Planetes volume 1


By Makoto Yukimura, translated and adapted by Yuki Nakamura & Ann Wenger (TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59182-262-2

The hard, gritty mystery and imagination of space travel, so much a component of immediate post-World War II industrial society, once again captivated a legion of level-headed imagineers at the end of the 20th century when relative newcomer Makoto Yukimura rekindled interest in near-space exploration in all its harsh and grimy glory with this inspiring “nuts-and-bolts” manga series which explored the probable rather than the possible…

Yukimura (born in Yokohamain 1976, just as the once-ambitious American space program was languishing in cash-strapped doldrums and five long years before the first space shuttle launch) began his professional life as an assistant to veteran creator Shin Morimura before launching his independent career with the Planetes.

Working exclusively for Kodansha, his award-winning premier Seinen series ran in Weekly Morning magazine from January 1999-January 2004 and was later collected as four tankōbon volumes. The serial easily made the jump to a popular anime series and Yukimura – after producing Sayōnara ga Chikai node for Evening magazine – has since 2005 abandoned the future for the past and concentrated his creative energies on the monolithic historical epic Vinland Saga – serialized in Weekly Shōnen Magazine and Afternoon – and filling 11 bloodcurdling volumes to date…

The premise of Planetes is devilishly simply and powerfully engaging. Humanity is a questing species but cannot escape its base origins. In 2074 space travel and exploitation is practically commonplace but as we’ve conquered the void between Earth and the asteroid belt and prepare to exploit the outer planets, the once-pristine void around us has become clotted with our obsolete tech and casually discarded rubbish.

Even the most minute piece of junk or debris falling through hard vacuum is a high-speed, potentially deadly missile, and to keep risk to a minimum hardy teams of rugged individualists have to literally sweep the heavens free of our discarded crap.

‘A Stardust Sky’ begins with the death of a passenger on a commercial low-orbit space liner before jumping six years forward to introduce a trio of these celestial dustbin-men scooping up Mankind’s negligent cast-offs and unconsidered detritus.

Hachirota Hoshino is the newest member of the team, a kid who craves becoming a real astronaut and famous explorer like his dad and even dreams of one day owing his own prestige spaceship. However excitable “Hachimaki” is quickly becoming disenchanted with the dreary, dull and disgusting daily life of drudgery aboard DS-12 – a sanitation/cargo ship fondly dubbed Toybox but little better than the discards he and his two comrades daily scoop up or destroy…

These days there’s something wrong with the sombre, stoic Russian, Yuri Mihairokov.

The big man is increasingly distracted, blanking out, staring vacantly into the Wild Black Yonder as the cleaners orbit the Earth at 8 kilometres per second. Events come to head when a shard of micro-debris holes their ramshackle vessel and an old timer reveals the Russian’s tragic secret.

Long ago Yuri and his wife were on that shuttle and when it was holed she died. Heartbroken, her husband – one of the few survivors – returned to space to clear the deadly trash that took his wife, but he never forgot her.

Later, whilst drifting in the void the solitary astronaut sees a glitter, and her keepsake compass just floats into his hand, brought back to him by the winds of space. Beguiled, Yuri falls into Earth’s Gravity Well and only Hachimaki’s most frantic efforts save his comrade from a fiery death.

Safely back in free orbit, the Russian opens his gauntleted fist. On the compass are scratched his wife’s final thoughts as death took her – “please save Yuri”…

The poignant, bittersweet and deeply spiritual initial episode is followed by ‘A Girl from Beyond the Earth’ wherein young Hoshino slowly and impatiently recovers from a broken leg in the hospital of the moon colony Archimedes Crater City.

These tales are laced with the most up-to-date space science available to author Yukimura, and the recent discovery that extended time spent in low or zero-gravity radically weakens bones and muscles was the lynchpin of this moving brush with another youngster bound irrevocably to the void.

When a doctor suggests returning to full-gravity Earth to recuperate the easy way, Hachi is in two minds and sorely tempted. His commander and fellow debris-destroyer Fee Carmichael and an old 20-year veteran pour scorn on the quitter’s option. All real astronauts know that once back on the home world few ever return to space.

The lad is still tempted though until he strikes up a friendship with a thin, wasted young woman. Nono has been on Luna for twelve years and dreams of blue skies and open seas but will never see them. After aged Mr. Roland chooses to spend the rest of his life among the stars, Hachimaki learns Nono’s incredible sad secret and at last abandons all thoughts of forsaking the stars…

The focus stays on nicotine-fiend Fee Carmichael as she struggles to enjoy a well-deserved vice in ‘A Cigarette under Starlight’ in Orientale Basin Underground City a few months later. With breathing-oxygen at a premium, smokers must juggle their addiction for the weed with their dedication to life in space and poor Fee has been Jonesing for a drag for far too long. Now though, even whilst on shore-leave at a station big enough and sufficiently civilised to house a designated smoking area, the Toybox’s chief is still unable to indulge her vice.

An ideological terrorist group called the Space Defense Fighters want to keep the void pristine and free of Mankind’s polluting influence and have been detonating bombs in outposts all over the moon. Their latest outrages targeted the base’s vending machines and smoking rooms so the authorities have sealed them all in the name of public safety.

Driven near to distraction, Fee snaps and lights up in the public toilets, forgetting that smoke detection devices and fire countermeasures are automatic, incredibly sensitive and painfully effective…

Humiliated, sodden but undeterred, she takes off for another city and a solitary snout (for all you non-Brits that’s a particularly derogatory term for having a smoke) and finds the only guy more in need of a drag than her. Of course setting bombs is nervous work and a quick ciggy always calms his nerves…

The frustration is too much and Fee returns to her job but the SDF’s explosive campaign doesn’t end. Their latest scheme is the creation of deadly Kessler Syndrome wave (a blast or impact which changes the trajectories of free-floating orbital scrap and debris, making even more debris/shrapnel and aiming it like a hard rain of lethal micro-missiles)…

With a commandeered satellite directed inexorably at a space station, the terrorists intend to detonate their captured vehicle and shred the habitat – which coincidentally carries the last smokes in space – shooting it out of the sky and creating a lethal chain reaction making high-orbit space forever un-navigable…

Unsure of her own motives Fee uses the DS-12 to suicidally shove the stolen projectile away from the station and into Earth’s atmosphere…

In ‘Scenery for a Rocket’, as Fee recuperates in Florida, Hachimaki brings Yuri to visit Japan and falls back into a violent and historic sibling rivalry with baby brother Kyutaro, a rocketry prodigy even more determined to conquer space than his surly fanatical brother or their absentee astronaut father Goro

Happily the Russian’s calming influence begins to repair fences between the warring Hoshino boys, but not before a series of explosive confrontations lead to Yuri finally passing on his beloved wife’s compass…

This first passionately philosophical and sentimentally suspenseful chronicle concludes with ‘Ignition’ as Fee, Yuri and Hachimaki reunite in time for the junior junkman to suffer an almost career-ending psychological injury. Although utterly unharmed by a rogue solar flare, the lad was completely isolated in the void for so long that he developed post-traumatic “Deep-Space Disorder”.

If he could not shake off the debilitating hallucinatory condition his life in space was over. Nothing the experts of the Astronaut Training Center did seemed to work, but fortunately Yuri knew just what prodding could awaken the wide-eyed, Wild Black Wonder in his feisty little comrade…

Tense, sensitive and moodily inspirational, these tales readily reinvigorate and reinvent the magical allure of the cold heavens for newer generations and this authentic, hard-edged and wittily rational saga is a treat no hard-headed dreamer with head firmly in the clouds can afford to miss…

This book – which also includes prose biographies of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert H. Goddard, Herman Julius Oberth & Werhner von Braun in ‘A Brief History of Modern Rocket Science’ – are printed in the traditional Japanese right to left, back to front format.
© 2001 Makoto Yukimura. All rights reserved. English text © 2003 TOKYOPOP Inc.

