Lex Luthor: A Celebration of 75 Years


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Bill Finger, Edmund Hamilton, Len Wein, Cary Bates, Elliot S. Maggin, John Byrne, Roger Stern, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Brian Azzarello, Paul Cornell, Geoff Johns, John Sikela, Wayne Boring, Curt Swan, Jackson Guice, Howard Porter, Matthew Clark, Lee Bermejo, Frank Quitely, Pete Woods, Doug Mahnke & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6207-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Sound Reason to Keep up with Science Classes as well as Reading… 9/10

Closely paralleling the evolution of the groundbreaking Man of Steel, the exploits of the mercurial Lex Luthor are a vital aspect of comics’ very fabric. In whatever era you choose, the ultimate mad scientist epitomises the eternal feud between Brains and Brawn and over those decades has become the Man of Steel’s true antithesis and nemesis as well as an ideal perfect indicator of what different generations deem evil.

This stunning compilation – part of a dedicated series introducing and exploiting the comics pedigree of venerable DC icons – is available in hardback Trade Paperback and digital formats and offers a sequence of snapshots detailing how Luthor has evolved in his never-ending battle with Superman.

The groundbreaking appearances selected are preceded here by a brief critical analysis of the significant stages in the villain’s development, beginning with ‘Part I: 1940-1969 The Making of a Mastermind’. After history and deconstruction comes sinister adventure as the grim genius debuted in ‘Europe at War Part 2’ (by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster from Action Comics #23, April 1940).

Although not included here Action #22 had loudly declared ‘Europe at War’ – a tense and thinly-disguised call to arms for the still neutral USA – and as the Man of Tomorrow tried to stem the bloodshed the tale became a continued story (almost unheard of in those early days of funny-book publishing).

Spectacularly concluding in #23, Clark Kent’s European investigations revealed a red-headed fiend employing outlandish science to foment war for profit and intent on conquering the survivors as a modern-day Genghis Khan. Of course, the Man of Steel strenuously objected…

Next comes ‘The Challenge of Luthor’ from Superman #4 (Spring/March1940) and created at almost the same time: a landmark clash with the rogue scientist who, back then, was still a roguish red-headed menace with a bald and pudgy henchman. Somehow in the heat of burgeoning deadlines, master got confused with servant in later adventures and the public perception of the villain irrevocably crystalized as the sinister slap-headed super-threat we know today…

This story – by Siegel & Shuster – involves an earthquake machine and ends with Luthor exhausting his entire arsenal of death-dealing devices in attempts to destroy his enemy with no negligible effect…

From Superman #17 (July 1942), ‘When Titans Clash’, by Siegel & John Sikela, depicts how the burly bald bandit uses a mystic powerstone to survive his justly deserved execution and steals Superman’s abilities. However, the Action Ace stills maintains his wily intellect and outsmarts his titanically-empowered foe…

Jumping ahead ten years, ‘Superman’s Super Hold-Up’ World’s Finest Comics #59 (July 1952, by Bill Finger, Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye) is a supremely typical duel of wits in which the Einstein of Crime renders the Metropolis Marvel helpless with the application of a devilish height- and pressure-sensitive mega explosive device – but only for a little while…

World’s Finest Comics #88 (June 1957) provides ‘Superman and Batman’s Greatest Foes!’ (by Edmond Hamilton, Dick Sprang & Stan Kaye) which finds “reformed” master criminals Lex and the Joker ostensibly setting up in the commercial robot business – which nobody really believed – and as it happens quite correctly…

As the mythology grew and Luthor became a crucial component of Superman’s story, the bad boy was retroactively introduced into the hero’s childhood. ‘How Luthor Met Superboy!’ (from Adventure Comics #271, April 1960 by Siegel & Al Plastino) details how Superboy and the budding genius were pals until a lab accident burned off the human’s hair and in his prideful fury Lex blamed the Kryptonian and swore revenge…

In ‘The Conquest of Superman’ (Action Comics #277, June 1961 by Bill Finger, Curt Swan & John Forte) the authorities paroled Lex to help with an imminent crisis only to have the double-dealer escape as soon as the problem was fixed. By the time Superman returned to Earth, Luthor was ready for him…

Superman #164, October 1963, featured ‘The Showdown between Luthor and Superman’ (by Hamilton, Swan & George Klein): the ultimate Silver Age confrontation between the Caped Kryptonian and his greatest foe, pitting the lifelong foes in an unforgettable confrontation on the post-apocalyptic planet Lexor – a lost world of forgotten science and fantastic beasts – which resulted in ‘The Super-Duel!’ and displayed a whole new side to Superman’s previously two-dimensional arch-enemy.

Part II: 1970-1986 Luthor Unleashed previews how a more sophisticated readership demanded greater depth in their reading matter and creators responded by adding a human dimension to the avaricious mad scientist, as seen in ‘The Man Who Murdered the Earth’ from Superman #248 (February 1972 by Len Wein, Swan & Murphy Anderson).

Here Luthor dictates his final testament after creating a Galactic Golem to destroy his sworn enemy, and ponders how his obsession caused the destruction of Earth…

For the 45th anniversary of Action Comics Superman’s two greatest enemies – the other being Brainiac – were radically re-imagined for an increasingly harder, harsher world. ‘Luthor Unleashed’ in issue #544 (June 1983, by Cary Bates Swan & Murphy Anderson) saw the eternal duel between Lex and Superman lead to the destruction of Lexor and death of Luthor’s new family after the techno-terror once again chose vengeance over love. Crushed by guilt and hatred, the maniacal genius reinvents himself as an implacable human engine of terror and destruction…

Elliot S. Maggin, Swan & Al Williamson then offer a glimpse into the other motivating force in Luthor’s life by exposing ‘The Einstein Connection’ (Superman #416, February 1986) wherein a trawl through the outlaw’s life reveals a hidden link to the greatest physicist in history…

The Silver Age of comicbooks had utterly revolutionised a flagging medium, bringing a modicum of sophistication to the returning sub-genre of masked mystery men. However, after decades of cosy wonderment, Crisis on Infinite Earths transformed the entire DC Universe and led to the creation of a harder, tougher Superman. John Byrne’s radical re-imagining was most potently manifested in Luthor, who morphed from brilliant, obsessed bandit to ruthless billionaire capitalist… as seen in the introduction to Part III: 1986-2000 Captain of Industry

The tension begins with ‘The Secret Revealed’ (Superman #2, February 1987 by John Byrne, Terry Austin & Keith Williams) when the relentless tycoon kidnaps everyone Superman loves to learn his secret and after collating all the data obtained by torture and other means jumps to the most mistaken conclusion of his misbegotten life…

‘Metropolis – 900 Miles’ (Superman volume 2 #9, September1987 by Byrne, & Karl Kesel) then explores the sordid cruelty of the oligarch as he cruelly torments a pretty waitress with a loathsome offer and promises of a new life…

‘Talking Heads’ appeared in Action Comics #678 (June 1992, by Roger Stern, Jackson Guice & Ande Parks) set after Luthor – riddled with cancer from constantly wearing a green Kryptonite ring to keep Superman at arms’ length – has secretly returned to Metropolis as his own son in a hastily cloned new young and handsome body. Acting as a philanthropist and with Supergirl as his girlfriend/arm candy, young Luthor has everybody fooled, Sadly, everything looks like falling apart when rogue geneticist Dabney Donovan is arrested and threatens to tell an incredible secret he knows about the richest man in town…

‘Hostile Takeover’ comes from JLA #11 1997) wherein Grant Morrison, Howard Porter & John Dell opened interstellar saga ‘Rock of Ages’ with the Justice League facing a newly-assembled, corporately-inspired Injustice Gang organised by Lex and run on his ruthlessly efficient commercial business model.

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman are targeted by a coalition of arch-enemies comprising Chairman-of-the-Board Lex, the Joker, Circe, Mirror Master, Ocean Master and Doctor Light with ghastly doppelgangers of the World’s Greatest Heroes raining destruction down all over the globe.

Even with new members Aztek and second generation Green Arrow Connor Hawke on board, the enemy are running the heroes ragged, but the stakes change radically when telepath J’onn J’onzz detects an extinction-level entity heading to Earth from deep space…

The action and tension intensify when the cabal press their advantage whilst New God Metron materialises, warning the JLA that the end of everything is approaching.

