Sgt. Rock Archive Edition Volume 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norman Hunter died in 1995.

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

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

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

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

He died on13th September 1944.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wonder Woman: The Golden Age Volume One


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smilin’ Jack: The Classic Aviator


By Zack Mosley (Classic Comic Strips)
No ISBN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Lantern: The Silver Age volume two


By John Broome, Gardner Fox, Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky & various (DE Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6-7107-7

After their hugely successful revival and reworking of The Flash, DC (or National Comics as they were) were keen to build on the resurgent superhero trend. Showcase #22 hit the stands at the same time as the fourth issue of the new Flash comicbook – #108 – and once again the guiding lights were Editor Julie Schwartz and writer John Broome. Assigned as illustrator was action ace Gil Kane, generally inked by Joe Giella.

Hal Jordan was a brash young test pilot in California when an alien policeman crashed his spaceship on Earth. Mortally wounded, Abin Sur commanded his ring – a device which could materialise thoughts – to seek out a replacement officer, honest and without fear.

Scanning the planet, it selected Jordan and brought him to the crash-site. The dying alien bequeathed his ring, the lantern-shaped Battery of Power and his profession to the astonished Earthman.

In six pages ‘S.O.S Green Lantern’ established characters, scenario and narrative thrust of a series that would increasingly become the spine of DC continuity. Now that the concept of the superhero was swiftly being re-established among the buying public, there was no shortage of gaudily clad competition.

The better books survived by having something a little “extra”. With Green Lantern that was primarily the superb scripts of John Broome and Gardner Fox and the astounding drawing of Gil Kane – ably abetted by inker Joe Giella – whose dynamic anatomy and deft page design was maturing with every page he drew, but the concept itself was also a provider of boundless opportunity.

Other heroes had extraterrestrial, other-dimensional and even trans-temporal adventures, but the valiant champion of this series was also a cop: a lawman working for the biggest police force in the entire universe. As such his support team was necessarily composed of some of the brightest talents in American comics.

This fabulous paperback compilation gathers Green Lantern #10-22 (January 1962-July 1963) and reveals how a Space Age reconfiguration of the Golden-Age superhero with a magic ring replaced mysticism with super-science and opens with ‘Prisoner of the Power Ring!’ as the hero responds to a distress call from inside his own emerald wonder-weapon.

Blending Atomic Cold War anxiety with the rescue of a scientist’s family from subatomic exile, GL saves the refugees from their own folly before back up yarn ‘The Origin of Green Lantern’s Oath’ reviews three of the hero’s earliest exploits.

These cases led to him constructing the piece of doggerel he uses to time his ring’s recharging period…

Although neither tale is a blockbuster, the increasingly loose and expressive artwork of Kane, especially on the latter (with Murphy Anderson on inks) are an unalloyed delight of easy grace and power.

The readers were constantly clamouring for more on the alien Corps Jordan had joined and ‘The Strange Trial of Green Lantern’ introduced another half-dozen or so simply to court-martial Hal for dereliction of duty in a saga of cataclysmic proportions, whereas ‘The Trail of the Missing Power Ring!’ focuses on drama of a more human scale when a young boy finds the power ring Hal has foolishly lost.

Issue #12 returned GL to 5700AD as brainwashed Solar Director Pol Manning to thwart an interplanetary coup in ‘Green Lantern’s Statue goes to War’ engineered by an envious magician…

A balance between cosmic and candidly personal stories was developing in those issues sporting two stories, and ‘Zero Hour in the Silent City!’ highlights engineer/grease-monkey Tom Kalmaku’s close friendship with Hal against the backdrop of bank robbers with a super scientific gimmick.

Green Lantern #13 was a true landmark as an interdimensional invasion led to a team-up and lifelong friendship between our hero and fellow Showcase alumnus the Flash. Controversial for the time, ‘The Duel of the Super-Heroes!’ sees them share each other’s secret identities; a rarity then even among the close comrades of the Justice League of America.

This full-length thriller was followed in #14 by the introduction of Balkan ultra-nationalist super-villain Sonar as ‘The Man Who Conquered Sound!’: a traditional frantic fist-fest complemented by the return of Jim Jordan and snoopy girl reporter Sue Williams.

In the frothy romp ‘My Brother, Green Lantern!’ it’s revealed that she’s now romantically involved with the youngest Jordan sibling and – due to a slight mishap with the boy’s fraternity rings – more certain than ever that her intended is the dashing Emerald Gladiator.

Sinestro once more escapes the justice of the Guardians of the Universe to return in #15’s ‘Peril of the Yellow World!’ a cosmic duel testing GL’s bravery and fortitude as much as Space Race thriller ‘Zero Hour at Rocket City!’ tests his wits. The next issue took the Hal Jordan/Green Lantern/Carol Ferris romantic triangle to a new level. ‘The Secret Life of Star Sapphire!’ introduces the alien women of Zamaron.

