Showcase Presents Men of War


By David Michelinie, Robert Kanigher, Roger McKenzie, Jack C. Harris, Cary Burkett, Paul Kupperberg, Ed Davis, Dick Ayers, Jerry Grandenetti, Howard Chaykin, Arvell Jones, Larry Hama, & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4388-3

In America after the demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only certain place to find controversial, challenging and entertaining American war comics was DC.

In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a generation, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting combat on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a Home Front death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response DC’s (or rather National Periodical Publishing, as it then was) military-themed comicbooks became even more bold and innovative…

That stellar and challenging creative period came to an end as all strip trends do, but a few of the more impressive and popular features (Sgt. Rock, Haunted Tank, The Losers) survived well into the second superhero revival. One of the most engaging wartime wonders was a notional espionage thriller starring a faceless, nameless hero perpetually in the right place at the right time, ready, willing and so very able to turn the tide one battle at a time…

Currently English-reading fans of war stories are grievously underserved in both print and digital formats, but this magnificent monochrome reprint compendium is still readily available online. It collects the entire contents of Men of War: an all-new new anthology comicbook which debuted in August 1977 and ran 26 issues until March 1980.

Although offering the usual a variety of alternating back-up strips, Men of War controversially starred and cover-featured Gravedigger, a black American GI in WWII fighting prejudice, segregationist policies and blinkered authority as much as Fascist aggression.

The series was originated by scripter David Michelinie with art on the first episode by Ed Davis & Romeo Tanghal as MoW #1 introduced ‘Codename: Gravedigger’: grumbling US soldier Sergeant Ulysses Hazard in France and under fire in the Summer of 1942.

Of course, he had a lot to complain about. Being a negro, Hazard was not permitted to fight beside white enlisted men and could only be assigned to catering services or the Graves Registration team, marking and recovering the fallen.

A hard pill to swallow for a tough-minded ghetto kid who overcame polio, privation, bigots and bullies, and – through sheer determination – turned his body into a physically perfect human weapon.

When he single-handedly saves a French family from a gang of brutal Germans, white soldiers led by Lieutenant Gage claim the credit. The next day Hazard again displays his military superiority by saving the entire unit from a strafing attack, only to be told once more black men can’t fight.

When Ulysses realises he was saving racists whilst his best pal Andy died in the raid, Hazard fixes upon a desperate plan…

Arvell Jones & Tanghal illustrate the next chapter in #2 as Hazard goes AWOL: sneaking back into America to fight ‘The Five-Walled War!’. Breaking into the newly-constructed Pentagon, the outraged warrior battles his way past an army of troops to confront the astounded Undersecretary of War.

A shrewd and ruthless opportunist, the politico sees a chance to create a different kind of soldier and maybe even buy black votes in the next election cycle. Decreeing Hazard a top secret, one-man strike-force and personal suicide squad, with typical unforced irony the demagogue designates his new, extremely expendable toy ‘Codename: Gravedigger’

Issue #3 finds newly-promoted Captain Hazard back in France within days; rescuing Gage and the soldiers who took credit for his actions. Even after they try to arrest him for desertion, Hazard pushes on with his first mission: ‘The Suicide Stratagem’ demanding he invade a mountain-top fortress to clear out a nest of Nazis holding up the entire war effort. No sooner has he done so than Gage and crew burst in to wipe out the survivors… especially any black soldiers who might get in the way…

Evergreen WWI anti-war feature Enemy Ace copped the first tranche of back-up slots for issues #1-3. Executed by Robert Kanigher, Ed Davis & Juan Ortiz, opening chapter ‘Death is a Wild Beast!’ has conflicted, honourable fighter pilot Hans Von Hammer downing a devil-themed British pilot who accomplishes a miraculous ‘Return from Hell!’ in the second instalment before experiencing ‘The Three Faces of Death’ in the final instalment.

As ever, the real meat of the macabre missions is the toll on the minds and bodies of the merely mortal fliers who die while Von Hammer lives on in guilty anguish…

The next triptych of back-ups (in #4-6) introduced New York Courier reporter Wayne Clifford, arriving in London in June 1940 to cover the “European War” for the still-neutral folks back home.

Crafted by Cary Burkett & Jerry Grandenetti ‘Dateline: Frontline’ focuses on the stories behind the war as neophyte Clifford is taken under the wing of veteran wordsmith Ed Barnes and learns some hard truths about propaganda, integrity and necessity after he tries to send back his account of a friendly-fire incident…

More gritty revelations add to the innocent’s education during an air raid spent with hard-pressed Londoners in a tube station in ‘Dateline: Frontline: Human Interest Story’ whilst #7 found the plucky news-hawk at ground zero on top of an unexploded bomb in ‘Dateline: Frontline Countdown!’

In Men of War #4 Dick Ayers took over as penciler as Gravedigger’s ‘Trial by Fire’ explosively ends with the pariah destroying the mountaintop Nazi base and saving Gage’s unit, only to be reviled and attacked by the man he humiliatingly saved, after which #5 welcomed Roger McKenzie as new writer.

Here Gravedigger enters the ‘Valley of the Shadow’ in an Alpine village turned impregnable German stronghold. His mission is to start an avalanche and eradicate the Nazi artillery nest but no one warned him of the captive populace held in the church…

MoW #6 then offers ‘A Choice of Deaths’ (McKenzie, Ayers & Tanghal) as the loner’s daring raid on a prison to free hostages is almost thwarted by the internees’ reluctance to leave behind certain works of art…

Men of War #7 featured Gravedigger’s first full-length exploit. ‘Milkrun’ sees the one-man army ordered to England for further intensive training at the hands of British expert Major Birch, but the journey back with mild-mannered clerk-turned-jeep driver Boston proves to be one of the most eventful rides Hazard has ever taken…

‘Death-Stroke’ leads in #8, as the American’s intensive training includes a potent degree of brainwashing. Unknow to anybody, Birch has been replaced by a Nazi agent who primes Ulysses to murder Winston Churchill

Another Enemy Ace triptych began in the back of #8 and ‘Silent Sky… Screaming Death!!’ (illustrated by Larry Hama & Bob Smith) details a trenchant tale of a family at war. Howard Chaykin took over the illustration as a regulation clash in the sky resulted in attack by vengeful siblings and the return of Von Hammer’s father in ‘Brother Killers!’ (#9), revealing aspects of the German Ace’s own childhood and culminating in a fateful and final ‘Duel at Dawn!’ in #10.

