Love and Rockets: New Stories volume 7


By The Hernandez Brothers (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-770-3

Years pass like centuries when you’re waiting for a wonderful treat but at long last here’s the latest annual instalment of Love and Rockets: New Stories. So life is once more challengingly complete …

Now solidly in its fourth decade as a transcendent and transformative force shaking up the American comics industry, Love and Rockets was originally an anthology magazine featuring amongst other gems and joys the slick, intriguing, sci-fi-tinged hi-jinx of punky young things Maggie and Hopeylas Locas – and a series of heart-warming, gut-wrenching soap-opera epics set in a rural Central American paradise called Palomar.

The Hernandez Boys (three guys from Oxnard, California: Jaime, Gilberto and Mario), gifted synthesists all, captivated the comics cognoscenti with incredible stories sampling and referencing a host of influences – everything from comics, TV cartoons, masked wrestlers and the exotica of everything from American Hispanic pop culture to German Expressionism.

There was also a perpetual backdrop displaying the holy trinity of youth: Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll – also alternative music, hip hop and punk.

The result was dynamite then and the guys have only got better with the passing years. Mario only officially contributed on rare occasions, but Jaime’s slick, enticing visual forays explored friendship and modern love by destroying stereotypes of feminine attraction through his fetching coterie of “Gals Gone Wild”, whilst bro Gilberto created a hyper-real and passionately poignant landscape and playground of wit and venality for his extended generational saga Heartbreak Soup: a quicksilver chimera of breadline Latin-American village life with a vibrant, funny and fantastically quotidian cast.

The shadows cast by Palomar still define and inform his latest tales both directly and as imaginative spurs for ostensibly unaffiliated stories.

Fully evolved into an annual omnibus compendium of wonders, Love and Rockets: New Stories features one-off vignettes supplementing a string of contiguous and continuing story strands, opening here with Beto’s ‘Killer in Palomar’.

After having apparently quitting her blossoming cinema career Doralis “Killer” Rivera headed back to Palomar to visit her distanced family. She was fleeing rumours of pregnancy and just wanted some peace and a normal life. At least that’s what she told herself…

Now she’s reeling from the horror of a deranged stalker-fan who murdered people in her name, but new friend Theo is more worried about her strange reaction to a copycat stripper/double appropriating her reputation to become a porn star. And to make things even more complicated Killer is chatting to dead Tia Doralís again…

Jaime then returns to his singularly aging signature characters as Maggie and Hopey ditch their significant others for a weekend to attend an Eighties-Friends reunion in ‘Do I Look at the Camera, Or Do I Look at Me?’

The devout pals and former lovers may have moved on, but there’s still some spark of the old wild couple in play – especially the constant bickering – and eventually the ladies at leisure settle on watching a movie Maggie’s boyfriend Ray recommended coincidentally  running at the Indie cinema that used to be the girls’ teenage hangout…

Metafiction and magical realism have always played a large part in the Hernandez Boy’s tales and as Maggie and Hopey settle in for a weird screen experience, elsewhere in time and space star of the film Maria Rodriguez is showing it to her baby daughter Fritz/Rosalba (for further details and family indiscretions best check out High Soft Lisp or Luba)…

Blending a bizarre B-movie fantasy with more telling insights into three generations of powerful and beautiful women, Gilberto’s story segues into Killer’s time as a toddler – and the mistakes all the women in her family seem condemned to repeat – before ‘Daughters and Mothers and Daughters’ flashes back to more revelations, inter-cut with her playing her own grandmother in scandalous biopic Maria M

Jaime’s vignette ‘You and Hopey’ focuses on poor abandoned Ray and how he spends his time as a weekend-widower, after which the artist switches track to follow frustrated teen wrestling hopefuls in ‘Our Lady of the Assassinating Angels’ before returning to Ray for ‘The Cody Pendant’ and an evening alone, coincidentally watching the same movie as Maggie and Hopey…

Beto steps in for a fantastic slice of hokey fantasy as ‘Magic Voyage of Aladdin’ offers an incredible genre mash-up with the legendary boy adventurer and his astoundingly pneumatic patron Circe battling witches, monsters, aliens and bat-people in three anarchic cine-plays, beginning with ‘Chapter 1: the Electrical Brain’ moving on to ‘Chapter 2: the Cave of Bats’ and calamitously concluding with ‘Chapter 3: the Living Corpse’

Jaime tags in to continue the travails of young Tonta Agajanian in ‘If It Ain’t Fixed, Don’t Break It!’ as the troublesome teen escapes her scandalous family (murdered step-father and her far-from-sane mother still prime suspect even after being cleared by DA’s office) for a comicbook party.

After another fine moment annoying the rich kids, Tonta and gullible associate Gomez suddenly find themselves pulled over by the cops…

The dirty doppelgangers poaching the reputation of Killer’s dynasty of sexy starlets make their unseemly entrances in Gilbert’s ‘Meet Fritz Jr.’ and unwittingly offer tantalising glimpses of unsuspected family connections, after which Jaime turns up the filmic fantasy dial with the hilariously scary sci fi classic ‘Princess Animus!’ wherein a beautiful cannibal gains the power to dominate the universe…

However when the film breaks at the best bit Maggie and Hopey are left at a loose end and unwisely head back to the motel early…

Beto closes down this annual affair (bracketing an untitled Jaime two-pager highlighting las Locas’ morning-after) with another outrageous grindhouse movie pastiche in ‘The Golem Suit Starring Killer’ before a painful day for Fritz and her copyright infringing facsimile meeting fans at a convention as ‘Talent’ wraps things up for another too-long wait until next time…

Warm-hearted, deceptively heart-wrenching, subtly shocking, challenging, charming and irresistibly addictive, Love and Rockets: New Stories is a grown up comics fan’s dream come true and remains as valid and groundbreaking as its earlier incarnations – the diamond point of the cutting edge of American graphic narrative.
© 2015 Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. This edition © 2015 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Violent Cases Hardcover


By Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78329-360-5

Do you remember…?

Since its first release in 1987 Violent Cases has gone back into print many times, but regrettably remains a comics connoisseur’s secret. Now Titan Books have released a big, bold, lush and lavish commemorative oversized full-colour hardback (302 x 235mm), complete with extras culled from previous editions and new art material, in another sincere and sterling effort to give this tale the audience and acclaim it deserves.

There’s actually very little I feel happy saying about this enigmatic and compelling little teaser other than the basic facts. Too much detail or analysis will spoil the magic if you’ve never seen it – and if you have it’s probably not what you recall it being…

Initially published by the sorely missed publisher Escape – in association with Titan Books – in 1987, it marks the first collaboration of two then largely unknown creators who shared a more literary aspiration for comics than traditional newcomers to the craft, married to a novel approach and impassioned – if raw and hungry – storytelling talent.

It’s short, sweet, disturbing, utterly absorbing and probably impossible to translate into any other medium… and that is, of course, a Very Good Thing.

There’s this guy see, and he’s idly reminiscing about his childhood in the 1960s…

Years ago in Portsmouth a little lad hurt his arm rather badly whilst exchanging words about bedtime with his father. To fix the problem daddy took the 4-year old to see an osteopath. The elderly gentleman was an interesting fellow with an odd accent who told great yarns and mentioned that he had once treated somebody famous…

As the narrator tries to sort out the half-forgotten details – fragments of life and films and games congealed now with clearly conflated circumstances – the facts, fictions and shadily obscured and occulted misunderstandings concerning his perhaps difficult childhood, growing maturity and awareness and those hours with Al Capone’s bone-bender begin to emerge and coalesce… or do they?

Flickering back and forth, the narrative proffers a miasma of mixed memories and misapprehensions involving a memorably troubled old man, Mysterious Men in Dark Suits, a party, a scary magician, unexplained appearances and subsequent disappearances, unforgettable physical discomfort as a young arm was coaxed back into correctitude, tales of tailors and gangsters and Tommy Guns… which were always carried in Violent Cases…

Most of all it deals with unresolvable mysteries – because even the things we recall, we don’t always remember…

This entire book is all about stories, memories, perception, mis-perception and self-deception, painted by Dave McKean in a muted but cleverly targeted tonal colour-palette of blues, greys and browns, with splashes of electric vibrancy where appropriate (all reduced to straight monochrome for the very first edition, restored for those subsequent releases, and remastered here)…

This volume also includes Introductions by Paul Gravett, Alan Moore and the story’s author Neil Gaiman (from the 1997, 1987 and 1991 editions) as well as his Afterword from 2003, plus assorted covers and other art works by McKean and an illustrated Biographies section which is a marvel and joy to behold…

Despite being one of the key books in the 1980s’ war to prove that comics were an art form and valid mode of mature creative expression, Violent Cases remains a largely unknown artefact, seldom cropping up in the same discussions as contemporaries like A Contract With God, Maus, Watchmen, Love and Rockets, The Dark Knight Returns and V for Vendetta, let alone later acclaimed breakthroughs such as Ghost World, Black Hole, From Hell, Persepolis or even Sandman.