Readers of contemporary comics will be aware of their awesome heritage but for the sake of this review and new readers let’s keep that to ourselves. These questing females select Carol as their new queen and give her a gem as versatile and formidable as a power ring, and a brainwash make-over too.

Programmed to destroy the man she loves, Star Sapphire would become another recurring foe, but one with a telling advantage. The second story then solves a puzzle that had baffled readers since the very first appearance of the Emerald Crusader.

Gardner Fox contributes his first tale in ‘Earth’s First Green Lantern’ as Hal finally learns why his predecessor Abin Sur crashed to Earth in a spaceship when all GLs can fly through hyperspace and the interstellar voids on ring power alone. A stirring tale of triumph and tragedy, this short yarn is one of GL’s very best.

Also written by Fox, ‘The Spy-Eye that Doomed Green Lantern!’ again revolves around test pilot Jordan’s personal involvement in the US/Soviet race to the stars, and is a fine example of a lost type of tale. In those long-ago days costumed villains were always third choice in a writer’s armoury: clever bad-guys and aliens always seemed more believable to the creators back then. If you were doing something naughty would you want to call attention to yourself? Nowadays the visual impact of buff men in tights dictates the type of foe more than the crimes committed, which is why these glorious adventures of simpler yet somehow better days are such an unalloyed delight.

Green Lantern #18 (January 1963) led with ‘The World of Perilous Traps!’ by Broome, regular penciller Gil Kane and inker Giella who teamed to produce another cracking, fast paced thriller featuring the renegade GL Sinestro, whilst Mike Sekowsky penciled the end of the intriguing ‘Green Lantern Vs. Power Ring’ wherein Broome engineered a startling duel after larcenous hobo Bill Baggett takes control of the green ring, necessitating a literal battle of wills for its power.

Green Lantern #19 saw the return of radical nationalist Sonar in ‘The Defeat of Green Lantern!’ (Broome, Kane & Giella) a high-energy super-powered duel nicely counter-pointed by the whimsical crime-caper ‘The Trail of the Horse-and-Buggy Bandits!’ by the same team, wherein a little old lady’s crossed phone line led the Emerald Gladiator into conflict with a passel of crafty crooks. Issue #20’s ‘Parasite Planet Peril!’ by Broome, Kane & Anderson then triumphantly reunites GL with the Flash in a full-length epic to foil a plot to kidnap human geniuses.

One of the DCU’s greatest menaces debuted in #21’s ‘The Man Who Mastered Magnetism’. Broome created a world-beater in the dual-personality villain Doctor Polaris for Kane & Giella to limn, whilst ‘Hal Jordan Betrays Green Lantern!’ is the kind of action-packed, cleverly baffling puzzle-yarn Gardner Fox always excelled at, especially with Anderson’s stellar inks to lift the art to a delightful high.

Fox also scripted the return of diabolical futurist villain Hector Hammond in ‘Master of the Power Ring!’ (Giella inks) before Broome turns his hand to a human-interest story with the Anderson-inked ‘Dual Masquerade of the Jordan Brothers!’, with GL playing matchmaker, trying to convince his future sister-in-law that her intended is in fact Green Lantern!

These costumed drama romps are in themselves a great read for most ages, but when also considered as the building blocks of all DC continuity they become vital fare for any fan keen to make sense of the modern superhero experience.

Judged solely on their own merit, these are snappy, awe-inspiring, beautifully illustrated captivatingly clever thrillers that amuse, amaze and enthral both new readers and old devotees. This lovely collection is a must-read item for anybody in love with our art-form and especially for anyone just now encountering the hero for the first time through his movie incarnations.
© 1962, 1963, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Challengers of the Unknown by Jack Kirby


By Jack Kirby, France “Ed” Herron, Dave Wood, Roz Kirby, George Klein, Bruno Premiani, Marvin Stein & Wally Wood (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7719-2

The Challengers of the Unknown were a bridging concept between the fashionably all-American human trouble-shooters who monopolised comicbooks for most of the 1950s and the costumed mystery men who would soon return to take over the industry.

As superheroes began to return in 1956 here was a super-team – the first of the Silver Age – with no powers, the most basic and utilitarian of uniforms and the most dubious of motives… Suicide by Mystery.

Yet they were a huge hit and struck a chord that lasted for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable.

Jack Kirby was – and remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are quite rightly millions of words written (such as Paul Kupperberg’s enthusiastic Introduction and John Morrow’s pithy Afterword in this superb Trade Paperback and eBook compilation) about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium.

I’m going to add a few words to that superabundance in this review of one of his best and most influential projects which, like so many others, he perfectly constructed before moving on, leaving highly competent but never quite as inspired talents to build upon.

When the comics industry suffered a witch-hunt-caused collapse in the mid-50’s, Kirby returned briefly to DC Comics where he produced tales of suspense and science fiction for the company’s line of mystery anthologies and revitalised Green Arrow (then simply a back-up strip in Adventure Comics) whilst creating the newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.

