World of Krypton

By Paul Kupperberg, Howard Chaykin, Murphy Anderson & Frank Chiaramonte (DC/Tor Books)
ISBN: 0-523-49017-8

For fans and comics creators alike continuity can be a harsh mistress. These days, when maintaining a faux-historical cloak of rational integrity for the made-up worlds we inhabit is paramount, the worst casualty of the semi-regular sweeping changes, rationalisations and reboots is great stories that suddenly “never happened”. The most painful example of this – for me at least – was the wholesale loss of the entire charm-drenched mythology that had evolved around Superman’s birthworld in the wonder years between 1948 and 1985.

Silver Age readers buying Superman, Action Comics, Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, World’s Finest Comics and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (not forgetting Superboy and Adventure Comics) would delight every time some fascinating snippet of information leaked out. We spent our rainy days filling in the incredible blanks about the lost world through the delightful and thrilling tales from those halcyon publications.

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s Superman – and an issue of Superman Family – carried a back-up series entitled ‘The Fabulous World of Krypton’ relating “Untold Tales of Superman’s Native Planet” (so long overdue for a complete trade paperback collection) by a host of the industry’s greatest talents which further explored that defunct wonderland.

Many of those twenty-seven vignettes were referenced alongside the key Krypton-starring issues of the Superman franchise in 1979 when scripter Paul Kupperberg and artists Howard Chaykin, Murphy Anderson & Frank Chiaramonte synthesised the scattered back-story details into DC’s first miniseries World of Krypton.

Although never collected into a graphic novel, this glorious indulgence was resized into a nifty black and white paperback book in 1982, supervised by and with an introduction from the much-missed, multi-talented official DC memory E. Nelson Bridwell (who was always the go-to guy for any detail of fact or trivia concerning the company’s vast comics output). This magical celebration of life on the best of all fictional worlds is a grand old slice of comics fun and nostalgia long overdue for a critical reappraisal and a wider audience.

The story opens with Superman reviewing a tape-diary found on the moon: a document from his deceased father Jor-El which details the scientist’s life, career and struggle with the nay-saying political authorities whose inaction doomed the Kryptonian race to near extinction.

As the Man of Steel listens on, he hears how Jor-El wooed and won his mother Lara Lor-Van despite all the sinister efforts of the planetary marriage computer to frustrate them, how he discovered anti-gravity and invented the Phantom Zone ray, uncovered the lost technology of a dead race which provided the clues to Kal-El’s escape rocket, and learns his father’s take on Superman’s many time-twisting trips to Krypton…

He feels his father’s pain when Brainiac stole the city of Kandor, when rogue scientist Jax-Ur blew up the inhabited moon of Wegthor, when civil war almost wracked the planet thanks to the deranged militarist General Zod and when his own cousin Kru forever disgraced the noble House of El…

Heavily referencing immortal classics such as ‘Superman’s Return to Krypton’ (Superman volume 1 #141, November 1960), Fabulous World of Krypton mini-epics ‘Jor-El’s Golden Folly’, ‘Moon-Crossed Love’, ‘Marriage, Kryptonian Style’ and a host of others, this epochal saga from simpler and more wondrous times is a sheer delight for any fan tired of unremitting angst and non-stop crises…

Moreover the sensitive and meticulous reformatting of the original miniseries by editor Bridwell and designers Bob Rozakis, Shelley Eiber & Alex Saviuk makes this book one of the most smoothly readable of all paperback comic collections.

Although not that easy to find, World of Krypton is still worth tracking down and until DC get around to gathering the Krypton chronicles into the kind of compendium they deserve this is still your best shot at seeing the evolution of a world we all wanted to live on back in the heady days of yore…
© 1982 DC Comics Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Speed Racer Classics

By Tatsuo Yoshida, translated by Nat Gertler (Now Comics)
ISBN: 0-70989-331-34

During the 1960s when Japanese anime was first starting to appear in the West, one of the most surprising television hits in America was a classy little cartoon series entitled Speed Racer. It first aired in 1967-1968 (52 high velocity episodes) and back then nobody knew the show was based on and adapted from a wonderful action/science fiction/sports comic strip created by manga pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida in 1966 for Shueisha’s Shōnen Book periodical.

The comic series was itself a recycled version of Yoshida’s earlier racing hit ‘Pilot Ace’.

The original title ‘Mach Go Go Go’ was a torturously multi-layered pun, and played on the fact that boy-racer Gō Mifune – more correctly Mifune Gō – drove the super-car Mach 5. “Go” is the Japanese word for five and a suffix applied to ship names whilst the phrase Gogogo is the usual graphic sound effect for “rumble”. All in all, the title means “Mach-go, Gō Mifune, Go!” which was adapted on US screens as “Go, Speed Racer, Go!”

In 1985 Chicago-based Now Comics took advantage of the explosion in comics creativity to release a bevy of full-colour licensed titles based on popular nostalgic icons such as Astro Boy, Green Hornet, Fright Night and Ghostbusters, but started the ball rolling with new adventures of Speed Racer.

The series was a palpable hit and in 1990 the company released this magical selection of Yoshida’s original stories in a beautiful monochrome edition graced with a glorious wraparound cover by Mitch O’Connell. It was probably one of the first manga books ever seen in American comic stores.

Although the art and stories are relatively untouched the large cast, (family, girlfriend, pet monkey and all) are called by their American identities, but if you need to know the original Japanese designations and have the puns, in-jokes and references explained, there are many Speed Racer websites to consult.

Pops Racer is an independent entrepreneur and car-building genius estranged from his eldest son Rex, a professional sports-car driver. Second son Speed also has a driving ambition to be a pro driver (we can do puns too, you know) and the episodes here follow the family concern in its rise to success, all peppered with high drama, political intrigue, criminal overtones and high octane excitement (whoops!: there I go again)…

The action begins with ‘The Return of the Malanga’ as, whilst competing in the incredible Mach 5, Speed recognises an equally unique vehicle believed long destroyed whilst running this same gruelling road-race. The plucky lad becomes hopelessly embroiled in a sinister plot when he learns that the driver of the resurrected car crashed and died in mysterious circumstances years ago and now all the survivors of that tragic incident are perishing in a series of fantastic “accidents”…

Are these events the vengeance of a restless spirit or is there an even more sinister explanation…?

In ‘Deadly Desert Race’ the Mach 5 is competing in a trans-Saharan rally when Speed is drawn into a personal driving duel with spoiled Arab prince Kimbe of Wilm. When a bomb goes off young Racer is accused of attempting to assassinate his rival and has to clear his name and catch the real killer by traversing the greatest natural hazard on the planet in a spectacular competition and a blistering military battle…

After qualifying for the prestigious Eastern Alps competition the young ace meets the mysterious Racer X: a masked driver with a shady past who has a hidden connection to the Racer clan. ‘This is the Racer’s Soul!’ reveals the true story of Pops’ conflict with Rex Racer when criminal elements threatened to destroy everything the inventor stood for.

