Golden Age Western Comics

By various, compiled and edited by Steven Brower (PowerHouse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-57687-594-0

There was a time, not that very long ago, when all of popular fiction was engorged and saturated with tales of “Cowboys and Indians”.

As always happens with such periodic phenomena – like the Swinging Sixties Super-Spy boom, the more recent Lonely Human/Vampire/Werewolf Boyfriend triangle or the trend for Sassy Articulate Gerbils Training Little Girls to be Sporting Stars and Master Martial Artists (I might have got that one confused) – there’s a tremendous amount of dross amidst a few spectacular gems beyond price.

On such occasions, there’s also generally a small amount of wonderful but not-quite-life-changing material that gets lost in the shuffle: carried along with the overwhelming surge of material pumped out by TV, film, comics and book producers as well as toy, game and record industries.

After World War II the American family entertainment market – which mostly meant comics, radio and the burgeoning but small television industry – became comprehensively enamoured of the clear-cut, simplistic sensibilities and easy, escapist solutions offered by Tales of the Old West; already a firmly established favourite of paperback fiction, movie serials and feature films.

I’ve often pondered on how almost simultaneously a dark, bleak, nihilistic and oddly left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome revolution, seemingly for the cynical minority of entertainment snobs and intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that’s a thought for another time and a different review.

Even though comicbooks had included western heroes from the very start – there were cowboy strips in the premier issues of both Action Comics and Marvel Comics – the post-war years saw a vast outpouring of anthology titles with new gun-toting heroes to replace the rapidly-dwindling supply of costumed Mystery Men, and – true to formula – most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling. To be fair, though, over the next decade a few genuine masterpieces did float to the surface of that crowded pool: Toth’s Johnny Thunder and Doug Wildey’s Outlaw Kid being the first to come to mind…

With every comicbook publisher turning hopeful eyes westward, it was natural that most of the actual historical figures would quickly find a home and – of course – facts counted little, as indeed they never had with other avenues of cowboy literature…

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist, producing some pretty impressive work, with France and Italy eventually making the genre their own by the end of the 1960s. Still and all, there was the rare gleam of gold and also a fair share of highly acceptable silver in American tales, and as always, the crucial difference was due to the artists and writers involved…

With all the top-line characters and properties such as Tomahawk, Rawhide Kid, or the Lone Ranger still fully owned by big concerns, this delightful and impressive hardback compilation instead gathers a broad selection of the second-string material (call ‘em Sunday matinee or B-movie comics if you want) and, although there’s no Kinstler or Kubert or Kirby classics, what editor Steven Brower has re-presented here in lavish, scanned full-colour is a magnificent meat-and-potatoes snapshot of what kids of the time would have been avidly absorbing.

Sadly, historical records are awfully spotty for this period and genre but I’m cocky enough to offer a few guesses whenever the creator credits aren’t available and I’m relatively sure of my footing…

After an informative introduction from Christopher Irving and introductory essay by Brower, the rip-roaringly wholesome fun and thrills begin with Texas Tim, Ranger (from an undesignated 1948 issue of Blazing West), part of writer/Editor Richard Hughes’ superb American Comics Group line, and a veritable one-man band of creative trend following.

Hughes is an unsung hero of the industry, competing with the Big Boys in spy, humour, western, horror and superhero titles well into the 1960s – and writing the bulk of the stories himself.

In a sadly uncredited yarn (perhaps drawn by Edmond Good), the Texan lawman tracks down rustlers and foils a plot to frame an innocent man in a rollicking 8-page romp, after which movie idol Lash LaRue solves the case of ‘The King’s Ransom’ in an adventure stuffed with chases, kidnapping, fights, framed Indians and prodigal sons, originally from #56 of his own licensed title (July 1955 and perhaps drawn by John Belfi or Tony Sgroi).

Fawcett had a huge stable (Yup, I said it and I ain’t sorry, neither) of Western screen stars, and when they quit comics in 1953 the lesser properties gems not bought by DC – such as Hopalong Cassidy – were snapped up by Capitol/Charlton Comics who purchased the bulk of declining comics publishers inventory during the 1950’s…

Charlton was always a minor player in the comics leagues, paying less, selling less, and generally caring less about cultivating a fan base than the major players. But they managed to discover and train more big names in the 1960s than either Marvel or DC, and created a vast and solid canon of memorable characters, concepts and genre material.

Almost all their stuff was written by Joe Gill or Pat Masulli, although in the 1960s young tyros like Roy Thomas, Nick Cuti, Steve Skeates, Dave Kaler and Denny O’Neil all got a healthy first bite of the cherry there, and I’m fairly certain “King of Comics” Paul S. Newman was the regular Larue scripter…

‘Magic Arrow Rides the Pony Express’ hails from Youthful Publications’ Indian Fighter (1950) illustrated by S. B. Rosen and detailing how the young Seneca chief and all-around “Good Injun” saves the famed postal service from unscrupulous badmen armed only with his quiver of enchanted shafts.

Fawcett also published a certified screen-star in Tom Mix Western and here, from #15 (1949) comes ‘Tom Mix and the Desert Maelstrom’ probably drawn by Carl Pfeufer & John Jordan – as most of the strips were – wherein the legendary lawman braves a stupendous sandstorm to capture bank-robbers and save a wounded rodeo rider from destitution.

Lots of publishers plumped for public domain Jesse James to bolster their output and the one sampled here comes from Charlton’s Cowboy Western Comics #39, (June 1955, probably written by Gill & illustrated by William M. Allison). The always misunderstood gunslinger is framed for a stage hold-up and…

Magazine Enterprises produced some the very best quality comics of the 1950s and from Dan’l Boone #4, December 1955 comes the stirring saga of pioneer America ‘Peril Shadows the Forest Trail’, wherein the mythical scout and woodsman ferrets out a murderous white turncoat in a timeless thriller illustrated by the hugely undervalued Joe Certa.

‘Buffalo Belle’ also comes from the 1948 Blazing West and again displays Hughes’ mastery of short story strips as the miniskirt-wearing agent of justice deals with a dragged-up (no really!: men in skirts!) bandit in a terrific yarn possibly limned by Max Elkan or even Charles Sultan…

Also from that ACG title are the truly lovely ‘Little Lobo the Bantam Buckeroo’ – illustrated by Leonard Starr in his transitional Milton Caniff drawing style – depicting the tempestuous boy’s battle against fur thieves, plus the charming ‘Tenderfoot’ (by a frustratingly familiar artist I can’t confidently identify, but who might just be Paul Cooper) with the sissy-looking Eastern Dude dispensing western vengeance to bullies and bandits alike…

‘Little Eagle: Soldier in the Making’ also comes from Indian Fighter – illustrated with near-abstract verve by Manny Stallman – stampeding firmly into fantasy as a youthful brave equipped with magic wings tackles renegade brave Black Dog before the madman sets the entire frontier ablaze with war…

Avon Books started in 1941, created when the American News Corporation bought out pulp magazine publishers J.S. Ogilvie, and their output was famously described by Time Magazine as “westerns, whodunits and the kind of boy-meets-girl story that can be illustrated by a ripe cheesecake jacket.” By 1945 the company had launched a comicbook division as fiercely populist as the umbrella company.

They released over 100 short-lived genre titles such as Atomic Spy Cases, Bachelor’s Diary, Behind Prison Bars, Campus Romance, Gangsters and Gun Molls, Slave Girl Comics, War Dogs of the U.S. Army, White Princess of the Jungle and many others, all aimed – even the funny animal titles like Space Mouse and Spotty the Pup!at a slightly older and more “discerning” audience and all illustrated by some of the best artists working at the time.

Many if not most sported lush painted covers that were both eye-catching and beautiful.

Six of their titles had respectable runs: Peter Rabbit, Eerie, Wild Bill Hickock, outrageous “Commie-busting” war comic Captain Steve Savage, Fighting Indians of the Wild West and their own magnificently illustrated fictionalised adventures of Jesse James.

‘Terror at Taos’ originated in Avon’s Kit Carson #6 (March 1955, but is reprinted here from Fighting Indians of the Wild West), pitting the famed scout against corrupt officials and traitorous wagon masters in the Commancheria territory; all lavishly rendered by the superb Jerry McCann.

Next up is ‘Young Falcon and the Swindlers’ from Fawcett’s Gabby Hayes Western #17 (April 1950) by an artist doing a very creditable impression of Norman Maurer, wherein the lost prince of the Truefeather Tribe tracks down crooked assayers who bilked him of his rightful pay, after which ‘Annie Oakley’ (Cowboy Western Stories # 38, April/May 1952) finds the famed sharpshooter hunting bandits in a canny 4-page quickie illustrated by Jerry Iger under the pen-name Jerry Maxwell.

Charlton’s back catalogue also provided ‘Flying Eagle in Golden Treachery’ from Death Valley #9 October 1955, wherein the noble brave foils white claim-jumpers togged up like Indians.

‘Cry for Revenge’ (Cowboy Western #49 May/June 1954) then sees venerable Fawcett star Golden Arrow hunt down more murderous whites posing as Red Men to drive settlers off their land in a gripping (Gill?) yarn illustrated by Dick Giordano & Vince Alascia.

