstonecraft’s momentous political tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman before Molly Crabapple illustrates select moments from Choderios de Lacios’ dark and disturbing social satire Dangerous Liaisons to bring the art schooling to a close.

Wrapping up the elucidatory experience are suggestions of ‘Further Reading’ from Liz Byer, a full list of ‘Contributors’, plus details of ‘Credits and Permissions’ and an ‘Index to volume 1’.

Although no replacement for actually reading as much of the source material as you can find, this astonishing agglomeration of visual interpretations is a magnificent achievement and one every fan of the comics medium should see: a staggering blend of imperishable thoughts and words wedded to and springing from sublimely experimental pictures.

This type of venture is just what our art form needs to grow beyond our largely self-imposed ghetto, and anything done this well with so much heart and joy simply has to be rewarded.
© 2012 Russ Kick. All work © individual owners and copyright holders and used with permission. All rights reserved.

Oh, Wicked Wanda!


By Frederic Mullally & Ron Embleton (Penthouse)
No ISBN

Not all comics are for kids nor ever were they. The men’s magazine trade has often featured graphic narratives, usually sexually explicit in nature, often highly satirical, invariably of a much higher quality than their mainstream contemporaries, and always much better regarded and financially rewarded.

Where Playboy had Little Annie Fanny (created by Harvey Kurtzman & Will Elder: it ran intermittently from 1962 until 1988, and revived in 1998, illustrated by Ray Lago & Bill Schorr), publishing rival Bob Guccione wanted the same but better for his own publication Penthouse.

Used to getting his way, he hired journalist, editor (of left-wing magazine Tribune), columnist, novelist and political writer Frederic Mullally to script the ongoing exotic, erotic adventures of Wanda Von Kreesus, the richest woman in the world. The sultry star would be accompanied by Candyfloss, her insatiable jailbait paramour and an outrageous coterie of faithful employees including an all-girl army, a mad scientist and a brutal looking thug with the soul of a poet.

To illustrate he secured the talents of oil painter and comic strip veteran Ron Embleton (who had astounded comic readers with his lush and vibrant strip Wulf the Briton in Express Weekly and his numerous stunning illustrations in weekly fact-based periodical Look and Learn).

Oh, Wicked Wanda! was originally a prose serial illustrated by Bryan Forbes, beginning in 1969 before becoming, in 1973, the unbelievably lavish and torrid strip reprinted here, continuing until 1980 when it was replaced by Sweet Chastity, also painted by Embleton, and scripted by proprietor Guccione himself.

The bored and mischievous hellion on parade here is a sexually adventurous woman from a time when sexual politics and liberation were huge issues (not like now, of course), and therefore prime targets for low comedy and high satire.

Mullally peppered his scripts with topical references (many of which, sadly, would escape today’s casual reader, I’m sure) and the phenomenal Embleton would depict them with hyper-realistic accuracy.

Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Ted Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Fidel Castro, Lyndon Johnson, Spiro Agnew, Mao Tse-tung, showbiz icons such as John Wayne or Bob Hope, and even comic strip greats like Pogo, Mutt and Jeff or Krazy Kat, all meandered through the glossy pages, a cross between a Greek Chorus and pictorial ad-libs.

Many celebrities were actively parodied participants. Henry Kissandrun, mafia Don Marlon Blondo/Burpo, Jane Fondle and demented California Governor Ronald Reekin’ all found themselves victims of the wilful minx and her team. Also, classical and contemporary erotic allusions abound ranging from a little “nymphette” lounging about reading William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch to visual and verbal references to Shelley’s Leda and the Swan.

This slim album reprints the earliest adventures as Wanda collects the rich and the famous for a Museum of Deviancy, takes on the Mafia, the CIA and the Cubans and does her bit to solve the Oil Crisis.

Later adventures saw her romp through the ages in a time machine but to my knowledge these tales have never been reprinted – although they really, really should be.