It is also an unforgettable pictorial memento mori – or is that topica tragoedia? – which beguiles and enchants, tests and subtly distresses in ways no lover of the comics medium could possibly resist.

If you haven’t read it, you must. If you have, read it again – it’s not at all what you remember…

™ & © 1987, 2003, 2013 Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean. All rights reserved. All other material © its respective author or creator.

Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 8: 1951-1952


By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-699-7

The stellar Sunday page Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur debuted on 13th February 1937, a luscious and luminous full-colour weekly window into a miraculous too-perfect past of adventure and romance, even topping creator Hal Foster’s previous impossibly popular comics masterpiece Tarzan.

The saga of noble knights played against a glamorised, dramatised Dark Ages historical backdrop as it followed the life of a refugee boy driven from his ancestral homeland in Scandinavian Thule who grew up to roam the world and attain a paramount position amongst the heroes of fabled Camelot.

Writer/artist Foster wove the epic tale over decades, as the near-feral wild boy matured into a paragon of chivalric virtue: knight, warrior, saviour, vengeance-taker and eventually family patriarch in a constant deluge of wild – and joyously witty – wonderment.

The restless hero visited many far-flung lands, siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes and utterly enchanting generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts.

There have been films, animated series and all manner of toys, games and collections based on Prince Valiant – one of the few adventures strips to have lasted from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (over 4000 episodes and counting) – and even here in the end times of the newspaper narrative cartoons, it continues to astound in more than 300 American papers. It’s even cutting its way onto the internet with an online edition.

Foster tirelessly crafted the feature until 1971 when illustrator John Cullen Murphy (Big Ben Bolt) succeeded him as illustrator. Foster continued as writer and designer until 1980, after which he retired and Cullen Murphy’s daughter Mairead took over colouring and lettering whilst her brother John assumed the writer’s role.

In 2004 the senior Cullen Murphy also retired, since when the strip has soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of artists Gary Gianni and latterly Thomas Yeates with Mark Schultz (Xenozoic) scripting.

Before the astonishing illumination of dauntless derring-do recommences, Editor Brian M. Kane discusses, in amazing detail, the incredible tales of the creator’s pre-and-early comics days as an advertising artist and the impact of his “Mountie” paintings on early 20th century American ads in the fascinating Foreword essay ‘An Artist Nowhere Near Ordinary: Hal Foster’s Lord Greystoke of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’.

This volume of sublime strips is also balanced by another erudite Kane piece at the back: describing the now forgotten entertainments phenomenon of the Silver Lady Awards bestowed annually by the fabled, prestigious but now forgotten “Banshees”.

‘Hal Foster and the Other Woman’ reveals the story behind the story of King Features’ “Shadow Cabinet” and how Foster won his Silver Lady in1952 as well as noting many of his other testimonials such as the Rueben, the Swedish Academy’s Adamson Award and his election to our own Royal Society (for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce): an honour he shared with the likes of Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin and Stephen Hawking…

This 8th enormously entertaining and luxurious oversized (362 x 264mm) full-colour hardback volume reprints the pages from January 7th 1951 to 28th December 1952 (pages #726 to 829, if you’re counting) but before we proceed…

What has Gone Before: after the double christening in Camelot of his and Prince Arn of Ord’s sons, Valiant was soon back in the saddle as an Arthurian troubleshooter, cleaning out a extortion-minded sorcerer’s den in Wales and picking up new squire Geoffrey – known affectionately as Arf – before heading North to Hadrian’s Wall and a brutally punishing and protracted siege by invading Picts.

It was nearly Val’s last battle…

When Aleta joined her dying husband he miraculously recovered. His forthright wife elected to take him back to his Scandinavian homeland so she dispatched Geoffrey to Camelot with orders for her handmaiden Katwin and nurse Tillicum to obtain a ship and meet her with baby Arn at the village of Newcastle…

Soon the group were bound for Thule, bolstered by the bombastic return of boisterous far-larger-than-life Viking Boltar: a Falstaff-like “honest pirate” who ferried the re-united extended family to Valiant’s harsh, cold homeland. Along the way Boltar found himself bitten by the love bug …

A chance meeting with an old cleric also disclosed the truth about Arf: the faithful squire had been forced from his home when his sire Sir Hugo Geoffrey took a new young bride. She didn’t want an annoying stepson underfoot but now she was gone and the boy could return home… if he wanted to…

Eventually the party reached the chilly castle of King Aguar and settled in for a winter of snowy rest and recuperation – although the temperatures could not cool Arf’s hot temper and propensity for finding trouble…

Aguar, meanwhile, had been seriously considering converting his rowdy Norse realm to the peaceful tenets of Christianity, but all the missionaries roaming his lands were cantankerous idiots preaching their own particular brand of faith – when not actively fighting each other.

Therefore when spring arrived he tasked his fully recovered son with a mission to Rome, beseeching the Pope to send proper priests and real teachers of the officially sanctioned religion to spread the Word of God.

No sooner had Val, Arf, doughty Rufus Regan and new comrade Jarl Egil set off, however, than vassal king Hap-Atla – seething from an old slight delivered to his deceased sire – rebelled, besieging Aguar’s castle. With manpower dangerously depleted the situation looked grim until wily Aleta took control, scoring a stunning triumph which shockingly contravened all the rules of manly warfare.

Valiant and his companions meanwhile had landed in Rouen and trekked onwards to the HolyCity, encountering thieves, murderers and worse as Europe, deprived of the Pax Romana, had descended into barbarism: reduced to a seething mass of lawless principalities ruled by greedily ambitious proto-emperors…

In one unhappy demesne the quartet dethroned a robber-baron but almost ended up wed to his unsavoury daughters, whilst in another Val encountered an alchemist-king who had accidentally invented an explosive black powder…

Exhausted, they eventually were welcomed at the castle of benevolent noble Ruy Foulke – but their good night’s sleep was spoiled when their host was attacked by villainous overlord Black Robert and his savagely competent forces…

This chronicle’s action commences as the visitors stoutly and resolutely defend their host against overwhelming force, with all combatants blithely unaware that Foulke’s daughter and Black Robert’s son are lovers. The youngsters almost sacrifice their lives to end the hostilities, and Valiant brokers an alliance which ends the bloodshed but has to leave quickly as his actions have deprived the invaders of much promised booty…

On the road again they missionaries encounter roving bands of barbarian reivers and take refuge in a monastery at the foot of the French Alps. The clerics offer to guide the quartet over the mountains to Italy, but are woefully short of the protective garments made from the cold-resistant Chamois, so Valiant goes off hunting the elusive antelope.

Trouble is never far from the Prince of Thule and his frozen safari brings him into conflict with another band of invading Huns or Tartars, which only ends when the capable northerner destroys them with an avalanche.

Properly kitted out, Arf, Egil, Rufus and Val are then taken over the horrific high passes, enduring ghastly arctic conditions before they reach the other side. Young Arf suffers most, and Val has to leave his crippled squire – whose feet have frozen – at a hospice in Torino whilst the remainder of his battered party carry on to Rome.

The EternalCity has become a cess-pit of iniquity since it was sacked by the barbarians and the Missionaries are given a constant run-around by greedy and duplicitous officials until Val discovers that the Pope has removed himself from the city and established a new home in Ravenna.

Although Valiant is still denied a meeting, the Pontiff appoints a committee which agrees to send true Christian teachers to icy Thule, but before details can be finalised the Prince is called back to Torino where Arf has taken a turn for the worse…

The Squire has lost the will to live, along with his left foot, and with all his chivalric ambitions destroyed is beyond consoling. In a powerful and moving sequence Valiant patiently brings the boy back from a fatal depression and sets him upon a new path: scholar and official historian of the kings of Thule.

Since the boy cannot handle the arduous trek back to Scandinavia, Valiant sends Egil and Rufus on ahead with the Pope’s team of missionaries and teachers by the most direct route whilst he accompanies Arf in a more leisurely and roundabout journey by ship.

En route the fierce man of war helps found the Christian Mission at San Marino before he and the still emotionally fragile lad board a Genoese trader. After crossing the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar), fresh passengers join them and the boy is utterly smitten by the demure charms of the beauteous Adele, daughter of wealthy Eastern lord Sieur Du Luc

Luckily, Valiant has been schooling his former squire in the courtly skills of music and poetry…

The boy’s timorous wooing of the Mediterranean charmer pays off in a multitude of ways. His strength and confidence returns, Adele favours and returns his attentions and the amused and charmed sailors, delighted to have the burdensome (and occasionally pirate-plagued) journey eased somewhat, carve Arf a marvellous wooden leg which is so well-fashioned that he can throw away his crutches and walk as a man should…

When the vessel reaches England the boy takes time to reconcile with his father and introduce Adele so that the tricky and torturous process of making a marriage match may begin, whilst Valiant’s return to Camelot and joyous reunion with best friend Sir Gawain propels the two old comrades and devoted merry pranksters into an orgy of practical jokes and good-natured duels with their fellow knights…

Sadly the riotous times end too soon, as word comes from Aguar that Val should return to Thule with the utmost speed. Arranging for Arf to meet them en route, Valiant accepts Gawain’s offer to take ship from his own island kingdom of Orkney, but although his brother-in-arms is a fine fellow, the knight’s family are another matter.