‘Chief Black Hawk and his Dogs of War’ was a historical puff-piece also from Kit Carson #6 with artist Harry Larsen delineating the rise and fall of the legendary Sauk war chief after which Giordano & Alascia’s ‘Triple Test’ (Cowboy Western #49 May/June 1954) laconically describes the dangers of marrying in a rare, wry light-hearted tale from an age of mostly shoot-and-swipe sagas…

Gabby Hayes Western #17 also provided an adventure of the World’s Most Successful Sidekick himself (No, seriously: Hayes was the comedy stooge to almost every cowboy in Tinsel Town, from Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy to Randolph Scott and John Wayne).

‘The Big Game Hunt’ is a fun-filled riot as the garrulous old coot takes the wind out of a snobby globe-trotting safari addict and saves the life of a cantankerous moose in a charming rib-tickler probably written by Rod Reed or Irwin Schoffman and illustrated by Leonard Frank.

The last tales in this tome are all from Charlton; starting with the Giordano & Alascia ‘Breakout in Rondo Prison’ (Range Busters #10 September 1955) wherein hard-riding trio Scott, Chip and Doodle are framed for robbery in a pokey cow-town and forced to fight their way to freedom after which the action ends and sun sets with a superb costumed cowboy thriller ‘For Talon’s Nest’ from Masked Raider #2 (August 1955). Here the enigmatic mystery gunslinger is forced to defend his pet eagle’s honour in a classy classic drawn by Mike Sekowsky (and possibly inked by Standard Comics comrade Mike Peppe?)

Sadly, there’s no inclusion of Charlton’s superb and long-running Billy the Kid, Gunmaster or Cheyenne Kid features, but hopefully there’s the possibility of a follow-up volume dedicated to them…?

Within the pages of this sassy full-colour hardback (still no digital edition yet, pardners!), cow-punching aficionados – and no, it’s neither a sexual proclivity nor an Olympic sport – and all fans of charming, nostalgia-stuffed comics can (re)discover a splendid selection of range-riding rollercoaster rides about misunderstood fast-guns or noble savages compelled to take up arms against an assorted passel of low-down no-goods and scurvy owlhoots, and all the other myriad tropes and touchstones of Western mythology.

Black hats, white hats, great pictures and traditional fast gun and flying fists values – what more could you possibly ask for?
Text, compilation and editing © 2012 Steven Brower. Foreword © 2012 Christopher Irving. All rights reserved

The A-Z of Marvel Monsters

By Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0863-8

To dyed-in-the-wool comic-book fanboys there’s a much beloved period in history when a frankly daft and woefully formulaic trend produced utter, joyous magic. We look back on it now and see only the magnificent art, or talk with loving derision of the crazy (often onomatopoeic) names, but deep down we can’t shake the exuberant thrill inside or the frisson of emotion that occurs when we see or even think of them.

Before Jack Kirby and Stan Lee brought superheroes back to Marvel Comics, the company was on its last legs. Trapped in a woefully disadvantageous distribution deal, the company’s output was limited to some sixteen genre titles. But there was hope…

The outside mainstream world was currently gripped in an atomic B-movie monster craze, so Lee, Kirby and Steve Ditko dutifully capitalised on it in their anthology mystery titles Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense.

In an unending procession of brief inspirational novelettes, dauntless or canny or just plain outsider humans outsmarted a succession of bizarre aliens, mad scientists, an occasional ghost or sorcerer (this was, after all, the heyday of the Comics Code Authority when any depiction of the supernatural was BAD) and a horde of outrageous beasties in a torrent of wonders best described by the catchphrase “monsters-in-underpants”.

Simplistic, moralistic, visually experimental yet reassuringly predictable in narrative, these Outer Limits-style yarns were – and still are – the epitome of sheer unrelenting fun with no redeeming social context required.

Marvel have increasingly celebrated that fact in recent years and – over the course of one month – commissioned a line of 26 “Kirby Monster” variant covers for their periodical releases, all lovingly crafted by a number of top names to highlight the treasured contribution of beasties, things and what-nots…

This volume gathers those images in a handy hardcover primer (and eBook edition) whilst gloriously gilding the lily with a splendid selection of many of the original mini-epics as created from those pre-Marvel Age masterpieces and augmented by ‘Jack Kirby, Atlas Comics & Monsters!’: a 1994 Introduction from the King himself.

The next bit’s another shopping-list moment so if you want to skip ahead a little I shouldn’t be at all surprised…

The worshipful A-Z art-section – augmented by the original cover of each diabolical debut – opens with Erica Henderson’s reinterpretation of ‘The Awesome Android!’ (which premiered in Fantastic Four #15) and rapidly follows up ‘The Blip!’ by Simon Bisley, and ‘The Crawling Creature!’ as delineated by Maguerite Sauvage.

An extreme late entry in the Kirby-Kritter Circus, ‘Devil Dinosaur!’ launched in his own title in 1978 and his moody reprise from Matthew Wilson is followed by Jeff Lemire’s take on ‘Elektro!’ and ‘Fin Fang Foom!’ – first seen in Strange Tales #89 – and rendered here by Walter Simonson & Laura Martin.

Michael & Laura Allred depict latter-day cellulose celluloid star ‘Groot!’ (originating in Tales to Astonish #13) before Francesco Francavilla highlights ‘The Hypno-Creature!’, Paolo Rivera revisits Fantastic Four #24’s weird menace ‘The Infant Terrible!’ and Glenn Fabry regales us with an Asgardian god battling ‘The Jinni Devil!’ in a scene that didn’t make it into 1967’s Thor #137…

Dave Johnson details a key point in the life of ‘Kraa the Unhuman!’ before John Cassaday & Matthew Wilson illuminate the depredations of ‘Lo-Karr, Bringer of Doom!’ after which Geof Darrow takes us back to Thor #154 to meet again amalgamated menace ‘Mangog!’

Kirby’s astounding 1976 Eternals series produced many incredible images and Paul Pope & Shay Plummer have chosen 2,000 feet tall Space God ‘Nezarr the Calculator!’ to set the pulses racing, whilst Mike del Mundo plumps for Strange Tales #90’s ‘Orrgo!’ and James Stokoe recalls forgotten fiend ‘Poker Face!’ as originally seen in Strange Tales of the Unusual #1 from December 1956…

Recurring FF foe ‘The Quonian!’ first appeared in Fantastic Four #97 and wows again here thanks to Christian Ward, after which Eric Powell previews ‘Rommbu!’ and Tradd Moore pits Ant-Man against Tales to Astonish #39 terror ‘The Scarlet Beetle!’ before Chris Bachalo & Tim Townsend show us the power of ‘Thorr!’

Chris Samnee & Wilson expose the tricky ferocity of Journey into Mystery #63’s undersea goliath ‘Ulvar!’ and Arthur Adams & Chris Sotomayor hark back to Tales to Astonish #17 to focus on ‘Vandoom’s Monster’ after which one last FF antagonist features as Cliff Chiang reveals ‘The Wrecker’s Robot!’ as seen in Fantastic Four #12.

Wrapping up this astounding alphabet are Dan Brereton’s rendition of ‘Xemnu!’ and Phil Noto’s depiction of ‘The Yeti!’ who battled Kirby’s Black Panther in #5 before Tony Moore & John Rauch hilariously conclude the countdown with alien outlaw ‘Zetora’.

Okay so maybe a few of those spooky stalwarts might have been from a later era and star in superhero sagas, but the influence and intent was clearly seen throughout and just sets the tone for the Kirby-crafted fearsome fantasy-features that follow…

The family-friendly monster mash – featuring scripts by Lee and Larry Lieber with Dick Ayers inking – opens with ‘I Learned the Dread Secret of The Blip!’ (from Tales to Astonish #15, January 1961) wherein an openminded radar operator attempts to assist a stranded alien energy being.

‘I Dared to Battle the Crawling Creature!’ comes from Tales to Astonish #22 (August 1961) and sees a scrawny High School nerd travel into the bowels of the Earth and face a primitive predator whilst an aging electronicist creates and eventually counters a would-be computerised conqueror in ‘Elektro! He Held the World in his Iron Grip!’ (Tales of Suspense #19, January 1961).

The hideous Hypno-Creature harried a very human hero in extra-dimensional invasion epic ‘I Entered the Dimension of Doom!’ from Tales of Suspense #23 (November 1961) whilst facing hulking atomic victim ‘Kraa the Unhuman!’ (Tales of Suspense #18, June 1961) proves the making of a timid American teacher…

A sunken stone head on a Pacific Island proved to be big trouble when explorers awakened ancient alien invaders in ‘Here Comes… Thorr the Unbelievable’ (Tales to Astonish #16, February 1961) and the origins of Defenders villain Xemnu the Titan are exposed in ‘I Was a Slave of the Living Hulk!’ (from Journey into Mystery #62, November 1960) before a hapless human proves to be the perfect hideout for extraterrestrial fugitive Zetora in ‘The Martian Who Stole My Body!’ as seen in Journey into Mystery #57 (March 1960).

Foolish, fabulous, thrill-packed and utterly intoxicating, these are fun-filled tales no puny human could possibly resist.
© 1956-1961, 2017 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Take That, Adolf! – The Fighting Comic Books of the Second World War

By Mark Fertig and many & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-987-5

Long the bastion of the arcane, historic, esoteric and the just plain interesting arenas of the comics experience, Fantagraphics Books here celebrates the dawn age of Fights ‘n’ Tights funnybooks with a magnificent collection of (mostly) superhero covers culled from the fraught period which most truly defined the comics industry.