Philosophy – A Discovery in Comics


By Margreet de Heer with Yiri T. Kohl (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-698-3

There’s no use denying it: Annual Gift-Giving Season isn‘t far off and it’s never too early to think of the ideal item for that troublesome family/friend unit. So here’s something that might fit the bill for any argumentative soul fed up with socks, pants and pen-sets…  

It has long been a truism of the creative arts that the most effective, efficient and economical method of instruction and informational training has been the comic strip.

Advertising mavens have for over a century exploited the easy impact of words wedded to evocative pictures, and public information materials frequently use sequential narrative to get hard messages over quickly and simply. Additionally, since World War II, carefully crafted strips have been constantly used as training materials in every aspect of adult life from school careers advice to various branches of military service – utilising the talents of comics giants as varied as Milton Caniff, Will Eisner (who spent decades producing reams of comic manuals for the US army and other government departments), Kurt Schaffenberger and Neil Adams.

These days the educational value and merit of comics is a given. Larry Gonick in particular has been using the strip medium to stuff learning and entertainment in equal amounts into the weary brains of jaded students with such tomes as The Cartoon History of the Universe, The Cartoon History of the United States and The Cartoon Guide to… series (Genetics, Sex, Computers, Non-Communication, Physics, Statistics, the Environment and more).

Japan uses a huge number of manga text books in its schools and universities and has even released government reports and business prospectuses as comic books to get around the public’s apathy towards reading large dreary volumes of public information.

So do we, and so do the Americans.

I’ve even produced one or two myself.

Now the medium has been used to sublimely and elegantly tackle the greatest and most all-consuming preoccupation and creation of the mind of Man…

Margreet de Heer was born in 1972 into a family of theologians and despite some rebellious teen forays to the wild side of life – fascinatingly covered in the ‘Know My Self’ section of this fabulous graphic primer – studied Theology for 9 years at the University of Amsterdam. After graduating in 1999 she decided to become a cartoonist – and did – but also worked at the wonderful comics and cool stuff emporium/cultural icon Lambiek in Amsterdam.

Whilst there she collaborated with industry expert Kees Kousemaker on a history of Dutch comics before becoming a full-time professional in 2005, with commissions in publications as varied as Yes, Zij aan Zij, Viva Mama, Flo’, Jippo, Farfelu and NRC.Next.

In 2007 she began a series of cartoon philosophical reports for the newspaper Trouw, which prompted a perspicacious publisher to commission a complete book on this most ancient of topics. Filosofie in Beeld was released in 2010 and translated into English by NBM this year as Philosophy – a Discovery in Comics.

This gloriously accessible tome, crafted by a gifted writer with a master’s grasp of her subject, opens with the core concept ‘What is Thinking?’ examining the processes of mind through a number of elegantly crafted examples before moving onto ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’

Those paradigms of ‘Self-Awareness’, ‘Logical Thinking’, ‘Language’, ‘Symbols’, ‘Abstract Thinking’ and ‘Humor’ are captivatingly covered before the history and cognitive high points of civilisation are disclosed with ‘The Foundation of Western Philosophy’.

This potted history of ‘Dualism’ relates the life stories, conceptual legacies and achievements of ‘Socrates’ and the ‘Socratic Discourse’, his star pupil ‘Plato’ and the universal man ‘Aristotle’, all winningly balanced with a balancing sidebar autobiography in ‘Know My Self’ plus some cogent observations and a few comparisons with the Eastern philosophy of ‘Unity’

‘Medieval Philosophy’ deals with the influence of the Christian Church on ‘Augustine’ and ‘Thomas Aquinas’, the “Great Thinkers” of early Europe, examining the warring concepts of ‘Free Will’ and ‘Predestination’ and exploring the lives of ‘Erasmus’ and ‘Humanism’, ‘Descartes’ and his maxim ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’ and ‘Spinoza’ whose consummate faith-based dictum was ‘Know Thyself’

The charming, beguiling foundation course continues with ‘What is Reality?’ bringing us up to the modern age with ‘And Now’ with another brilliantly clever diversion as de Heer includes the ‘Personal Philosophies’ of families and friends.

Her husband – and this book’s colourist – Yiri bases his outlook on the incredible life of outrageous comedian ‘George Carlin’, her aged friend Gerrit looks to ‘Nietzsche’, mother-in-law Yolanda modelled herself on Cambridge lecturer and intellectual ‘George Steiner’ whilst De Heer’s little brother Maarten prefers to shop around picking up what he needs from thinkers as varied as ‘Aldous Huxley’ to cartoonist ‘Marten Toonder’ as well as bravely putting her money where her mouth is and revealing her own thoughts on Life, the Universe and Everything and asking again ‘What Do You Think?’

This is a truly sharp and witty book – and the first of a trilogy that will also deal with Religion and Science – which splendidly reduces centuries of contentious pondering, violent discussion and high-altitude academic acrimony to an enthralling, utterly accessible experience any smart kid or keen elder would be happy to experience. Clear, concise, appropriately challenging and informatively funny Philosophy – A Discovery in Comics is a wonder of unpretentious, exuberant graphic craft and a timeless book we can all enjoy.

© @2010 Uitgeverij Meinema, Zoetermeer, TheNetherlands. English translation © 2012 Margreet de Heer & Yiri T. Kohl.

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for anybody with a brain or heart… 9/10

Eagle Strike: the Graphic Novel – an Alex Rider Adventure


By Anthony Horowitz, adapted by Antony Johnston, Kanako & Yuzuru (Walker Books)
ISBN: 978-1-4063-1877-7

One of the most thrilling and effective additions to Britain’s literary spies and detectives in recent years is not a hard-hearted and suavely mature super-agent but a troubled yet ultimately indomitable English teenager as concerned with revision, sports fixtures and girls as subversion, world domination and honey traps.

Our popular literary heritage is littered with cunning sleuths and stealthy investigators from Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake, Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey to the Scarlet Pimpernel, George Smiley, Harry Palmer and BondJames Bond – but the ongoing adventures of underaged operative Alex Rider seem set fair to top them all in time.

Subsequently transformed into graphic novel interpretations, the first three adventures – reformatted in larger more art-friendly editions, repackaged and re-released, have recently been supplemented by the game-changing fourth tale, adapted as usual by Antony Johnston and sisters Kanako Damerum & Yuzuru Takasaki.

In 2000 author and TV screenwriter Anthony Horowitz produced Stormbreaker, the first of nine (and counting…) rip-snorting teen novels featuring 14-year old orphan Alex Rider: a smart, fit, sports-mad lad like any other, who suddenly discovers that his guardian Uncle Ian has also mysteriously died. Moreover the enigmatic but attentive deceased elder gentleman was apparently a spy of some distinction and had been surreptitiously teaching the lad all the skills, techniques and disciplines needed to become a secret agent…

Soon MI6 were knocking on his door…

As well as a major motion picture and video game, the books (the first four so far) have also been adapted to the comics medium; their easy blend of action, invention, youthful rebellion and overwhelmingly engaging 007 pastiche winning many fans in the traditionally perilous older-boys book market. They’re well worth further investigation…

His occasional paymasters at MI6 are always looking for ways to exploit his obvious talents but Alex, although highly skilled and naturally gifted, is at best a reluctant agent, preferring a normal life to the clandestine machinations of espionage.

Sadly trouble and duty seem unable to ignore him and whilst holidaying in France with schoolgirl friend and confidante Sabina Pleasure and her family, Alex spots Russian assassin Yassen Gregorovitch – the man who killed his Uncle Ian – and trails him.

The surveillance leads to a crowded café and an overheard suspicious phone call before reason prevails and Alex decides to leave it alone. After all, his experiences have shown that all spies are as bad as each other and he should have nothing to do with any of them.

However when he and Sabina return to Edward Pleasure’s holiday villa they find police, fire-crews, ambulances and a smouldering ruin. The place had inexplicably blown up with Sabina’s dad inside and almost caught Mrs Pleasure too…

Horrified, Alex concludes that the tragedy was all his fault. If only he had acted when he had the chance…

Unable to convince the French authorities that it was no accident, young Rider goes hunting for Gregorovitch and ambushes the assassin, determined to kill him with his own gun…

Unable to carry out his threat, Alex learns from the unexpectedly forthcoming mercenary that although the explosion was the killer’s work the boy spy was not the target…

When the Russian’s ally returns the boy is trapped, but rather than simply shoot him, Yassen gives Alex a chance of survival by making him the star in a bullfight. After initial shock Rider easily escapes the ordeal and heads towards the nearest port and England, but stops to ring a phone number he found in Gregorovitch’s possession. It is the direct line to Sir Damian Cray – beloved pop star, evergreen environmentalist and globally revered humanitarian. How can such a modern-day saint be connected to the world’s deadliest killer-for-hire?

