The Adventures of Superman


By George Lowther, illustrated by Joe Shuster (Applewood Books)
ISBN: 978-1-55709-228-1

Without doubt the creation of Superman and his unprecedented reception by a desperate and joy-starved generation quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form. Within months of his June 1938 launch in Action Comics #1, the Man of Tomorrow had his won his own supplementary solo comicbook and a newspaper strip; secured overseas licensing deals, became a star of radio show and animated movie series, and generated loads and loads of merchandising deals.

In 1942 he even made the dynamic leap into “proper” prose fiction, resulting in still more historic “firsts”…

George F. Lowther (1913-1975) was a Renaissance man of radio in the days when sound not vision dominated home entertainment. He scripted episodes of such airwave strip adaptations as Dick Tracy and Terry and the Pirates as well as the Mutual Radio Network’s legendary Adventures of Superman show.

Lowther also wrote episodes for Roy Rogers, Tom Mix and a host of other series and serials. In 1945 he moved into television with equal success as writer, producer, director and even performer, adding a string of novels for kids to his CV along the way.

With the stunning success of the Superman radio broadcasts, a spin-off book was a sure-fire seller and in 1942 Random House released a glorious, rocket-paced rollercoaster ride: a tome outlining the Man of Steel’s still undisclosed history, fleshing out the character’s background (almost a decade before such detail became part of the comics canon).

The novel described the hero’s rise to fame and even found room for a thrilling pulp-fuelled contemporary adventure in a handsome hardback lavishly illustrated by co-creator Joe Shuster. The novel was the first Superman tale not scripted by Jerry Siegel and the world’s first novelisation of a comicbook character.

That first edition book will set you back silly sums today but in 1995, Applewood Press (a firm specialising in high-quality reproductions of important and historic American books) recreated all the early magic in its stunning entirety with a terrific hardback facsimile tome which included a copious and informative introduction from contemporary Superman writer Roger Stern as well as the original 1940s Foreword by National/DC’s then-Staff Advisor for Children’s literacy, Josette Frank.

The art inserts and panels are Joe Shuster at the peak of his creative powers: including the dust-jacket and 4 full-colour painted plates (all reproduced from the original artwork); a half-dozen full-page black-&-white illustrations and 34 vibrant and vital pen-and-ink spot sketches of the Caped Kryptonian in spectacular non-stop action, gracing a fast and furious yarn that opens with the destruction of Krypton and decision of scientist Jor-El in ‘Warning of Doom’ and ‘The Space Ship’.

The saga continues with the discovery of an incredible baby in a rocket-ship by farmer Eben Kent and his wife Sarah in ‘Young Clark Kent’ and encompasses the unique foundling’s early days and first meeting with Perry White in ‘The Contest’.

Following ‘The Death of Eben’ the young alien refugee moves to the big city and assumes the role of ‘Clark Kent, Reporter’ after which we switch to then present-day for the main event.

Now investigative reporter and blockbusting champion of justice combine to crush a sinister plot involving spies, saboteurs, submarines and supernatural shenanigans in the classy conundrum of ‘The Skeleton Ship’ and ‘The Vanishing Captain’ before being resolved in the epic ‘Fire at Sea’, ‘Mystery of the Old Man’, ‘Attempted Murder’, ‘Enter Lois Lane’ and ‘Return of the Skeleton Ship’

This culminates in ‘The Unmasking’, the revelation of a ‘Special Investigator’ and an enthralling ‘Underwater Battle’ before at last the wonderment ends with ‘The Mystery Solved’.

This magical book perfectly recaptures all the frantic fervour and breathless mind-boggling excitement of the early days of action adventure storytelling and is a pulp fiction treasure as well capturing a pivotal moment in the creation of the world’s premier superhero.

No serious fan of the medium or art-form should miss it and hopefully with another landmark Superman anniversary on the horizon another facsimile edition is on the cards. If not, at least this volume is still readily available…
© 1942 DC Comics. Introduction © 1995 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Growing Old with B.C. – A 50 Year Celebration


By Johnny Hart (Checker BPG)
ISBN: 978-1-905239-63-4 (HB)                    978-1-933160-68-9 (PB)

John Lewis Hart was born in Endicott, New York in 1931, and his first published cartoons appeared in military newspaper Stars and Stripes while he served with the US Air Force during the Korean War. On returning to Civvy Street in 1953, he sold a few gags to The Saturday Evening Post, Colliers Weekly and elsewhere, but had to earn a living as a general designer.

In 1958, for some inexplicable reason, caveman jokes were everywhere in magazines and comics (even latterly creeping onto TV and into movies). Despite all the dawn-age foofaraw, General Electric draughtsman and still-wannabe cartoonist Johnny Hart hadn’t sold a single one. He also desperately wanted to create a syndicated newspaper strip but couldn’t think of an idea.

And then one of his co-workers said why not do a strip feature one about Cavemen? Just like Alley Oop, but different…

Hart took a good look at the state of the world, and especially the people around him and the wryly outrageous social commentarians supporting and harassing hapless nebbish lead B.C. quickly took shape…

The concept sold instantly to the New York Herald-Tribune Syndicate and the strip rapidly became a global hit, with the first of 41 collected editions (Hey! B.C.) released in 1959.

In 1964 Hart started collaborating with fellow cartoonist Brant Parker on a new strip. The Wizard of Id also became a monster hit. The features won Hart an astounding host of awards over the years: making him one of only 4 American cartoonists to produce two strips appearing contiguously in more than 1000 newspapers.

Hart died of a stroke on April 7th 2007. He was working at his drawing board. Brant Parker passed away eight days later.

Hart became a devout Christian during the mid-1980s – something which increasingly and controversially manifested in later strips – but his urgent need to preach and share took a long time to impact the trenchant, whimsically surreal wit and primal by-play of his primordial playpen…

B.C. is a modern everyday kind of guy: a general slob just getting by, but he has some odd and interesting friends breaking up the monotony of the pre-civilised world. These include self-proclaimed genius Peter, superstitious misogynist Wiley, proto-prime nerd Clumsy Carp, pre-human missing-link Grog, uber-sarcastic Curls and rakish lady-killer Thor.

Apparently, all of them are based on actual people – life-long friends of Hart’s – and their candid reminiscences provide a charming and poignant insight into the life of one of the most revered and successful cartoonists of modern times.

Other materialised regulars include a variety of talking beasts and inanimate objects: chatty, snappy dinosaurs, ants and ant-eaters, clams, snakes, turtles, birds and an apteryx – but I’m guessing they never had analogues with day-jobs in Eisenhower’s America…

This magnificent tome – available in hardcover, paperback and digital editions – offers a decade-by-decade selection of the best and most memorable B.C. strips, supplemented by a listing of its many awards, and comes stuffed with photographs and observations. This is a delightful commemoration of a truly great and very funny strip.

Hart died during the finishing stages of this book’s creation, making this the best way to celebrate his achievements. His legacy of brain-tickling, absurdist lunacy will never date, and creative anachronism has never been better used to raise a smile or an eyebrow in this lush collection of timely and timeless fun.
B.C. © 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc. B.C.© 1958-2006 John L. Hart Family Limited Partnership.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman


By Harvey Kurtzman with Alex Toth, John Severin, Joe Kubert, Russ Heath, Dave Berg, Ric Estrada, Gene Colan, Johnny Craig others (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-545-7

The legendary EC Comics began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company to half-sister National/DC, retaining only Pictures Stories from the Bible.

His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups as the major target market and he augmented his core title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History. Sadly, the worthy project was already struggling badly when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

As detailed in the final comprehensive essay in this superb graphic collection – available as a sturdily spiffy hardcover or in various eBook formats – his son William was dragged into the family business and, with much support and encouragement from unsung hero Sol Cohen (who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of a career in chemistry) transformed the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics

After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments, Gaines and his multi-talented associate Al Feldstein settled into a bold and impressive publishing strategy, utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at an older and more discerning readership.

From 1950-1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction and, under the auspices of writer, artist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, the inventor of an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…

Kurtzman was hired to supplement the workforce on the horror titles but wasn’t keen on the genre and instead suggested a new action-adventure title. The result was Two-Fisted Tales which began with issue #18 at the end of 1959 as an anthology of rip-snorting, he-man suspense dramas. However, with America embroiled in a military “police action” in Korea, the title soon became primarily a war comic and was rapidly augmented by another.