Comicbook covers are a potent and evocative way of assessing the timbre of an era and a captivating shortcut into worlds far removed from our own. They are also half the sum total of fun generated by narrative art and arguably an art form all their own.

In this tome, educator, scholar and writer Mark Fertig (Chair of Art and Art History at Susquehanna University, Pennsylvania and revered film noir expert – check out his Where Danger Lives for more populist fun) offers an erudite and wide-reaching essay comprehensively addressing every aspect of the four-colour Home Front’s graphic endeavours in support of America’s WWII war effort.

Detailing how Jewish émigré artists’ and writers’ creative influences advocated America surrender its isolationist stance in ‘Four Color Fantasies’ and ‘Building Towards War’, Fertig then traces the development of ‘Red, White, and Blue Heroes’ such as The Shield and Uncle Sam before ‘The Coming of Captain America’ sparks the invention of ‘An Army of Captains’.

After the USA finally enters the war ‘All-Out Assault: August & September 1941’ is followed by an examination of female masked fighters in ‘She Can Do It!’ and reveals how Wonder Woman became ‘An Amazon for the Ages’.

‘Kids Can Fight Too!’ reveals the impact of junior and under-age crusaders as well as the sub-genre of Kid Gangs whilst ‘Attaboy, Steamboat!’ confronts head-on the depiction of ethnic characters – “evil” and Pro-democracy. From here in the distant future, some of the appalling jingoism and racism is even more disturbing than the tortures, torments and buckets of gore liberally scattered through the images of Evil Nazis and Japs…

Next ‘Into the Breach’ addresses the reasons omnipotent heroes such as Superman and Captain Marvel left the actual fighting in Europe and the Pacific to ordinary mortals before ‘Pulling Together’ details and the promotion of Home Front solidarity munitions manufacture and the arming of the armies of Freedom after which Hitler repeatedly gets his just deserts (in effigy at least) ‘In Der Führer’s Face!’

‘Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines!’ follows the development of more human fictional soldiers and heroes whilst and ‘More Thrilling Than Fiction’ sees the begins of fact-based accounts of true champions such as President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower before ‘Pitch Men’ follows the numerous examples of masked warriors and kiddie-characters inciting readers to help pay for the war through selling war bonds and liberty stamps and ‘On to Victory’ celebrates the end of hostilities and the aftermath.

The fact-packed lecture is also supplemented at the back of the book by creator biographies of industry giants and iconic cover crafters Charles Clarence Beck, Jack Binder, Charles Biro, Hardin “Jack” Burnley, Reed Crandall, Will Eisner, Lou Fine, Irv Novick, Manuel “Mac” Raboy and Alex Schomburg (regarded as the most prolific cover illustrator of the period) but the true merit of this enchanting tome is the covers gathered for your perusal.

Designed to incite patriotic fervour and build morale, the awesome majority of this tome features a potent avalanche of stunning covers from almost every company, displaying not only how mystery men and superheroes dealt with the Axis of Evil in those tense times but also the valiant efforts of “ordinary fighting men” and even cartoon fantasy stars such as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Walt Disney stars such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck

Shopping List Alert: skip if you must…

This book celebrates an absolute cascade of spectacular, galvanising scenes of heroes legendary and obscure, costumed and uniformed, crushing tanks, swatting planes, sinking U-Boats and decimating enemy ranks, unleashed before your assuredly goggled eyes by artists long forgotten, and never known as well as more familiar names such as Joe Shuster, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Eisner, Harry G. Peter, Jack Burnley, Frank Harry, Irwin Hasen, Al Avison, Bob Powell, Edd Ashe, Harry Lucey, Paul Gustavson, Bill Everett, Jerry Robinson, Gus Ricca, Al Gabriele, Charles Sultan, Gene Fawcette, Louis & Arturo Cazeneuve, Gill Fox, Sam Cooper, Jim Mooney, Elmer Wexler, Fred Ray, Dan Zolnerowich, Don Rico, Max Plaisted, Howard Sherman, Everett E. Hibbard, Ramona Patenaude, Pierce Rice, Harry Anderson, Lin Streeter, Dan Gormley, Bernard Klein, Stephen Douglas, Martin Nodell, Charles Quinlan, Dan Noonan, Sheldon Moldoff, Henry Keifer, Marc Swayze, Carl Buettner, Charles A. Winter, Maurice, del Bourgo, Jack Warren, Bob Montana, Bob, Fujimori, Vernon Greene, George Papp, John Jordan, Syd Shores, John Sikela, Alex Blum, Ray Ramsey, R. Webster, Harry Sahle, Mort Leav, Alex Kotzky, Dan Barry, Al Camy, Stan Kaye, George Gregg, Art Saaf, George Tuska, alexander Kostuk, Al Carreno, Fred Kida, Ruben Moreira, Sidney Hamburg, Rudy Palais, Joe Doolin, Al Plastino, Harvey K. Fuller, Louis Ferstadt, Matt Bailey, Ham Fisher, Walt Kelly, Wayne Boring, John Giunta, Creig Flessel, Harold Delay, Lee Elias, Henry Boltinoff, L.B. Cole and George Marcoux plus many more who did their bit by providing safe thrills, captivating joy and astounding excitement for millions.

These powerful, evocative, charming, funny, thrilling, occasionally daft and often horrific images are controversial these days. Many people consider them Art with a capital ‘A’ whereas close-minded, reactionary, unimaginative, bigoted die-hard poltroons don’t.

Why not Dig back in time (For Victory!) and make your own decision?
© 2017 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. Main text© 2017 Mark Fertig. All comics covers and illustrations herein © 2017 the respective copyright holders All rights reserved.

Jesse James: Classic Western Collection

By Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino & various (Vanguard Productions)
ISBN: 978-1887591515(HB)             978- 1-887591-44-3(TPB)

There was a time, not that very long ago, when all arenas of popular fiction was engorged with cowboy stories…

As always happens with such periodic phenomena – such as the Swinging Sixties Super-Spy Boom and the relatively recent Vampire/Werewolf Boyfriend trend – there’s a tremendous amount of dross and a few spectacular gems. On such occasions, there’s also generally a small amount of superb yet not-quite-transformational, essentially magnificent concoctions that get lost in the shuffle: carried along with the overwhelming surge of insubstantial material pumped out by television, film, comics and book producers and even the toy, game and record industries.

After World War II the American mass family entertainment market – for which read comics, radio and the burgeoning television industry – became comprehensively enamoured of the clear-cut, simplistic sensibilities and easy, escapist solutions offered by Tales of the Old West as already firmly established through paperback fiction, movie serials and feature films.

I’ve often pondered on how almost simultaneously a dark, bleak, nigh-nihilistic and oddly left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome revolution, seemingly for a cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that’s definitely a thought for another time and review.

Comicbooks reacted with a huge outpouring of anthology titles and new six-gun heroes to replace the rapidly dwindling pantheon of costumed Mystery Men and – true to formula – most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling.

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist, producing some pretty impressive work, with France and Italy eventually making the genre their own by the end of the 1960s. Still and all, there was the rare gleam of gold and also a fair share of highly acceptable silver in the American comics tales, and as always, the crucial difference was due to the artists and writers involved…

With every comic-book publisher turning hopeful eyes westward, it was natural that most historical figures would quickly find a home and of course, facts counted for little, as indeed they never had with cowboy stories…

Avon Books started in 1941, created when the American News Corporation bought out pulp magazine publishers J.S. Ogilvie, and their output was famously described by Time Magazine as “westerns, whodunits and the kind of boy-meets-girl story that can be illustrated by a ripe cheesecake jacket.”

By 1945 the company had launched a comicbook division as fiercely populist as the parent company with over 100 short-lived titles such as Atomic Spy Cases, Batchelor’s Diary, Behind Prison Bars, Campus Romance, Gangsters and Gun Molls, Slave Girl Comics, War Dogs of the U.S. Army, White Princess of the Jungle and many others, all aimed – even the funny animal titles like Space Mouse and Spotty the Pup! – at a slightly older and more discerning audience, and all drawn by some of the best artists working at the time.

Many if not most sported lush painted covers that were both eye-catching and beautiful.

Six titles in their admittedly eclectic stable had respectable runs: Peter Rabbit, Eerie, Wild Bill Hickock, outrageous “Commie-busting” war comic Captain Steve Savage, Fighting Indians of the Wild West and the adequately scripted but magnificently illustrated fictionalised adventures of Jesse James.

Within this beguiling hardback compilation cow-punching aficionados (no, it’s neither a recreational peccadillo nor an extreme sport) and all fans of fabulous sequential narrative artwork can (re)discover a selection of range-riding rollercoaster rides about a troubled and misunderstood fast-gun, constantly forced to defend his name and life from an assorted passel of low-down no-goods and scurvy owlhoots: a wandering warrior having far more in common with Robin Hood’s brand of outlawry than the actual Frank and Jesse James.