Gawain’s mother Morgause is reputed a witch, whilst her other sons Agravaine, Gaheris and vile Mordred are little better than brutes and outright villains. Moreover the men of Orkney have little love for Scandinavians, being regular recipients of savage raids from assorted Northmen…

After Gawain scotches their plan to hold Valiant for ransom, the Prince proposes ending years on enmity with a trade agreement which will make the ancient nations allies and at last sets off for Thule to receive some shocking news: during the year he has been away Aleta has given birth to twin daughters.

Although the proud father is astounded and delighted, his firstborn son is not taking the loss of star-status well – as described in a charming sequence of comedic adventures starring Prince Valiant Arn in the Days of King Arthur

Another crisis soon occurs however as Boltar, ignorant of Aguar’s new treaty, accidentally pirates the Orkney ship transporting Adele to Thule and suffers the wrath of his king and former comrades.

Imprisoned in Aguar’s castle, the confused and indignant Boltar is secretly released by Tillicum, but the old rogue, misinterpreting her gesture of love, does her the honour of kidnapping her – just as all his romantic forebears have – and is baffled when she escapes and pulls a knife on him…

Fed up and utterly desolate, Boltar and his crew continue to their base in the Shetlands, leaving Aleta to mend fences with the King and discuss with the disconsolate nanny how best Tillicum can get her man…

Boltar meanwhile has been thoroughly tested: Thule’s ancient rivals the Danes have amassed a fleet to attack Aguar and offer his now-disgraced “Good Right Hand” a share of the spoils and glory to join his ships to their armada…

Despite being vexed and tempted, the old pirate instead risks his life to warn Aguar of the sneak attack and after a spectacular campaign of seaborne slaughter accepts his long-delayed punishment. To keep him in line, Aguar makes Tillicum responsible for his continued good behaviour…

Idyllic weeks pass until Valiant, bored with inaction, drags his new biographer Arf into a patrol of the nation’s border, only to have them both washed away in a flash flood and forced to spend weeks fighting their way back to civilisation from the primitive northern wilderness.

There are gentler moments in the restless warrior’s life, such as the foolish wager he makes soon after his triumphant return that he can catch and train a hawk better than Aleta’s Merlin and his father’s Golden Eagle, but the days are mostly quiet in Thule… until at long last Rufus and Egil arrive with the Pope’s Christian missionaries.

Both have converted on the trip and Valiant and Aleta are overjoyed that their daughters Valeta and Karen can be baptised, but the task of taking the gospels to the devoutly warlike worshippers of Thor and Odin will be far from simple…

As the European set to, lecturing and building churches, Val and Rufus become involved in a cross-border water dispute and the Prince, in a rare moment of diplomacy, furnishes a solution that prevents rather than ends bloodshed.

No such opportunity arises when he is ambushed as he returns to Aguar. The arrow that nearly ends his life is fired in error, by a serf who mistakes the prince for the local under-chief, Sigurd Holem.

Once a noble and trusted deputy of Aguar, the Fief-holder has become a cruel tyrant: enslaving his own countrymen and defying any – including his Lord’s heir – to stop him.

Determined to avenge the cruelties of Sigurd, Valiant infiltrates the monster’s impenetrable citadel and, through cunning engineering tricks, brings the entire daunting edifice crashing into ruins…

The next few strips use the device of Arf’s growing biography to lavishly recapitulate many of Valiant’s greatest exploits, such as the overthrow of Sligon and restoration of Aguar to Thule or the haunting fate of doomed mountain outpost Andelkrag, before the tone switches again and little Arn is forced to face the stomach-churning consequences of being a “mighty hunter” when nanny Tillicum makes him confront the results of his firing arrows at animals…

The boy and his guardian take centre-stage in the next sequence too when Boltar returns home from another bloody and profitable voyage and jealous rivals at court attempt to humiliate the rowdy blowhard.

The plan is cruel and simple. When Tillicum rejoins her man at his home Vikingsholm she brings the wide-eyed Arn with her, where during a moment of quiet converse with Boltar the hunting-mad lad slips from her careful scrutiny and is abducted.

The kidnappers however have not reckoned on the Native American’s determination or tracking skills. After stalking them all alone for days, she rescues the boy just as the furious following Boltar catches up to her, and the conspirators have mere moments to regret their vile actions…

And when Valiant hears of the plot, he and Boltar then deal with the rest of the plotters in similar manner…

This volume’s stunning saga temporarily end with the opening movements of another epic extended story arc as the progress of the Christian missionaries leads Valiant – still far from a believer in the One God – to be targeted by Druids and Pagan warriors determined to crush the threat to their bombastic pantheon before it can take hold…

To Be Continued…

Rendered in a simply stunning panorama of glowing visual passion and precision, Prince Valiant is a non-stop rollercoaster of boisterous action, exotic adventure and grand romance; blending human-scaled fantasy with dry wit and broad humour, soap opera melodrama with shatteringly dark violence.

Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring, the strip is a landmark of comics fiction and something no fan can afford to miss.
Prince Valiant and all comics material © 2014 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2014 their respective creators or holders. This edition © 2014 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 5: 1945-1946


By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-484-9

Probably the most successful comic strip fantasy ever produced, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched on February 13th 1937, a luscious full-colour Sunday page offering a perfect realm adventure and romance. Year by year, in real time, the strip followed the exploits of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his ancestral homeland in Scandinavian Thule who grew up to roam the world and rose to a paramount position amongst the mightiest heroes of fabled Camelot.

As crafted by sublime master draftsman Harold “Hal” Foster, the princeling matured to clean-limbed manhood in a heady sea of exotic wonderment; visiting far-flung lands and siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts.

There have been films, animated series and all manner of books, toys, records, games and collections based on the strip – one of too few to have lasted from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (over 4000 episodes and still forging ever onward) – and even in these declining days of the newspaper narrative strip as a viable medium it still claims over 300 American papers as its home. It has even made it into the very ether with an online edition.

Foster produced the strip, one spectacular page a week until 1971, when he began to ease up on his self-appointed workload. With the syndicate’s approval, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt illustrator John Cullen Murphy was chosen to draw the feature. Foster continued as writer and layout designer until 1980, after which he fully retired and Murphy’s son assumed the writer’s role.

In 2004 the senior Cullen Murphy also retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip has soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of writer Mark Schultz and artists Gary Gianni and Tom Yeates.

This seventh gloriously oversized full-colour hardback volume reprints the strips from January 7th 1945 to 29th December 1946 during which time his celebrated yet rarely seen “Footer strip” The Mediaeval Castle was brought to conclusion.

Because of wartime paper rationing, newspapers across the country needed to fill their reduced page counts carefully. To assist their clients the syndicate dictated format-changes to most of their strip properties and Prince Valiant began to appear with an unrelated (and therefore optional) second feature, which individual papers could opt to omit according to their local space considerations.

Apparently the three-panel-per week saga starring the 11th century family of Lord and Lady Harwood, their young sons Arn and Guy and teenaged daughter Alice – a feudal pot-boiler so popular that it spawned a couple of relatively contemporary book collections – wasn’t dropped by a single paper throughout its 18-month run from April 23rd 1944 to 25th November 1945, but Foster was happy to return to one epic per full page once the newsprint restrictions were lifted.

In this volume the strip sees a less than historical Christmas celebration and harsh winter turn into a fruitful spring as the bitter rivalry with neighbour Sir Gregory slowly mends, thanks in no small part to a hostage swap of their first-born sons and Alice’s romantic inclinations towards young and dashing Hubert Gregory. Of course it doesn’t hurt that their quarrelsome fathers have been called away Crusading…

P. Craig Russell’s introductory essay ‘Jack Kirby, Hal Foster and Me’ expresses and describes Prince Valiant’s influence on one of today’s most lauded creators, after which the magnificent main saga then resumes.

What Has Gone Before: Despite his many exploits and triumphs, restless Valiant is haunted by visions of Queen Aleta of The Misty Isles, whom he believes has bewitched him, utterly unaware that she saved his life not once but twice.

Val pays an adventure-filled to his father King Aguar – whom he has restored to overlordship of Thule, eradicating assorted bandit bands, being shipwrecked and cast away before foiling a plot to oust the aged monarch.

Once home, however, a hunting accident almost kills him and, laid up, he plays Cupid for a crippled artist and a Viking’s daughter. Once, barely recovered, he then repulses an invasion by barbarian Finns.