He also re-packaged for Showcase (a try-out title that launched the careers of many DC mainstays) an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and long-time collaborator Joe Simon had closed their innovative but unfortunately ill-timed Prize/Essankay/Mainline Comics ventures.

After years of working for others Simon & Kirby had finally established their own publishing company, producing comics with a much more sophisticated audience in mind, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by an anti-comicbook pogrom spearheaded by US Senator Estes Kefauver and pop psychologist Dr. Frederic Wertham.

Simon quit the business for advertising, but Kirby soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, if more conservative and less experimental, companies.

The Challengers were four ordinary mortals; explorers and adventurers who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Already obviously what we’d now call “adrenaline junkies”, pilot Ace Morgan, diver Prof Haley, acrobat and mountaineer Red Ryan and wrestler Rocky Davis summarily decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and, naturally, Justice.

The series launched with ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’ in Showcase #6 (cover-dated January/February 1957 – so it was on spinner-racks and news-stands in time for Christmas 1956).

Kirby and scripter Dave Wood, plus inkers Marvin Stein and Jack’s wife Roz, crafted a creepily spectacular epic wherein the freshly introduced doom-chasers were hired by the duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient container holding otherworldly secrets and powers.

This initial story roars along with all the tension and wonder of the B-movie thrillers it emulates and Jack’s awesome drawing resonates with power and dynamism, which grew even greater for the sequel: a science fiction drama instigated after an alliance of leftover Nazi technologists and contemporary American criminality unleashes a terrible robotic monster.

‘Ultivac is Loose!’ (Showcase #7, March/April 1957) introduced a necessary standard appendage of the times and the B-movie genre in the form of brave, capable, brilliant and beautiful-when-she-took-her-labcoat-off boffin Dr. June Robbins, who became the no-nonsense, ultra-capable (if unofficial) fifth Challenger at a time when most funnybook females had returned to a subsidiary status in that so-conventional, repressive era.

The uncanny exploits then paused for a sales audit and the team didn’t reappear until Showcase #11 (November/December 1957) as The Flash and Lois Lane got their respective shots at the big time. When the Challengers returned it was in alien invasion epic ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’.

Uniquely engaging comics realist Bruno Premiani (a former associate and employee from Kirby’s Prize Comics days) came aboard to ink a taut doomsday chiller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats even today, and by the time of their last Showcase issue (#12, January /February 1958) the Questing Quartet were preparing to move into their own title.

‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ was defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and inspired ingenuity (with the wonderful inking of George Klein adding subtle clarity to the tale of an international criminal who steals an ancient weapons cache that threatens the entire world if misused), but the biggest buzz would come two months later with the first issue of their own magazine.

Challengers of the Unknown #1 (May 1958) was written and drawn by Kirby, with Stein on inks and presented two complete stories plus an iconic introductory page that would become almost a signature logo for the team. ‘The Man Who Tampered with Infinity’ pitted the heroes against a renegade scientist whose cavalier dabbling loosed dreadful monsters from the beyond onto our defenceless planet, before the team were actually abducted by aliens in ‘The Human Pets’ and had to win their freedom and a rapid rocket-ship (sphere actually) ride home…

The same creators were responsible for both stories in the second issue. ‘The Traitorous Challenger’ is a monster mystery, with June returning to sabotage a mission in the Australian Outback for the very best reasons, after which ‘The Monster Maker’ finds the team seemingly helpless against super-criminal Roc who can conjure and animate solid objects out of his thoughts.

Issue #3 features ‘Secret of the Sorcerer’s Mirror’ with Roz Kirby & Marvin Stein again inking The King’s mesmerising pencils, as the fantastic foursome pursue a band of criminals whose magic looking-glass can locate deadly ancient weapons, but undoubtedly the most intriguing tale for fans and historians of the medium is ‘The Menace of the Invincible Challenger’ wherein team strongman Rocky Davis is rocketed into space only to crash back to Earth with strange, uncanny powers.

For years the obvious similarities of this group – and especially this adventure – to the origin of Marvel’s Fantastic Four (#1 was released in November 1961) have fuelled fan speculation. In all honesty I simply don’t care. They’re both similar but different and equally enjoyable so read both. In fact, read them all.

With #4 the series became artistically immaculate as the sheer brilliance of Wally Wood’s inking elevated the illustration to unparalleled heights. The scintillant sheen and limpid depth of Woody’s brushwork fostered an abiding authenticity in even the most outrageous of Kirby’s designs and the result is – even now – simply breathtaking.