Nonetheless these anodyne but enjoyable tall tales still have plenty to recommend them. In stories such as ‘The Liberty Bank Robbery’, ‘Disaster at Savannah’, ‘Texas Killer’, ‘Devil’s Desperadoes’, ‘Jesse James… Sheriff’, ‘Helltown Holdups’, ‘Gunplay at Gallatin’, ‘The Great Prison Break!’, ‘Six-Gun Slaughter at San Romano’, ‘The Russelville Gunfights’ and ‘The Apache Kid Treasure’ our put-upon hero tries to live a blameless life until pushed to action by reputation-hungry fools, greedy bankers, psychotic killers and all the other myriad traditional touchstones of cinematic Western mythology.

This monochrome collection reprints material from issues #5, 6 and 7 of Jesse James (1950-1951), primarily featuring the stunning early illustration of comics legends Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino – who would a few years later usher in the Silver Age of comics – as well as stylish frontispieces by the masterful Wally Wood and world-famous portraitist Everett Raymond Kinstler.

The latter’s elegant illustrative art graced many Avon comics, as well as text features, biographies and even some pre-production pencil sketches.

Bill Black reprinted a few Avon Jesse James tales as part of his AC Comics line, but with 24 issues plus an annual released between 1950-1956 and artists like Leonard Starr, Al Williamson, Fred Kida and Frank Frazetta also contributing sterling work to these admittedly above-average shoot-‘em-up scripts, surely there’s still enough potential fans around to support a complete reprinting of this title – perhaps in the cheap-n-cheerful DC giant phonebook format as seen with DC Showcase or Marvel Essentials – or at least in a comprehensive digital download?

Black hats, white hats, great pictures and timeless action – what more could you possibly ask for?
© 2001 Vanguard Productions 2003P. All other trademarks and copyrights in this book are acknowledged to their respective owners.

Superman: The Golden Age volume 3

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Wayne Boring, Jack Burnley, Paul Cassidy, Ed Dobrotka, Don Komisarow, Leo Nowak, Fred Ray, John Sikela & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7089-6

As his latest record-breaking anniversary rapidly approaches, the popularity of Superman is on the climb again. The American comicbook industry – if it existed at all by now – would have been an utterly unrecognisable thing without The Man of Steel. His unprecedented invention and adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation gave birth to an entire genre if not an actual art form.

Moreover, with moviegoers anticipating fresh cinematic revelations in the upcoming Justice League blockbuster, expect a wealth of book releases celebrating the serried past of the heroic universe’s ultimate immigrant.

Imitation is the most honest compliment and can be profitable too. Superman triggered an inconceivable army of imitators and variations and, within three years of his Summer 1938 debut, the intoxicating blend of action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early Action Ace had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, socially reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy, whimsical comedy and, once the war in Europe and the East finally involved America, patriotic relevance for a host of gods, heroes and monsters, all dedicated to profit through exuberant, eye-popping excess and vigorous dashing derring-do.

In comicbook terms at least, Superman was master of the world. He had already utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry by the time of these tales. There was a successful newspaper strip, foreign and overseas syndication and the Fleischer studio was producing some of the most expensive – and best – animated cartoons ever conceived.

Thankfully the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release, and the energy and enthusiasm of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had infected the burgeoning studio that grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

This latest addition to the splendid Golden Age/Silver Age strand of DC reprint compendia presents more of an epochal run of raw, unpolished but viscerally vibrant stories by Siegel, Shuster and the sterling crew of their ever-expanding “Superman Studio” who were setting the funnybook world on fire: crude, rough, uncontrollable wish-fulfilling, cathartically exuberant exploits of a righteous and superior man dealing out summary justice equally to social malcontents, exploitative capitalists, thugs and ne’er-do-wells that initially captured the imagination of a generation.

This third remastered paperback collection (also available digitally) of the Man of Tomorrow’s earliest exploits – reprinted in the order they first appeared – covers the still largely innocent, carefree period between January and September 1941: encompassing Action Comics #32-40, Superman #8-11 and solo-adventures from World’s Best Comics #1 and World’s Finest Comics #2 (an oversized anthology title where he shared cover-stardom with Batman and Robin). As always, every comic appearance is preceded by the original cover illustration, another fine bunch of graphic masterpieces from Paul Cassidy, Wayne Boring and Fred Ray.

Although Siegel & Shuster had very much settled into the character by now, the latter was increasingly involved with the Superman newspaper strip. Even so, the buzz of success still fired them both and innovation still sparkled amidst the exuberance.

Written entirely by Seigel this incredible panorama of torrid tales opens with ‘The Gambling Rackets of Metropolis’ from Action Comics #32.

Like many stories of the time there was no original title and it’s been designated as such simply to make my job a little easier, as Superman crushes an illicit High Society gambling operation that has wormed its nefarious ay into the loftiest echelons of Government, a typical Jerry Siegel social drama magnificently illustrated by the great Jack Burnley.

Superman #8 (January/February 1941) was another spectacular and varied compendium containing four big adventures ranging from fantastic fantasy in ‘The Giants of Professor Zee’ (illustrated by Paul Cassidy); topical suspense in spotlighting ‘The Fifth Column’ (Wayne Boring & Don Komisarow); common criminality in ‘The Carnival Crooks’ (Cassidy) and concluding with an increasingly rare comic-book outing for Joe Shuster – inked by Boring – in the cover-featured ‘Perrone and the Drug Gang’, wherein the Metropolis Marvel battled doped-up thugs and the corrupt lawyers who controlled them.

Action Comics#33 and 34 are both Burnley extravaganzas wherein Superman goes north to discover ‘Something Amiss at the Lumber Camp’, before heading to coal country to save ‘The Beautiful Young Heiress’; both superbly enticing character-plays with plenty of scope for super-stunts to thrill the gasping fans.

Superman #9 (March/April 1941) was another four-star thriller with all the art credited to Cassidy. ‘The Phony Pacifists’ is an espionage thriller capitalising on increasing US tensions over “the European War”, ‘Joe Gatson, Racketeer’ recounts the sorry end of a hot-shot blackmailer and kidnapper, ‘Mystery in Swasey Swamp’ combines eerie rural events with ruthless spies whilst the self-explanatory ‘Jackson’s Murder Ring’ pits the Caped Kryptonian against an ingenious gang of commercial assassins.

The success of the annual World’s Fair premium comic-books had convinced National/DC editors that an over-sized anthology of their characters, with Superman and Batman prominently featured, would be a worthwhile proposition even at the exorbitant price of 15¢ (most 64-page titles retailed for 10¢ and would do so until the 1960s).

At 96 pages, World’s Best Comics #1 debuted with a Spring 1941 cover-date, before transforming into the venerable World’s Finest Comics from issue #2 onwards. From that landmark one-and-only edition comes gripping disaster thriller ‘Superman vs. the Rainmaker’, illustrated by Cassidy, after which Action Comics#35 headlines a human-interest tale with startling repercussions in ‘The Guybart Gold Mine’, and Superman is mightily stretched to cope with the awesome threat of ‘The Enemy Invasion’: a canny and foreboding taste of things to come if – or rather, when – America entered World War II.

Superman #10 (May/June 1941) opens with ‘The Invisible Luthor’ (illustrated by Leo Nowak), ‘The Talent Agency Fraud’ (ditto), ‘The Spy Ring of Righab Bey’ and ‘The Dukalia Spy Ring’ (both by Boring & Shuster), topical and exotic themes of suspense as America was still at this time still officially neutral in the “European War.”

Action Comics #37 (June 1941) returned to tales of graft, crime and social injustice in ‘Commissioner Kent’ (Cassidy art) as the Man of Steel’s timid alter-ego is forced to run for the job of top cop in Metropolis, before World’s Finest Comics #2 (Summer 1941) unleashes Nowak & Cassidy’s ‘The Unknown X’; a fast-paced mystery of sinister murder-masterminds, whilst Action #38 provides a spectacular battle against a sinister hypnotist committing crimes through ‘Radio Control’ (Nowak & Ed Dobrotka)…

Superman #11 (July/August 1941) was an all Nowak affair, beginning with ‘Zimba’s Gold Badge Terrorists’, wherein thinly disguised Nazis “Blitzkrieg” America, after which “giant animals” go on a rampage in ‘The Corinthville Caper’. Seeking a cure for ‘The Yellow Plague’ takes Superman to the ends of the Earth whilst ‘The Plot of Count Bergac’ takes him back home to crush a band of High Society gangsters.

Horrific mad science creates ‘The Radioactive Man’ (Action #39, by Nowak & Shuster) whilst the concluding episode here from issue #40 featured ‘The Billionaire’s Daughter’ (John Sikela) wherein the mighty Man of Tomorrow needs all his wits to set straight a spoiled debutante…

Stories of corruption and social injustice gradually gave way to more spectacular fare, and with war in the news and clearly on the horizon, the tone and content of Superman’s adventures changed too: the scale and scope of the stunts became more important than the motive. The raw passion and sly wit still shone through in Siegel’s stories but as the world grew more dangerous the Man of Tomorrow simply had to become stronger and more flamboyant to deal with it all, with Shuster and his team consequently stretching and expanding the iconography for all imitators and successors to follow.

These Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment at an absurdly affordable price. How can you possibly resist them?
© 1941, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Joker: A Celebration of 75 Years

By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson and many & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4759-1

When the very concept of high priced graphic novels was just being shelf-tested way back in in the late 1980s, DC Comics produced a line of glorious full-colour hardback compilations spotlighting star characters and celebrating standout stories decade by decade from the company’s illustrious and varied history.

They then branched out into themed collections which shaped the output of the industry to this day; such as a fabulous congregation of yarns which offer equal billing and star status to one of the most enduring arch-foes in fiction: The Maestro of Malignant Mirth known only as The Joker.

So much a mirror of and paralleling the evolution of the epochal Batman, the exploits of the Joker are preceded here by a brief critical analysis of the significant stages in the villain’s development, beginning with the years 1940-1942 and Part I: The Grim Jester.

After deconstruction comes sinister action as debut appearance ‘Batman Vs. The Joker’ (by Bill Finger & Bob Kane from Batman #1, Spring 1940) provides suspenseful entertainment whilst introducing the most diabolical member of the Dark Knight’s rogues’ gallery. A chilling moody tale of brazen extortion and wilful wanton murder begins when an eerie character publicly announces that he will kill certain business and civic figures at specific times…

An instant hit, the malignant murdering Joker kept coming back. ‘The Riddle of the Missing Card’ (Finger, Kane & Jerry Robinson, Batman #5 1941) once again saw the Crime Clown pursue loot and slaughter, but this time with a gang of card-themed crooks at his side. It did not end well for the whimsical butcher…

Fame secured, the Devil’s Jester quickly became an over-exposed victim of his own nefarious success. In story terms that meant seeking to “reform” and start over with a clean slate. Turning himself in, the maniac grasses on many criminal confederates but ‘The Joker Walks the Last Mile’ (Finger, Kane & Robinson, Detective Comics #64 June 1942) soon shows that tousled viridian head twisting inexorably back towards murderous larceny…

As years passed and tastes changed, the Laughing Killer mellowed into a bizarrely baroque bandit and Part II: The Clown Prince assesses that alteration, before providing fascinating examples beginning with ‘Knights of Knavery’ from Batman #25 (1944 by Don Cameron, Jack Burnley & Robinson).

Here he and arch-rival The Penguin fractiously join forces to steal the world’s biggest emerald and outwit all opposition, before falling foul of their own mistrust and arrogance once the Caped Crusaders put their own thinking caps on.

‘Rackety-Rax Racket’ Batman #32 (1945 by Cameron & Dick Sprang) is another malevolently marvellous exploit which sees the ideas-starved Prankster of Peril finding felonious inspiration in college-student hazing and initiation stunts, after which ‘The Man Behind the Red Hood’ (Detective Comics #168, February 1951) reveals a partial origin as part of a brilliantly engrossing mystery by Finger, Lew Sayre Schwartz & Win Mortimer, which all began when the Caped Crusader regales eager young criminology students with the story of “the one who got away”… just before the fiend suddenly came back…

In ‘The Joker’s Millions’ (Detective Comics #180, February1952) pulp sci fi writer David Vern Reed, Sprang & Charles Paris provide a gloriously engaging saga disclosing how the villain’s greatest crime rival took revenge from the grave by leaving the Harlequin of Hate too rich to commit capers.

It was all a vindictive double-barrelled scheme though, making the Joker a patsy and twice a fool as the Caped Crusaders eventually find to their great amusement…

Then from World’s Finest Comics #61 (November 1952) Reed, Kane, Schwartz & Paris perpetrate ‘The Crimes of Batman’ as Robin is taken hostage and the Gotham Gangbuster is compelled to commit a string of felonies to preserve the lad’s life. Or so the Joker vainly hopes…

‘Batman – Clown of Crime’ (Batman #85, August 1954 by Reed, Sheldon Moldoff & Paris) captures the dichotomy of reason versus chaos as the eternal arch enemies’ minds are swapped in a scientific accident. Soon a law-abiding Joker and baffled Robin are hunting down a madcap loon with the ultimate weapon at his disposal, the secret of the Gotham Guardian’s true identity

The Silver Age of comicbooks utterly revolutionised a flagging medium, bringing a modicum of sophistication to the returning sub-genre of masked mystery men. However, for quite some time the changes instigated by Julius Schwartz in Showcase #4 – which rippled out to affect all National/DC Comics’ superhero characters – generally passed Batman and Robin by.

Fans buying Batman, Detective Comics, World’s Finest Comics and even Justice League of America would read adventures that in look and tone were largely unchanged from the safely anodyne fantasies that had turned the grim Dark Knight into a mystery-solving, alien-fighting costumed Boy Scout as the 1940s turned into the1950s.

By the end of 1963, Schwartz – having either personally or by example revived and revitalised much of DC’s line and by extension the entire industry with his modernizations – was asked to work his magic with the creatively stalled and nigh-moribund Caped Crusaders just as they were being readied for mainstream global stardom.

‘The Joker’s Jury’ (Batman #163 May 1963) by Finger, Moldoff & Paris was the last sight of the Clown before his numerous appearances on the blockbuster Batman TV show warped the villain and left him unusable for years…

Here, however, Robin and his mentor are trapped in the criminal enclave of Jokerville, where every citizen is a fugitive bad-guy dressed up as the Clown Prince and where all lawmen are outlaws…

The story of the how the Joker was redeemed as a metaphor for terror and evil is covered in Part III: The Harlequin of Hate and thereafter confirmed by the single story which undid all that typecasting damage.

‘The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge’ (Batman #251 September 1973 by Dennis O’Neil & Neal Adams) reversed the zany, “camp” image by re-branding the characters and returning to the original 1930s concept of a grim and driven Dark Avenger chasing an insane avatar of pure evil.

Such a hero needs far deadlier villains and, by reinstating the psychotic, diabolically unpredictable Killer Clown who scared the short pants off the readers of the Golden Age, set the bar high. A true milestone that utterly redefined the Joker for the modern age: the frantic saga sees the Mirthful Maniac stalking his old gang, determined to eradicate them all with the hard-pressed Gotham Guardian desperately playing catch-up. As the crooks die in all manner of Byzantine and bizarre ways, Batman realises his arch-foe has gone irrevocably off the deep end.

Terrifying and beautiful, for many fans this is the definitive Batman/Joker story.

The main contender for that prize follows. ‘The Laughing Fish/The Sign of the Joker’ appeared in Detective Comics #475-476 (February and April 1978) concluding a breathtaking signature run of retro tales by Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers & Terry Austin

The absolute zenith in a short but stellar sequence resurrecting old foes naturally starred the Dark Knight’s nemesis at his most chaotic; beginning with ‘The Laughing Fish’ before culminating in ‘The Sign of the Joker!’, comprising one of the most reprinted Bat-tales ever concocted and even adapted as an episode of the award-winning Batman: The Animated Adventures TV show in the 1990s.

In fact, you’ve probably already read it. But if you haven’t… what a treat you have awaiting you!

As fish with the Joker’s horrific smile began turning up in sea-catches all over the Eastern Seaboard, the Clown Prince attempts to trademark them. When patent officials foolishly tell him it can’t be done, they start dying… publicly, impossibly and incredibly painfully…

The story then culminated in a spectacular apocalyptic clash which shaped, informed and redefined the Batman mythos for decades to come…

Although Crisis on Infinite Earths transformed the entire DC Universe it left the Joker largely unchanged, however it did narratively set the clock back far enough to present fresher versions of most characters.

‘To Laugh and Die in Metropolis’ comes from Superman volume 2 #9 (September1987) wherein John Byrne & Karl Kesel reveal how the Malicious Mountebank challenges the Man of Steel for the first time. The result is a captivating but bloody battle of wits, with the hero’s friends and acquaintances all in the killer clown’s crosshairs…

The next (frustratingly incomplete) snippet comes from one of the most effective publicity stunts in DC’s history.

Despite decades of wanting to be “taken seriously” by the wider world, every so often a comicbook event gets away from editors and publishers and takes on a life of its own. This usually does not end well for our beloved art form, as the way the greater world views the comics microcosm is seldom how we insiders and cognoscenti see it.

One of the most controversial sagas of the last century saw an intriguing marketing stunt go spectacularly off the rails – for all the wrong reasons – and become instantly notorious whilst sadly masking the real merits of the piece.

‘A Death in the Family’ Chapter Four originated in Batman #427 (December 1988), concocted by Jim Starlin, Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo and needs a bit more background than usual…

Robin, the Boy Wonder debuted in Detective Comics#38 (April 1940) created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger & Jerry Robinson. He was a juvenile circus acrobat whose parents were murdered by a mob boss. The story of how Batman took the orphaned Dick Grayson under his scalloped wing and trained him to fight crime has been told, retold and revised many times over the decades and still undergoes the odd tweaking to this day

The child Grayson fought beside Batman until 1970 when, as a sign of the turbulent times, he flew the nest, becoming a Teen Wonder and college student. His invention as a junior hero for younger readers to identify with had inspired an incomprehensible number of costumed sidekicks and kid crusaders, and Grayson continued in similar vein for the older, more worldly-wise readership of America’s increasingly rebellious youth culture.