As ever, these snippets of a greater saga are more frustrating than fulfilling, so be prepared to hunt down the complete saga. You won’t regret it…

A true Teflon businessman, Lex ended the millennium running for President and Part IV: 2000-Present 21st Century Man follow a prose appraisal with ‘The Why’ from President Luthor Secret Files and Origins #1 (2000, by Greg Rucka, Matthew Clark & Ray Snyder). Here the blueprint to power and road to the White House is deconstructed, picturing the daily frustrations and provocations which inspired the nefarious oligarch to throw his hat into the political ring…

The next (frustratingly incomplete) snippet comes from a miniseries where the antagonist was the star. ‘Lex Luthor Man of Steel Part 3’ by Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo offers a dark and brooding look into the heart and soul of Superman’s ultimate and eternal foe: adding gravitas to villainy by explaining Lex’s actions in terms of his belief that the heroic Kryptonian is a real and permanent danger to the spirit of humanity.

Luthor – still believed by the world at large to be nothing more than a sharp and philanthropic industrial mogul – allows us a peek into his psyche: viewing the business and social (not to say criminal) machinations undertaken to get a monolithic skyscraper built in Metropolis. The necessary depths sunk to whilst achieving this ambition, and Lex’s manipulating Superman into clashing with Batman, are powerful metaphors, but the semi-philosophical mutterings – so very reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead – although flavoursome, don’t really add anything to Luthor’s character and even serve to dilute much of the pure evil force of his character.

Flawed characters truly make more believable reading, especially in today’s cynical and sophisticated world, but such renovations shouldn’t be undertaken at the expense of the character’s heart. At the end Luthor is again defeated: diminished without travail and nothing has been risked, won or lost. The order restored is of an unsatisfactory and unstable kind, and our look into the villain’s soul has made him smaller, not more understandable.

Lee Bermejo’s art, however, is astoundingly lovely and fans of drawing should consider buying this simply to stare in wonder at the pages of beauty and power that he’s produced here. Or read the entire story in its own collected edition…

Rather more comprehensive and satisfying is ‘The Gospel According to Lex Luthor’ as first seen in All-Star Superman #5. Crafted by Morrison, Frank Quitely & Jamie Grant from September 2006, here an unrepentant Luthor on Death Row grants Clark Kent the interview of his career and scoop of a lifetime, after which ‘The Black Ring Part 5’ (Action Comics #894, December 2010 by Paul Cornell & Pete Woods) confirms the genius’ personal world view as Death of the Endless stops the universe just so she can have a little chat with Lex and see what he’s really like…

This epic trawl through the villain’s published life concludes with a startling tale from Justice League volume 2, #31 (August 2014) as the post-Flashpoint, re-rebooted New 52 DCU again remade Lex into a villain for the latest generation: brilliant, super-rich, conflicted and hungry for public acclaim and approval. In ‘Injustice League Part 2: Power Players’ by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke, Keith Champagne & Christian Alamy, bad-guy Luthor has helped save the world from extradimensional invaders and now wants to be a hero. His solution is to make the real superheroes invite him to join the Justice League, and that can be accomplished by ferreting out Batman’s secret identity and blackmailing the Dark Knight into championing his admission…

Lex Luthor is arguably the most recognizable villain in comics and can justifiably claim that title in whatever era you choose to concentrate on; goggle-eyed Golden Age, sanitised Silver Age or malignant modern and Post-Modern milieus. This book captures just a fraction of all those superb stories and offers a delicious peek into the dark, unhealthy side of rivalry and competition…

This monolithic testament to the inestimable value of a good bad-guy is a true delight for fans of all ages and vintage.
© 1940, 1942, 1952, 1954, 1957, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1972, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2014, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Golden Age All Winners Marvel Masterworks: Volume 1


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Carl Burgos, Bill Everett, Al Avison & others (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6635-1

Unlike their Distinguished Competition, Marvel Comics took quite a while to get into producing expensive archival tomes such as this one reprinting some of their earliest comic adventures. In the cold hard light of day, it’s often fairly clear why.

The sad truth is that much Golden Age Marvel material is not only pretty offensive by modern standards, but is also of rather poor writing and art quality. Something of a welcome exception, however, is this venerable collection of quarterly super-hero anthology All Winners Comics #1-4 – available in hardback, paperback and digital formats.

Over the course of the first year’s publication (from Summer 1941 to Spring 1942) the stories and art varied incredibly (thanks to poor pay rates and the constant call-up of creators to serve overseas), but at least in terms of sheer variety the tales and characters excelled in exploring every avenue of patriotic thrill that might enthral ten-year old boys of all ages.

As well as Simon & Kirby, Lee, Burgos and Everett, the early work of Mike Sekowsky, Jack Binder, George Klein, Paul Gustavson, Harry Sahle, Paul Reinman, Al Avison, Al Gabrielle and many others can be found as they dashed out the adventures of Captain America, Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, Black Marvel, The Angel, The Mighty Destroyer, and The Whizzer.

This spectacular deluxe full-colour compendium opens with a fulsome and informative introduction from Roy Thomas – architect of Marvel’s Golden Age revival – ably abetted by Greg Theakston, detailing the strife and exigencies of churning out fun-fodder under wartime restrictions, after which All Winners Comics #1 commences with Human Torch and flaming kid Toro hunting insidious Japanese agent Matsu as the spy terrorises the peaceful pro-American Orientals of New York’s Chinatown in ‘Carnival of Fiends’ (by Carl Burgos), whilst Stan Lee, Al Avison & Al Gabriele set Indian-reared perfect specimen Black Marvel on the trail of ‘The Order of the Hood’: a well-connected gang of West Coast bandits…

Joe Simon & Jack Kirby then contribute a magnificent Captain America thriller-chiller in ‘The Case of the Hollow Men’: battling a plague of beggars turned into marauding zombies by Nazi super-science.

Stripling Stan Lee & Ed Winiarski contribute a thinly disguised infomercial text tale of ‘All Winners’ after which an untitled Bill Everett Sub-Mariner yarn sees the errant Prince of Atlantis uncover and promptly scupper a nest of saboteurs on the Virginia coastline whilst the inexplicably ubiquitous Angel travels to the deep dark Central American jungle to solve ‘The Case of the Mad Gargoyle’ with typical ruthless efficiency in an engaging end-piece by Alan Mandel

All-Winners #2 was cover-dated Fall 1941 and began with Harry Sahle’s Human Torch thriller ‘Carnival of Death!’ wherein the incendiary android and his mutant sidekick tackle a madly murderous knife-thrower running amok in a winter playground for the wealthy, after which ‘The Strange Case of the Malay Idol’ (Simon & Kirby) finds the Sentinel of Liberty and his youthful aide on a tropical island battling a sinister native death-cult secretly sponsored by the Nazis…

Lee graduates to full comic strips in ‘Bombs of Doom!’ as Jack Binder illustrates the All Winners debut of charismatic, behind-enemy-lines hero The Mighty Destroyer; followed by text feature ‘Winners All’: another Lee puff-piece embellished with a Kirby group-shot of the anthology’s cast before second new guy The Whizzer kicks off a long run with a Lee/Paul Reinman tale of spies and society murderers on the home-front.

After a page of believe-it-or-not ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ a ghost artist illuminates ‘The Ghost Fleet’ to end the issue with another Sub-Mariner versus Nazi submariners all-action romp…

All Winners #3 pits the Torch against Japanese terrorists in ‘The Case of the Black Dragon Society’, a rather over-the-top slice of cartoon jingoism credited to Burgos but scripted by Sahle and drawn by another anonymous ghost squad.

Simon and Kirby had moved to National Comics by this issue and Al Avison was drawing Captain America now – with background inking from George Klein – and scripts by the mysterious S.T. Anley (geddit?), but ‘The Canvas of Doom!’ still rockets along with plenty of dynamite punch in a manic yarn about an artist who predicts murders in his paintings, before The Whizzer busts up corruption and slaughter at ‘Terror Prison’ in a rip-roarer from Lee, Mike Sekowsky & George Klein.

‘Jungle Drums’ is standard genre text filler-fare after which Everett triumphs once more with a spectacular maritime mystery as ‘Sub-Mariner visits the Ship of Horrors’ and The Destroyer turns the Fatherland upside down by wrecking ‘The Secret Tunnel of Death!’ in a blistering epic limned by Chad Grothkopf.

The final issue in this compendium was cover-dated Spring 1942 and – with enough lead time following the attack on Pearl Harbor – the patriotic frenzy mill was clearly in full swing.

A word of warning: though modern readers might well blanch at the racial and sexual stereotyping of the (presumably) well-intentioned propaganda machines which generated tales such as ‘Death to the Nazi Scourge’ and ‘The Terror of the Slimy Japs’, please try to remember the tone of those times and recall that these contents obviously need to be read in an historical rather than purely entertainment context.