After the riveting race action and blockbusting outcome, this volume concludes with a compelling mystery yarn as in ‘The Secret of the Classic Car’ Speed foils the theft of a vintage vehicle and is sucked into a criminal plot to obtain the lost secret of automotive manufacture hidden by Henry Ford.

When ruthless thugs kidnap Speed, Pops launches into action and the saga culminates in a devastating duel between rival super-cars…

These are delightfully magical episodes of grand, old-fashioned adventure, perfectly rendered by a master craftsman and worthy of any action fan’s eager attention, so even if this particular volume is hard to find, other editions and successive collections from WildStorm and Digital Manga Publishing are still readily available.

Go, Fan-boy reader! Go! Go! Go!
Speed Racer ™ and © 1988 Colour Systems Technology. All rights reserved. Original manga © Tatsuo Yoshida, reprinted by permission of Books Nippan, Inc.

The Fantastic Four – Marvel Illustrated Books

By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby with Joe Sinnott
(Marvel Illustrated Books)
ISBN: 0-939766-02-7

Here’s another look at how our industry’s gradual inclusion into mainstream literature began and one more pulse-pounding paperback package for action fans and nostalgia lovers.

One thing you could never accuse entrepreneurial maestro Stan Lee of was reticence, especially when promoting his burgeoning line of superstars. In the 1960s most adults, – including the people who worked there – considered comic-books a ghetto. Some disguised their identities whilst others were “just there until they caught a break.” Stan, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had another idea – change the perception.

Whilst the artists pursued their imaginations waiting for the quality of the work to be noticed, Lee proactively pursued every opportunity to break down the slum walls: college lecture tours, animated TV shows, ubiquitous foreign franchising and of course getting their product onto the bookshelves of “real” book shops.

After a few abortive attempts in the 1960s to storm the shelves of bookstores and libraries, Marvel made a concerted and comprehensive effort to get their wares into more socially acceptable formats. As the 1970s closed, purpose-built graphic collections and a string of new prose adventures tailored to feed into their all-encompassing continuity began to appear.

Whereas the merits of the latter are a matter for a different review, the company’s careful reformatting of classic comics adventures were generally excellent; a superb series of primers and a perfect new venue to introduce fresh readers to their unique worlds.

The project was never better represented than in this classy little Kirby cornucopia of wonders with crisp black and white reproduction, sensitive editing, efficient picture-formatting and of course, three superb yarns from the very peak of Lee & Kirby’s magnificent partnership…

The first story ‘When Strikes the Silver Surfer!’ pitted the bludgeoning, tragic, jealousy-consumed Thing in unabashed, brutal battle with the Silver Surfer, an uncomprehending alien of incomprehensible power, trapped on Earth and every inch a “Stranger in a Strange Land”. When the gleaming godling turned to the Thing’s blind girlfriend Alicia Masters for tea and sympathy, her brooding boyfriend immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion…

Alicia was the pivotal actor in the follow-up two-part tale ‘What Lurks Behind theBeehive’ and the concluding ‘When Opens the Cocoon!’ a sinister saga of science gone mad which served to introduce a menace who would eventually become a major star in Marvel’s firmament.

The action opens as gifted sculptress Alicia is abducted to a technological wonderland where a band of rogue geniuses have genetically engineered the next phase in evolution but now risk losing control of their creation even before it can be properly born… As the Fantastic Four frantically searches for the seemingly helpless girl, she has penetrated the depths of the incredible hive and discovered the secret of the creature known only as “Him”.

Alicia’s gentle nature is the only thing capable of placating the nigh-omnipotent newborn creature (who would eventually evolve into the tragic cosmic voyager Adam Warlock), but as the FF finally arrive to save the day events spiral out of control and imminent disaster looms large…

It’s easy to assume that such resized, repackaged paperback book collections of early comics extravaganzas were just another Marvel cash-cow in their tried-and-tested “flood the marketplace” sales strategy – and maybe they were – but as someone who has bought these stories in most of the available formats over the years, I have to admit that these handy back-pocket versions are among my very favourites and ones I’ve re-read most – they’re just handier and more accessible – so why aren’t they are available as ebooks yet?
© 1966, 1967, 1982 Marvel Comics Group, a division of Cadence Industries Corporation. All rights reserved.

Krampus: the Devil of Christmas

By various, edited by Monte Beauchamp (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-747-1

With Easter upon us it’s clearly time to start thinking about Christmas and this delightfully engrossing hardback celebration from artist, historian and designer Monte Beauchamp (a welcome expansion on his 2004 book The Devil in Design) focuses on a lost aspect of the Season of Good Will.

For decades Monte Beauchamp’s iconic, innovative narrative and graphic arts magazine Blab! highlighted the best and most groundbreaking trends and trendsetters in cartooning and other popular creative fields. Initially published through the auspices of the much-missed Dennis Kitchen’s Kitchen Sink Press it moved first to Fantagraphics and exists as the snazzy hardback annual Blabworld from Last Gasp. Here however he looks back not forward to revel in the lost exuberance and dark creativity of a host of anonymous artists whose seasonal imaginings spiced up the Winter Solstice for generations of kids…

In Western Europe, particularly the German-speaking countries but also as far afield as Northern Italy and the Balkans, St Nicholas used to travel out with gifts for good children accompanied by a goat-headed, satanic servant. Fur-covered, furtive, chain-bedecked, sinister and all-knowing, the beast-man with a foot long tongue and one cloven hoof, wielded a birch switch to thrash the unruly and a large sack to carry off disobedient children.

The Krampus became a fixture of winter life in Austria, Switzerland and the German Principalities, with his own special feast-day (December 5th – just before St. Nikolaus’ Day), parades, festivals and ceremonial child-scaring events. Back then we really knew how to reward the naughty and the nice…

This spectacular tome celebrates the thrilling dark edge of the Christmas experience as depicted through the medium of the full-colour postcards that were a vital facet of life in Europe from 1869 to the outbreak of World War I.

However, even with fascinating histories of the character and the art-form related in ‘Greetings From Krampus’, ‘Festival of the Krampus’ and ‘Postal Beginnings’ the true wonder and joy of this collection is the glorious cacophony of paintings, prints, drawings collages – and even a few primitive photographic forays – depicting the delicious scariness of the legendary deterrent as he terrified boys and girls, explored the new-fangled temptations of airplanes and automobiles and regularly monitored the more mature wickednesses of courting couples…

A feast of imagination and tradition ranging from the wry, sardonic and archly knowing to the outright disturbing and genuinely scary this magical artbook is a treasure not just for Christmas but for life…

© 2010 Monte Beauchamp. All rights reserved.