Reaching Londonwithout incident, Alex begins researching the seemingly ageless musician. He also has a big fight with the newly returned Sabina (who can’t believe that her journalist father’s investigation of the star resulted in the explosion the French authorities claim was a gas leak) and turns to MI6 with his suspicions, but even they think he’s crazy and his manipulative sometime-boss Mr. Blunt sternly warns him off.

Utterly convinced he is right Alex storms out, unaware that Blunt is far more concerned that the boy might discover an unsuspected family connection to Yassen Gregorovitch…

Rider is determined to investigate Gray no matter what, but his disgust with adults in general and spies in particular is slightly tempered when the ingenious MI6 quartermaster Mr. Smithers surreptitiously sends him a tricked up pedal bike with a selection of useful technical “upgrades” and a bulletproof cycle-jersey…

Cray, a thinly veiled amalgam of Michael Jackson and Sir Cliff Richard, has his sublimely-manicured billionaire’s fingers in many pies and Alex tracks him down to an all-star Londonlaunch for the pop icon’s new Gameslayer computer console. Aided only by his housekeeper and former babysitter Jack Starbright, Alex infiltrates the launch party and is singled out by Cray to demonstrate the fully-immersive computer game in front of hundreds of journalists. When Alex begins to dominate the game Cray cheats and confirms beyond doubt that the musical saint not as benevolent as he seems…

A day later Alex and Miss Starbright are in Paris, tracking down the photographer who first put Sabina’s father onto Cray, but no sooner do they make contact with the terrified and apparently paranoid Marc Antonio than a heavily armed hit-squad raids the building.

Narrowly avoiding the killers after a harrowing rooftop pursuit, Alex ponders the snippets of information Antonio shared: Edward Pleasure was actually investigating Charlie Roper, a suspected NSA traitor possibly selling American secrets. However, when the reporters filmed the agent accepting a pay-off, it was neither North Korean nor Chinese officials but the world’s most famous pop star doling out the cash…

Soon, suspicious accidents and burglaries began and when Marc almost died from a bomb in his car he realised the awful truth…

Not knowing if the photo-journalist survived the latest attack, Alex heads acrossEuropeto the Dutch factory where Cray Software Technologies is building Gameslayer units and infiltrates the outrageously over-fortified facility in time to overhear Roper in conversation with Cray himself about a project Dubbed “Eagle Strike”…

The formerUSagent has just delivered a flash-drive which holds the most important and diligently guarded security codes inAmerica, but completely misjudged the moneyed musician’s playfully psychotic ruthlessness…

Reeling in shock at the horrific murder he’s just witnessed, Alex is then captured by Cray’s men and brought before the gloating popinjay. Obviously insane, the baroque megalomaniac overrules Yassen’s surprising objections and sentences the boy to death by forcing him to play in the life-sized, real-world mock-up of the Gameslayer scenario…

Overcoming fantastic threats and obstacles, Alex ultimately triumphs and escapes the game world. He then steals the flash-drive and spectacularly eludes an army of motorised, gun-toting pursuers before fleeing back toBritain, but the infuriated Cray has anticipated his further interference by kidnapping Sabina as she visits her father in hospital…

Cray demands that Rider bring the purloined codes to his Wiltshire mansion where he boastfully reveals his master-plan…

Damian Cray is a true philanthropist who loves the world and its many peoples. From his elevated, gifted position he has seen that drugs are the greatest threat to global harmony and has devised a simple plan to fix the problem. With the nuclear launch codes of the American President (a great personal friend) and the Presidential Jet he plans to steal, Cray will launch twenty five nuclear missiles at all the planet’s poppy fields and eradicate the problem forever…

And he gets far too close to complete success before Alex finally stops the manic maestro in a staggering, blockbuster sequence that would do any super-spy proud, but not before getting shot himself and discovering the awful truth about Gregorovitch and his own dead father…

In the weary aftermath of near-Armageddon, the swiftly-maturing Alex also has to come to terms with losing Sabina and keeping some secrets that even MI5 shouldn’t know…

This is another immensely intoxicating and hugely entertaining romp, hitting all the thrill-buttons for an ideal summer blockbuster, even though it’s told – and very convincingly – from the viewpoint of an uncertain boy rather than a suave, sophisticated adult.

This adaptation is sharp and poignant, depicting the unsure transition from boy to young man amidst situations of breathtaking danger and nerve-tingling excitement. The bold, do-or-die flair of the young hero is perfectly captured by the art of sisters Kanako & Yuzuru in their full-colour, computer-rendered manga style, happily handling the softer moments as well as the spectacular action set-pieces and spine-tingling interpersonal dramatic confrontations.

Be warned, however: even though this is a notionally a kid’s book there is a lot of realistic action and a big body-count so if you intend sharing the book with younger children, read it yourself first.

These books and their comic counterparts are a fine addition to our fiction tradition. Alex Rider will return… and so should you.
Text and illustrations © 2012 Walker Books Ltd. Based on the original novel Eagle Strike © 2002 Anthony Horowitz. All rights reserved.

NYX: Wannabe


By Joe Quesada, Josh Middleton, Robert Teranishi, Nelson & Chris Sotomayor (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1243-3

Not all Mutants in the Marvel Universe are found and mentored by heroes, villain or the ever-vigilant Federal Government. Some are just left to fend for themselves in a harsh and unforgiving world. That was the premise of an edgy but ill-starred seven issue X-Men spin-off created by scripter Joe Quesada and artists Josh Middleton & Robert Teranishi between 2003 and 2005: a much delayed and deadline-doomed saga which also introduced Wolverine’s “daughter” X-23 (originally an animation character) to the comic book continuity as part of a pack of homeless runaway mutant teenagers.

NYX: (New York: district X) Wannabe follows the troubled life of Kiden Nixon, who we first see as an innocent ordinary toddler witnessing her adored cop father gunned down in the streets. A decade later she is a very troubled bad-girl constantly battling her mom, her skeevy ratbag younger brother and everybody else; perpetually in trouble at school and just not giving a damn.

When she gets into a faceoff with juvenile gangbanger Hector Morales the violence and potential tragedy is only averted by teacher Cameron Palmer, who is pitifully unaware of how deep the animosities run…

When Hector attacks Kiden’s only friend Kara, the emotionally troubled but fiercely protective Nixon girl lashes out and an unsuspected power kicks in for the first time, leaving Morales with a shattered arm and Kiden horrified at what she might be…

If Cameron is baffled and traumatized by the bewildering event, Kiden is on the edge of reason and her positively toxic home environment doesn’t help. Waiting for the disciplinary hammer to fall at school and living in the middle of a frustrating and exasperating war between her male siblings and mother almost proves too much for the girl, but there’s worse waiting at Rudolph Giuliani High where the humiliated Hector has smuggled a gun past the metal detectors…

When he shoots at her, Kiden’s time-freezing power spontaneously activates again and she easily disarms the static would-be killer. However when the world moves again she finds that Miss Palmer has been hit by the bullet she had so easily avoided…

Kiden vanished for good that day, and six months later her tormented teacher has gone to pieces. The shock and trauma proving just too much, one typical day Cameron Palmer takes all her meds at once, slits her wrists in the bathtub and lets go of it all, only to be fortuitously found by Kiden Nixon, back from a chronological walkabout that has taken a little while, six months or many years, depending on your perspective…

As Kiden waits by Cameron’s hospital bedside, fending off the cops’ questions with practised maturity, across town a nigh-autistic child-hooker greets an old client with very specialised tastes. This john doesn’t want simple sex from Zebra Daddy’s star turn, he just wants to be cut; deep and hard and often…