The aforementioned ‘Terror of the Slimy Japs’ by Burgos & Sahle has Human Torch and Toro routing Moppino, High Priest of the Rising Sun Temple (and saboteur extraordinaire) from his lair beneath New York, whilst Cap and Bucky content themselves with solving ‘The Sorcerer’s Sinister Secret!’ (Avison & Klein) and foiling another Japanese sneak attack before The Whizzer stamps out ‘Crime on the Rampage’ in a breakneck campaign illustrated by Howard “Johns” nee James.

‘Miser’s Gold’ is just one more genre text tale followed by an Everett inspired-&-guided but ultimately unknown creative team’s take on the other war as ‘Sub-Mariner Combats the Sinister Horde!’ …of Nazis, this time… after which the Destroyer brings down the final curtain by hunting down sadistic Gestapo chief torturer Heinrich Bungler in and declaring ‘Death to the Nazi Scourge!’.

Augmented by covers by Alex Schomburg, Jack Binder & Avison, a string of rousing house ads and other original ephemera, this is a collection of patriotic populist publishing from the dawn of a new and cut-throat industry, working under war-time conditions in a much less enlightened time. That these nascent efforts grew into the legendary characters and brands of today attests to their intrinsic attraction and fundamental appeal, but this is a book of much more than simple historical interest. Make no mistake, there’s still much here that any modern fan can and will enjoy.
© 1941, 1942, 2013, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Eagle Classics: Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent


By John Ryan (Hawk Books -1990)
ISBN: 978-0-94824-822-1

The son of a diplomat and irrefutable True Gent, John Ryan was born in 1921, served in Burma and India and – after attending the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946-48) – took up a teaching post as assistant Art Master at Harrow School from 1948 to 1955.

It was during this time that he began contributing strips to comics such as Girl and legendary weekly comic The Eagle.

On April 14th 1950 Britain’s grey, post-war gloom was partially lifted with the first issue of a glossy new comic that literally shone with light and colour. Mesmerised children were soon understandably enraptured with the gloss and dazzle of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, a charismatic star-turn venerated to this day as well as a plethora of strips illustrating some of their favourite radio shows.

The Eagle was a tabloid sized paper with full photogravure colour inserts alternating with text and a range of other comic features. Tabloid is a big page and you can get a lot of material onto each one. Deep within, on the bottom third of a monochrome folio was an 8-panel strip entitled Captain Pugwash, the story of a Bad Buccaneer and the many sticky ends which nearly befell him.

Ryan’s quirky, spiky style also lent itself to the numerous spot illustrations required every week.

Pugwash, his harridan of a wife and the useless, lazy crew of the Black Pig ran until issue #19 when the feature disappeared. This was no real hardship as Ryan had been writing and illustrating Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent which began as a full page (tabloid, remember – an average of twenty panels a page, per week!) in #16.

Tweed ran for three years as a full page until 1953 when it dropped to a half-page strip and deftly repositioned as a purely comedic venture. For our purposes and those of the book under review it’s those first three years we’re thinking of.

Tweed was a bluff and blundering caricature of the “military Big Brass” Ryan had encountered during the war. In gentler times the bumbler with a young, never-to-be-named assistant known only as ‘Boy’, solved mysteries and captured villains to general popular acclaim. Thrilling and often macabre adventure blended seamlessly with sly yet cheerful schoolboy low comedy in these strips, since Tweed was in fact that most British of archetypes, a bit of a twit and a bit of a sham…

His totally undeserved reputation as detective and crime fighter par excellence, and his good-hearted yet smug arrogance – as demonstrated elsewhere by the likes of Bulldog Drummond, Dick Barton – Special Agent, or Sexton Blake somehow endeared the arrogant, posturing buffoon to a young public which would in later years take to its heart Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army and, more pointedly perhaps, Peter Sellers’ numerous film outings as Inspector Clouseau.

Ryan’s art in these strips is particularly noteworthy. Deep moody blacks and intense, sharp, edgy inking creates a mood of fever-dream intensity. There are anachronistic echoes and nuances of underground cartoons of more than a decade later, and much of the inevitable ‘brooding, lurking horror’ atmosphere found in the best works of Basil Wolverton. Ryan knew what kids liked and he delivered it by the cartload.

This too-slim, oversized (324 x 234mm x) paperback compilation is all that’s readily available these days, but surely in these days of electronic publishing some enterprising fan with a complete Eagle Collection can link up with a perspicacious publisher someway, somehow and produce a comprehensive compilation of the nation’s most self-lauded sleuth?

I know a lot of aging 10-year olds and their grandchildren who would leap at the chance to see the old team back in action…
Harris Tweed © 1990 Fleetway Publications. Compilation © 1990 Hawk Books.

George McManus’s Bringing Up Father: Forever Nuts – Classic Screwball Strips


By George McManus, edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt (NBM)
ISBN 13: 978-1-56163-556-6

One of the best and most influential comic strips of all time gets a wonderfully lavish deluxe outing thanks to the perspicacious folk at NBM as part of their series collecting the earliest triumphs of sequential cartooning. Look out for Happy Hooligan and hunt down Forever Nuts: Mutt and Jeff to see the other strips that formed the basis and foundation of our entire industry and art-form.

George McManus was born on January 23rd 1882 (or maybe 1883) and drew from a very young age. His father, realising his talent, secured him work in the art department of the St. Louis Republic newspaper. The lad was thirteen, and swept floors, ran errands, drawing when ordered to.

In an era before cheap and reliable photography, artists illustrated news stories; usually disasters, civic events and executions: McManus claimed that he had attended 120 hangings – a national record! The young man spent his off-hours producing cartoons and honing his mordant wit. His first sale was Elmer and Oliver. He hated it.

The jobbing cartoonist had a legendary stroke of luck in 1903. Acting on a bootblack’s tip, he placed a $100 bet on a 30-1 outsider and used his winnings to fund a trip to New York City. He splurged his windfall wager and on his last day in the big city got two job offers: one from the McClure Syndicate and a lesser bid from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

He took the smaller offer, went to work for Pulitzer and created a host of features for the paper including Snoozer, The Merry Marceline, Ready Money Ladies, Cheerful Charlie, Panhandle Pete, Let George Do It, Nibsy the Newsboy in Funny Fairyland (one of the earliest Little Nemo knock-offs) and eventually, his first big hit (1904) The Newlyweds.

This last brought him to the attention of Pulitzer’s arch rival William Randolph Hearst who, acting in tried and true manner, lured the cartoonist away with big money in 1912. In Hearst’s stable of papers The Newlyweds became Sunday page feature Their Only Child, and was soon supplemented by Outside the Asylum, The Whole Blooming Family, Spare Ribs and Gravy and Bringing Up Father.

At first it alternated with other McManus domestic comedies in the same slot, but eventually the artist dropped Oh, It’s Great to be Married!, Oh, It’s Great to Have a Home and Ah Yes! Our Happy Home! as well as his second Sunday strip Love Affairs of a Muttonhead to fully concentrate on the story of Irish hod-carrier Jiggs whose vast newfound wealth brought him no joy, whilst his parvenu wife Maggie and their inexplicably beautiful, cultured daughter Nora sought acceptance in “Polite Society”.

The strip turned on the simplest of premises: whilst Maggie and Nora feted wealth and aristocracy, Jiggs, who only wanted to booze, schmooze and eat his beloved corned beef and cabbage, would somehow shoot down their plans – usually with severe personal consequences. Maggie might have risen in society, but she never lost her devastating accuracy with crockery and household appliances…

Bringing Up Father debuted on January 12th 1913, originally appearing thrice-weekly, then four and eventually every day. It made McManus two fortunes (the first he lost in the 1929 Stock Market crash), spawned a radio show, a movie in 1928, and five more between 1946-1950 (as well as an original Finnish film in 1939) and 9 silent animated short features.

…And that’s not counting all the assorted marketing paraphernalia that fetches such high prices in today’s antique markets. The artist died in 1954, and other creators continued the strip until May 28th 2000, its unbroken 87 years making it the second longest running newspaper strip of all time.

McManus said that he got the basic idea from The Rising Generation: a musical comedy he’d seen as a boy: but the premise of wealth not bringing happiness was only the barest foundation of the strip’s explosive success. Jigg’s discomfort at his elevated position, his yearnings for the nostalgic days and simple joys of youth are afflictions everybody is prey to, but the true magic at play here is the canny blend of slapstick, satire, sexual politics and fashion, all delivered by a man who could draw like an angel. The incredibly clean, simple lines and superb use – and implicit understanding – of art nouveau and art deco imagery and design make this series a stunning treat for the eye.

