The Greatest Flash Stories Ever Told

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-93028-981-2

When the very concept of high priced graphic novels was just being gradually accepted in the early 1990s DC comics produced a line of glorious hardback compilations that highlighted star characters and even celebrated the standout stories from the company’s illustrious and varied history decade by decade.

The Greatest Stories collections were revived in this century as smaller paperback editions (with mostly differing content) and stand as an impressive introduction to the fantastic worlds and exploits of the World’s Greatest Superheroes but for sheer satisfaction the older, larger books are by far the better product. Some of them made it to softcover trade paperback editions, but if you can afford it the big hard ones are the jobs to go for…

Since I believe reading comics to be a fully immersive experience (smell, feel, good coffee, biscuits, a solid soundtrack playing and somewhere someone futilely shouting to get your attention) I’ll be reviewing most of them over the up next few months but I’m starting with the volume dedicated to the hero attributed with starting the Silver Age and the other characters who share the sobriquet of “the Fastest Man Alive”…

Edited by Mike Gold and Brian Augustyn with contributions from Robert Greenberger, Katie Main and Dan Thorsland plus a foreword by artist and ex-publisher Carmine Infantino, this volume presents some genuinely intriguing choices featuring the first three men to dazzle generations of readers as The Flash.

From the Golden Age comes four fabulous exploits of Jay Garrick – a scientist exposed to “hard water fumes” which gave him super-speed and endurance, beginning with his very first appearance ‘The Fastest Man Alive’ from Flash Comics #1 (January 1940) by Gardner Fox & Harry Lampert, who speedily delivered an origin, a returning cast and a classic confrontation with sinister gang the Faultless Four and their diabolical leader Sieur Satan.

This is followed by ‘The Flash and the Black Widow’ from issue #66 (August 1945) written by budding horror-novelist Robert Bloch and illustrated by E.E. Hibbard wherein a seductive menace transformed helpless victims – including hapless comedy sidekicks Winky, Blinky and Noddy – into talking animals.

‘Stone Age Menace’ (Flash Comics #86, 1947) is a time travel caper scripted by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Lee Elias whilst from December of that year the same team crafted a spectacular clash with criminal mastermind the Turtle, who tried once more to profit from ‘The Slow-Motion Crimes’.

As the 1950s dawned the popularity of costumed heroes dwindled and for nearly a decade licensed properties, Crime, Westerns, War, Mystery and other genre fare dominated the newsstands. Despite the odd bold sally, costumed heroes barely held their own until Julius Schwartz ushered in a new age of brightly clad mystery-men by reviving the Flash in 1956. For the great majority of fans (aging baby-boomers that we are) police scientist Barry Allen will always be the “real” Scarlet Speedster, struck by lightning, bathed in chemicals – if you couldn’t find an atomic blast to survive, that kind of freak accident was the only way to start a career.

From his spectacular run comes the pivotal event which marked the beginning of a way of life for so many addicted kids: ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt!’ (Showcase #4), written by Kanigher, penciled by Infantino and inked by Joe Kubert, was another quick-fire origin with crime story attached as the brand new hero discovered his powers and mission and still found time to defeat a modern iteration of the Turtle.

John Broome and Gardner Fox would write the bulk of the early tales, introducing a “big science” sensibility and, courtesy of Broome, a Rogues Gallery of fantastic foes which would become the template for all proper superheroes. After four Showcase try-outs the Vizier of Velocity won his own title, picking up the numbering of Flash Comics which had folded in 1949 after 104 issues.

Such a one was Grodd, sole malcontent of a race of hyper-evolved simians who in Broome, Infantino & Joe Giella’s ‘Return of the Super-Gorilla’ (Flash #107, June 1959) lured the Scarlet Speedster to the centre of the Earth and a lost race of bird-men. Another was The Trickster, a prankster-bandit who could defy gravity. In his debut appearance ‘Danger in the Air!’ (Flash #1113, June 1960), Broome, Infantino & Giella provided the ideal counterpart to the rather stuffy hero whilst #119’s ‘The Mirror-Master’s Magic Bullet’ (March 1967 and inked by Murphy Anderson) showed the hero’s wits were always faster than any speed his feet could attain.

Ductile Detective Elongated Man began as a Flash cameo and his subsequent guest-shots were always a benchmark for offbeat thrills. In #124 (November 1961, inked by Giella) Captain Boomerang’s ‘Space Boomerang Trap’ led to an extra-dimensional invasion and an uneasy alliance of heroes and villain whereas next issue’s epic ‘The Conquerors of Time!’ was a mind-boggling classic as time-travelling aliens attempted to subjugate Earth in 2287AD by preventing fissionable elements from forming in 100,842,246BC. Antediluvian lost races, another pivotal role for Kid Flash Wally West (easily the most trusted and responsible sidekick of the Silver Age), the introduction of the insanely cool Cosmic Treadmill plus spectacular action make this a benchmark of quality graphic narrative.

‘Flash of Two Worlds’ (not included here so see either Showcase Presents the Flash volume 2 or the aforementioned Flash: the Greatest Stories Ever Told 2007 tpb) revived the Golden Age Flash, and by implication, the whole 1940s DC pantheon, by introducing the concept of parallel worlds and multiple Earths which became the bedrock of the entire continuity, and which the company still mines to such great effect.

What is included here is ‘Vengeance of the Immortal Villain!’ from Flash #137 (June 1963, written by Fox and inked by Giella) the third chronological Earth-2 crossover, which saw two Flashes unite to defeat 50,000 year old Vandal Savage and save the Justice Society of America: a tale which directly led into the veteran team’s first meeting with the Justice League of America and the start of all those beloved “Crisis” epics.

Barry Allen’s best friend was test pilot Hal Jordan who fought crime as an agent of the Guardians of the Universe, so the heroes joined forces on a regular basis. From Flash #143, March 1964 comes the intriguing high-tech mystery ‘Trail of the False Green Lanterns!’ by John Broome, Infantino and Giella, who also produced the award-winning and deeply moving ghost-story ‘The Doorway to the Unknown!’ (#148, November 1964).

Cary Bates became the Flash’s regular – and exclusive – writer from the early 1970s to the hero’s demise in 1985, but he was only a promising newcomer when he co-scripted with Fox the exuberant fourth-wall busting epic ‘The Flash – Fact or Fiction?’(#179, May 1968, illustrated by Ross Andru & Mike Esposito) which took the multiple Earths concept to its logical conclusion by trapping the Monarch of Motion in “our” Reality, where the Flash was just a comic-book character! However Bate’s slick solo effort ‘How to Prevent a Flash’ (Five-Star Super-Hero Spectacular 1977), illustrated by Irv Novick & Frank McLaughlin shows a mature subtlety that highlights not just superpowers but the hero’s forensic thinking…

Barry Allen died during the Crisis on Infinite Earths – and stayed dead for what is now a very long time in comics. In the years leading up to that he endured a monolithic saga wherein his wife was murdered, he destroyed her killer and was ultimately brought to trial for manslaughter. That saga, encompassing #275-350, is condensed here into ‘The Final Flash Storyline’ – a handy text feature by Bates with illustrations from Infantino, Dennis Jensen, Gary Martin, Frank McLaughlin, George Pérez & Jerry Ordway.

In honour of his ultimate sacrifice, Barry’s nephew Wally West graduated from sidekick to the third Sultan of Speed and carved his own legend in scarlet and gold. This terrific tome concludes with a Reagan-era classic as the severely outclassed new hero battled Vandal Savage in the gripping ‘Hearts… of Stone’ (Flash volume 2, #2 July 1987 by Mike Baron, Jackson Guice & Larry Mahlstedt) to close the book.

Not quite the icon Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman are, Flash is nevertheless the quintessential superhero and the reason we’re all doing this today. This delightful book is a superb example of superhero stories at their very best and whatever your age or temperament there’s something great here for you to enjoy and treasure.
© 1940-1987, 1991 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

The Sandman

By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby with Mike Royer & others (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2299-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for the die-hard fanboy superhero purists and lovers of pure comic magic  9/10

In the early days of the American comicbook the fledgling industry was awash with chancers, double-dealers, slick operators and outright crooks. Many creative types fell foul of this publishing free-for-all but a rare few took to the cut and thrust and managed not only to survive but also to prosper.

