The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume I


By Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (America’s Best Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-858-7

The Victorian era saw the birth of both popular and populist publishing, especially in the sub-genres of fantasy and adventure fiction. Writers of varying skill but with unbounded imaginations explored the concepts of honour and heroism, wedded unflinchingly to the underlying belief of English Supremacy in matters of culture and technology. In all worlds and even beyond them the British gentleman took on all comers for Right and Decency, viewing danger as a game and showing “Johnny Foreigner” just how that game was played.

For all the faults our modern sensibilities can detect in those stirring sagas, many of them remain unshakable classics of adventure and the roadmap of all modern fictional heroes. Open as they are to charges of Racism, Sexism (even misogyny), Class Bias and Cultural Imperialism, the best of them remain the greatest of all yarns.

As heroic prototypes a gaggle of these Imperialist icons were deputized by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill for a six-issue miniseries in 1999 that managed to say as much about our world as that far ago one, and incidentally tell a captivating tale as compelling as any of its antecedents.

Wilhemina Murray survived a clash with a supernatural monster but was forever altered. Recruited by the British Secret Service chief Campion Bond, she was charged with organising a team of superior operatives to defeat an insidious foreign menace growing within the very heart of the British Empire. To this end she travelled the globe and convinced the greatest hero and most iniquitous outlaws of the time to band together.

The aged Great White Hunter Allan Quatermain is unlikely company for the Invisible Man Hawley Griffin, Captain Nemo and Mister Hyde, although the diffident and cultured Dr. Henry Jekyll could be considered a suitable companion for a widow under almost any circumstance…

Together they foil a most dastardly plot only to discover that all is not as it seems…

This collected book probably best illustrates my discomfort with big budget movie adaptations, over and above the institutionalized and explicit slight that always comes with the blurb “now a major motion picture!”

The story grew beyond the authors’ avowed expectations of “a kind of Victorian Justice League” to become a steampunk classic, with fin de siècle technology, trappings, expectations and attitudes, becoming a powerful allegory for our own millennial events, and the act of its creation becoming a game for creator and reader alike as every character in the tale was culled from existing works of literature and the audience all-but challenged to identify them!

The wit, artifice and whimsy of the compelling mystery – for that, gentle reader is what it is – as well as the vast, complex array of sub-texts and themed extras such as faux advertising broadsheets woven into the text, must perforce be lost when building an entertainment for the widest possible audience: especially one that must conclude in under 120 minutes. The film might reach more sets of eyes but unless they then read the book have they actually been reached at all?

I admit I intensely disliked the film: The plot changes seem arbitrary, I could see no reason other than crass commerciality to include an American in the roster, completely counter to the covert nature of the mission – after all the USA was a rival foreign power. And if one why not all? Let’s see Davy Crockett, Huck Finn, Paul Bunyan, Ambrose Bierce and Lizzie Borden take on the Yellow Peril. Moreover I couldn’t stop laughing after the giant submarine with a draught of a couple of hundred feet surfaced from the canals of Venice – average depth 5 metres (on a good day).

I don’t hate films – I’d love them to make one from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; they just haven’t done it yet.

This book is an incredible work of scholarship and artistry recast into a fabulous pastiche of an entire literary movement. It’s also a brilliant piece of comics wizardry of the sort that no other art form can touch.

If you haven’t seen the film – and even more so if you have – I urge you to read this book. And then you can start in on Dickens, Rider Haggard, Stevenson, Wells, Verne, Conan Doyle, Stoker, Rohmer and all the glorious rest…

© 1999, 2000 Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill.  All Rights Reserved.

The Books of Magic


By Neil Gaiman, John Bolton, Scott |Hampton, Charles Vess & Paul Johnson (Vertigo)
ISBN13: 978-1-85286-470-5

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

Shy, bespectacled Timothy Hunter is an inoffensive lad unaware of his incredible potential for Good or Evil (and yes, I know who he looks like but this series came out eight years before anybody had ever heard of Hogwarts, so get over it). In an attempt to keep him righteous the self-appointed mystic guides provide him, and us, with a full tutorial in the history and state of play of The Art and its major practitioners and adepts. However, although the four guardians are not united in their plans and hopes for the boy, the “other side” certainly are. If Hunter cannot be turned to the Dark he has to die…

In Book one, ‘the Invisible Labyrinth’ painted by John Bolton, The Phantom Stranger shows Tim the history of magic with introductions to Lucifer, Atlantis, the Ancient Empires, Jason Blood and the boy Merlin, Zatara and Sargon the Sorcerer.