Teen Angst: A Treasury of ‘50’s Romance

By Everett Raymond Kinstler, Matt Baker & various, compiled and edited by Tom Mason (Malibu Graphics)
ISBN: 0-944735-35-5

Ever felt in the mood for a really trashy read? These tacky tales of love from another age are a delicious forbidden and oh, so guilty pleasure

There’s no real artistic or literary justification for today’s featured item, and I’m not even particularly inclined to defend some of material within on historical grounds either. Not that there isn’t an undeniable and direct link between these enchantingly engaging assignations and affairs and today’s comic book market of age-and-maturity-sensitive cartoons and, when taken on their own terms, the stories do have a certain naively beguiling quality.

The story of how Max Gaines turned freebie pamphlets containing reprinted newspaper strips into a discrete and saleable commodity thereby launching an entire industry, if not art-form, has been told far better elsewhere, but I suspect that without a ready public acceptance of serialised sequential narrative via occasional book collections of the most lauded strips and these saucy little interludes in the all-pervasive but predominantly prose pulps, the fledgling comic-book companies might never have found their rabid customer-base quite so readily.

This cheap and cheerful black and white compilation, coyly contained behind a cracking Madman cover, opens with a couple of fascinating and informative essays from Tom Mason whose ‘Bad Girls Need Love Too’ provides historical context whilst and Jim Korkis covers the highpoints of the genre in ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ and provides background for some but sadly not all of mostly uncredited star turns revived here.

Creative credit for most of these torrid tales is sadly lacking but the unmistakable fine line feathering of Everett Raymond Kinstler definitely starts the ball rolling here with a selection of his exotic frontispieces from Realistic Romances #2 and Romantic Love #7 (both from September-October 1951) and Realistic Romances #4, February 1952 before segueing into the equally stirring saga ‘Our Love was Battle-Scarred!’ (Realistic Romances #8, November 1952) – a tear-jerking tale of ardour amidst the air-raids whilst ‘Jinx Girl’ from Realistic Romances #7, (August 1952 and possibly drawn by John Rosenberger) follows an unlucky lassie’s traumatic tribulations until her man makes her complete and happy…

From that same issue comes ‘Triumphant Kisses’ a cautionary tale of a small town spitfire who would do (almost) anything to get into showbiz and ‘Dangerous Woman!’ (Romantic Love #7) – a parable of greed and desire from the great Matt Baker.

That gem-stuffed issue also provided the scandalous ‘I Craved Excitement!’ whilst Realistic Romances #6 (June 1952) revealed the shocking truth about the ‘Girl on Parole’ by Kinstler. There’s a lighter tone to ‘Kissless Honeymoon’ (Realistic Romances #2) whilst Baker excels again with the youth oriented sagas ‘I Was a Love Gypsy’ and ‘Fast Company’ from Teen-Age Romances #20, February 1952 and Teen-Age Temptations #9, July 1953 respectively.

Somebody signing themselves “Astarita” drew the brooding ‘Fatal Romance!’(Realistic Romances #2) and the war reared its opportunistic head again in ‘Lovelife of an Army Nurse’ (Baker art from Wartime Romances #1 July 1952), whilst ‘Make-Believe Marriage’ from the same issue examined the aftermath on the home-front.

‘Thrill Hungry’ (Realistic Romances #6) showed it was never too late to change, ‘His Heart on My Sleeve’ (Teen-Age Temptations #5) displayed the value of forgiveness and ‘Deadly Triangle’ (Realistic Romances #2) warned of the danger of falling for the wrong guy…

‘Notorious Woman’ (Teen-Age Temptations #5) continued the cautionary tone whilst ‘Borrowed Love’ (Realistic Romances #2) and ‘Confessions of a Farm Girl’ (Teen-Age Romances #20) end the graphic revelations in fine style and with happy endings all around.

These old titles were packed with entertainment so as well as a plethora of “mature” ads from the period the book also contains a selection of typical prose novelettes, ‘I Had to be Tamed’, ‘Reckless Pasttime’ and ‘The Love I Couldn’t Hide’ which originally graced Teen-Age Romances #20 and 22.

Hard to find, difficult to justify and perhaps hard to accept from our sexually complacent viewpoint here and now, these stories and their hugely successful ilk were inarguably a vital stepping stone to our modern industry. There is a serious lesson here about acknowledging the ability of comics to appeal to older readers from a time when all the experts would have the public believe that comics were made by conmen and shysters for kiddies, morons and slackers.

Certainly there are also a lot of cheap laughs and guilty gratification to be found in these undeniably effective little tales. This book and the era it came from are worthy of far greater coverage than has been previously experienced and no true devotee can readily ignore this stuff.
© 1990 Malibu Graphics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Harvey Kurtzman’s Strange Adventures

By Harvey Kurtzman & various (Epic Comics/A Byron Preiss Book)
ISBN: 0-87135-675-9

Creative cartoon genius Harvey Kurtzman is probably the most important cartoonist of the last half of the 20th century. His early triumphs in the fledgling field of comicbooks (Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales and 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 and couldn’t stop creating.

He invented a whole new format when he converted the highly successful colour comicbook Mad into a black and white magazine, safely distancing the brilliant satirical publication from the fall-out caused by the 1950s comics witch-hunt which eventually killed all EC’s other titles.

He pursued comedy and social satire further with the magazines Trump, Humbug and Help!, all the while still creating 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 soon in 1993.

This intriguing oddment from 1990 saw the Great Observer return to his comic roots by spoofing and lambasting strip characters, classic cinema and contemporary sentiments in a series of vignettes illustrated by some of the biggest names of the time.

After a captivating introduction from ex-student Art Spiegleman, a stunning pin-up from Moebius and an overview from project coordinator Byron Preiss, the fun begins with a typically upbeat cartoon appreciation from R.Crumb: ‘Ode to Harvey Kurtzman’ which was coloured by Eric Palma, after which the Harvey-fest begins in earnest…

‘Shmegeggi of the Cave Men’ visually revives the author’s legendary Goodman Beaver, dislocating him to that mythic antediluvian land of dim brutes, hot babes in fur bikinis and marauding dinosaurs to take a look at how little sexual politics has progressed in a million years – all exquisitely painted by cartoonist, movie artist and paleontological illustrator William Stout, after which Sergio Aragonés adds his inimitable mania to the stirring piratical shenanigans of the dashing ‘Captain Bleed’ (with striking hues supplied by his Groo accomplice Tom Luth).

Western parody ‘Drums Along the Shmohawk’ is an all Kurtzman affair as the scribe picks up his pens and felt-tips to describe how the sheriff and his stooge paid a little visit to the local tribe…

Cartoonist, fine artist and illustrator Tomas Bunk contributes a classically underground and exuberant job depicting ‘A Vampire Named Mel’ whilst arch-stylist Rick Geary helps update the most famous canine star in history with ‘Sassy, Come Home’.