Just as the Golden Age of comics was beginning two young men with big hopes met up and began a decades-long association that was always intensely creative, immensely productive and spectacularly in tune with popular tastes. Joe Simon was a sharp-minded, talented young man with five years experience in “real” publishing, working from the bottom up to art director on a succession of small paper such as the Rochester Journal American, Syracuse Herald and Syracuse Journal American before moving to New York City and a life of freelancing as an art/photo retoucher and illustrator. Recommended by his boss, Simon joined Lloyd Jacquet’s pioneering Funnies Inc., a comics production “shop” generating strips and characters for a number of publishing houses eager to cash in on the success of Action Comics and its stellar attraction Superman.

Within days Simon created The Fiery Mask for Martin Goodman of Timely Comics (now Marvel) and met young Jacob Kurtzberg, a cartoonist and animator just hitting his stride with the Blue Beetle for the Fox Feature Syndicate.

Together Simon and Kurtzberg (who went through a legion of pen-names before settling on Jack Kirby) enjoyed a stunning creative empathy and synergy which galvanized an already electric neo-industry with a vast catalogue of features and even sub-genres. They produced the influential Blue Bolt, Captain Marvel Adventures (#1) and, when Martin Goodman made Simon the editor of Timely, created a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, the first Marvel Boy, The Vision, Young Allies and of course the million-selling mega-hit Captain America.

Famed for his larger than life characters and colossal cosmic imaginings, “King” Kirby was an astute, spiritual hard-working family man who lived though poverty, gangsterism, the Depression and World War II. He had seen Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded, always saw the best in people and was utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby jumped ship to National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a big chequebook. Initially an uncomfortable fit, bursting with ideas the company were not comfortable with, the pair were soon given two strips that were in the doldrums until they found their creative feet.

Once established and left to their own devices they created the “Kid Gang” genre with The Newsboy Legion (plus super-heroic mentor The Guardian) and the unique international army The Boy Commandos – who shared the spotlight with Batman in Detective Comics and whose own solo title was frequently the company’s third best seller.

Those moribund strips they were first let loose upon were a big game feature called Paul Kirk, Manhunter, which they overnight turned into a darkly manic, vengeful superhero strip, and one of comics’ first masked mystery-men – The Sandman.

This superb hardback collection reprints all the Simon and Kirby Sandman tales, including the covers they produced for the issues they didn’t craft, lost art pages, original art reproductions plus informative text articles from Kirby historian John Morrow and writer Mark Evanier and also includes Simon & Kirby’s reunion reinvention of Sandman from 1974 (which in turn spawned one of Kirby’s last, short-lived series for DC).

Created by Gardner Fox and originally illustrated by Bert Christman, the Sandman premiered in either Adventure Comics #40 July 1939 (two months after Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27) or two weeks earlier in New York World’s Fair Comics 1939, depending on whether some rather spotty distribution records can be believed.

Face utterly obscured by a gasmask; caped and business-suited millionaire adventurer Wesley Dodds wielded a sleeping-gas gun to battle a string of crooks and spies, accompanied by his paramour Dian Belmont, before gradually losing the readers’ interest and slipping from cover-spot to last feature in Adventure Comics, just as the cloaked pulp-hero avengers he emulated slipped from popularity in favour of more flamboyant fictional fare.

Possessing a certain indefinable style and charm but definitely no pizzazz, the feature was on the verge of being dropped when he abruptly switched to a skintight yellow and purple costume complete with billowing cape and gained a boy-sidekick, Sandy the Golden Boy (Adventure Comics #69, December 1941, by Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris), presumably to move closer to the overwhelmingly successful Batman model.

It didn’t help much.

So when Simon & Kirby came aboard with #72, the little banner above the logo on the Jack Burnley Starman cover gave no hint of the pulse-pounding change that had occurred. ‘Riddle of the Slave Market’ saw a sleek, dynamic pair of gleaming golden lions explode across eleven pages of graphic fury as the Sandman, sans that daft cape, crushed a white-collar criminal with a nasty line in illicit indentured servitude. Moreover the character had overnight acquired his unique gimmick: Sandman’s crusades against crime were presaged by the perpetrator suffering nightmares of imminent retribution…

This semi-supernatural element and fascination with the world of dreams (revisited by S&K a decade later in their short-lived experimental suspense series The Strange World of Your Dreams) added a conceptual punch to equal the kinetic fury of their art, and when #73 (with the S&K Manhunter now hogging the cover) the Sandman strip ‘Bells of Madness!’ ramped up the tension with another spectacular action epic as the Dream Warriors exposed a cunningly murder plot.

With Adventure #74 Sandman and Sandy took back the cover spot (only their third since #51) keeping it until the feature ended. Only once did Sandman not appear on the cover – #99: another S&K Manhunter classic. With #103 the magazine underwent a complete overhaul with new feature Superboy leading a cast of established regulars – Green Arrow, Aquaman, Shining Knight and Johnny Quick – parachuted in from other magazines.

The story in #74 was an eerie instant classic: ‘The Man Who Knew All the Answers’ was a small-town professor who artificially increased his intellect – but not his morality. When his perfectly planned crimes brought him into conflict with the Sandman it was clear that his brain enhancer did nothing for his common sense either.

‘The Villain From Valhalla!’ (Adventure Comics #75 June 1942) pitted the galvanic heroes against a hammer-wielding Norse god in a cataclysmic Battle Royale, which is followed here by an equally astounding clash with sinister floral villain Nightshade. ‘The Adventure of the Magic Forest’ comes from World’s Finest Comics #6 (Summer 1942), one of two S&K exploits in that legendary high-profile anthology.

Sandman was also a founding member of the Justice Society of America, appearing in many issues of All-Star Comics. A number of the pertinent chapters were also produced by Joe & Jack but are not included in this otherwise comprehensive compendium: completists will need to track down the superb All-Star Archives (volumes 4 and 5) for those dynamic classics.

Adventure #76 again heavily emphasised the foreboding dream element in ‘Mr. Noah Raids the Town!’ as a soothsaying mastermind unleashed preposterously intelligent animals to steal and kill whilst #77’s ‘Dreams of Doom!’ found an innocent man plagued by nightmares and compelled to solicit the aid of the Master of Dreams… and only just in time!

A sinister Swami was exposed in ‘The Miracle Maker!’ whilst the final World’s Finest guest-shot (#7, Fall 1942) dipped heavily into exotic fantasy for ‘A Modern Arabian Nightmare!’ before Adventure #79 perfectly banged the patriotic drum in an eerie temporal-trap mystery ‘Footprints in the Sands of Time!’

It was back to thrill-a-minute manic crime mayhem in #80’s ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Sleep!’ but ‘A Drama in Dreams’ presented a baffling conundrum for Sandy alone to solve whilst the creators went for seasonal shocks in the madcap Yule yarn ‘Santa Fronts for the Mob.’

Issue #83 led with a blockbusting boxing romance as the heroes came to the aid of ‘The Lady and the Champ!’ and included a gloriously over-the-top Boy Commandos ad featuring Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo as only Jack and Joe could defame them. Next comes the gloriously Grand Guignol saga of the ‘Crime Carnival’ and a delightfully wry romp ‘The Unholy Dreams of Gentleman Jack’ before the creators once more returned to a favourite theme of childhood poverty in ‘The Boy Who Was Too Big for his Breeches.’

The war was progressing and soon both Joe and Jack would be full-time servicemen so perhaps the increasingly humanistic tales of the latter run were only to be expected. The shift in emphasis certainly didn’t affect the quality of such gems as ‘I Hated the Sandman!’ from #87 wherein narcoleptic Silas Pettigrew learned a salutary lesson or the heartwarming and exuberant childhood fantasy ‘The Cruise of the Crescent’ whilst #89’s kidnap drama ‘Prisoner of his Dreams’ and the boisterous ‘Sleepy Time Crimes!’ proved that whatever else happened action and excitement would always be the series’ watchwords.

In the months prior to their induction Simon & Kirby went into overdrive, building up a vast reserve of inventory stories for their assorted strip commitments, but even so relentless publishing deadlines soon ate them up. Adventure Comics #91 featured the last S&K yarn for a year and a half, long after Kirby had shipped out to fight in Europe and Simon had begun his service with the US Coast Guard.

‘Courage a La Carte’ has precious little – if indeed any – Kirby art in it, but is nonetheless a sterling saga of malice unmasked and justice triumphant, after which only the covers of Adventure #92-97 reprinted here kept the artist’s light burning in the heart of their fans.