Perhaps a little dated, definitely for easy-going adults only, Oh, Wicked Wanda! is nonetheless still a funny read and inarguably one of the most beautiful British strips ever made. It is a tragedy that such work is unavailable to aficionados of comic art.
© 1973, 1974, 1975 Penthouse International Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Bread & Wine – an Erotic Tale of New York


By Samuel R. Delaney & Mia Wolff (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-632-4

The demands of drama dictate that true love never runs smooth but that’s not the case in real life. The trade-off is that those actual romances which stand the test of time and tedium are painfully devoid of the remarkable circumstance and miraculous “gosh-wow” moments of fiction.

But this remarkable account proves That Ain’t Necessarily So…

In 1999 independent publisher Juno released a small graphic novel memoir, written by Samuel R. Delaney and illustrated by Mia Wolff (Catcher), which recounts how a celebrated gay black literary giant, college professor and social theoretician with a mantelpiece crowded of awards, and a teenaged daughter in tow, met and romanced one of society’s most outcast and forgotten souls.

At the time of publication, they had been a couple for some years and they are together still, more than 25 years later. Julia Roberts and Richard Gere won’t be in this movie and not a single dragon or muscle car had to die…

Following an Introduction from Alan Moore, this welcome and long-overdue new edition reveals how “Chip” Delaney took a walk on New York’s Upper West Side, bought a book from homeless Dennis and struck up a conversation with the kind of person most people refuse to acknowledge the very existence of…

In seamlessly seductive understated style the words and pictures detail how gradually, gently, unsurprisingly they became first friends and then lovers.

In the manner of all lasting true romances, this is the history of two full equals who accidentally find each other, not some flimsy rags-to-riches Cinderella tale of predestination and magical remedies. The brilliance and position of one is perfectly complemented by the warmth, intelligence and quiet integrity of the other, and although far from smooth – or rose scented – their path to contentment was both tension-fraught and heart-warming.

Oh, and there’s sex: lots of rapturously visualised sex, so if you’re the kind of person liable to be upset by pictures of 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, then go away and read something else.

In fact, as I keep on saying, just please go away.

And that’s all the help you get from me. This lyrical, beguiling tale is embellished throughout with interwoven extracts from the poem Bread and Wine by German lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin and illustrated in a mesmerising organic monochrome variety of styles by artist and Delaney family friend Mia Wolff, and you really need to have it unfold for you without my second-hand blether or kibitzing…

This is one of the sweetest, most uplifting comics love stories ever written: rich with sentiment, steeped in literary punch and beautiful to behold. Moreover, this lavish, stout and steadfast hardback (also available in digital formats) also includes a celebratory commentary by Chip, Dennis and Mia and other protagonists in the Afterword, plus a sketch-packed, earnest and informative interview with the creative participants.

Strong, assertive, uncompromising and proudly unapologetic, this is love we should all aspire to, and Bread & Wine is another graphic novel every adult should know.
Introduction © 2013 Alan Moore. Contents © 2013 Samuel R. Delaney & Mia Wolff. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Transposes


By Dylan Edwards (Northwest Press)
ISBN: 978-0-9845940-8-5

I don’t hold many unflinching beliefs; but one of the few is that I, you and certainly no church, government or pressure group has any damn right to dictate what consenting adults do with or to their bodies. And yes, that includes parents, families and partners. Discuss, debate, disagree but never, ever demand…

I may reserve the right to privately snigger at some of the more ambitious or physically-ill-judged things consenting adult people get up to in order to get their rocks off, but I can’t help that: after all I’ve lived through Flower Power, Free Love, New Men, flared jeans (twice!) and an era when both religions and politicians tolerated gays and evolution, and believed women were (in principle, at least) equal to men.