Daddy is the nastiest pimp in the Flatiron district and his clients and contacts are very powerful…

Kiden is avoiding her family and stays with Cameron after her discharge, but cannot get her to accept that her former pupil is a mutant, nor that her being shot was the student’s fault. Still despondent, Palmer threatens to call Child Protective Services unless Kiden goes home…

Nixon has another secret: for ages she has been receiving guidance and messages from the bloody ghost of her dead father, and that night he directs her to a sleazy hotel in the nastiest part of town. Following, Cameron finds Kiden in a room with a bleeding corpse, and an underage girl covered in blood and with claws projecting from the backs of her hands…

In the Bronxhardworking young Tatiana Caban uncomplainingly mixes her part-time jobs with schoolwork, but finds her greatest joy in caring for the veritable colony of stray animals she has gathered in the derelict ruins of the Borough. Meanwhile Cameron, the rescued cutter girl and Kiden sit in a Diner. The teacher is at last listening to her lost former student as the refugee girl describes her runaway months: when she learned how to use her powers, stopping and starting her personal time-line. Despite the obvious pitfalls it wasn’t all bad: avoiding cops, brutes and rapists eventually turned into living wild and free with fellow homeless kids and even finding first love…

Eventually she returned home only to have her brother chase her away without ever seeing their mother or the new family she was marrying into. Sleeping in an ally that night her murdered father came to her and told Kiden to go to her teacher’s apartment…

Tatiana’s home life is no picnic either with her mother preferring the company of bad men to caring for her own kids, but nothing like as bad as the story the hooker – “Jade” -tells Kiden and Cameron about how her latest trick really died. …and then dead Dad appeared again…

With issue #5 of the sporadically released and permanently deadline-missed series, artist Robert Teranishi and inkers Nelson & Chris Sotomayor replaced Josh Middleton, just as a flashback revealed how psychotic pimp Zebra Daddy took the news that a major repeat customer was dead and his best money-maker was in the wind with a couple of stray girls…

In Cameron’s flat, the ghost – who only Kiden can see – is telling her to get out now and only moment’s later Daddy and his crew bursts in, all guns blazing…

Next morning Tatiana’s life changes forever as her mutant power triggers at school. Tragically that “gift” is to become an anthropomorphic form of any animal whose blood she touches – such as that wounded puppy she picked up on the way to class…

Her spectacular public transformation into a dog-faced girl sparks an anti-mutant riot in school and the terrified teen is hounded down Main Street by a crazed mob, until she runs straight into the hiding Kiden and her fugitive friends.

Zebra Daddy is going ballistic. Until the girls are safely disposed of, his business is a liability and potential death sentence, but none of his gang can find Jade or her friends. Lucky for him he knows someone who can help…

Bobby Soul is a mutant too, a guy who can project his consciousness into others and possess them. As “Felon”, Bobby was a real asset to Daddy’s business but these days the guy was retired, spending his time looking after his severely mentally challenged and mute little brother. Nonetheless, Bobby could be persuaded to do a favour for an old comrade, especially as the money was so useful and his ex-boss promised nobody was going to get hurt…

Of course Daddy is unaware of the downside of Felon’s gift: all that time spent in other people’s heads meant that Bobby’s own memories were slowly eroding…

Events cascade to a bloody climax once Bobby’s powers ferret out the runaway girls and he passes on the information to ZD. However with his mission accomplished Bobby returns to his radically-impaired dependent and is horrified to see the blood-spattered ghost of a policeman hovering above the somnolent “Lil’ Bro”…

With the dead white guy giving advice and instructions, Bobby realises how he’s been fooling himself and the errors of his solitary ways before setting off to make amends, well aware of what Zebra Daddy and his goons are really intending to do…

Of course nobody can conceive of what Kiden, Jade and “Catiana” are capable of either…

Dark, harsh and pitilessly gritty this troubled tale of truly troubled teens effectively delves beneath the sordid underbelly of the urban cityscape to deliver a suspenseful, mature blend of mutant mayhem and hard-hitting social drama that will appal some Fights ‘n’ Tights fans but hopefully appeal to readers looking for an edge of tawdry realism in the fantasy fiction.

This collection also includes an exhaustive sketchbook section by Middleton, an examination of the cover creation process, an unused finished cover and extensive pencil art pages to enthral those with a need to know and a desire to make their own graphic epics one day.
© 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 Marvel Characters Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Brain Camp


By Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan & Faith Erin Hicks, coloured by Hilary Sycamore & Sky Blue Ink (First Second)
ISBN: 978-1-59643-366-3

When I was a kid comics were cheap, plentiful and published in cognitive strands: Pre-school stuff read to you, kindergarten magazines read with someone, “Juvenile” stories for boys and girls together and “Post-juvenile” material you bought for yourself, generally divided by both genre and gender (although that’s not a consequence of old fashioned parochial prejudice these days, but more a sales-sensitive concern when getting simply boys to read anything at all is a tricky problem…).

Irrespective of quality, quantity or historical significance, that long-gone wealth and riot of affordable personal and private entertainment taught kids of all ages how to absorb and enjoy illustrated narratives, but although I can still lay claim to premature juvenility most days, in latter times the sheer cost of producing comics items have all but killed the market. If younger kids read printed comics at all these days it’s almost certainly as graphic novels.

So it’s a good thing that there are so many good ones around and – just like the good old days – separated into bands for kids of differing ages, temperaments, interests and cognitive abilities.

A sterling case in point is this moody, paranoiac fantasy chiller by writers Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan (more usually known as kids’ TV scripter and novelist as well as playwrights), beguilingly interpreted by cartoonist and pictorial tale-teller Faith Erin Hicks, which compellingly addresses children’s issues of parental pressure, self-worth and achievement whilst relating a rollicking rollercoaster scary story…

In the deep woods two kids from a Summer Camp are undertaking an orienteering exercise when one of them is taken ill. One minute Clerkson is his usual obnoxious self and then he’s having a fit, choking, and coughing up feathers…

Soon after in New Jersey, Jenna Chun is still disappointing her go-getting doctor parents with her useless obsession about art, and over in Queens, New York, slacker Lucas Meyer is also a problem for his mother. Stealing cars, goofing off and generally wasting everybody’s time, he’s certainly destined for jail, just like his dad…

However things change radically when mysterious distinguished gentlemen turn up and offer both families a last-minute place for their problem children at Camp Fielding: America’s most successful educational institution for hot-housing failing kids and difficult “late bloomers”. Some all-expenses-paid places have suddenly become vacant, but if the parents want to guarantee that their problem children will grow into successful, contributing citizens one day they must start them the very next day…

Set in isolated woodlands the camp doesn’t seem that different from other Summer catch-up boarding schools but there are a few oddities. No electronic devices, cellphones or games, no outside food  – and the dorm rooms are filthy. There are no lessons or teaching, just activities you can join if you want to, regular time-trials to solve a giant maze in the middle of the compound and, strangest of all for a specialist educational centre, the kids seem to be the usual mix of morons, geeks and bullies, some of whom suddenly become brilliant…

Lucas quickly makes a friend in perennial victim Dwayne, but when the new kid meets fellow late-starter Jenna it’s a case of mutual hate at first sight…

That soon passes as Dwayne and a friendly girl named Sherry clue them in to the lay of the land; which kids to avoid, Cabins Three and Six where the genius boys and girls sleep, and the cafeteria with its nauseating beige and grey goo-food, bizarre nutritional regime and ice cream-based reward system.

Thanks to disgust, stubbornness, ill-grace, Jenna’s first period and Dwayne’s illicit stash of cash, the kids manage to survive without eating much of the goo, whilst their attention is frequently diverted by a range of odd events: strange lights and sounds in the woods, personality and intellect changes in some of the kids, odd lesions and growths on others, and Jenna even finds a strange featherless dead bird behind one of the cabins…

After a night in the woods (somehow nobody noticed she was missing), Jenna makes a map of the area and Lucas decides to use it to run away – at least as far as the nearest fast-food diner. Accompanied by Dwayne and Jenna they set off and discover a secret lab in the woods, where more kids are locked in. Their faces are grossly malformed and they are spitting out feathers. One of them is the presumed flunked-out-and-sent-home Sherry…

Caught and hauled up before Director Fielding, the kids play dumb and are talked out of quitting camp and further disappointing their parents. But whilst eating Pizzas stolen from theCampCounsellors’ regular takeaway deliveries, the trio compare notes and theories, theorising that Fielding is covering up a disease outbreak in hisCampCash-cow.