They returned for issue #100 (October/November 1945) with tempestuous crime caper ‘Sweets for Swag!’ – the cover of #101and again inside #102 with the swansong drama ‘The Dream of Peter Green!’ as Sandman and Sandy exposed shoddy dealings in city contracting and gave ghetto kids decent playgrounds to grow fit and healthy in.

National Comics was no longer a welcoming place for the reunited duo and by 1947 they had formed their own studio and begun a long and productive relationship with Harvey Comics (Stuntman, Boy’s Ranch, Captain 3-D, Lancelot Strong, The Shield, The Fly, Three Rocketeers and others) and created an stunning variety of genre features for Crestwood/Pines (supplied by their Essankay/Mainline studio shop) which included Justice Traps the Guilty, Black Magic, Fighting American, Bullseye, Foxhole and Young Romance amongst many more (see the superb Best of Simon and Kirby for a salient selection of these classic creations).

As comics went through bad times the pair eventually went their separate ways but were reunited for one last hurrah in 1974 whilst both working once more for DC. As a result they re-imagined the Sandman as a fully fantastic scientific master of the metaphysical, policing the nightmares of humanity from a citadel deep in “The Dream-stream.”

‘The Sandman’ (scripted by Joe, drawn/edited by Jack and inked by Mike Royer) is pure escapist delight as young Jed Paulsen tapped into the oneiric horrors of villainous cybrid General Electric as he attempted to conquer the World of Our Dreams. When all hope seemed exhausted Jed was rescued and befriended by the omniscient Lord of Sleep and his ghastly assistants Brute and Glob…

This rambunctious romp is a great place to end our volume but since six further adventures of this Weaver of Dreams were completed (albeit with no Simon and varying degrees of Kirby) perhaps one day they too will make the jump to graphic novel immortality…

After years of neglect the glorious wealth of Jack Kirby material available these days is a true testament to his influence and legacy, so this magnificent collection of his collaborations with fellow industry pioneer Joe Simon is another gigantic box of delights that perfectly illustrates the depth, scope sheer thundering joy of the early days of comics: something no amount of corporate shoddy behaviour can ever diminish.

© 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1974, 2009 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Teen-Aged Dope Slaves and Reform School Girls

By Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman & various (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 0-913035-79-3   ISBN-13: 978-0-913035-79-5

As the flamboyant escapist popularity of superheroes waned after World War II newer genres such as Romance and Horror came to the fore and older forms regained their audiences. Some, like Westerns and Funny Animal comics hardly changed at all but crime and detective tales were utterly radicalised by the temperament of the times.

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

Naturally the new forms seeped into comics, transforming two-fisted gumshoe and Thud and Blunder cop strip-thrillers of yore into darkly beguiling and frightening tales of seductive dames, big pay-offs and glamorous thugs. Sensing imminent Armageddon, the moral junkyard dogs bayed even louder as they saw their precious children’s minds under seditious attack…

From that turbulent period a number of tales and titles garnered especial notoriety from the doomsmiths and particular celebration amongst us tragic, psychologically scarred comics-collecting victims, so in 1989 Eclipse Comics parceled together a bunch of the most salacious, shocking, sensationalistic, best written and drawn examples, produced by an impressive variety of superstars and anonymous unsung draftsmen purely in the interest of historical research…

Still readily available through internet suppliers at extremely reasonable prices, this cool chronicle opens with a handy and informative introduction from Eclipse publisher Dean Mullaney before the sordid spectacle begins with the outrageously trashy tale of Faith: a Bad-Girl-gone-Badder, who only just found redemption in the arms of her equally penitent-and-going-straight ideal man Jeff. There’s no record of who scripted ‘Reform School Girl!’ (1951) but the splendidly kinetic art comes from Louis Zansky.

There are no credits at all for ‘Trapped!’ (also from 1951, and can I detect hints of John Rosenberger or Paul Reinman?); the tale of High School kid Bill Jones, sucked into a spiral of failing grades, lost friends and rebellion against parents and adults after he tries a reefer in the boys toilets. Fear not, however: love, decency and understanding once more save the day.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby ushered in the American age of mature comics, not only with their creation of the Romance genre but with challenging modern tales of real people in extraordinary situations, seen in their other magazines produced for the loose association of companies known as Prize/Crestwood/Pines. From Headline Comics #27 (1947) comes the stunning saga of Stella Mae Dickson… ‘The Bobby Sox Bandit Queen.’

Fictionalising true crime cases was tremendously popular at the time and of the assorted outfits that generated such material nobody did it better than S&K as this incredibly hard-punching saga shows with the tale of a young girl willingly drawn into a life of robbery and violence. Her ending was not so happy…

Next up is something of an oddity but still addictively enthralling for all that. ‘Lucky Fights it Through’ was published in 1949, a popular song adapted in 16 pages by Harvey Kurtzman (there’s even a sheet music section) as part of an educational comics project sponsored by Columbia University (as was Trapped!), a contemporary western saga about an ignorant cow-poke (don’t! It’s what they were called, not what they did) dealing with and explaining how to cope with Syphilis.

Crime Detector #5 (September 1954) provided two anonymous stories: ‘Gun Happy’ and the single pager which closes this volume. The former details the sad, brief life of juvenile delinquent Thomas Parker whose obsessive love of firearms took him into the army and Korea but who couldn’t stop the shooting once he returned.

He is followed by a second Simon & Kirby classic from Headline Comics #28. ‘I Worked For the Fence!’ outlines the sorry tale of show-girl Monica who found the lure of a smooth-tongued hustler and other people’s jewels too great to resist, before the major part of this tome relates the shocking fall and rise of a High School Jock dragged down by narcotic addiction until medical attention and the love of a devoted girl dragged him back from the edge…

The notorious ‘Teen-Aged Dope Slaves’ by Martin Bradley & Frank Edgington came from Harvey Comics Library #1 (April 1952) but was actually a resized reprint of a sequence from popular family newspaper strip Rex Morgan, M.D. Nonetheless, for all its strident preachiness, it remains a powerful, well-meaning drama that never forgets the cartoon doctor’s prime doctrine “First, Don’t be Boring.”

That aforementioned one-pager from Crime Detector closes the volume on a tantalising high note as Homicide Inspector Craig challenges the reader to solve the fair-play mystery of ‘The Deadly Needle’

These black and white tales from a simpler a time about a society in meltdown are mild by modern standard of behaviour but the quality of art and writing make them far more than a mere historical curiosity. Teen-Aged Dope Slaves and Reform School Girls is a book well worth your time and attention, but please beware: such material can be habit-forming…
© 1989 Eclipse Enterprises, Inc. Individual strips are © 1947-1954 their respective creators/copyright holders.

On Stage

By Leonard Starr (Blackthorne Publishing)
ISBN: 0-932629-11-3

Leonard Starr was born in 1925 and began his long and illustrious creative career in the Golden Age of American comic-books working for the crucially important Harry A. Chesler “Shop” at the dawn of the Golden Age. He moved for a period into the lucrative field of advertising before returning to creative pictorial narrative, settling in the gruelling arena of newspaper strips. He comicbook credits include Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch and the immensely popular but now all-but forgotten Don Winslow of the Navy during the 1940s, drew love stories for Simon and Kirby’s landmark Romance line and crime stories for EC, and freelanced extensively for ACG and DC Comics, where he worked on lost gems such as Pow-Wow Smith, Dr.13, the Ghost-Breaker and Gang Busters among many others until he left the industry for Madison Avenue. He returned to graphic narrative in 1955 when he began “ghosting” Flash Gordon.

In 1957 he created On Stage, a soap-opera strip starring aspiring actress Mary Perkins for the Chicago Tribune. After an astonishing and beautiful 22-year run, he left the globally syndicated feature in 1979 to revive Harold Gray’s legendary Little Orphan Annie (which he continued until his retirement in 2000), simultaneously creating the series ‘Cannonball Carmody’ for Belgium’s Tintin magazine. An experienced TV scripter since 1970 Starr worked as head writer on Thundercats, and briefly returned to comic-books in the 1980s. He received the National Cartoonist’s Society Story Comic Strip Award for On Stage in 1960 and 1963, and their Reuben Award in 1965. In collaboration with like-minded veteran Stan Drake he produced one of the best female action characters of the 1980s: Kelly Green.