Never a man for peace and indolence, Val then determines to free himself of Aleta’s bewitching spell. Returning to Camelot the Prince enlists the aid of Sir Gawain and they promptly set off across Europe towards Misty Isles. In Germany they are attacked by barbaric Goths, before taking ship in Rome and being shipwrecked. The squire Beric and now amnesiac Val are marooned whilst Gawain is captured for ransom by an ambitious Sicilian noble.

As Beric sacrifices himself to save his Prince’s life, Valiant finally recovers his wits and lands on the extremely hostile Misty Isles…

Aleta, spellbinder of Val’s nightmares, has recently been ill-used by fate. Never the supernatural monster he believed, she was, however, in dire straits with a flock of suitors and her own courtiers pressing her to marry immediately and produce an heir. So it was with mixed emotions that she saw the boy she had saved burst in, snatch her up and flee the Isles with her as his rather uncomplaining prisoner.

Val, wounded, exhausted but triumphant, now has the cause of all his woes chained and at his mercy as he turns toward England…

After crossing a vast desert with pursuers hard on their heels the couple reach the port of Tobruch, where the local despot tries to buy Val’s hard-won prize. Somehow his hatred towards her has become something else and soon he is protecting her from bandits and numerous other perils.

She returns the favour when he is injured: nursing him through fever and even convincing a band of roving Tuaregs to escort them across Arabia. By the time the couple reach Bengasi Val is again her slave, but only realises it after a recuperative stay in the palace of the Sultan. It’s at that moment that Donardo, Robber Emperor of Saramand strikes, stealing Aleta and setting his band of brigands upon Valiant.

The villain’s biggest mistake is not ensuring Val is dead. Alone and weaponless, the Arthurian knight relentlessly tracks the thieves and deals with them mercilessly before reaching Donardo’s citadel moments too late to exact full vengeance.

Unable to liberate Aleta, he instead foments a full scale war between the Robber Emperor and his neighbours, each as wicked and untrustworthy as Aleta’s abductor…

Barbaric and time-consuming, the conflict rages, with each king secretly seeking to double-cross his temporary ally. However, whilst Val is riding a tiger by acting as the warlord of the attacking forces, Aleta takes her fate into her own hands and escapes from Donardo’s castle and is (relatively) safe when Saramand is sacked and the Emperor meets his long-delayed fate…

Leaving the devastated city, Val, reunited with his love and his legendary Singing Sword, travels to Rome, arriving just as Vandal general Genseric attacks the Eternal City. Befriended by Genseric’s employer, the former Empress Eudoxia, Val and Aleta are married there before again trying for England. To do so, they steal a ship from the victorious, blood-crazed and very drunk Vandals, heading to the relative safety of Lyon.

As they quit the vessel, a slave implores Val to free him, and the scribe Amurath joins their party. He is clearly quite taken with Aleta’s new handmaiden Cidi

With Rome fallen every vestige of civilisation – such as safe roads – has ended and the party is soon under attack by bandits. These Val can handle, but he has no conception of the peril he faces when Cidi develops a lethally obsessive fascination for him…

When besotted Amurath stops the handmaiden from poisoning Aleta, Cidi responds by committing suicide and the heartbroken scribe changes. As the newlyweds enter Paris, he schemes to have them shamed and killed by the noble Thane Roth as they stay in his palace…

The freed slave had underestimated Aleta however, and the sinister plan fails…

As Val and Aleta commence the last leg of their journey they meet and employ a tempestuous fire-haired northern titan named Katwin. She will be the Lady’s handmaiden in England…

With little trouble the party reach Camelot where Aleta soon becomes a Court favourite – despite a few hilariously compromising moments before she is formally introduced to Arthur. She soon sets tongues wagging by riding and hunting just like man…

The scandals continue after Valiant and others are despatched on a mission against the Saxons. Refusing to be separated from her husband, the headstrong Queen of the Misty Isles impersonates a knight and joins the war-party…

Soon after, whilst hunting with Val and Gawain, she charms a band of outlaws led by charismatic Hugh-the-Fox when they are all captured for ransom. Brokering a peace and pardon from Arthur she turns the woodsmen into scouts against the ever-encroaching Jutes and Saxons of high king Horsa.

After spectacularly repulsing the invaders with “his” wood scouts, Val’s next adventure pits him against the treacherous Sir Modred, who seeks power by exposing Sir Launcelot’s relationship with Queen Guinevere. To save the monarch’s shame, Aleta impetuously confesses to being the knight’s actual lover… just as Val returns from a mission and gets the wrong idea…

The outraged, betrayed Prince flees Camelot and only loyal Katwin is able to bring him to his senses. Reunited and both penitent, the newlyweds decide to spend winter in Thule, where Aguar can get to know his new daughter-in-law. It’s not a happy homecoming, however, and as the barely-rested Val is forced to quell a potential rebellion in Overgaard another brews in the fiefdom of Earl Jon.

Amidst the dour, grim-minded warriors, bright-and-breezy Aleta struggles to win the favour of the King – until she shows him another way to deal with his subjects’ dissatisfaction…

To Be Continued…

This volume also includes a stellar glimpse of the storyteller’s commercial endeavours in magazines and advertising in Brian M. Kane’s informative essay ‘Foster the Illustrator’ and a discussion of the strip’s amazing, groundbreaking co-star in ‘Aleta: Water Nymph of the Misty Isles’ to wrap up the full immersion in the myriad splendours of a long-gone age…

Rendered in a simply stunning panorama of glowing visual passion and precision, Prince Valiant is a constantly onrushing rollercoaster of rousing action, exotic adventure and grand romance; mixing glorious human-scaled fantasy with dry wit, broad humour with shatteringly dark violence.

Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring, this is a masterpiece of fiction: a never-ending story no one should miss. If you have never experienced the intoxicating grandeur of Foster’s magnum opus these magnificent, lavishly substantial deluxe editions are the best way to do so and will be your portal to an eye-opening world of wonder and imagination…
Prince Valiant © 2012 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2011 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.

Love and Rockets: New Stories volume 6


By The Hernandez Brothers (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-679-9

It’s nearly Christmas again so it must be year since the last annual instalment of Love and Rockets: New Stories. Yep, there it is and about time too…

With this volume the most iconic, transcendent and formative force of the American independent comics movement enters its 40th year of publication. Love and Rockets was an anthology magazine featuring the slick, intriguing, sci-fi-tinged hi-jinx of punky young things Maggie and Hopey – las Locas – and heart-warming, gut-wrenching soap-opera epics set in a rural Central American paradise called Palomar.

The Hernandez Boys (three guys from Oxnard, California: Jaime, Gilberto and Mario), gifted synthesists all, captivated the comics cognoscenti with incredible stories sampling and referencing a host of influences – everything from Comics, TV cartoons, masked wrestlers and the exotica of American Hispanic pop culture to German Expressionism.

There was also a perpetual backdrop displaying the holy trinity of youth: Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll – also alternative music, hip hop and punk.

The result was dynamite then and the guys have only got better with the passing years. Mario only officially contributed on rare occasions, but Jaime’s slick, enticing visual forays explored friendship and modern love by destroying stereotypes of feminine attraction through his fetching coterie of Gals Gone Wild, whilst Gilberto created a hyper-real landscape and playground of wit and passion created for his extended generational saga Heartbreak Soup: a quicksilver chimera of breadline Latin-American village life with a vibrant, funny and fantastically quotidian cast.

The shadows cast by Palomar still define and inform his latest tales both directly and as imaginative spurs for ostensibly unaffiliated stories.

This masterful anthology of wonders simultaneously runs a string of contiguous story strands, opening with Jaime’s evocative ‘Fuck Summer’ wherein young Tonta Agajanian is losing her battle with boredom. The older, cooler kids don’t want to hang with her or her charming associate Gomez, and for some reason Coach Rivera is chasing her all over town, cutting into her precious vacation time and pushing her to join the swim team…

With no other resort they head to the swimming hole where wild girl Gretchen keeps finding “presents” from a forest spirit.

Gilbert then offers ‘Song of Our Sad Girl’ as Doralis “Killer” Rivera apparently quits her cinema career before heading back to Palomar to visit her distanced family. With flashbacks inter-cutting to the grandmother she’s playing in her new movie Maria M, the story primarily focuses on the starlet’s latest crisis.

She’s fleeing rumours that she’s pregnant and just wants some peace and a normal life. At least that’s what she’s telling herself…

‘Wrench World’ (Jaime again) finds Tonta the recipient of some shocking news: her step-father has been shot and her far-from-normal mother is the prime suspect. Even her older brothers and sisters believe the old bitch did it…

Killer’s star shines in ‘Willow, Weep No More’ (by Beto) as her quest for understanding the family – and especially her grandmother – turns up an old tape of shocking content…

Jaime then begins a series of revelatory vignettes filling in detail and character on Tonta’s extended, unconventional family of half-siblings in ‘Crimen Uno’ before the surly girl and BFF Gomez stalk Coach Rivera to some quirkily engaging ‘Tarzana Adventures’.