MoW #9’s ‘Gravedigger – R.I.P.’ exposed layer upon layer of deceit and deception. Thanks to a tip-off by investigative reporter Wayne Clifford, Hazard’s assassination attempt is foiled by the Allies’ own master-of-disguise super-agent (no prizes for guessing who) and the brainwashed killer is captured and de-programmed. His death then faked, Hazard clandestinely heads to Berlin to rescue the real Birch…

This issue included extra feature ‘Dateline: Frontline: Bathtub Blues’ by Burkett & Grandenetti. Now stationed in North Africa, Clifford is attached to the British Army and sees for himself the nauseating difference between a braggart and a hero…

Men of War #10 opened with a ‘Crossroads’ reached by Codename: Gravedigger when he is shot down miles short of his Berlin destination and meets a fugitive Jewish family torn apart less by the war than the hatred and horrors that sparked it…

Supplementing the Enemy Ace back-up cited above is another stark and moving Wayne Clifford yarn by Burkett & Grandenetti. ‘Dateline: Frontline: Glory Soldier’ sees the writer caught in the bloody orbit of a gung-ho suicidal British corporal…

In #11 Hazard and his new Jewish comrades invade top secret death camp ‘Berkstaten’ and discovering to his shock and relief that not all Germans are monsters, whilst ‘Dateline: Frontline: Funeral Pyre’ sees Wayne lose his journalistic distance and impartiality after rescuing a baby and being captured by Arab raiders who consider both Germans and British as ruthless invaders…

Jack C. Harris took over writing the lead feature in MoW #12 as ‘Where is Gravedigger?’ sees the black soldier and his youthful Jewish allies finally enter Germany’s capital, even with the entire German army hunting for them. Unfortunately for the hunters, the one place they neglect to check is the torture chamber holding Major Birch…

Kanigher & Chaykin began another doleful, doom-laden Enemy Ace drama in the same issue. ‘Banner of Blood!’ sees the troubled Rittmeister striving to retrieve the Von Hammer family standard from a cunning French air ace who is the latest scion of an ancestral foe.

The tale continued in #13 as Von Hammer’s face-to-face confrontation with ‘The Last Baron!’ leads to the final clash in a centuries-long vendetta with the Comtes de Burgundy ending forever in one last honourable ‘Duel!’

‘Project Gravedigger…Plus One’ was the blockbusting main attraction in #13 as Hazard and Birch blaze and blast their way out of Berlin and back to Britain, where a confrontation with original sponsor the US Undersecretary of War leads to the black warrior taking on a new and freer role in his own affairs.

In Germany, however, outraged bigot and madman Joseph Goebbels takes personal charge of punishing the “subhuman inferior” who has shamed the entire Reich…

Despatched to Egypt in #14, Hazard faces ‘The Swirling Sounds of Death’ when the interception of a crucial Nazi courier is briefly derailed after Gravedigger is captured by Arab bandits. By the time he resumes stalking his target, Ulysses rules the Tuaregs but leads them into disastrously battle with British tanks before being himself taken by his elusive enemy Eric Von King‘The Man with the Opened Eye’

Rounding out the issue are a brace of short combat yarns: underwater demolitions thriller ‘Wolf Pack’ by Bill Kelley, Hama & Jack Abel and American Civil War vignette ‘The Sentry’ by artist Bill Payne and an unknown writer.

A minor visual overhaul for Gravedigger comes with #16’s book-length thriller ‘Hide and Seek the Spy’ as Von King uses Hazard as a human shield during a Panzer assault on the British lines. Although the lone wolf escapes, he will forever bear the scars of his close shave. Worst of all, the slippery courier again eludes him with the critical plans known as Defense Packet 6

Never quitting, Hazard and an elite commando team continue their pursuit in MoW #17 reaching the Nile where a German mini U-boat turns the majestic waterway into ‘The River of Death’. Meanwhile in Germany, Goebbels’ top scientists edge closer to completing the perfect antidote to the Gravedigger’s perpetual interference…

In the back of the issue Paul Kupperberg & Grandenetti introduced a new historical star as ‘Rosa: The Castle Rhinehart Affair Part One’ depicts a 19th century secret agent and international man of mystery tasked in 1870 with ending the Franco-Prussian War by assassinating Bismarck’s top advisor…

The fraught and frantic mission in a strategically vital Schloss concludes in ‘Rosa: The Castle Rhinehart Affair Part Two’ with the master-spy completing his task and consequently uncovering top-level double-dealing amongst his own superiors. A creature of implacable moral fortitude, Rosa has his own cure for treachery…

Gravedigger’s apparent failure is rewarded with another suicidal solo mission in MoW #18 as ‘The Amiens Assault’ covertly returns him to France to extract atomic scientist Monsieur Noir; another doomed mission that gets a miraculous helping hand from French Resistance fighters and ‘An Angel Named Marie’ in #19.

Issues #19-20 (August and September 1979) also featured another Kanigher/Chaykin Enemy Ace back-up tale of nobly idiotic honour and wasted young lives as Von Hammer makes ‘A Promise to the Dying’ and seeks to restore a contentious souvenir to its rightful owner in ‘Death Must Wait!’

For Ulysses Hazard #20 meant a short trip to Sicily to find and destroy a munitions dump reinforcing German forces battling General Patton’s advance in ‘Cry: Jericho’

Men of War #21 provided a novel change of pace and locale as ‘Home – Is Where the Hell Is’ takes Hazard back to America after his mother is taken ill. Even a one-man army despised and reviled by his superiors is eligible for compassionate leave, but nobody realises the entire scheme has been concocted by Goebbels using surgically created doppelgangers to eliminate the black super soldier…

Taking up the rear, the most harrowing phase of Wayne Clifford’s career begins when Burkett & Grandenetti point his nose for news towards the Eastern Front in ‘Dateline: Frontline: Mother Russia’.

Barely surviving passage on a convoy ship and limping into a battered port, the journalist realises the true import of his next story only after meeting starving Russian children…

Ambushed in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Gravedigger opens issue #22 by killing his assailants, sinking a Nazi U-boat and causing a ‘Blackout on the Boardwalk’, after which ‘Dateline: Frontline: Scorched Earth, Crimson Snow’ further explores the Eastern hell as Clifford experiences first hand and up close the siege of Moscow…

Gravedigger’s ‘Mission: Six Feet Under!’ sees him plying his old trade with the Graves Registration unit during a highly suspicious trade of bodies with the Germans. It doesn’t take him long to determine that the American cadavers he’s retrieving have been gimmicked with the vilest form of biological weapon and respond accordingly…

Burkett & Grandenetti then record that ‘Dateline: Frontline: A Quiet Day in Leningrad’ is anything but…

MoW #24 starts a 2-part tale of ‘The Presidential Peril’ as Hazard is detailed to safeguard Franklin Delano Roosevelt on a trip to England that has all manner of Nazi spy and maniac crawling out of the woodwork…

‘Rosa: The Ambassador’s Son Affair Part One’ (Kupperberg & Grandenetti and concluding in the next issue) finds the master of intrigue sharing his (possible) origins with an imperilled junior dignitary in Mexico circa 1867 before #25 sees Gravedigger ‘Save the President’ through a phenomenal display of ingenuity and martial prowess only to be rewarded with an even more impossible mission…

Men of War was cancelled with #26 but went out in a blaze of glory as ‘Night on Nickname Hill’ (Harris, Ayers & Tanghal) sees Hazard despatched to Tunis in March 1943 to link up with Sgt Rock and lead Easy Company against a fortified artillery position: a critical battle that would determine the outcome of the Allies’ campaign in Africa…

With stunning covers by Joe Kubert, Ed Davis and George Evans, this mighty black-&-white treasure trove of combat classics is a type and style of storytelling we’re all the poorer without. Hopefully publishers will wise up soon and begin restoring their like to the wide variety of genre sagas currently available in graphic collections.
© 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Batman Adventures: Mad Love Deluxe Edition


By Paul Dini & Bruce Timm, with Rick Taylor & Tim Harkins (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5512-1

Harley Quinn wasn’t supposed to be a star… or even an actual comicbook character. As soon became apparent, however, the manic minx always has her own astoundingly askew and off-kilter ideas on the matter… and any other topic you could name: ethics, friendship, ordnance, true love…

Created by Paul Dini & Bruce Timm, Batman: The Animated Series aired in the US from September 5th 1992 to September 15th 1995. Ostensibly for kids, the breakthrough television cartoon revolutionised everybody’s image of the Dark Knight and immediately began feeding back into the print iteration, leading to some of the absolute best comicbook tales in the hero’s many decades of existence.