Since I haven’t yet managed to lay hands on the Classic Comics Press reprint series (chronologically collecting all the adventures of career actress Mary Perkins), I’m reviewing this tempting and impressive little package from pioneering reprint publisher Blackthorne.

The feature began as On Stage with a Sunday page dated in February 10th 1957, at the height of the American fascination with movie stars and Hollywood celebrity, in papers subscribing to the Chicago-Tribune/New York News Syndicate, and detailed a warts-and-all tale of aspiring actress Mary Perkins. Starr sensibly opted to make his young ingénue a jobbing New York thespian seeking the lights on Broadway rather than taking the easy but limited Tinseltown glamour-puss route, allowing his starlet plenty of opportunity to meet and interact with real people and authentic situations: at least by soap opera standards…

In 1959 she married her photographer boy-friend Pete Fletcher and in 1961 she finally got star-billing when the strip was renamed Mary Perkins On Stage (naturally she had kept her stage name) and gradually added movies and television to her resume. She even made it to Hollywood…

Starr combined his narrative skills with beautiful clean-lined drawing and imaginative design and layouts that dipped heavily into his previous experiences as a comicbook action artist and that was never more apparent than in the first of the two sequences that make up this book.

Taken from the mid-1960s the book opens with ‘Captain Virtue Strikes Back’ as Mary is hired by a TV studio to coach a hunky school custodian who saved some kids and was offered a job of a comicbook hero being adapted for a prime-time television show. Holy Coincidences, B*tm*n!

Unfortunately Brooklyn boy Bernie Kibble comes with a little baggage. He’s big, goofy, uneducated and totally subordinate to his weaselly pal Al Gordon, a cunning, ambitious runt who knows a solid gold meal ticket when he sees one…

The Captain Virtue Show is a blockbuster success and with Mary’s coaching Bernie blossoms; even getting a girlfriend despite Al’s attempts to keep the lug dumb and under his thumb, but as is so often the case fame and fortune don’t necessarily lead to happiness…

The second tale is an intriguing Cold War Thriller that puts the actress and her loved ones in unusual peril, and gives the strong supporting cast a far more extensive role. In the years since his debut, husband Pete had become a roving photojournalist meeting the great and the good on seven continents. One of these, Morgana D’Alexius had developed an unhealthy attraction for the clean-living hunk and spent uncounted hours and millions trying to lure him away from his beloved Mary,

The romantic simpleton was completely oblivious to it all: thinking the richest woman in the world kept inviting him on holidays whilst Mary was working because she wanted to be friends. The erstwhile Miss Perkins, however, veteran of stage, screen and melodrama was not fooled…

‘Escape From Russia’ sees a turning point in this bizarre triangle when Mary is invited by the Soviet government to attend a rather unique cultural exchange as the star of the Moscow Film Festival. Meanwhile Major Grigori Volkov, charismatic hero of the Soviet Republics, is calling on his old friend Mike Fletcher to invite him for a visit to the USSR…

It soon transpires that Morgana has influence in the highest echelons of the Communist state and the entire event is a plan to separate Mike and Mary long enough for the amorous autocrat to work her wiles on the hapless photographer.

With Mike innocently touring secret Soviet factories built by Morgana, Mary is abducted to Volkov’s Dacha, but the plucky, smart American son turns the tables and co-opts the Russian hero who helps her flee across the country to safe-haven and a final confrontation with Morgana in Trieste.

At a time when the Evil Empire could do no right, the depiction of suave, bold, heroic Volkov as a human and moral person must have been a controversial revelation to the American public and his transformation from beastly kidnapper to likeably roguish road-buddy is a delight, as is the final comeuppance of Morgana. This light frothy thriller is a splendid example of the magical blend of humour, romance, family-values and exoticism Starr could command in a few simple panels…

This superb black and white compilation also contains an early and provocative early Sunday page, photos of the creator and an insightful interview with Starr conducted by comic strip historian Shel Dorf.
© 1985 Tribune Media Services. All rights reserved.

Comics at War

By Denis Gifford (Hawk Books)
ISBN: 978-0-96824-885-6

Often the books we write about our comics are better than the stories and pictures themselves: memorable, intensely evocative and infused with the nostalgic joy that only passing years and selective memory bestows.

That’s not in any way to denigrate or decry the superb works of the countless, generally unlauded creators who brightened the days of generations of children with fantastic adventures and side-splitting gags in those so flimsy, so easily lost and damaged cheap pamphlets, but rather because of an added factor inherent in these commemorative tomes: by their very existence they add the inestimable value and mystery of lost or forgotten treasures into the mix.

A perfect example of this is today’s wonderful item, a copious and huge chronicle released as an anniversary item in 1988 celebrating the wartime delights rationed out to beleaguered British lads and lasses, compiled by possibly the nation’s greatest devotee and celebrant of child-culture.

Denis Gifford was a cartoonist, writer, TV show deviser and historian who loved comics. As both collector and creator he gave his life to strips and movies, acquiring items and memorabilia voraciously, consequently channelling his fascinations into more than fifty books on Film, Television, Radio and Comics; imparting his overwhelming devotion to a veritable legion of fans.

If his works were occasionally short on depth or perhaps guilty of getting the odd fact wrong, he was nevertheless the consummate master of enthusiastic remembrance. He deeply loved the medium in concept and in all its execution, from slipshod and rushed to pure masterpieces with the same degree of passion and was capable of sharing – infecting almost – the casual reader with some of that wistful fire.

With hundreds of illustrative examples culled from his own collection this volume was released to commemorate the outbreak of World War II and revels in the magnificent contribution to morale generated by a battalion of artists and (usually anonymous) writers, covering the output of an industry that endured and persevered under appalling restrictions (paper was a vital war resource and stringently rationed), inciting patriotic fervour and providing crucial relief from the stresses and privation of the times.

Abandoning academic rigour in favour of inculcating a taste of the times this 160 page book reprints complete sample strips of the period beginning with the affable tramps and cover feature of Jester, Basil and Bert (by George Parlett), covering the start of the war in four strips from January to November 1939, before dividing the collection into themed sections such as ‘Be Prepared’ (with examples of Norman Ward’s Home Guard heroes Sandy and Muddy from Knock-Out and John Jukes’ Marmaduke, the Merry Militiaman from Radio Fun.

‘At War With the Army’ displays the ordinary Englishman’s perennial problem with Authority- displaying Koko the Pup and Desperate Dan (by Bob MacGillivray and Dudley Watkins from D.C. Thomsons’ Magic and The Dandy), Weary Willie and Tired Tim (from Chips and superbly rendered by Percy Cocking), as well as stunning two-tone and full colour examples from Tip-Top, The Wonder and others.

‘Tanks a Million!’ finds selections from the height of the fighting, and brings us head-on into the controversial 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 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.

The strip that started this tirade was an example of Stymie and his Magic Wishbone from Radio Fun (a long-running strip with a black boy-tramp in the tradition of minstrel shows) from a chapter dealing with the comic strip love-affair with armoured vehicles and includes many less controversial examples from Tiger Tim’s Weekly, Knock-Out, Chips and Dandy, featuring stars such as Our Ernie, Our Gang, Stonehenge, Kit the Ancient Brit and Deed-A-Day Danny.

…And if you think we were hard on innocent coloured people just wait till you see the treatment dealt to Germans, Italians and Japanese by our patriotic cartoonists…

‘At Sea with the Navy!’ highlights nautical manoeuvres from Casey Court (Chips, by Albert Pease), Rip Van Wink (Beano, James Crichton), Lt. Daring and Jolly Roger (from Golden, by Roy Wilson, Billy Bunter (Knock-Out, by Frank Minnitt), Hairy Dan (Beano, Basil Blackaller) and Pitch and Toss (Funny Wonder, Roy Wilson again) whilst ‘Sinking the Subs’ takes us below the surface with Our Ernie, Desperate Dan, Koko, Pansy Potter, Alfie the Air Tramp and Billy Bunter.

Britain’s fledgling flying squad takes centre-stage with ‘In the Air with the R.A.F.’ featuring Freddie Crompton’s Tiny Tots, Korky the Cat from Dandy, The Gremlins (Knock-Out, by Fred Robinson) and Koko the Pup.