I’m more than happy for anybody to assert, clarify or reassign their gender identity or lack thereof as they see fit, and as for when “Life begins” and what you’re born as, I’m far more concerned by the fact that the most vocal advocates “know” exactly when, what and how it begins whilst it’s inside a human yet feel no compunction or duty of care or wellbeing for any baby – or mother – as soon as the (still developing until age 30 years or more) agglomeration of cells is out of the womb and into the world…

Whilst we’re sharing, I also feel we should probably all pass an exam before we’re allowed to vote or voice an opinion; and require every person seeking office to endure weekly sobriety tests, financial background checks and regular psychiatric evaluations, but maybe that’s just me…

There are a lot of acronyms in today’s book and I’m not going to play translator or decoder interminably, so if we miss linking any just use that search engine OK? This is comics, not University Challenge…

LGBT comics have long been the best place in the graphic narrative business to portray real romance: an artefact, I suppose, of a society that seems determined to simultaneously establish sex and love as two utterly separate beasts and exactly the same thing.

I’d still love to think that in the 21st century we’ve all outgrown the juvenile, judgemental bad old days and can simply appreciate powerful, moving and funny comics about people of all sorts without any kind of preconception…

Unless we’re talking girl/vampire/werewolf menageries à trois: that stuff is just plain wrong…

The very fact of being adjudged “different” now seems to be an increasingly common badge of courage in a world where fanatics and bigots become daily more rabid, and actual religious leaders can claim with straight faces that God so hates homosexuals and fornicators (or atheists or scientists or ginger-haired, left-handed people or…) that in His wisdom He sends fires and floods or tornados and tsunamis every year to wreck the homes of the faithful and worshipful – presumably because they ain’t doin’ nothin’ ‘bout it…

Dylan Edwards, AKA NDR, is a graphic artist, cartoonist and sculptor: author of Politically InQueerect, sports strip The Outfield and many others, plus the creator of really cute monsters – as seen on his Feeping Creatures site. In Transposes he masterfully employs comics to celebrate the history of seven ordinary souls just living their lives as FTMs (Females Transitioning to Males).

Dylan – who extensively interviewed each star before crafting these elucidating mini-epics – encapsulates their unconventional existences for the wider world with disarming candour and certified charm. Of course, all the “hot button issues” touted by a hypocritically moralising media (coming out, bullying, role models, gay identity, promiscuity vs. monogamy, childhood sexual abuse, risky sex and/or partners, STIs, parental approval and rejection) are present here – which only goes to show just how widespread and universal these perennial difficulties are…

Regardless of that, this collection comes off as a wonderfully positive and affirming chronicle celebrating determination and difference and, after an effusive and informative Introduction by Alison Bechdel (cartoonist, author of Fun Home and Are You My Mother? and inadvertent deviser of the truly transformative Bechdel Test), there’s an engaging comic strip Foreword by storymaker Dylan Edwards explaining the process that led to the impressive pictorial reportage that follows.

Delivered with jokey aplomb, this savvy and smart ice-breaker gently eases the uninitiated into issues of transgender, cisgender and that subset-within-a-subset defined here as “queer-identified female-to-male-transpersons” before the terrific tale-spinning begins…

Over coffee ‘Cal’ tells of his trip to physically hook-up with an adventurously like-minded internet contact and how it all led to a few surprises, a whole new set of skills and a great story to dine off for months to come…

The gloriously hilarious ‘Henry’ scrupulously – perhaps even compulsively – recorded every aspect of his satisfyingly unconventional life and was quite content to share insights and horror stories from the astounding Museum of Natural Henry…

Confusion and insecurity were a way of life for ‘Adam’ until he met Marni, who, after an intense and nurturing time, helped her beau discover that she really wasn’t the girl for him, whilst for ‘Blake’ an intoxicating brief encounter led to unexpected and life-long repercussions.