During the 1980s the young hero led the New Teen Titans, re-established a turbulent working relationship with Batman and reinvented himself as Nightwing. This of course left the post of Robin open…

After Grayson’s departure Batman worked alone until he caught a streetwise young urchin trying to steal the Batmobile’s tires. Debuting in Batman#357 (March 1983) this lost boy was Jason Todd, and eventually the little thug became the second Boy Wonder (#368, February 1984), with a short but stellar career, marred by his impetuosity and tragic links to one of the Caped Crusader’s most unpredictable foes…

Todd had some serious emotional problems which became increasingly apparent in the issues leading up to ‘A Death in the Family’ story arc. As the street kid became more callous and brutal in response to the daily horrors he was exposed to he deliberately caused the death of a vicious drug-dealer with diplomatic immunity. Jason then began a guilty spiral culminating in the story-arc which comprised Batman#426-429.

Ever more violent and seemingly incapable of rudimentary caution, Jason is suspended by Batman. Meanwhile the Joker is returns, but rather than his usual killing frenzy, the Clown Prince is after mere cash, because the financial disaster of “Reaganomics” has depleted his coffers – meaning he can’t afford his outrageous murder gimmicks…

Without purpose, Jason has been wandering the streets where he grew up. Encountering a friend of his dead mother, he learns a shocking secret. The woman who raised him was not his birth-mother, and there exists a box of personal papers indicating three different women who might be his true mother.

Lost and emotionally volatile Jason sets out to track them down…

After monumental efforts, he locates Dr. Sheila Haywood working as a famine relief worker in Ethiopia. As Jason heads for the Middle East and a confrontation with destiny, he is unaware that Batman is also in that troubled region, hot on the Joker’s trail since the Maniac of Mirth is attempting to sell stolen nuclear weapons to any terrorist who can pay…

When Jason finds his mother, he has no idea that she has been blackmailed into a deadly scam involving stolen relief supplies by the Clown Prince of Crime…

I’m not going to bother with the details of the voting fiasco that plagues all references to this tale as it’s all copiously detailed elsewhere, but suffice to say that to test then-new marketing tools a 1-900 number was established and, thanks to an advanced press campaign, readers were offered the chance to vote on whether Robin would live or die in the story.

Against every editorial expectation vox populi voted thumbs down and Jason died in a most savage and uncompromising manner….

The kid had increasingly become a poor fit in the series and this storyline galvanised a new direction with a darker, more driven Batman, beginning almost immediately as the Joker, after killing Jason in a chilling and unforgettably violent manner, became UN ambassador for Iran (later revised as the fully fictional Qurac – just in case…) and at the request of the Ayatollah himself attempted to kill the entire UN General Assembly during his inaugural speech…

And here is the true injustice surrounding this tale: the death of Robin (who didn’t even stay dead) and the media uproar over the voting debacle took away from the real importance of this story – and perhaps deflected some real scrutiny and controversy. Starlin had crafted a clever and bold tale of real world politics and genuine issues which most readers didn’t even notice.

Terrorism Training Camps, Rogue States, African famines, black marketeering, Relief fraud, Economic, Race and Class warfare, Diplomatic skullduggery and nuclear smuggling all featured heavily, as did such notable hot-button topics as Ayatollah Khomeini, Reagan’s Cruise Missile program, the Iran-Contra and Arms for Hostages scandals and the horrors of Ethiopian refugee camps. Most importantly it signaled a new and fearfully casual approach to violence and death in comics-books.

The story selected to represent the lad here is a poor choice, however. This is not to say that ‘A Death in the Family’ is a lesser tale: far from it, and Starlin, Aparo & DeCarlo’s landmark, controversial story of the murder of brash, bright Jason Todd by the Joker shook the industry and still stands the test of time.

However, all that’s included here is the final chapter, and even I, having read it many times, was bewildered as to what was going on.

If you want to see the entire saga – and trust me, you do – seek out a copy of the complete A Death in the Family

In 1989 Batman broke box office records in the first of a series of big budget action movies. The Joker was the villain du jour and stole the show. That increased public awareness again influenced the comics and is covered in Part IV: Archnemesis before ‘Going Sane’ Part Two ‘Swimming Lessons’ provides a fresh look at the motivations behind the maniacal madness.

The story comes from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #66 (December 1994) LoDK began in the frenzied atmosphere following the movie. With planet Earth completely Bat-crazy for the second time in 25 years, DC wisely supplemented the Gotham Guardian’s regular stable of titles with a new one specifically designed to focus on and redefine his early days and cases through succession of retuned, retold classic stories.

Three years earlier the publisher had boldly begun retconning their entire ponderous continuity via the landmark maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths; rejecting the concept of a vast multiverse and re-knitting time so that there had only ever been one Earth.

For new readers, this solitary DC world provided a perfect place to jump on at a notional starting point: a planet literally festooned with iconic heroes and villains draped in a clear and cogent backstory that was now fresh and newly unfolding.

Many of their greatest properties were graced with a reboot, all enjoying the tacit conceit that the characters had been around for years and the readership were simply tuning in on just another working day.

Batman’s popularity was at an intoxicating peak and, as DC was still in the throes of re-jigging narrative continuity, his latest title presented multi-part epics reconfiguring established villains and classic stories: infilling the new history of the re-imagined, post-Crisis hero and his entourage.

An old adage says that you can judge a person by the calibre of their enemies, and that’s never been more ably demonstrated than in the case of Batman and The Joker. The epic battles between these so similar yet utterly antithetical icons have filled many pages and always will…

With that in mind, 4-part psychological study ‘Going Sane’ by J.M. DeMatteis, Joe Staton & Steve Mitchell takes us back to a time when Batman was still learning his job and had only crossed swords with the Clown Prince of Crime twice before…

After a murderously macabre circus-themed killing-spree in the idyllic neighbourhood of Park Ridge and abduction of crusading Gotham Councilwoman Elizabeth Kenner, a far-too-emotionally invested Batman furiously plays catch-up. This leads to a disastrous one-sided battle in front of GCPD’s Bat signal and a frantic pursuit into the dark woods beyond the city.

Driven to a pinnacle of outrage, the neophyte manhunter falls into the Joker’s devilishly prepared trap and is caught in an horrific explosion. His shattered body is then dumped in the by an incredulous, unbelieving killer clown reeling in shock at his utterly unexpected ultimate triumph…

Stand-alone extract ‘Swimming Lessons’ opens here with Batman missing and Police Captain James Gordon taking flak from all sides for not finding the Predatory Punchinello or the savage mystery assailant who recently murdered an infamous underworld plastic surgeon…

Under Wayne Manor faithful manservant Alfred fears the very worst whilst in a cheap part of town thoroughly decent nonentity Joseph Kerr suffers terrifying nightmares of murder and madness.

His solitary days end when he bumps into mousy spinster Rebecca Brown. Days pass and the two lonely outcasts find love in their mutual isolation and a shared affection for classic slapstick comedy. The only shadows blighting this unlikely romance are poor Joe’s continual nightmares and occasional outbursts of barely suppressed rage…

As days turn to weeks and then months, Alfred sorrowfully accepts the situation and prepares to close the Batcave forever. As he descends, however, he is astounded to see the Dark Knight has returned…

The story of Joe Kerr – fictive product of a deranged mind which simply couldn’t face life without Batman – is another yarn readers will want to experience in full, but that too will only happen in a different collection…

The World’s Greatest Detective continues to relentlessly battle the Clown Prince in ‘Fool’s Errand’ (Detective Comics #726, October 1998) as Chuck Dixon & Brian Stelfreeze depict a vicious mind-game conducted by the Hateful Harlequin from his cell, using a little girl as bait and an army of criminals as his weapon against the Dark Knight after which ‘Endgame’ Part Three ‘…Sleep in Heavenly Peace’ (Detective Comics #741 February 2000 by Greg Rucka, Devin Grayson, Damian Scott, Dale Eaglesham, Sean Parsons, Sal Buscema & Rob Hunter) sees the Joker plaguing a Gotham City struggling to recover from a cataclysmic earthquake.

It’s Christmas but the stubborn survivors are so stretched striving to stop The Joker’s plan to butcher all the babies left in town they are unable to notice that his real scheme will gouge a far more personal wound in their hearts…

‘Slayride’ by Paul Dini, Don Kramer & Wayne Faucher (Detective Comics #826 February 2007 and another Seasonal special) is one of the best Joker – and definitely the best Robin – stories in decades. This Christmas horror story sees our Crazed Clown trap third Boy Wonder Tim Drake in a stolen car, making him an unwilling participant in a spree of vehicular homicides amongst the last-minute shoppers.

If there is ever a Greatest Batman Christmas Stories Ever Told collection (and if there’s anybody out there with the power to make it so, get weaving please!), this just has to be the closing chapter….

Brining us up to date Part V: Rebirth focuses on the 2011 New 52 continuity-wide reboot and an even grimmer, Darker Knight who debuted in Detective Comics volume 2 #1 with what might be assumed to be the last Joker story. As crafted by Tony Daniel & Ryan Winn, ‘Faces of Death’ follows the mass-murdering malcontent on another pointless murder spree which culminates in his apparent death, leaving behind only his freshly skinned-off face nailed bloodily to an asylum wall…

A year later the Joker explosively returned, mercilessly targeting all of Batman’s allies in a company-wide crossover event dubbed Death of the Family. The crippling mind-games and brutal assaults culminated in ‘But Here’s the Kicker’ (Batman #15, February 2013 by Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo & Jonathan Glapion) and purportedly the final battle between Bat and Clown: but we’ve all heard that before, haven’t we…?