This magical monochrome hardback – collecting the first two years of Bringing Up Father – covers the earliest inklings of the formation of that perfect formula, and includes a fascinating insight into the American head-set as the fictional and fabulously fractious family go on an extended (eight month) grand tour of the Continent in the months leading up to the Great War.

Then, as 1914 closed, the feature highlights how ambivalent the New World still was to the far-distant “European War”…

An added surprise for a strip of this vintage is the great egalitarianism of it. Although there is an occasional visual stereotype to swallow and excuse, what we today regard as racism is practically absent. The only thing to watch out for is the genteel sexism and dramatically entrenched class (un)consciousness, although McManus clearly pitched his tent on the side of the dirty, disenfranchised and downtrodden – as long as he could get a laugh out of it…

This is a wonderful, evocative celebration of the world’s greatest domestic comedy strip, skilfully annotated for those too young to remember those days and still uproariously funny. Get it for grandma and swipe it while she’s sleeping off the sherry and nostalgia…
No © invoked.

Forever Nuts: Happy Hooligan


By Frederick Burr Opper (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-542-1                  978-1-56163-542-9

Frederick Burr Opper was one of the first true giants of comic strips: a hugely imaginative, highly skilled and immensely well-regarded illustrator and political cartoonist who moved into the burgeoning field of newspaper cartooning just as the medium was being born. His pictorial creations (and even more so, his dialogue) have enriched western culture and the English language.

Born in 1857 the son of Austrian immigrants, Opper grew up in Madison, Ohio, and at age 14 joined the Madison Gazette as a printer’s apprentice. Two years later he was in New York. Always drawing, he worked briefly in a store whilst studying at Cooper Union independent school before obtaining a position as student, and eventually assistant to illustration colossus Frank Beard.

Opper sold his first cartoon to Wild Oats in 1876, swiftly following up with further sales to Phunny Phellow, Scribbner’s Monthly, Harper’s Weekly, The Century, St. Nicholas Magazine and Frank Leslie’s Weekly, before joining prestigious premier periodical Puck in 1880. He drew everything from spot illustrations, gags, political cartoons and many of the new, full-colour, Chromolithographic covers. He was also a book illustrator of major renown, an incisive humourist, poet and creator of children’s books.

Clearly a forward-looking and perspicacious creator, Opper first dipped his toe in the world of newspaper strips with an abortive and short-lived feature for the staid New York Herald in 1897, but after making few inroads he returned to magazine illustration. Undeterred by the failure and after 18 lucrative, influential and solid, steady years, Opper was finally lured away by William Randolph Hearst, joining his growing stable of bold comics pioneers in 1899.

Starting on the New York Journal’s Sunday Color Supplement, he devised a wealth of different features beginning with Happy Hooligan which debuted on 11th March 1900. Although not a regular feature at the start – many cartoon strippers of the fledgling art form were given great leeway to experiment with a variety of ideas in those early days – before too long the feature became simply too popular to miss and Opper settled into a stable tenure that lasted until 1932 when the artist’s failing eyesight led to his retirement and the tramp’s demise. Opper passed away at the end of August 1937.

The grand master never used assistants, but his imagination and unsurpassed creativity made Hooligan – and his other creations – household favourites around the world, appealing equally to Presidents and public alike. His next strip – Mister Henry Peck (1901) – was followed by the highly popular Alphonse and Gaston (1901-1904), Our Antediluvian Ancestors (1903-1904) and the astoundingly madcap Mule strip And Her Name was Maud which began in 1904. Maud continued intermittently for decades and, on May 23rd 1926, became the regular “topper” to Happy Hooligan, running above the strip until both concluded with the artist’s well-earned retirement on October 14th 1932.

Other strips included, The Red Rig-a-Jigs (1906), Adolf from Hamburg (1906), King Jake (1907-1908), His Name is Ebenezer/His Name is Smith (1908), Ship Ahoy! (1908), Howsan Lott (1909-1914), Is Boggs Cheerful? He Is! (1908), Scuse Me, Mr. Johnson (1909), The Swift Work of Count DeGink (1916) and perennial trier The Dubb Family/Down on the Farm (1918-1919, 1921-1923, 1925-1927), but none had the appeal or phenomenal staying power of Happy or Maud and had perforce to be abandoned.

Happy Hooligan is an affable, well-meaning but painfully bumbling tramp who wears an old tin-can for a hat. Always ready and eager to assist and wishing nobody ill, this gentle vagrant is constantly made the inadvertent tool and plaything of far more fortunate folk who should know better, or cops a little too fond of the truncheon and nightstick, and – in general – generally a harsh, unforgiving cosmos of ill-fortune.

It’s a strip brimming with invention, pathos, social commentary, delightful wordplay and broad, reckless slapstick. More than one source cites Happy as having a profound influence on Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in both content and tone…

This classy hardback (sadly not available yet in any digital form I can find) presents a selection of strips from 1902-1913 in the varying forms of colour (two, three and full colour depending presumably on the budget of the local papers these rare survivors were culled from). The tome is compiled and edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt with a fascinating introduction and biography from Allan Holtz who, with collector Cole Johnson, provided the majority of the strips included here.

These range from June 8th 1902 to September 7th 1913 and although by no means complete or comprehensive afford a tantalizing glimpse at this iconic, influential and groundbreaking feature. Many of the reprints come from the highly productive and hilarious “Grand Tour” years of 1904 and 1905, (see also Happy Hooligan 1904-1905) and follow the sedentary sad-sack across after many abortive, knockabout attempts, across the sea to England and then on to the unsuspecting continents of Europe and Africa before returning to America in 1906.

With brothers Montmorency and Gloomy Gus, plus a burgeoning family of nephews and hangers-on, this too-slim tome ends with some of the optimistic poltroon’s foredoomed attempts to woo Suzanne, the patient and amazingly egalitarian daughter of the Duke of Cabaret. As always, these hysterical, rowdy escapades are often exacerbated by occasional visits from the ultra-polite Alphonse and Gaston, Opper’s legendary French gentlemen of extreme etiquette elitism…

Crossovers were not Opper’s only innovation. Happy Hooligan is considered as the first American strip to depend on word balloons rather than supplemental text, and the humble, heartwarming hobo was also the first strip character to jump to the Silver Screen in six movie shorts from 1900-1902. He was also probably the first mass-market merchandising comics star…

Sadly, Opper and his creations become less well-known with each passing year, but the quality of the work can never fail to amuse and inspire. Hopefully one day soon. superb graphic appetisers such as this will lead to further, more comprehensive collections (in print or electronically – I ain’t fussy), and as this book also contains a healthy selection of Opper’s other works from the early Wild Oats and Puck to the aforementioned genteel Gallic gadabouts and the mulish Maud, perhaps we can also look forward to compendia of his other seminal sketches and comedy classics…
Published in 2009 by NBM. © not invoked.

Captain Pugwash: A Pirate Story


By John Ryan (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84780-721 (PB)            978-1845078218 (HC)

The Day’s coming, Shipmates! Here’s a taste of things to come for all you hearty fun-starved rogues…

John Ryan was an artist and storyteller who straddled three distinct disciplines of graphic narrative, with equal qualitative if not financial success.

The son of a diplomat, Ryan was born in Edinburgh on March 4th 1921, served in Burma and India and – after attending the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946-48) – took up a post as assistant Art Master at Harrow School from 1948 to 1955.

It was during this time that he began contributing strips to Fulton Press publications, in the company’s glossy distaff alternative Girl, but most especially in the pages of the legendary “boys’ paper” The Eagle.

On April 14th 1950, Britain’s grey, post-war gloom was partially lifted with the first issue of a new comic that literally shone with light and colour. Avid children were soon understandably enraptured with the gloss and dazzle of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, a charismatic star-turn venerated to this day.

The Eagle was a tabloid-sized paper with full-colour inserts alternating with text and a range of various other comic features. “Tabloid” is a big page and one can get a lot of material onto each one. Deep within, on the bottom third of a monochrome page was an 8-panel strip entitled Captain PugwashThe story of a Bad Buccaneer and the many Sticky Ends which nearly befell him.

Ryan’s quirky, spiky style also lent itself to the numerous spot illustrations required throughout the comic every week.