Scholarly, happily-in-control ‘Avery’ learned his greatest lessons early from an intolerant father and the wise, understanding and joyously gay uncle the family had ostracised, after which the cavalcade of human drama ends with a gloriously moving, entwined tale of two young outsiders simply destined for each other in the parallel-lives journey of ‘Aaron & James’; ending our odyssey on a fabulous, happy high note…

We are then comfortingly caught-up by a brief Epilogue in which all the participants are revisited and updated on life since their interviews to re-emphasise that feeling of pleasing continuance…

Comics as a medium is already a symbolically intensive one; honed and irresistibly one-step-removed from the mundane faux reality of film or photography. As such its powers to skin away confusing or misleading surface and reveal unalloyed intent and meaning are without parallel.

Don’t take my word for it. Check out any political caricature by Hogarth, Scarfe or Steve Bell…

It’s an admission of annoying embarrassment to me that I’ve felt compelled to put in so much equivocating background and bumph before coming to the meat of this review. In the final analysis Transposes is a subtly sensitive, evocative, romantic and humorously rewarding collection of “people stories” which any open-minded fan will adore.

There’s not much fighting, but plenty of punch, and in an ideal world, this book would be readily available in every school library for any confused kid in need of inspiration, comfort, understanding, encouragement and hope.

Sadly, because it deals openly and frankly with sex and gender, it’s probably banned in more than half of the United States and still pilloried in our free and impartial Press…

Well, if nothing else this meagre, reminding poke will garner some publicity and be useful in ensuring that folk who need to can still find it…
© 2012 Dylan Edwards. All rights reserved.

It’s A Bird…


By Steven T. Seagle & Teddy Kristiansen (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0109-8 (HB)                    :987-1-4012-7288-3 (TPB)

Since his debut in June 1938 Superman has proven to be many things to billions of people, to the point of even changing their lives and shaping their actions.

It’s a Bird… was originally released in 2004 (and recently re-released in a new edition): offering something of a departure from typical Superman graphic novel fare with author Steven T. Seagle working through his understandable angst about writing the ongoing adventures of the Man of Steel without simply rehashing what has gone before.

Seagle (whose other comics work includes Uncanny X-MenSandman Mystery Theatre and Big Hero 6, and is part of TV cartoon creation collective Man of Action) actually scripted Superman #190-200 – published between April 2003 and February 2004.

The intriguing, demi-therapeutic exercise revealed in this slim and beguiling pictorial introspection deals with the author’s misgivings about contributing to the canon of an eternally unfolding legend.

However, underpinning what might so easily become a self-gratifying ego-stroke is a subtle undercurrent of savvy verity which strikes a chord with many creative professionals and insightful consumers as the professional writer finally finds the themes he needs to explore to be satisfied with his commission.

Let’s be honest here, every comic fan, indeed every twitcher and hobbyist, looks for a way to present and explain their particular passion to the “real” world and not feel like an imbecile in the process…

“Steve” is a writer working through some emotional baggage. He is still coming to terms with his family’s gradual disintegration – mental, physical and spiritual – from hereditary genetic disease Huntington’s Disease (Chorea, as was).

In everyday life, his father has gone missing, his mom and partner are making the “let’s have kids” noises whilst Steve’s waiting for the hammer to fall regarding his own potential prognosis with a condition that cannot be beaten…

He never wanted to write comics – even though he’s successful at it – and now his editor wants him to write Superman. He’s never had any feeling for the character or the medium and his damned editor just keeps on and on and on about… You get the picture?

It’s a Bird… is slow and lyrical in its deconstructive self-absorption as Steve makes his choices, and Teddy Kristiansen’s range of enticing drawing styles is a marvel and won him the 2005 Eisner Award for Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (Interior).

If you feel the urge to go beyond the panel borders of your private obsession, this one is well worth a look.
© 2004, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Massive: Ninth Wave


By Brian Wood, Garry Brown, Jordie Bellaire, Jared K. Fletcher & various (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-009-0

Between April 2012 and 2014, prolific scripter, artist and games designer Brian Wood (X-Men, Aliens, Conan, DMZ, Demo, Northlanders, Channel Zero) crafted a chilling and potent post-disaster tale of failed activist sea captain Callum Israel: a man driven to ply the seas of an ecologically broken Earth, searching for lost sister ship The Massive.