‘Awful Adolf and his Nasty Nazis!’ demonstrates just what we all thought about the Axis nations and even indulges in some highly personal attacks against prominent personages on the other side beginning with Sam Fair’s riotously ridiculing Addie and Hermy, (Beano’s utterly unauthorised adventures of Hitler and Goering), whilst Our Ernie, Lord Snooty, Pitch and Toss, Big Eggo (Beano, by Reg Carter), Plum and Duff (Comic Cuts, Albert Pease) and the staggeringly offensive Musso the WopHe’s a Big-a-Da-Flop, (Beano, Artie Jackson and others) all cheered up the home-front with devastating mockery.

‘Doing Their Bit’ gathers wartime exploits of the nation’s stars and celebrities (turning Britain’s long love affair with entertainment industry stars into another bullet at the Boche. Strips featuring Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Warner, Flanagan and Allen, Haver and Lee, The Western Brothers, Sandy Powell, Old Mother Riley featuring Lucan & McShane, Claude Hulbert, Duggie Wakefield, Joe E. Brown, Harold Lloyd, Lupino Lane and Laurel and Hardy re-presented here were collectively illustrated by Reg and George Parlett, Tom Radford, John Jukes, Bertie Brown, Alex Akerbladh, George Heath, Norman Ward and Billy Wakefield.

The kids themselves are the stars of ‘Evacuation Saves the Nation!’ as our collective banishment of the cities’ children produced a wealth of intriguing possibilities for comics creators. Vicky the Vacky (Magic, George Drysdale), Our Happy Vaccies (Knock-Out, by Hugh McNeill) and Annie Vakkie (Knock-Out, by Frank Lazenby) showed readers the best way to keep their displaced chins up whilst ‘Blackout Blues!’ find the famous and commonplace alike suffering from night terrors.

Examples here include Grandma Jolly and her Brolly, Will Hay, the Master of Mirth, Ben and Bert, Barney Boko, Crusoe Kids, Grandfather Clock, Constable Cuddlecock and Big Ben and Little Len whilst ‘Gas Mask Drill’ sees the funny side of potential asphyxiation with choice strips such as Stan Deezy, Hungry Horace, Deed-A-Day Danny, Big Eggo, Good King Coke and Cinderella.

‘Barrage Balloons!’ lampoons the giant sky sausages that made life tricky for the Luftwaffe with selections from Luke and Len the Odd-Job Men (from Larks by Wally Robertson), It’s the Gremlins, Alfie the Air Tramp, and In Town this Week from Radio Fun, whilst ‘Tuning Up the A.R.P.!’ deals out the same treatment to the volunteers who patrolled our bombed-out streets after dark. The Air Raid Precautions patrols get a right sending up in strips starring Deed-A-Day Danny, Big Eggo, P.C. Penny, Ben and Bert, Marmy and His Ma, Lord Snooty and his Pals, The Tickler Twins in Wonderland, Our Ernie, Tootsy McTurk, Boy Biffo the Brave and Pa Perkins and his Son Percy.

The girls get a go in the vanguard with ‘Wow! Women of War!’ starring Dandy’s Keyhole Kate and Meddlesome Matty (by Allan Morley and Sam Fair respectively), Dolly Dimple (Magic, Morley again), Tell Tale Tilly, Peggy the Pride of the Force, Pansy Potter the Strongman’s Daughter, Big Hearted Martha Our A.R.P. Nut and Kitty Clare’s Schooldays whilst the Home Guard stumble to the fore once more in a section entitled ‘Doing Their Best’ with examples from Tootsy McTurk (Magic, John Mason), Casey Court, Lord Snooty, Deed-A-Day Danny, and Big Eggo.

Imminent invasion was in the air and the cartoonist responded with measured insolence. ‘Hop It, Hitler!’ displays our fighting spirit with examples such as Bamboo Town (Dandy, Chick Gordon), Sandy and Muddy, Pansy Potter, the astonishingly un-PC Sooty Snowball, Hair-Oil Hal Your Barber Pal and Stonehenge Kit, whilst espionage antics are exposed in ‘I Spy Mit Mein Little Eye!’ in Laurie and Trailer the Secret Service Men, more Sandy and Muddy, Herr Paul Pry, Big Eggo and Lord Snooty.

‘Wireless War!’ celebrates both radio stars and enemy broadcasts with a selection from Tommy Handley, Troddles and his Pet Tortoise Tonky-Tonk, Happy Harry and Sister Sue, Crackers the Perky Pup, Our Gang and a couple of examples of John Jukes’ spectacularly wicked Radio Fun strip Lord Haw-Haw – The Broadcasting Humbug from Hamburg.

‘To Blazes With the Firemen!’ is a rather affectionate and jolly examination of one of the toughest of home-front duties with a selection of strips including Podge (who’s dad was a fire-fighter, drawn by Eric Roberts for Dandy), Casey Court, Pansy Potter and In Town This Week.

Rationing was never far from people’s minds and an art-form where the ultimate reward was usually “a slap-up feed” perfectly lambasted the measures in many strips. Examples here include The Bruin Boys from Tiny Tim’s Weekly, Freddy the Fearless Fly (Dandy, Allan Morley), Cyril Price’s vast ensemble cast from Casey Court (Chips), Our Ernie and Dudley Watkins’ Peter Piper from Magic, all in need of ‘Luvly Grub!’

Under the miscellaneous sub-headings of ‘Salvage’, ‘Comical Camouflage!’, ‘Workers Playtime!’ and ‘Allies’, strips featuring Ronnie Roy the Indiarubber Boy, Ding Dong Dally, Desperate Dan, Tin-Can Tommy the Clockwork Boy, Big Hearted Arthur and Dicky Murdoch and other stalwarts all gather hopeful momentum as the Big Push looms and this gloriously inventive and satisfying compilation heads triumphantly towards its conclusion.

‘V for Victory!’, wherein a telling gallery of strips celebrating the war’s end and better tomorrows features final sallies from Casey Court, Weary Willie and Tired Tim, a stunning Mickey Mouse Weekly cover by Victor Ibbotson, Its That Man Again – Tommy Handley, Laurel and Hardy and from Jingles, Albert Pease has the last word with ‘Charlie Chucklechops Speaking… About New Uses for Old War materials’

Some modern fans find a steady diet of these veteran classics a little samey and formulaic – indeed I too have trouble with some of the scripts – but the astonishing talents of the assembled artists here just cannot be understated. These are great works by brilliant comic stylists which truly stand the test of time. Moreover, in these carefully selected, measured doses the tales here from a desperate but somehow more pleasant and even enviable time are utterly enchanting. This book is long overdue for a new edition and luckily for you is still available through many internet retailers.
Text and compilation © 1988 Denis Gifford. © 1988 Hawk Books. All rights reserved.

Great British Comics

By Paul Gravett & Peter Stanbury (Aurum)
ISBN: 978-1-84513-170-3

We’re far too reluctant in this country to celebrate the quality and history of our own comic strip tradition; preferring simply to remark on the attention grabbers or impressive longevity of one or two classic and venerable holdovers when the actual truth is that for an incredibly long time the British comics and periodicals industry was vast, varied and fantastically influential.

After my now Customary Disclaimer where I admit that I know and have worked with an author or creator before, (in this case editor/designer/curator/writer/journalist/historian and genuinely brilliant dedicated devotee of all things panel-related, Paul Gravett) and admit to a possibly conflict of interest, I’d like to turn your attention fully to this truly marvellous pictorial dissertation, chronicle, memoir and celebration of the uniquely different world of comforting whimsy, raging tomfoolery, outrageous derring-do, jingoism, anarchy and class warfare that is British comics.

First released in 2006 this confabulation “celebrating 100 years of Ripping Yarns and wizard wheezes” traces the history and social impact of the medium from its earliest popular origins in such illustrated literary pamphlets as the Glasgow Looking Glass and Punch through the separation into adult and juvenile publications, prose story-papers, newspaper strip features and eventually the frenetic blend of words and drawings that we think of today as sequential art.

The book is liberally, bounteously stuffed with not just reams of illustrations but also loads of evocative photographs of the creators (for so long rendered invisible and uncredited by corporate dictat) and most importantly the generations of eager end-users who devoured these imagination-sparking treasures.

‘Lost Worlds of Topsy-Turvy’ tracks the progress of the medium and its lasting effects through an examination of nostalgia and fascination, providing an impressive overview of how and why we love these things and even including a chart marking the chronological timeline of British comics and how long they ran for. Got a favourite publication? Check it out here…

‘For Richer, For Poorer’ features the classic family and national set-up under the British class system, with examples from Alley Sloper’s Half-Holiday, The Broons, Weary Willie and Tired Tim and Posy Simmonds’ The Silent Three through to the terrifying modern icons The Fat Slags from Viz, also visiting with such varied neighbours as Giles’ immortal family, Donald McGill’s saucy postcards, Raymond Williams and the drawing room humour of Bateman, Fougasse, Heath Robinson and Reg Smythe’s Andy Capp.