The boys organise the other kids in their hut to attempt a mass breakout, but in Jenna’s cabin it’s too late: all the other girls have become smart and snarky, cackling at her like crows…

That night Lucas wakes from a disturbing dream about Jenna, and whilst cleaning his shorts in the sink spies two of the counsellors secretly injecting all the sleeping boys with a mystery drug. Next morning before he can tell anyone he realises how much smarter they have all become after the regular maze-run – even Dwayne…

Terrified and using his old bad-boy skills, Lucas hotwires a car and drives off with Jenna but they are quickly caught and returned, just in time for Parents’ Day. Again their punishment is negligible and, after stuffing themselves on the event’s catered food, the pair confront Fielding who surprisingly admits that they were right…

There is a medical emergency amongst the children and unless they also take the vaccine which the staff have been secretly dosing their classmates with, Jenna and Lucas could die horribly, just like Sherry…

Moreover, a side-effect of the necessary drug will increase their intelligence…

Complying with the inevitable Jenna and Lucas take their medicine, and with their intellects rapidly expanding, the still-suspicious kids spy on Fielding and his crew, only to discover the terrible truth: the Director is in league with extraterrestrials, using dumb kids as hosts for alien avian spawn!

Even worse, the conspiracy reaches high up into government and the exploited children’s ambitious parents were in on it from the start…

Something is different however: even with the embryos growing in their heads Lucas and Jenna are still resisting the change-over, still basically themselves, and with time running out, their intelligence increasing every minute and their feelings for each other growing too, they hatch a desperate last-minute plan to destroy the infestation and save all the implanted kids, even if their parents won’t…

Dark, seditious and creepily effective, this is a thriller with a bark and a bite that will satisfy the most demanding teen reader or aged savant, rendered in a loose and beguiling manner that easily combines innocent charm with clinical precision.
Text © 2010 Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan. Illustrations © 2010 FaithErinHicks. All rights reserved.

Point Blanc: the Graphic Novel – an Alex Rider Adventure


By Anthony Horowitz, adapted by Antony Johnston, Kanako Damerum & Yuzuru Takasaki (Walker Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84428-112-1

If Americais the spiritual home of the superhero, Britainis Great because of our fictional heritage of super spies and consulting detectives. Our mainstream literary life is littered with cunning sleuths and stealthy investigators from Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake, Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey to the Scarlet Pimpernel, George Smiley and Harry Palmer. And BondJames Bond

In 2000 Anthony Horowitz produced Stormbreaker, the first of nine (and counting…) rip-snorting teen novels featuring orphan Alex Rider: a smart, fit, sports-mad lad like any other, who tragically discovers that his guardian Uncle Ian has suddenly been killed. Moreover the deceased gentleman was apparently a spy of some distinction and had been surreptitiously teaching the lad all the skills, techniques and disciplines needed to become a secret agent…

Soon MI6 were knocking on his door and he was inextricably embroiled in a fantastic plot with only his wits and courage keeping him alive against fantastic odds and vicious villains…

As well as a major motion picture and video game, some of the books have also been adapted to the comics medium; their easy blend of action, youthful rebellion and overwhelmingly comfortable 007-style pastiche winning many fans in the traditionally perilous older-boys book market. They’re really rather good…

This particular graphic novel – the second cataclysmic case for the British Agent too young to drink martinis, whether shaken or stirred – comes to you simply because it was hanging about in the graphic novel section of my local library and caught my attention. Besides, I never have enough to read (that last bit is sarcasm…).

Despite his potentially fabulous, intoxicating, adrenaline-fuelled lifestyle, all Alex wants is a normal life but his lifelong conditioning and utterly heroic nature make all that an impossibility.

This gripping thriller for older kids opens with a shocking death at New York conglomerate Roscoe Electronics, just as in London, far-from-average student Alex determines to end the predations of a couple of drug pushers targeting his classmates at the Brookland School

The boy’s solution is, as always, unconventional but highly effective, forever ending the dealers’ insidious threat with no lives lost, but unfortunately causing millions of pounds of collateral damage and publicly humiliating the Home Secretary.

It does however bring the lad into police custody and leave him at the tender mercies of blackmailing MI6 spymaster Mr. Blunt, who just happens to specifically need a trained teenager for a perilous new assignment…

It transpires that two of the world’s most influential and wealthy men have recently died in mysterious circumstances. One was Blunt’s old college friend Michael Roscoe and the other ex-KGB Kingmaker Viktor Ivanov – the second most powerful man in post-Cold War Russia. The only thing they have in common is “difficult” sons with a history of crime and troublemaking who both settled down after attending the French Alpine boarding school Point Blanc Academy

Ever-reluctant to get involved with people he doesn’t trust, Alex only acquiesces after Blunt threatens to revoke the visa of Rider’s housekeeper and Guardian Miss Starbright

The school is something of a legend among the rich and powerful. Run by an enigmatic albino named Hugo Grief, the establishment – a converted castle atop a mountain – has an incredible reputation for turning around spoiled rich boys with discipline problems and making them into solid citizens their fathers can be proud of…

However, when Roscoe’s son Paul came home for a holiday, the father felt something was amiss. Calling his old friend inLondon, the senior Roscoe fell down an elevator shaft before he could share his misgivings…

Coincidentally, Ivanov’s son Dimitry, also on holiday, was the only survivor when his father’s yacht mysteriously blew up in theBlack Sea…

Up against a wall as usual, Rider agrees to go undercover at the Finishing School/Boot Camp and becomes wild-child brat Alex Friend, incorrigible scion of an aristocratic retail magnate dispatched to Grief’s tender mercies by a long-suffering billionaire parent with the ear of Prime Ministers and royalty…

Kitted out with a few handy gadgets courtesy of the ingenious quartermaster Mr. Smithers, Alex is soon collected by the formidable Mrs. Stellenbosch and hurtling by private helicopter to Paris, for one last night of relative freedom. However, Grief’s incredible Gemini Project has already been put into operation and Alex is drugged and subjected to a barrage of covert tests and measurements…

The next day he checks into the austere institution and meets fellow 14-year old reprobate James Sprintz, chief disappointment of Germany’s richest banker…

Oddly for such a disciplinarian place, there seem to be few rules and no scheduled lessons. Stranger still is the fact that the entire student body only consists of seven 14-year old sons of rich and influential men, and all the boys are of approximately the same weight, height and skin colour…

Even with security cameras everywhere and armed guards constantly watching, within a week Alex uncovers the bare bones of an incredible scheme: a plot to somehow make the kids slaves of the sinister headmaster. However Rider/Friend has no idea of the actual scope of the plot or how truly insane and dangerous Grief is until he finds hidden dungeons and sees a plastic surgeon callously murdered.

Finding photos and measurements of himself taken whilst unconscious in Paris, Alex realises the idea involves replacing the heirs of the world’s most influential people and presses his concealed panic button for immediate rescue, but Blunt arbitrarily decides to hold off, preferring to see what else will happen…

Abandoned and left to his own resources, Alex attempts to free the real students but is captured, after which Grief reveals his true ambition. The replacements are not actors or doctored doubles, but 16 actual clones of the insane biochemist, surgically altered to look like the wild boys and imbued with the all aging albino’s memories, aspirations and ambitions….