The Joker has the rare distinction of being arguably the most iconic villain in comics and can claim that title in whatever era you choose to concentrate on; Noir-esque Golden Age, sanitised Silver Age or malignant modern and Post-Modern milieus. This book captures just a fraction of all those superb stories…

Including pertinent covers by Sayre Swartz & Roussos, Mortimer, Moldoff, Adams, Rogers & Austin, Byrne, Mike Mignola, Staton & Mitchell, Stelfreeze, Alex Maleev & Bill Sienkiewicz, Simone Bianchi, Daniel & Winn and Capullo, this monolithic testament to the inestimable value of a good bad-guy is a true delight for fans of all ages and vintage.
© 1940, 1941, 1942, 1944, 1945, 1951, 1952, 1954, 1964, 1973, 1978, 1987, 1988, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2007, 2011, 2012, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Jiggs is Back

By George McManus (City Lights/Celtic Book Company)
ISBN: 978-0-91366-682-1

Variously entitled Maggie and Jiggs or Bringing Up Father, the comedic magnum opus of George McManus ranks as one of the best and most influential comic strips of all time: a brilliant blend of high satire and low wit that drapes the rags-to-riches American dream with the cautionary admonition to be careful of what you wish for…

Relatively recently this magnificent series was celebrated with a lavish hardcover collection reprinting the strip’s captivating beginnings (see George McManus’s Bringing Up Father: Forever Nuts – Classic Screwball Strips) but that book, wonderful though it is, only prints black and white daily episodes, whilst this colossal softcover from 1986 concentrates on the exceptionally beautiful Sunday colour pages – a perfect proving ground for the artist’s incredible imagination to run wild with slapstick set-pieces, innovative page design and a near-mystical eye for fashion and pattern.

McManus was born on January 23rd in either 1882 or 1883 and drew from a very young age. His father, realising his talent, secured him work in the art department of the St. Louis Republic newspaper.

At thirteen George swept floors, ran errands and drew when ordered to. In an era before cheap, reliable photography, news stories were supplemented by drawn illustrations; usually of disasters, civic events and executions: McManus claimed he had attended 120 hangings (a national record!) but still found time to produce cartoons: honing his mordant wit and visual pacing. His first sale was Elmer and Oliver. He hated it.

The jobbing cartoonist had a legendary stroke of luck in 1903. Acting on a bootblack’s tip he placed a $100 bet on a 30-1 outsider and used his winnings to fund a trip to New York City. The young hopeful splurged his cash reserves but on his last day got two job offers: one from the McClure Syndicate and a lesser bid from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

He took the smaller offer, went to work for Pulitzer and created a host of features for the paper including Snoozer, The Merry Marceline, Ready Money Ladies, Cheerful Charlie, Panhandle Pete, Let George Do It, Nibsy the Newsboy in Funny Fairyland (one of the earliest Little Nemo knock-offs) and, in 1904, his first big hit The Newlyweds.

This last brought him to the attention of Pulitzer’s arch rival William Randolph Hearst who, acting in tried and true manner, lured him away with big money in 1912. In Hearst’s papers, The Newlyweds became the Sunday page feature Their Only Child, and was soon supplemented by Outside the Asylum, The Whole Blooming Family, Spare Ribs and Gravy and, at last, Bringing Up Father.

At first it alternated with other McManus domestic comedies in the same slot, but eventually the artist dropped Oh, It’s Great to be Married!, Oh, It’s Great to Have a Home and Ah Yes! Our Happy Home! as well as his second Sunday strip Love Affairs of a Muttonhead to concentrate on the story of Irish hod-carrier Jiggs whose sudden and vast newfound wealth brought him no joy, whilst his parvenu wife Maggie and inexplicably comely and cultured daughter Nora constantly sought acceptance in “Polite” society.

The strip turned on the simplest of premises: whilst Maggie and Nora perpetually feted wealth and aristocracy, Jiggs – who only wanted to booze and schmooze and eat his beloved corned beef and cabbage – would somehow shoot down their plans; usually with severe personal consequences.

Maggie might have risen in society but she never lost her devastating accuracy with crockery and household appliances…

Bringing Up Father launched on January 12th 1913, originally appearing three times a week, then four and eventually every day. It made McManus two fortunes (the first lost in the 1929 Stock Market crash), spawned a radio show, a movie in 1928, five more between 1946-1950 (as well as an original Finnish film in 1939) and 9 silent animated short features, plus all the assorted marketing paraphernalia that fetches such high prices in today’s antique markets.

McManus died in 1954, and other creators continued the strip until May 28th 2000, its unbroken 87 years making it the second longest running newspaper strip of all time.

McManus said that he got the basic idea from The Rising Generation – a musical comedy he’d seen as a boy, but the premise of wealth not bringing happiness was only the foundation of the strip’s success.

Jigg’s discomfort at his elevated position, his yearnings for the nostalgic days and simple joys of youth are something everyone is prey to. However, the deciding factor and real magic at work here is an entrancing blend of slapstick, social commentary, sexual politics and flashy fashion, all cannily composted together and delivered by a man who lived and breathed comedy timing and could draw like an angel.

The incredibly clean simple lines and the superb use – and implicit understanding – of art nouveau and art deco imagery and Jazz Age philosophy – especially proffered in full colour – make this book a stunning treat for the eye.

This glorious rainbow of mirth includes an introduction from Pulitzer-winning author William Kennedy and an incisive analytical commentary from comics historian Bill Blackbeard for those that need or desire a grounding for their reading, but of course what we all want is to revel in the 48 magnificent, full-page escapades; thoughtfully divided into palatable sections starting with ‘The Joys of Poverty’ from 1923, wherein the family suffered a reversal of fortune and became once more poor, but happy.

This is followed by ‘The Vacation’ (December 9th 1939 to July 7th 1940), a visually spectacular epic following the wealthy-once-more family – complete with new aristocratic English twit son-in-law – on a city-by-city tour of America, and ‘Maggie, Do You Remember When…’ (selected from the peak period of the feature between 1933 and 1942): a shamelessly sentimental and dryly witty occasional series of bucolic recollections of “the good old days” that produced some of the most heart-warming and inventive episodes in the series’ entire history…

An added surprise for a strip of this vintage is the great egalitarianism of it. Although there is an occasional unwholesome visual stereotype to swallow and excuse, what we regard as racism is practically absent. The only thing to watch out for is the genteel sexism and class (un)consciousness, although McManus clearly pitched his tent on the side of the dirty, disenfranchised and downtrodden – as long as he could get a laugh out of it…

This wonderful, evocative celebration of the world’s greatest domestic comedy strip is a little hard to find but well worth the effort. Hopefully some sagacious entrepreneur will eventually get around to giving Bringing Up Father the deluxe reprint treatment it so deserves or at least creating a digital collection for modern-minded old-fashioned comedy mavens to relish and revel in.
© 1986 Celtic Book Company.

The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer volume 8: The Voronov Plot

By Yves Sente & André Juillard, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-048-1

Belgian Edgard Félix Pierre Jacobs (1904-1987) is one of the founding fathers of the Continental comics industry. Although his output was relatively modest compared to many of his iconic contemporaries, Jacobs’ landmark serialised life’s work – starring scientific trouble-shooters Professor Philip Mortimer and Captain Francis Blake – practically formed the backbone of the modern action-adventure comic in Europe.

His splendidly adroit, roguish yet thoroughly British adventurers were conceived and realised for the very first issue of Le Journal de Tintin in 1946, and quickly became a crucial staple of life for post-war European kids – much as Dan Dare was in 1950s Britain.

After decades of fantastic exploits, the series apparently ended with the eleventh album. The gripping contemporary adventure had been serialised between September 1971 and May 1972 in Tintin, but after the first volume was completed Jacobs simply abandoned his story due to failing health and personal issues.

Jacobs died on February 20th 1987 before completing extended adventure Les 3 formules du professeur Satō.

The concluding volume was only released in March 1990 after veteran cartoonist Bob de Moor was commissioned by the Jacobs family and estate to complete the tale from the grand originator’s pencils and notes. The long-postponed release led to a republishing of all the earlier volumes, followed in 1996 by new adventures from two separate creative teams hired by the Jacobs Studio. The first was the L’Affaire Francis Blake by Jean Van Hamme & Thierry “Ted” Benoit which settled itself into a comfortably defined and familiar mid-1950s milieu whilst unfolding a rousing tale of espionage and double-dealing.