The vast pictorial end-section includes further graphic examples including strips from Funny Wonder, The Joker, The Jester, John Millar Watt’s Pop, The Ruggles, The Gambols, and even such lost minor modern classics as Phil Elliott’s The Suttons makes a worthy appearance alongside more well-known strips as Alex, Bristow, The Fosdyke Saga and Colonel Pewter.

‘Spitting Images’ covers the British public’s love affair with entertainment and celebrities; spotlighting such publications as Dan Leno’s Comic Journal, Film Fun, Radio Fun, Look-In and others, with strips starring Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Askey, Laurel and Hardy, Terry-Thomas, Tommy Cooper, Norman Wisdom and The Beatles, proper heroes such as Horatio Nelson, Churchill, Isombard Kingdom Brunel, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce and Andy Murray, plus notionally lesser lights such as Troy Donahue, Adam Ant, Big Daddy, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Hitler and McFly plus so many others all rendered with tremendous skill, wit and not a little Anglo-Saxon charm and sarcasm…

‘Down on Jollity Farm’ explores our vast wealth of anthropomorphic modern fairy-tales from George Studdy’s Bonzo, Teddy Tail, Tiger Tim and the Bruin Boys, Muffin the Mule, Rupert Bear, Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, Count Duckula, Danger Mouse and Wallace and Gromit; even finding room for less savoury kiddies’ fare as the government sponsored adaptation of Animal Farm, Fungus the Bogeyman, Firkin the Cat and Savage Pencil’s punk poesy Rock ‘n’ Roll Zoo.

The anarchic animal stars of DC Thomson, Fleetway and Odhams Press are represented by such wild and woolly class acts as Kid Kong, The Crows, Sid’s Snake, The Three Bears, Mickey the Monkey, Mighty Moth and my own personal bete noir-et blanc, Reg Parlett’s fabulous Mowser the Priceless Puss

Our preoccupation and virtual obsession with school days is made manifest in ‘Wheezes in the Tuck Shop’ examining the range of educational experience from Billy Bunter and Just William to The Bash Street Kids and the Swots and the Blots, and includes little gems such as Oor Wullie, Lord Snooty and his Pals, Nipper, Dennis the Menace, Roger the Dodger, Winker Watson, Baby Crockett, Sweeney Toddler, and Johnny Fartpants yet still finds room for such unconventional problem children as Ken Reid’s The Nervs, Dare-a-Day Davy and Faceache, Lew Stringer’s Tom Thug and Stephen White’s Dreadlock Holmes.

British kids of all ages have always been captivated by weird worlds and fantastic futures and ‘Things to Come’ traces the development of the science fiction and fantasy strips in the children’s papers from Tom Wilkinson’s fantastical Professor Radium, through such adventure stalwarts as Swift Morgan, Captain Conquest, Jet-Ace Logan, General Jumbo, Robot Archie, Rick Random and all the rest, with all appropriate attention paid to the iconic Dan Dare and Judge Dredd whilst still finding time and space for the likes of Jeff Hawke, the Trigan Empire, and such TV titans as Dr. Who, Thunderbirds, Stingray, Fireball XL5 and such truly groundbreaking strips as V for Vendetta and The Amazing Mr. Pleebus.

If you’d been paying attention instead of staring out the window you might have noticed that all the above cited specimens in ‘Wheezes in the Tuck Shop’ were boys, but don’t think we’ve forgotten the weaker sex (I just checked and there still isn’t an emoticon for trenchant, bitter irony); they just get a section all to themselves in ‘Jolly Hockey Sticks to Sheroes’.

Ladies and girls in comics haven’t always been well-treated. That’s more because the material was mostly created by men not women rather than for any male militant or subversive agenda. However the wealth of strips produced over the decades usually makes up in sheer visual quality what it might lack in relevance or political correctness.

This chapter delves into the female experience through full-on action stars such as Modesty Blaise, Lady Penelope, Judge Anderson and Tank Girl, thoroughly Modern Misses like Three Girls in a Flat, Carol Day, Tiffany Jones, Beryl the Bitch and Tamara Drew and the best from a century of unrepentant glamour pusses from Jane to the inimitable Arthur Ferrier’s assorted dazzling “Dizzy Dames”.

Those all important school days are covered with outings ranging from the little darlings of St. Trinians, to Bunty, Misty, an assortment of ballerinas, gymnasts and orphans and such daring vengeance-taking teams as the Silent Three and The Four Marys. Not-so-Good-Girls include Beryl the Peril, Pansy Potter (…the Strong Man’s Daughter), Keyhole Kate, Minnie the Minx and the formidable Bad Penny.

This compelling compendium concludes with a chapter on the broad spectrum of fantastic adventure heroes and the anti heroes we Brits have always seemed more comfortable with. Exemplars include The Spider, Marvelman, Chang the Yellow Pirate, P.C. 49, Captain Pugwash, Morgyn the Mighty, Desperate Dan, historical bravos like Robin Hood, Dick Turpin, Captain Blood, detectives including Sexton Blake, Blackshirt, Tug Transom, Buck Ryan and Romeo Brown, and a sporting pantheon which includes the Tough of the Track, Wilson – the immortal Man in Black, His Sporting Lordship, race car ace Skid Solo and of course the legendary Roy of the Rovers.

The British love of combat is represented by Biggles, Battler Britton, V for Vengeance, Charley’s War, Darkie’s Mob, the fearsome Captain Hurricane and a selection from the long running Commando Picture Library among others, western strips by Tony Weare, Denis McCloughlin, Robert Forest and Frank Humphris, and our frankly skewed take on superheroes is displayed in and counter-pointed by examples including House of Dollman, Frankie Stein, Jonah, Grimly Feendish, The Cloak, Charley Peace, Yellowknife of the Yard, Kelly’s Eye, Janus Stark, the Steel Claw, Billy the Cat and Captain Britain.

If you’re a lover of epics there are also stirring reminders of the spectacular grandeur of Michael Moorcock and Ron Embletons’s Wrath of the Gods, Wulf the Briton (Mike Butterworth and Embleton) and Tom Tully and Frank Bellamy’s Heros the Spartan

Whilst not too detailed this splendid tome contains a magical abundance of images and information and presents them in a welcoming torrent of bite-sized facts and gloriously moving pictures pages that no old fan could resist and which cannot help but beguile and intrigue the unconverted. This is a perfect introduction to the medium and could almost act as a shopping list for any publisher looking to find the next big thing to bring back.

Just imagine: brand new collections of any or all of these immaculate confections…

© 2006 Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury. All Rights Reserved. All artwork © its respective owners and holders.

Fire & Water: Bill Everett, the Sub-Mariner and the Birth of Marvel Comics

By Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-166-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: 9/10 Perfect for art lovers, Marvel Zombies, wannabe illustrators and lovers of pure comic magic

There’s currently a delightful abundance of beautiful coffee-table art-books/biographies celebrating the too-long ignored founding fathers and lost masters of American comic books, and this fabulous tome highlights the astounding wizardry of one of the most accomplished draughtsmen and yarn-spinners of that incredibly fertile early period.

As always you can save time and trouble by simply buying the book now rather than waste your valuable off-hours reading my blather, but since I’m going to froth on anyway feel free to accompany me as I delineate just why this tome needs to sit on your “favourites” shelf.

This lavishly illustrated, oversized tome traces the tragic life and awe-inspiring body of work of possibly the most technically accomplished artist of the US comicbook industry: a man of privilege and astonishing pedigree (he was a direct descendent and namesake of iconoclastic poet and artist William Blake) haunted by illness, an addictive personality and especially alcoholism, but a man who nevertheless raised a family, shaped an art-form and left twin legacies: an incredible body of superlative stories and art, and, more importantly, broken lives saved by his becoming a dedicated mentor for Alcoholics Anonymous.

William Blake Everett was born in 1917 into a wealthy and prestigious New England family. Bright and precocious he contracted Tuberculosis when he was twelve and whilst recuperating in Arizona began a life-long affair with and battle against booze. For the rest of his chequered life “Wild Bill” vacillated between magnificent artistic highs and heartbreaking personal lows, covered with chilling frankness in this excellent biography, written in conjunction with the artist’s surviving family.