Limey Living Legend Dave Gibbons utilises his too-seldom-seen gift for comedy by aiding and abetting in what we Brits term “a good kicking” to the superhero genre in the outrageous romp ‘The Silver Surfer’ and the cartoon buffoonery concludes with Kurtzman and long-time associate Sarah Downs smacking a good genre while it’s down and dirty in ‘Halloween, or the Legend of Creepy Hollow’.

But wait, there’s more…

This seductive oversized hardback also has an abundant section devoted to creator biographies supplemented with pages and pages of Kurtzman’s uniquely wonderful pencil rough script pages – almost like having the stories printed twice…

Fun, philosophical fantasy and fabulous famous, artist folk: what more do you need to know…
© 1990 by Byron Preiss Visual Publications Inc. Each strip © 1990 Harvey Kurtzman and the respective artist. All Rights Reserved.

Agent 13: Acolytes of Death – A TSR Graphic Novel

By Flint Dille, Buzz Dixon & Dan Spiegle (TSR)
ISBN: 0-88038-800-5

Tactical Studies Rules was a backroom venture started in 1973 by Gary Gygax and Don Kaye which they grew into the monolithic role-playing and recreational fantasy empire TSR, Inc. revolutionising home entertainment in the days before cheap home computers and on-line video games.

Beginning with formally published scenarios and rules for Dungeons and Dragons, Cavaliers and Roundheads and others including gaming versions of Marvel Comics characters, Movies, TV shows and cartoon classics like Rocky and Bullwinkle, they swiftly branched out into figures and miniatures, magazines, models, table-top war games, fantasy fiction, collector card-sets and inevitably comics – firstly licensing their properties to companies like DC (Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and many more before inevitably creating their own line of comicbook and graphic novel “Modules” in the 1990s, based on their own game product, licensed properties such as Indiana Jones, Buck Rogers and even their critically acclaimed fantasy novels.

One of my very favourites is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink period pulp action romp based on their kids novel series Agent 13: the Midnight Avenger (by Flint Dille and David Marconi) which shamelessly blended elements of the Shadow, Indiana Jones and Mandrake the Magician with classic horror and conspiracy thrillers to produce frantic fast-paced adventures of international intrigue and supernatural suspense set in the days before World War II.

Acolytes of Death is actually the second graphic novel volume (its predecessor Agent 13: the Midnight Avenger adapted to comics form the two novels The Invisible Empire and The Serpentine Assassin) but works as stand-alone saga which finds the indomitable super-spy, trained in the mysteries of ancient Lemuria, engaging his world-wide band of undercover operatives in a deadly quest.

It’s 1939 and at stake is humanity itself as immortal villain and would-be global dictator Itsu nears the end of his undying life. Preparing to enact an arcane ritual to renew his sinister eldritch energies, he convenes all the forces of darkness subject to his will: secret societies, witches, zombies and the world’s first vampire, to seek out the ideal venue for his unholy rebirth…

He has to be stopped: after all, just one of his wicked schemes is manipulating the nations of the Earth into another World War. He has other plans he hasn’t even started yet…

Agent 13’s uncanny powers are a result of his having been trained by the Brotherhood; Itsu’s cult of wizards and ninja-like Jinda Warriors, but the heroic tough guy rebelled and has been destroying these instigators of terror and chaos ever since…

Now in a rollercoaster race from Soviet Russia to Spain to New Orleans, 13, his dedicated associates and the sultry, morally ambivalent mercenary China White struggle to prevent the Dark Savant’s ultimate triumph, but can 13 trust his allies and the omens when so much is at stake…?

Fast-paced, far-fetched, joyous and frenetic, this is pure non-stop, action-packed nonsense of the sort beloved by fans of summer blockbuster movies, stirring and silly but utterly engrossing. The script rattles along and the incredible art by unsung genius Dan Spiegle (ably augmented by letterer Carrie Spiegle and colourist Les Dorscheid) is mesmerising in its expansive majesty.

Published in the extravagant, sleekly luxurious over-sized 285mm x 220mm European album format, this tantalising tome, as a graphic “module” also contains a fold-out map, counters, gaming data and background as well as a rule-set, just in case you and some judiciously selected friends feel like having a go at changing the spectacular ending…
© 1990 TSR, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Agent 13 is a trademark owned by Flint Dille and David Marconi.

The Greatest Team-Up Stories Ever Told

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 0-930289-51-X

When the very concept of high priced graphic novels was just being tested in the early 1990s DC Comics produced a line of glorious hardback compilations spotlighting star characters and celebrating standout stories from the company’s illustrious and varied history decade by decade. They even branched out into themed collections which shaped the output of the industry to this day.

The Greatest Stories collections were revived this century as smaller paperback editions (with mostly differing content) and stand as an impressive and joyous introduction to the fantastic worlds and exploits of the World’s Greatest Superheroes. However for sheer physical 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…

From the moment a kid first sees his second superhero the only thing he/she wants is to see how the new costumed marvel stacks up against the first. From the earliest days of the industry (and according to Julie Schwartz’s fascinating introduction here, it was the same with the pulps and dime novels that preceded them) we’ve wanted our idols to meet, associate, battle together – and if you follow the Timely/Marvel model, that means against each other – far more than we want to see them trounce their archenemy one more time…

The Greatest Team-Up Stories Ever Told gathers together a stunning variety of classic tales and a few less famous but still worthy aggregations of heroes, but cleverly kicks off with a union of bad-guys in the Wayne Boring illustrated tale ‘The Terrible Trio!’ (Superman #88, March 1954) as the Man of Steel’s wiliest foes, Lex Luthor, Toyman and the Prankster joined forces to outwit and destroy him, whilst World’s Finest Comics #82 (May-June 1956) saw Batman and Robin join the Man of Tomorrow in a time-travelling romp to 17th century France as ‘The Three Super-Musketeers!’, helping embattled D’Artagnan solve the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask.

A lot of these stories are regrettably uncredited, but nobody could miss the stunning artwork of Dick Sprang here, and subsequent research has since revealed writer Edmond Hamilton and inker Stan Kaye were also involved in crafting this terrific yarn.

Kid heroes prevailed when Superman was murdered and the Boy Wonder travelled back in time to enlist the victim’s younger self in ‘Superboy Meets Robin’ (Adventure Comics #253, October 1953) illustrated by Al Plastino, whilst two of that title’s venerable back-up stars almost collided in an experimental crossover from issue #267 (December 1959).