Frontline Combat was also written and edited by Kurtzman, who assiduously laid-out and meticulously designed every story. It made for great entertainment and a unifying authorial voice but was frequently a cause of friction with many artists…

In keeping with the New Trend spirit, these war stories were not bombastic, jingoistic fantasies for glory-hungry little boys, but rather subtly subversive examinations of the cost of conflict which highlighted the madness, futility and senseless, pointless waste of it all…

Kurtzman was a cartoon genius and probably the most important cartoonist of the last half of the 20th century. His early triumphs in the fledgling field of comicbooks (especially the groundbreaking Mad magazine) would be enough for most creators to lean back on but Kurtzman was a force in newspaper strips (See Flash Gordon Complete Daily Strips 1951-1953) and restless innovator. As a commentator and social explorer, he just kept on looking at folk and their doings: a man with exacting standards who just couldn’t stop creating.

Kurtzman invented a whole new format and gave America Popular Satire by converting his highly successful full-colour baby Mad into a monochrome magazine, safely distancing the outrageously brilliant comedic publication from the fall-out caused by the 1950s socio-political witch-hunt which eventually killed all EC’s other titles.

He pursued his unique brand of thoughtfully outré comedy and social satire further with the magazines Trump, Humbug and Help!, all the while still conceiving challenging and powerfully effective funny strips such as Little Annie Fannie (for Playboy), The Jungle Book, Nutz, Goodman Beaver, Betsy and her Buddies and many more. He died far too young in 1993.

This first volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library gathers a stunning selection of Kurtzman stories in a lavish monochrome hardcover edition, packed with supplementary interviews, features and dissertations, and opens with ‘The Truth’ by cartoonist and historian R.C. Harvey, describing in stark detail the history of Kurtzman’s EC days.

Then follows a raft of stirring sagas solely from the master’s hand, beginning with ‘Conquest’ from Two-Fisted Tales #18, which with acerbic aplomb relates the rise and fall of Spanish conquistador Juan Alvorado whose rapacious hunger for Aztec gold led inexorably to the downfall and doom of his entire expedition.

‘Jivaro Death’ (#19) deals with modern-day greed as two duplicitous Yankees search for diamonds in the heart of the Amazon jungle whilst T-FT #20 detailed the fate of an amnesiac buccaneer who returned from certain death to obsessively reclaim his ‘Pirate Gold’ from the men who betrayed him…

From issue #21 comes ‘Search!’ which ironically combines an Italian-American’s search for family with the devastating US assault on Anzio in 1943, after which the first selection from Frontline Combat provides an uncharacteristically patriotic clash with the North Korean aggressors in ‘Contact!’ (#2, September 1951).

‘Kill’ from T-FT #23 also takes place in Korea, relating a squalid encounter between a blood-thirsty knife-wielding G.I. psycho and his soulless Commie antithesis, whilst ‘Prisoner of War!’ (FC #3) highlights the numbing, inhuman brutality of combat when American POWs attempt an escape…

‘Rubble!’ (T-FT #24) boldly steps into “enemy” shoes by highlighting the war’s casual cost to simple Korean civilians whilst ‘Air Burst!’ in FC #4 goes even further by voicing the Communist soldiers’ side of the conflict.

The eponymous ‘Corpse on the Imjin!’ (T-FT #25) is one of the most memorable, moving and respected tales of the genre: a genuine anti-war story which elegiacally traces a floating body’s motion down the river to expose the ruminations of the doomed observers who see it.

The sentiment is further explored in ‘Big ‘If’!’ (FC #5) as G.I. Paul Maynard sits in a shell hole and ponders what might have been…

Kurtzman’s unique display of cartooning and craftsmanship is followed by the essay ‘Combat Duty’ wherein Jared Gardner discusses the background and usage of the other artists who worked on the author’s Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat scripts, before ‘Marines Retreat!’ – drawn by John Severin and inked by Kurtzman from FC #1 (July/August 1951) – describes in microcosm the shocking American forced withdrawal from the Changjin Reservoir in December 1950. The event stunned and terrified the folks at home and shook forever the cherished belief in the US Marines’ invincibility, and this is all told through the eyes of a soldier who understands too late the values he was supposed to be fighting for…

Kurtzman’s relationship with his artists could be fraught. Alex Toth, a tempestuous individualist who only drew three tales from his editor’s incredibly detailed lay-outs, famously produced some of his very best work at EC under such creative duress. The first and least was ‘Dying City!’ (T-FT #22) which found an aged Korean grandfather berating his dying descendent for the death and destruction he had brought upon his family and nation,

‘O.P.!’ was drawn by hyper-realist Russ Heath (FC #1) and once more ladled on the bleak, black irony during an annihilating trench encounter during WWI, after which Toth’s astounding aerial imagination produced in ‘Thunderjet!’ (FC #8) one of the most thrilling and evocative dogfight dramas in comics history.

This tale alone is worth the price of admission and was an alarm-call to complacent America as a US pilot is forced to concede that his winged weapon is technologically inferior to the ever-present Communist MIGs…

‘Fire Mission!’ (T-FT #29) was drawn by Dave Berg – an artist far better regarded for his comedy work – who lent his facility with expressions to a rather standard tale of courage discovered under fire in Korea, after which Gene Colan delineated the rift between military and civilians in the hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor in ‘Wake!’ from T-FT #30.

From the same issue ‘Bunker!’ was the first strip illustrated by Ric Estrada, describing rivalry and tension between American units during a Korean offensive. Oddly enough for the times, the fact that one faction was comprised of Negro soldiers was not mentioned at all…

The Cuban artist then drew a chillingly macabre tale of Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American war of 1898 in ‘Rough Riders!’ (FC #11) before master of comics noir Johnny Craig detailed the fate of a ‘Lost Battalion!’ in WWI (T-FT #32, March/April 1953).

From the same issue, ‘Tide!’ was an EC debut tale for the already-legendary Joe Kubert depicting a D-Day debacle and its insignificance in the grand scheme of things, whilst Toth’s magnificent Kurtzman-scripted swansong ‘F-86 Sabre Jet!’ (FC #12) revisited and even surpassed his Thunderjet job with a potent and beguiling reductionist minimalism that perfectly captured the disorienting hell of war in the air.

Due to illness and the increasing workload caused by Mad, Kurtzman’s involvement with war titles gradually dwindled. Frontline Combat #14, (October 1953) provided his last collaboration with Kubert in ‘Bonhomme Richard!’: a shocking, personalised account of American nautical legend John Paul Jones’ devastating duel with the British warship Serapis – as told by one of the hundreds of ordinary sailors who didn’t survive…

This masterclass in sequential excellence concludes with a salutary tale from the Civil War Special, Two-Fisted Tales #35 (October 1953). Illustrated by Reed Crandall, ‘Memphis!’ blends the destructive horror of the Union’s River Fleet of Ironclads as they inexorably take control of the Mississippi with the irrepressible excitement of Southern kids who simply could not understand what was happening to their parents and families…

Even with the comics extravaganza ended, there’s still more to enjoy as underground cartooning legend Frank Stack discusses the techniques and impact of Kurtzman’s astonishing covers for Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat in ‘Respect for Simplicity – the War Covers of Harvey Kurtzman’; superbly supplemented by a full-colour section representing all of them, even the seldom-seen Two-Fisted Annual 1952.

Also adding to the value is ‘A Conversation with Harvey Kurtzman’ by John Benson, E.B. Boatner & Jay Kinney, which transcribes two interviews from 1979 and 1982, as well as a full appreciation of the great man’s career in ‘Harvey Kurtzman’ by S.C. Ringgenberg.

Rounding everything off is ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ a comprehensive run-down of all involved by Bill Mason and others, plus a general heads-up on the entire EC phenomenon in ‘The Ups and Downs of EC Comics: A Short History’ by author, editor, critic and comics fan Ted White.

The short, sweet but severely limited output of EC has been reprinted ad infinitum in the decades since the company died. These astounding stories and art have changed not just comics but also infected the larger world through film and television and via the millions of dedicated devotees still addicted to New Trend tales.

However, as far as I can recall nobody has produced collections faithfully focussing on the contributions of individual creators, and even though fuddy-duddies like me know these timeless classics intimately, this simple innovation has somehow added a new dimension to the readers’ enjoyment.

I strongly suggest that whether you are an aged EC Fan-Addict or nervous newbie, this is a book no comics aficionado can afford to miss…
This edition © 2012 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All comics stories © 2012 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., reprinted with permission. All other material © 2012 the respective creators and owners.

The Nostalgia Collection: A Dog Called Bonzo


By George Studdy, with an introduction by Mary Cadogan (Hawk Books)
ISBN: 978-0-94824-852-8

The history of popular culture is studded with anthropomorphic animals that have achieved legendary, almost talismanic status. Mickey Mouse, Tiger Tim, Garfield, Smokey (the) Bear, Bonzo

If that latter causes a puzzled frown that’s a shame because for a while this playful, charming dog-of-dubious-pedigree was a wholly British animorph to rival Disney’s mouse and duck combined.

Only the artistic integrity and creative drive of his creator George Earnest Studdy – always cautious where and how he allowed his canine star to shine – prevented the marvellous mutt from attaining the global domination (and subsequent tawdry commercialisation) of the Disney duo.

In 1878 Studdy was born in Devon to a military family, but a childhood injury prevented him from following that proud path, whilst his prodigious artistic talent moved him to an unsatisfactory position as an engineer before he eventually found his true niche as an illustrator and animator.

Studdy’s first artistic success was a series of Boer War pictures of the Royal Artillery, soon followed by cartoons and illustrations for such comics as Big Budget, Funny Pips, Jester and Wonder and others. He also regularly contributed to papers and magazines including The Graphic, The Humorist, Little Folks, London Magazine, Punch, Windsor Magazine, The Tatler, The Bystander, Illustrated London News, The Field and especially The Sketch.

A superb general stylist, Studdy was most widely known for his animals although he was an early and memorably effective proponent of science fiction themes as well. Naturally, he worked extensively in the budding field of advertising…

Deemed unfit to fight in the Great War, he pioneered animation propaganda films that are still acclaimed for their quality and effectiveness. He first began producing pictures of a homely, engaging dog for The Sketch in the early 1920s, which were immensely popular. Eventually “the Studdy dog” became a permanent fixture and was christened Bonzo in the November 8th issue of 1922.

His luxuriously painted or drawn single panels gradually evolved into fully-sequenced gag-strips with the talking dog and his long-suffering lady-friend Chee-Kee captivating young and old alike with their playful yet slyly mature antics.

Despite Studdy’s decorum, Bonzo became a merchandising miracle of his time, lending his likeness and personality to many games and puzzles, toys of all types, figurines, china and dinnerware, cups, cruet sets and host of other household objects and all manner of advertising campaigns. He even had his very own neon sign in Piccadilly Circus.

Although Studdy voluntarily moved on from his creation to create many other pictorial marvels and to serve his country again in WWII as a draughtsman for the Royal Navy, the delightful dog continued under diverse hands in strips syndicated worldwide by King Features as well as in a series of wonderful books and annuals.

These began in 1935 and continued until 1952, with translations into many foreign editions. For a spectacular view of these you should see the superb websites at Studdying with Bonzo and Bonzo and George Studdy as well as this magical and far too short commemorative edition produced by Mike Higgs under his much-missed Hawk Books imprint. Thankfully this terrific tome is still readily available…

Funny, charming, sublimely illustrated, overwhelmingly successful and still every bit as entertaining today as it always was, the Bonzo experience is long overdue for an extensive repackaging job. Until such a happy event this little gem must act as a tantalising taster…

Go on, Fetch!
© 1990 the Estate of George Studdy. All Rights Reserved.

Shaft volume 1: A Complicated Man


By David F. Walker, Bilquis Evely & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-60690-757-3

For decades Black consumers of popular entertainments had far too few fictive role models. In the English-speaking world that began changing in the turbulent 1960s and truly took hold during the decade that followed. A lot of the characters developed at that time came from a cultural phenomenon called Blaxploitation. Although criticised for its seedy antecedents, stereotypical situations and violence, these films and books were the first mass-market examples of minority characters in leading roles, rather than as fodder or flunkies.

One of the earliest movie icons of the genre was a man called Shaft.

The film was scripted by journalist and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection; High Plains Drifter) from his own 1970 novel. He authored six more between 1972 and 1975, with his timeless urban warrior starring in numerous films and a TV series. An eighth novel – Shaft’s Revenge – was released in 2016, written by David F. Walker. Amongst his many gifts Walker numbers writing comics (Occupy Avengers; Cyborg; Red Sonja and many more) and in 2014 was invited to write a long-overdue comics iteration. Illustrated by Bilquis Evely and coloured by Daniela & Miwa (Walker lettered the series himself), the comicbook took its look, settings and tone from the novels more than the Richard Roundtree films with the first 6-chapter story-arc collected as Shaft: A Complicated Man. In all the detective’s prior appearances, no mention was made of his past, but here Big John gets a proper origin story…

Following an Introduction by educator and author Shawn Taylor, the story – winner of the 2015 Glyph Comics Award for Story of the Year – begins in December 1968. Young John Shaft is a former marine and veteran of the Vietnam war who’s come home and is trying to find his place in the world. An indomitable fighter, he’s using boxing as his big chance, but when he refuses to throw a fight, he incurs the wrath of both local black gang boss Junius Tate and the area’s mafioso overlord Sal Venneri.

Proud and resolute but no fool, Shaft wins his bout, accepts his brutal punishment from Tate’s conflicted leg-breaker Bamma Brooks and vanishes from the cloistered island-within an-island known as Harlem…

Just drifting, Shaft briefly goes to college before the call of adventure finds him joining private detective agency National Investigation & Security Services. His first job is as a plainclothes guard and “undercover negro shopper” at a fancy department store…

While on duty he meets pretty Arletha Havens and finds a reason to stop drifting and start planning. Before long he’s seeing a bright future together.

That all goes to hell when cheap thugs bust into their apartment looking for a hooker named Marisol Dupree and her pimp Jimmy Style

With Arletha hostage, Shaft is forced to accompany one of the abductors back to Harlem for the first time in years, hunting the missing woman and a package she’s holding that someone really important wants back. In fact, Marisol’s mystery treasure is something that has big city money men in a panic and all the criminal factions in Harlem at each other’s throats, but Shaft’s immediate problem is staying alive…

After surviving a savage gunfight that leaves five bodies piled up in an alley, he returns home to find Arletha’s body and resolves that somebody – maybe everybody – is going to pay…

All on his own again, the coldly furious killer finds his true calling, tracking down Marisol, methodically putting the pieces together in a chilling city-wide web of graft, favours, murder and money and ensuring that the guilty parties pay the ultimate price…

Comprising a devious wasps nest of civic corruption, crooked cops, warring mobsters and treacherous friends, played against a tragic backdrop of true love forever lost, Shaft’s first case is a superb crime thriller no fan of the genre should miss and comes with a bevy of bonus features including character designs, unused illustrations by Walker & John Jennings, script excerpts, in-production art pages and a covers and variants gallery by Denys Cowan, Bill Sienkiewicz, Ivan Nunes, Francesco Francavilla, Michael Avon Oeming, Ulises Farinas, Matt Haley, Sanford Greene, Nacho Tenorio & Sergio Mora. It even comes with a toe-tappingly cool playlist to track down and enjoy whilst reading…
Shaft is ™ and © 2015 Ernest Tidyman. All rights reserved.

Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, restored & edited by Michael Gagné (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-502-0

Comics dream team Joe Simon & Jack Kirby presaged and ushered in the first American age of mature comics – not just with the Romance genre, but through all manner of challenging modern graphic dramas about real people in extraordinary situations… before seeing it all disappear again in less than eight years.

Their small stable of magazines – produced for the loose association of companies known as Prize/Crestwood/Pines – blossomed and wilted as the comics industry contracted throughout the 1950s.

As the popularity of flamboyant escapist superheroes waned after World War II, newer yet more familiar genres like Crime, Westerns and Horror returned to the fore in popular entertainment media, as audiences increasingly rejected simplistic, upbeat or jingoistic fantasy for grittier, more sober themes.

Some comicbook material, such as Westerns or anthropomorphic “Funny Animals”, hardly changed at all, but gangster and detective tales were utterly radicalised by the temperament of the post-war world.

Stark, uncompromising, cynically ironic novels and socially aware, mature-themed B-movies that would be later defined as Film Noir offered the post-war civilian society a bleakly antiheroic worldview that often hit too close to home and set fearful, repressive, middle-class parent groups and political ideologues howling for blood.

Naturally the new forms and sensibilities seeped into comics, transforming good-natured, two-fisted gumshoe and Thud-&-Blunder cop strips of yore into darkly intriguing, frightening tales of seductive dames, last chances, big pay-offs and glamorous thuggery.

Sensing imminent Armageddon, the moral junkyard dogs bayed even louder as they saw their precious children’s minds under seditious attack…

Concurrent to the demise of masked mystery-men, industry giants Simon & Kirby – who were already capitalising on the rapidly growing True Crime boom – legendarily invented the genre of comicbook Romance with mature, beguiling, explosively contemporary social dramas equally focussed on the changing cultural scene and adult-themed relationships. They also, with very little shading, discussed topics of a sexual nature…

After testing the waters with the semi-comedic prototype My Date for Hillman in early 1947, Joe & Jack plunged in full force with Young Romance #1 in September of that year. It launched through for Crestwood Publications: a minor outfit which had been creating (as Prize Comics) interesting but not innovative comics since 1940.

Following Simon’s plan to make a new marketplace out of the grievously ignored older girls of America, they struck gold with stories addressing serious issues and hazards of relationships…

Not since the invention of Superman had a single comicbook generated such a frantic rush of imitation and flagrant cashing-in. Young Romance #1 was a monumental hit and the team acted accordingly: swiftly expanding, they released spin-offs Young Love (February 1949), Young Brides and In Love, all under a unique profits-sharing deal that quickly paid huge dividends to the publishers, creators and a growing studio of specialists.

All through that turbulent period comicbooks suffered impossibly biased oversight and hostile scrutiny from hidebound and panicked old guard institutions such as church groups, media outlets and ambitious politicians.

A number of tales and titles garnered especial notoriety from those conservative, reactionary doom-smiths and when the industry buckled and introduced a ferocious Comics Code, it castrated the creative form just when it most needed boldness and imagination.

Comics endured more than a decade and a half of savagely doctrinaire self-imposed censorship until changing youthful attitudes, society in crisis and plummeting profits forced the art form to adapt, evolve or die.

Those tales all come from a simpler time: exposing society in meltdown and suffering cultural PTSD and are pretty mild by modern standards of behaviour but the quality of art and writing make those pivotal years a creative highpoint well worthy of a thorough reassessment.

In 1947, fictionalising True Crime Cases was tremendously popular and profitable, and of the assorted outfits that generated such material nobody did it better than S&K. That technique of first-person confession also perfectly applied to just-as-uncompromising personal sagas from a succession of archetypal women and girls who populated their new comicbook smash.

Their output as interchangeable writers, pencillers and inkers (aided from early on by Joe’s brother-in-law Jack Oleck in the story department) was prodigious and astounding. Nevertheless, other hands frequently pitched in, so although these tales are all credited to S&K, art-aficionados shouldn’t be surprised to detect traces of Bill Draut, Mort Meskin, Al Eadeh, George Roussos or other stalwarts lurking in the backgrounds…

Michelle Nolan’s ‘Introduction’ for this rousing full-colour hardback (available in eBook format should you prefer) deftly analyses the scope and meteoric trajectory of the innovation and its impact on the industry before the new era opens with ‘Boy Crazy’ (from Young Romance #2,1947) wherein a flighty teenager with no sense of morality steals her aunt’s man with appalling consequences…

From the same issue, Her Tragic Love’ delivers a thunderbolt of melodrama as an amorous triangle encompassing a wrongly convicted man on death row presents one woman with no solution but the final one…

Scripted by Oleck, ‘Fraulein Sweetheart…’ (YR #4, 1948) reveals dark days but no happy endings for two German girls eking out existence in the American-occupied sector of post-war Marburg whilst ‘Shame’ – from issue #5 – deals with an ambitious, social-climbing young lady too proud to acknowledge her own scrub-woman mother whenever a flashy boyfriend comes around.

Next is ‘The Town and Toni Benson’ from Young Romance #11 – contemporarily designated volume 2, #5, 1949 – which offers a sequel to ‘I Was a Pick-Up’ from the premiere issue (which tale is confusingly included in the sequel to this volume Young Romance 2: The Early Simon & Kirby).

Here S&K cleverly build on that original tale, creating a soap opera environment which could so easily have spawned a series as the now-newlywed couple struggle to make ends meet under a wave of hostile public scrutiny…

On a roll, the creative geniuses began mixing genres. Western Love #2, (1948) provides ‘Kathy and the Merchant of Sunset Canton!’ as a city slicker finds his modern mercenary management style makes him no friends in cowboy country – until one proud girl takes a chance on getting to know him – after which ‘Sailor’s Girl!’ (Young Romance #13/Vol. 3, #1 1949) picks over the troubles of an heiress who marries a dauntless sea rover working for Daddy. She is confident that she can tame or break her man’s wild, free spirit…

We head out yonder once more to meet ‘The Perfect Cowboy!’ (Real West Romances # 4 1949) – at least on set – a well as the simple sagebrush lass whose head he briefly turns, before social inequality and petty envy inform the brutally heavy-handed ‘I Want Your Man’ (Young Romance #21/Vol. 3, #9 1950) wherein a young woman of meagre means realises almost too late the cost of her vendetta against a pretty little rich girl…

In the name of variety ‘Nancy Hale’s Problem Clinic’ (Young Romance #23/Vol. 3, #11, 1950) offers a brief dose of sob-sister advice as “treatment for the troubled heart” before the romantic rollercoaster rides resume with ‘Old Fashioned Girl’ (YR #34/Vol. 4, #10 1951) as a forceful young woman raised by her grandmother slowly has her convictions about propriety challenged by intriguing men and her own barely subsumed passions, whereas ‘Mr. Know-It-All Falls in Love’ (Young Love #37/Vol. 7, #10 1952) takes a rare opportunity to speak with a male narrator’s voice as a buttoned-down control freak decides that with his career in order it’s time to marry. But who’s the best prospect?

Another of those pesky lovers’ triangles then results in one marriage, one forlorn heartbreak, war, vengeance and a most appropriate ‘Wedding Present!’ (Young Love #50/Vol. 5, #8 1953) before this cleverly conceived chronicle takes a conceptual diversion – after one last tale from the same issue – detailing the all-business affair of ‘Norma, Queen of the Hot Dogs’ and her (at first) strictly platonic partner…

In 1955 the Comics Code Authority began its draconian bowdlerising of the industry’s more mature efforts and the Romance titles especially took a big conceptual hit. The edgy stories became less daring and almost every ending was a happy one – for the guy or the parents at least.

Following a superbly extensive ‘Cover Gallery’ featuring a dozen of the most evocative images from those wild and free early years ‘The Post-Code Era’ re-presents the specific conditions affecting romantic relations from the censorious document, followed by a selection of the yarns S&K and their team were thereafter reduced to producing.

Even the art seems less enthusiastic for the wholesome, unchallenging episodes which begin with ‘Old Enough to Marry!’ (Young Romance #80/Vol. 8, #8, 1955) wherein a young man confronts his grizzled cop dad. The patriarch has no intention of letting his son make a mess of his life…

Next, a maimed farmer tries to sabotage the budding romance between his once-faithful girlfriend and the brilliant good-looking doctor who cured him in ‘Lovesick’ from the same issue.

The following four tales all originated in Young Romance #85/Vol. 10, #1 1956, beginning with ‘Lizzie’s Back in Town’ as a strong, competent girl returns home to let Daddy pick her husband for her (no, really!); two guys fight and the winner gets the girl in ‘Lady’s Choice’ whilst another, less frenzied duel results in a ‘Resort Romeo’ marrying the girl of everybody’s dreams even as ‘My Cousin from Milwaukee’ exposes a gold-digger and reserves her handsome relative for herself…

The anodyne antics mercifully conclude with ‘The Love I Lost!’ (Young Romance #90/Vol. 12, #3, 1959) wherein another hospital case realises just in time that the man she wants is not the man she deserves…

This emotional rollercoaster is supplemented with a number of well-illustrated bonus features including ‘Why I Made this Book’, ‘Simon and Kirby’s Romance Comics: A Historical Overview’; a splendid selection of S&K’s pioneering ‘Photo Covers’ (18 in all) and a fascinating explanation of the process of artwork-rehabilitation in ‘About the Restoration’.

The affairs then wrap up with the now-traditional ‘Biographies’ section.

Simon & Kirby took much of their tone – if not actual content – from movie melodramas of the period (such as Mr. Skeffington, All About Eve or Mildred Pierce or Noir romances like Blonde Ice or Hollow Triumph) and, unlike what we might consider suitable for romantic fiction today, their stories crackled with tension, embraced violent action and were infested with unsavoury characters and vicious backstabbing, gossiping hypocrites.

Happily, those are the tales which mostly fill most of this book, making for an extremely engaging, strikingly powerful and thoroughly addictive collection of great yarns by brilliant masters of the comics arts: and one no lover (of the medium) should miss…
Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics © 2012 Fantagraphics Books Inc. Introduction © 2012 Michelle Nolan Schelly. All rights reserved.

Sgt. Rock Archive Edition Volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, Bob Haney, Ross Andru, Irv Novick, Jerry Grandenetti & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-841-9

Sgt Rock and his “combat-happy Joes” of Easy Company are one of the great and most enduring creations of the American comicbook industry. The gritty meta-realism of Robert Kanigher’s ordinary guys in life-or-death situations captured the imaginations of generations of readers, young and old.

So pervasive is this icon of comicbook combat, that it’s hard to grasp that Rock is not an immortal industry prototype like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – with us since the earliest moments of the industry – but is in fact a late addition to and child of the Silver Age of Comics.

This gloriously gritty, full-colour hardcover collection musters all pertinent material in the evolution of the immortal “topkick” from the early salvo of battle blockbusters from Our Army at War #83-96 (including the tentative first steps in the character’s evolution from G.I. Combat #68 and Our Army at War #81-82): a period spanning the dog-days of 1958 to the summer of 1960, wherein the entire field of American comics was just beginning a staggering revolution in style, theme and quality.

Following a fascinating reminiscence from co-creator and comics legend Joe Kubert (and this inaugural battle-book also includes detailed creator profiles), the pictorial action commences with a stunning Jerry Grandenetti cover – the first of many in this impressive tome – from G.I. Combat #68 (cover-dated January 1959), and the simple, unassuming filler story by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert, of an anonymous boxer who wasn’t particularly skilled but simply, stubbornly refused to be lie down and be beaten…

When ‘The Rock!’ enlisted in the US Army, however, that same Horatian quality attained mythic proportions as he held back an overwhelming Nazi attack by sheer grit and determination, remaining bloody but unbowed on a field littered with dead and broken men…

Although no more than another straight “ordinary guy finds his heroic niche” yarn for the anthology mill that proliferated in war comics of the era, something in this tale – other than the superbly taut script and stunning illustration – caught the attention of both the public and the editors…

Christened “Rocky”, the character returned as a sergeant in the Our Army at War (#81, April 1959), again facing overwhelmingly superior German forces as ‘The Rock of Easy Co.!’ in a brief but telling vignette by Bob Haney, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito before finally evolving an actual persona as Sgt. Rock in the next issue, with the Mort Drucker illustrated ‘Hold Up Easy!’: another harsh and declarative pocket-epic from Kanigher which saw everyman hard-luck heroes Easy Company delayed and then saved by callow replacements who eventually came good in the life-changing crucible of combat…

Our Army at War #83 (June 1959) then housed the true launch of the ordinary hero in ‘The Rock and the Wall!’ (by Kanigher & Kubert): wherein a tough-love, battlefield tutor shepherded his callow men to competence and survival amidst the constant perils of war. Here he met a rival for his men’s admiration in the equally impressive warrior Joe Wall

Irv Novick illustrated ‘Laughter on Snakehead Hill!’ as the embattled dog-faces of Easy fought to take a heavily fortified citadel whilst OAAW#85 introduced the first continuing and marginally less-disposable cast member in the Kubert-limned ‘Ice Cream Soldier!’, wherein Rock assuaged a fearful replacement’s jangled nerves with tales of another hopeless “green apple” who grew into his job.

This ploy of incorporating brief past-action episodes into a baptism-of-fire scenario would play over and over again and never get old…

Following a magnificent cover by master of realism Russ Heath, Haney returned in #86 to script ‘Tank 711’ for Kubert as the terse top-kick educated another newbie in combat etiquette. Kanigher returned to describe the taking of “No-Return-Hill” and the initiation of four more raw recruits in ‘Calling Easy Co.!’ after which Grandenetti illustrated a brace of tales in #88 and 89: ‘The Hard Way’ in which Rock suffered a shocking crisis of confidence and ‘No Shot from Easy!’ wherein the indomitable sergeant was forced to give his toughest ever order…

Issue #90 is classic Kubert from start to finish as ‘Three Stripes Hill!’ revealed the story of how Rock won his stripes, after which the traditionally anthological Our Army at War instead offered three complete Sgt. Rock stories in #91. These began with ‘No Answer From Sarge!’ as the NCO risked everything to drag a recruit out of a crippling funk, continued in ‘Old Soldiers Never Run!’ where he had to weigh an old man’s pride against Easy’s continued existence, and concluded with Haney’s tragic fable of a sole-surviving Scottish soldier in ‘The Silent Piper!’

Issue #92 saw Kanigher & Kubert tackle battlefield superstitions in ‘Luck of Easy!’, after which ‘Deliver One Air Field!’ introduced Zack Nolan, a son of privilege who had to learn teamwork the hard way whilst #94’s ‘Target… Easy Company’ pitted the battle-weary Company against a German General determined to eradicate the high-profile heroes at all costs…

OAAW #95 debuted the charismatic and ambitious Bulldozer Nichols in ‘Battle of the Stripes!’: the hulking giant wanted Rock’s rank and position but grew to become the second most-recognisable character of the entire series, and this premier deluxe edition closes its preliminary campaign with ‘Last Stand for Easy!’ which saw the still in-charge non-com compelled to relinquish his lead-from-the-front position after a by-the-book officer deems him too valuable to waste on a battlefield…

Robert Kanigher at his worst was a declarative, heavy-handed and formulaic writer, but when writing his best stuff – as he does here – was an imaginative, evocative, iconoclastic and heart-rending observer of the warrior’s way and the unchanging condition of the dedicated and so very human ordinary foot-slogging G.I. He is a writer no comics fan should ignore or dismiss.

With superb combat covers from Grandenetti, Kubert or Heath fronting each episode, this titanic tome is a visually intoxicating compendium and brilliant tonic for any jaded fan looking for something more substantial than simple flash and dazzle. It’s also long overdue for revival and translation to digital formats.

A perfect example of true Shock and Awe; these are stories every fan should know.
© 1959, 1960, 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm


By Norman Hunter, illustrated by W. Heath Robinson (Puffin/Red Fox and others)
ISBNs: PSS33 (1969 Puffin edition)              978-1-86230-736-0 (Red Fox 2008)

In a year packed with anniversaries pertinent to comics and related fantasy entertainments, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the particular delights of this worthy British institution, originally illustrated by a veritable giant of world cartooning and recently the freshly revived star of BBC television.

The venerably traditional illustrated novel used to be a happily inescapable staple of bedtime for generations in this country and this particular example is particularly memorable, not simply because it’s a timeless masterpiece of purely English wit and surreal invention, but also because most editions are blessed with a wealth of stunning pictures by an absolute master of absurdist cartooning and wry, dry wit.

Norman George Lorimer Hunter was born on November 23rd 1899 in Sydenham; a decade after that part of Kent was absorbed by the ever-expanding County of London. He started work as an advertising copywriter before moving into book writing with Simplified Conjuring for All: A collection of new tricks needing no special skill or apparatus for their performance with suitable patter; Advertising Through the Press: A guide to press publicity and New and Easy Magic: A further series of novel magical experiments needing no special skill or apparatus for their performance with suitable patter. They were all published between 1923 and 1925.

Hunter was working as a stage magician in Bournemouth during the early 1930s when he first began concocting the genially explosive exploits of the absolute archetypical absent-minded boffin for radio broadcasts. These tales were read by the inimitable Ajax – to whom the first volume is dedicated – as part of the BBC Home Service’s Children’s Hour.

In 1933 The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm was published in hardback, including 76 enthrallingly intricate illustrations by W. Heath Robinson to great success, prompting the sequel Professor Branestawm’s Treasure Hunt (illustrated by James Arnold & George Worsley Adamson) four years later.

During WWII Hunter moved back to London and in 1949 emigrated to South Africa where he worked outside the fiction biz until his retirement. Following the release of Thames Television’s Professor Branestawm TV series (which adapted many of the short stories from the original books in the summer of 1969) Hunter returned to Britain in 1970, and resumed writing: another 11 Branestawn tomes between 1970-1983, plus a selection of supplemental books including Dictionary (1973): Professor Branestawm’s Compendium of Conundrums, Riddles, Puzzles, Brain Twiddlers and Dotty Descriptions (1975); Professor Branestawm’s Do-it-yourself Handbook (1976) and many magic-related volumes.

Norman Hunter died in 1995.

William Heath Robinson was born on May 31st 1872 into something of an artistic dynasty. His father Thomas was chief staff artist for Penny Illustrated Paper. His older brothers Thomas and Charles were also renowned illustrators of note.

After schooling William tried unsuccessfully to become a watercolour landscape-artist before returning to the family trade and, in 1902, produced the fairy story ‘Uncle Lubin’ before contributing regularly to The Tatler, Bystander, Sketch, Strand and London Opinion. During this period, he developed the humorous whimsy and a penchant for eccentric, archaic-looking mechanical devices that made him a household name.

During the Great War William uniquely avoided the Jingoistic stance and fervour of his fellow artists, preferring instead to satirise the absurdity of conflict itself with volumes of cartoons such as The Saintly Hun.

Then, after a 20-year career of phenomenal success and creativity in cartooning, illustration and particularly advertising, he found himself forced to do it again in World War Two.

He died on13th September 1944.

Perhaps inspired by the Branestawm commission, Heath Robinson’s 1934 collection Absurdities hilariously describes the frail resilience of the human condition in the Machine Age and particularly how the English deal with it all. They are also some of his funniest strips and panels. Much too little of his charming and detailed illustrative wit is in print today, a situation that cries out for Arts Council Funding or Lottery money, perhaps more than any other injustice in the sadly neglected field of cartooning and Popular Arts.

The first inspirational Professor Branestawm storybook introduces the dotty, big-domed, scatty savant as a ramshackle cove with five pairs of spectacles – which he generally wears all at once – gadding about with his clothes held together by safety pins …as the constant explosions he creates blow his buttons off.

The wise buffoon spends most of his days thinking high thoughts and devising odd devices in his “Inventory” whilst his mundane requirements are taken care of by dotty, devoted, frequently frightened or flustered housekeeper Mrs. Flittersnoop. Branestawm’s best chum is the gruff Colonel Dedshott of the Catapult Cavaliers, although said old soldier seldom knows what the big thinker is babbling on is about…

The over-educated inspirationalist and his motley crew first appeared in ‘The Professor Invents a Machine’ which featured the debut of an arcane device that moves so quickly that Branestawm and Dedshott are carried a week into the past and accidentally undo a revolution in Squiglatania, upsetting everybody on both sides of the argument.

In ‘The Wild Waste-Paper’ Mrs. Flittersnoop’s incessant tidying up causes a spill of the Professor’s new Elixir of Vitality: with the consequent enlargement and animation of a basket full of furiously angry bills, clingy postcards and discarded envelopes, whilst in ‘The Professor Borrows a Book’ the absent-minded mentor mislays a reference tome and has to borrow another copy from the local library.

A house full of books is the worst place to lose one, and when the second one goes AWOL Branestawm must borrow a third or pay the fine on the second. By the time he’s finished the potty Prof has checked out fourteen copies and is killing himself covertly transporting it from library to library…

When his stuff-stuffed house is raided by Burglars!’ the shocked and horrified thinker concocts the ultimate security system. It is the perfect device to defend an Englishman’s Castle – unless he’s the type who regularly forgets his keys or that he has built and installed an anti-burglar machine…

After losing a day because he hasn’t noticed his chronometer had stopped, the Professor devises a new sort of timepiece that never needs winding and becomes something of a business success. Even the local horologist (look it up) wants one.

Sadly, the meandering mentalist forgets to add a what-not to stop them all striking more than twelve and as the beastly things inexorably add one peal every hour soon there are more dings than can fit in any fifty-nine minutes. ‘The Screaming Clocks’ quickly become most unwelcome and eventually an actually menace to life and limb…

Branestawm often thought so hard that he ceased all motion. Whilst visiting The Fair at Pagwell Green’ Mrs. Flittersnoop and Colonel Dedshott mistake a waxwork of the famously brilliant bumbler for the real thing and bring “him” home to finish his pondering in private. Conversely, the carnival waxworks owner alternatively believes he has come into possession of a wax statue which has learned to talk…

‘The Professor Sends an Invitation’ sees the savant ask Dedshott to tea yet forget to include the laboriously scripted card. By means most arcane and convoluted, the doughty old warrior receives an ink-smudged blotter in an addressed envelope and mobilises to solve a baffling cipher. Of course, his first port-of-call must be his clever scientific friend – who had subsequently forgotten all about upcoming culinary events…

‘The Professor Studies Spring Cleaning’ finds Branestawm applying his prodigious intellect and inventive acumen to the seasonal tradition that so vexes Mrs. Flittersnoop and inevitably perfecting a way to make an arduous labour far worse. He thus constructs a house-engine that empties and cleans itself. Sadly, it can’t differentiate between sofa, couch, cupboard or housekeeper…

‘The Too-Many Professors’ appear when the affable artificer invents a solution which brought pictures to life. Flittersnoop is guardedly impressed when illustrations of apples and chocolates become edibly real but utterly aghast when a 3-dimensional cat and elephant commence crashing about in the parlour.

So it’s pretty inevitable that the foul-smelling concoction be spilled all over the photograph albums…

In a case of creativity feeding on itself, ‘The Professor Does a Broadcast’ relates how the brilliant old duffer is invited to give a lecture on the Wireless (no, not about radio, but for it…). Unaccustomed as he is to public speaking, the tongue-tied boffin has Dedshott rehearse and drill him until he can recite the whole speech in eleven minutes. Unfortunately, the scheduled programme is supposed to last half an hour…

A grand Fancy Dress Ball results in two eccentric pillars of Pagwell Society wittily masquerading as each other. Naturally ‘Colonel Branestawm and Professor Dedshott’ are a great success but when the Countess of Pagwell’s pearls are pinched whilst the old duffers change back to their regular attire nobody notices the difference or believes them…

‘The Professor Moves House’ relates how the inventor is forced to rent larger premises because he has filled up the old one with his contraptions. However, Branestawm’s attempts to rationalise the Moving Men’s work patterns prove that even he doesn’t know everything…

At least the disastrous ‘Pancake Day at Great Pagwell’ rescues his reputation when his magnificent automatic Pancake-Making Machine furiously feeds a multitude of friends and civic dignitaries. The Mayor likes it so much he purchases the chaotic contraption to lay all the municipality’s pavements…

This gloriously enchanting initial outing ends with ‘Professor Branestawm’s Holiday’ as the old brain-bonce finally acquiesces to his housekeeper’s urgent urgings and indulges in a vacation at the seaside. Keen on swotting up on all things jellyfish, the silly savant sets off but forgets to check in at his boarding house, resulting in a desperate missing-persons search by Dedshott, Flittersnoop and the authorities.

Things are further complicated by a Pierrot Show which boasts the best Professor Branestawn impersonator in Britain: so good in fact that even the delinquent dodderer’s best friends can’t tell the difference…

With the actual performer locked up in a sanatorium claiming he isn’t a Professor, it’s a lucky thing the one-and-only wandering wise man is unable to discern the difference between a lecture hall and a seaside show-tent…

As I’ve already mentioned, these astonishingly accessible yarns were originally written for radio and thus abound with rhythmic cadences and onomatopoeic sound effects that just scream to be enjoyed out loud. Augmented by some of Heath-Robinson’s most memorable character caricatures and insane implements, this eternally fresh children’s classic offers some of the earliest and most enduring example of spiffing techno-babble and fantabulous faux-physics – not to mention impressive iterations of the divine Pathetic Fallacy in all its outrageous glory – and no child should have to grow up without visiting and revisiting the immortal, improbable Pagwell Pioneer.

In 2008 a 75th Anniversary edition of The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm was released by Red Fox but you’re just a likely to find this uproarious ubiquitous marvel in libraries, second-hand shops or even jumble sales, so by all means do…
© 1933 Norman Hunter. All rights reserved.

Wonder Woman: The Golden Age Volume One


By William Moulton Marston & Harry G. Peter & various
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7444-3

Wonder Woman was famously created by polygraph pioneer William Moulton Marston – apparently at the behest of his formidable wife Elizabeth – and illustrated by Harry G. Peter in a well-intentioned attempt to offer girls a positive and forceful role model.

Her spectacular launch and preview (that’s the comicbook heroine, not Mrs. Marston) came in an extra feature inside All Star Comics #8, home of the immortal Justice Society of America and one of the company’s most popular publications.

The Perfect Princess gained her own series and the cover-spot in new anthology title Sensation Comics launching a month later and was a huge and instant hit. She won her own eponymous title in late Spring of that year (cover-dated Summer 1942).

Using the nom de plume Charles Moulton, Marston scripted all the Amazing Amazon’s many and miraculous adventures until his death in 1947, whereupon Robert Kanigher took over the writer’s role. Venerable co-creator H.G. Peter illustrated almost every WW tale until his own death in 1958.

Spanning December 1941 – February/March 1943, this superb full-colour deluxe softcover compilation (also available as an eBook edition) collects that seminal debut from All Star Comics #8, and her every iconic adventure from Sensation Comics #1-14, Wonder Woman #1-3 plus the first adventure from anthological book of (All) Stars Comics Cavalcade #1 and begins with ‘Introducing Wonder Woman’

On a hidden island of immortal super-women, an American aviator crashes to Earth. Near death, Captain Steve Trevor of US Army Intelligence is nursed back to health by young Princess Diana. Fearing her growing obsession with the man, her mother Queen Hippolyte reveals the hidden history of the Amazons: how they were seduced and betrayed by men but rescued by the goddess Aphrodite on condition that they thenceforward isolate themselves from the rest of the world and devote their eternal lives to becoming ideal, perfect creatures.

However, after Trevor explains the perfidious spy plot which accidentally brought him to the Island enclave, divine Athena and Aphrodite appear and order Hippolyte to assign an Amazon warrior to return with the American to fight for freedom and liberty.

Hippolyte diplomatically and democratically declares an open contest to find the best candidate and, despite being forbidden to participate, young Diana enters and wins. Accepting the will of the gods, the worried mother outfits Diana in the guise of Wonder Woman and sends her out to Man’s World…

A month later the story continued where the introduction had left off. Sensation Comics #1 declares ‘Wonder Woman Comes to America’: revealing the eager immigrant returning the recuperating Trevor to the modern World before trouncing a gang of bank robbers and falling in with a show business swindler. The major innovation here is the newcomer buying the identity of lovelorn Army nurse Diana Prince; elegantly allowing the Amazon to be close to Steve whilst enabling the heartsick medic to join her own fiancé in South America…

Even with all that going on, there was still room for Wonder Woman and Captain Trevor to bust up a spy ring attempting to use poison gas on a Draft induction centre before Steve breaks his leg and ends up in hospital again, where “Nurse Prince” is assigned to look after him…

Sensation #2 introduced deadly enemy agent ‘Dr. Poison’ in a cannily crafted tale which also debuted the most radical comedy sidekicks of the era…

The plucky fun-loving gals of the Holliday College for Women and their chubby, chocolate-gorging Beeta Lamda sorority-chief Etta Candy would get into trouble and save the day in equal proportions for years to come, constantly demonstrating Diana’s – and Marston’s – philosophical contention that girls, with the correct encouragement, could accomplish anything that men could …

With the War raging and in a military setting, espionage and sabotage were inescapable plot devices. ‘A Spy at the Office’ finds Diana arranging a transfer to the office of General Darnell as his secretary so that she can keep a closer eye on the finally fit Steve. She isn’t there five minutes before uncovering a ring of undercover infiltrators amongst the typing pool and saving her man from assassination.

Unlike most comics of the period, Wonder Woman followed a tight continuity. ‘School for Spies’ in #4 sees some of those fallen girls murdered by way of introducing inventive genius and Nazi master manipulator Baroness Paula von Gunther who employs psychological tricks to enslave girls to her will and set otherwise decent Americans against their homeland.

Even Diana succumbs to her deadly machinations until Steve and the Holliday Girls crash in…

America’s newest submarine is saved from destruction and a cunning gang of terrorists brought to justice in ‘Wonder Woman versus the Saboteurs’ before issue #6 has the Amazing Amazon accepting a ‘Summons to Paradise’ to battle her immortal sisters in Kanga-riding duels before receiving her greatest weapon: an unbreakable Lasso of Truth which can compel and control anybody who falls within its golden coils.

It proves very handy when Paula escapes prison and uses her invisibility formula to wreak havoc on American coastal defences…

‘The Milk Swindle’ is a pure piece of 1940s social advocacy drama with homegrown racketeers and Nazi von Gunther joining forces to seize control of America’s milk supply with the incredibly long-sighted intention of weakening the bones of the country’s next generation of soldiers.

Closely following in Sensation #8 is ‘Department Store Perfidy’ wherein the Amazon goes undercover in the monolithic Bullfinch emporium to win better working conditions and fair pay for the girls employed there.

There was a plethora of surprises in #9 with ‘The Return of Diana Prince’ from South America. Now Mrs Diana White, the young mother needs her job and identity back until her inventor husband can sell his latest invention to the US army. Luckily, Wonder Woman and an obliging gang of saboteurs help to expedite matters…

The next major landmark was the launch of the Amazon’s own solo title. The first quarterly opens here a text feature on the Amazon’s pantheon of godly patrons in ‘Who is Wonder Woman?’ after which comic action commences with a greatly expanded revision of her first appearance in ‘A History of the Amazons: The Origin of Wonder Woman’. This is swiftly followed by the beguiling mystery tale ‘Wonder Woman Goes to the Circus’ wherein Diana had to solve the bizarre serial murders of the show’s elephants and Paula von Gunther again rears her shapely head in ‘Wonder Woman versus the Spy Ring’ wherein the loss of the Golden Lasso almost causes the heroine’s demise and ultimate defeat of the American Army…

The issue ends with ‘The Greatest Feat of Daring in Human History’ as Diana and Etta head for Texas, only to become embroiled in a sinister scheme involving Latin Lotharios, lady bullfighters, lethal spies and a Nazi attempt to conquer Mexico…

Back in Sensation Comics #10 (October 1942) ‘The Railroad Plot’ celebrates Steve and Wonder Woman’s first anniversary by exposing a sinister plan devised by Japanese and German agents to blow up New York using the labyrinth of subway tunnels under the city, whilst ‘Mission to Planet Eros’ debuts the Princess’ long line of cosmic fantasy exploits as the Queen of Venus requests Diana’s aid in saving an entire planetary civilisation from gender inequality and total breakdown, before ‘America’s Guardian Angel’ – from Sensation #12 – finds the Warrior Princess accepting an offer to play herself in a patriotic Hollywood movie, only to find the production had been infiltrated by the insidious Paula and her gang of slave-girls…

Preceded by an illustrated prose piece about ‘The God of War’, Wonder Woman #2 comprises a four-part epic introducing the Astounding Amazon’s greatest enemy in ‘Mars, God of War’. He apparently instigated the World War from his HQ on the distant red planet but chafes at the lack of progress since Wonder Woman entered the fray on the side of the peace-loving allies. He now opts for direct action rather than trust his earthly pawns Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito

When Steve goes missing, Diana allows herself to be captured and ferried to Mars. Here she starts disrupting the efficient working of the war-god’s regime and fomenting unrest amongst the slave population, before rescuing Steve and heading home to Earth. ‘The Earl of Greed’, one of Mars’ trio of trusted subordinates, takes centre stage in the second chapter with orders to recapture Steve and Diana at all costs.

As the bold duo attempt to infiltrate Berlin, Greed uses his influence on Hitler to surreptitiously redirect the German war effort, using Gestapo forces to steal all the USA’s gold reserves…

With Steve gravely injured, the Amazon returns to America and whilst her paramour recuperates, uncovers and foils the Ethereal Earl’s machinations to prevent much-needed operating funds from reaching Holliday College where young girls learn to be independent free-thinkers…

With Greed thwarted, Mars next dispatches ‘The Duke of Deception’ to Earth where the spindly phantom impersonates Wonder Woman and frames her for murder. Easily escaping from prison, the Princess of Power not only clears her name but also finds time to foil a Deception-inspired invasion of Hawaii, leaving only ‘The Count of Conquest’ free to carry out Mars’ orders.

His scheme is simple: through his personal puppet Mussolini, the Count tries to physically overpower the Hellenic Heroine with a brutal giant boxing champion even as Italian Lothario Count Crafti attempts to woo and seduce her. The latter’s wiles actually worked too, but capturing and keeping the Amazing Amazon were two different things entirely and after breaking free on the Red Planet, Diana delivers a devastating blow to the war-machine of Mars…

This issue then ends with a sparkling double page patriotic plea when ‘Wonder Woman Campaigns for War Bonds’…

Sensation Comics #13 (January 1943) follows with ‘Wonder Woman is Dead’ as a corpse wearing the Amazon’s uniform is found and the astounded Diana Prince discovers her alter ego’s clothes and the irreplaceable magic lasso are missing…

The trail leads to a diabolical spy-ring working out of General Darnell’s office and an explosive confrontation in a bowling alley, whilst ‘The Story of Fir Balsam’ in Sensation #14 offered a seasonal tale concerning lost children, an abused mother and escaped German aviators which was all happily resolved around a lonely pine tree, after which the Immortal Warrior celebrated her next publishing milestone…

The 1938 debut of Superman propelled National Comics to the forefront of their fledgling industry and a year later the company was licensed to produce a commemorative comicbook celebrating the opening of the New York World’s Fair.