Employing a timeless visual style dubbed “Dark Deco”, the show mixed elements from all iterations of the character and, without diluting the power, tone or mood of the premise, reshaped the grim avenger and his extended team into a wholly accessible, thematically memorable form that the youngest of readers could enjoy, whilst adding shades of exuberance and panache that only most devout and obsessive Batmaniac could possibly object to…

Harley Quinn was first seen as the Clown Prince of Crime’s slavishly adoring, extreme abuse-enduring assistant in Joker’s Favor (airing on September 11th 1992) where she instantly captured the hearts and minds of millions of viewers. From there on she began popping up in the incredibly successful licensed comicbook and – always stealing the show – soon graduated into mainstream DC continuity.

After a period bopping around the DCU she was re-imagined as part of the company’s vast post-Flashpoint major makeover and appeared as part of a new gritty-but-still-crazy iteration of the Suicide Squad, but at heart she’s always been a cartoon glamour-puss, with big, bold, primal emotions and only the merest acknowledgement of how reality works…

Re-presenting the 1994 one-shot Batman Adventures: Mad Love, this slight and breezy hardcover is made up of mostly recycled material – including writer Paul Dini’s comfortably inviting Foreword and co-plotter/illustrator Bruce Timm’s effusive and candidly informative ‘Mad Love Afterword’.

However, a truly unmissable bonus treat for art-lovers and all those seeking technical insight (perhaps with a view to making comics or animation their day job) is the illustrator’s full monochrome ‘Original Layouts for The Batman Adventures: Mad Love’; displaying how the story materialised page by page; previous and variant covers to earlier editions and unused painted back cover art plus highly detailed, fully-annotated colour guides for the complete story offering a perfect “How To…” lesson for aspiring creators…

All that being said though, what we want most is a great story, and the magnificently madcap mayhem commences here as Police Commissioner James Gordon heads to the dentist. When Batman easily foils the Joker’s latest manic murder attempt, the mountebank of Mirth pettishly realises he’s lost his inspirational spark.

He’s therefore in no mood for lasciviously whining lapdog Harley’s words of comfort or flirtatious pep talks…

As the Dark Knight reviews his files on the Joker’s girlfriend and ponders on how Harleen Frances Quinzel breezed through college and came away with a psychology degree that got her a position at Arkham Asylum, the larcenous lady in question has gone too far in the Joker’s lair. The trigger was comforting sympathy and telling her “precious pudden” how his baroque murder schemes could be improved…

Kicked out and almost killed (again), Harleen harks back to her first meeting with the devilishly desirable crazy clown and how they instantly clicked. She fondly recalls how her original plan to psychoanalyse the Joker and write a profitable tell-all book was forgotten the moment she fell under his malign spell to become his adoring, willing and despised slave…

She also realises that Batman quickly scotched their budding eternal love by capturing the grinning psycho-killer she secretly aided and abetted, both before and after she created her own costumed alter ego…

In fact, Batman always spoils her dreams and brutalises her adored “Mistah J”! It’s long past time she took care of him forever…

Driven by desperation and fuelled by passion, Harley Quinn swipes one of the Joker’s abortive schemes and tweaks it, and before long the Gotham Gangbuster is duped, doped, bound and destined for certain doom.

Sadly, the triumphant Little Woman hasn’t reckoned on how her barmy beloved will react when he learns she has done in mere hours what he’s failed to accomplish over many bitter years…

Coloured by Rick Taylor and lettered by Tim Harkins, the classy and classically staged main feature plays very much like a 1940s noir blend of morbid melodrama and cunning crime caper – albeit with outrageous over-the-top gags, sharply biting lines of dialogue and a blend of black humour and bombastic action – and easily qualifies as one of the top five bat-tales of all time.

A frantic, laugh-packed hoot that manages to be daring and demure by turns, Mad Love is an absolute delight, well worth the price of admission and an irresistible treasure to be enjoyed over and over again.
© 1994, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Dear Beloved Stranger


By Dino Pai (Urban-Fairy Tales/Top Shelf Productions)
ISBN: 978-1-60309-271-5

The search for transcendent love is a primal drive in almost every human being, but so are the equally obsessive passions to find one’s station in the world and accomplish great deeds. What happens when none of those quests seem to be progressing or, even worse, when they seem to be implacably at odds?

In 2013 this stunning, Xeric Award-winning debut addressed just such thorny issues in an intimately candid and introspective manner. Solitary, intense, dedicated Dino has just finished art school and ponders where his now directionless life is heading next. His search for work and zeal for creation hasn’t left much time for a social life and he has developed a novel coping mechanism. Moreover, now that he’s on his own inspiration also seems to have died…

Somewhere Out There is a soulmate: His Girl patiently waiting to be found, but until that happens, Dino writes notes sharing his life, thoughts and dreams, folds them into paper airplanes and trusts the breeze and fate to take them to where they need to be…

One directionless day when he’s restocking supplies, he finds former classmate Cathy temping at the art store while she saves up for fashion school. It makes him realise everyone is progressing but him and he resolves to try harder to make and enact choices.

And somewhere across the city, Cindy finds a crumpled-up paper plane in the street…

They meet again at an art show and her casually spoken neutral words somehow inspire him. Returning home, he stares at the picture of the beautiful Japanese pop star on his wall and starts to create a story: a comic book tale of a boy’s journey…

It starts with a siren song calling him. He hears and climbs through a keyhole, following ever-onwards through strange, perilous and uncanny regions. Along the way he encounters friendly animals who help him survive unnatural perils…

As the work laboriously nears completion it completely consumes Dino, but still, somehow, whenever he leaves his room and re-enters the real world, Cathy is there…

Slowly his two existences drift together…

Crafted in a dazzling variety of styles, techniques and media, Dear Beloved Stranger superbly captures that all-consuming hunger for the indefinable something every frustrated would-be lover feels must be out there somewhere; translating that debilitating absence into a candid examination every person in search of human completion has ever endured.

Sweet, sharp, sour and ultimately enlightening, this is a story for all lovers, would-be lovers and lovers of what might be.
© 2013 Shih-Mu Dino Pai. All rights reserved.

Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, restored & edited by Michael Gagné (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-502-0

Comics dream team Joe Simon & Jack Kirby presaged and ushered in the first American age of mature comics – not just with the Romance genre, but through all manner of challenging modern graphic dramas about real people in extraordinary situations… before seeing it all disappear again in less than eight years.

Their small stable of magazines – produced for the loose association of companies known as Prize/Crestwood/Pines – blossomed and wilted as the comics industry contracted throughout the 1950s.

As the popularity of flamboyant escapist superheroes waned after World War II, newer yet more familiar genres like Crime, Westerns and Horror returned to the fore in popular entertainment media, as audiences increasingly rejected simplistic, upbeat or jingoistic fantasy for grittier, more sober themes.

Some comicbook material, such as Westerns or anthropomorphic “Funny Animals”, hardly changed at all, but gangster and detective tales were utterly radicalised by the temperament of the post-war world.