At this time Adventure starred Superboy and featured Aquaman and Green Arrow as supporting features. ‘The Manhunt on Land’, with art from Ramona Fradon & Charles Paris, saw villainous Shark Norton trade territories with Green Arrow’s foe The Wizard. Both parts were written by Robert Bernstein, and the two heroes and their sidekicks worked the same case with Aquaman fighting on dry land whilst the Emerald Archer pursued his enemy beneath the waves in his own strip; ‘The Underwater Archers’, illustrated by the excellent Lee Elias.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was one of the “Baby Boomer” crowd who grew up with Gardner Fox and John Broome’s tantalisingly slow reintroduction of Golden Age superheroes during the halcyon, eternally summery days of the 1960s. To me those fascinating counterpart crusaders from Earth-Two weren’t vague and distant memories rubber-stamped by parents or older brothers – they were cool, fascinating and enigmatically new. And for some reason the “proper” heroes of Earth-One held them in high regard and treated them with obvious deference…

It all began, naturally enough, in The Flash, flagship title of the Silver Age Revolution. After ushering in the triumphant return of the costumed superhero, the Scarlet Speedster, with Fox and Broome at the reins, set an unbelievably high standard for metahuman adventure in sharp, witty tales of science and imagination, illustrated with captivating style and clean simplicity by Carmine Infantino.

Fox didn’t write many Flash scripts at this time, but those few he did were all dynamite. None more so than the full-length epic that literally changed the scope of American comics forever. ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ (Flash #123 September 1961, illustrated by Infantino and Joe Giella) introduced alternate Earths to the continuity which resulted in the multiversal structure of the DCU, Crisis on Infinite Earths and all succeeding cosmos-shaking crossover sagas since. And of course where DC led, others followed…

During a benefit gig Flash (police scientist Barry Allen) accidentally slips into another dimension where he finds the comic-book champion he based his own superhero identity upon actually exists. Every adventure he’d avidly absorbed as an eager child was grim reality to Jay Garrick and his mystery-men comrades on the controversially named Earth-2. Locating his idol Barry convinces the elder to come out of retirement just as three Golden Age villains, Shade, Thinker and the Fiddler make their own wicked comeback… Thus is history made and above all else, ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ is still a magical tale that can electrify today’s reader.

The story generated an avalanche of popular and critical approval (big sales figures, too) so after a few more trans-dimensional test runs the ultimate team-up was delivered to slavering fans. ‘Crisis on Earth-One’ (Justice League of America #21, August 1963) and ‘Crisis on Earth-Two’ (#22) combine to become one of the most important stories in DC history and arguably one of the most important tales in American comics. When ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ introduced the concept of Infinite Earths and multiple heroes to the public, pressure had begun almost instantly to bring back the actual heroes of the “Golden Age”. Editorial powers-that-be were hesitant, though, fearing too many heroes would be silly and unmanageable, or worse yet put readers off. If they could see us now…

The story by Fox, Mike Sekowsky Bernard Sachs finds a coalition of assorted villains from each Earth plundering at will and trapping the mighty Justice League in their own HQ. Temporarily helpless the heroes contrive a desperate plan to combine forces with the champions of a bygone era and the result is pure comicbook majesty. It’s impossible for me to be totally objective about this saga. I was a drooling kid in short trousers when I first read it and the thrills haven’t diminished with this umpty-first re-reading. This is what superhero comics are all about!

The wonderment continues here with a science fiction hero team-up from Mystery in Space #90, which had been the home of star-spanning Adam Strange since issue #53 and with #87 Schwartz moved Hawkman and Hawkgirl into the back-up slot, and even granted them occasional cover-privileges before they graduated to their own title. These were brief, engaging action pieces but issue #90 (March 1964) was a full-length mystery thriller pairing the Winged Wonders and Earth’s interplanetary expatriate in a spectacular End-of the-World(s) epic.

‘Planets in Peril!’ written by Fox, illustrated by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson, found our fragile globe instantly transported to the Alpha-Centauri system and heading for a fatal collision with the constantly-under-threat world of Rann at the behest of a scientific madman who eventually proved no match for the high-flying, rocket-powered trio.

Before settling into a comfortable pattern as a Batman team-up title, Brave and the Bold had been a high-adventure anthology, a try-out book like Showcase and a floating team title, pairing disparate heroes together for one-off  adventures. One of the very best of these was ‘The Challenge of the Expanding World’ (#53, April-May 1964) in which the Atom and Flash strove valiantly to free a sub-atomic civilisation from a mad dictator and simultaneously battled to keep that miniature planet from explosively enlarging into our own.

This astounding thriller from Bob Haney and the incredible Alex Toth was followed in the next B&B issue by the origin of the Teen Titans and that event is repeated here. ‘The Thousand-and-One Dooms of Mr. Twister’ (#54, June-July 1964) by Haney, Bruno Premiani and Charles Paris united sidekicks Kid Flash, Aqualad and Robin the Boy Wonder in a desperate battle against a modern wizard-come-Pied Piper who had stolen the teen-agers of American everytown Hatton Corners. The young heroes had met in the town by chance when students invited them to mediate in a long-running dispute with the town adults, but didn’t even have a team name until their second appearance.

By the end of the 1960s America was a bubbling cauldron of social turmoil and experimentation. Everything was challenged and with issue #76 of Green Lantern, Denny O’Neil and comics iconoclast Neal Adams completely redefined contemporary superhero strips with relevancy-driven stories that transformed moribund establishment super-cops into questing champions and explorers of the revolution. ‘No Evil Shall Escape My Sight!’ (O’Neil, Adams & Frank Giacoica, April 1970) is a landmark in the medium, utterly re-positioning the very concept of the costumed crusader as ardent liberal Green Arrow challenges GL’s cosy worldview as the heroes discover true villainy can wear business suits, harm people just because of skin colour and happily poison its own nest for short term gain…

Of course the fact that the story is a brilliant crime-thriller with science-fiction overtones beautifully illustrated doesn’t hurt either…

The Fabulous World of Krypton was a long-running back-up feature in Superman during the 1970s, revealing intriguing glimpses from the history of that lost world. One of the very best is ‘The Greatest Green Lantern of All’ (#257, October, 1972 by Elliot Maggin, Dick Dillin & Dick Giordano) detailing the tragic failure of avian GL Tomar-Re, dispatched to prevent the planet’s detonation and how the Guardians of the Universe had planned to use that world’s greatest bloodline…

Brave and the Bold produced a plethora of tempestuous team-ups starring Batman and his many associates, and at first glance ‘Paperchase’ (#178, September 1981) by Alan Brennert & Jim Aparo from the dying days of the title might seem an odd choice, but don’t be fooled. This pell-mell pairing of Dark Knight and the Creeper in pursuit of an uncanny serial killer is tension-packed, turbo-charged thriller of intoxicating quality.