Thereafter Tonta’s little sisters need some surly-styled comforting in ‘Urchins’ whilst ‘Crimen Dos’ covers the elders’ discussion of their mother’s other (alleged) victims.

Gilbert’s firm grasp of the Hollywood rumour mill is shown in ‘…Killer’s Dad – Grampa Hector?’ and ‘Killer in the Mix’ sees the busty phenomenon head back to the USA in time for the release of the Directors Cut of Maria M, garnering grief from her friends about keeping the (alleged) baby she may or may not be carrying…

‘Crimen Tres’ continues with Tonta’s family simultaneously reminiscing and planning to get rid of their embarrassing surviving parent, whilst in ‘Pack Mules’ our girl and Gomez steal a car and head off to finally uncover Coach’s big secret…

It’s a doozy – seen in ‘Crestfallen Angel’ – but does break the ice, and, after ‘Crimen Cuatro’, Tonta at last begins to change her opinions…

An incongruous and lewdly fantastic untitled monster yarn from Gilberto segues into Jaime’s ‘Familylimaf’ wherein Tonta’s older sisters invade gym class and expose an unsuspected – an immensely humiliating – connection to Rivera after which ‘Crimen Cinco’ delivers one more shock to the girl and her constantly expanding family, before a reconciliation of sorts materialises in ‘Dogs Follow Dogs’

There are further familial secrets disclosed and generational ties uncovered for Killer in ‘Willow, Weep No More 2’ and ‘Willow, Weep No More 3’ after which Jaime hits the home stretch with ‘Crimen Seis’ – wherein the progeny get a good telling off – and Tonta gives in and joins the swimming squad in ‘Go! Go! Go!’ before ‘Crimen Final’ resolves the courtroom dilemma.

Gilbert ends his stint with a ghostly visitation in ‘And Palomar Again’ and Jaime takes us back to the beginning as Tonta heads back, back, back  to the swimming hole for more telling glimpses of her compelling family life in ‘Rrrregresamos’

Warm-hearted, deceptively heart-wrenching, subtly shocking, challenging, charming and irresistibly addictive, Love and Rockets: New Stories is a grown up comics fan’s dream come true and remains as valid and groundbreaking as its earlier incarnations – the diamond point of the cutting edge of American graphic narrative.
© 2013 Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Maria M. Book One


By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-719-2

In addition to being part of the graphic/literary revolution of Love and Rockets (where his astonishingly addictive tales of rural Palomar first garnered overwhelming critical acclaim), Gilbert Hernandez has produced stand-alone books such as Sloth, Birdland, Grip and Girl Crazy, all marked by his bold, compellingly simplified artwork and inspired adaptation of literary techniques used by Magical Realist writers such as Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez: techniques which he has amplified and, visually at least, made his own.

Hernandez also frequently acknowledges such outré mainstream influences as filmmakers Roger Corman and John Cassavetes, and crime writers Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson as he entered new territories and reforms the cultural influences which shaped all us baby-boomers.

In Luba we glimpsed the troubled life of the lead character’s half-sister Rosalba “Fritzi” Martinez: a brilliant, troubled woman, speech-impaired psychotherapist, sex-worker, belly-dancer and “B-movie” starlet of such faux screen gems as We Love Alone, Seven Bullets to Hell, Chest Fever, Blood is the Drug and Lie Down in the Dark.

Although Fritzi only had a bit part in it, Hernandez “adapted” one of those trashy movies into a graphic novel (Chance in Hell, 2007) and repeated the story-within-a-story- within-a-story gimmick in 2009 with The Troublemakers – a frantic, hell-bent pulp fiction crime thriller which was part of the screen queen’s canon – and did it again in 2011 with Love From the Shadows.

Now he’s turned up the tension and doubled down on the plundering of his own mythologies. Maria M delves even deeper into the labyrinthine coils and onion-skin layers of meta-reality as the filmic biography of Fritzi’s long-absconded grandmother becomes a revelatory expose of the turbulent life of a beautiful, competent immigrant fugitive; carving out her own slice of the American Dream after escaping the rustic drudgery of Palomar.

Deftly mimicking a compelling-but-trashy post-Noir gangster thriller and sordid Fifties B-Picture melodrama, this first volume of Maria M sees a lovely Amazonian Latin beauty hit Everytown, USA in 1957, promptly befriended and taken in by couple of sympathetic working girls…

It’s all a huge mistake. Maria is actually the girlfriend of a mobster who has expedited her passage into the country. Unfortunately, by the time the mix-up is sorted and she finds his place, the poor guy is staring down the barrel of a rival’s gun.

Witness to murder and with no other place to go, the pneumatic stranger heads back to Trixie and Pam and begins her career in the men’s entertainment industry: “hostessing”, photo-shoots and – inevitably for someone with her looks – stag films…

Every attempt to go legit is frustrated by lustful men wanting her, and inevitably she settles for her new life. She still sees people from the Old Country, but they’re usually gangsters, hoodlums or worse…

She makes some friends along the way: other girls in the shady world of men’s movies, film critic Clyde and even bought cop Valdez, but her life only really turns around when she catches the eye of gang boss Luis Cienfuegos. The older man is so smitten with his sex kitten that he marries her…

His sons – both older than Maria – are dutiful and pay her every respect, but whereas taciturn, brutal Gorgo is clearly fascinated with his new stepmother, slick, businesslike, modern Herman makes no effort to conceal his distaste.

It’s a time of great turmoil for the Latino gangs in the USA. Tenuous alliances and collaborations are commonplace, but the assorted leaders have very different views on the rise of Communism in their homelands: beliefs which will inevitably lead to disagreements and bloodshed. And of course everybody plans on eventually being the only game in town…

Maria keeps herself insulated from her husband’s business, but does develop a passionate affinity for guns. It’s just as well. Over the next few years Luis barely survives numerous assassination attempts.

…And always silent, staring Gorgo waits in the background, watching her as his father’s employees, allies and enemies circle, drawn to her voluptuous beauty like moths to a flame…

In such a murky, dangerous world it’s impossible for Maria to keep completely apart from her husband’s affairs and when she is abducted by supposed allies Gorgo allows his true feelings to show in a savagely horrific manner, after which she divorces her man for the best possible motives…

Dark, evocative and astoundingly compelling, this perfect pastiche of a beloved genre and fabled time-period is a stunning graphic rollercoaster ride of sex, violence, greed, obsession and outlaw antiheroes: a mesmerising read jam-packed with Hernandez’s coolly understated narrative suspense, intoxicating illustration, brutally raw tension and sly elements of filmic surrealism which carry the reader through to the low-key cliffhanger ending in classic style.

And please, don’t get too het up over the convolutions and continuity provenances that resulted in this book. If you need to see the “True Story” of Maria, just check out the story ‘Poison River’ in the Heartbreak Soup collection Beyond Palomar, but otherwise why not just revel in a grim and gripping, saga of love and hope and inescapable doom…

Every adult lover of top-notch drama should snap up Maria M immediately to revel in the sheer brilliance of a master storyteller at the peak of his prowess, and open-minded comics fans should be advised to step beyond the costumes and chains of continuity to take a heady shot of pure imagination at work.
© 2013 Gilbert Hernandez. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

Impossible Tales: The Steve Ditko Archives volume 4


By Steve Ditko & various, edited by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-640-9

Perfect Christmas Present Alert! – For every discerning comics fan and suspense lover… 10/10

Once upon a time the short complete tale was the sole staple of the comicbook profession, where the plan was to deliver as much variety as possible to the reader. Sadly that particular discipline is all but lost to us today…

Steve Ditko is one of our industry’s greatest talents and probably America’s least lauded. His fervent desire to just get on with his job and to tell stories the best way he can, whilst the noblest of aspirations, will always be a minor consideration or even stumbling block for the commercial interests which for so long controlled all comics production and still exert an overwhelming influence upon the mainstream bulk of Funnybook output.

Before his time at Marvel, young Steve Ditko perfected his craft creating short stories for a variety of companies and it’s an undeniable joy to be able to look at this work from a such an innocent time when he was just breaking into the industry: tirelessly honing his craft with genre tales for whichever publisher would have him, utterly free from the interference of intrusive editors.

This fourth fantastic full-colour deluxe hardback reprints another heaping helping of his ever more impressive works: all published between July 1957 to March 1959 and all courtesy of the surprisingly liberal (at least in its trust of its employees’ creative instincts) sweat-shop publisher Charlton Comics. Some of the issues here were actually put together under the St. John imprint, but when that company abruptly folded much of its already prepared in-house material – even entire issues – were then purchased and published by clearing-house specialist Charlton with almost no editorial changes.