Scott Hampton illustrates the second chapter wherein John Constantine hosts a trip to ‘the Shadow World’ of the modern DCU, introducing the lad to contemporary players such as Deadman, Madame Xanadu, the Spectre, Doctor Fate, Baron Winter (of Night Force fame), Dr. Thirteen the Ghost-Breaker and Zatanna, who organises a trip to a mage’s bar where the likes of Tala Queen of Darkness and the diabolical Tannarak take matters into their own wicked hands.

Dr. Occult (created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster years before Superman debuted) takes the boy on a journey to the outer lands and the Realms of Faerie, courtesy of Charles Vess in ‘the Land of Summer’s Twilight’: a beautiful, evocative segment that informs much of Timothy Hunter’s life in the Vertigo comicbook series and graphic collections that inevitably spun off from this saga. Cameos here include Warlord, Nightmaster, Amethyst and Gemworld, the Demon, Cain, Abel and the Sandman.

‘The Road to Nowhere’ is painted by Paul Johnson and concludes the peregrination as the ruthlessly fanatical Mister E takes the boy to the end of time, where he has his own plans for him. Beyond Darkseid and the climactic battles and crises of our time, past the Legion of Super Heroes, the end of Order and Chaos, to the moment Sandman’s siblings Destiny and Death switch off the dying universe, Tim sees how everything ends before returning to make his choice: Good or Evil, Magic or mundane?

Despite an “everything and the kitchen sink” tone this is still a cracking good yarn as well as a useful scorecard for all things supernatural, and which still has overwhelming relevance to today’s DC universe. It still stands a worthy primer for newcomers who need a little help with decades of back-story which cling to so many DC tales, even today.
© 1990, 1991, 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing


By Pat Mills & Kevin O’Neill (Titan Books/Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-452-7

Not everybody likes superheroes. Hard to believe, I know. Some folks actively loathe them. And then there’s Pat Mills…

One of the greatest creative forces in British comics, “the Godfather” (as nobody actually calls him) began at DC Thomson, wrote girls and humour comics for IPC and killed posh-comics-for-middle-class-kids stone-dead by creating Battle Picture Weekly (1975 with John Wagner and Gerry Finley-Day), Action (1976), 2000AD (1977) and Starlord (1978). Along the way he also figured large in the junior horror comic Chiller.

As a writer he’s responsible for Ro-Busters, ABC Warriors, Nemesis the Warlock, Sláine, Button Man and Metalzoic among many, many others as well as Battle’s Charley’s War (with the brilliant, sorely missed Joe Colquhoun): the best war strip of all time and one of the top five explorations of the First World War in any artistic medium.

Unable to hide the passions that drive him, his most controversial work is probably Third World War which he created for the bravely experimental Crisis. This fiercely socially conscious strip blended his trademark bleak, black humour, violence and anti-authoritarianism with a polemical assault on Capitalism, Imperialism and Globalisation. It even contained elements of myth, mysticism, religion and neo-paganism – also key elements in his mature work and the hero was a girl! So where’s the definitive collected edition of that, then?.

Some of his most fruitful collaborations happen when he teams with the utterly unique Kevin O’Neill, latterly the star turn of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but for years prior that weird guy whose “style of drawing” was banned by the American Comics Code Authority.

In 1987 Epic Comics, Marvel’s creator-owned mature material imprint, published a six issue miniseries that starred a hero very much in the vein of Judge Dredd, but one who took the hallowed tenets of the superhero genre and gave them a thorough slapping, Brit-boy style.

San Futuro is the reconstructed remnants of California after the Big Quake; the ultimate Metropolitan urban dystopia. America is recovering from another stupid exploitative war in somebody else’s country, and as usual the demobbed, damaged, brain-fried grunts and veterans are clogging the streets and menacing decent society. The problem this time is that this war was fought with artificially manufactured superheroes, and now they’re back their country is embarrassed and has no place for them.