The narrative section of this collaborative chronicle concludes with the greatest and most influential comics writer of the 1980s, combining his signature character with DC guiding icon for a moody, melancholy masterpiece of horror-tinged melodrama. From DC Comics Presents #85 (September 1985) comes ‘The Jungle Line’ by Alan Moore, Rick Veitch & Al Williamson wherein Superman contracts a fatal disease from a Kryptonian spore and plagued by intermittent powerlessness, oncoming madness and inevitable death, deserts his loved ones and drives slowly south to die in isolation.

Mercifully in the dark green swamps he is found by the world’s plant elemental the Swamp Thing…

The book is edited by Mike Gold, Brian Augustyn & Robert Greenberger, with panoramic and comprehensive endpaper illustrations from Carmine Infantino (who blue-printed the Silver Age of Comicbooks) and text features ‘The Ghosts of Frank and Dick Merriwell’, ‘That Old Time Magic’ and a captivating end-note article ‘Just Imagine, Your Favourite Heroes…’. However for fans of all ages possibly the most beguiling feature in this volume is the tantalising cover reproduction section: team-ups that didn’t make it into this selection, filling in all the half-page breaks which advertised new comics in the originals. I defy any nostalgia-soaked fan not to start muttering “got; got; need it; Mother threw it away…”

This unbelievably enchanting collection is a pure package of superhero magnificence: fun-filled, action-packed and utterly addictive.
© 1954-1985, 1989 DC Comics Inc. All Rights Reserved.


By Wally Wood & various (Tower Books)
ISBN: 42-660

I’ve often harped on about the mini-revolution in the “Camp-superhero” crazed 1960s that saw four-colour comicbook classics migrate briefly from flimsy pamphlet to the stiffened covers and relative respectability of the paperback bookshelves, and the nostalgic wonderments these mostly forgotten fancies still afford (to me at least), but here’s one that I picked up years later as a marginally mature grown man.

Although the double-sized colour comicbooks T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, its spin-offs Undersea Agent, Dynamo, NoMan and the magnificent war-comic Fight the Enemy were all distributed in Britain (but not, I believe comedy title Tippy Teen) these monochrome, resized book editions, to the best of my knowledge, were not.

It doesn’t matter: to my delight, it seems that even today the format and not the glow of childhood days recalled is enough to spark that frisson of proprietary glee that apparently only comic fans (and Toy collectors) are preciously prone to.

Of course it doesn’t hurt when the material is as magnificent as this…

The history of Wally Wood’s immortal spies-in-tights masterpiece is convoluted, and once the mayfly-like lifetime of the Tower Comics line ended, not especially pretty as the material and rights bogged down in legal wrangling and petty back-biting, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that the far-too brief careers of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves was a benchmark of quality and sheer bravura fun for fans of both the reawakening superhero genre and the 1960s spy-chic obsession. Their sheer imaginative longevity is attested to by the fact that they’re back again now, courtesy of that Costumed Cut-ups Clearing House, DC Comics…

In the early 1960s the Bond movie franchise went from strength to strength, with action and glamour utterly transforming the formerly understated espionage vehicle. The buzz was infectious: soon Men like Flint and Matt Helm were carving out their own piece of the action as television shanghaied the entire bandwagon with the irresistible Man From U.N.C.L.E. (beginning in September 1964), bringing the whole genre inescapably into living rooms across the world.

Creative maverick Wally Wood was approached by veteran MLJ/Archie Comics editor Harry Shorten to create a line of characters for a new distribution-chain funded publishing outfit – Tower Comics. He, in turn called on many of the industry’s biggest names to produce material for the broad range of genres the company envisioned: Samm Schwartz and Dan DeCarlo handled Tippy Teen – which outlasted all the others – whilst Wood, Larry Ivie, Len Brown, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Russ Jones, Gil Kane and Ralph Reese all contributed to the adventure series.

With a ravenous public appetite for super-spies and costumed heroes exponentially growing the idea of blending the two concepts seems a no-brainer now, but those were far more conservative times, so when T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 appeared with no fanfare or pre-publicity on newsstands in August 1965 (with a cover off-sale date of November) thrill-hungry readers like little me were blown away. It didn’t hurt either that all Tower titles were in the beloved-but-rarely-seen 80 Page Giant format: there was a huge amount to read in every issue!

All that being said the strips would not be so revered if they hadn’t been so superbly crafted. As well as Wood, the art accompanying the compelling and generally mature stories was by some of the greatest talents in the business: Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta, Steve Ditko and others.

This slim, seductive digest stars the UN Agency’s Ace troubleshooter and all-round Ordinary Guy Len Brown in five staggering spy thrillers featuring a winning combination of cloak-and-dagger danger, science fiction shocks and stirring super-heroics which also includes the origins of aforementioned fellow operatives NoMan and Menthor.

It all starts with a simple fast-paced introductory tale ‘First Encounter’ by Ivie & Wood, wherein UN commandos failed to save brilliant scientist Professor Emil Jennings from the attack of the mysterious Warlord, but at least rescued some of his greatest inventions, including a belt that increases the wearer’s density until the body becomes as hard as steel, an invisibility cloak and an enigmatic brain-amplifier helmet.

For security purposes these prototype weapons were divided between several agents to create a unit of superior fighting men and counter the increasingly bold attacks of global terror threats.

First chosen was affable file-clerk Len Brown who was, to everyone’s surprise, assigned the belt and the codename Dynamo in a delightfully light-hearted adventure ‘Menace of the Iron Fog’ (written by Len Brown, who had no idea illustrator/editor Wood had prankishly changed the hero’s civilian name as a last-minute gag) which gloriously depicted every kid’s dream as the not-so-smart nice guy got the irresistible power to smash stuff. This cathartic fun-fest also introduced Iron Maiden, a sultry villainess clad in figure-hugging steel who was the probable puberty trigger for an entire generation…

‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent NoMan Battles the Spawns of the Devil’ follows: the eerie saga of aged Dr. Anthony Dunn who chose to have his mind transferred into an android body, then equipped with the invisibility cape. The author is unknown but the incredible Reed Crandall (with supplemental Wood inks) drew this breathtaking rollercoaster adventure which also found time and space to include a captivating clash with sinister mastermind Demo and his sultry associate Satana who had unleashed a wave of bestial sub-men on a modern metropolis. NoMan had one final advantage: if his artificial body was destroyed his consciousness could transfer to another android body. As long as he had a spare ready, he could never die…

The third agent was chosen in ‘The Enemy Within’ (also with no script credit and illustrated by Gil Kane, Mike Esposito and George Tuska). However here the creators stepped well outside comic-book conventions: John Janus was the perfect UN employee – a mental and physical marvel who easily passed all the necessary tests and was selected to wear the Jennings helmet. Sadly, he was also a deep-cover mole for the Warlord, poised to betray T.H.U.N.D.E.R. at the earliest opportunity…

All plans went awry once he donned the helmet and became Menthor. The device awakened the potential of his mind, granting him telepathy, telekinesis and mid-reading powers – and also drove the capacity for evil from his mind whilst he wore it. When the warlord attacked with a small army and a giant monster, Menthor was compelled by his own costume to defeat the assault. What a dilemma for a traitor to be in…

All the tales in this diminutive paperback gem were taken from the first comicbook issue of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and although some features were left out, the spectacular old-fashioned team-up of the disparate forces of the Agency, assembled to rescue their prime agent who was ‘At the Mercy of the Iron Maiden’ (by Brown, Wood & Dan Adkins) remains, a magnificent battle blockbuster that still takes the breath away, even resized reformatted and in black and white.