And whilst we’re being technically accurate it’s also important to note that the eventual publication dates of the stories in this collection don’t have a lot to do with when Ditko crafted these mini-masterpieces: Charlton paid so little the cheap, anthologically astute outfit had no problem in buying material it could leave on a shelf for months – if not years – until the right moment arrived to print…

All the tales and covers reproduced here were created after implementation of the draconian, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority rules (which sanitised the industry following Senate Hearings and a public witch-hunt) and all are wonderfully baroque and bizarre fantasy, suspense or science fiction yarns and helpfully annotated with a purchase number to indicate approximately when they were actually drawn.

Sadly there’s no indication of how many (if any) were actually written by Ditko, but as at the time the astoundingly prolific Joe Gill was churning out hundreds of stories every year for Charlton, he is always everyone’s first guess when trying to attribute script credit…

Following an historically informative Introduction and passionate advocacy by Blake Bell, the evocative tales of mystery and imagination commence with ‘The Menace of the Maple Leaves’, an eerie haunted woods fable from Strange Suspense Stories #33 (August 1957), closely followed a dark and sinister con-game which goes impossibly awry after a wealthy roué consults a supposed mystic to regain his youth and vitality and is treated in ‘The Forbidden Room’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #4 July 1957)…

From November 1957, Do You Believe in Nightmares? #1 offers a bounty of Ditko delights, beginning with the stunning St. John cover heralding a prophetic ‘Nightmare’, the strange secret of a prognosticating ‘Somnambulist’ and the justice which befell a seasoned criminal in ‘The Strange Silence’: all proving how wry fate intervenes in the lives of mortals. ‘You Can Make Me Fly’ then goes a tad off-topic with a tale of brothers divided by morality and intellect and the issue ends with a dinosaur-packed romp courtesy of ‘The Man Who Crashed into Another Era’

Next up is a tale from one of Charlton’s earliest star characters. Apparently the title came from a radio show which Charlton licensed, and the lead/host/narrator certainly acted more as voyeur than active participant, speaking “to camera” and asking readers for opinion and judgement as he shared a selection of funny, sad, scary and wondrous human interest yarns all tinged with a hint of the weird and supernatural.

When rendered by Ditko, whose storytelling mastery, page design and full, lavish brushwork were just beginning to come into its mature full range, the Tales of the Mysterious Traveler were esoteric and utterly mesmerising…

From issue #6 (December 1957) ‘Little Girl Lost’ chills spines and tugs heartstrings with the story of a doll that loved its human companion, followed by a paranoid chase from Strange Suspense Stories #35 (December 1957) as ‘There it is Again’ sees a scientist dogged by his most dangerous invention…

Unusual Tales #10 (January 1958) provides a spooky cover before disclosing the awesome secret of ‘The Repair Man from Nowhere’ and, following the wickedly effective Cold War science fiction parable ‘Panic!’ from Strange Suspense Stories #35, resumes with A Strange Kiss’ that draws a mining engineer into a far better world…

Out of This World #6 (November 1957) provides access to ‘The Secret Room’ which forever changed the lives of an aging, destitute couple. Then the cover and original artwork for Out of This World #12 (March 1959) lead to a tale in which a ruthless anthropologist is brought low by ‘A Living Doll’ he’d taken from a native village…

Returning to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #6 results in three more captivating yarns. ‘When Old Doc Died’ is perhaps the best in this book, displaying wry humour in the history of a country sawbones who was only content when helping others, whilst ‘The Old Fool’ everybody mocked proved to be his village’s greatest friend, and ‘Mister Evriman’ explored the metaphysics of mass TV viewing in a thoroughly chilling manner…

The dangers of science without scruples informed the salutary saga of a new invention in ‘The Edge of Fear’ (Unusual Tales #10, January 1958), after which the cover of This Magazine is Haunted #14 (December 1957) ushers us into cases recounted by the ghoulish Dr. Haunt; specifically a scary precursor to cloning in ‘The Second Self’ and a diagnosis of isolation and mutation which afflicted ‘The Green Man’

The cover and original art for the giant-sized Out of This World #7 (February 1958) precedes ‘The Most Terrible Fate’ befalling a victim of atomic warfare whilst ‘Cure-All’ detailed a struggle between a country doctor and a sinister machine which healed any ailment.

We return to This Magazine is Haunted #14 wherein Dr. Haunt relates a ghastly monster’s progress ‘From Out of the Depths’ before ‘The Man Who Disappeared’ tells his uncanny story to disbelieving Federal agents, whilst Out of This World #7 provides an ethereal ringside seat from which to view a time traveller’s ‘Journey to Paradise’.

From Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #7 (March 1958), ‘And the Fear Grew’ relates how an Australian rancher fell foul of an insidiously malign but cute-looking critter, after which ‘The Heel and the Healer’ reveals how a snake-oil peddler found a genuine magic cure-all, whilst ‘Never Again’ (Unusual Tales #10 again) took an eons-long look at mankind’s atomic follies and ‘Through the Walls’ (Out of This World #7) saw a decent man framed and imprisoned, only to be saved by the power of astral projection…

Out of This World #12 (March 1959) then declared ‘The World Awaits’ when a scientist uncovered an age-old secret regarding ant mutation and eugenics, Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #7 (February 1958) exposed ‘The Angry Things’ which haunted a suspiciously inexpensive Italian villa, and the gripping cover to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #10 (November 1958) segues into the unsuspected sacrifice of a jazz virtuoso who saved the world in ‘Little Boy Blue’

A tragic orphan found new parents after ‘The Vision Came’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #8, July 1958) and Dr. Haunt proves television to be a cause of great terror in ‘Impossible, But…’ from This Magazine is Haunted volume 2, #16 (May 1958) – an issue which also disclosed the world-changing fate of a soviet scientist who became ‘The Man from Time’…

Another selfless inventor chose to be a ‘Failure’ rather than doom humanity to eternal servitude in a stunning yarn from Strange Suspense Stories #36 (March 1958), whilst the luckiest man alive at last experienced the downside of being ‘Not Normal’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #7) before Unusual Tales #11 – from March 1958 – revealed the secret of Presidential statesmanship to a young politician in ‘Charmed, I’m Sure’, and exposed a magical secret race through an author’s vacation ‘Deep in the Mountains’

This mesmerising collection then concludes with the suitably bizarre tale of Egyptian lucky charm ‘The Dancing Cat’ (from Strange Suspense Stories #37, July 1958) to ensure the spooky afterglow remains long after the final page and leave you hungry for more mystic merriment and arcane enjoyment…

This sturdily capacious volume has episodes that terrify, amaze, amuse and enthral: utter delights of fantasy fiction with lean, stripped down plots and simple dialogue that let the art set the tone, push the emotions and tell the tale, from times when a story could end sadly as well as happily and only wonderment was on the agenda, hidden or otherwise.

These stories display the sharp wit and contained comedic energy which made so many Spider-Man/J. Jonah Jameson confrontations an unforgettable treat a decade later, and this is another cracking collection not only superb in its own right but as a telling examination into the genius of one of the art-form’s greatest stylists.

This is a book serious comics fans would happily kill or die or be lost in time for…
This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2013 Blake Bell. All rights reserved.

Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 1: 1937-1938


By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-141-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Ideal for anybody who ever dreamed or wondered… 10/10

Rightly reckoned one of the greatest comic strips of all time, the nigh-mythical saga of a king-in-exile who became one of the greatest warriors in an age of unparalleled heroes is at once fantastically realistic and beautifully, perfectly abstracted – an indisputable paradigm of adventure fiction where anything is possible and justice will always prevail. It is the epic we all want to live in…

On one thing let us be perfectly clear: Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant is not historical. It is far better and more real than that.

Possibly the most successful and evergreen fantasy creation ever conceived, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched on Sunday 13th February 1937, a glorious weekly, full-colour window not onto the past but rather onto a world that should have been. It followed the tempestuous life of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his ancestral homeland of faraway Thule who persevered and, through tenacity, imagination and sheer grit, rose to become one of the mightiest heroes of the age of Camelot.

As depicted by the incredibly gifted Foster, this noble scion would, over the years, grow to mighty manhood amidst a heady sea of wonderment; roaming the globe and siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts.

There have been films, cartoon series and all manner of toys, games and collections based on the feature – one of the few newspaper strips to have lasted from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (over 4000 episodes and counting) and even in these declining days of newspaper cartooning it still claims over 300 American papers as its home.

Foster produced the strip, one spectacular page a week until 1971, when, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt artist John Cullen Murphy was selected to draw the feature. Foster carried on as writer and designer until 1980, after which he fully retired and Murphy’s son took over scripting duties.

In 2004 Cullen Murphy also retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of artist Gary Gianni and writer Mark Schultz and latterly Thomas Yeates, conquering one more exotic land by making it onto various web locations.