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

Naturally the new forms and sensibilities seeped into comics, transforming good-natured, two-fisted gumshoe and Thud-&-Blunder cop strips of yore into darkly intriguing, frightening tales of seductive dames, last chances, big pay-offs and glamorous thuggery.

Sensing imminent Armageddon, the moral junkyard dogs bayed even louder as they saw their precious children’s minds under seditious attack…

Concurrent to the demise of masked mystery-men, industry giants Simon & Kirby – who were already capitalising on the rapidly growing True Crime boom – legendarily invented the genre of comicbook Romance with mature, beguiling, explosively contemporary social dramas equally focussed on the changing cultural scene and adult-themed relationships. They also, with very little shading, discussed topics of a sexual nature…

After testing the waters with the semi-comedic prototype My Date for Hillman in early 1947, Joe & Jack plunged in full force with Young Romance #1 in September of that year. It launched through for Crestwood Publications: a minor outfit which had been creating (as Prize Comics) interesting but not innovative comics since 1940.

Following Simon’s plan to make a new marketplace out of the grievously ignored older girls of America, they struck gold with stories addressing serious issues and hazards of relationships…

Not since the invention of Superman had a single comicbook generated such a frantic rush of imitation and flagrant cashing-in. Young Romance #1 was a monumental hit and the team acted accordingly: swiftly expanding, they released spin-offs Young Love (February 1949), Young Brides and In Love, all under a unique profits-sharing deal that quickly paid huge dividends to the publishers, creators and a growing studio of specialists.

All through that turbulent period comicbooks suffered impossibly biased oversight and hostile scrutiny from hidebound and panicked old guard institutions such as church groups, media outlets and ambitious politicians.

A number of tales and titles garnered especial notoriety from those conservative, reactionary doom-smiths and when the industry buckled and introduced a ferocious Comics Code, it castrated the creative form just when it most needed boldness and imagination.

Comics endured more than a decade and a half of savagely doctrinaire self-imposed censorship until changing youthful attitudes, society in crisis and plummeting profits forced the art form to adapt, evolve or die.

Those tales all come from a simpler time: exposing society in meltdown and suffering cultural PTSD and are pretty mild by modern standards of behaviour but the quality of art and writing make those pivotal years a creative highpoint well worthy of a thorough reassessment.

In 1947, fictionalising True Crime Cases was tremendously popular and profitable, and of the assorted outfits that generated such material nobody did it better than S&K. That technique of first-person confession also perfectly applied to just-as-uncompromising personal sagas from a succession of archetypal women and girls who populated their new comicbook smash.

Their output as interchangeable writers, pencillers and inkers (aided from early on by Joe’s brother-in-law Jack Oleck in the story department) was prodigious and astounding. Nevertheless, other hands frequently pitched in, so although these tales are all credited to S&K, art-aficionados shouldn’t be surprised to detect traces of Bill Draut, Mort Meskin, Al Eadeh, George Roussos or other stalwarts lurking in the backgrounds…

Michelle Nolan’s ‘Introduction’ for this rousing full-colour hardback (available in eBook format should you prefer) deftly analyses the scope and meteoric trajectory of the innovation and its impact on the industry before the new era opens with ‘Boy Crazy’ (from Young Romance #2,1947) wherein a flighty teenager with no sense of morality steals her aunt’s man with appalling consequences…

From the same issue, Her Tragic Love’ delivers a thunderbolt of melodrama as an amorous triangle encompassing a wrongly convicted man on death row presents one woman with no solution but the final one…

Scripted by Oleck, ‘Fraulein Sweetheart…’ (YR #4, 1948) reveals dark days but no happy endings for two German girls eking out existence in the American-occupied sector of post-war Marburg whilst ‘Shame’ – from issue #5 – deals with an ambitious, social-climbing young lady too proud to acknowledge her own scrub-woman mother whenever a flashy boyfriend comes around.

Next is ‘The Town and Toni Benson’ from Young Romance #11 – contemporarily designated volume 2, #5, 1949 – which offers a sequel to ‘I Was a Pick-Up’ from the premiere issue (which tale is confusingly included in the sequel to this volume Young Romance 2: The Early Simon & Kirby).

Here S&K cleverly build on that original tale, creating a soap opera environment which could so easily have spawned a series as the now-newlywed couple struggle to make ends meet under a wave of hostile public scrutiny…

On a roll, the creative geniuses began mixing genres. Western Love #2, (1948) provides ‘Kathy and the Merchant of Sunset Canton!’ as a city slicker finds his modern mercenary management style makes him no friends in cowboy country – until one proud girl takes a chance on getting to know him – after which ‘Sailor’s Girl!’ (Young Romance #13/Vol. 3, #1 1949) picks over the troubles of an heiress who marries a dauntless sea rover working for Daddy. She is confident that she can tame or break her man’s wild, free spirit…

We head out yonder once more to meet ‘The Perfect Cowboy!’ (Real West Romances # 4 1949) – at least on set – a well as the simple sagebrush lass whose head he briefly turns, before social inequality and petty envy inform the brutally heavy-handed ‘I Want Your Man’ (Young Romance #21/Vol. 3, #9 1950) wherein a young woman of meagre means realises almost too late the cost of her vendetta against a pretty little rich girl…

In the name of variety ‘Nancy Hale’s Problem Clinic’ (Young Romance #23/Vol. 3, #11, 1950) offers a brief dose of sob-sister advice as “treatment for the troubled heart” before the romantic rollercoaster rides resume with ‘Old Fashioned Girl’ (YR #34/Vol. 4, #10 1951) as a forceful young woman raised by her grandmother slowly has her convictions about propriety challenged by intriguing men and her own barely subsumed passions, whereas ‘Mr. Know-It-All Falls in Love’ (Young Love #37/Vol. 7, #10 1952) takes a rare opportunity to speak with a male narrator’s voice as a buttoned-down control freak decides that with his career in order it’s time to marry. But who’s the best prospect?

Another of those pesky lovers’ triangles then results in one marriage, one forlorn heartbreak, war, vengeance and a most appropriate ‘Wedding Present!’ (Young Love #50/Vol. 5, #8 1953) before this cleverly conceived chronicle takes a conceptual diversion – after one last tale from the same issue – detailing the all-business affair of ‘Norma, Queen of the Hot Dogs’ and her (at first) strictly platonic partner…

In 1955 the Comics Code Authority began its draconian bowdlerising of the industry’s more mature efforts and the Romance titles especially took a big conceptual hit. The edgy stories became less daring and almost every ending was a happy one – for the guy or the parents at least.

Following a superbly extensive ‘Cover Gallery’ featuring a dozen of the most evocative images from those wild and free early years ‘The Post-Code Era’ re-presents the specific conditions affecting romantic relations from the censorious document, followed by a selection of the yarns S&K and their team were thereafter reduced to producing.

Even the art seems less enthusiastic for the wholesome, unchallenging episodes which begin with ‘Old Enough to Marry!’ (Young Romance #80/Vol. 8, #8, 1955) wherein a young man confronts his grizzled cop dad. The patriarch has no intention of letting his son make a mess of his life…

Next, a maimed farmer tries to sabotage the budding romance between his once-faithful girlfriend and the brilliant good-looking doctor who cured him in ‘Lovesick’ from the same issue.