‘The Wizard of Time’ is a full-length masterpiece of the art form and opens with a series of bizarre robberies that lead the team to a scientist with a time-machine. By visiting oracles of the past rogue researcher Darius Tiko has divined a path to the far future. When he gets there, he intends to rob it blind, but the Challengers deftly find a way to follow and foil him…

‘The Riddle of the Star-Stone’ (#5) is a full-length contemporary thriller, wherein an archaeologist’s assistant uncovers an alien tablet bestowing various super-powers when different gems are inserted into it. The exotic locales and non-stop action are intoxicating, but Kirby’s solid characterisation and ingenious writing are what make this such a compelling read.

Scripter Dave Wood returned for #6’s first story. ‘Captives of the Space Circus’ sees the boys shanghied from Earth to perform in a interplanetary travelling carnival, but the evil ringmaster is promptly outfoxed and the team returns for France “Ed” Herron’s mystic saga ‘The Sorceress of Forbidden Valley’, wherein June becomes an amnesiac puppet in a power struggle between a fugitive gangster and a ruthless feudal potentate.

Issue #7 is another daring double-feature both scripted by Herron. First up is relatively straightforward alien-safari tale ‘The Beasts from Planet 9’, but it’s followed by a much more intriguing yarn on the ‘Isle of No Return’ as the lads face a super-scientific bandit whose shrinking ray leaves them all mouse-sized.

Concluding Kirby issue #8 (July 1959) offers a magnificent finale to a superb run as The King & Wally Wood went out in stunning style with a brace of gripping thrillers – both of which introduced menaces who would return to bedevil the team in future tales.

‘The Man Who Stole the Future’ by Dave Wood, Kirby and the unrelated Wally Wood, introduces Drabny – an evil mastermind who steals mystic artefacts and conquers a small nation before the team dethrones him. Although this is a tale of spectacular battles and uncharacteristic, if welcome, comedy, the real gem here is space opera tour-de-force ‘Prisoners of the Robot Planet’, (probably) written by Kirby & Herron. Petitioned by a desperate alien, the Challs travel to his distant world to liberate the population from bondage to their own robotic servants, who have risen in revolt under the command of the fearsome autonomous automaton, Kra

These are classic adventures, told in a classical manner. Kirby developed a brilliantly feasible concept with which to work and heroically archetypical characters. He then tapped into an astounding blend of genres to display their talents and courage in unforgettable exploits that informed and affected every team comic that followed – and certainly influenced his successive landmark triumphs with Stan Lee.

But then Jack was gone…

The Challengers would follow the Kirby model until cancellation in 1970, but due to a dispute with Editor Jack Schiff the writer/artist resigned at the height of his powers. The Kirby magic was impossible to match, but as with all The King’s creations, every element was in place for the successors to run with. Challengers of the Unknown #9 (September 1959) saw an increase in the fantasy elements favoured by Schiff, and perhaps an easing of the subtle tension that marked previous issues (Comics Historians take note: the Challs were bitching, bickering and snarling at each other years before Marvel’s Cosmic Quartet ever boarded that fateful rocket-ship).

But that’s meat for another book and review…

Challengers of the Unknown is sheer escapist wonderment, and no fan of the medium should miss the graphic exploits of these perfect adventurers in that ideal setting of not-so-long-ago in a simpler, better galaxy than ours.
© 1957, 1958, 1959, 2003, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Lion Annual 1974


By many and various (Fleetway)
No ISBN – SBN 85037-067-1

Being almost universally anthology weeklies, British comics over the decades have generated a simply incomprehensible number of strips and characters in a variety of genres ranging from the astounding to the appalling. Perhaps it’s just personal bias based on being the right age at the right time, but the 1970s adventure material from Fleetway Publications seems to me the most imaginative and impressive of a long line of pictorial pleasures.

Fleetway was a small division of IPC – then the world’s largest publishing company – and had, by the early 1970s, swallowed or out-competed all other English outfits producing mass-market comics except the exclusively television-themed Polystyle Publications.

As it always had been, the megalith was locked in a death-struggle with Dundee’s DC Thomson for the hearts and minds of their assorted juvenile markets – a battle the publishers of the Beano and Dandy finally won when Fleetway sold off its dwindling comics line to Egmont Publishing and Rebellion Studios in 2002.

The 1950s had ushered in a revolution in British comics. With wartime restrictions on printing and paper lifted, a steady stream of new titles emerged from many companies and when the Hulton Press’ The Eagle launched in April 1950, the very idea of what weeklies could be altered forever.

The oversized, prestige package graced with lush photogravure colour was exorbitantly expensive, however, and when London-based publishing powerhouse Amalgamated Press retaliated with their own equivalent, it was (understandably) a more economical affair.

I’m assuming they only waited so long before the first issue of Lion debuted (dated February 23rd 1952), to see if their flashy rival periodical was going to last…

Like The Eagle, Lion was a mix of prose stories, features and comic strips and had its own cover-featured space-farer… Captain Condor – Space Ship Pilot.