Now miraculously stable these good sons will return to their homes and welcoming parents, patiently awaiting the day when they will inherit the planet…

In fact eight finished Point Blanc graduates are already in situ, just waiting for the right moment…

With no one to rely on, Alex busts out in spectacular fashion and is chased through the Alps to his death – or at least that’s what Grief and Stellenbosch are told – whilst Rider leads a crack team of SAS troops on a mission to rescue the fifteen boys still held in the mastermind’s dungeon…

The raid culminates in a brutal firefight, the deaths of the biochemist and his savage major domo and the rounding up and incarceration of Grief’s 15 deadly doppelgangers, so with the job done and Miss Starbright safe from deportation, Alex returns to Brookland and a salutary, surprise lesson in the value of simple arithmetic…

This is an another supremely scintillating adventure-romp; hitting all the thrill-buttons for an ideal summer blockbuster, even though it’s told – and very convincingly – from the viewpoint of an surly, uncertain boy rather than a suave, sophisticated adult. Johnson’s adaptation is slick and sharp whilst the art by sisters Kanako & Yuzuru is in a full-colour, computer-rendered manga style which might not please everybody but certainly works exceedingly well in capturing the tension, rollercoaster pace and spectacular action set-pieces.

Be warned however, even though this is a kid’s book there is a substantial amount of fighting and a big bodycount, and the violence is not at all cartoony in context. If you intend sharing the story with younger children, best read it yourself first.

These books and their comic counterparts are a fine addition to our splendid fiction tradition and Alex Rider will return over and again… so why don’t you join him?
Text and illustrations © 2007 Walker Books Ltd. Based on the original novel Point Blanc © 2001 Anthony Horowitz. All rights reserved.

Bad Girls


By Steve Vance, Jennifer Graves, Christine Norrie, J. Bone & Daniel Krall (DC comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2359-5

Ever since English-language comics “grew up” and proclaimed they weren’t “just for kids anymore” the industry and art form has struggled to produce material that would appeal to young consumers and a general teen readership.

And Girls. We’ve never been able to keep enough girls reading comics – or even talking to us, if I’m brutally honest…

Haunted by a terrifying suspicion that the core buyers were a specific hooked generation who aged with the passing years and would die out without renewing or replenishing the buying base, mainstream companies have, since the 1990’s, frantically sought ways to make the medium as attractive to new and youthful buyers and potential fans.

Fighting a losing battle on format – it’s always going to be sequential pictures, whether on a screen or in some kind of book or pamphlet, requiring a basic ability to read – and never able to combat the vibrant, bells-and-whistles immediacy of TV, DVDs, streamed video or games consoles, comic producers, apparently distrusting the basic innate strengths of our medium, could only repeatedly attempt to appeal to young consumers’ other sensibilities and interests.

Leaving aside the obvious – and ancient – failed tactic of making comicbook iterations out of their perceived rival entertainments, the only other way to entice newbies into our playground has been to widen the genre divides and offer fresh or imported ideas, stories and art styles that (like manga) might appeal to people who don’t normally think of comics as entertainment.

Sadly most of those – good, bad or indifferent – went unread anyway, because they were only advertised in comics and retailed through dedicated in comicbook stores – infamous as impenetrable girl-free zones…

One such delightful lost experiment was released by DC as a 5-part miniseries in 2003. Author Steve Vance’s best comics work is child-accessible, with long and intensely enjoyable runs on the animation-inspired Adventures in the DC Universe and Simpsons Comics (among others) and in this witty blend of high school comedy and science fiction conspiracy movie, he and artist co-creator Jennifer Graves had a huge amount of sly fun producing what could still be a perfect Teen Movie in the manner of Heathers, Bring It On, Mean Girls, John Tucker Must Die or even Teen Wolf.

As a comicbook, however, it just never found the wide audience it deserved, so kudos to DC for reviving it as a graphic collection in 2009. After all, it’s never too late …

Almost every American kid endures the savage crucible of organised education, and the youthful attendees of San Narciso High are a pretty typical bunch. Even in a brand new institution opening for its very first day, there are the faceless majority and nerds and jocks and the popular ones: all part of the mythically perennial melting pot.

… And then there’s Lauren Case, a forthright, sensible young lady who has changed schools many, many times.

In ‘Girl Power’ she starts off well-enough, safely lost in the crowd, but before the first morning is over, an acrobatic and painful encounter with science geek Ronald Bogley leads to a face off with the community’s ultra-spoiled princesses Tiffany, Brittany, Destinee and Ashley.

Ms Case suffers the hallowed punishment of a crushing snub from the haughty Mean Girls whilst the Jock Squad – ever eager to impress the de facto rulers of the roost – treat poor Ronald to the traditional watery going-over in the restrooms. However a dunking in the oddly purple toilet water results, for just a split second, in the nerd gaining the strength to smash walls in his bare hands. Alert to all sorts of possibilities, Ronald fills a drinking bottle with the lavender lavatory liquid for testing in his lab…

Later in science class Lauren is partnered with Ronald and inadvertently blows up the lab, but at least she makes friend out of quick-thinking Simone who puts out the resultant conflagration.

At the end of a very trying first day Lauren offers a hand of peace and guiltily patronising friendship to the bespectacled geek – who is utterly smitten with her – when the Princess Pack turns up, intrigued that the new girl’s propensity for mischief and mayhem might make her eligible for their condescending attention. She might even, with a lot of hard work, become one of them…

Knowing anything they want is theirs by divine right, the girls drink the strange purple juice Ronald left and invite Lauren to join them at a club that night…

With their departure Ronald comes out of hiding and shows her his science project; lab mice Snowie and Doodles who are demonstrating increased vitality after drinking the purple potion he “discovered”…

Hating herself, Lauren joins the Popular People at Club Trystero and strikes up a conversation with Simone, but quickly drops her when the anointed ones show up. Soon she is lost in the swirl of drink, music and attentive, fawning, testosterone-fuelled boys but gets a severe unreality check when the spoiled ones abruptly begin demonstrating super-powers (Brittany – shape-shifting, Destinee – invisibility, Tiffany – flight and Ashley – super-strength), trashing the place with sublime indifference and their usual casual disregard to consequences.

Knowing that the insanely entitled girls will be more vile and malicious than ever, she tells Ronald, who reveals that after closely observing his beloved mice, he’s discovered that the liquid only imparts permanent abilities to females.

He then suggests that Lauren become a superhero to battle Tiffany and her terrible tarts, but naturally she hotly rejects his insane suggestion. Realising only he can now stop the bad girls, Ronald rushes to the toilets for more of the purple water only to find a repair crew fixing the damage he caused and the water there is fresh, clear and very, very, normal…

In ‘Party Girls’ (illustrated by Christine Norrie & J. Bone) the Petty, Pretty Things are going firmly off the rails, with stealing test answers and framing others for indiscretions – just because they can – quickly graduating to raiding ATMs, purloining booze and shop-lifting.

Meanwhile Ronald accidentally stumbles upon the true source of the purple power juice and begins more testing, unaware that a Federal investigation team is covertly examining the damaged washroom and other odd occurrences in San Narciso…

At an unsanctioned party the girls go wild, at last realising that their incredible abilities can make them… celebrities!

In her egomaniacal smugness Tiffany causes one boy severe injury but when the police arriveBrittanyturns into a cop and “escorts” her sinister sisters out of custody…

Narrowly escaping arrest herself, Lauren awakes the next morning feeling awful and gradually realises that she can read minds…

With her new cacophonous and distracting ability it doesn’t take long to discover that Ronald has dosed her with the mystery fluid, but ‘Mindfield’ offers temptation beyond endurance, as her power – once she gets the hang of it – makes Lauren’s life so much easier. Still a probationary member of Tiffany’s clique, she also becomes privy to the terrified intimate thoughts of Destinee, Ashley and Brittany, and what they really feel about themselves and their self-obsessed leader. Aware of how close to the dark side she has drifted, Lauren confides everything to Simone. Meanwhile Agents Osgood and Buckner are keenly watching the Bad Girls’ every move and when Destinee is caught shoplifting again a frantic chase results in the invisible girl’s death…

‘Girl, Intercepted’ (art by Norrie & Daniel Krall) opens at the funeral with Destinee, Ashley and Tiffany far more concerned about how they’re dressed than the fate of their departed… associate… uncaring of the rumours now circulating. Lauren decides to use her power to surreptitiously help her school mates and teachers – although for some reason she cannot read science teacher Mr. Heisenberg’s mind – but Ronald has his own problems: Snowie and Doodles have broken free of their cage and escaped…

At least that’s what Heisenberg wants the geeky kid to believe…

Events come to an unbelievable head after the girls finally discover Lauren’s sneaky secret power and throw her out of a skyscraper, before going on one final petulant rampage. In a torrent of frantic revelation the agents’ true aims are exposed, the origin of the power-potion disclosed, Heisenberg’s schemes are uncovered and a few more astounding surprises unleashed in ‘All Bad Things Must Come to an End’: a thrilling and cynically satisfying conclusion that will delight fun-loving readers and viewers alike.