The following four tales all originated in Young Romance #85/Vol. 10, #1 1956, beginning with ‘Lizzie’s Back in Town’ as a strong, competent girl returns home to let Daddy pick her husband for her (no, really!); two guys fight and the winner gets the girl in ‘Lady’s Choice’ whilst another, less frenzied duel results in a ‘Resort Romeo’ marrying the girl of everybody’s dreams even as ‘My Cousin from Milwaukee’ exposes a gold-digger and reserves her handsome relative for herself…

The anodyne antics mercifully conclude with ‘The Love I Lost!’ (Young Romance #90/Vol. 12, #3, 1959) wherein another hospital case realises just in time that the man she wants is not the man she deserves…

This emotional rollercoaster is supplemented with a number of well-illustrated bonus features including ‘Why I Made this Book’, ‘Simon and Kirby’s Romance Comics: A Historical Overview’; a splendid selection of S&K’s pioneering ‘Photo Covers’ (18 in all) and a fascinating explanation of the process of artwork-rehabilitation in ‘About the Restoration’.

The affairs then wrap up with the now-traditional ‘Biographies’ section.

Simon & Kirby took much of their tone – if not actual content – from movie melodramas of the period (such as Mr. Skeffington, All About Eve or Mildred Pierce or Noir romances like Blonde Ice or Hollow Triumph) and, unlike what we might consider suitable for romantic fiction today, their stories crackled with tension, embraced violent action and were infested with unsavoury characters and vicious backstabbing, gossiping hypocrites.

Happily, those are the tales which mostly fill most of this book, making for an extremely engaging, strikingly powerful and thoroughly addictive collection of great yarns by brilliant masters of the comics arts: and one no lover (of the medium) should miss…
Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics © 2012 Fantagraphics Books Inc. Introduction © 2012 Michelle Nolan Schelly. All rights reserved.

Tales from The Crypt volume 1


By Christina Blanch, Danica Davidson, David Anthony Kraft, Onrie Kompan, Scott Lobdell, Stefan Petrucha, Bob Camp, Dean Haspiel, Russ Heath, Miran Kim, Steve Mannion, John McCrea, Jolyon Yates, Bernie Wrightson & various (Super Genius/Papercutz)
ISBN: 978-1-62991-460-2

The EC comics of the Pre-Comics Code 1950s were possibly the most influential genre strips of all time. Their Crime, (anti-)War, Science Fiction and especially Horror anthologies targeted mature readers before the term even existed, purveying sophisticated, cynical, satirical, sardonic and always sublimely illustrated stories. These changed the lives of not only comics creators in waiting, laying the groundwork for the Underground Comix and counter-culture movements, but also spread far beyond the world of funny-book fans to influence novelists and film-makers.

The most influential of all was premiere title Tales from The Crypt. As well as spawning numerous companion mags and an avalanche of knock-offs, it inspired forays into movies (Amicus Productions produced Tales from The Crypt in 1972 and The Vault of Horror the following year, directed by Freddie Francis and based on two paperback reprint collections issued in 1965 by Ballentine Books) as well as many television iterations.

The hallowed title inspired George A. Romero and Stephen King to synthesise their personal fond childhood memories into Creepshow: a stylish portmanteau film using a horror comic-book as a maguffin and framing sequence for five darkly comedic tales of supernatural come-uppance.

The format of infernal introducer and short sharp shocker is eternally evergreen and although EC might be defunct as a publisher, it’s influence as a creative force remains strong as ever, and not only in the perpetual run of archival reprint volumes from Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Gladstone, Russ Cochran and others. In 2007, Papercutz revived the title and brand for a fresh run of parlous parables and fearsome fables from the likes of Kyle Baker, Don McGregor, Joe R. Lansdale and more.

This iteration lasted until 2010, but has now been gloriously, gore-iously revived under Papercutz’ mature Super Genius imprint, with the signature horror-hosts – the Crypt-Keeper, Vault-Keeper and Old Witch – back in the house to leaven the dread proceedings with wry insights and lethally dreadful puns. What more could a certified “GhouLunatic” want?

Well, how about some vintage yet unseen 1970’s classic chillers by the greatest horror artist never to work for EC…?

Collecting the contents of the first two issues from 2017, this gruesome grimoire of graphic excess opens with ‘Stake-Out’: a deliciously dark spoof to get the ball rolling written and drawn by Bernie Wrightson for fanzine I’ll Be Damned #2 in July 1970 and remastered here by colourist Laurie E. Smith and letterer Tom Orzechowski.

Tapping into truly contemporary modern terrors, ‘Die-Vestment!’ by Stefan Petrucha, Jolyon Yates & JayJay Jackson then looks a little into a future where the world’s richest and most despised man extends his life by swindling the poor out of their organs. However, even he can’t survive without a modicum of public approval, so he listens to the PR consultant hired to soften his image. Big mistake…

David Anthony Kraft & Miran Kim detail the problems of wage-slave Marty whose daily grind and lovelorn life both spiral downwards after the undead infest his workplace in ‘Zombie Bank’, after which Scott Lobdell, John McCrea & Dee Cunliffe further pursue financial woes when the partners in an exploitative corporation are systematically wiped out by ‘The Were-wolf of Wall Street’

Social media, body-shaming and cyber-bullying come under the spotlight in Danica Davidson, Yates & Jackson’s ‘Picture Perfect’ after a vicious High School Mean Girl picks on the wrong victim, whilst in Christina Blanch & Kim’s ‘Undertow’ death, madness and retribution grow from the tragic consequences of a day at the beach…

Wrightson again exerts his gothic mastery in ‘Feed It’ – coloured up here from an original appearance in black-&-white magazine Web of Horror #3 (April 1970) – and advocating the wisdom of good pet care before the sinister storytelling ceases with grotesque social commentary and black comedy in ‘Leather or Not’ by Blanch & Kim. In the future, the rich will still want the most desirable fashions, even if the skins and hides now being trapped and traded are young, poor, pretty and human…

Also offering a stylish gallery of 8 covers and variants by Kim, Yates, Bob Camp, Dean Haspiel, Russ Heath, Kyle Baker & Steve Mannion, this casque of brash, irreverent and deeply disturbing yarns is a true treat for fright-fans of every vintage and a fine addition to the annals of an undying tradition of dark delights.
Tales from The Crypt © 2017 William M. Gaines, Agent, Inc. The EC logo is a registered trademark of William M. Gaines, Agent, Inc. and used with permission. “Stake-Out” and “Feed It” are © 1969, 1970, 2017 Bernie Wrightson. The Crypt-Keeper™, The Old Witch™ and the Vault-Keeper™ are registered trademarks of William M. Gaines, Agent, Inc. and used with permission.

In the Pines – 5 Murder Ballads


By Erik Kriek (Canongate Books)
ISBN: 978-1-8689-214-0

If you don’t know what a murder ballad is you should start this sublime hardcover anthology by reading Jan Donkers’ superb background essay at the back of the book before treating yourself to the grim graphic glories crafted by Dutch artisan and illustrator Erik Kreik.

In ‘Murder Ballads’ you will learn the history of the ancient musical sub-genre as well as the direct genealogy of the quintet of sordid, sorry sagas adapted from sound to stunning words and pictures here…

However – and just because it’s you – the term generally applies to folk music story-songs from many countries dealing with love, crime, sex, social transgressions and unnatural death…

In 2016 Erik Kreik (creator of silent superhero spoof Gutsman; Little Andy Roid; Het Onzienbare/From Beyond) – adapted a number of vintage and modern Murder Ballads into strip format. A huge fan of all forms of popular Americana, he also covered the songs with his band The Blue Grass Boogiemen on a CD naturally entitled In the Pines – 5 Murder Ballads.