To be honest the sheer artist quality of the creators is actually enhanced by removing the often hit-or-miss colour of 1960s comics, and these truly timeless tales only improve with every reading – and there’s precious few things you can say that about…
© 1965, 1966 Tower Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.

Merry Christmas, Boys and Girls!

In keeping with my own self-created Christmas tradition here’s another selection of British Annuals that contributed to making me what I am today, selected not just for nostalgia’s sake but because they are still eminently palatable and worthy of your attention, even under here in the disconcertingly futurist 21st Century.

After decades when only American comics and nostalgia items were considered collectable, recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in home grown product. If you’re lucky enough to stumble across a vintage volume, I hope my words can convince you to acquire it. However, if I can also create a groundswell of publishers’ attention, maybe a lot of magical material out there in print limbo will resurface in affordable new collections…

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 readers 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 from these slices of our childhood. You start the petition… I’ll certainly sign it.

Hanna-Barbera’s The Impossibles Annual

By various (Atlas Publishing & Distributing Co.)

British Comics have always fed from other media and as television grew during the 1960s – especially the area of children’s shows and cartoons – those programmes increasingly became a staple source for the Seasonal Annual market. There would be a profusion of stories and strips targeting not readers but young viewers and more and more often the stars would be American not British.

Much of this stuff wouldn’t even be as popular in the USA as here, so whatever comic licenses existed usually didn’t provide enough material to fill a hardback volume ranging anywhere from 64 to 160 pages. Thus many Annuals such as Champion the Wonder Horse or Lone Ranger and a host of others would require original material or as a last resort, similarly themed or related strips. The Impossibles Annual was one of these and used both solutions…

Frankenstein, Jr. and the Impossibles debuted in America in Fall 1966, an early entry in Hanna-Barbera’s line of spoof superheroes cartoons (preceded by Atom Ant and followed by the likes of Captain Caveman and Hong Kong Phooey) and led to a string of straight adventures heroes like Birdman, Johnny Quest and the magnificent Alex Toth-designed Space Ghost.

Frankenstein Jr. was an affable giant robot built by the rather recondite Professor Conroy who went crimefighting with his builder’s spunky son Buzz, whilst The Impossibles were a trio of superheroes who travelled the world defeating evil at the behest of their mysterious handler “Big D”. Their cover was a pop group of the same name, and, since television and comics producers love to hedge their bets, Multi Man Fluid Man and Coil Man bore a more than coincidental resemblance to a certain band from Liverpool who were currently taking the world by storm…

The show ran for two seasons, but Hanna-Barbera’s comicbook connection Gold Key only ever released one issue of Frankenstein Jr. (which included an Impossibles back-up) and the contents of that are all included here, so the British publisher found themselves having to reprint other H-B adaptations as well as paying for new material – in the traditional form of text stories and features.

With typical British eccentricity the B-feature got top billing here so the titular stars don’t actually appear too often in this 64 page nostalgia goldmine, which opens with just such an illustrated prose story (sadly uncredited and anonymous). ‘The Impossibles Cure a Doctor’ is an impressively clever duel with a mad scientist, promptly followed by a Gold Key strip ‘The Impossibles vs. The Mirror-Man’ (probably drawn by unsung genius of cartoon comics Pete Alvarado – but I’m only guessing).

Next up is the first associative fill-in; one of two rewritten strips featuring future family The Jetsons. ‘Auto-Pappy’ (and the subsequent ‘How to Mine a Moon!’ might actually be The Rogue Robot and The Wild Moon Chase from #22 of their own Gold Key comic series, but again I’m positing not positive), after which Big Franky and little Buzz tackled ‘The Image Invasion’.

Next up is a stunning show-stealer from artist Dan Spiegle whose Space Ghost thriller ‘Zorak’s Revenge’ blew my mind over forty years ago and still does the business now. It originally appeared in a one-shot from Christmas of 1966 (cover-dated March 1967, because that’s the way the Americans did things). The all-out action against aliens and monsters is followed by another comedy romp when ‘Frankenstein Jr. Meets the Flea Man’ and that aforementioned Jetsons retread, after which a crossword featuring those fabulous future folks gives us all pause for thought.

The Impossibles Annual ends as it began with another prose piece, but one starring Franky and the boy Buzz as they faced ‘A Spook in his Wheel.’

A lost bauble probably only recalled by increasingly doddery dotards, this book is packed with solid family entertainment from simpler times – and possibly created for simpler kids – but I’d love to be proved wrong..

All other material ™ and © 1968 Hanna Barbera Productions Inc. The Jetsons ™ 1968 Screen Gems, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Comic Annual 1969

By various (World Distributors, Ltd.)

When Stan Lee rejuvenated the American comic-book industry in the early 1960s, his biggest advantage wasn’t the small but superb talent pool available, but rather a canny sense of marketing and promotion. DC, Dell/Gold Key and Charlton all had limited overseas licenses (usually in dedicated black-and-white anthologies liked the much beloved Alan Class Comics such as Suspense) but Lee – or his business managers – went further, sanctioning Marvel’s revolutionary early efforts in regular British weeklies like Pow!, Wham!, Smash! and even the venerable Eagle.

There were two wholly Marvel-ised papers, Fantastic! and Terrific! which ran from 1967 to 1968. These slick format comics featured a number of key Marvel properties, and, appearing every seven days, soon exhausted the back catalogue of the company.

After years of being a guest in other publications Marvel finally secured their own UK Annuals through the publishing arm of World Distributors and this sparkling collection is one of the very best. Completely gone are the text pieces, quizzes and game pages that filled out British Christmas books, replaced with cover-to-cover superhero action produced by the emergent House of Ideas at the very peak of their creative powers and even includes a few almost Golden Age classics. Moreover it’s in full colour throughout – almost unheard of at the time.

A closer look by Marvel scholars would ascertain that all of the strips published here were actually taken from the wonderful 25¢ giants (Marvel Tales, Marvel Collectors Item Classics and Marvel Superheroes) released during the previous year, perfectly portioned out to fit into a book intended for a primarily new and young audience.