Initially edited by Reg Eves, the title eventually ran for 1156 weekly issues until 18th May 1974 when it merged with Valiant. Along the way, in the traditional manner of British comics (which subsumed weaker-selling titles to keep popular strips going), Lion absorbed Sun in 1959 and Champion in 1966; even swallowing Eagle itself in April 1969 before merging with Thunder in 1971.

Despite its being one of the country’s most popular and enduring adventure comics, Lion vanished in 1976 when Valiant was amalgamated with Battle Picture Weekly.

Despite the weekly’s demise, there were 30 Lion Annuals between 1953 and 1982, all targeting the lucrative Christmas market, combining a broad variety of original strips with prose stories; sports, science and general interest features; short humour strips and – increasingly from the 1970s – reformatted reprints from IPC/Fleetway’s vast back catalogue.

This edition is technically the penultimate “proper” Lion Annual. In May 1974 the long-running title was merged with Valiant as very much the junior partner.

Valiant itself would be absorbed into Battle Picture Weekly two years later but although the title itself was on its uppers, the Christmas Annual market worked on different principles and retailers seemed ever-eager to see familiar names when stocking up on one-off big-ticket items.

The memory of many defunct comics survived for years beyond their demise because publishers kept on banging out hardback collections for titles parents and retailers remembered from their own pasts.

Lion Annual 1974 was released in Autumn 1973, the 21st volume since the comic began. There would be nine more before the hallowed name finally vanished from vendors’ shelves…

Boasting the traditional blend of full-colour, duo-tone and monochrome sections, this titanic tome kicks off in procedural manner and rainbow hues as ‘Spot the Clue with Zip Nolan’ (art by Ted Kearon) finds the motorcycle cop spectacularly solving theft at a logging camp after which a prose outing for ‘The Spellbinder’ (probably written by Tom Tully and spot-illustrated by regular strip artist Geoff Campion) reveals how young Tom Turville and his ancient alchemist ancestor Sylvester accidentally activate – and thwart – a terrorist fifth column menacing Britain…

‘Mowser the Priceless Puss and his Enemy James the Butler’ sees Reg Parlett’s cosseted kitty score another hilarious win in his ongoing war with malign manservant (and obnoxious, obstreperous, uppity snob) James after his cat-loving boss suggests a picnic, before ‘Secrets of the Demon Dwarf’ (Alfonso Font art) finds time-displaced WWI mad scientist Doktor Gratz still trying to reverse the result of the Great War by attacking modern-day Britain with robot stormtroopers, mole machines and his infamous armoured Zeppelin…

Campion’s ‘World Beaters: Peugeot Bébé’ delivers a fact-filled profile of the tiny foreign car after which Ian Kennedy depicts ‘Paddy Payne and the Battle of Eagles’ with the Air Ace seconded to the Maginot Line and embroiled in a grudge match between obsessed officers on both sides fighting to retain or retrieve a hotly contested battle standard…

‘Mowser’ then puts paid to James’ spotless reputation and – following two pages of general ‘Jokes’ – prose thriller ‘The Giant Dog of the Mause Valley’ explores the legend of a mythical hound before a bunch of irrepressible youngsters dubbed the ‘Can- Do-Kids’ thwart a conniving property tycoon in text treat ‘Moving House’…

Created by E. George “Ted” Cowan & Alan Philpott, The Jungle Robot debuted in the first issue of Lion in 1952, before vanishing until 1957. On his triumphant return in the 1960s as Robot Archie, “old tin bonce” became one of the most popular and long-lasting heroes of British comics.

Here the amazing and iconic automaton and his hapless handlers Ted Ritchie and Ken Dale find themselves fighting fake sharks and cunning gold thieves on the Amazon River in a sterling strip limned by Ted Kearon, after which photo-feature ‘Waterspeed’ outlines the intrinsic allure of powerboats.

Another ‘Jokes’ selection segues into sinister drama ‘The White-Eyes’ with wicked mad mastermind Ezra Creech using his super-strong zombie mind-slaves to steal army weapons and further his war against humanity. Happily, plucky teens Nick Dexter and Don Redding still have the measure of the malign maniac and his shambling myrmidons…

After ‘Mowser’ enjoys a spot of fishing, ‘The Spellbinder’ returns in strip form to lay a few unhappy ghosts at a Suffolk stately home after which another Campion ‘World Beater’ – ‘Meganeura Super Bug’ offers a glimpse at a prehistoric dragonfly before we all head back to WWII where schoolboy strategic prodigy ‘General Johnny’ (illustrated by Renato Polese perhaps?) sees the modern Alexander caught behind German lines and forced to fight his way back to safety…

Fire alarm foolishness makes ‘Mowser’ all warm inside and out after which ‘The Last of the Harkers’ finds hapless last surviving heir Joe and his ghostly coach attempting to reclaim a dead ancestor’s trophy and title for the Arduous Training and Obstacle Course in Glen Sporran. Joe was attempting to recover all the clan’s past prizes as a legal requirement to save the family seat, whilst villainous speculator Bert Swizzle saw the contests as his opportunity to take over the ancient pile…

This time, the rogue thought swapping dummy ordnance for the real thing would stop Joe, but he couldn’t be more wrong…

Brits of this period much preferred fantastic villains and antiheroes to straight do-gooders, and prose yarn ‘The Shadow of the Snake’ here heralds the return of an extremely popular serpentine super-crook.