The book won Germany’s 2016 Rudolf Dirks Award and the spin-off garnered Album of the Year 2017 from Dutch Comics.

Amsterdam-born Kriek is a graduate of the Rietveld Academy for Art and Design and a hotly in-demand illustrator of books (including Holland’s Tolkien and Harry Potter editions), magazines, apparel, skateboards, et cetera and can turn his hand to many styles and disciplines. Gutsman was reconceived as a soundless mime ballet in 2006 and his collection of Lovecraft adaptations Het onzienbare, en andere verhalen H. P. Lovecraft has been republished in many languages…

He has just released first children’s book Mika, the Little Bear That Didn’t Want to Go To Sleep

Now a multi-national phenomenon, In the Pines delivers its moody messages of ill-starred love in dreamy, two-coloured episodes. American fans will recognise the drawing style as echoing the very best EC horror tales by “Ghastly” Graham Ingels or the early Bernie Wrightson. The concert of terror opens with ‘Pretty Polly and the Ship’s Carpenter’: a much-covered traditional ditty (The Byrds; Judy Collins; The Stanley Brothers) rendered here in green and black on white crisp white pages. It details the doomed fate of a young man who fled to sea to escape his sins, only to see them resurface in death for his shipmates in a seemingly supernatural storm…

Tinted in sepia, ‘The Long Black Veil’ is a relatively modern song: composed and written by Marijohn Wilkin & Danny Dill in 1959 and most notably recorded by Lefty Frizzell, The Band, Johnny Cash, Mick Jagger, Nick Cave and many others. It reveals how a farmer is faced with a staggering choice: hang for a murder he did not commit or betray the confidence of the adulterous women who is his only alibi…

Racially-charged and rendered in tones of muddy ochre, ‘Taneytown’ was originally written by Steve Earle: a synthesis of so many lynching incidents that shame and blight the history of early 20th century America. Here a young black man, sick of the life he’s subjected to in rural Maryland, takes the knife his negro war hero father used in the trenches of the Great War and heads for trouble in the whitest part of town…

Written by singer Gillian Welch, ‘Caleb Meyer’ is adapted in tones of chilling aquamarine and presents a young wife betrayed, terrorised and assaulted who wins for herself a potent dose of ironic retribution…

Closing the graphic grimoire in tones of watered down blood, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ is based on the song created by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds for their 1996 album Murder Ballads. Sung as duet with Kylie Minogue, the song was based on traditional air Down in the Willow Garden.

The story seen here presents a complex web of trauma and tension involving a murderous escaped convict, a gang of hidden outlaws, lost treasure, a solitary house in the deep woods and a protective mother conveniently absent.

However, neither the rapidly pursuing posse nor the vile-intentioned villain have any idea what young Elisa is truly capable of, or why her father called her his “wild rose”…

Making something compelling and beautiful from the worst aspects and acts of human behaviour is no mean feat, either in song or pictures, but In the Pines accomplishes the deed with gripping style, vibrant polish and immense charm. This is a book every lover of human foibles will adore: Potent and evocative with a sly gift to captivate and transport the reader just as the music intoxicates the mind’s eye through the ears.

One last note: Kriek relaxes in Irish bars – possibly drinking but mostly singing and playing the banjo – so my hopes are high that he’s got many more songs yet to draw…
© Erik Kriek, 2016. “Murder Ballads” © Jan Donkers. 2016All rights reserved.
In the Pines – 5 Murder Ballads will be published on February 1st 2018.

Buck Danny volume 1: Night of the Serpent


By Francis Bergése, colours by Frédéric Bergése; translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 987-1-905460-85-4

Buck Danny premiered in Le Journal de Spirou in January 1947 and continues soaring across the Wild Blue Yonder to this day. The strip describes the improbably long yet historically significant career of the eponymous Navy pilot and his wing-men Sonny Tuckson and Jerry Tumbler. It is one of the world’s last aviation strips and a series which has always closely wedded itself to current affairs, from the Korean War to Afghanistan, the Balkans to Iran. With the current bellicose undercurrent informing or perhaps tainting America’s influence around the world, it’s interesting to imagine what tales might be told during the current administration…

The dauntless US Naval Aviator was created by Georges Troisfontaines whilst he was director of Belgian publisher World Press Agency and depicted by Victor Hubinon before being handed to the multi-talented scripter Jean-Michel Charlier, who was then working as a junior artist.

Charlier’s fascination with human-scale drama and rugged realism had been first seen in such “true-war” strips as L’Agonie du Bismark (The Agony of the Bismarck – published in Spirou in 1946).

With fellow master-storytellers Albert Uderzo & René Goscinny, Charlier formed Édifrance Agency, which promoted and specialised in communication arts and comics strips. Charlier and Goscinny were editors of the magazine Pistolin (1955 to 1958) and went on to create Pilote in 1959 but Charlier (whose greatest narrative triumph is iconic Western Blueberry, created in 1963 with Jean Giraud/Moebius) continued to script Buck Danny and did so until his death.

On his passing artistic collaborator Francis Bergése (who first replaced Hubinon in 1978) took complete charge of the adventures of the All-American Air Ace, on occasion working with other creators such as Jacques de Douhet.

Like so many artists involved in aviation storytelling, Bergése (born in 1941) started young with both drawing and flying. He qualified as a pilot whilst still a teenager, enlisted in the French Army and was a reconnaissance flyer by his twenties.

At age 23 he began selling strips to L’Étoile and JT Jeunes (1963-1966), after which he produced his first aviation strip Jacques Renne for Zorro. This was followed by Amigo, Ajax, Cap 7, Les 3 Cascadeurs, Les 3 A, Michel dans la Course and many more.

Bergése worked as a jobbing artist on comedies, pastiches and WWII strips until 1983 when he won the coveted job of illustrating globally syndicated Buck Danny with 41st yarn Apocalypse Mission’.

He even found time in the 1990s to produce a few episodes of the European interpretation of British icon Biggles before finally retiring in 2008, passing on the reins to illustrators Fabrice Lamy & Francis Winis and scripter Frédéric Zumbiehl.

Thus far – with Zumbiehl & Gil Formosa now at the helm – the franchise has notched up 55 albums…

Like all the Danny tales this premier edition is astonishingly authentic and still worrisomely topical: a breezily compelling action thriller originally published in 2000 as Buck Danny #49: La nuit du serpent – with colouring by Frédéric Bergése (I’m assuming that’s his son, but I’m not certain) blending mind-boggling detail and technical veracity with good old-fashioned blockbuster adventure.

At Kunsan Airbase, South Korea, a veteran American pilot goes on dawn border patrol only to be hit by an uncanny light which blinds him and seems to negate all his F-16’s guidance systems. Despite his best efforts, the jet crashes in the De-Militarized Zone and the North Koreans claim a flagrant breaking of the truce and a huge publicity coup.

Strangely though, the downed Colonel Maxwell is still missing. The Communists don’t have him and the pilot’s tracking devices indicate he’s still out there somewhere: lost in the No Man’s Land between North and South.

The mighty US military swings into action, determined to rescue their pilot, clean up the mess and deny the Reds either a tangible or political victory. Buck, Tumbler and Tuckson are at a Paris air show when they get the call and are soon en route to Korea for a last-ditch, face-saving mission.