Pugwash, his harridan of a wife and the useless, lazy crew of the Black Pig ran (or more accurately capered and fell about) until issue 19 when the feature disappeared. This was no real hardship for Ryan who had been writing and illustrating Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent as a full-page (tabloid, remember, an average of twenty panels a page, per week!) from Eagle #16. (I really must reinvestigate the solidly stolid sleuth too sometime soon…)

Tweed ran for three years as a page until 1953 when it dropped to a half-page strip and was repositioned as a purely comedic venture.

In 1956 the indefatigable old sea-dog (I mean old Horatio Pugwash but it could so easily be Ryan) made the jump to children’s picture books. He was an unceasing story-peddler with a big family, and somehow also found time to be the head cartoonist for The Catholic Herald for forty years.

A Pirate Story was first published by Bodley Head before switching to the children’s publishing specialist Puffin for further editions and more adventures. It was the first of a vast (sorry, got away with myself there!) run of children’s books on a number of different subjects.

Pugwash himself starred in 21 tomes; there were a dozen books based on the animated TV series Ark Stories, plus Sir Prancelot and a number of other creations. Ryan worked whenever he wanted to in the comics world and eventually the books and the strips began to cross-fertilise.

The primary Pugwash is very traditional in format with blocks of text and single illustrations to illuminate a particular moment. But by the publication of Pugwash the Smuggler (1982) entire sequences were lavishly painted comic strips, with as many as eight panels per page, and including word balloons. A fitting circularity to his careers and a nice treat for us old-fashioned comic drones.

After A Pirate Story was released in 1957 the BBC pounced on the property, commissioning Ryan to produce five-minute episodes (86 in all from 1957 to 1968, which were later reformatted in full colour and rebroadcast in 1976). In the budding 1950s arena of animated television cartoons, Ryan developed a new system for producing cheap, high quality animations to a tight deadline. He began with Pugwash, keeping the adventure milieu, but replaced the shrewish wife with a tried-and-true boy assistant. Tom the Cabin Boy is the only capable member of a crew which included such visual archetypes as Willy, Barnabas and Master Mate (fat, thin and tall – and all dim), instantly affirming to the rapt, young audience that grown-ups are fools and kids do, in fact, rule.

Ryan also drew a weekly Captain Pugwash strip in The Radio Times for eight years, before going on to produce a number of other animated series including Mary, Mungo and Midge, The Friendly Giant and the aforementioned Sir Prancelot. There were also adaptations of some of his many other children’s books. In 1997 an all new CGI-based Pugwash animated TV series began.

This first story sets the scene with a delightful clown’s romp as the so-very-motley crew of the Black Pig sail in search of buried treasure, only to fall into a cunning trap set by the truly nasty Cut-Throat Jake. Luckily Tom is as smart as his shipmates and Captain are not…

John Ryan returned to pirate life in the 1980s, drawing three new Pugwash storybooks: The Secret of the San Fiasco, The Battle of Bunkum Bay and The Quest for the Golden Handshake, as well as thematic prequel Admiral Fatso Fitzpugwash, in which it is revealed that the not-so-salty seadog had a medieval ancestor who became First Sea Lord, despite being terrified of water…

A 2008 edition of A Pirate Story (from Frances Lincoln Children’s Books) came with a free audio CD, and just in case I’ve tempted you beyond endurance here’s a full list (I think) of the good(?) Captain’s exploits that you should make it your remaining life’s work to unearth…:

Captain Pugwash: A Pirate Story (1957), Pugwash Aloft (1960), Pugwash and the Ghost Ship (1962), Pugwash in the Pacific (1963), Pugwash and the Sea Monster (1976), Captain Pugwash and the Ruby (1976), Captain Pugwash and the Treasure Chest (1976), Captain Pugwash and the New Ship (1976), Captain Pugwash and the Elephant (1976), The Captain Pugwash Cartoon Book (1977), Pugwash and the Buried Treasure (1980), Pugwash the Smuggler (1982), Captain Pugwash and the Fancy Dress Party (1982), Captain Pugwash and the Mutiny (1982), Pugwash and the Wreckers (1984), Pugwash and the Midnight Feast (1984), The Battle of Bunkum Bay (1985), The Quest of the Golden Handshake (1985), The Secret of the San Fiasco (1985), Captain Pugwash and the Pigwig (1991) and Captain Pugwash and the Huge Reward (1991). They are all pearls beyond price and a true treasure of graphic excellence…

We don’t have that many multi-discipline successes in comics, so why don’t you go and find out why we should celebrate one who did it all, did it first and did it well? Your kids will thank you and if you’ve any life left in your old and weary soul, you will too…
© 1957, 2009 John Ryan and (presumably) the Estate of John Ryan. All rights reserved.

Golden Age Western Comics


By various, compiled and edited by Steven Brower (PowerHouse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-57687-594-0

There was a time, not that very long ago, when all of popular fiction was engorged and saturated with tales of “Cowboys and Indians”.

As always happens with such periodic phenomena – like the Swinging Sixties Super-Spy boom, the more recent Lonely Human/Vampire/Werewolf Boyfriend triangle or the trend for Sassy Articulate Gerbils Training Little Girls to be Sporting Stars and Master Martial Artists (I might have got that one confused) – there’s a tremendous amount of dross amidst a few spectacular gems beyond price.

On such occasions, there’s also generally a small amount of wonderful but not-quite-life-changing material that gets lost in the shuffle: carried along with the overwhelming surge of material pumped out by TV, film, comics and book producers as well as toy, game and record industries.

After World War II the American family entertainment market – which mostly meant comics, radio and the burgeoning but small television industry – became comprehensively enamoured of the clear-cut, simplistic sensibilities and easy, escapist solutions offered by Tales of the Old West; already a firmly established favourite of paperback fiction, movie serials and feature films.

I’ve often pondered on how almost simultaneously a dark, bleak, nihilistic and oddly left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome revolution, seemingly for the cynical minority of entertainment snobs and intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that’s a thought for another time and a different review.

Even though comicbooks had included western heroes from the very start – there were cowboy strips in the premier issues of both Action Comics and Marvel Comics – the post-war years saw a vast outpouring of anthology titles with new gun-toting heroes to replace the rapidly-dwindling supply of costumed Mystery Men, and – true to formula – most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling. To be fair, though, over the next decade a few genuine masterpieces did float to the surface of that crowded pool: Toth’s Johnny Thunder and Doug Wildey’s Outlaw Kid being the first to come to mind…

With every comicbook publisher turning hopeful eyes westward, it was natural that most of the actual historical figures would quickly find a home and – of course – facts counted little, as indeed they never had with other avenues of cowboy literature…

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist, producing some pretty impressive work, with France and Italy eventually making the genre their own by the end of the 1960s. Still and all, there was the rare gleam of gold and also a fair share of highly acceptable silver in American tales, and as always, the crucial difference was due to the artists and writers involved…

With all the top-line characters and properties such as Tomahawk, Rawhide Kid, or the Lone Ranger still fully owned by big concerns, this delightful and impressive hardback compilation instead gathers a broad selection of the second-string material (call ‘em Sunday matinee or B-movie comics if you want) and, although there’s no Kinstler or Kubert or Kirby classics, what editor Steven Brower has re-presented here in lavish, scanned full-colour is a magnificent meat-and-potatoes snapshot of what kids of the time would have been avidly absorbing.

Sadly, historical records are awfully spotty for this period and genre but I’m cocky enough to offer a few guesses whenever the creator credits aren’t available and I’m relatively sure of my footing…

After an informative introduction from Christopher Irving and introductory essay by Brower, the rip-roaringly wholesome fun and thrills begin with Texas Tim, Ranger (from an undesignated 1948 issue of Blazing West), part of writer/Editor Richard Hughes’ superb American Comics Group line, and a veritable one-man band of creative trend following.

Hughes is an unsung hero of the industry, competing with the Big Boys in spy, humour, western, horror and superhero titles well into the 1960s – and writing the bulk of the stories himself.

In a sadly uncredited yarn (perhaps drawn by Edmond Good), the Texan lawman tracks down rustlers and foils a plot to frame an innocent man in a rollicking 8-page romp, after which movie idol Lash LaRue solves the case of ‘The King’s Ransom’ in an adventure stuffed with chases, kidnapping, fights, framed Indians and prodigal sons, originally from #56 of his own licensed title (July 1955 and perhaps drawn by John Belfi or Tony Sgroi).