Angus Allan & John Catchpole’s had begun the ophidian epic in the weekly Lion in 1972; cataloguing outrageous crimes of mad scientist Professor Krait who could transform himself into a reptilian rogue with all the assorted evolutionary advantages of the world’s reptilian denizens.

Here the bizarre bandit’s plan to plunder a bullion train is countered by his mortal nemesis and former lab assistant Mike Bowen, who regularly advises the bewildered, overmatched police…

A text examination of Alexander Selkirk – ‘The Real Robinson Crusoe’ – leads into a moth-eaten episode for ‘Mowser’ after which ‘Spot the Clue with Zip Nolan’ monochromatically features the canny cop scotching a criminal scheme operating as a civil war re-enactment whilst prose account ‘Anchored to a Blazing Hurricane!’ retells a shocking event from the Battle of Britain.

Following a prose outing details Robot Archie liberating a Burmese ruby mine from river pirates, photo-feature ‘Do It Yourself War’ celebrates table-top military gaming, ‘Mowser’ meets a snooty pedigree mutt and a full-colour match starring underage professional footballers ‘Carson’s Cubs’ (art by Fred T. Holmes) details how a subversive dietician can wreak more havoc than a bent referee on a successful team…

Stuntmen brothers Joe and Sandy then earn their title as ‘The Speed Kings’ after stumbling into a plot to sabotage a powerboat record attempt whilst text thriller ‘Noah’s Ark’ reveals how survivors cope with a flooded world before this walk down memory lane wraps up with the surely prophetic ‘“Stop this Man” Say the Camelot Clan’ wherein wealthy American speculators plan to turn the entire United Kingdom into a giant gasworks.

Only a disparate and slightly bonkers Historical Preservation Society stand in their way, but these fulminating little Englanders have a few tricks up their sleeves and the latest foray – to pave over Loch Ness and build a power station – flops for the strangest and most obvious reasons…

This is a glorious lost treasure-trove for fans of British comics and lovers of all-ages fantasy, filled with danger, drama, hobby-data and diverse delights, illustrated by some of the most talented artists in the history of the medium. Track it down, buy it for the kids and then read it too. Most of all, pray that somebody somewhere is actively working to preserve and collect these sparkling and resplendent slices of our fabulous graphic tradition in more robust and worthy editions.
© IPC Magazines Ltd. 1974. All rights reserved.

The Dandy Book 1982


By various
No ISBN:

For many British readers – comics fans or not – the Holiday Season means The Beano Book, but publisher D.C. Thomson produced a wide range of weekly titles over the decades, most of which also offered superb hardcover annuals.

Way back when, most annuals were produced in a wonderful “half-colour” which British publishers utilised in order to keep costs down. This was done by printing sections or “signatures” of the books with only two plates, such as Cyan (Blue) and Magenta (Red) or Yellow and Black.

The sheer versatility and range of hues provided was simply astounding. Even now this technique inescapably screams “Holiday Extras” for me and my aging contemporaries. This particular example boasts the barely-yesterday year of 1982 (and would have hit shop shelves in late August 1981) when printing technology was still expensive and complicated, and full colour a distant dream.

Until it folded and was reborn as a digital publication on 4th December 2012, The Dandy was the third-longest running comic in the world (behind Italy’s Il Giornalino – launched in 1924 – and America’s Detective Comics in March 1937). Premiering on December 4th 1937, it broke the mould of its traditionalist British predecessors by using word balloons and captions rather than narrative blocks of text under sequential picture frames.

A huge success, The Dandy was followed eight months later on July 30th 1938 by The Beano – and together they utterly revolutionised the way children’s publications looked and, most importantly, how they were received.

Over decades the “terrible twins” spawned a bevy of unforgettable and dearly-beloved household names to delight generations of avid and devoted readers, and their end-of-year celebrations were graced by bumper bonanzas of the weekly stars in extended stories housed in magnificent hardback annuals.

As WWII progressed, rationing of paper and ink forced “children’s papers” into an alternating fortnightly schedule. On September 6th 1941 only The Dandy was published. A week later just The Beano appeared. The normality of weekly editions only resumed on 30th July 1949 but before long the bonnie books were once more an unmissable part of the Christmas experience.

The frolicsome fun begins on the inside front cover as veteran star Desperate Dan (illustrated by Charles Grigg?) gets the ball rolling with some typically macho pancake racing endeavours – which wrap up with a powerful punchline at the show at the end – before Korky the Cat graciously introduces the forthcoming festivities.