Behind the delightful painted cover the enchantment commences with a John Romita drawn Captain America tale from 1954, as the Sentinel of Liberty and Bucky lay waste to a scurvy gang of Red Chinese dope smugglers in ‘Cargo of Death’, promptly followed by a spectacular Thor saga from Lee, Jack Kirby & Chic Stone as the Thunder God tackled ‘The Cobra and Mr. Hyde’ complete with cameo from the mighty Avengers.

The first of two Hulk shorts comes next, another commie-busting classic with science fiction overtones Lee, Kirby & Dick Ayers’s ‘The Gladiator from Outer Space’ is a terrific all-action mini-blockbuster, perfectly complimented by the superbly Lee & Steve Ditko sinister crime Shocker wherein Spider-Man finds himself trapped between ‘The Goblin and the Gangsters!’

Unsung genius Bill Everett provided two superb Sub-Mariner tales, both from the fabulous 1950s, and the secret origin saga ‘Wings on his Feet’ is the first and undeniable best of these, his magical line-work wonderfully enhanced by the bold colour palette and crisp heavy white paper of this comfortingly sturdy tome.

He is followed by a masterful clash of titans as ‘Iron Man Faces Hawkeye the Marksman’ by Lee & Don Heck, before ‘The Hulk Triumphant’ (concluding chapter of the very first appearance wherein the Green Goliath ended the menace of Soviet mutation The Gargoyle) and this Annual ends with an enthralling Everett Sub-Mariner epic as the Prince of Atlantis defeated mad scientists and monsters ‘On a Mission of Vengeance!’

These oft-reprinted tales have never looked better than on the 96 reassuringly solid pages here: bold heroes and dastardly villains running riot and forever changing the sensibilities of a staid nation’s unsuspecting children. Magic, utterly Marvellous Magic!
© 1969 Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation, Marvel Comics Group. All rights reserved.

The Dandy Book 1968

By various (D.C. Thomson & Co.)

For many British fans Christmas means The Beano Book (although Scots worldwide have a pretty fair claim that the season belongs to them with collections of The Broons and Oor Wullie making every December 25th magical) but I’ve done one of those so this year I’m concentrating on a another Thomson cracker that made me the man wot I am. As usual my knowledge of the creators involved is woefully inadequate but I’m going to hazard a few guesses in the hope that someone with better knowledge will correct me when I err.

The Dandy comic actually predated the Beano by eight months, completely revolutionising the way children’s publications looked and most importantly how they were read. Over the decades it too produced a bevy of household names that delighted generations and the end of year celebrations were bumper bonanzas of the comic’s weekly stars in brief and extended stories.

The action here begins on the inside front cover as seminal star Korky the Cat (by Charles Grigg?) got the ball rolling – wrapped up the show at the end – before unique cowboy superman Desperate Dan suffers a prank from his equally rambunctious nephew and niece which literally brings the house down and hard-pressed squaddie Corporal Clott (by Dennis the Menace originator Davy Law or possibly his successor David Sutherland) finds guard duty in the snow a little chilly, taking ludicrous steps to warm up. He was equally ill-considered in his other two appearances this year…

D.C. Thomson were extremely adept at combining anarchic, clownish comedy with solid fantasy adventure tales such as ‘The Island of Monsters’ (illustrated by Paddy Brennan or perhaps Ron Smith) a thrilling castaway yarn as two boys find themselves marooned on a tropical paradise where all the animals suddenly grow to incredible size. He/they might also be the artist on the other science fiction thriller in this volume. ‘Captain Whoosh’ was a jet-pack wearing thief constantly foiled by plucky paperboy Terry Ball who here foils the rocket rogue’s attempts to plunder Moortown’s extremely well-stocked Art Gallery and museum. These picture thrillers usually came in the old-fashioned captioned format, with blocks of typeset text rather than lettered word balloons.

These annuals were traditionally produced in the wonderful “half-colour” that many British publishers used to keep costs down whilst bringing a little spark into our drab and gloomy young lives. This was done by printing sections of the books with two plates, such as blue/Cyan and red/Magenta: The versatility and palette range this provided was astounding. Even now this technique screams “Holidays” to me and my contemporaries, and this volume uses the technique to stunning effect.

The Smasher was a lad from the same mould as Dennis the Menace and in the four episodes here (by Hugh Morren) he carves a characteristic swathe of anarchic destruction, whilst a great deal of material was based on school as seen by both teachers and pupils. ‘Greedy Pigg’ (by George Martin), featured a voracious teacher always attempting to confiscate and scoff his pupils snacks. He fails miserably three times in this book… After a giant rebus crossword quiz by Eric Roberts (or perhaps Tom Williams), Dan returns only to fall foul of tomato growers, whilst Korky accidentally talks himself into a duel and ends up soundly thrashed. The immortal cat fares far better in his spats with be-kilted Highland strongmen, a beach inspector and in an angling competition but comes painfully second to boxing organisers when he tries to view without paying…

There’s one more extra-long Desperate Dan tale (wherein he paints the town red, but not in a good or gentle way) at the end of the book, but before then the magnificent Eric Roberts does double-duty this year with five strips starring perennial bath-dodger Dirty Dick and an extended seasonal saga of Boarding School bright-spark Winker Watson, and still found time and energy to illustrate five giant puzzle-spreads, whilst the inevitable outcomes of the four clashes between Bully Beef and Chips (drawn by Jimmy Hughes) invariably found the underdog’s brain always trumps brutal brawn.

This book is not short on drama or comedy adventure either. ‘Spunky and his Spider’ is the delightful rustic tale of an affable, truanting kid and his devoted, amiable apple-loving, giant antediluvian arachnid by the fabulous Bill Holroyd, who also crafted a hilarious school Christmas party romp starring schoolboy Charley Brand and his robotic pal ‘Brassneck’ and a cheeky sci fi giggle-fest starring alien visitor ‘Super Sam’ and his humongous minder Big Boris on a fact-finding mission to a town near you… As with the thrillers these yarns also came typeset, allowing more of the fabulous artwork to shine through.

‘Randall’s Vandals’, by an artist I don’t recognise, is the story of a canny gamekeeper’s son seeing off a bunch of rowdy big city poachers and everybody’s favourite sheepdog Black Bob tugs at the heartstrings in the book’s only prose story as a wilful lad playing with fireworks renders the legendary Border Collie a (temporarily) ‘Blind Bob!’ The beautiful illustrations are, as ever, by the great Jack Prout.

Stuffed with activity and gag-pages, and bursting with classic kid’s comedy and adventure this is a tremendously fun book, and even in the absence of the legendary creators such as Dudley Watkins, Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid, there’s still so much merriment on offer I can’t believe this book is over four decades old. If ever anything needed to be issued as commemorative collections it’s such D.C. Thomson annuals as this…

© 1968 D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. All rights reserved.