Fawcett had a huge stable (Yup, I said it and I ain’t sorry, neither) of Western screen stars, and when they quit comics in 1953 the lesser properties gems not bought by DC – such as Hopalong Cassidy – were snapped up by Capitol/Charlton Comics who purchased the bulk of declining comics publishers inventory during the 1950’s…

Charlton was always a minor player in the comics leagues, paying less, selling less, and generally caring less about cultivating a fan base than the major players. But they managed to discover and train more big names in the 1960s than either Marvel or DC, and created a vast and solid canon of memorable characters, concepts and genre material.

Almost all their stuff was written by Joe Gill or Pat Masulli, although in the 1960s young tyros like Roy Thomas, Nick Cuti, Steve Skeates, Dave Kaler and Denny O’Neil all got a healthy first bite of the cherry there, and I’m fairly certain “King of Comics” Paul S. Newman was the regular Larue scripter…

‘Magic Arrow Rides the Pony Express’ hails from Youthful Publications’ Indian Fighter (1950) illustrated by S. B. Rosen and detailing how the young Seneca chief and all-around “Good Injun” saves the famed postal service from unscrupulous badmen armed only with his quiver of enchanted shafts.

Fawcett also published a certified screen-star in Tom Mix Western and here, from #15 (1949) comes ‘Tom Mix and the Desert Maelstrom’ probably drawn by Carl Pfeufer & John Jordan – as most of the strips were – wherein the legendary lawman braves a stupendous sandstorm to capture bank-robbers and save a wounded rodeo rider from destitution.

Lots of publishers plumped for public domain Jesse James to bolster their output and the one sampled here comes from Charlton’s Cowboy Western Comics #39, (June 1955, probably written by Gill & illustrated by William M. Allison). The always misunderstood gunslinger is framed for a stage hold-up and…

Magazine Enterprises produced some the very best quality comics of the 1950s and from Dan’l Boone #4, December 1955 comes the stirring saga of pioneer America ‘Peril Shadows the Forest Trail’, wherein the mythical scout and woodsman ferrets out a murderous white turncoat in a timeless thriller illustrated by the hugely undervalued Joe Certa.

‘Buffalo Belle’ also comes from the 1948 Blazing West and again displays Hughes’ mastery of short story strips as the miniskirt-wearing agent of justice deals with a dragged-up (no really!: men in skirts!) bandit in a terrific yarn possibly limned by Max Elkan or even Charles Sultan…

Also from that ACG title are the truly lovely ‘Little Lobo the Bantam Buckeroo’ – illustrated by Leonard Starr in his transitional Milton Caniff drawing style – depicting the tempestuous boy’s battle against fur thieves, plus the charming ‘Tenderfoot’ (by a frustratingly familiar artist I can’t confidently identify, but who might just be Paul Cooper) with the sissy-looking Eastern Dude dispensing western vengeance to bullies and bandits alike…

‘Little Eagle: Soldier in the Making’ also comes from Indian Fighter – illustrated with near-abstract verve by Manny Stallman – stampeding firmly into fantasy as a youthful brave equipped with magic wings tackles renegade brave Black Dog before the madman sets the entire frontier ablaze with war…

Avon Books started in 1941, created when the American News Corporation bought out pulp magazine publishers J.S. Ogilvie, and their output was famously described by Time Magazine as “westerns, whodunits and the kind of boy-meets-girl story that can be illustrated by a ripe cheesecake jacket.” By 1945 the company had launched a comicbook division as fiercely populist as the umbrella company.

They released over 100 short-lived genre titles such as Atomic Spy Cases, Bachelor’s Diary, Behind Prison Bars, Campus Romance, Gangsters and Gun Molls, Slave Girl Comics, War Dogs of the U.S. Army, White Princess of the Jungle and many others, all aimed – even the funny animal titles like Space Mouse and Spotty the Pup!at a slightly older and more “discerning” audience and all illustrated by some of the best artists working at the time.

Many if not most sported lush painted covers that were both eye-catching and beautiful.

Six of their titles had respectable runs: Peter Rabbit, Eerie, Wild Bill Hickock, outrageous “Commie-busting” war comic Captain Steve Savage, Fighting Indians of the Wild West and their own magnificently illustrated fictionalised adventures of Jesse James.

‘Terror at Taos’ originated in Avon’s Kit Carson #6 (March 1955, but is reprinted here from Fighting Indians of the Wild West), pitting the famed scout against corrupt officials and traitorous wagon masters in the Commancheria territory; all lavishly rendered by the superb Jerry McCann.

Next up is ‘Young Falcon and the Swindlers’ from Fawcett’s Gabby Hayes Western #17 (April 1950) by an artist doing a very creditable impression of Norman Maurer, wherein the lost prince of the Truefeather Tribe tracks down crooked assayers who bilked him of his rightful pay, after which ‘Annie Oakley’ (Cowboy Western Stories # 38, April/May 1952) finds the famed sharpshooter hunting bandits in a canny 4-page quickie illustrated by Jerry Iger under the pen-name Jerry Maxwell.

Charlton’s back catalogue also provided ‘Flying Eagle in Golden Treachery’ from Death Valley #9 October 1955, wherein the noble brave foils white claim-jumpers togged up like Indians.

‘Cry for Revenge’ (Cowboy Western #49 May/June 1954) then sees venerable Fawcett star Golden Arrow hunt down more murderous whites posing as Red Men to drive settlers off their land in a gripping (Gill?) yarn illustrated by Dick Giordano & Vince Alascia.

‘Chief Black Hawk and his Dogs of War’ was a historical puff-piece also from Kit Carson #6 with artist Harry Larsen delineating the rise and fall of the legendary Sauk war chief after which Giordano & Alascia’s ‘Triple Test’ (Cowboy Western #49 May/June 1954) laconically describes the dangers of marrying in a rare, wry light-hearted tale from an age of mostly shoot-and-swipe sagas…

Gabby Hayes Western #17 also provided an adventure of the World’s Most Successful Sidekick himself (No, seriously: Hayes was the comedy stooge to almost every cowboy in Tinsel Town, from Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy to Randolph Scott and John Wayne).

‘The Big Game Hunt’ is a fun-filled riot as the garrulous old coot takes the wind out of a snobby globe-trotting safari addict and saves the life of a cantankerous moose in a charming rib-tickler probably written by Rod Reed or Irwin Schoffman and illustrated by Leonard Frank.

The last tales in this tome are all from Charlton; starting with the Giordano & Alascia ‘Breakout in Rondo Prison’ (Range Busters #10 September 1955) wherein hard-riding trio Scott, Chip and Doodle are framed for robbery in a pokey cow-town and forced to fight their way to freedom after which the action ends and sun sets with a superb costumed cowboy thriller ‘For Talon’s Nest’ from Masked Raider #2 (August 1955). Here the enigmatic mystery gunslinger is forced to defend his pet eagle’s honour in a classy classic drawn by Mike Sekowsky (and possibly inked by Standard Comics comrade Mike Peppe?)

Sadly, there’s no inclusion of Charlton’s superb and long-running Billy the Kid, Gunmaster or Cheyenne Kid features, but hopefully there’s the possibility of a follow-up volume dedicated to them…?

Within the pages of this sassy full-colour hardback (still no digital edition yet, pardners!), cow-punching aficionados – and no, it’s neither a sexual proclivity nor an Olympic sport – and all fans of charming, nostalgia-stuffed comics can (re)discover a splendid selection of range-riding rollercoaster rides about misunderstood fast-guns or noble savages compelled to take up arms against an assorted passel of low-down no-goods and scurvy owlhoots, and all the other myriad tropes and touchstones of Western mythology.

Black hats, white hats, great pictures and traditional fast gun and flying fists values – what more could you possibly ask for?
Text, compilation and editing © 2012 Steven Brower. Foreword © 2012 Christopher Irving. All rights reserved

The A-Z of Marvel Monsters


By Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0863-8

To dyed-in-the-wool comic-book fanboys there’s a much beloved period in history when a frankly daft and woefully formulaic trend produced utter, joyous magic. We look back on it now and see only the magnificent art, or talk with loving derision of the crazy (often onomatopoeic) names, but deep down we can’t shake the exuberant thrill inside or the frisson of emotion that occurs when we see or even think of them.

Before Jack Kirby and Stan Lee brought superheroes back to Marvel Comics, the company was on its last legs. Trapped in a woefully disadvantageous distribution deal, the company’s output was limited to some sixteen genre titles. But there was hope…

The outside mainstream world was currently gripped in an atomic B-movie monster craze, so Lee, Kirby and Steve Ditko dutifully capitalised on it in their anthology mystery titles Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense.