This fabulous engaging tome also includes the gallery of spiffy covers by Darwyn Cooke and a Sketches section of Jennifer Graves’ production designs.

By the Way: DC are currently offering a swathe of games-based adaptations specifically aimed at their more mature consumers whilst simultaneously winding down the Cartoon Network comics division which has always produced superb introductory strip material for those pre-school and very young readers who must surely be the industry’s best hope for a new generation of potential life-long fans.

I’m Just Saying…
© 2003 Steve Vance and Jennifer Graves. All Rights Reserved. Cover, text and compilation © 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer: The Secret of the Swordfish volume 1 – Ruthless Pursuit


By Edgar P. Jacobs translated by Clarence E. Holland (Blake and Mortimer Editions)
ISBN: 978-9-06737-002-8

Belgian Edgard Félix Pierre Jacobs (March 30th 1904 – February 20th 1987) is considered one of the founding fathers of the Continental comics industry. Although his output is relatively meagre compared to some of his contemporaries, the iconic series he worked on practically formed the backbone of the art-form in Europe, and his splendidly adroit yet roguish and thoroughly British adventurers Blake and Mortimer, created for the very first issue of Le Journal de Tintin in 1946, swiftly became an unmissable staple of post-war European kids’ life the way Dan Dare would in Britain in the 1950s.

Edgar P. Jacobs was born in Brussels, a precocious child who began feverishly drawing from an early age but was even more obsessed with music and the performing arts – especially opera.

He attended a commercial school but, determined never to work in an office, pursued art and drama following graduation in 1919. A succession of odd jobs at opera-houses – scene-painting, set decoration, working as an acting and singing extra – supplanted his private performance studies, and in 1929 Jacobs won an award from the Government for classical singing.

His proposed career as an opera singer was thwarted by the Great Depression, however, as the arts took a nosedive following the global stock market crash.

Picking up whatever dramatic work was going, including singing and performing, Jacobs switched to commercial illustration in 1940. Regular work came from the magazine Bravo; as well as illustrating short stories and novels he famously took over the syndicated Flash Gordon strip, after the occupying German authorities banned Alex Raymond’s quintessentially All-American Hero and the publishers desperately sought someone to satisfactorily complete the saga.

Jacob’s ‘Stormer Gordon’ lasted less than a month before being similarly embargoed by the Nazis, after which the man of many talents created his own epic science-fantasy feature in the legendary Le Rayon U, a milestone in both Belgian comics and science fiction adventure.

The U Ray’ was a huge hit in 1943 and scored big all over again a generation later when Jacobs reformatted the original “text-block and picture” material to incorporate speech balloons and ran the series again in the periodical Tintin with subsequent release as a trio of graphic albums in 1974.

I’ve read differing accounts of how Jacobs and Tintin creator Hergé got together – and why they parted ways professionally, if not socially – but as to the whys and wherefores of the split I frankly I don’t care. What is known is this: whilst creating the weekly U Ray, one of Jacob’s other jobs was scene-painting, and during the staging of a theatrical version of Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharaoh Hergé and Jacobs met and became friends. If the comics maestro was unaware of Jacob’s comic work before then he was certainly made aware of it soon after.

Thereafter, Jacobs began working on Tintin, colouring the original black and white strips of The Shooting Star from the newspaper Le Soir for an upcoming album collection. By 1944 he was performing a similar role for Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in America, King Ottokar’s Sceptre and The Blue Lotus. By now he was also contributing to the drawing too, working on the extended epic The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of the Sun.

Jacob’s love of opera made it into the feature as Hergé – who loathed the stuff – teasingly created the bombastic Bianca Castafiore as a comedy foil and based a number of bit players (such as Jacobini in The Calculus Affair) on his long-suffering assistant.

After the war and liberation publisher Raymond Leblanc convinced Hergé, Jacobs and a number of other comics creatives to work for his new venture. Launching publishing house Le Lombard, he also commissioned Le Journal de Tintin, an anthology comic with editions in Belgium, France and Holland edited by Herge, starring the intrepid boy reporter and a host of newer heroes.

Beside Hergé, Jacobs and writer Jacques van Melkebeke, the comic featured Paul Cuvelier’s ‘Corentin’ and Jacques Laudy’s ’The Legend of the Four Aymon Brothers’. Laudy had been a friend of Jacobs’ since they worked together on Bravo and the first instalment of the epic thriller serial ‘Le secret de l’Espadon’ starred a bluff, gruff British scientist and an English Military Intelligence officer (who was closely modelled on Laudy): Professor Philip Mortimer and Captain Francis Blake

The initial storyline ran from issue #1 – 26th September 1946-8th September 1949 – and cemented Jacobs’ status as a star in his own right. In 1950, with the first 18 pages slightly redrawn, The Secret of the Swordfish became Le Lombard’s first album release with the concluding part published three years later. These volumes were reprinted nine more times between 1955 and 1982 with an additional single complete edition released in 1964.

In 1984 the story was reformatted and repackaged as three volumes with additional material – mostly covers from the weekly Tintin – added to the story as splash pages, and the first of these forms the basis for the English language book under discussion today.

Hergé and Jacobs purportedly suffered a split in 1947 when the former refused to grant the latter a by-line on new Tintin material, but since the two remained friends for life and Jacob’s continued to produce Blake and Mortimer for the weekly comic, I think it’s fair to say that if such was the case it was a pretty minor spat. I rather suspect that The Secret of the Swordfish was simply taking up more and more of the brilliant, diligent artist’s time and attention…

The U Ray also provided early visual inspiration for Blake, Mortimer and implacable nemesis Colonel Olrik, who bear a more than passing resemblance to the heroic Lord Calder, Norlandian boffin Marduk and viperous villain Dagon from that still lauded masterwork…

Although all the subsequent sagas have been wonderfully retranslated and published by CineBook in recent years, this initial epic introductory adventure and its concluding two volumes remain frustratingly in the back-issue twilight zone, probably due to its embracing of the prevailing prejudices of the time.

By having the overarching enemies of mankind be a secret Asiatic “Yellow Peril” empire of evil, there’s some potential for offence – unless one actually reads the text and finds that the assumed racism is countered throughout by an equal amount of “good” ethnic people and “evil” white folk, so with no other version available I’m happily using the huge (312 x 232mm) 1986 iteration for this review.

All the subsequent tales by Jacobs and his successors have been successfully released by Cinebook and, although I’ll be reviewing them in due course, don’t wait for me but go out and get them all now!

Here and now, however, the incredible journey begins with ‘Ruthless Pursuit’ as a secret army in the Himalayas prepares to launch a global Blitzkrieg on a world only slowly recovering from its second planetary war. The wicked Basam-Damdu, Emperor of Tibet, has assembled an arsenal of technological super-weapons and the world’s worst rogues such as the insidious Colonel Olrik in a bid to seize control of the entire Earth.