Rather than the usual set of gag-favourites, this edition properly commences with light-drama yarn ‘Tufty’s Lucky Terrier’, revealing how a lonely lad’s school sporting career takes a bold turn thanks to his beloved pet pooch…

The Smasher is a lad hewn from the same mould as Dennis the Menace and in the first of his vignettes (drawn by Hugh Morren or perhaps David Gudgeon) the bombastic boy carves a characteristic swathe of anarchic destruction to beat sporting bullies and win a heaving table full of goodies to scoff. Then well-meaning cowboy superman Desperate Dan (limned by Peter Davidson?) moves heaven and earth to join the town band in another typically destructive and traumatic extended outing…

Larcenous snack addict Tom Tum (Keith Reynolds) keeps fit by outsmarting and burgling his parsimonious neighbour whilst Grigg’s Korky the Cat confounds a gamekeeper before popping back to introduce cartoon puzzle ‘A Super “Ice” Scream from Korky’ after which feuding fools The Jocks and the Geordies (Jimmy Hughes) renew their small nationalistic war in a wax museum infested with dull exhibits and nasty teachers…

David Mostyn’s Bertie Buncle and his Chemical Uncle finds the prankish lad having fun with his inventive relative’s super vacuum cleaner, and Harry and his Hippo (Andy Fanton?) sees the exiled African animal outsmart his human hosts to secure a warm bed on a cold night before mighty pooch Desperate Dawg (George Martin) spars with a circus strongman.

Jack Silver (by Bill Holroyd) then finds the alien schoolboy and his human pal Curley Perkins still on fantastic planet Marsuvia and battling a giant thieving Fuzzy Face covertly employed by super-villain Captain Zapp.

A game of cowboys goes typically wrong for Bully Beef and Chips (Gordon Bell?) whilst Tom Tum briefly indulges in tape-recording fun before reverting to hunger-fuelled type, Korky renews his decades-old conflict with the house mice and Peter’s Pocket Grandpa (Ron Spencer) sees the pint-sized pensioner creating a chaos-prone circus act using white rats as his savage beasts.

Korky’s Gallery of Schoolboy Howlers precedes Holroyd’s young DIY enthusiast in The Tricks of Screwy Driver, after which Greedy Pigg (George Martin), makes his mark as the voracious teacher (always attempting to confiscate and scoff his pupils’ snacks) switches targets and swipes the headmaster’s dinner instead.

Radio-tagged golf and cricket balls cause carnage in Bertie Buncle and his Chemical Uncle after which Desperate Dan clashes with a cow-pie snaffling escaped circus lion and George Martin’s Izzy Skint – He Always Is! finds the youthful entrepreneur failing spectacularly to monetise the family dog.

More food theft preoccupies The Smasher before Korky tests your wits once more with visual brainteasers in Here’s a Hoot! Spot the “Owl”! and Holroyd – or perhaps Steve Bright – conjures up equine excitement starring schoolboy Charley Brand and robotic pal Brassneck when the manmade schoolboy wins a racehorse and opts for a career as a steeplechase jockey.

Bully Beef and Chips finds both terroriser and perennial victim suffering from poetry homework even as Greedy Pigg comes to a slippery end in pursuit of illicit dinners. The Jocks and the Geordies play nocturnal pranks on UFO spotters and The Tricks of Screwy Driver result in an uncontrollable powered snow cart and icy duckings all around…

Desperate Dawg then employs a giant cowbell to stop a stampede, Korky’s crockery mishaps win him a most unwelcome new job and Peter’s Pocket Grandpa foils a jewellery heist with his micro roller-skating skills before the show closes with Izzy Skint – He Always Is! who sagely allows thieving bullies to defeat themselves in another masterful mirth moment from George Martin.

Stuffed with glorious gag-pages and bursting with classic kids’ adventure, this is still a tremendously fun read 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 nearly 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.

Superman Annual 1969 with Batman and Superboy


By Jerry Seigel, Leo Dorfman, E. Nelson Bridwell, Edmond Hamilton, Jerry Coleman, Al Plastino, Curt Swan, Wayne Boring, George Papp, Jim Mooney, Bob Brown & various (Top Sellers, Ltd by arrangement with the K. G. Murray Publishing Co.)
No ISBN – ASIN: B00389XM8C

Before DC and other American publishers began exporting comicbooks directly into the UK in 1959, our exposure to their unique brand of fantasy fun came from licensed reprints. British publishers/printers like Len Miller, Alan Class and Top Sellers bought material from the USA – and occasionally Canada – to fill 68-page monochrome anthologies – many of which recycled the same stories for decades.

Less common were strangely coloured pamphlets produced by Australian outfit K. G. Murray: exported to the UK in a rather sporadic manner. The company also produced sturdy Annuals which had a huge impact on my earliest years (I suspect my abiding adulation of monochrome artwork stems from seeing supreme stylists like Curt Swan, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson strut their stuff uncluttered by flat colour…).