Marshal Law was one of them, but now he’s a cop; burned-out, angry and disillusioned. His job is to put away the masks and capes, but as bad as they are, the people he works for are worse. Some heroes like The Public Spirit have the official backing of the government and can do no wrong – which is a huge problem as the solitary Marshal is convinced that he’s also the deadly rapist and serial killer called the Sleepman…

Much has been written about the cynical, savage parodies of beloved genre stars and motifs, the uncompromising satirical attacks on US policies and attitudes, even the overall political stance of this series. It’s largely all true. But what tends to be forgotten is that Fear and Loathing is also a cracking good yarn for thinking adults with mature dispositions, open minds, and a love of seeing injustice vicariously appeased.

Incisive, sharp dialogue, brilliant scenarios, great characters and a compelling murder mystery full of twists and surprises are all magnificently brought to life by the cruelly lush art and colours of Kevin O’Neill, an artist so crazed that every single panel is stuffed with so many visual and typographical ad-libs that you could read this story one hundred times and still find new treats to make you laugh and wince. So I’m thinking that perhaps you really should…

© 2002 Pat Mills & Kevin O’Neill. Art © 1989 Kevin O’Neill All Rights Reserved.

Trailers

Trailers 

By Mark Kneece & Julie Collins-Rousseau

(NBM/Comics Lit)  ISBN 1-561636-445-X

Josh Clayton is a good kid, pretty much. Sure, he lives in a trailer park, and, yes, his mother’s a bit of a tramp, but Josh has never been in any kind of real trouble…

Back from school, Josh is stuck tending to his baby brother again when Ma gets into another screaming match with her drug-dealer boyfriend. This time it doesn’t play out as usual though, and she kills him. When she comes out of the bedroom and tells Josh that he’s got to get rid of the body before his other brother and sister return, his life changes forever.

It’s hard enough being a sensitive teenager in America these days, especially if you’re dirt-poor. High-school is hell and life generally sucks. If you add to that the fact that the body just won’t stay buried, it all adds up to a miserable time for Josh. So when pretty Michele makes a play for him the pressure and confusion reaches fever pitch. And still his inevitable slide into a life just like his mother’s seems to suck him further and further down. Can Josh keep his family together, get the girl, survive school and ever sleep without screaming? Can he break out of this grim, dark spiral, or is he fore-doomed and fore-damned?

The answer makes for a superb slice of modern fiction that should tickle the palate of all those ‘mature’ comic fans in need of more than just a flash of nipple and sprinkle of salty language in their reading matter. Neece and Collins-Rousseau (employed at the faculty of Sequential Art, Savannah College of Art & Design), have created a real story of realistic young people in extraordinary need. This is the kind of book fans need to show civilians who don’t “get” comics. Sit them down, put “Born to Run” on the headphones and let them see what it can be all about.

© 2005 Mark Kneece & Julie Collins-Rousseau. All Rights Reserved

The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming

The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming 

By Frank Stack

(Fantagraphics Books)  ISBN 1-56097-780-9

One of the earliest exponents of the US counter-culture, at least in terms of his contributions to Underground Comix, Frank (Foolbert Sturgeon) Stack has sadly missed out on the benefits of fame and notoriety of such contemporaries as Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb.

He may well be the perpetrator of the first ever underground (a split decision with the late Jack Jackson, both of whom released work in 1964 – although a collection of stack’s doodles was compiled and Xeroxed by Shelton in 1962-3 as “The Adventures of Jesus”) but I’m sure he’s not that bothered. What is important is that these throwaway scribbles by all these weirdo drop-out freaks changed the nature of comics and did a huge amount to reshape the society they came from.

Stack’s weapon of choice was Jesus Christ, whom he made the star of an occasional series of strips satirising America which appeared between 1964 and (since there’s new material in this collection) the present day.

A lot of the bite may seem dissipated by time, but that simply shows how effective and successful they were – and actually still are. Many people have pondered on what the Messiah would do if he came back today, but no-one else could deliver the gentle, telling punches of The Dog Messiah, Jesus Meets the Armed Services (released at the height of the Vietnam War), Jesus Joins the Academic Community or Jesus on Ice, and, as the brand new Jesus Meets Intellectual Property Rights shows, there’s room — and still a need for — Stack’s style of commentary.

This collection is extensive, informative (as well as a commentary from Stack, there are pieces from both Crumb and Shelton) but above all, fun to read. You might not get Saved but you will get your money’s worth in entertainment.