However, as the trio prepare to join the covert rescue mission, evidence emerges which casts doubt on the authenticity of the alleged super-weapon. Meanwhile Maxwell has stumbled into a fantastic secret beneath the DMZ…

Fast-paced, brimming with tension and spectacular action, this is a classically designed thriller which effortlessly plunges the reader into a delightfully dizzying riot of intrigue, mystery and suspense before its captivating conclusion.

Suitable for older kids and the adventurous of all ages, the Adventures of Buck Danny comprise one endlessly enthralling tour of duty no comics fan or armchair adrenaline-junkie can afford to miss.

Bon chance, mes braves…
© Dupuis, 2000 by Bergése. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Daddy is So Far Away… And We Must Find Him!


By Wostok & Grabowski, translation edited by Chris Watson (Slab-O-Concrete)
ISBN: 978-1-89986-610-6

In the last decade of the previous century, independent, alternative and international cartooning finally took off in the UK. It’s not that it suddenly got good, it’s simply that due to the efforts of a few dedicated missionaries, the readers finally noticed what Europe had known for years. Graphic narrative is as much about the art and the individual as it is about the money.

A superb case in point is this slim and eccentric softcover monochrome tome produced in English by the much-missed Slab-O-Concrete publishing/distribution outfit.

Daddy is So Far Away… is the surreal yet absorbing account of two-year old Poposhak and her faithful dog Flowers. The sad little lass stands at her mother’s grave and wonders where her father is. Suddenly he sees the tip of his beard sticking out of the front door and rushes towards it despite wise Flowers’ words of caution…

She will not stop, but follows the beard, through rooms, down tunnels, across plains, under oceans and even across the Milky Way itself, finding along the way friends and escaping monsters throughout all time and space. Always that long white beard unfurls ahead of them, a baffling enigma and a tantalising promise…

This eerie yet comforting blend of fable, bedtime story, shaggy dog tale and vision-quest is a compulsive and brilliantly drawn epic, more rollercoaster or video game than pictorial narrative, and encompasses the very best storytelling techniques of Eastern European animation…

Wostok and Grabowski, from the north Serbian town of Vršac, creatively and intensively collaborated together between1992 and 1997; both in the incredibly fertile Eastern European market but also internationally, with numerous works appearing all over the place before going their separate ways, and – as is usually the case – are criminally unfamiliar to the average comic punter. I hope you can find their astounding poetic, innocently melancholic and metaphysical work without too much trouble, because it’s well worth the effort.
© 1995-1998 Wostok, Lola & Grabowski. All Rights Reserved.

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 1


By Roy Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-161-9

Amongst the many cartoon and comics anniversaries this year there are household names still with us (albeit in exceedingly altered forms) and tragically masterpieces of the form that have faded from popular memory, even though their influence remains in every panel we might peruse…

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

It’s virtually impossible for us to today to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America (and the wider world) from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no television, broadcast radio far from universal, and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the strip sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were the most common recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality of adventures and exploits.

From the very start humour was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics”, and from these gag and stunt beginnings – a blend of silent movie slapstick, outrageous fantasy and the vaudeville shows – evolved a thoroughly entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting on April 21st 1924, Washington Tubbs II was a comedic gag-a-day vehicle not much different from family favourite Harold Teen (by Crane’s friend and contemporary Carl Ed).

When it premiered in 1924, Tubbs was a diminutive and ambitious young shop-clerk, but gradually the strip moved into mock-heroics, then through cosy, non-confrontational action, only to become a full-blown, light-hearted, rip-roaring adventure series with the introduction of ancestral he-man and prototype moody swashbuckler Captain Easy in the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

As the tales became evermore exotic and thrill-packed, the globe-trotting little dynamo clearly needed a sidekick who could believably handle the strenuous combat side of things, and thus – in the middle of a European-set war yarn – Wash liberated a mysterious fellow American from a jail cell and history was made.

Before long the mismatched pair were travelling companions, hunting treasure, fighting thugs and rescuing a bevy of startlingly comely maidens in distress…

The bluff, two-fisted, surly, comprehensively capable, utterly dependable, down-on-his-luck “Southern Gen’leman” was something not seen before in comics: a raw, square-jawed hunk played completely straight rather than as the buffoon or music hall foil of such classic serials as Hairsbreadth Harry or Desperate Desmond.

Moreover, Crane’s seductively simple blend of cartoon exuberance and design was a far more accessible and powerful medium for action story-telling than the somewhat static illustrative style favoured by artists like Hal Foster: just beginning to make waves on the groundbreaking new Tarzan Sunday page.

Tubbs and Easy were as exotic and thrilling as the Ape-Man, but rattled along like the surreal and tempestuous Popeye, full of vim, vigour and vinegar, as attested to by a close look at the early work of the would-be cartoonists who followed the strip with avid intensity: Floyd Gottfredson, Milton Caniff, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and especially young Joe Shuster…

After a couple of abortive attempts starring his little hero, Crane bowed to the inevitable and created instead a full-colour Sunday page dedicated to his increasingly popular hero-for-hire.

Captain Easy debuted on 30th July 1933 (happy 85th Cap!), in wild and woolly escapades set before his first fateful rendezvous with Tubbs.

This first sublime archival volume begins with the soldier of fortune undertaking a mercenary mission for the Chinese government to spy on the city of ‘Gungshi.’ In the heyday of popular exploration and aviator exploits, the bold solo flight over the Himalayas to Chinese Turkestan was stirring enough but when Easy then infiltrates a hidden citadel it heralded the beginning of a rollercoaster romp with sword-wielding Mongols, sultry houris, helpless dancing girls, fabulous beasts and wicked bandits. The heady, intoxicating dramatic brew captivated entire families across the planet, week after addictive week…

With an entire page and vibrant colours to play with, Crane’s imagination ran wild and his fabulous visual concoctions achieved a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art.

The effect and influence of Crane’s pages can be seen in so many strips since; especially the works of near-contemporaries such as Hergé and giants-in-waiting like Charles Schulz.

These pages were a clearly as much of joy to create as to read. In fact, the cited reason for Crane surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les Turner in 1937 was the controlling NEA Syndicate abruptly demanding that all its strips be henceforward produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate them being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated.

Crane just walked away, concentrating on the daily feature. In 1943 he left the Syndicate to create the aviation adventure strip Buz Sawyer.

At the end of the initial blockbuster epic Easy is a hero to the people of Gungshi, if not the aristocracy, who plot to oust him via the subtlest of means. The second adventure ‘The Slave Girl’ opened on 21st January 1934, depicting the occidental hero bankrupted in saving the beautiful Rose Petal from the auction block: a chivalrous gesture leading to war with the rival city of Kashno, and a brutally hilarious encounter with South Sea pirates…

In an era where ethnic stereotyping and casual racism were commonplace and acceptable – if not actually mandatory – the introduction of a vile and unscrupulous Yank as the exploitative villain was and remains a surprising delight.