Although telling, even revelatory and concluding in a happy ending of sorts, what this book really celebrates is not the life but the astounding legacy of Bill Everett. A gifted, driven man, he was a born storyteller who had the sheer naked ability to make all his own worlds real; and for nearly five decades his incredible art and wondrous stories, which began in the heydays of the Pulps (see also Spicy Tales Collection) enthralled and inspired successive generations of fellow dreamers.

His beautiful artwork featured in a variety of magazines before his fortuitous stumbling into the right place at the right time secured Everett’s place in history forever with his creation of the first anti-hero in comics.

Yet even before the advent of the mutant hybrid Sub-Mariner who, along with his elemental counterpart The Human Torch, secured the fortunes of the budding Marvel Comics (covered in a fascinating and detailed account which clears up many controversies that have raged amongst fans ands historians for decades) Everett was a valued and admired writer/artist/letterer/designer whose early seminal triumphs are lovingly covered here in many reproduced strip extracts, sketches and an utterly invaluable collection of original art pages.

Bill Everett was a jobbing cartoonist who drifted into the new world of comicbooks: a budding industry that combined his beloved drawing with his other compulsion – making up stories. The first chronological art selection here features a plethora of his compelling and irresistible covers for Amazing Mystery Funnies, Blue Bolt, Target Comics, Amazing-Man Comics, Victory Comics, Heroic Comics, and the landmark Motion Picture Funnies Weekly (for which he produced not only the pre-Marvel/Timely Sub-Mariner, but also the all-important back cover sales pitch) and many designs and roughs for unpublished titles, interspersed with pages and spreads from early creations Amazing-Man, Dirk the Demon, Skyrocket Steele, Music Master, The Chameleon, Hydroman, Sub-Zero and of course Prince Namor.

The early days of Marvel Mystery Comics and the Sub-Mariner’s own feature title are thoroughly represented with many pages of original art starring not only his aquatic antagonist but also The Fin and Human Torch, and this section is also full of delightful sketches from his four years of service in the Army Corps of Engineers.

The industry had changed radically by the time Everett mustered out: superheroes were on the wane and other genres were rising in popularity. Returning as a freelancer to Marvel/Timely, Everett worked again on Sub-Mariner and even created the sexy spin-off Namora and stillborn kid crusader Marvel Boy, but it was with the series Venus that he moved in a new direction: glamorous, glorious horror.

For over a decade he brought a sheen of irresistible quality to the generally second-rate chillers Timely/Atlas/Marvel generated in competition with genre front-runners EC Comics. It’s easy to see how they could compete and even outlive EC, with these lush and lurid examples of the hundreds of stunning covers and chillingly beautiful interior pages selected from such titles as Mystic, Menace, Astonishing, Adventures into Weird Worlds, Uncanny Tales, Suspense, Marvel Tales, Spellbound, Mystery Tales, Men’s Adventures and others. My only quibble is that unlike the companion volume featuring unsung genius Mort Meskin (see From Shadow to Light) there are no complete stories collected in this otherwise perfect primer.

Despite being unacknowledged as a master of terror, this period was probably Everett’s most technically adroit, but he also excelled in the other genre-ghettoes of the period. His ability to freeze manic action and convey tension into a single image made him the perfect choice for lead cover artist in the burgeoning military comics fields as can be seen in examples from Man Comics, Navy Tales, Battlefield, Navy Action, Navy Combat and others.

Everett truly excelled in the lush, stylistic depiction of action and horror themes – as well as the seductive delineation of sexy women, although he was equally effective in less histrionic arenas such as merchandising art, wholesome western, romances, cartoon and Bigfoot comedy styles, represented here by pages and covers from such diverse publications as Marvin the Mouse, Nellie the Nurse, Cracked, Jann of the Jungle, True Secrets, Girl Confessions, Bible Tales For Young Folk, Tales of Justice, Quick Trigger Western, Yellow Claw, Sports Action, Pussycat and so many others.

His final creative period follows his return to Marvel after time in the commercial art world and covers the creation of Daredevil, unsatisfactory runs on the Hulk, Dr. Strange, Sub-Mariner, Rawhide Kid and others as well as his stints inking Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, Ross Andru, Herb Trimpe, Dan Adkins and Barry Windsor Smith, before, clean and sober after decades, he produced a landmark run on his signature Sub-Mariner.

Tragically, decades of smoking and alcohol abuse had taken its toll, and only four years after turning his life around he died of complications arising from heart surgery, just when he seemed on the cusp of a brilliant creative renewal as remarkable as his meteoric rise in the 1930s and 1940s.

Evocatively written by biographer Blake Bell, with dozens of first hand accounts from family, friends and contemporaries; the sad, unjust life of this key figure of comics art is lovingly recounted here with hundreds of artistic examples from school days, army service, commercial and cartoon illustration and many intimate photographs supplementing the treasure trove of comics images. By tracking Everett’s early career as a pulp magazine illustrator, through his pioneering superhero art to the moody masterpieces of the 1950s and the Pop Art comics renaissance of the his later years, Fire and Water offers an opportunity to revel in the mastery of a truly unique pillar of America’s sequential Art establishment.

Most importantly for collectors and art-fans there is a overwhelming abundance of beautiful comics magic; from compelling page layouts, sketches and compositions to bold, vibrant pencils and slick luscious inking, and for we comics cognoscenti, the jackpot of never-before-seen unpublished pages: penciled, inked and camera-ready art-boards, as well as illustrations, family pieces and examples of his non-comics career

Brilliant, captivating, and utterly unmissable, this is the book Bill Everett deserves – and so do you.

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Text © 2010 Stephen Brower. All art © its respective owners and holders. All rights reserved.

From Shadow to Light: The Life and Art of Mort Meskin

By Stephen Brower with Peter & Philip Meskin (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-358-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for art lovers, wannabe illustrators and lovers of pure comic magic  9/10

There’s currently a delightful abundance of beautiful coffee-table art-books/biographies celebrating the too-long ignored founding fathers and lost masters of American comic books, but few have been as well anticipated and hungered for as this magnificent tome highlighting the troubled life and stunning ability of Morton Meskin, one of the guiding spirits of the industry and a man clearly unaware or unwilling to admit just how influential he actually was.

Rather than waste your time being overly specific (just buy the book – it’s extremely informative and truly wonderful) let me just state that Meskin is the kind of creative force that no real fan of the medium can afford to be ignorant of. This lavishly illustrated, oversized tome traces his life and awesome body of work from school days and early career as a pulp magazine illustrator, through his pioneering superhero art for MLJ, DC, Standard and others through the leaner years and appalling treatment by editors in the 1960s through to the superb advertising art of his later life.

A quiet, diligent and incredibly prolific artist (the text contains numerous accounts of “races” with Jack Kirby, vying to see who could produce the most pages in a day!) Meskin’s manner and philosophical approach influenced dozens of major artists – as the testimonials from Kirby, Steve Ditko (a young student from Meskin’s days as a teacher), Jerry Robinson, Joe Kubert, Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino, George Roussos, Will Eisner and so many others attest over and over again.

Evocatively written by creative/art director, designer, educator and biographical author Stephen Brower, with dozens of first hand accounts from family, friends and contemporaries; the sad, unjust life of this major figure of popular art is fully explored and gloriously justified by every miraculous page of his work reproduced herein. As well as dozens of full colour reproductions from his breathtaking Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Vigilante, Johnny Quick, Seven Soldiers of Victory, Wildcat, Starman, Fighting Yank, Black Terror and particularly Golden Lad and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet superhero action-adventure delights are lesser known gems of crime, horror, historical and mystery tales.

His prolific days at Simon & Kirby’s S&K Studios producing content for Headline, Crestwood and Prize Comics are well represented with many striking examples of his 1900 or so pages of mystery, psycho-drama, western and romance work, as well as Meskin’s latter days at DC, turning mediocre, fright-free mystery yarns and anodyne science fiction tales into stunning exercises of minimalist tension and drama.

Most importantly for collectors and art-fans there is a huge amount of space devoted here to the artist’s unique manner of working; from compelling page layouts and compositions to bold, vibrant inking, and for we comics cognoscenti, the visual El Dorado of never before seen unpublished pages.