Text & art © 2006 Frank Stack. All Rights Reserved.
This edition © 2006 Fantagraphics Books.

Jack Cole and Plastic Man

Jack Cole and Plastic Man 

By Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd

(Chronicle Books)  ISBN 0-8118-3179-5

This eccentric tribute to the genius of cartoonist Jack Cole combines all the love and design skills of Spiegelman and Kidd with innovative print and paper techniques, a sharp biography and heart-felt appreciation of this inspired and tragic creator, and a wonderful selection of complete story reprints from Cole’s incredible fund of work.

The comic sections, printed of artificially browned newsprint — for that old comic feel — include The Eyes Have It (Police Comics #22, 1943), Burp the Twerp (Police Comics #29, 1944), Sadly-Sadly (Plastic Man #20, 1949), Plague of the Plastic People and Woozy Winks on Dopi Island (both from Plastic Man #22, 1950) and the legendary, if not infamous, Murder, Morphine and Me from True Crime Comics #1 (1947) cited often and tellingly by Dr. Frederick Wertham in his attacks on comics in the 1950s.

Although he would probably hate it said, Jack Cole is one of the key innovators in the field of comics and strip cartoons and this book is a fine tribute. Let’s get it reprinted right now!

Edition © 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved. Text © 2001 Art Spiegelman

Blackmark — 30th Anniversary Edition

Blackmark

By Gil Kane

(Fantagraphics Books)  ISBN 1-56097-456-7

Gil Kane was one of the pivotal players in the development of the American comics industry, and indeed of the art form itself. Working as an artist, and an increasingly more effective and influential one, he drew for many companies since the 1940s, on superheroes, action, war, mystery, romance, movie adaptations and most importantly perhaps, Westerns and Science-Fiction tales. In the late 1950s he became one of editor Julius Schwartz’s key artists in regenerating the super-hero. Yet by 1968, at the top of his profession, this relentlessly revolutionary and creative man felt so confined by the juvenile strictures of the industry, that he struck out on bold new ventures that jettisoned the editorial and format bondage of comic books for new visions and media.

His Name Is Savage was an adult oriented black and white magazine about a cold and ruthless super-spy in the James Bond/Matt Helm/Man Called Flint mould, a precursor in tone, treatment and subject matter of many of today’s adventure titles. The other venture, Blackmark, not only ushered in the comic book age of Sword and Sorcery, but also became one of the first Graphic Novels. Technically, as the series was commissioned by fantasy publisher Ballantine as eight volumes, it was also envisioned as America’s first comic Limited Series.

Volume 1 was released in 1971, and volume 2 just completed when the publisher cancelled the project. Long term collaborator Roy Thomas reprinted the tales in Marvel’s black and white magazines Savage sword of Conan and Marvel Preview, with the artwork rejigged to accommodate the different page format.

Enough background. Blackmark tells the tale of a boy born into a war-ravaged and primitive future where atomic holocaust has resulted in a superstitious society that has shunned technology and science. Feudal lords rule by might and terror, whilst rebel technophiles are hunted like dogs. Whilst fleeing persecution a married couple encounter a dying scientist king who pays the woman to impregnate her with a son pre-programmed to be a messiah of science.

Blackmark is born into a life of poverty and toil. When his parents are killed by a wandering warlord he devotes his life to vengeance, and learns the physical skills necessary when he is taken for a gladiator slave. It is sadly very familiar to us today, simply because it was so influential at the time – albeit with those few original purchasers who seem to have been the next generation of comic and literary creators.

Although the tale may seem old-hat the beauty on power of the illustration has never been matched. Kane designed the pages with blocks of text as part of the whole, rather than with willy-nilly blurb and balloons to distract the eye, and his evocative figure drawing has never been as taut, tense and passionate. The script, over Kane’s story is provided by the incomparable Archie Goodwin, as much a master as Kane himself.

This compilation collects the original volumes 1 and 2 and presents them in a size much larger than the original standard paperback. As well as a fantasy masterpiece, and a spectacular comic romp, it preserves and presents a literal breakthrough in comic story-telling that should be on every fan’s must-read list.

© 2002 Fantagraphics Books & the estate of Gil Kane. All Rights Reserved.