The tale controversially omitted the fantastic elements of futuristic fiction and fringe science which had characterised Jacobs’ creation, whilst focusing on the suave MI5 officer rather than bombastic, belligerent boffin and inveterate scene-stealer Mortimer…

The same was broadly true for the next release: Le machination Voronov by Yves Sente (Le Janitor, Thorgal) & André Juillard (Bohémond de Saint-Gilles, Masquerouge, Mezek) published in 1999 – although references to the space race and alien infestation did much to restore the series’ credentials regarding threats in uncanny circumstances…

It all begins in a top-secret Soviet rocket base in January 1957 where a test-launch results in disaster as the missile smashes into a comet before crashing back to Earth. It’s not just prestige at stake here, though. It soon becomes apparent that the downed wreckage has picked up a deadly contagion from space. The region is quarantined and the exposed wreckage rushed to KGB medical specialist Professor Voronov at the Cosmodrome…

Working with his assistant Comrade Nastasia Wardynska, the brusque physician quickly determines that a bacterial strain from the comet produces a fast-acting, inevitably fatal haemorrhagic fever in adult humans…

In London as March ends, Captain Francis Blake engages in high level talks with Commander William Steele, his opposite number in MI6. Disturbing news is coming out of Moscow: many high-ranking members of the Politburo have died suddenly and a warning from a highly-placed mole reveals that Voronov has stockpiled a deadly new bio-weapon.

The agent plans on getting a sample to the West, but needs help to accomplish the crucial task…

Later whilst dining with old friend Professor Mortimer, a hasty plan is hatched after Blake learns his pal has been invited to attend a scientific Symposium in Moscow…

And thus unfolds a canny, deviously Byzantine tale of Cold War intrigue as Blake and Mortimer strive to get a sample of alien pathogen Bacteria Z, themselves and all their undercover allies out of the insidious clutches of the KGB before solving a baffling mystery that threatens all of humanity.

As frantic chases lead to desperate battles and inevitable casualties in the shadows, critical questions emerge. If the Russians have an unbeatable bio-weapon, why are only Soviet officials dying? And what part does their oldest and most malevolent enemy play in the convoluted scheme?

Just when the dapper due think they have a handle on the swiftly-developing crisis, Western scientists start succumbing to Bacteria Z and it appears that further investigation into the insidious Voronov is necessary before the plot can be foiled and the true danger to Britain and the Free World finally crushed…

Strongly founded upon and in many ways a loving tribute to John Buchan’s classic thrillers, by way of a delicious tip of the hat to Space Age Cold War movie thrillers such as the Quatermass Experiment and Seven Days to Noon, this is a devious and convoluted spook-show to astound and delight espionage aficionados and a solidly entertaining addition to the captivating canon of the Gentleman Adventurers.
Original edition © Editions Blake & Mortimer/Studio Jacobs (Dargaud-Lombard S. A.) 1999 by André Juillard & Yves Sente. All rights reserved. English translation © 2010 Cinebook Ltd.

Moon Mullins: Two Adventures

By Frank H. Willard (Dover)
ISBN: 978-0486232379

An immensely popular newspaper strip in its day, Moon Mullins grew out of gentle – if bucolically rambunctious – Irish ethnic humour to become the comedy soap opera (one of the very first of its kind) that absolutely everybody followed.

Create by Frank Willard – a two-fisted, no-nonsense type with a cracking ear for dialogue, an unerring eye for winning social faux pas and an incorrigible sense of fun – the strip debuted on June 19th 1923. Willard wrote and drew both monochrome dailies and flashy Sunday colour segments until his death in 1958, whereupon his assistant Ferdinand “Ferd” Johnson (who began working with Willard scant months after the strip launched, and continued even whilst working on his own strips Texas Slim and Lovey-Dovey) assumed full authorship until his own retirement in 1991 – a gloriously uninterrupted tenure of 68 years.

The feature was marketed around the globe by the mighty Chicago Tribune/New York News Syndicate, and recounted the rowdily raucous, ribald, hand-to-mouth, lowbrow life and tribulations of Moonshine Mullins, lovable rogue and unsuccessful prize-fighter who was just getting by in tough circumstances.

The doughty rapscallion spent his time in bars, on the streets (sometimes the gutters) and most tellingly at the pokey boarding house of Emmy Schmaltz, located at 1323 Wump Street. Mullins was amiable and good-natured, liked to fight, loved to gamble, was slick with the ladies and had the worst friends imaginable…

He also had an iconic little brother, named Kayo, who was the visual prototype for every one of those tough-kid heroes in Derby hats (“bowlers” to us Brits) populating Simon & Kirby’s early work.

Brooklyn and Scrapper and all those other two-fisted, langwitch-manglin’ cynical, sassy tykes took their cues from the kid who often had the last word. The other mainstay of the strip was lanky landlady Emmy Schmaltz; a nosy interfering busybody with inflated airs and graces and a grand line in infectious catchphrases.

Other regulars included Uncle Willie – Moon’s utterly dissolute bad relation; saucy, flighty flapper (Little) Egypt – our hero’s occasional girlfriend and a dead ringer for silent film sensation Louise Brooks (and, incomprehensibly, Emmy’s niece), plus Mushmouth – a black character who will make modern audiences wince with social guilt and societal horror – although to be fair, in this strip which celebrated and venerated working class culture, he was far more a friend than foil, stooge or patsy.

One final regular was affluent Lord Plushbottom, whose eye for the ladies – particularly Egypt – constantly brought him sniffing around the boarding house. At the period of the tales in this volume he is a jolly English bachelor, completely unaware that the spidery spinster has set her cap for him. In 1933, after a decade of hilarious pursuit, she finally got her man…

Surprisingly still readily available as a paperback book (surely, if ever anything was crying out to be suitably and permanently digitally archived it’s vintage strips such as this), Moon Mullins: Two Adventures collects and reprints two marvellous extended romps originally reformatted from the newspapers and released in 1929 and 1931 by Cupples & Leon – a publishing company which specialized in reprinting popular strips in lush, black and white albums; very much a precursor of both comicbooks and today’s graphic novels.

In the first story Mullins is given a car in payment for $30 he foolishly lent Emmy’s ne’er-do-well brother Ziggy, unaware the vehicle is stolen. This is a delightful shambolic, knockabout episode with striking slapstick and clever intrigues resulting in the entire cast behind bars at one time or another.

It should be remembered that the cops in these circumstances are always everybody’s enemy and fools unto themselves…

The second tale describes how Plushbottom treats Emmy and Egypt to a Florida holiday, unaware that he’s also paying for Moon and Mushmouth to join them after a brilliantly inventive and madcap road-trip.

Each adventure is delivered via the incredibly difficult method of one complete gag-strip per day combining to form an over-arching narrative… and they’re all wonderfully drawn and still funny. If you’re a fan of classic W.C. Fields, Marx Brothers and other giants of vintage comedy you must see this stuff…

Moon Mullins was one of the key strips in the development of both cartooning and graphic narrative; hugely influential, seditiously engaging, constantly entertaining and perfectly drawn. With such a wealth of brilliant material surely, it’s only a matter of time until some fine publisher releases a definitive series of collected editions…
© 1929, 1931 The Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

Buster Brown: Early Strips in Full Color

By Richard F. Outcault with an introduction by August Derleth (Dover Publications)
ISBN: 978- 0-1-486-23006-1

Richard F. Outcault is credited with being the father (fans and historians are never going to stop debating this one, but Outcault is one of the most prime of all contenders) of the modern comic strip. His breakthrough was a scandalous creation dubbed The Yellow Kid for legendary newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World in 1895 (the feature was actually entitled Hogan’s Alley) but the cartoon shenanigans captivated the reading public and even led to the coining of a new term: “Yellow Journalism”.

Outcault was notoriously fickle and quickly tired of his creation, and of the subsequent features he created for William Randolph Hearst in the New York Journal during a particularly grave period of bitter newspaper circulation warfare.

In 1902, he created a Little Lord Fauntleroy style moppet called Buster Brown, but the angelic looks actually acted as camouflage for a little boy perpetually wedded to mischief, pranks and poor decision making. Once again Outcault soon became bored and moved on, but this strip was another multi-media sensation, which captured public attention and spun off a plethora of franchises.

Buster was a merchandising bonanza. By a weird set of circumstances, Buster Brown Shoes became one of the biggest chain-stores in America, and in later years produced a periodical comicbook Premium (a giveaway magazine free to purchasers) packed with some of the greatest comic artists and adventure stories the industry had ever seen. Outcault may have dumped Buster, but the little devil darling never quit comics…

Way back in 1974 Dover Publications released this facsimile reproduction of an earlier collection from 1904, then entitled Buster Brown and his Resolutions, featuring fifteen glorious full-colour strips from the first two years of the run, and it’s about time they thought about doing it again – or even of publishing a far more comprehensive edition…

Until then however, let’s re-examine what we have here and meet the cherubic Hellion and his faithful dog Tige, and see that if indelicate or untoward happenstance doesn’t create another round of chaos in the ordered and genteel life of the well-to-do Mr. and Mrs. Brown, then little Buster is always happy to lend a hand.

Each lavish page, rendered in a delightfully classical, illustrative line style – like Cruickshank or perhaps Charles Dana Gibson – ends with a moral or resolution, but one that is subversively ambiguous.

As Buster himself is wont to comment, “People are usually good when there isn’t anything else to do.”

Historically pivotal, Buster Brown is also thematically a landmark in content, and a direct ancestor of the mischievous child strip that dominated the family market of the 20th century. Could Dennis the Menace (“Ours” or “Theirs”), Minnie the Minx or Bart Simpson have existed without Buster or his contemporary rivals The Katzenjammer Kids?

It’s pointless to speculate, but it’s no waste of time to find and enjoy this splendid strip.
© 1974 Dover Publications. All Rights Reserved.