Full of missing comrades, the other vessel had vanished during the final collapse, perhaps taking with it the reasons why the world had suddenly tipped too far and toppled into environmental, political, financial and social Armageddon.

Israel had been leader of the Marine Conservation Direct Action Force and helmed the converted eco- trawler Kapital. Before the end of all days, his days had been spent with a band of equally dedicated and extremely capable non-violent volunteers, all working on the very edge of ecological terrorism: foiling and confounding polluters, climate change deniers, world leaders and money maniacs.

That had been backstory during the ongoing odyssey, whereas this new trade paperback volume (re-presenting the 6-issue miniseries The Massive: Ninth Wave) collects in a mass-market edition 2015’s prequel series that followed the series’ culmination. Here Israel and his band of beaten survivors still go about their unlawful pursuits in their hopeful heyday: racing around a still viable Earth to confront and frustrate the greedy bastards pushing our planet over the edge through corrupt actions, callous neglect and sheer indifference…

Following Wood’s ruminatory Introduction, a compelling string of self-contained, stand-alone tales relentlessly unfold in a perfect storyboard for TV’s next big, sensationally hard-hitting drama series (no, I’m not saying it is happening, just that it should…), rendered by returning team of illustrator Garry Brown, colourist Jordie Bellaire and letterer Jared K. Fletcher.

The suspenseful action opens with the infamous and preeminent global environmental rescue group seemingly in a stalling pattern. As Callum Israel and his deputies debate ultra-billionaire industrialist Bors Bergen at sea and beyond all international scrutiny, Ninth Wave operatives Rimona, Max, Lars and Purge covertly land in Germany and get to work beneath the most opulent and prestige-packed housing enclave of Berlin.

Bors thinks his money buys unlimited influence and insulates him from the repercussions of his shady deals, but the Ninth Wave see further targets where the money man sees resolute allies. The eco-warriors’ point and their ‘Manifesto’ is potently proved with one simple act of innovative plumbing that reduces the callous Croesus to the global media’s latest scandalous, shamed pariah du jour…

Callum’s non-violent principles are then tested to the limit when he joins maverick Park Ranger Amanda Gray of Canada’s Ministry of Forests to thwart far more bloodthirsty eco-terrorists determined to sabotage and eager to kill loggers during a forest clearcut operation in ‘Para’.

A two-pronged assault defines the next tale as Israel fights in court to prevent the destruction by commercial exploitation of a precarious island habitat and its iconic wildlife. In the meantime, his go-team resort to far more traditional tactics and ‘Occupy’ the embattled Arctic atoll. Then the ruthless money guys send in security teams, Blackhawk copters and napalm… just as the Ninth Wave veterans expected…

‘Hunted’ hones in on the total absence of enforceable law at sea beyond national borders as an outlaw vessel responsible for crimes ranging from illegal fishing to human trafficking seizes and holds hostage the Ninth Wave volunteers attempting to stop them. With all authorities refusing assistance, Callum’s people are forced to prove that “non-violent” doesn’t mean “helpless” or “toothless”…

After saving and relocating a boatload of war refugees, Callum and his people face the full might of the US government in ‘Blacksite’ when the superpower subsequently accuses the eco-warriors of harbouring and covertly transporting fugitive terrorists…

The powerful blend of activism, agitprop, realpolitik and dark drama concludes with a refreshingly personal social apotheosis as the team target a rich American who’s paid a fortune to shoot a certain lion in an African Preserve. ‘Oasis’ shows that in conservation there are no small or acceptable wrongs and weapons exist far crueller and more effective than guns…

With covers by J. P. Leon, this slim, seductive and deliciously uplifting book is a sublime beacon of hope and promise as we all watch the world get ever more unpalatable and potentially uninhabitable… And the Doom Clock continues to inexorably count down…
The Massive™ © 2015, 2016, 2017 Brian Wood. All rights reserved.