This exquisite oversized hardback volume (362 x 268mm), reprints in glorious colour – spectacularly restored from Foster’s original Printer’s Proofs – the princely pristine Sunday pages from February 1937 to December 25th 1938: those formative forays of an already impressive tale which promised much and delivered far more than anybody might have suspected during those dim and distant days…

Before the drama begins, however, Brian M. Kane offers an informative picture and photo-packed potted history of ‘Harold Rudolf Foster: 1892-1982’ after which Fred Schreiber conducts ‘An Interview with Hal Foster’ – first seen in Nemo: The Classic Comics Magazine in 1984.

Moreover, after the superb Arthurian epic exploits of the quintessential swashbuckling hero which follows, this initial collection is rounded off by Kim Thompson’s discourse on the many iterations of reprints over the years and around the world in ‘A History of Valiants’

The actual action-packed drama commences in distant Scandinavia as the King of Thule, his family and a few faithful retainers dash for a fishing boat, intent only on escaping the murderous intentions of a usurper’s army.

Their voyage carries them to the barbarous coast of Britain where they battle bands of wild men before securing a safe retreat in the gloomy fens of East Anglia. After many hard battles they reach an uneasy détente with the locals and settle into a harsh life as regal exiles…

The young Prince Valiant was but five years old when they arrived and his growing years in a hostile environment toughen the boy, sharpen his wits and give him an insatiable taste for mischief and adventure.

He befriends a local shepherd boy and together their escapades include challenging the marauding ancient dinosaurs which infest the swamp, battling a hulking man-brute and bedevilling a local witch. In retaliation the hag Horrit predicts that Val’s life would be long and packed with incredible feats but always tainted by great sorrow.

All that, plus the constant regimen of knightly training and scholarly tuition befitting an exile learning how to reclaim his stolen kingdom, make the lad a veritable hellion, but everything changes when his mother passes away. After a further year of intense schooling in the arts of battle, Valiant decides to leave the Fens and make his way in the dangerous lands beyond…

Whilst sparring with his boyhood companion, Val unsuspectingly insults Sir Launcelot who is fortuitously passing by. Although the hero is sanguine about the cheeky lad’s big mouth, his affronted squire attempts to administer a stern punishment but is rewarded with a thorough drubbing. Indeed, Launcelot has to stop the Scion of Thule from slitting the battered and defeated man’s throat.

Although he has no arms, armour, steed or money, Valiant swears that he will become a Knight…

Luck is with the Pauper Prince. After spectacularly catching and taming a wild stallion his journey is interrupted by the gregarious paladin Sir Gawain, who shares a meal and regales the boy with tales of chivalry and heroism. When their alfresco repast is spoiled by robber knight Sir Negarth who unfairly strikes the champion of Camelot, Val charges in and Gawain regains consciousness to find the threat ended, Negarth hogtied and his accomplice skewered…

Taking Val under his wing, wounded Gawain escorts the boy and his prisoner to Camelot but their journey is delayed by a gigantic dragon. Val kills it too – with the assistance of Negarth – and spends the rest of the trip arguing that the rogue should be freed for his gallantry…

He is still stoutly defending the scoundrel at his trial before King Arthur, and is rewarded by being appointed Gawain’s squire. Unfortunately Val responds badly to being teased by the other knights-in-training and finds himself locked in a dungeon whilst his tormentors heal and the Knights of the Round Table ride out to deal with an invasion of Northmen…

Whilst the flowers of chivalry are away, a plot is hatched by scheming Sir Osmond and Baron Baldon. To recoup gambling debts they intend to capture and ransom Gawain, but have not reckoned on the dauntless devotion and ruthless ingenuity of his semi-feral squire.

Easily infiltrating the bleak fortress imprisoning the hero, Val liberates his mentor through astounding feats of daring and brings the grievously wounded knight to Winchester Heath and Arthur…

As Gawain recuperates, he is approached by a young maiden. Ilene is in need of a champion and, over his squire’s protests, the still gravely unfit knight dutifully complies. Val’s protests might have been better expressed had he not been so tongue-tied by the most beautiful girl he has ever seen…

The quest to rescue Ilene’s parents is delayed when an unscrupulous warrior in scarlet challenges them, intent on possessing the lovely maiden. Correctly assessing Gawain to be no threat, the Red Knight did not live long enough to revise his opinion of the wild-eyed boy who then attacked him…

Leaving Ilene and the re-injured Gawain with a hermit, Valiant continues on alone to Branwyn Castle, recently captured by an “Ogre” who is terrorising the countryside. Through guile, force of arms and devilish tactics he then ends the threat forever.

This is an astonishing tour de force of graphic bravura that no fan could ever forget. Aspiring cartoonist Jack Kirby certainly didn’t: he recycled Val’s outlandish outfit used to terrorise the Ogre’s soldiers as the visual basis for his 1970s horror-hero Etrigan the Demon

Having successfully routed the invaders and freed Ilene’s family, Val began earnestly courting the grateful girl. His prophecy of lifelong misery seemed assured however, when her father had to regretfully inform him that she was promised to Arn, son and heir of the King of Ord

Even before that shock could sink in, Valiant was called away again. Ailing Gawain had been abducted by the sorceress Morgan le Fey, who was enamoured of the knight’s manly charms…

When Val confronts her she drugs him with a potion and he endures uncounted ages in her dungeon before affecting his escape. Weak and desperate, the lad makes his way to Camelot and enlists Merlin in a last-ditch ploy to defeat the witch and save his adored mentor…

In the meantime events have progressed and Val’s bold plans to win Ilene are upset when invitations to her wedding arrive at Camelot. Initially crushed, the resilient youth determines to travel to Ord and challenge Prince Arn for her hand.

Their meeting is nothing like Val imagined but, after much annoying interference, he and the rather admirable Arn finally begin their oft-delayed death-duel only to be again distracted when news comes that Ilene has been taken by Viking raiders…

What follows is another unparalleled moment of comics magnificence as Valiant sacrifices everything for honour, gloriously falls to superior forces, wins possession of Flamberge (the legendary Singing Sword which is brother to Excalibur) and is captured and reunited with Ilene… only to lose her again to the cruellest of fates…

After escaping from the Vikings and covering himself with glory at the Lists in Camelot – although he doesn’t realise it – the heartsick, weary Prince returns to his father in the melancholy Anglian fens, again encountering ghastly Horrit and nearly succumbing to fever.

When he recovers months later he has a new purpose: he and his faithful countrymen will travel to Thule and rescue the nation from the cruel grip of the usurper Sligon.  Unfortunately during the preparations Valiant discovers the countryside has been invaded by Saxons and is compelled by his honour to race to Camelot and warn Arthur…

To Be Continued…

Prince Valiant is a hurtling juggernaut of action and romance, blending hyper-realistic fantasy with sardonic wit, and broad humour with unbelievably stirring violence, all rendered in an incomprehensibly lovely panorama of glowing art.

Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring, Foster’s magnum opus is a World Classic of storytelling, and this magnificent deluxe edition is something no fan can afford to be without.

If you have never experienced the majesty and grandeur of the strip, this breathtaking premium collection is the best possible way to start and will be your gateway to a staggering world of wonder and imagination…

All comics material © 2009 King Features Syndicate except Tarzan page, © 2009 ERB Inc. All other content and properties © 2009 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.

Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 7: 1949-1950


By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-645-4

Arguably the most successful comic strip fantasy ever conceived, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched as a Sunday page feature on February 13th 1937, a luscious full-colour weekly window onto a perfect realm of perfect adventure and romance.

The strip followed the life and exploits of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his ancestral homeland in Scandinavian Thule who grew up to roam the world and rose to a paramount position amongst the mightiest heroes of fabled Camelot.

Written and drawn by sublime master draftsman and storyteller Harold “Hal” Foster, the epic followed the little princeling through decades of thrilling exploits as he matured into a clean-limbed warrior and eventually family patriarch through a heady sea of wonderment, visiting far-flung lands and siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts.

There have been films, animated series and all manner of toys, games and collections based on the strip – one of the few to have lasted from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (over 3900 episodes and counting) – and even in these declining days of the newspaper narrative strip as a viable medium, it still claims over 300 American papers as its home. It has even made it into the very ether with an online edition.

Foster ceaselessly produced the strip, one enchanting page per week until 1971 when, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt illustrator John Cullen Murphy was chosen to succeed him as illustrator. Foster continued as writer and designer until 1980, after which he retired and Cullen Murphy’s daughter Mairead took over colouring and lettering whilst her brother John assumed the writer’s role.

In 2004 the senior Cullen Murphy also retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip has since soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of artists Gary Gianni and latterly Thomas Yeates, with Mark Schultz scripting.

Restored from Foster’s original Printer’s Proofs, this seventh spectacularly luxurious oversized (362 x 264mm) full-colour hardback volume reprints the pages from January 2nd 1949 to 31st December 1950 (#621 to 725 if you’re counting).