In an unending procession of brief inspirational novelettes, dauntless or canny or just plain outsider humans outsmarted a succession of bizarre aliens, mad scientists, an occasional ghost or sorcerer (this was, after all, the heyday of the Comics Code Authority when any depiction of the supernatural was BAD) and a horde of outrageous beasties in a torrent of wonders best described by the catchphrase “monsters-in-underpants”.

Simplistic, moralistic, visually experimental yet reassuringly predictable in narrative, these Outer Limits-style yarns were – and still are – the epitome of sheer unrelenting fun with no redeeming social context required.

Marvel have increasingly celebrated that fact in recent years and – over the course of one month – commissioned a line of 26 “Kirby Monster” variant covers for their periodical releases, all lovingly crafted by a number of top names to highlight the treasured contribution of beasties, things and what-nots…

This volume gathers those images in a handy hardcover primer (and eBook edition) whilst gloriously gilding the lily with a splendid selection of many of the original mini-epics as created from those pre-Marvel Age masterpieces and augmented by ‘Jack Kirby, Atlas Comics & Monsters!’: a 1994 Introduction from the King himself.

The next bit’s another shopping-list moment so if you want to skip ahead a little I shouldn’t be at all surprised…

The worshipful A-Z art-section – augmented by the original cover of each diabolical debut – opens with Erica Henderson’s reinterpretation of ‘The Awesome Android!’ (which premiered in Fantastic Four #15) and rapidly follows up ‘The Blip!’ by Simon Bisley, and ‘The Crawling Creature!’ as delineated by Maguerite Sauvage.

An extreme late entry in the Kirby-Kritter Circus, ‘Devil Dinosaur!’ launched in his own title in 1978 and his moody reprise from Matthew Wilson is followed by Jeff Lemire’s take on ‘Elektro!’ and ‘Fin Fang Foom!’ – first seen in Strange Tales #89 – and rendered here by Walter Simonson & Laura Martin.

Michael & Laura Allred depict latter-day cellulose celluloid star ‘Groot!’ (originating in Tales to Astonish #13) before Francesco Francavilla highlights ‘The Hypno-Creature!’, Paolo Rivera revisits Fantastic Four #24’s weird menace ‘The Infant Terrible!’ and Glenn Fabry regales us with an Asgardian god battling ‘The Jinni Devil!’ in a scene that didn’t make it into 1967’s Thor #137…

Dave Johnson details a key point in the life of ‘Kraa the Unhuman!’ before John Cassaday & Matthew Wilson illuminate the depredations of ‘Lo-Karr, Bringer of Doom!’ after which Geof Darrow takes us back to Thor #154 to meet again amalgamated menace ‘Mangog!’

Kirby’s astounding 1976 Eternals series produced many incredible images and Paul Pope & Shay Plummer have chosen 2,000 feet tall Space God ‘Nezarr the Calculator!’ to set the pulses racing, whilst Mike del Mundo plumps for Strange Tales #90’s ‘Orrgo!’ and James Stokoe recalls forgotten fiend ‘Poker Face!’ as originally seen in Strange Tales of the Unusual #1 from December 1956…

Recurring FF foe ‘The Quonian!’ first appeared in Fantastic Four #97 and wows again here thanks to Christian Ward, after which Eric Powell previews ‘Rommbu!’ and Tradd Moore pits Ant-Man against Tales to Astonish #39 terror ‘The Scarlet Beetle!’ before Chris Bachalo & Tim Townsend show us the power of ‘Thorr!’

Chris Samnee & Wilson expose the tricky ferocity of Journey into Mystery #63’s undersea goliath ‘Ulvar!’ and Arthur Adams & Chris Sotomayor hark back to Tales to Astonish #17 to focus on ‘Vandoom’s Monster’ after which one last FF antagonist features as Cliff Chiang reveals ‘The Wrecker’s Robot!’ as seen in Fantastic Four #12.

Wrapping up this astounding alphabet are Dan Brereton’s rendition of ‘Xemnu!’ and Phil Noto’s depiction of ‘The Yeti!’ who battled Kirby’s Black Panther in #5 before Tony Moore & John Rauch hilariously conclude the countdown with alien outlaw ‘Zetora’.

Okay so maybe a few of those spooky stalwarts might have been from a later era and star in superhero sagas, but the influence and intent was clearly seen throughout and just sets the tone for the Kirby-crafted fearsome fantasy-features that follow…

The family-friendly monster mash – featuring scripts by Lee and Larry Lieber with Dick Ayers inking – opens with ‘I Learned the Dread Secret of The Blip!’ (from Tales to Astonish #15, January 1961) wherein an openminded radar operator attempts to assist a stranded alien energy being.

‘I Dared to Battle the Crawling Creature!’ comes from Tales to Astonish #22 (August 1961) and sees a scrawny High School nerd travel into the bowels of the Earth and face a primitive predator whilst an aging electronicist creates and eventually counters a would-be computerised conqueror in ‘Elektro! He Held the World in his Iron Grip!’ (Tales of Suspense #19, January 1961).

The hideous Hypno-Creature harried a very human hero in extra-dimensional invasion epic ‘I Entered the Dimension of Doom!’ from Tales of Suspense #23 (November 1961) whilst facing hulking atomic victim ‘Kraa the Unhuman!’ (Tales of Suspense #18, June 1961) proves the making of a timid American teacher…

A sunken stone head on a Pacific Island proved to be big trouble when explorers awakened ancient alien invaders in ‘Here Comes… Thorr the Unbelievable’ (Tales to Astonish #16, February 1961) and the origins of Defenders villain Xemnu the Titan are exposed in ‘I Was a Slave of the Living Hulk!’ (from Journey into Mystery #62, November 1960) before a hapless human proves to be the perfect hideout for extraterrestrial fugitive Zetora in ‘The Martian Who Stole My Body!’ as seen in Journey into Mystery #57 (March 1960).

Foolish, fabulous, thrill-packed and utterly intoxicating, these are fun-filled tales no puny human could possibly resist.
© 1956-1961, 2017 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Take That, Adolf! – The Fighting Comic Books of the Second World War


By Mark Fertig and many & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-987-5

Long the bastion of the arcane, historic, esoteric and the just plain interesting arenas of the comics experience, Fantagraphics Books here celebrates the dawn age of Fights ‘n’ Tights funnybooks with a magnificent collection of (mostly) superhero covers culled from the fraught period which most truly defined the comics industry.

Comicbook covers are a potent and evocative way of assessing the timbre of an era and a captivating shortcut into worlds far removed from our own. They are also half the sum total of fun generated by narrative art and arguably an art form all their own.

In this tome, educator, scholar and writer Mark Fertig (Chair of Art and Art History at Susquehanna University, Pennsylvania and revered film noir expert – check out his Where Danger Lives for more populist fun) offers an erudite and wide-reaching essay comprehensively addressing every aspect of the four-colour Home Front’s graphic endeavours in support of America’s WWII war effort.

Detailing how Jewish émigré artists’ and writers’ creative influences advocated America surrender its isolationist stance in ‘Four Color Fantasies’ and ‘Building Towards War’, Fertig then traces the development of ‘Red, White, and Blue Heroes’ such as The Shield and Uncle Sam before ‘The Coming of Captain America’ sparks the invention of ‘An Army of Captains’.

After the USA finally enters the war ‘All-Out Assault: August & September 1941’ is followed by an examination of female masked fighters in ‘She Can Do It!’ and reveals how Wonder Woman became ‘An Amazon for the Ages’.

‘Kids Can Fight Too!’ reveals the impact of junior and under-age crusaders as well as the sub-genre of Kid Gangs whilst ‘Attaboy, Steamboat!’ confronts head-on the depiction of ethnic characters – “evil” and Pro-democracy. From here in the distant future, some of the appalling jingoism and racism is even more disturbing than the tortures, torments and buckets of gore liberally scattered through the images of Evil Nazis and Japs…

Next ‘Into the Breach’ addresses the reasons omnipotent heroes such as Superman and Captain Marvel left the actual fighting in Europe and the Pacific to ordinary mortals before ‘Pulling Together’ details and the promotion of Home Front solidarity munitions manufacture and the arming of the armies of Freedom after which Hitler repeatedly gets his just deserts (in effigy at least) ‘In Der Führer’s Face!’

‘Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines!’ follows the development of more human fictional soldiers and heroes whilst and ‘More Thrilling Than Fiction’ sees the begins of fact-based accounts of true champions such as President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower before ‘Pitch Men’ follows the numerous examples of masked warriors and kiddie-characters inciting readers to help pay for the war through selling war bonds and liberty stamps and ‘On to Victory’ celebrates the end of hostilities and the aftermath.