The Moon Looked Down and Laughed – a Holy Cross graphic novel


By Malachy Coney & Paul J. Holden (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-263-1

The Irish have always rightly prided themselves on their innate ability to tell a tale and comics especially have long-benefited from that blessed boon. One writer especially gifted and yet inexplicably still not world famous is Malachy Coney, who first started turning heads in Fleetway’s socially informed Crisis anthology in 1989 when he was invited by Pat Mills to co-write a sequence of the controversial serial Third World War set in Ireland.

Coney was raised in the Ardoyne area of Belfast during the time of “The Troubles” and much of his work deals with the politics of the era and issues of gender and gay rights.

In 1993 he scripted the miniseries Holy Cross for Fantagraphics: three separate tales all linked by history, geography and incidental characters Jimmy and Davy – a local gay couple. The yarns were illustrated respectively by Davy Francis, Chris Hogg and P. J. Holden. That lost delight happily led to the lovely book under discussion on this most Gaelic of days.

Coney, who is also a cartoonist and publisher, latterly wrote a number of Gay-themed superhero tales (Major Power and Spunky, The Dandy Lion, The Simply Incredible Hunk), socially aware material such as The Good Father and Catholic Lad; worked with Garth Ennis on Top Cow’s The Darkness and Steven Grant on Vampirella.

Active in the arts in Northern Ireland, he co-wrote animated short film Second Helpings and has contributed to DNASwamp, Small Axe and Fortnight, whilst producing material for the internet and self-publishing his own Good Craic Comics.

Paul Jason Holden is also from Belfast and, as well as working closely with Coney on the Holy Cross stories, The Dandy Lion and The Simply Incredible Hunk, has illustrated Mike Carey’s ‘Suicide Kings’ and worked for Warhammer Monthly, 2000AD, Judge Dredd Megazine, Image Comics, Garth Ennis’ Battlefields and Strip Magazine. He is also active in developing web- and app-based comics…

Rendered in stark and seductive monochrome, The Moon Looked Down and Laughed is again set in the Holy Cross district of Belfast and narrated by hopeful writer Tommy Doherty, a decent and sentimental young man just starting to learn the way of the world.

Tommy’s always got time to listen to his old dad’s stories about the bad days just past, especially the one when he was a young man doing odd jobs for a mean, rich old sod named Burke.

That privileged, demented sour swine used to work him like a slave every day and then set the dog on him if he stayed on his land one second after quitting-time. Sometimes Burke even deliberately kept him late just to watch him run…

That all changed on the fateful day Pa Doherty’s watch stopped and the vicious landowner gloatingly gawped as the manic canine brought him down…

Of course, that was the day sheer terror made the worm turn and a scared lad learned another use for the hated shovel in his calloused hands…

From that event, the Da learned a hard but necessary lesson: there are mad dogs everywhere and usually the shovel is the best way of dealing with them…

With thoughts of wildlife documentaries, carnivores and prey in his head, Tommy heads for the pub and a drink with his outrageous pals Jimmy and Davy. However he obliquely encounters the district’s apex predator when Francie O’Neill’s gang of thugs and troublemakers harass him for hanging out with “faggots”…

It had only been weeks since the surly pack of jackals had beaten up Jimmy and Davy in one more gay-bashing incident. O’Neill had been a bully since they were all at school but always managed to come off like some roguish golden boy. Nobody could understand why the loveliest girl in school had married him, especially Tommy, for whom Annie would always be “the one”, ever since that incident when they played “spin-the-bottle” as nippers…

Now she was shackled to a possessive, brutal thug, permanently pregnant and with all the life leaching slowly out of her.