What has Gone Before: after an extended sojourn in an incredible New World, Valiant and Aleta have brought their newborn son back to Britain and sought out the warrior’s old comrade Prince Arn to be the child’s Godfather. Val is astounded that the bluff solitary hero is also a husband and currently searching for Godparents for his own newborn son and heir…

Before the Dark Ages delights resume, latest illuminator Thomas Yeates delivers a remarkable introductory essay discussing ‘The Long Shadow of Hal Foster’ and the innumerable artists who owe him a creative debt, after which the never-ending saga picks up with the Princes and their families travelling back to fabled Camelot for a double Christening, presided over by King Arthur himself…

Soon however duty calls again and Valiant, Sir Gawain and hapless, bumbling hedge-wizard Oom Fooyat are dispatched to the wilds of Wales to investigate a nest of vile black magic. Seamlessly blending thrills and grandeur with broad comedy, Foster delivers an enchanting light-hearted romantic romp wherein level-headed Val exposes the macabre happenings at Illwynde Castle and plays matchmaker to more than one of his faithful retinue…

Job done and the fief secure, Gawain and the Prince of Thule return to Camelot, picking up en route a boy with chivalric intentions and the determined courage of a lion. The enigmatic Geoffrey is desperate to win his spurs, but when Valiant introduces the lad to Aleta, the prospective page boy is gripped by a ferocious, life-changing, all consuming crush…

Whilst the well-meaning kid perpetually embarrasses himself in his drive to impress his master’s wife, Arthur despatches Valiant and a small band of knights to Scotland to inspect the wall which keeps the northern savages at bay. Aleta then attempts to keep Geoffrey out of trouble by ordering the puppy to follow and keep her husband safe…

It’s an unlucky decision: as Valiant and his inspection force discover when they see that Hadrian’s Wall has been breached and hundreds of Picts are ravening southward…

Confronted with an impossible situation the Prince again resorts to unconventional tactics and traps the huge barbarian army on the English side whilst sending Geoffrey back to Camelot with a message for Arthur… and to save the hero-struck boy from dying in the unwinnable battle to come…

Breaking all the rules of knighthood for the noblest of reasons, Geoffrey speedily delivers his message and is astounded when Aleta rushes off to join Valiant in Scotland. Again disregarding consequences and probably relinquishing forever his dream of knighthood, the boy follows her northwards…

Their arrival precipitates an unexpected and nigh-miraculous end to the war, but Valiant is close to death. After tending his hurts Aleta decides that she will take her husband back to his Scandinavian homeland, and dispatches the now-exhausted Geoffrey back to Camelot to inform her handmaiden Katwin and nurse Tillicum to obtain a ship and meet her with baby Arn at the village of Newcastle

Despite dreading the judgement awaiting him at Court, the boy thunders back and, after arranging for his wounded master’s (wonderful wife’s) wishes to be carried out, surrenders himself to his fate…

Of course the King is no fool and a great respecter of honour and courage. He summarily condemns the boy to banishment: for a year and a day Geoffrey must not set foot on English soil…

Mind in a whirl the redoubtable boy is taken to a barge secured by Katwin and sails to Caledonia with the family party to a reunion with Valiant and Aleta…

Soon the group are headed to Thule, bolstered by the bombastic reappearance to boisterous far-larger-than-life Viking Boltar: a Falstaff-like rogue and “honest pirate” not seen since volume 3…

The excitable old rogue ferries the extended family to Val’s cold homeland – with a few unplanned, profitable but dangerous stops along the way – but soon finds himself smitten by the love bug too…

One mystery has been solved, however, as a chance meeting with an old cleric discloses the faithful squire to be actually called Arf, forced from his home when his father Sir Hugo Geoffrey took a new young bride who didn’t want an annoying stepson underfoot. Now she is gone and the boy can return home if he wishes…

Eventually the expanded party reaches the chilly castle of King Aguar and settles in to a long period of snowbound rest and recuperation – until boisterous Jarl Egil makes an inappropriate advance on Aleta and hotheaded Arf dashes to her defence…

Soon the encounter has escalated and Valiant is forced into an utterly unnecessary duel of honour which can only end in pointless tragedy…

Happily the repentant Arf finds a way to satisfy honour all around but the King is plagued by a knotty problem wit cannot solve. Aguar has been seriously considering converting his Norse realm to Christianity, but the many devout missionaries roaming the land are cantankerous idiots all preaching their own particular brand of faith – when not actively fighting each other.

Thus in Spring, he tasks the fully fit Valiant with an embassage to Rome to ask the Pope to send priests and teachers who actually carry the true and official Word of God. Restless and eager Val promptly sets out, accompanied by Arf, the doughty Rufus Regan and new comrade Egil. Their mission coincides with the planting season when Aguar’s men return to their homes to sow the crops for the coming year…

No sooner have they departed however than vassal king Hap-Atla, seething from an old slight delivered to his deceased sire, rebels and besieges Arguar’s castle. With manpower dangerously depleted the situation looks grim until wily Aleta takes control of the situation and scores a devastating victory that contravenes all the rules of manly warfare.

Unseen for three months, Valiant and his companions at last reappear as they land in Rouen to begin the arduous overland trek to the HolyCity. The journey is full of short bursts of violence and outrageous incidents as, since Rome fell to the Vandals, Europe has become a seething mass of lawless principalities.

Most of these improvised kingdoms are run by brigands or worse, all seeking to fill their coffers at any unwary traveller’s expense…

In one unhappy demesne the quartet dethrone a robber baron and nearly end up married to his daughters (young Arf particularly caught the imagination of the decidedly dangerous and ambitious teenager Ollie), whilst in another Val gets hold of an alchemist ruler’s horrific black powder and is almost blown to smithereens.

Eventually however they arrive at the castle of welcoming noble Ruy Foulke and enjoy a pleasant night’s rest – only to awaken and find the place under attack by heinous villain Black Robert and his savagely competent forces…

To Be Continued…

Also included in this striking compendium is an intoxicating glimpse at the author’s virtuosity in ‘“See America First”: Hal Foster’s Union Pacific Paintings’, a series of painted advertising landscapes compiled and discussed by Brian M. Kane.

Rendered in a simply stunning panorama of glowing visual passion and precision, Prince Valiant is a non-stop rollercoaster of boisterous action, exotic adventure and grand romance; blending human-scaled fantasy with dry wit and broad humour, soap opera melodrama with shatteringly dark violence.

Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring, the strip is a World Classic of fiction and something no fan can afford to miss. If you have never experienced the intoxicating grandeur of Foster’s magnum opus these magnificent, lavishly substantial deluxe editions are the best way possible to do so and will be your gateway to an eye-opening world of wonder and imagination…

Prince Valiant © 2013 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2013 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Ideal for anybody who ever strived or dreamed or wished… 10/10 

Violent Cases


By Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean (Escape Books)
ISBN: 978-0-9509568-6-2

As this entire book is all about stories, memories, perception and self-deception, I’m concentrating on the original Escape Books release, although the tale has been re-issued a number of times. Moreover, difficult sod that I am, even though the artwork was created in a muted tonal colour-palette of blues, greys and browns, which were restored for those subsequent releases, I actually prefer the black and white version I first saw, so I’m going with that one rather than later, corrected as-the-artist-intended versions…

There’s actually very little to say about this enigmatic and compelling little teaser other than the basic facts.

Initially published by the aforementioned and sorely missed Escape outfit in 1987, it marks the first collaboration of two relatively unknown creators who shared a more literary aspiration for comics than traditional newcomers to the craft, married to a novel approach and genuine, raw, hungry storytelling talent.

It’s short, sweet, disturbing, utterly absorbing and probably impossible to translate into any other medium… and that is, of course, a Very Good Thing.

There’s this guy see, and he’s reminiscing about his childhood in the 1960s…

Years ago in Portsmouth a little lad hurt his arm rather badly whilst exchanging words about bedtime with his father. To fix the problem daddy took the 4-year old to see an osteopath. The elderly gentleman was an interesting fellow with an accent who told great yarns and mentioned that he had once treated somebody famous…

As the narrator tries to sort out the half-forgotten details – fragments of life and films and games congealed now with clearly conflated circumstances – the facts, fictions and shadily obscured misunderstandings concerning his difficult childhood, growing maturity and awareness and those hours with Al Capone’s bone-bender begin to emerge and coalesce… or do they?

Flickering back and forth, the narrative proffers a miasma of mixed memories and misapprehensions involving a memorably troubled old man, Men in Dark Suits, a party, a magician, unexplained appearances and subsequent disappearances, unforgettable physical discomfort as a young arm was coaxed back into correctitude, tales of tailors and gangsters and Tommy Guns… which were always carried in Violent Cases…

Most of all it deals with unsolvable mysteries – because even the things we recall, we don’t always remember…

Complete with an Alan Moore Introduction, this slight but unforgettable pictorial memento mori – or is that topica tragoedia? – beguiles and enchants and subtly distresses in ways no lover of the comics medium could possibly resist.

If you haven’t read it, you must. If you have, read it again – it’s not at all what you remember…
© 1987 Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean.