Came the Dawn and Other Stories illustrated by Wallace Wood


By Wallace Wood, Al Feldstein, Harry Harrison, Gardner Fox & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-546-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Sheer, seductive dark pictorial poetry in emotion… 10/10

EC began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines sold the successful superhero properties of his All-American Comics company – including Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman – to half-sister National/DC, retaining only Picture Stories from the Bible. His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups as the major target market. He then augmented his core title with three more in similar vein: Picture Stories from American History, Science and World History. The worthwhile but unsustainable project was already struggling when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

His son William was eventually convinced to assume control of the family business and, with much support and encouragement from unsung hero Sol Cohen and multi-talented associate Al Feldstein, transformed the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics, consequently triggering the greatest qualitative leap forward in comicbook history…

After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments, Gaines 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, more discriminating audience.

From 1950 to 1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of science fiction, war, horror and crime. The company even added a new type of title and another genre with the creation of parody magazine Mad

This second volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library compiles a magical and groundbreaking omnibus of horrific tales and human dramas featuring the astounding artistic expertise of Wallace Allan Wood: one of the greatest draughtsmen our art form has ever produced.

Wood was actually a master of every aspect of the business. He began his career lettering Will Eisner’s Spirit strip, quickly moved into pencilling and inking and, latterly, publishing. After years working all over the comics and syndicated strip industries, as well as in legitimate illustration, package-design and other areas of commercial art, he devised the legendary T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents franchise and even created one of the first adult independent comics with Witzend in the late 1960s.

The troubled genius carried the seeds of his own destruction, however. Woody’s life was one of addiction (booze and cigarettes), traumatic relationships, tantalisingly close but always frustrated financial security, illness and eventually suicide. It was as if all the joy and beauty in his existence stayed on the pages and there was none left for real life.

Although during his time with EC Wood became the acknowledged and undisputed Master of Science Fiction art in America, he was equally adept, driven and accomplished in the production of all genres.

This powerfully effective collection concentrates on some of his best early horror, crime and suspense tales and includes all the evocative, emotionally-charged, controversial “Preachies” which Feldstein and Bill Gaines had devised to address hot-button issues and challenge the smugly hierarchical social status quo of post-war, triumphalist America.

These strident and still truly shocking morality plays viciously jabbed at the nation’s dark underbelly; attacking prejudice, police corruption, drug abuse, sexual attitudes, racism, institutionalised intolerance and all manners of hypocrisy. It’s no stretch to consider that these tales, more than any other childhood influence, probably shaped the resurgent liberal attitudes which blossomed as the future “Flower Power” generation reached their majority a decade later…

As with the previous Kurtzman volume, the stories are re-presented here in a lavish monochrome hardcover edition, with supplementary interviews, features and dissertations, beginning with ‘Come the Stories’ by Bill Mason, which appraises the yarns included with forensic discipline. Then the pictorial parade kicks off with a rather pedestrian scam caper which sees an innocent man convinced that he’s a ravening monster in ‘The Werewolf Legend’ scripted by the prolific and ubiquitous Gardner Fox, one of Gaines senior’s greatest assets and discovery.

The illustration is by Harry Harrison & inked by Wood from Vault of Horror #12 (April/May 1950). Although Harrison found his greatest fame as a prose author in later years, he was a major player in the comics biz during the 1950s and had worked with Wood as a jobbing production team since they’d met at the Cartoonists and Illustrators school in 1948.

For Haunt of Fear #15 the trio concocted a tale of lethal legerdemain in ‘The Mad Magician’, whilst the anonymously-authored enigma of ‘The Living Corpse’ (Crypt of Terror #18) moved closer to truly supernatural shenanigans as another illusionist took things too far in pursuit of his craft.

Harrison probably scripted and certainly inked ‘The Curse of Harkley Heath’ from Vault of Horror #13, wherein a gothic triangle of greedy heirs came to unpleasant, untimely ends after a will was read, after which Wood began handling all the art chores with ‘Horror-Ahead!’ (Haunt of Fear #16, July/August 1950) when rival curio collectors’ jungle jaunt in search of shrunken skulls ended in the only way it possibly could…

The Noir-ish new era began when Al Feldstein began scripting for Woody. ‘Death’s Double-Cross’ from the sublimely mature Crime SuspenStories #1 (October/November 1951) offers the twisted tale of a woman cheating on her husband with his twin brother in a moody masterpiece reminiscent of James M. Cain. Naturally it quickly turned into a nightmare that couldn’t end pretty…

Fox offered one last hurrah in ‘The Man from the Grave’ from Haunt of Fear #4, which saw a dissolute artist commit gruesome murder for his art and lived to regret it in desperate luxury and a relentless, compulsive paroxysm of over-work, whilst Feldstein’s

‘Terror Ride!’ (Tales From the Crypt #21) found two young lovers who soon regretted being the last couple to ride the decrepit Amusement Park’s Old Mill boat attraction… Feldstein’s epic run of stories fill most of this tome and next appeared in Haunt of Fear #5, where Wood’s dark imagination and ability to render grotesques was expertly exploited in ‘Horror in the Freak Tent!’ wherein a cruel carnival owner who mercilessly mistreated his exotic employees eventually received a macabre measure of justice…

Crime SuspenStories #3 then provided a fearsome farrago of betrayal and vengeance when two fugitive bandits were ‘Faced With Horror!’ after picking the wrong plastic surgeon to sort out their public notoriety problems, whilst ‘So They Finally Pinned You Down!’ from Haunt of Fear #6 followed a troubled soul who couldn’t understand why he was always stumbling over dead women…

The macabre mayhem concluded with two tales from Tales From the Crypt #24 and 25, beginning with a classic philandering-murderer-gets-his-come-uppance tale in ‘Scared to Death!’ after which a baroque body-switching melodrama featuring a cunning crone and a lovely young thing forced a bewildered husband to conclude ‘Judy, You’re Not Yourself Today!’

The rest of this volume is comprised of those controversial polemical passion-plays and conscience-rending human dilemmas that Gaines dubbed Preachies, opening with ‘The Guilty!’ (from Shock SuspenStories #3, June/July 1952), which saw a typical small town enflamed by the murder of a young white girl. The Sheriff knew the black kid in his jail was guilty and was as keen as the mob to spare the state the cost of a trial. He took steps to ensure it too.

…And that’s when the girl’s white boyfriend confessed…

Although stridently moralising and perhaps heavy handed by contemporary standards, these stories are the very bedrock of EC’s well-deserved reputation as the crusading creators of America’s very first adult comics for mature readers. Moreover these ugly truths were gloriously draped in so very beautiful clothes, as Wood’s incredible illustration, inspired by the fiercely impassioned scripts, soared to unparallelled heights of sensitivity and gut-wrenching impact.

Shock SuspenStories #4 took the cultural campaign further in a sordid tale of the innocent witness relentlessly beaten into a ‘Confession’ by cops determined to capture a hit-and-run driver who’d killed their Lieutenant’s wife. So why then, was the grieving officer’s car all banged up and covered in blood…?

Old-fashioned anti-Semitism fuelled the ‘Hate!’ of a quiet little town and led to the death of a family too stubborn to be warned. Imagine instigator John Smith’s surprise when his appalled mother told the entire town that he was adopted… and what his true origins were…

‘Under Cover!’ in Shock SuspenStories #6 combined a campaign of punishment-floggings for miscegenation by the local Klan chapter with the end of a crusading reporter who tried to expose the scandal but tragically forgot that there might be almost anybody under those pointy hoods, whilst ‘The Bribe’ in #7 revealed how even the most honest and dedicated of civil servants could be pushed into abandoning his principles – especially with a loving daughter, her upcoming wedding and crushing society pressure hitting him so hard…

By today’s standards ‘The Assault!’ is potentially the most contentious tale here, revealing how a small town girl with salacious appetites callously protected her reputation by framing an old man for her “rape”. In typical tone for those times, her lie ultimately caused two deaths…

‘Came the Dawn!’ from Shock SuspenStories #9 is a marvellous example of Greek tragedy in modern dress, as a lonely backwoods hermit finds a beautiful naked woman in his cabin and, after a night of mutual passion with the girl of his dreams, discovers that an inmate has escaped from the nearby asylum. Only after he’s locked her out does he discover that she’s not the only mysterious blonde lost in the forest…

Far less emotionally loaded but equally devastating is the darkly introspective ‘…So Shall Ye Reap!’ (Shock SuspenStories #10) which finds a penitent, angry young man contemplating every hypocritical act of his pompously pious parents before reaching his own moment of judgement after which ‘In Gratitude’ launches a simply breathtaking attack on the nation’s double standards when a wounded soldier comes home to a hero’s welcome and turns on his friends and family when he finds out what they’ve done to the coloured man who saved his life…

More quirky crime-caper than social commentary, ‘Fall Guy’ (Shock SuspenStories #12) follows the doomed decade that saw decent guy Danny Jansen steal a fortune to please a greedy girl far out of his league and spend ten years in jail paying for it. Surprisingly she waited all that time for him, but wasn’t best pleased when he couldn’t remember how to retrieve his ill-gotten gains…

A campaign of hate to drive out a man who foolishly admitted to being part-Negro ended in suicide and a sense of smug satisfaction when the bigot-in-charge boasted of his success to the local doctor in ‘Blood-Brothers’ (Shock SuspenStories #13). Imagine the vile cross-burner’s surprise when the aged medic revealed the source of the transfusion which had long-ago saved the happy hate-monger’s life…

‘The Whipping’ (scripted by Feldstein or Jack Oleck from Shock SuspenStories #14) returned to scandal-mongering territory, when a dutiful daughter defied her racist father and started “dating” an Hispanic boy. The dad certainly didn’t call it that, and the outrageous steps he and his pure-white buddies took to end the affair horrifically backfired…

The last tale reprinted here is ‘The Confidant’ (Feldstein or Oleck again from Shock SuspenStories #15, June/July 1954) from a time when the public outcry against comics was just reaching its fevered peak. The story deals with mob-justice and sees an entire town baying for the blood of a newcomer who had murdered a young girl.

Then, when a dark stranger arrives searching for one of his children, the unofficial posse immediately jump to the wrong conclusion with tragic and irreparably consequences…

Please forgive any deliberate vagueness on my part here: the point is to make you want to read these still poignant and shocking stories and I don’t want to devalue their impact or spoil your otherwise assured enjoyment…

A detailed history of the flawed genius is then provided by historian S.C. Ringgenberg in the prose piece ‘Wallace Wood’ after which this truly beautiful book is closed by another set of ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ by Arthur Lortie & and Bill Mason and Ted White’s ‘Crime, Horror, Terror, Gore, Depravity, Disrespect for Established Authority – and Science Fiction Too!: ‘The Ups and Downs of EC Comics: A Short History’ once more offers a comprehensive run-down of the entire EC phenomenon.

The short, sweet, cruelly limited EC back-catalogue has been revisited ad infinitum in the decades since its demise. Those amazing yarns changed not just comics but also infected the larger world through film and television to convert millions into dedicated devotees still addicted to New Trend tales.

Whether you are an aged EC Fan-Addict, just a nervous newbie, or simply a mere fan of brilliant stories and sublime art, Came the Dawn is a book no sane and sensible reader can afford to be without.

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.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman


By Harvey Kurtzman & others (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-545-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: War is Hell – but never looked better or taught us more… 9/10

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.

He augmented his core title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History but the worthy project was already struggling when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

As detailed in the final comprehensive essay in this superb graphic collection, 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 to 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 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, withAmerica embroiled in a military “police action” inKorea, the title soon became primarily a war comic and was soon augmented by another.

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

Moreover, 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 a restless innovator, a commentator and social explorer who kept on looking at folk and their doings: a man with exacting standards who just couldn’t stop creating.

He invented a whole new format and gave America Popular Satire when he converted his highly successful full-colour baby Mad into a black and white 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 early 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, beginning with ‘The Truth’ by cartoonist and historian R.C. Harvey, who describes 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 revealed 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 combined an Italian-American’s search for family with the devastating US assault on Anzio in 1943, after which the first selection from Frontline Combat produces an uncharacteristically patriotic clash with the North Korean aggressors in ‘Contact!’ (#2, September 1951).

‘Kill’ from T-FT #23 also takes place in Korea and details 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 stepped into the “enemy” shoes by highlighting the war’s casual cost to simple Korean civilians whilst ‘Air Burst!’ in FC #4 goes even further by featuring 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 body’s motion down the river and exposes 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, after which ‘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 – an event which stunned and terrified the folks at home and shook forever the cherished belief in the US Marines’ invincibility – all told through the eyes of a soldier who understood 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 was an alarm-call to complacentAmericaas aUSpilot was forced to concede that his winged weapon was 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 – and 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 and described rivalry and tension between American units during a Korean offensive. Oddly enough for the times, the fact that one 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) after which master of comics noir Johnny Craig detailed the fate of a ‘Lost Battalion!’ in WWI (T-FT #32, March/April 1953).

‘Tide!’ was an EC debut tale for the already-legendary Joe Kubert from the same issue, and detailed a D-Day debacle and its insignificance in the grand scheme of things after which 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 was gradually diminishing. Frontline Combat #14, (October 1953) provides 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 master-class 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 Ironclad’s as they inexorably took control of the Mississippi with the irrepressible excitement of Southern kids who simply couldn’t 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 Two-Fisted Tales in ‘Respect for Simplicity – the War Covers of Harvey Kurtzman’ which is 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, and 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 the likes of me know these timeless classics intimately, this simple innovation has somehow added a new dimension to the readers’ enjoyment.

I eagerly anticipate the advent of the other volumes in this superb series and 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 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)

Although I’m pushing a number of comic-based kids books this week I’d be utterly remiss if I didn’t also include at least one example of the venerably traditional illustrated novel which used to be the happily inescapable staple of bedtime for generations. 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, 1899in Sydenham; a decade after that part of Kentbecame part of the ever-expanding Countyof London. He started work as an advertising copywriter and moved into book writing soon after 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 published between 1923 and 1925.

He was working as a stage magician in Bournemouthduring the early 1930s when he first began concocting the genially explosive exploits of the absolute archetypical absent-minded boffin for radio broadcasts. The 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 with 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 Londonand in 1949 emigrated to South Africawhere he worked outside the fiction biz until his retirement. He returned to Britainin 1970, 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.

Following the show Hunter resumed writing: another 11 Branestawn tomes between 1970-1983, plus a selection of supplemental books including Professor Branestawm’s Dictionary (1973), …Compendium of Conundrums, Riddles, Puzzles, Brain Twiddlers and Dotty Descriptions (1975), …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 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 penchant for eccentric, archaic-looking mechanical devices that made him a household name.

During the Great War he 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, scatterbrained savant as a ramshackle cove with five pairs of spectacles – which he generally wears all at once – and his clothes held together with safety pins …probably because the many explosions he creates always 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 scientist is talking about…

The over-educated inspirationalist and his motley crew first appeared in ‘The Professor Invents a Machine’ which saw the debut of an arcane device that moved so quickly that Branestawm and Dedshott were carried a week into the past and accidentally undid a revolution in Squiglatania – and ended up upsetting everybody on both sides of the argument.

In ‘The Wild Waste-Paper’ Mrs. Flittersnoop’s incessant tidying up caused a spill of the Professor’s new Elixir of Vitality and 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 mislaid a reference tome and had to borrow another from the local library.

A house full of books is the worst place to lose one, and when the second one went walkies Branestawm had to borrow a third or pay the fine on the second. By the time he’d finished the Professor had checked out fourteen copies and was killing himself covertly transporting it from library to library…

When his stuff-stuffed house was raided by ‘Burglars!’ the shocked and horrified thinker was driven to concoct the ultimate security system. It was the perfect device to defend an Englishman’s Castle – unless he was the type who regularly forgot his keys and that he had installed an anti-burglar machine…

When he lost a day because he hadn’t noticed his chronometer had stopped, the Professor invented a new sort of timepiece that never needed winding. Even the local horologist wanted one.

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

The Professor often thought so hard that he ceased all motion. Whilst visiting ‘The Fair at Pagwell Green’ Mrs. Flittersnoop and Colonel Dedshott mistook a waxwork of the famously brilliant bumbler for the real thing and brought “him” home to finish his pondering in private. Sadly the carnival waxworks owner alternatively believed he had a wax statue that had learned to talk…

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

‘The Professor Studies Spring Cleaning’ found Branestawm applying his prodigious intellect and inventive acumen to the seasonal tradition that so vexed Mrs. Flittersnoop before inevitably finding a way to make things worse. He thus constructed a house-engine that emptied and cleaned itself. Of course it couldn’t really tell the difference between sofa, couch cupboard or housekeeper…

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

So it was pretty inevitable that the foul-smelling concoction would 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 was asked to give a lecture on the Wireless (no, not about radio, but for it…). Unaccustomed as he was to public speaking, the tongue-tied boffin had Dedshott rehearse and drill him until he could recite the whole speech in eleven minutes. Of course the scheduled programme was supposed to last half an hour…

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

‘The Professor Moves House’ found the inventor forced to rent larger premises because he had filled up the old one with his contraptions. However Branestawm’s attempts to rationalise the Moving Men’s work patterns proved that even he didn’t know everything. At least the disastrous ‘Pancake Day at Great Pagwell’ rescued his reputation when his magnificent automatic Pancake-Making Machine furiously fed a multitude of friends and civic dignitaries. The Mayor liked it so much he purchased it to lay all the municipality’s pavements…

This gloriously enchanting initial outing ends with ‘Professor Branestawm’s Holiday’ as the old brain-bonce finally acquiesced to his housekeeper’s urgent urgings and went for a vacation to the seaside. Keen on swotting up on all things jellyfish the savant set off but forgot to check in at his boarding house, prompting a desperate search by Dedshott, Flittersnoop and the authorities.

Things were further complicated by a Pierrot Show which boasted the best Professor Branestawn impersonator inBritain: so good in fact that even the delinquent dodderer’s best friends could not tell the difference.

With the performer locked up in a sanatorium claiming he wasn’t a Professor, it was a lucky thing the one-and-only scatty scholar was 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. This eternally fresh children’s classic, augmented by 76 of Heath-Robinson’s most memorable character caricatures and insane implements, offer some of the earliest and most enduring example of spiffing techno-babble and fabulous 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.

Batman Archives volume 5


By Bob Kane, Alvin Schwartz, Don Cameron, Bill Finger, Dick Sprang, Win Mortimer & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-725-3

Debuting a year after Superman, “The Bat-Man” (and later Robin, the Boy Wonder) cemented National Comics as the market and genre leader of the burgeoning comicbook industry, and the dashing derring-do and strictly human-scaled adventures of the Dynamic Duo rapidly became the swashbuckling benchmark by which all other four-colour crimebusters were judged.

This fifth fantastic deluxe hardback compilation collects the Batman yarns from Detective Comics #103-119 (spanning cover-dates September 1945-December 1947) and safely saw the indefatigable icons delete Nazi spies and saboteurs from their daily itineraries. From this point onward, the stalwarts would again concentrate on home-grown mobsters, monsters, menaces and their ever-active and growing rogues’ gallery of vile villains as the vicissitudes of war were replaced by the never-ending travails of black-hearted crooks and domestic killers…

After a spirited discussion of the days after peace broke out from celebrated bat-scribe Dennis O’Neil in the Foreword, the costumed dramas begin to unfold in #103’s ‘Trouble Incorporated!’ written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Jack Burnley & Charles Paris. Herein a well-meaning retired college Professor set up a free advice service and inadvertently gave the thugs next door a hotline to illicit gain until Batman and Robin offered their own bombastic expertise: also gratis and extremely educational for the eavesdropping creeps…

In Detective #104 Schwartz & Dick Sprang’s ‘The Battle of the Billboards!’ proved a breathtaking and imaginative yarn with blackmail racketeers using prominent signs to publicise the secret crimes and peccadilloes of Gotham’s elite – unless the victims paid off by hiring the signage space themselves.

With no laws broken, the Dynamic Duo were forced to take bold action to end the unique protection scam…

When Bruce Wayne’s accountant and treasurer embezzled all the company funds in #105 the fallout had appalling consequences for Gotham. ‘The Batman Goes Broke!’ by Don Cameron & the marvellous J. Winslow “Win” Mortimer, saw the heroes reduced to penury and forced to sell their crime-busting possessions and even obtain menial jobs so that they could complete their last case…

Happily the financial absconders were caught – by regular cops – and the Wayne fortunes restored. ‘The Phantom of the Library!’ eerily stalked retired law officials who foolishly visited the city’s repository of knowledge: in search of vengeance on those who had long ago sentenced him to death for murder. Cameron’s run of ingenious crime dramas continued after this spooky mystery by Bob Kane & Ray Burnley, after which a crafty charlatan who preyed on greedy, superstitious businessmen debuted in Detective Comics #107. The wicked Scorpio believed himself above the law and beyond all harm until Batman and Robin invaded his sinister citadel on ‘The Mountain of the Moon!’ – illustrated by Mortimer who had the lion’s share of drawing at this time.

Police officer Ed Gregory was framed by crooks and became ‘The Goat of Gotham City!’ in a moving thriller by limned by Sprang, but as always the Gotham Gangbusters were able to deduce the truth before taking down the villains in a spectacular airplane duel.

A perennial Prince of Plunder returned in #109 as the manic Joker went on a crime spree that lured Dark Knight and Boy Wonder to a deadly purpose-built trap inside ‘The House that Jokes Built!’.

Faithful butler Alfred had a starring role in #110 as ‘Batman and Robin in Scotland Yard!’ found the Masked Manhunters in London to help capture an incredible modern-day Moriarty, after which a trip to ‘Coaltown, U.S.A.’ saw the Caped Crusaders convince a miserly mine owner to listen to his striking workers and modernise the death trap he operated…

Detective #112 riffed delightfully on the classic film The Shop Around the Corner as a small family business was torn apart by the theft of $99. Embroiled in the melodrama was customer Bruce Wayne whose covert investigations uncovered four culprits all eager to confess in Schwartz & Mortimer’s heart-warming tale of ‘The Case Without a Crime!’

Plundering pirates and sinister smugglers were the bad-guys in ‘Crime on the Half-Shell!’ by Bill Finger, Sprang & Gene McDonald, but the story really centred on the tragedy of a blind oyster boat captain and the feisty daughter who took over his “man’s work”, whilst #114 saw the Joker again test Batman’s wits and patience in a sharp puzzler that turned Gotham into the ‘Acrostic of Crime!’ (by Cameron & Mortimer).

‘The Man Who Lived in a Glass House!’ by the same creative team found the Dynamic Duo aiding an inventor against an unscrupulous rival determined to sabotage his life’s work, after which Bruce’s old friend Professor Carter Nichols used his time travelling hypnosis trick to send Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson to Feudal England. Oddly however it was Batman and Robin who came to ‘The Rescue of Robin Hood!’ in a properly swashbuckling romp by Cameron & Mortimer in #116, whilst that writer’s contemporary research made ‘Steeplejack’s Showdown!’ (Kane & Ray Burnley) and the heroes’ campaign against a ring of sky-high bandits a grippingly authentic thriller worthy of Hitchcock…

Issue #118, by Schwartz & Howard Sherman, offered one last hurrah for the Harlequin of Hate as the Joker again attempted to trump the Dark-Knight Detective with The Royal Flush Crimes!’ only to go bust in the wilds of the cowboy West, before this classic collection of seldom-seen tales concludes with Finger, Sprang & McDonald’s gloriously madcap excursion ‘The Case of the Famous Foes!’ wherein a cunning crook recruited George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln to mastermind his crime campaign – straight out of Gotham Sanitarium and into blazing battle against the mystified manhunters…

These evocative, bombastic and action-stuffed yarns provide a perfect snapshot of the Batman’s amazing range from bleak moody avenger to suave swashbuckler, from remorseless Agent of Justice and best pal to sophisticated Devil-May-Care Detective, in timeless tales which have never lost their edge or their power to enthral and enrapture. Moreover, this supremely sturdy Archive Edition is indubitably the most luxurious and satisfying way to enjoy them over and over again.
© 1945-1947, 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Fantastic Four – a Full Colour Comic Album


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott (World Distributors {Manchester} Ltd)
No ISBN:

The origin of the Fantastic Four saw maverick scientist Reed Richards summon his girl-friend Sue Storm, their friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother Johnny before heading off on their first mission against invading subterranean monsters and their malevolent master the Mole Man. In a handy flashback we discovered that they were driven survivors of a private space-shot which went horribly wrong.

In the depths of space Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and they plummeted back to Earth where they found that they’d all been hideously mutated into outlandish freaks…

Reed’s body became elastic, Sue gained the initially involuntary power to turn invisible, Johnny could briefly and harmlessly burst into living flame and poor, tragic Ben turned irrevocably into a shambling, rocky freak. Shaken but unbowed they vow to dedicate their new abilities to benefiting mankind…

With their red and gold uniforms in stark contrast to the Torch’s lethally hot blue flame and the Thing’s gritty granular monolithic mauve hide, the heroes won global renown and…

No, wait, surely that’s not right…

Well yes, but only in this beguilingly peculiar British album released to tie-in with a strictly regional British release of the 1967-1968 Fantastic Four cartoon series produced by Hanna-Barbera and designed by the legendary Alex Toth.

As the only survivor of a family day out, it’s still one of my most treasured comic possessions and I’ll admit it makes precious little sense on a cognitive level.  It’s certainly no more than an intriguing or irrelevant oddity to most fans, but for me – and many similar Brits of a certain vintage – items like this are irreplaceable nostalgic touchstones of a personal Grand Age of comics wonderment which even smell and feel of thrills and fun and innocent joy…

The contents are an odd mix too. The cartoon show adapted many of the earliest and formative groundbreaking Stan Lee/Jack Kirby classics but the trio of terrific tales came from the stunning mid-Sixties run when the creators were at their absolute peak of perfection…

The only complete and self-contained yarn is ‘This Man This Monster’ from Fantastic Four #51 (June, 1966) and still considered by many to be the greatest single FF story ever. A masterpiece of mood and introspection, it found the Thing’s body usurped by a vengeful, petty maverick scientist who subsequently discovered the true measure of a man, paying the ultimate price for his jealous folly…

The Black Panther was an African monarch whose secretive kingdom was the only source of a unique alien metal dubbed Vibranium. These mineral riches had enabled him to turn his country into a technological wonderland and he had attacked the FF as part of an extended plan to gain vengeance on the murderer of his father. He was also the first Negro superhero in American comics.

Although that tale didn’t make the final cut his origin was revealed here in ‘The Way it Began..!’ (from Fantastic Four #53, cover-dated August 1966) and disclosed how decades before when a ruthless scientist and his mercenary army had invaded Wakanda,  the young Prince T’Challa had single-handedly avenged the murder of his father T’Chaka and driven off the raiders. Now, as incredible creatures of living sound ravaged the Hidden Kingdom, the Panther and the FF teamed up to stop the returned villain who had been transformed into an utterly new form of life and was calling himself Klaw, Master of Sound

Fantastic Four #57-60 displayed Lee & Kirby at their utmost best; with an extended epic of astounding drama and majesty as the most dangerous man on Earth stole the Cosmic Power of alien refugee the Silver Surfer and rampaged unstoppably across the face of the planet.

Sadly, ‘Enter… Dr. Doom!’, ‘The Dismal Dregs of Defeat!’ and ‘Doomsday’ were omitted for this edition and the strangely compelling card cover classic only includes the very last chapter of that superlative saga wherein the team’s valiant resistance allowed Reed’s ingenuity and sheer guts to turn the tables and save all humanity in magnificent manner in ‘The Peril and the Power!’(#60, March 1967)…

These are the stories that cemented Marvel’s reputation and enabled the company to overtake all its competitors. They’re also still some of the best comics ever produced and as exciting and captivating now as they ever were, even in this truly bizarre and torturously truncated form. This is a surely only one for the most dedicated completists, but the timeless tales reprinted are stories every fan should know.

© MCMLXIX (that’s 1969 to you True Believer!) Marvel Comics Group. All rights reserved throughout the world.

Superman: the Action Comics Archives volume 5


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Don Cameron, Ed Dobrotka, Sam Citron, Ira Yarbrough, John Sikela & others (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1188-2

It’s almost incontrovertible: the American comicbook industry – if it existed at all – would be an utterly unrecognisable thing without the invention of Superman. His unprecedented adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form.

Within three years of his 1938 debut, the intoxicating blend of eye-popping action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early Man of Steel had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, socially reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy, whimsical comedy and, once the war in Europe and the East embroiled America, patriotic relevance.

In comicbook terms at least Superman was master of the world, and had already utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry. There was the phenomenally popular newspaper strip, a thrice-weekly radio serial, games, toys, as much global syndication as the war would allow and the perennially re-run Fleischer studio’s astounding animated cartoons.

The Golden Age greats herein reprinted from issues #69-85 of the groundbreaking anthology Action Comics begin their mind-warping wonderment after a fond Foreword reminiscence from Silver Age scribe and comicbook International Treasure Roy Thomas

Co-creator Jerry Siegel was finally called up in 1943 and his prodigious script output was curtailed, necessitating greater contributions from the ingenious and multi-faceted Don Cameron and others, whilst Joe Shuster – increasingly debilitated by failing eyesight and tied up producing the far more prestigious newspaper strip – had to leave the bulk of the artwork in the hands of the trusty, ever-changing stalwarts of the Superman Studio who were drawing most of the comicbook output at this time.

By this time though the quality of the source material began to suffer slightly as Siegel & Shuster’s rotating band of artistic stand-ins were themselves continually called away to serve in the armed forces, but the three magazines supplying the Metropolis Marvel’s core readership (Action Comics, Superman and World’s Finest Comics) always adapted and always came through with more and greater spectacular thrills, spills and chills to cope with the relentless demands of the growing legion of fans.

Superman was definitely every kid’s hero, as confirmed yet again in this classic compendium which saw the Man of Tomorrow and the avid audiences through the last weary days of World War II.

Due to the exigencies of periodical publishing, although the terrific tales collected in this fabulous fifth hardback tome putatively take the Man of Steel from February 1944 to June 1945, since cover-dates described return-by, not on-sale dates they were all prepared well in advance, and real-world events and reactions took a little time to filter through to the furious four-colour pages, so some of the stories have a tinge of uncertainty and foreboding that was swiftly fading from the minds of the public as the far more immediate movie-newsreels showed an inexorable turning of the tide in the Allies’ favour.

As the months rolled by however, mention of the conflict declined as the characters got on with the business of battling for Truth, Justice and the American Way, unencumbered by the dwindling threat of real-world monsters and tyrants…

There’s no greater evidence of that fact than the simple realisation that only one of the stunning covers included in this compilation (#76, by Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye) has a war theme – and that’s directly pertinent to the tale within – whilst the rest by Boring, Kaye, Jack Burnley, Joe Shuster & John Sikela, all feature more general themes of calamity, comedy and criminality, augmented by the then-new notion of using the first image seen by readers to actually highlight the Superman story inside…

Action Comics #69 offered ‘The Lost-and-Found Mystery!’ (credited here to Sam Citron but more likely Ed Dobrotka illustrating a Siegel script) wherein pernicious plunderer The Prankster returned with a wily wrangle that involved using bogus small ads to extort money from prominent people with something to hide.

Issue #70 saw ‘Superman Takes a Holiday!’ (Cameron & Citron) when a criminal spree by the brilliantly insidious Thinker proved the villain had the Action Ace’s number. However the Gangster Genius couldn’t outwit merely mortal crimebuster Clark Kent, whilst a calamitous comedy of errors in #71’s ‘Valentine Villainy!’ (Cameron & Ira Yarbrough) saw Kent, Superman, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and a bold jewel thief all collide and inadvertently trade their lovers’ lagniappes with heartbreaking, hilarious, catastrophic and near catastrophic results.

Although Action #72 saw the Man of Steel uncover Nazi spies in ‘Superman and the Super-Movers!’ by Siegel, Shuster & George Roussos, they were merely a throwaway sidebar to the gripping tale of a construction company performing big jobs for a clandestine criminal purpose, after which ‘The Hobby Robbers!’ (#73 by Siegel, Citron & Roussos) predicted today’s modern-day collector mania in an astute tale about the lengths enthusiasts will go to if their treasured possessions are pilfered. Oddly comicbooks were not one of the collections under threat…

Even today the authors of many early tales are still unknown to us, as with the delightfully daft romance illustrated by Yarbrough in #74. ‘The Courtship of Adelbert Dribble!’ saw a Jack Benny look-alike wimp lure the Man of Tomorrow into an ingenious trap simply so the sap could play Superman for a day and woo his far-from fair maid. Of course it all went awry but the Metropolis Marvel was eventually there to save the day and see true love victorious.

Also anonymous are the Yarbrough-limned ‘Aesop’s Modern Fables’ which pitted the Man of Steel against a cunning gangster who planned his capers along classical Greek lines, and the unconventional Dobrotka chiller ‘A Voyage to Destiny!’ wherein Superman’s early days were revisited as a spoiled trust-fund brat became a reluctant sailor in 1939, shipping out solely to secure his inheritance. However, after battling thugs and confronting Japanese soldiers – with the covert assistance of a Kryptonian Guardian Angel – wastrel Roger Carson had become a man Superman could be proud of, and a credit to the US Navy…

Action #77 – credited to Cameron & Dobrotka but possibly scripted by Siegel – saw the Prankster on his uppers until the rotund reprobate began scamming greedy but technically honest citizens with ‘The Headline Hoax!’ Happily Superman showed everybody the error of their ways before aiding ‘The Chef of Bohemia!’ (by Alvin Schwartz & Yarbrough in #78) whose simple diner supported many starving artists but stood in the way of murderous property speculators…

Micawber-like conman Wilbur J. Wolfingham reared his unscrupulous head in #79’s ‘The Golden Fleece!’ by Cameron & Yarbrough, attempting to con sheep-farmers into re-purchasing their own gold-salted properties until Lois and Superman again proved honesty was his best policy, after which zany pixy and madcap mystical gadfly ‘Mr. Mxyztplk Returns!’ found the aggravating elf driving Superman batty in a brilliantly bonkers yarn from Cameron & Yarbrough.

Action #81’s seasonal thriller ‘Fairyland Isle!’ (the first of two anonymous tales drawn by Yarbrough) saw Superman and a millionaire Santa Claus join forces to give deprived kids a free holiday, despite the worst efforts of two of the rich man’s greedy nephews, whilst a small town with big plans was plagued by a seemingly supernatural killer called ‘The Water Sprite!’ determined to scotch plans for an artificial lake until Lois and Clark did a little digging of their own in issue #82.

Siegel & Shuster reunited in #83 to introduce a team they clearly had high hopes for. ‘Hocus and Pocus… Magicians by Accident!’ saw affable chumps Doc and Flannelhead, mistakenly believing themselves to have gained magical powers, threatened into committing miraculous crimes: luckily an ever-vigilant Man of Tomorrow was invisibly at their sides to set things right… Hocus and Pocus – and their indomitable bunny pal Moiton – set themselves up as consulting detectives at the end and would return to complicate Superman’s life again and again…

Joe Greene & John Sikela concocted the crafty crime tale ‘Tommy Gets a Zero!’ wherein a lovelorn little boy writes a report on gangsters for school and accidentally becomes Superman’s sidekick. Of course his teacher didn’t believe him but Tommy had a higher authority to appeal to…

This stellar collection concludes with the reappearance of another lethal old lag as the mercilessly murderous Toyman resurfaced, attacking apparently poor targets whilst secretly attempting to solve ‘The Puzzle in Jade!’ (by Cameron & Dobrotka). Happily Superman was there to keep casualties to a minimum and put the Ghastly Gamesman back in his prison box…

These vintage vignettes offer irresistible and priceless enjoyment at an affordable price and this superbly robust and colourful format has inestimably advanced the prestige and social standing of the medium itself as well as preserving a vital part of American popular culture.

Still some of the very best action adventures any fan could ever find, these tales belong on your bookshelf in a place of easily accessible honour you can reach for over and over again…
© 1944, 1945, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer – The Secret of the Swordfish: volumes 2 & 3 Mortimer’s Escape and SX-1 Counter-Attacks!


By Edgar P. Jacobs translated by Clarence E. Holland (Blake and Mortimer Editions)
ISBNs: 978-9-06737-005-9 & 978-9-06737-007-3

Belgian Edgard Félix Pierre Jacobs (March 30th 1904 – February 20th 1987) is rightly considered to be one of the founding fathers of the Continental comics industry. Although his output is relatively meagre compared to some of his contemporaries, the iconic series he worked on practically formed the backbone of the art-form in Europe, and his splendidly adroit yet roguish and thoroughly British adventurers Blake and Mortimer, created for the very first issue of Le Journal de Tintin in 1946, swiftly became an unmissable staple of post-war European kids’ life the way Dan Dare was in 1950s Britain.

Edgar P. Jacobs was born inBrussels, a precocious child who began feverishly drawing from an early age but was even more obsessed with music and the performing arts – especially opera. He attended a commercial school but loathed the idea of office work and instead avidly pursued the arts and drama on graduation in 1919.

A succession of odd jobs at opera-houses (including scene-painting, set decoration, and working as both an acting and singing extra) supplanted his private performance studies, and in 1929 Jacobs won an award from the Government for classical singing.

His proposed operatic career was thwarted by the Great Depression when the arts suffered massive cutbacks following the global stock market crash, and he was compelled to pick up whatever dramatic work was going, although this did include some singing and performing.

Jacobs switched to commercial illustration in 1940 with regular work in the magazine Bravo; as well as illustrating short stories and novels. He famously took over the syndicated Flash Gordon strip when the occupying German authorities banned Alex Raymond’s quintessentially All-American Hero and the publishers desperately needed someone to satisfactorily complete the saga.

Jacobs’ ‘Stormer Gordon’ lasted less than a month before being similarly embargoed by the Occupation forces, after which the man of many talents created his own epic science-fantasy feature in the legendary Le Rayon U, a milestone in both Belgian comics and science fiction adventure.

During this period Jacobs and Tintin creator Hergé got together, and whilst creating the weekly U Ray, the younger man began working on Tintin too, colouring the original black and white strips of The Shooting Star from the newspaper Le Soir for an upcoming album collection. By 1944 he was performing a similar role for Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in America, King Ottokar’s Sceptre and The Blue Lotus. By now Jacobs was also contributing to the drawing too, working on the extended epic The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun.

After the war and liberation, publisher Raymond Leblanc convinced Hergé, Jacobs and a number of other comicstrip creatives to work for his proposed new venture. Founding publishing house Le Lombard, Leblanc also commissioned Le Journal de Tintin, an anthology comic with editions inBelgium,France andHolland edited by Herge, starring the intrepid boy reporter and a host of newer heroes.

Beside Hergé, Jacobs and writer Jacques van Melkebeke, the comic featured Paul Cuvelier’s ‘Corentin’ and Jacques Laudy’s ’The Legend of the Four Aymon Brothers’. Laudy had been a friend of Jacobs’ since they worked together on Bravo, and the first instalment of the epic thriller serial ‘Le secret de l’Espadon’ starred a bluff, gruff British scientist and an English Military Intelligence officer (who was closely modelled on Laudy): Professor Philip Mortimer and Captain Francis Blake

The initial storyline ran from issue #1 (26th September 1946 to September 8th 1949) and cemented Jacobs’ status as a star in his own right. In 1950, with the first 18 pages slightly redrawn, The Secret of the Swordfish became Le Lombard’s first album release with the concluding part published three years later. These volumes were reprinted nine more times between 1955 and 1982 with an additional single complete edition released in 1964.

In 1984 the story was reformatted and repackaged as three volumes with additional material – mostly covers from the weekly Tintin – added to the story as splash pages, and the first of these forms the basis for the English language book under discussion today.

Hergé and Jacobs purportedly suffered a split in 1947 when the former refused to grant the latter a by-line on new Tintin material, but since the two remained friends for life and Jacobs continued to produce Blake and Mortimer for the weekly comic, I think it’s fair to say that if such was the case it was a pretty minor spat. I rather suspect that The Secret of the Swordfish was simply taking up more and more of the diligent artist’s time and attention…

Although all the subsequent Blake and Mortimer sagas have been wonderfully retranslated and published by CineBook in recent years, this initial epic introductory adventure and its concluding two volumes remain frustratingly in the back-issue twilight zone, possibly due to their superficial embracing of the prevailing prejudices of the time.

By having the overarching enemies of mankind be a secret Asiatic “Yellow Peril” empire of evil, there’s some potential for offence – unless one actually reads the books and finds that any assumed racism is countered throughout by an equal amount of “good” ethnic people and “evil” white folk, so with no other version available I’m happily using these huge (312 x 232mm) 1986 iterations for this review.

And I’ll be reviewing those subsequent Cinebook tales by Jacobs and his successors in due course, but don’t wait for me… go out and get them all now!

Here and now, however, let’s recap Ruthless Pursuit, wherein a clandestine clique in the Himalayas launched a global Blitzkrieg at the command of Basam-Damdu, Emperor of Tibet. The warlord of a secret race of belligerent conquerors, whose arsenal of technological super-weapons were wielded by an army of the world’s wickedest rogues such as the diabolical Colonel Olrik dreamed of ruling the entire Earth and his sneak attack almost accomplished all his schemes in one fell swoop.

Happily however, English physicist Philip Mortimer and MI5 Captain Francis Blake were aware of the threat and were racing to finish the boffin’s radical new aircraft at a hidden British industrial complex. When the attack came the old friends swung into immediate action and narrowly escaped destruction in a devastating bomber raid…

The Golden Rocket launched just as Olrik’s bombers attacked and easily outdistanced the rapacious Empire forces, leaving ruined homes behind them as they flew into a hostile world now brutally controlled by Basam-Damdu…

Seeking to join British Middle East resistance forces, the fugitives’ flight ended prematurely and the Rocket crashed in the rocky wilds between Iran and of Afghanistan. Parachuting free, Blake and Mortimer survived a host of perils and escaped capture more than once as they slowly, inexorably made their way to the distant rendezvous, before meeting a British-trained native Sergeant Ahmed Nasir.

The loyal Indian had served with Blake during the last war and was delighted to see him again, but as the trio laboriously made their way to the target site, Olrik had already found it and captured their last hope…

Using commando tactics to infiltrate the enemy camp and stealing the villainous Colonel’s own Red-Wing super-jet, the heroes made their way towards a fall-back point but were again shot down – this time by friendly fire as rebels saw the stolen plane as an enemy target…

Surviving this crash too, the trio were ferried in relative safety by the apologetic tribesmen to the enemy-occupied town of Turbat and sheltered by a friendly Khan administrator. However the man’s servant, a spy of the Empire-appointed Wazir, recognised the Englishmen and Nasir realised too far late the danger they all faced…

Sending his loyal Sergeant away, Blake tried valiantly frantically to save Mortimer whilst a platoon of Empire soldiers rapidly mounted the stairs to their exposed room…

The frantic action begins in Mortimer’s Escape (alternatively titled The Fantastic Pursuit inside) with soldiers bursting into an empty chamber before being themselves attacked by the Khan. After a bloody firefight the Englishmen emerge from their cunning hiding place and flee Turbat, which has been seized by a furious spur-of-the-moment rebellion.

Unknown to the fugitives, the devious spy Bezendjas is hard on their heels and soon finds an opportunity to inform Olrik. With the city in flames and fighting in every street the callous colonel abandons his own troops to pursue Nasir, Blake and Mortimer into the wastes beyond the walls…

On stolen horses the heroes endure all the ferocious hardships of the desert but cannot outdistance Olrik’s staff-car. After days of relentless pursuit they reach the rocky coastline and almost stumble into another Empire patrol, and whilst ducking them Blake almost falls to his doom. Narrowly escaping death, the trio continue to climb steep escarpments and it is dusk before the Intelligence Officer realises that he has lost the precious plans and documents they have been carrying since they fled England…

Realising that somebody must reach the British resistance at their hidden Eastern base, the valiant comrades split up. Blake and Nasir continue onwards whilst Mortimer returns to the accident site. Finding the plans is a stroke of sheer good fortune, immediately countered by an ambush from Olrik’s troops.

Despite a Herculean last stand the scientist is at last taken prisoner but only after successfully hiding the lost plans…

Three weeks later Olrik is called to account in the exotic city-fortress ofLhasa. Basam-Damdu’s ruling council are unhappy with the Colonel’s lack of progress in breaking the captive scientist, and even more infuriated by a tidal-wave of sabotage and armed rebellion throughout their newly-conquered territories. Even Olrik’s own spies are warning him that his days as an agent of the Yellow Empire might be numbered…

Given two days to make Mortimer talk, the Colonel returns to his base inKarachijust as another rebel raid allows Nasir to infiltrate the Empire’s HQ. Blake is also abroad in the city, having joined British forces in the area.

With less than a day to act, the MI5 officer rendezvous with a British submarine and travels to a vast atomic powered secret installation under the Straits of Hormuz, where the Royal Navy are preparing for a massive counter-attack on the Empire. With raids liberating interned soldiers all the time, the ranks of scientists, technicians and soldiers are swelling daily…

Meanwhile, Nasir has begun a desperate plan to free Mortimer, who is still adamantly refusing to talk of the mysterious “Swordfish” Olrik’s agents continually hear rumours of…

Aware of his danger and the Sergeant’s efforts, Mortimer instead cunningly informs Nasir of the lost plans’ location, even as the impatient Emperor’s personal torturer arrives fromLhasa…

Always concerned with the greater good, Blake and a commando team secure the concealed plans and are met by Nasir who has been forced fromKarachiafter realising the spy Bezendjas has recognised him. It appears that time has run out for their scholarly comrade…

Mortimer, however, has taken fate into his own hands. When the sadistic Doctor Fo begins his interrogation, the Professor breaks free and escapes into fortress grounds during an earth-shattering storm. Trapped in a tower with only a handgun, he is determined to sell his life dearly, but is rescued by Blake and Nasir in a Navy Helicopter.

Using the storm for cover the heroes evade jet pursuit and an enemy naval sweep to link up with a British sub and escape into the night…

The saga concludes in SX1 Counter-Attacks: a tension-drenched race against time as

Blake, Mortimer and the last ofGreat Britain’s military forces prepare for a last ditch strike using the Professor’s greatest inventions to win freedom for the oppressed peoples of the world…

The story starts with a stunning reprise of past events (cunningly compiled from a succession of six full page illustrations which I assume were originally covers from the weekly Le Journal de Tintin), after which a daring commando raid frees a trainload of British prisoners. Brought to a fabulous subterranean secret base, the scientists and engineers discover an underground railway, factory and armaments facilities and even an atomic pile, all working furiously to complete the mysterious super-weapon dubbed “Swordfish”.

The liberated men all readily join the volunteers, blithely unaware that Olric is amongst them in a cunning disguise. Even as preparations for the Big Push rapidly produce results, a series of disastrous accidents soon lead to one inescapable conclusion: there is a saboteur in the citadel…

Eventually Olrik becomes overconfident and Mortimer exposes the infiltrator in a crafty trap, but after a fraught confrontation the Colonel escapes after almost causing a nuclear catastrophe. Fleeing across the seabed, the harried spy narrowly avoids capture by diver teams and even a hungry giant octopus…

The flight takes its toll upon Olrik and he barely reaches land alive. Luckily for him Bezendjas had been checking out that area of coastline and finds the rogue trapped in his stolen deep-sea diver suit. After a lengthy period the dazed desperado recovers and delivers his hard-won information. Soon all the region’s Imperial forces are converging on the British bastion…

As air and sea forces bombard the rocky island and sea floor citadel, Olrik dispatches crack troops to break in via a revealed land entrance resulting in a staggering battle in the depths of the Earth.

They were almost in time…

After months of desperate struggle, however, Mortimer and his liberated scientists have completed Swordfish: a hypersonic attack plane with uncanny manoeuvrability and appallingly destructive armaments.

Launched from beneath the sea, the sleek and sinister plane single-handedly wipes the Empire jets from the skies before sinking dozens of the attacking naval vessels. Ruthlessly piloting SX1 is Francis Blake; and even as he wreaks havoc upon the invading force he is joined by SX2 – a second unstoppable super-jet…

Soon the Yellow Empire is in full retreat and a squadron of Swordfish is completed. With the occupied planet in full revolt, it’s not long before Lhasa itself gets a taste of the flaming death it callously inflicted upon a peaceful, unsuspecting and now most vengeful world…

They were only just in time: the insane and malignant Emperor was mere moments away from launching a doomsday flight of missiles to every corner of the planet he so briefly owned…

Gripping and fantastic in the best tradition of pulp sci-fi and Boy’s Own Adventures, the exploits of Blake and Mortimer are the very epitome of True Brit grit and determination, always delivering grand old-fashioned Blood and Thunder thrills and spills in timeless fashion and with staggering visual verve and dash. Despite the high body count and dated milieu, any kid able to suspend modern mores and cultural disbelief (call it an alternative earth history if you want) will experience the adventure of their lives… and so will their children.
© 1986, 1987 Editions Blake & Mortimer. All rights reserved.

Tiger Tim Annual 1951


By various (the Amalgamated Press)
No ISBN

Feeling particularly nostalgic and wistful over the sad news about The Dandy’s imminent departure/transfiguration from the realm of newsprint, I’m going to look at a book from the era ofBritain’s comics heyday.

Normally I’d review graphic novels and trade paperback collections with a view to the reader and potential purchaser hopefully becoming a fan or even addict of the picture-strip medium. Here though, I’m simply applying modern critical sensibilities to one of the landmark items and indeed, an entire genre of pictorial edification which seems forever lost; permanently removed from the contemporary cultural scene.

If, however, you’re lucky enough to stumble across a copy or indeed any similar vintage volume, I hope my words convince you to acquire it. As ever, my real purpose and sinister scheme is to create a groundswell or even a little ripple in the entertainment ether, since I’m back on my high and wide horse about the paucity of classic vintage strips, stories and comics material available to the young and older readers of the 21st century.

So much magical material is out there in print limbo. Great writing and art is rotting in boxes and attics or the archives of publishing houses, when it needs to be back in the hands of happy punters once again. On one level the tastes of the public have never been more catholic than today and a sampling of our popular heritage will always appeal to some part of the mass consumer base.

Let’s make copyright owners aware that there’s money to be made – not loads, admittedly, but some – from these slices of our childhood, and modern technology has never been more adept at capturing, preserving and disseminating these lost and disintegrating classics…

yourgrandadscomics.org – if we build it, they will come…

Tiger Tim’s Annual 1951 was released by The Amalgamated Press in 1950 (the dating was year-forward on these colourful, bumper, hard-backed premium editions so the book would have been released in the Autumn intended as a Christmas staple) with the 1948 London Games (if not Sir Ludwig Guttman’s largely unknown International Wheelchair Games – which grew into the Paralympics of today) an already fading memory. The people’s thoughts were already turning to the upcoming Festival of Britain and the perennial rumours that rationing would be eased – if not ended.

For kids, radio, comics and being outside in the fresh air were the order of the day. DC Thomson’s exuberant and anarchic stable of titles were still the favourites, although new high class entry the Eagle was increasingly dictating the way things should and could be done.

Although far less open to change, Alfred Harmsworth’s Amalgamated Press was the other prolific powerhouse purveyor of children’s papers, with a pedigree that stretched back to the end of the 19th century and a stranglehold on syndicated and licensed characters (especially film and radio stars) which kept well-intentioned, nostalgic parents coming back for more…

Their undisputed super-star was the phenomenally popular Tiger Tim and his gang of chums The Bruin Boys (Jumbo Elephant, Willie Ostrich, Georgie Giraffe, Bobby Bruin, Jacko Monkey, Joey Parrot, Porkyboy Pig and Fido Pup) who all spent their days learning to be civilised at Mrs Bruin’s Boarding School, originally rendered by Julius Stafford Baker but eventually to grow into a multi-artist enterprise encompassing many of the country’s greatest – if uncelebrated – artists.

Tim had first appeared in Harmsworth’s Daily Mirror in 1904, and graduated in 1909 to the weekly Playbox supplement for children in ‘The World and His Wife’.

The Rainbow weekly colour comic began in February 1914 and Tim was the cover feature until its demise in 1956. In 1919 Tiger Tim’s Weekly (née Tales) also launched and he had been the star of his own annual since 1921 (first one dated 1922 – got it now?). At a time when merchandising deals for children’s features were in their infancy,

the characters were so popular that Britains – the toy soldier manufacturers – launched a line of lead figures to sell alongside their more militaristic and farm animal fare.

In this twilight years album, the line-up as ever includes not only the anthropomorphic Tim and Co. (with five strip prose stories and a magical double page cartoon spread) but also a number of general features (prose and strip), fact pieces and many puzzles and games for its young readership to keep the nippers engrossed – and quiet – for hours…

One more thing and an admittedly shameful one: when this book was released, our views of other races and cultures ranged from the patronisingly parochial to the outrageously insular to the smugly intolerable and unforgivable.

As with every aspect of British – Hell, all “White Culture” – there was an implicit assumption of racial superiority – notwithstanding the fact that every empire is built on multi-nationality; and even within living memory WWII could not have been won by white warriors alone.

Which brings us head-on into the arena of ethnic stereotyping. All I can say is what I always do: the times were different. Mercifully we’ve moved beyond the obvious institutionalised iniquities of casual racism and sexism and are much more tolerant today (unless you’re obese, gay, a smoker, a liberal, or childless and happy about it), but if antiquated attitudes and caricaturing might offend you, don’t read old comics – it’s your choice and your loss.

Moreover, the class and even regional differences underpinning this entire era are far more dangerous – just look at Sexton Blake and Tinker or middleclass educated Dan Dare and his canny, competent but ultimately comedic “Ee baih gum, sidekick” Digby

Historic portrayals and inclusions of other races have always and will always be controversial and potentially offensive from our contemporary standpoint, and we have thankfully moved on since those ignorant times. It’s not really even an excuse to say, at least in our post-war comics, that baddies were mostly our own kind and differently-hued cultures were generally friendly, noble savages not trying to eat us…

Nor will this diversion ameliorate the shock of an illustrated song at the back of this particular book: I’m saying nothing now but By Crikey you’ll know when we get to it…

This 1950’s annual begins in traditional manner: following a stunning painted frontispiece for an adventure story at the back, Tim’s terrors kick off proceedings with ‘The Fancy Dress Show’ – a prose romp wherein the mischievous scholars are themselves pranked.

All the strips in the Annual are of the traditional “block-&-pic” sort with a progression of beautifully rendered drawings in panels accompanied by a paragraph of typeset words, and the ‘Lazy Prince’ delightfully depicts the tale of a Baker’s boy who trades places with the bored heir to the throne after which bear-cub ‘Mickey Mischief’ got into hot water and other ingredients in the kitchen…

Illustrated poem ‘Runaway Oranges’ is followed by ‘The Best Sort of Capstick’, a story of a poorly-dressed Prince, rounded off by half-page strip ‘Funny Dobbin’ after which the partially-coloured portion of the book opens with a quartet of pixie-like lads and their pet pig in the strip ‘The Brownie Boys and Old King Cole’.

After an illustrated spread featuring the Bruin Boys and the other stars of the book at ‘The School Play’ and ‘The Tree-Top Tuck-Shop Man’ (illustrated by the magnificent S.J. Cash), three little piggies got ‘In a Tangle’ and F. L. Cromptoy(?) depicted the toy cinema story ‘Half-Price day for Dollies’ before it was back to prose for ‘Plucky Frank Saves the Old Windmill’.

Herbert Foxwell was the star illustrator on Tim’s adventures and he probably also limned the prose piece ‘Striped Paint – a Father Christmas Mystery’ after which the anonymous strip ‘A Message from Castle Grim’ found young Robin Hood rescuing ten-year old Maid Marian from a dungeon whilst ‘Flippy to the Rescue’ described the fate of a talking plane who proved he wasn’t too old to fly.

The half-page strip ‘Clever Spot’ is followed by a stylish retelling of ‘There Was an Old Woman (Who Lived in a Shoe)’ and the picture strip ‘Sunshade Ships’ with ingenious kittens The Tibbles helping out after a flood before the ‘Bruin Boy Band’ leads to a lot of noise about who ate all the pies…

Games and puzzles were a big part of the Annual experience and ‘Dolly’s Birthday’ combines strip-thrills and compelling conundrums in one, after which the text drama ‘Enter Two Professors’ features impostors and high jinks at Deepwell School.

‘Fairy Folk Tree’ is another illustrated rhyme courtesy of M. Newhouse whilst ‘The Brownie Boys of Dr. Acorn’s School’ tried to re-enact the events of the Cat and the Fiddle with the usual outcome after which puzzle-strip ‘The Lost Princess’ combined epic adventure with a series of tests for the readers and ‘Comical Crackers’ found Tiger Tim and Chums swapping a few japes and Christmas games of their own.

‘A Short Poem about a Long Dog’ is followed by a glorious animal excursion in ‘The Regatta’ by Cowell, whilst text-wise Peter the Page got into big trouble with ‘The Wizard’s Hat’ and mean Mr. Miggley-Moley learned too late the benefits of sharing ‘A House Underground’ in a truly splendid two-colour strip.

Professor Snook became ‘The Stay-at-Home Explorer’ in a rhyming saga, and fear of the dark unnecessarily afflicted ‘The Brownie Boys of Dr. Acorn’s School’ before Tim and the Boys went on holiday in ‘Hurrah for the Seaside!’ and ‘Puzzle Pantomimes’ led into a bold rescue mission for a little girl in the strip ‘Molly’s Redskin Chum’.

King Dandy was compelled to extreme measures to remove unwelcome familial squatter Count Crunch in the text tale ‘Camping Out!’– hilariously illustrated by R. Payton – before those three piggies returned to transform their homemade aeroplane into a ‘Flying Clothes Line’.

There was old-fashioned pirate peril for young Jack Ready when the valiant “Ship’s Powder-monkey” was aided by a furry-tailed young gallant on ‘Monkey Island’ whilst, after ‘A Funny “Tail” of Christmas Eve’, the Chinese lad Ting-a-Ling learned the power of ‘The Magic Ring’, a prose tale capped off with a two-panel strip about Old Mother Hubbard’s dog.

‘Tubby Enjoys a Joke as much as a Feast’ revelled in the hoary delights of japes and food parcels from home, after which ‘The Brownie Boys of Dr. Acorn’s School’ were lost in a nautical dream and the cleverest and greediest of the Bruin Boys stunned everybody by admitting ‘Porky Likes Work!’

‘Funny Jokes on Parade’ is followed by a strip concerning a poor working lad and a ‘Lucky Book’ after which impoverished King Popcorn regrets ‘The Royal Spring-Clean’ but still reaps a happy reward.

The book proper ends with that illustrated sing-along page so brace yourself and remember “context is everything” for ‘All Aboard for Darkietown’ before dashing on to the closing letter from the feline star in ‘Greetings to all from Tiger Tim’ and an ad for Rainbow and Playbox. The back cover is also an advert – for Cadbury’s Bourneville Cocoa – cunningly disguised as a maze for the kids to solve.

Children’s staples such as detective mysteries, school stories, sea-faring adventures, westerns past and present with studied additions to myths, fairy-tales and pantomime stories were always the bread and butter of these books, all trauma-free yarns meant to thrill while creating a love of reading.

What they considered age-appropriate children’s content might raise a few eyebrows these days. Popular fiction from a populist publisher will always embody some underlying assumptions unpalatable to some modern readers, but good taste was always a watchword when producing work for younger children, and some interactions between white children and other races is a little utopian, perhaps. The more insidious problem as I’ve already suggested arises from the accepted class-structures in some of the stories and the woefully un-PC sexism throughout.

None of this detracts one jot from the sheer creative power of the artists involved, and all we can hope for is that the reader uses judgement and perspective when viewing or revisiting material this old. Just remember Thomas Jefferson kept slaves, it’s only been unacceptable to beat your wife since the 1980’s, and in some areas even today people who die in police custody apparently only have themselves to blame…

So before I go off on another one or get on to another government watch list, let’s return to the subject at hand and say that despite all the restrictions and codicils this is a beautiful piece of children’s entertainment in the time-honoured fashion of Enid Blyton, Dodie Smith and Arthur Ransome, with lovely illustrations that would make any artist weep with envy.

You and your kids deserve the chance to see it for yourself.
© 1950 The Amalgamated Press.
Which I’m assuming is now part of IPC Ltd., so © 2012 IPC Ltd.

The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer: The Secret of the Swordfish volume 1 – Ruthless Pursuit


By Edgar P. Jacobs translated by Clarence E. Holland (Blake and Mortimer Editions)
ISBN: 978-9-06737-002-8

Belgian Edgard Félix Pierre Jacobs (March 30th 1904 – February 20th 1987) is considered one of the founding fathers of the Continental comics industry. Although his output is relatively meagre compared to some of his contemporaries, the iconic series he worked on practically formed the backbone of the art-form in Europe, and his splendidly adroit yet roguish and thoroughly British adventurers Blake and Mortimer, created for the very first issue of Le Journal de Tintin in 1946, swiftly became an unmissable staple of post-war European kids’ life the way Dan Dare would in Britain in the 1950s.

Edgar P. Jacobs was born in Brussels, a precocious child who began feverishly drawing from an early age but was even more obsessed with music and the performing arts – especially opera.

He attended a commercial school but, determined never to work in an office, pursued art and drama following graduation in 1919. A succession of odd jobs at opera-houses – scene-painting, set decoration, working as an acting and singing extra – supplanted his private performance studies, and in 1929 Jacobs won an award from the Government for classical singing.

His proposed career as an opera singer was thwarted by the Great Depression, however, as the arts took a nosedive following the global stock market crash.

Picking up whatever dramatic work was going, including singing and performing, Jacobs switched to commercial illustration in 1940. Regular work came from the magazine Bravo; as well as illustrating short stories and novels he famously took over the syndicated Flash Gordon strip, after the occupying German authorities banned Alex Raymond’s quintessentially All-American Hero and the publishers desperately sought someone to satisfactorily complete the saga.

Jacob’s ‘Stormer Gordon’ lasted less than a month before being similarly embargoed by the Nazis, after which the man of many talents created his own epic science-fantasy feature in the legendary Le Rayon U, a milestone in both Belgian comics and science fiction adventure.

The U Ray’ was a huge hit in 1943 and scored big all over again a generation later when Jacobs reformatted the original “text-block and picture” material to incorporate speech balloons and ran the series again in the periodical Tintin with subsequent release as a trio of graphic albums in 1974.

I’ve read differing accounts of how Jacobs and Tintin creator Hergé got together – and why they parted ways professionally, if not socially – but as to the whys and wherefores of the split I frankly I don’t care. What is known is this: whilst creating the weekly U Ray, one of Jacob’s other jobs was scene-painting, and during the staging of a theatrical version of Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharaoh Hergé and Jacobs met and became friends. If the comics maestro was unaware of Jacob’s comic work before then he was certainly made aware of it soon after.

Thereafter, Jacobs began working on Tintin, colouring the original black and white strips of The Shooting Star from the newspaper Le Soir for an upcoming album collection. By 1944 he was performing a similar role for Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in America, King Ottokar’s Sceptre and The Blue Lotus. By now he was also contributing to the drawing too, working on the extended epic The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun.

Jacob’s love of opera made it into the feature as Hergé – who loathed the stuff – teasingly created the bombastic Bianca Castafiore as a comedy foil and based a number of bit players (such as Jacobini in The Calculus Affair) on his long-suffering assistant.

After the war and liberation publisher Raymond Leblanc convinced Hergé, Jacobs and a number of other comics creatives to work for his new venture. Launching publishing house Le Lombard, he also commissioned Le Journal de Tintin, an anthology comic with editions in Belgium, France and Holland edited by Herge, starring the intrepid boy reporter and a host of newer heroes.

Beside Hergé, Jacobs and writer Jacques van Melkebeke, the comic featured Paul Cuvelier’s ‘Corentin’ and Jacques Laudy’s ’The Legend of the Four Aymon Brothers’. Laudy had been a friend of Jacobs’ since they worked together on Bravo and the first instalment of the epic thriller serial ‘Le secret de l’Espadon’ starred a bluff, gruff British scientist and an English Military Intelligence officer (who was closely modelled on Laudy): Professor Philip Mortimer and Captain Francis Blake

The initial storyline ran from issue #1 – 26th September 1946-8th September 1949 – and cemented Jacobs’ status as a star in his own right. In 1950, with the first 18 pages slightly redrawn, The Secret of the Swordfish became Le Lombard’s first album release with the concluding part published three years later. These volumes were reprinted nine more times between 1955 and 1982 with an additional single complete edition released in 1964.

In 1984 the story was reformatted and repackaged as three volumes with additional material – mostly covers from the weekly Tintin – added to the story as splash pages, and the first of these forms the basis for the English language book under discussion today.

Hergé and Jacobs purportedly suffered a split in 1947 when the former refused to grant the latter a by-line on new Tintin material, but since the two remained friends for life and Jacob’s continued to produce Blake and Mortimer for the weekly comic, I think it’s fair to say that if such was the case it was a pretty minor spat. I rather suspect that The Secret of the Swordfish was simply taking up more and more of the brilliant, diligent artist’s time and attention…

The U Ray also provided early visual inspiration for Blake, Mortimer and implacable nemesis Colonel Olrik, who bear a more than passing resemblance to the heroic Lord Calder, Norlandian boffin Marduk and viperous villain Dagon from that still lauded masterwork…

Although all the subsequent sagas have been wonderfully retranslated and published by CineBook in recent years, this initial epic introductory adventure and its concluding two volumes remain frustratingly in the back-issue twilight zone, probably due to its embracing of the prevailing prejudices of the time.

By having the overarching enemies of mankind be a secret Asiatic “Yellow Peril” empire of evil, there’s some potential for offence – unless one actually reads the text and finds that the assumed racism is countered throughout by an equal amount of “good” ethnic people and “evil” white folk, so with no other version available I’m happily using the huge (312 x 232mm) 1986 iteration for this review.

All the subsequent tales by Jacobs and his successors have been successfully released by Cinebook and, although I’ll be reviewing them in due course, don’t wait for me but go out and get them all now!

Here and now, however, the incredible journey begins with ‘Ruthless Pursuit’ as a secret army in the Himalayas prepares to launch a global Blitzkrieg on a world only slowly recovering from its second planetary war. The wicked Basam-Damdu, Emperor of Tibet, has assembled an arsenal of technological super-weapons and the world’s worst rogues such as the insidious Colonel Olrik in a bid to seize control of the entire Earth.

However a bold British-Asian spy has infiltrated the hidden fortress and surrenders his life to get off a warning message…

In England, physicist and engineer Philip Mortimer and MI5 Captain Francis Blake discuss the worsening situation at an industrial installation where the boffin’s radical new aircraft engine is being constructed. When the warning comes that the war begins that night, the old friends swing into immediate action…

As the super-bombers rain destruction down on all the world’s cities, Mortimer’s dedicated team prepares his own prototype, the Golden Rocket, for immediate launch, taking off just as Olrik’s bombers appear over the desolate complex. Despite heavy fire the Rocket easily outdistances the rapacious Empire forces, leaving ruined homes behind them as they fly into a hostile world now brutally controlled by Basam-Damdu…

Whilst seeking to join British Middle East resistance forces who have another prototype super-plane, teething troubles and combat damage create tense moments in the fugitives’ flight. When the Rocket is attacked by a flight of jets the test ship’s superior firepower enables it to fight free but only at the cost of more structural deterioration. Failing now, the Rocket goes down in the rocky wilds between Iran and of Afghanistan. Parachuting free of the doomed Rocket, Blake, Mortimer and the crew are machined gunned by pursuing Empire jets and only three men make it to the ground safely…

After days of struggle Blake, Mortimer and the indomitable Jim are cornered by Iranian troops who have joined Olrik’s forces. Sensing disaster, the Britons hide the plans to Mortimer’s super plane but one of the Iranians sees the furtive act. When no one is looking – even his superiors – Lieutenant Ismail hurriedly scoops up the document but misses one…

Under lock and key and awaiting Olrik’s arrival, the prisoners are accosted by Ismail, who sees an opportunity for personal advancement which the Englishmen turn to their own advantage. Denouncing him to his superiors, Blake instigates a savage fight between Ismail and his Captain. During the brief struggle Jim sacrifices himself, allowing Blake and Mortimer to escape with the recovered plans. Stealing a lorry, the desperate duo drive out into the dark desert night…

Followed by tanks into the mountain passes, the ingenious pair trap their pursuers in a ravine just as hill partisans attack. The Empire collaborators are wiped out and, after exchanging information with the freedom fighters, the Englishmen take one of the captured vehicles and head to a distant rendezvous with the second Rocket, but lack of fuel forces them to stop at a supply dump where they are quickly discovered.

By setting the dump ablaze the heroes escape again, but in the desert Olrik has arrived and found the sheet of notes left behind by Ismail. The cunning villain is instantly aware of what it means…

Fighting off aerial assaults from Empire jets and streaking for the mountains, Blake and Mortimer abandon their tank and are forced to travel on foot until they reach the meeting point where a British-trained native Sergeant Ahmed Nasir is waiting for them. The loyal Indian served with Blake during the last war and is delighted to see him again, but as the trio make their way to the target site they become aware that Olrik has already found it and captured their last hope…

Only temporarily disheartened, the trio use commando tactics to infiltrate Olrik’s camp, stealing not the heavily guarded prototype but the villainous Colonel’s own Red-Wing super-jet. Back on course to the British resistance forces, the seemingly-cursed trio are promptly shot down by friendly fire: rebels perceiving the stolen plane as just another enemy target…

Surviving this crash too, the trio are ferried in relative safety by the apologetic tribesmen to the enemy-occupied town of Turbat, but whilst there a spy of the Empire-appointed Wazir recognises Blake and Mortimer. When Nasir realises they are in trouble he dashes to the rescue but is too late to prevent Mortimer from being drugged.

Sending the loyal Sergeant on ahead, Blake tries frantically to revive his comrade as a platoon of Empire soldiers rapidly mount the stairs to their exposed upper room…

To Be Continued…

Gripping and fantastic in the best tradition of pulp sci-fi and Boy’s Own Adventures, Blake and Mortimer are the very epitome of True Brit grit and determination, always delivering grand old-fashioned Blood and Thunder thrills and spills in timeless fashion and with staggering visual verve and dash. Despite the high body count and dated milieu, any kid able to suspend modern mores and cultural disbelief (call it an alternative earth history if you want) will experience the adventure of their lives… and so will their children.
© 1986 Editions Blake & Mortimer. All rights reserved.

Suburban Nightmares: the Science Experiment


By Larry Hancock, Michael Cherkas, John van Bruggen & various (NBM)
ISBN: 978-0-91834-880-7

The huge outpouring of new comics which derived from the birth of American comicbooks’ Direct Sales revolution produced a plethora of innovative titles and creators – and, let’s be fair here – a host of appalling, derivative, knocked-off, banged-out plain and simple tat too.

Happily it’s my party and I choose to focus on the good and even great stuff…

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

Consequently those new publishers were soon aggressively competing for the attention and cash of punters who had grown resigned to getting their on-going picture stories from DC, Marvel, Archie and/or Harvey Comics. European and Japanese material began creeping in and by 1983 a host of young companies such as WaRP Graphics, Pacific, Eclipse, Capital, Now, Comico, Dark Horse, First and many others had established themselves and were making impressive inroads.

New talent, established stars and fresh ideas all found a thriving forum to try something a little different both in terms of content and format. Even smaller companies and foreign outfits had a fair shot at the big time and a lot of great material came – and, almost universally, as quickly went – without getting the attention or success they warranted.

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

Moreover, much of the “kid’s stuff” stigma had finally dissipated and America was catching up to the rest of the world in acknowledging that sequential narrative might just be a for-real actual art-form, so the door was wide open for gosh-darned foreigners to make a few waves too…

One of the most critically acclaimed and just plain fun features came from semi-Canadian outfit Renegade Press which, spun out by a torturous and litigious process from Dave Sim’s Canadian Aardvark-Vanaheim publishing outfit, set up shop in the USA and began publishing at the very start of the black and white comics bubble in 1984, picking up a surprisingly strong line of creator-based properties and some genuinely remarkable and impressive new series such as Ms. Tree, Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire, Normalman, Flaming Carrot, the first iteration of Al Davison’s stunning Spiral Cage and the compulsive, stylish Cold War, flying-saucer paranoia-driven series The Silent Invasion amongst many others.

This stunningly stylish saga – which I simply must get around to soon – welded 1950s homeland terrors (invasion by Reds, invasion by aliens, invasion by new ideas…) with film noir and 20-20 hindsight and was a truly fresh and enticing concept in the Reagan-era Eighties, but of equal if not greater interest was the inclusion of ancillary back-up tales utilising the same milieu and themes which proved popular enough to springboard into their own short-lived title…

This first superbly oversized monochrome tome – a whopping 280 x 205mm – gathers that stand-alone material from The Silent Invasion and Suburban Nightmares with the three creators Larry Hancock, Michael Cherkas, John van Bruggen, and a few invited guests, playfully swapping jobs and pilfering/homaging other stylisations and forms to produce a delightful wealth of twisted tales and shocking stories that will, even now, astound fans of many classic genres such as sci-fi, horror, conspiracy theory, crime, romance and even comedy…

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

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

In 1983 the temptation was clearly too much for the USA’s less panicky northern neighbours, and Hancock, Cherkas & Van Bruggen brilliantly mined the era for these stunning, stylish and clever yarns, subsequently pulling off the impossible trick of re-capturing a fleeting zeitgeist…

The macabre, mirth, mood and menace commences with the eponymous 4-part thriller ‘The Science Experiment’ (script by Hancock, pencils Van Bruggen, inks and letters from Cherkas) set in the early boom years of the 1950s, wherein an idyllic new town built on the edge of an operational government atomic bomb testing site slowly reveals its terrible dark secret…

In ‘Welcome to Green Valley’ the latest ultra-modern planned community in Nevada accepts new school science teacher Sam Donaldson and his wife Ruth with open arms. They’re the perfect nuclear family with son Rusty already making friends at Hoover High and another baby on the way. Soon they’re all getting on famously with everybody – or at least the adults are…

However, soon after flirtatious neighbour Theresa Morrow confides to Ruth that she’s also expecting, the poor thing has a minor fall. When the concerned Donaldsons warn the doctor, they receive the tragic but impossible news that Theresa has inexplicably died, but was “never pregnant”…

In the shadow of a fresh mushroom cloud, ‘An Ill Wind blows in Green Valley’ sees bereft Barry Morrow turning to drink whilst Sam meets Hospital administrator Dr. Stewart Carver; a keen fan and follower of the regular nuclear spectacle occurring fifty miles outside his office window…

Still unsettled, Sam checks out a few books about radiation from the local library, unaware that by doing so he’s made it onto a very special and secret list…

His concern increases when he inadvertently learns that his predecessor at Hoover High consulted the same tomes before mysteriously quitting and disappearing, but it’s Principal Daniels who panics when Donaldson finds that some of old Charlie Simmer’s notes and school journals are languishing in a box at school secretary Madge’s house…

Too busy and wrapped up to help his son Rusty with his science project, Sam goes to Madge’s house only to find she’s been burgled. Although the place has been ransacked the only thing missing is Simmer’s journals, but before he can process it all, Barry attacks Sam, accusing Donaldson of having had an affair with Theresa…

‘Dark Secrets of Green Valley’ finds Sam barracked by Principal Daniels, another atomic apologist who can’t contemplate any thought that radioactive fallout might be harmful. Whilst Ruth is having an ante-natal check-up, Carver confronts Sam and accuses him of scaremongering, confiding also that the hospital has been running a government-sponsored survey into radiation for years and that the atomic tests are categorically harmless…

Sam is unconvinced, especially as he has noticed how few young children live in the bustling town. Dwelling on the fact that the Hospital’s huge maternity unit has only one baby in it, he leaves with Ruth but all such thoughts are driven from him when Barry tries to run them down in the parking lot…

Horrific answers are forthcoming in the shocking conclusion when the now rational and repentant Barry meets the Sam and discloses his own part in a shocking conspiracy to cover-up what radiation does to foetuses and the outrageous and draconian steps taken by a panicking government desperate not to lose face…especially after spending so much money building the perfect City of Tomorrow…

The mysteriously low conception rate is explained at last but when Sam points out how Barry is still deluding himself and underestimating the lengths Carver has gone to, ‘The Fate of Green Valley’ inevitably culminates in a welter of blood and death…

After the compelling tension and trauma of the title tale, ‘Be Home Before it gets Dark!’ (scripted by Hancock and printed from Van Bruggen’s unlinked pencils) switches tone if not time-period as a little lad desperate to prove his bravery stays out late with the big kids and learns that sometimes there really are monsters in the night, after which ‘Buster Takes a Nap’ describes the problems that occur when a provident, prudent and friendly family promise too many friends and neighbours a place in their brand new bomb shelter. Of course they’ll never really have to honour those pledges, will they…?

‘The Inheritance’, with Cherkas tackling all the art chores, recounts a little boy’s tale about the scary man next door. We all know about those grouches; shouting, cursing, destroying kid’s toys and digging the gardens in the middle of the night, but this one was really mean. Perhaps that’s why so many kids ran away from home and were never seen again…

Stanley Morrison was ‘Just another Joe’ (script by Hancock, pencils Van Bruggen, inks Cherkas); a decent, loyal American in suburban Apple Hill who sold insurance and spent his spare time denouncing colleagues and neighbours to the FBI for un-American activities. It was mere coincidence that they all just happened to be more successful or popular than him. Of course, a guy like that is really hard to live with, but his long-suffering wife was a decent, loyal American too…

Veteran inker Bob Smith joined Van Bruggen & Hancock for the paranoid tribute to the earth-shattering advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll as Mrs. Ellen Nelson ruminates on why her son is acting so weird. What makes him hide in his room for hours at a time? It might be Martian abduction, atomic mutation, government meddling, commie mind-manipulation or something even worse ‘For all we Know’

Bob Nevin always took the 7:13 train to his job in the city but his tidy, happy life began to instantly and inexplicably unravel the day he caught ‘The Seven-Thirty-Three’ in a surreal and chilling homage to the Twilight Zone pencilled by Cherkas and inked by Van Bruggen, whilst the edgily sardonic ‘Suburban Blight’ saw the illustrators trade places to recount the all-out war between a man and the dandelions that desecrated his otherwise perfect lawn before this splendid initial collection concludes with the Hancock & Cherkas fantasy ‘June 1953’ wherein diligent and hard-working Larry Hillman doesn’t come home one night…

When he turns up the next day Larry is a changed man. Now happy, calm and friendly, he quits his job, ignores all his responsibilities and begs his family to come with him when the aliens who abducted him return in a month to take them all to the perfect world of Alpha Centauri…

Crafted in a boldly adventurous range of visual styles and long-overdue for a modern revival, these beguiling and enthralling Suburban Nightmares are an unforgettable gateway to a eerily familiar yet comfortably exotic era and one no fan of thriller fiction can afford to ignore.
Suburban Nightmares: the Science Experiment ©1990 Michael Cherkas, Larry Hancock and John van Bruggen. Other stories © 1986, 1987, 1988 Michael Cherkas, Larry Hancock and John van Bruggen. All rights reserved. NBM Publishing