In Britain we began seeing hardcover Superman Annuals in 1950 and Batman Annuals in 1960. Since then a number of publishers have carried on the tradition. This particular tome emerged at the close of the Batman TV phenomenon which briefly turned the entire planet Camp-Crazed and Bat-Manic; offering a delightfully eclectic mix of material designed to cater to young eyes and broad tastes.

This collection – proudly proclaiming second billing for Batman and Superboy – is printed in a quirky mix of monochrome, dual-hued and full-colour pages which made Christmas books such bizarrely beloved treats and opens with ‘Clark Kent’s Great Superman Hunt’ by Leo Dorfman & Al Plastino and originally a back-up in Superman #180 (October 1965).

Here, to the disgust of his friends, the Daily Planet star reporter seemingly exhorts the public to come forward with information to unmask the Man of Steel. Of course, there’s a deeper scheme in play here…

‘Prison for Heroes’ and ‘The Revenge of Superman’ come from World’s Finest Comics #145 (November 1964): an enthralling and dramatic thriller where Batman is hypnotically pressganged to an alien internment citadel: not as a cell-mate for Superman and other interplanetary champions, but as their sadistic jailer…

Edmond Hamilton, Curt Swan & George Klein shine in this potent yarn, delivering a superb team-up tale to excite fans of all ages.

Switching from full-colour to black-&-magenta, ‘You Too can be a Super Artist’ (Superman #211, November 1968) sees Frank Robbins, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito offer advice and starter tips on depicting the Action Ace, after which ‘Batman Kwizzlers’ test your general knowledge and short strip ‘The Superboy Legend: Superboy’s Secret Hideaways’ (by E. Nelson Bridwell, Bob Brown & Wally Wood from Superboy # 161, December 1969) reveals the secret treasures stored in the Boy of Steel’s Smallville home.

Drastically modified and abridged from Superboy # 147 (May-June 1968 and illustrated by George Papp), ‘The Origin and Powers of the Legion of Super Heroes’ offers a pictorial checklist of the Future’s greatest champions, supplemented by Bridwell’s prose history lesson ‘The Lore of the Legion’.

Next comes some participation events beginning with ‘Superman’s Christmas Quiz: Christmas in Many Lands’ (most likely written by Jack Schiff and definitely illustrated by Ruben Moreira from many different contemporary venues) and ‘Superman… and his Space Zoo!’ puzzles.

Then, again truncated and culled from many separate tales, ‘The Origin of the Bizarro World’ takes clips drawn by Wayne Boring and John Forte to precis the whacky backwards super-clowns; ‘Metropolis Mailbag’ answers readers’ questions about all things Kryptonian and the activity section closes with brain-busting conundrums in ‘The Batman Whirly-Word Game’.

Full colour comics action resumes with ‘The Spell of the Shandu Clock’ (Superman #126, January 1959: by Jerry Coleman, Boring & Stan Kaye) providing spooky chills, supposedly supernatural chills and devious ploys to outwit a malevolent criminal mastermind.

From Superboy #109 (December 1963) Jerry Seigel & Papp revealed how a timid Earth orphan is transported to another world to become planetary champion ‘The Super-Youth of Brozz’ after which ‘The Sweetheart Superman Forgot’ by Seigel & Plastino (Superman #165, November 1963) aspires to the heady heights of pure melodrama as the Man of Tomorrow loses his powers, memories, and the use of his legs before loving and losing a girl who only wants him for himself.

In a most poignant moment, the hero recovers his lost gifts and faculties and returns to his old life with no notion of what he’s lost and who waits for him forever alone…

Romance is also on the cards in Dorfman & Mooney’s ‘Zigi and Zagi’s Trap for Superman!’ (Action Comics #316. September 1964) wherein juvenile alien delinquents lure the hero to their homeworld and set him up romantically with their spinster aunt Zyra

With their eclectic selection of tales, Annuals like this one introduced generations of kids to the wild wonderment of the American comics experience and to readers of a certain age remain a captivating, irresistible lure to more halcyon times and climes.
© National Periodical Publications Inc. New York.

Merry Christmas, Boys and Girls!

In keeping with my self-imposed Holiday tradition here’s another pick of British Annuals selected not just for nostalgia’s sake but because it’s my house, my day and my rules…

If you’re lucky enough to stumble across a vintage volume or modern facsimile, I hope my words convince you to expand your comfort zone and try something old yet new…

Still topping my Xmas wish-list is further collections from fans and publishers who have begun to rescue this magical material from print limbo 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. As the tastes of the reading public have never been broader and since a selective sampling of our popular heritage will always appeal to some part of the mass consumer base, let’s all continue rewarding publishers for their efforts and prove that there’s money to be made from these glorious examples of our communal childhood.=