The fact-packed lecture is also supplemented at the back of the book by creator biographies of industry giants and iconic cover crafters Charles Clarence Beck, Jack Binder, Charles Biro, Hardin “Jack” Burnley, Reed Crandall, Will Eisner, Lou Fine, Irv Novick, Manuel “Mac” Raboy and Alex Schomburg (regarded as the most prolific cover illustrator of the period) but the true merit of this enchanting tome is the covers gathered for your perusal.

Designed to incite patriotic fervour and build morale, the awesome majority of this tome features a potent avalanche of stunning covers from almost every company, displaying not only how mystery men and superheroes dealt with the Axis of Evil in those tense times but also the valiant efforts of “ordinary fighting men” and even cartoon fantasy stars such as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Walt Disney stars such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck

Shopping List Alert: skip if you must…

This book celebrates an absolute cascade of spectacular, galvanising scenes of heroes legendary and obscure, costumed and uniformed, crushing tanks, swatting planes, sinking U-Boats and decimating enemy ranks, unleashed before your assuredly goggled eyes by artists long forgotten, and never known as well as more familiar names such as Joe Shuster, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Eisner, Harry G. Peter, Jack Burnley, Frank Harry, Irwin Hasen, Al Avison, Bob Powell, Edd Ashe, Harry Lucey, Paul Gustavson, Bill Everett, Jerry Robinson, Gus Ricca, Al Gabriele, Charles Sultan, Gene Fawcette, Louis & Arturo Cazeneuve, Gill Fox, Sam Cooper, Jim Mooney, Elmer Wexler, Fred Ray, Dan Zolnerowich, Don Rico, Max Plaisted, Howard Sherman, Everett E. Hibbard, Ramona Patenaude, Pierce Rice, Harry Anderson, Lin Streeter, Dan Gormley, Bernard Klein, Stephen Douglas, Martin Nodell, Charles Quinlan, Dan Noonan, Sheldon Moldoff, Henry Keifer, Marc Swayze, Carl Buettner, Charles A. Winter, Maurice, del Bourgo, Jack Warren, Bob Montana, Bob, Fujimori, Vernon Greene, George Papp, John Jordan, Syd Shores, John Sikela, Alex Blum, Ray Ramsey, R. Webster, Harry Sahle, Mort Leav, Alex Kotzky, Dan Barry, Al Camy, Stan Kaye, George Gregg, Art Saaf, George Tuska, alexander Kostuk, Al Carreno, Fred Kida, Ruben Moreira, Sidney Hamburg, Rudy Palais, Joe Doolin, Al Plastino, Harvey K. Fuller, Louis Ferstadt, Matt Bailey, Ham Fisher, Walt Kelly, Wayne Boring, John Giunta, Creig Flessel, Harold Delay, Lee Elias, Henry Boltinoff, L.B. Cole and George Marcoux plus many more who did their bit by providing safe thrills, captivating joy and astounding excitement for millions.

These powerful, evocative, charming, funny, thrilling, occasionally daft and often horrific images are controversial these days. Many people consider them Art with a capital ‘A’ whereas close-minded, reactionary, unimaginative, bigoted die-hard poltroons don’t.

Why not Dig back in time (For Victory!) and make your own decision?
© 2017 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. Main text© 2017 Mark Fertig. All comics covers and illustrations herein © 2017 the respective copyright holders All rights reserved.

Jesse James: Classic Western Collection


By Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino & various (Vanguard Productions)
ISBN: 978-1887591515(HB)             978- 1-887591-44-3(TPB)

There was a time, not that very long ago, when all arenas of popular fiction was engorged with cowboy stories…

As always happens with such periodic phenomena – such as the Swinging Sixties Super-Spy Boom and the relatively recent Vampire/Werewolf Boyfriend trend – there’s a tremendous amount of dross and a few spectacular gems. On such occasions, there’s also generally a small amount of superb yet not-quite-transformational, essentially magnificent concoctions that get lost in the shuffle: carried along with the overwhelming surge of insubstantial material pumped out by television, film, comics and book producers and even the toy, game and record industries.

After World War II the American mass family entertainment market – for which read comics, radio and the burgeoning television industry – became comprehensively enamoured of the clear-cut, simplistic sensibilities and easy, escapist solutions offered by Tales of the Old West as already firmly established through paperback fiction, movie serials and feature films.

I’ve often pondered on how almost simultaneously a dark, bleak, nigh-nihilistic and oddly left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome revolution, seemingly for a cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that’s definitely a thought for another time and review.

Comicbooks reacted with a huge outpouring of anthology titles and new six-gun heroes to replace the rapidly dwindling pantheon of costumed Mystery Men and – true to formula – most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling.

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist, producing some pretty impressive work, with France and Italy eventually making the genre their own by the end of the 1960s. Still and all, there was the rare gleam of gold and also a fair share of highly acceptable silver in the American comics tales, and as always, the crucial difference was due to the artists and writers involved…

With every comic-book publisher turning hopeful eyes westward, it was natural that most historical figures would quickly find a home and of course, facts counted for little, as indeed they never had with cowboy stories…

Avon Books started in 1941, created when the American News Corporation bought out pulp magazine publishers J.S. Ogilvie, and their output was famously described by Time Magazine as “westerns, whodunits and the kind of boy-meets-girl story that can be illustrated by a ripe cheesecake jacket.”

By 1945 the company had launched a comicbook division as fiercely populist as the parent company with over 100 short-lived titles such as Atomic Spy Cases, Batchelor’s Diary, Behind Prison Bars, Campus Romance, Gangsters and Gun Molls, Slave Girl Comics, War Dogs of the U.S. Army, White Princess of the Jungle and many others, all aimed – even the funny animal titles like Space Mouse and Spotty the Pup! – at a slightly older and more discerning audience, and all drawn by some of the best artists working at the time.

Many if not most sported lush painted covers that were both eye-catching and beautiful.

Six titles in their admittedly eclectic stable had respectable runs: Peter Rabbit, Eerie, Wild Bill Hickock, outrageous “Commie-busting” war comic Captain Steve Savage, Fighting Indians of the Wild West and the adequately scripted but magnificently illustrated fictionalised adventures of Jesse James.

Within this beguiling hardback compilation cow-punching aficionados (no, it’s neither a recreational peccadillo nor an extreme sport) and all fans of fabulous sequential narrative artwork can (re)discover a selection of range-riding rollercoaster rides about a troubled and misunderstood fast-gun, constantly forced to defend his name and life from an assorted passel of low-down no-goods and scurvy owlhoots: a wandering warrior having far more in common with Robin Hood’s brand of outlawry than the actual Frank and Jesse James.

Nonetheless these anodyne but enjoyable tall tales still have plenty to recommend them. In stories such as ‘The Liberty Bank Robbery’, ‘Disaster at Savannah’, ‘Texas Killer’, ‘Devil’s Desperadoes’, ‘Jesse James… Sheriff’, ‘Helltown Holdups’, ‘Gunplay at Gallatin’, ‘The Great Prison Break!’, ‘Six-Gun Slaughter at San Romano’, ‘The Russelville Gunfights’ and ‘The Apache Kid Treasure’ our put-upon hero tries to live a blameless life until pushed to action by reputation-hungry fools, greedy bankers, psychotic killers and all the other myriad traditional touchstones of cinematic Western mythology.

This monochrome collection reprints material from issues #5, 6 and 7 of Jesse James (1950-1951), primarily featuring the stunning early illustration of comics legends Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino – who would a few years later usher in the Silver Age of comics – as well as stylish frontispieces by the masterful Wally Wood and world-famous portraitist Everett Raymond Kinstler.

The latter’s elegant illustrative art graced many Avon comics, as well as text features, biographies and even some pre-production pencil sketches.

Bill Black reprinted a few Avon Jesse James tales as part of his AC Comics line, but with 24 issues plus an annual released between 1950-1956 and artists like Leonard Starr, Al Williamson, Fred Kida and Frank Frazetta also contributing sterling work to these admittedly above-average shoot-‘em-up scripts, surely there’s still enough potential fans around to support a complete reprinting of this title – perhaps in the cheap-n-cheerful DC giant phonebook format as seen with DC Showcase or Marvel Essentials – or at least in a comprehensive digital download?

Black hats, white hats, great pictures and timeless action – what more could you possibly ask for?
© 2001 Vanguard Productions 2003P. All other trademarks and copyrights in this book are acknowledged to their respective owners.