Staggering away at closing time, Tommy and the boys spot Francie stalking the streets, looking for a fight to start. Not for the first time, the writer ponders the worth of pens against swords and why people like that are allowed to get away with so much…

Pa Doherty’s pride and joy is his allotment garden and on the way to it next day, father and son see an ambulance rushing away. It seems poor fat Big Junior has had a breakdown and harmed himself. The lad hasn’t been the same since his ma died and surely the constant bullying and sadistic harassment by certain people has pushed him over the edge…

As they watch Annie O’Neill and her two oldest pass by, Pa invites them to spend time in his garden. The kids have the best day of their life just playing and, with a bit of peace at last, Annie idly chats about the old days with Tommy…

The next day the author-in-waiting answers a desperate call: the father is in a bad way. It seems someone has destroyed his precious, beloved garden; razed it to rubble and ruins…

Consoling the heartbroken, despondent elder, Tommy sees Francie’s unmistakable signature in the despicable act. Soon after, locating the psychotic lout terrorising his own wife and children, the frustrated scribe realises he has found his own mad dog…

Disposing of the body on the nearby railway tracks, the shell-shocked and traumatised scribe is utterly unaware that Jimmy and Davy have been witnesses to the whole thing…

And that’s just the start of Tommy Doherty’s road from boy to man in this superbly told tale, blending wry humour and bucolic Celtic charm with shatteringly personal conflicts that test the miraculous bonds of childhood loyalty and friendship, revealing not only the horrific acts good men can be pushed to, but also how deeds shape character and how little the universe cares…

Long overdue for re-issue – preferably in a bumper edition collecting the three-issue Holy Cross miniseries and the fabled unpublished fourth issue as well – this is a sublimely beguiling and memorably incisive story of human life at its most vibrant and compelling…
© 1997 Malachy Coney & Paul J. Holden. This edition © 1997 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

The Files of Ms. Tree volume 1: I, For an Eye and Death Do Us Part


By Max Collins & Terry Beatty (Aardvark-Vanaheim)
ISBN: 0-919359-05-1             ASIN: B00072LQCW

Despite being one of the most popular genres in modern literature and the fact that most fiction books are bought and read by women, hard-boiled Private Eye crime stories are desperately short of female protagonists.

Marry that with the observation that in the 1980s “gum-shoe” comics were also as rare as hen’s teeth and it’s a wonder that a series such as Ms. Tree ever got off the drawing board.

The secret – as always – is quality.

The black widow of detective fiction first appeared in 1981 as a part-work serial in the groundbreaking black-and-white anthology comic Eclipse Magazine, rubbing padded shoulders with a number of other quirky alternatives to the East Coast superheroes that had a stranglehold on American comics at that time980s.

Associating with such gems as Sax Rohmer’s Dope (fabulously adapted by Trina Robbins and only recently collected and released in a wonderful pulp thriller edition); Steve Englehart & Marshal Rogers’ I Am Coyote; Don McGregor & Gene Colan’s Ragamuffins; B.C. Boyer’s masterful Masked Man and a host of other gems from the industry’s finest, Max Allan Collins and young humour cartoonist Terry Beatty introduced a cold, calculating and genuinely fierce avenger who put new gloss on the hallowed imagery and plot of the hard-bitten, tough-guy shamus avenging a murdered partner…

As conceived by the successful crime novelist (and scripter of the venerable Dick Tracy newspaper strip), the gun-toting dame was one of the first features to win a solo title: Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Stories or simply Ms. Tree from the fourth issue. Although the marketplace was not friendly to such a radical concept, the series ran for 50 issues, and 2 specials, from three publishers (Eclipse, Aardvark-Vanaheim and Renegade Press) before finally dying in 1989.

Gone but not quickly forgotten, she was promptly revived as a DC comic in 1990 for another 10 giant-sized issues as Ms. Tree Quarterly/ Ms. Tree Special; three more blood-soaked, mayhem-packed, morally challenging years of pure magic.