There are dozens of penciled, inked and camera-ready art-boards – many shot from actual original artwork – including assorted genre-works (humour, horror, westerns, romances, covers), legendary features such as Boy’s Ranch, Fighting Yank, Black Terror and Captain 3-D) and even complete unpublished stories including a whole Golden Lad superhero romp, a nautical epic from colonial days starring Bill Blade, Midshipman and a positively electric gangland reworking of Macbeth.

Eventually Meskin left the industry, as so many unappreciated master artists did, for advertising work where he found appreciation, security and financial reward, if not creative contentment, and the latter portion of the scintillating tome is filled with not only an amazing selection of magnificent illustrations, sketches, ad layouts and storyboards but also the purely experimental art – painting, prints, collage and lots of lovely drawings in every medium possible – that clearly kept this obsessively questing artisan’s passions fully engaged..

Brilliant, captivating, utterly unforgettable and unknown, Meskin’s enforced anonymity is finally coming to an end and this magical chronicle is hopefully only the first step in rediscovering this major talent. Buy this book and lobby now for complete collected editions of Mark Merlin, Vigilante, Johnny Quick, Golden Lad and all the fabulous rest…

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Text © 2010 Stephen Brower. All art © its respective owners and holders. All rights reserved.

Lucky in Love Book 1: A Poor Man’s History

By George Chieffet & Stephen DeStefano (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-354-5

The medium of comics has a number of inbuilt advantages: it is quick, it is personal, the only limits are imagination and ability and – most importantly for this magical work – it is both magically modern and potently, subversively nostalgic. A book with pictures in it is one of our oldest and most effective technological creations, but it is also astoundingly instant and immediate.

In stunning black ink on gloriously evocative sepia pages (that startling shade which so terrifies comicbook collectors, presaging the imminent crumbling to dust of their beloved artifacts) comes a light-hearted, heavy-hitting barbed-edged faux autobiography that is a moving testament to the life of the average Joe.

Teacher, poet, author and playwright George Chieffet combines with the supremely talented cartoonist and animator Stephen DeStefano (when, oh when will DC release a ‘Mazing Man compilation volume… and while were at it where’s the Hero Hotline book too?) to delineate discrete episodes in the ordinary epic of a little American with the gift of the gab, growing up Italian in Hoboken, New Jersey – just a dreaming glance away from the neon allure of New York City.

After a sparkling dream-sequence prologue which introduces us to the modern “Lucky” Testaduda, the book opens with the first of three chapter-plays starring our diminutive narrator recollecting the key moments of his long life. ‘Lucky Fifteen’ finds the horny kid on the cusp of manhood in 1943, dreaming of girls and flying and getting into the war; spending his days at the movies, shooting the breeze with his pals and trying to get laid… but always the spectre of something bigger, better and far more dangerous than “the neighborhood” is looming…

‘Lucky at War’ sees the kid a lowly mechanic rather than glamorous pilot of his dreams, still hungry for sex but as always preferring to “talk the good fight” rather than get down and dirty. Mentoring. for which read “showing off” to even callower youths than he, a trip to the off-base cat-house as the war in the Pacific draws to a close goes uncomfortably awry. Moreover when a distant acquaintance is lost in a bomber Lucky worked on, his care-free life takes a melancholy turn…

Returning home in 1946 ‘Lucky Triumphant’ finds the young veteran having trouble readjusting. For the folks in Hoboken it’s a boom-time with sons returned and the promise of peace and prosperity, but the only work the de-mobbed mechanic can get is through shamefully exploiting the memory of a dead comrade he didn’t even really know…

In lots of ways Lucky’s world hasn’t changed at all since he was that eager, horny kid, but when a genuinely honest, victorious moment is soured because of unwanted familial nepotism Lucky begins to realise that just maybe he has

Drawn in a wild and captivating pastiche of Zoot-Suit era animated styles and frenetically Jitterbugging teen movies; marrying Milt Gross’ ‘He Done Her Wrong’ and ‘Count Screwloose’ to Milton Knight’s ‘Hugo’ and ‘Midnight the Rebel Skunk’ the bold, broadly Bigfoot cartooning style used imparts a seductive gaiety to the folksy monologue and completely disguises the subtle landmines this tale conceals in the narrative.

It looks fun and funny – and indeed it is – but the content delves far deeper than mere jolly japes of yesteryear. Lucky’s journey is full of heartbreak and injustice masked by the character’s innate bravado and self-delusion, thus the festive interpretation of fantasy and reality hits you below the conscious level like a blackjack in a velvet pillowcase.

Lucky in Love is utterly absorbing, purely cartoon entertainment, strictly for adults and immensely enjoyable. The concluding volume is scheduled for release in 2013 and it can’t come a second too soon for me…

© 2010 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Commando Annual 1989

By various (DC Thomson & Co)
ISBN: 0-85116-422-6

Dundee-based DC Thomson is probably the most influential comics publisher in British history. The Beano and The Dandy revolutionised children’s reading, the newspaper strips Oor Wullie and The Broons (both created by the legendary Dudley D. Watkins) have become a genetic marker for Scottishness and the uniquely British “working class hero” grew from the prose-packed pages of Adventure, Rover, Wizard, Skipper and such action-packed  picture papers as Victor, Hotspur and Warlord.

Their comics for girls also shaped generations and still evoke passionate memories – don’t take my word for it either – just ask your mum or grandmother about Judy, Bunty, Diana, Mandy and the rest.

In 1961 the company launched a digest-sized title called Commando. Broadly similar in dimensions to a slim paperback book, it offered 68 black and white pages per issue and an average of two panels a page. Each issue told a complete war story (generally based in World War I or II – although all theatres of conflict have featured since) and told tasteful yet gripping stories of valour and heroism in stark dramas which came charged with grit and authenticity. The fully painted covers made them look more like novels than comics and they were a huge, instant success. They’re still being published.

A number of these stirring sagas have recently been collected in sturdy, capacious hardback volumes, re-presenting  a dozen classics at a time – and I highly recommend them (see for example Commando: True Brit in our own archive section) but in its decades of unflinching service Commando has occasionally produced other collections such as this redoubtable annual from 1989 (the first of two) which contains shorter stories in a more traditional panel format, rendered in varying degrees of colour and offering all new stories.

Because of previous company policy these tales are all uncredited, (happily not the case nowadays) but as I’d rather not prove my ignorance by guessing who did what, I’m saying nothing and you’ll have to be content with the work itself, although the many fan-sites should be able to provide information for the dedicated researcher. Typically when looking at British comics Gold, this book is readily available through a number of online retailers and wonderfully reasonable in price.

Behind the stunning wraparound cover by Ian Kennedy lie seven cracking yarns. In full colour ‘The Young ‘Un!’ follows coal ship crewman Joe Simes as he struggles to come to terms with his father’s death; a victim of the Royal Navy’s foolish, doctrinaire policies – or at least that what he thought until he joined up… whilst ‘No Surrender’ sees intransigent troublemaker Angus McKay fight his own comrades and Germans with equal passion during a mission to Norway and ‘Duel in the Sun’ pits rebellious Australian pilot Mark Hudson against his own commanders when all he really wants is to kill the Japanese genius shooting down allied pilots as if they were sitting ducks…

‘Killed in Action’ is the part-colour tale (black, white, grey and yellow) and sees cruel, cowardly lieutenant Vivian Fawcett-Bligh challenged by a common soldier who knows all his secrets. Set in the African desert in 1941, it doesn’t end the way you might expect… ‘Big Bird, Little Friend’ is another spectacular full-colour air adventure featuring two rival pilots – one British and the other an American – whose bitter quarrel is finally resolved in the flak-blistered skies over Europe and ‘The Good Soldier’ looks at the war through German eyes as Panzer commander Martin Winter becomes increasingly disaffected and appalled by SS atrocities on the Russian Front…

The strips conclude with another half-colour adventure ‘The Three Musketeers’: wherein three boyhood chums are reunited with explosive results on the beaches of Dunkirk, and this classy package also contains a wealth of feature pages and many brilliant painted pin-up pages.

So ubiquitous and effective were Thomson’s war publications that they moulded the character of three generations of boys – and continue to do so eight times every month. This magical slice of the Blitz Spirit is a wonderful example of purely British comic-making: rousing, passionate and winningly understated, so if you’re looking for a more home-grown comics experience, well-written and wonderfully illustrated, get some in and check this out…
© 1988 D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.