Rambling Jack is every inch the greedy “ugly American” of later, more informed decades, and by contrasting Easy’s wholesome quest to make his fortune with the venal explorer’s rapacious ruthlessness, Crane makes a telling point for the folks back home. It also makes for great reading as Chinese bandits also enter the fray, determined to plunder both cities and everybody in their path…

With the help of a lost British aviator Easy is finally victorious, but on returning to his Chinese employers he spots something whilst flying over the Himalayas that radically alters his plans…

‘The Sunken City’ is an early masterpiece of comics fiction, with Easy recruiting comedy stooge ’Arry Pippy, a demobbed cockney British Army cook, to help him explore a drowned city lost for centuries in a hidden inland sea, and one he had he had spotted from the air only through sheer chance.

However, simply to get there the pair must trek through wild jungles, survive blowpipe-wielding cannibals and the greatest threat our valiant rogue has ever faced…

If I’ve given the impression that this has all been grim-‘n’-gritty turmoil and tension thus far, please forgive me: Roy Crane was an utterly irrepressible gag-man and his enchanting chapter-play serial abounds with breezy light-hearted banter, hilarious situations and outright farce – a sure-fire formula modern cinema directors plunder to this day.

Easy is the Indiana Jones, Flynn (the Librarian) Carsen and Jack (Romancing the Stone) Cotton of his day and inarguably blazed the trail for all of them.

Using a deep-sea diver’s suit, Easy and ‘Arry explore the piscine wonders and submerged grandeur of the lost city, encountering some of the most magical and fanciful sea beasts ever recorded in comics before literally striking gold. Typically, when the cannibals attack those dredged up treasures are lost and Easy finds himself captive and betrothed to the most hideous witch-hag imaginable…

Risking everything the desperate treasure-seekers make a break for it only to re-encounter ‘The Pirates’ (April 14th – July 7th 1935), but before they get too far the husband-hungry sorceress and her faithful cannibals come after him, leading to a brutal, murderous conclusion…

After years in the Orient Easy and Pippy then succumb to a hankering for less dangerous company and make their way to Constantinople and Europe, but trouble is never far from the mercenary and in ‘The Princess’ (14th July – December 1st 1935), the Captain’s gentlemanly instincts compel him to rescue a beautiful woman from the unwelcome attentions of munitions magnate Count Heyloff, a gesture that embroils our hero in a manufactured war between two minor nations.

This tale addressed the contemporary American sentiment that another world conflict was brewing and it’s obvious that Crane’s opinion was the deeply held common conviction that the whole international unrest was the result of rich men’s greedy manipulations…

Dark, bittersweet and painfully foreboding, this yarn sees Easy become the focus of Heyloff’s vengeance, and the sum total air force for the tiny underdog nation of Nikkateena in their bitter struggle for survival against the equally-duped country of Woopsydasia.

Crane kept the combat chronicle light but on occasion his true feelings showed through in some of the most trenchant anti-war art ever seen.

This superb hardback and colossal initial collection is the perfect means of discovering or rediscovering Crane’s rip-snorting, pulse-pounding, exotically racy adventure trailblazer. The huge pages in this volume (almost 14½ by 10½ inches, or 210 x 140 mm for the younger, metric crowd) also contain a fascinating and informative introductory biography of Crane by historian Jeet Heer; a glowing testimonial from Charles “Peanuts” Schulz; contemporary promotional material, extra drawings and sketches plus a fascinating feature explaining how pages were coloured in those long-ago days before computers…

This is primal comics storytelling of the very highest quality: unforgettable, spectacular and utterly irresistible. These tales rank alongside the best of Hergé, Tezuka and Kirby, and led inexorably to the greatest creations of all of them. Now that you have the chance to experience the strips that inspired the giants of our art form, how can you possibly resist?
Captain Easy Strips © 2010 United Features Syndicate, Inc. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

Tamsin and the Dark


By Neill Cameron & Kate Brown (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910989-95-1

In January 2012 Oxford-based family publisher David Fickling Books launched a weekly anthology comic aimed at under-12 girls and boys; revelling in reviving the good old days of traditional picture-story entertainment intent whilst embracing the full force of modernity of style and content.

Each issue offers humour, adventure, quizzes, puzzles and educational material in a joyous parade of cartoon fun and fantasy. In the years since its premiere, The Phoenix has gone from strength to strength, winning praise from the Great and the Good, child literacy experts and the only people who really count – the astoundingly engaged kids and parents who read it…

Like the golden age of The Beano and Dandy the magazine masterfully manages the magical trick of marrying hilarious humour strips with potently powerful adventure serials such as the subject of this latest compilation: a wondrous seaside sorcerous saga with intriguing overtones of the darker works of Alan Garner.

Written by Neill Cameron (Mega Robo Bros, How to Make Awesome Comics, Pirates of Pangea) and beguilingly illustrated by Kate Brown (Manga Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Young Avengers, Fish + Chocolate), the eerie tale opens with schoolgirl Tamsin Thomas resuming her part-time job as the last Pellar: magical protector of Cornwall’s human population from creatures ancient and uncanny…

Tamsin first inherited the sacred duty and oppressive pain-in-the-butt responsibility after her brother Morgan was targeted by a malign mystic sea-sorceress who had years previously taken their father. Her newfound power hasn’t come with any extra knowledge however, and being able to fly hasn’t stopped Morgan’s obnoxious new friends from picking on her…

Even sometime mentor and full-time bird King Arthur is no use: preferring to let her learn on the job rather than share anything useful…

After a brief educational interlude detailing the legend of how Mankind and the terrible Cornish Giants came to an accommodation in the Times before Time, Tamsin’s day starts getting ruined when a shadowy monster attacks her dog Pengersek. Happily, her apparently all-powerful Magic Lucky Stick is able to dispel the horror.

King Arthur even tells her it was a “Spriggan” before uttering mysterious warnings, talking technobabble about her stick and flying off to deal with some supposed crisis elsewhere…

Sadly, any tiny sense of triumph dissipates when bullying neighbour Blake Trescothick starts picking on her again and Morgan chooses to side with the jock rather than stick up for his own sister…

He’s even less keen to help her research the legends of Cornwall: despite what he’s seen and been through, Morgan has no time for magic and fairies…

Later when the school goes on a trip to a decommissioned tin-mine, we learn about the ancient pact between man the miner and the ancient Bucca creatures – and so would Tamsin if Blake and Morgan hadn’t started vandalising the site and accidentally re-opened a pit into the darkest recesses of the Earth…

When Morgan is teased into climbing down something awful happens and he’s not the same boy when he comes back up…

And so begins another stunning eldritch thriller blending old-world myth and mayhem with superbly modern and matter-of-fact treatment of properly 21st century kids. Addressing issues of bullying, school-girl pregnancy, and regional job security with primal animosity and terror in a manner suitable and engaging for kids, Tamsin and the Dark reveals how an ancient inimical evil is overwhelmed by good magic and dutiful study, antediluvian bonds and pacts are renewed, old magical allies return to supplement a doughty band of pesky interfering but valiant kids and man’s darkest enemy is repelled. Tamsin even gets to refresh her street cred with the locals mundane and otherwise…

However, her next crisis has already begun…

A mesmerising mix of scary and astounding, the latest exploit of the Last Pellar is bombastic, bold and brilliantly engaging: a romp of bright and breezy supernatural thrills just the way kids love them, leavened with brash humour and straightforward sentiment to entertain the entire family. How and why this series hasn’t been optioned for a TV series or movie is utterly beyond me. Read it and you’ll surely agree…

Text © Neill Cameron 2018. Illustrations © Kate Brown 2018. All rights reser–ved.
Tamsin and the Dark will be released on January 4th 2018 and is available for pre-order now.