Astonishingly, and as far as I know, there are no contemporary collections of her exploits – despite Collins’ status as a prolific and best-selling author of both graphic novels (Road to Perdition, CSI) and prose sequences featuring his crime-creations Nathan Heller, Quarry, Nolan, Mallory and a veritable pantheon of others.

In 2007 Collins released a classy prose novel, “Deadly Beloved” starring his troubled troubleshooter, but thus far The Files of Ms. Tree volumes are the only place to find the collected exploits of this superb crime-stopper.

The first volume, I, For an Eye and Death Do Us Part gathers the introductory escapade from Eclipse Magazine #1-6 (May 1981-July 1982) and the follow-up initial story-arc from Ms. Tree’s Thrilling Detective Stories #1-3 (August-December 1982): two chilling tales of regret and revenge, perfectly delivered as fair-play mystery tales.

You might not be able to extract your own retribution, but if you’re smart enough you can solve the clues as fast as our heroine does…

In ‘I, For an Eye’ we – so very briefly – meet Mike Tree, a true bastion of the detective profession. Hard, tough, sharp and fair he’s an ex-cop who set up in business for himself and did well. At the peak of his career he meets Mike Friday, a feisty, clever, pistol-packing, two-fisted modern woman who quickly moves from secretary to full partner. They fell in love…

On their wedding night her husband is gunned down by an unknown assailant and the new Mrs. Tree sets out to find the killer who made her a honeymoon widow. Assuming control over their detective agency she employs part of the staff to keep the business going but places her husband’s… her… best people onto finding out why her man died. With her tight, dedicated team she uncovers a web of corruption and lies which includes the fact that she was not the first Mrs. Tree.

Mike had a previous wife and a son who’s painfully like his departed dad…

Gritty, witty and darkly relentless, this tale of corruption and twisted friendship sets the pace for all the ensuing adventures; a brilliant odyssey which peels like an onion, always showing that there’s still more to uncover…

Even after finding Mike’s killer and delivering the traditional, mandatory vengeance in grand style, the investigation reveals a higher mastermind behind it all, in the scurrilous shape of mob boss Dominic Muerta, after which second tale ‘Death Do Us Part’ deals with the repercussions of Ms. Tree’s crusade against that psychotic grandee’s operations.

The unrelenting death and misery takes its toll on the traumatised widow: she turns to therapy but when that doesn’t work she takes a long-needed holiday to a distant honeymoon resort.

She even finds a new lover but when the newlyweds in the next cabin are murdered by a hit-man Tree realises that she is trapped on a path that can only lead to more death…

Adult, astute, and enchantingly challenging, this second drama is full of plot twists and clever set-pieces that will charm and beguile crime fans of every persuasion whilst the art by Beatty is a sheer revelation.

Presented as static, informative and understated, the visuals are remorselessly matter-of-fact and deadly in their cold efficiency. It’s a quality which might be off-putting to some but which so perfectly matches the persona of its pitiless star that I can’t imagine any other style working at all.

This volume, released in 1984, is stuffed with behind-the-scenes extras and commentary from both creators, including a colour cover gallery, and – as an added bonus – original illustrated prose short-story ‘Red Light’: a terse thriller that perfectly augments the grim mood of the book.

Despite the tragic scenarios, ruthless characterisations and high body-count, this is a clever, funny affair steeped in the lore of detective fiction, stuffed with in-jokes for the cognoscenti (such as the unspoken conceit that heroine Mike Friday is the daughter of legendary TV cop Joe DragnetFriday) and dripping in the truly magical gratification factor that shows complete scum finally get what’s coming to them…

Ms. Tree is the closest thing the American market has ever produced to challenge our own Queen of Adventure Modesty Blaise: how they can let her languish in graphic obscurity is a greater crime than any described in this compelling classic collection. Hunt it down for your pleasure and pray somebody somewhere has the great good sense to bring back Ms. Tree.
© 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984 Max Collins and Terry Beatty. All Rights Reserved.