The Man of Tomorrow prominently featured on the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics among such four-colour stars as Zatara, Butch the Pup, Gingersnap and The Sandman. In 1940 another abundant premium emerged with Batman added to the roster, and the publishers felt they had an item and format worth pursuing commercially.

The spectacular card-cover 96-page anthologies had been a huge hit: convincing the editors that an over-sized anthology of their pantheon of characters, with Superman and Batman prominently featured, would be a worthwhile proposition. Thus, the format was retained for a wholly company-owned, quarterly high-end package, retailing for the then-hefty price of 15¢.

Launching as World’s Best Comics #1 in Spring 1941, the book transformed into World’s Finest Comics from #2, beginning a stellar 45-year run which only ended as part of the massive clear-out and decluttering exercise that was Crisis on Infinite Earths. During the Golden Age however, it remained a big blockbuster bonanza of strips to entice and delight readers…

At this time National/DC was in an editorially-independent business relationship with Max Gaines that involved shared and cross promotion and distribution for the comicbooks released by his own outfit All-American Publications. Although technically competitors if not rivals, the deal included shared logos and advertising and even combining both companies’ top characters in the groundbreaking All Star Comics as the Justice Society of America.

However, by 1942 relations between the companies were increasingly strained – and would culminate in 1946 with DC buying out Gaines, who used the money to start EC Comics.

All-American thus decided to create its own analogue to World’s Finest, featuring only AA characters. The outsized result was Comics Cavalcade

Cover-dated December 1942-January 1943 – and following Frank Harry’s gloriously star-studded cover to Comic Cavalcade #1 – Wonder Woman’s fourth regular star slot began with the company superstar solving the Mystery of the House of the Seven Gables (as ever the fruits of Marston & Peter’s fevered imaginations) wherein Diana Prince stumbles upon a band of Nazi spies. All too soon the Amazing Amazon needs the help of some plucky youngsters to quash the submarine-sabotaging brutes…

Wonder Woman #3 then dedicates its entirety to the return of an old foe; commencing with ‘A Spy on Paradise Island’ as the undergrads of Holliday College for Women girls – and Etta Candy – are initiated into some pretty wild Amazon rites on Paradise Island.

Sadly the revels inadvertently allow an infiltrator to gain access and pave the way for an invasion by Japanese troops…

Naturally Wonder Woman and the Amazon prevail on the day but the sinister mastermind behind it all is revealed and quickly strikes back in ‘The Devilish Devices of Baroness Paula von Gunther.’

Whilst the on-guard Amazons build a women’s prison that will be known as “Reform Island”, Wonder Woman – acting on information received by the new inmates – trails Paula and is in time to crush her latest scientific terror: an invisibility ray…

‘The Secret of Baroness von Gunther’ offers a rare peek at a villain’s motivation when the captured super-spy reveals how her little daughter Gerta has been a hostage of the Nazis for years and remains a goad to ensure the genius’ total dedication to the German cause… Naturally, the Amazing Amazon instantly determines to reunite mother and child at all costs after which ‘Ordeal by Fire’ confirms the Baroness aiding Diana and Steve in dismantling the spy network and slave-ring the Nazis had spent so long building in America… but only at great personal and physical cost to the repentant Paula…

Much has been posited about subtexts of bondage and subjugation in Marston’s tales – and, to be frank, there really are lots of scenes with girls tied up, chained or about to be whipped – but I just don’t care what his intentions (subconscious or otherwise) might have been: I’m more impressed with the skilful drama and incredible fantasy elements that are always wonderfully, intriguingly present: I mean, just where does the concept of giant war-kangaroos come from?

Exotic, baroque, beguiling and uniquely exciting, these Golden Age adventures of the World’s Most Famous female superhero are timeless, pivotal classics in the development of comicbooks and still provide lashings of fun and thrills for anyone looking for a great nostalgic read. If that’s you, you know what you need to do…
© 1941, 1942, 1943, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Smilin’ Jack: The Classic Aviator


By Zack Mosley (Classic Comic Strips)
No ISBN

Here’s another forgotten birthday boy seriously in need of an archival revival…

Modern comics evolved from newspaper comic strips. These pictorial features were – until relatively recently – hugely popular with the public and highly valued by publishers who used them as an irresistible weapon to guarantee and increase circulation and profits.

It’s virtually impossible for us to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no social media or television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most poor or middle-income folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers.

“The Funnies” were the most common and an almost communal recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality.

From the very start humour was paramount – hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics” – and from these gag and stunt beginnings came mutants and hybrids like Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs. Comedic when it began in 1924, it gradually moved from mock-heroics to light-action and became a full-blown, rip-roaring adventure series with the introduction of prototype swashbuckler Captain Easy in 1929.

From there it wasn’t such a leap to full-on blockbusters like Tarzan (which began on January 7th 1929) and Buck Rogers (the same day); both were adaptations of pre-existing prose properties, but the majority of drama strips that followed were original productions.

The tidal-wave began in the early 1930s when an explosion of action and drama strips (tastefully tailored for a family audience and fondly recalled as “Thud and Blunder” yarns) were launched with astounding frequency and rapidity. Not only strips but entire genres were created in that decade which still impact on not just today’s comicbooks but all our popular fiction. Still most common, however, were general feel-good humour strips with an occasional child-oriented fantasy.

Arguably the most popular of the new adventure genres was the Aviator serial. With air speed, distance and endurance records bring broken every day, travelling air-circuses barnstorming across rural America and real-life heroes such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart plastered all over the front pages and in movie newsreels, it wasn’t difficult to grasp the potential of comics-pages analogues.

The first was Tailspin Tommy – by Glenn Chaffin & Hal Forrest – the story of boy pilot Tommy Tompkins. It ran from May 21st 1928 (almost exactly one year after Lindbergh’s epic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis) until 1942, and was swiftly followed by both Lester J Maitland & Dick Calkins Skyroads and John Terry’s Scorchy Smith (see Scorchy Smith: Partners in Danger) 1930 -1961. Close on their high-flying heels came such late-arriving classics as Flyin’ Jenny, Buz Sawyer and even Steve Canyon.

Zack Mosley was an enterprising young cartoonist who assisted Calkins on both Skyroads and the legendary Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. He was also a keenly dedicated pilot and flying enthusiast, and when he heard that Captain Joe Patterson (influential editor of the Chicago Tribune) was taking lessons, Zack swiftly pitched a series to the kingmaker of comic strips.

On the Wing debuted as a Sunday page on October 1st 1933, but the name never gelled and with the December 31st episode the series was more snappily re-titled Smilin’ Jack. Apparently, Moseley was surreptitiously known as “Smiling Zack” around the Tribune office…

The page steadily gained interest and syndication subscribers and, on June 15th 1936, was augmented by a monochrome daily strip.

Jack Martin was a nervous student pilot, and the series originally played safe by vacillating between comedy and hairsbreadth thrills as he and his fellow sky novices and unqualified pilots learned the ropes. Never a top-tier series, Smilin’ Jack nevertheless always delivered terrific entertainment to the masses, moving and morphing with the times into a romance, war-feature, crime thriller (complete with Dick Tracy style villains) and even a family soap opera.

More importantly, the strip progressed in real time and when it closed on 1st April 1973, Jack was a twice-married air veteran with a grown son and a full cast of romantic dalliances in tow. It wasn’t lack of popularity that ended it either. At 67 years of age, Mosley wanted to spend his final years in the air, not crouched over a drawing board…

This fabulous (and shamefully scarce) collection gathers a delightful selection of rousing romps, beginning with that name-changing first episode from December 31st 1933, before concentrating on some classic sequences from the roaring thirties.

Meet here or be reintroduced to Jack, comedy foil Rufus Jimpson (a hillbilly mechanic), eye-candy air hostess and love interest Dixie Lee (subject of an extended romantic triangle), Latin spitfire (the curvy sort, not the fighter plane kind) Bonita Caliente and numerous spies, thugs, imbecilic passengers, South American revolutionaries and even a foreign Legion of the Skies with an eerily prescient stiff-necked Prussian flyer named Von Bosch whose type would soon be plastered all over the strips and comic books after WWII broke out…

This kind of strip is, I suspect and fear, an acquired taste today like Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder or George Cukor films, requiring the contribution of a little bit of intellectual and historical concentration from the reader, but the effort is absolutely worth it, and if this kind of stuff is good enough for the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg it’s perfectly good enough for you and me…

A grand adventure and one you should undertake at your leisure…
© 1989, 2009 Chicago Tribune Syndicate. All Rights Reserved. (I’m going on best evidence here: if somebody else actually owns the rights now, let me know and I’ll happily amend the entry).