However a bold British-Asian spy has infiltrated the hidden fortress and surrenders his life to get off a warning message…

In England, physicist and engineer Philip Mortimer and MI5 Captain Francis Blake discuss the worsening situation at an industrial installation where the boffin’s radical new aircraft engine is being constructed. When the warning comes that the war begins that night, the old friends swing into immediate action…

As the super-bombers rain destruction down on all the world’s cities, Mortimer’s dedicated team prepares his own prototype, the Golden Rocket, for immediate launch, taking off just as Olrik’s bombers appear over the desolate complex. Despite heavy fire the Rocket easily outdistances the rapacious Empire forces, leaving ruined homes behind them as they fly into a hostile world now brutally controlled by Basam-Damdu…

Whilst seeking to join British Middle East resistance forces who have another prototype super-plane, teething troubles and combat damage create tense moments in the fugitives’ flight. When the Rocket is attacked by a flight of jets the test ship’s superior firepower enables it to fight free but only at the cost of more structural deterioration. Failing now, the Rocket goes down in the rocky wilds between Iran and of Afghanistan. Parachuting free of the doomed Rocket, Blake, Mortimer and the crew are machined gunned by pursuing Empire jets and only three men make it to the ground safely…

After days of struggle Blake, Mortimer and the indomitable Jim are cornered by Iranian troops who have joined Olrik’s forces. Sensing disaster, the Britons hide the plans to Mortimer’s super plane but one of the Iranians sees the furtive act. When no one is looking – even his superiors – Lieutenant Ismail hurriedly scoops up the document but misses one…

Under lock and key and awaiting Olrik’s arrival, the prisoners are accosted by Ismail, who sees an opportunity for personal advancement which the Englishmen turn to their own advantage. Denouncing him to his superiors, Blake instigates a savage fight between Ismail and his Captain. During the brief struggle Jim sacrifices himself, allowing Blake and Mortimer to escape with the recovered plans. Stealing a lorry, the desperate duo drive out into the dark desert night…

Followed by tanks into the mountain passes, the ingenious pair trap their pursuers in a ravine just as hill partisans attack. The Empire collaborators are wiped out and, after exchanging information with the freedom fighters, the Englishmen take one of the captured vehicles and head to a distant rendezvous with the second Rocket, but lack of fuel forces them to stop at a supply dump where they are quickly discovered.

By setting the dump ablaze the heroes escape again, but in the desert Olrik has arrived and found the sheet of notes left behind by Ismail. The cunning villain is instantly aware of what it means…

Fighting off aerial assaults from Empire jets and streaking for the mountains, Blake and Mortimer abandon their tank and are forced to travel on foot until they reach the meeting point where a British-trained native Sergeant Ahmed Nasir is waiting for them. The loyal Indian served with Blake during the last war and is delighted to see him again, but as the trio make their way to the target site they become aware that Olrik has already found it and captured their last hope…

Only temporarily disheartened, the trio use commando tactics to infiltrate Olrik’s camp, stealing not the heavily guarded prototype but the villainous Colonel’s own Red-Wing super-jet. Back on course to the British resistance forces, the seemingly-cursed trio are promptly shot down by friendly fire: rebels perceiving the stolen plane as just another enemy target…

Surviving this crash too, the trio are ferried in relative safety by the apologetic tribesmen to the enemy-occupied town of Turbat, but whilst there a spy of the Empire-appointed Wazir recognises Blake and Mortimer. When Nasir realises they are in trouble he dashes to the rescue but is too late to prevent Mortimer from being drugged.

Sending the loyal Sergeant on ahead, Blake tries frantically to revive his comrade as a platoon of Empire soldiers rapidly mount the stairs to their exposed upper room…

To Be Continued…

Gripping and fantastic in the best tradition of pulp sci-fi and Boy’s Own Adventures, Blake and Mortimer are the very epitome of True Brit grit and determination, always delivering grand old-fashioned Blood and Thunder thrills and spills in timeless fashion and with staggering visual verve and dash. Despite the high body count and dated milieu, any kid able to suspend modern mores and cultural disbelief (call it an alternative earth history if you want) will experience the adventure of their lives… and so will their children.
© 1986 Editions Blake & Mortimer. All rights reserved.

Let’s Be Perverts Book 1-4



By Youjung Lee (NetComics)
ISBNs: 978-1-60009-124-7, 978-1-60009-125-4, 978-1-60009-126-1,978-1-60009-127-8

If you look closely there are definite tonal and thematic differences in South Korean and Japanese comics (known as manhwa and manga respectively) – at least in the relatively few series that get translated into English.

Take for instance this bizarrely intriguing twisted love story from Youjung Lee: one aimed at a slightly older and more questioning and discerning audience.

What kind of parents name their son “Perverto”?

Although we never really learn the answer to that question, this peculiarly coy sex-comedy does introduce a very naïve, horny and troubled lad saddled with that disastrous moniker and a huge dose of adolescent misfortune as well…

Inescapably dubbed “pervert” by his classmates, the poor 17-year old virgin is forced to transfer to a new school after his catastrophically public first romance ended in utter, shameful disaster.

Unfortunately on his very first day another transfer student – a pretty, strong and fiercely independent tomboy named Hongdan – is groped on the subway and poor Perverto is framed for the assault, even though what he actually did was try to stop the real culprit.

Unknown to Hongdan the assailant was the new maths teacher Mr. Pi – and the obsessed and cunning deviant is planning on continuing his creepy campaign against the girl at every opportunity…

Perverto knows the truth, but can prove nothing to the girl. Moreover he begins to develop a major crush on her but cannot act upon his feelings.

Despite their poor start, Perverto and Hongdan grow close. In fact the dopey, bewildered sap is completely smitten with her until she makes an unexpected effort to intensify their friendly relationship, and the confused boy, mindful of his last painful and humiliating experience with a girl, violently rebuffs her. He still loves her though…

Hongdan has her own secrets too. Her glorious young body is frequently marred by unexplained bruises and, most shockingly, she has an possessive ex-girlfriend, Gaheul, who just won’t accept that her inamorata has moved on and certainly won’t let a boy named Pervert have her…

Strangest of all, although Mr. Pi is lurking in the background, still targeting her for clandestine attacks in public places, she doesn’t seem that bothered by the constant assaults…

Perverto and Hongdan are not the only frustrated time-bombs at the school – which like all places where adolescents congregate, is a seething hotbed of boiling hormones. One sadistic teacher is far too keen on beating students, a host of girls seem to be coming to school with no pants on and a classmate of Perverto’s is planning on raping a girl who rejected him…

Perhaps the dejected lad is fooling himself and he really is a pervert after all…?

Things are coming to a head (don’t: it’s beneath you and me) and the devious Mr. Pi is beginning to crack under the pressure of his increasingly insistent compulsion to assault Hongdan and Perverto’s knowledge of his shamefully irresistible affliction…

Driven to distraction the corrupted educator confronts Hongdan and finds her strangely complacent – even actively willing. Getting into his car she hears Pi’s disturbing history and considers his startling offer…

Meanwhile, since he might as well be a sleaze-hound, Perverto joins two equally frustrated classmates in a binge of illicit pornography and, after desperately egging each other on, the sex-starved virgins proposition girls in an online chat-room, offering money for sex.

To their horror one of them, “tomboy”, accepts and sets up an assignation…

Embarrassed and terrified, the trio keep the appointment but, when his friends bottle out and lock themselves in the bathroom at the last moment, the apoplectic Perverto is left alone and shaking to open the door to a girl from his own school class…

As the story concludes with a whimper and not a bang, the lives of Perverto and Hongdan have changed forever, but in ways neither of them ever expected or wanted…

Targeting sophisticated older kids, this tale is beautifully illustrated but might contain a little too much soft-focus, genteel nudity for some readers, even though its extremely moral theme is an examination of temptation and perception.

Clever, thought-proving, complicated, always surprising and just a little bit scary, this is a compelling fantasy of love, desire and obsession, viewed through the lens of a truly different culture and social code; both extremely engaging and terrifically appealing. Even if you aren’t a fan of manga or the far edgier Korean manhwa equivalent, this enticing adult romance series might just open your jaded old eyes…
© 1996, 1997 Youjung Lee. All Rights Reserved. English text © 2006, 2007 NetComics.

Outsiders/Checkmate: Checkout

New expanded Review

By Greg Rucka, Judd Winick, Joe Bennett, Matthew Clark, Eddy Barrows, Ron Randall, Jack Jadson & Art Thibert (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-737-2

Finally exposed to a world which had believed them all dead and now also blamed for setting off a nuclear explosion which had devastated a large part of Russia, the underground metahuman coalition known as The Outsiders – “rogue” superheroes who proactively sought out threats and ignored political boundaries or repercussions – found themselves on the edge of oblivion as their series hurtled towards a blistering climax and a major reboot.

Set after and resulting from the earth-shaking events of 52, this slick, fast-paced thriller co-written by Greg Rucka & Judd Winick combined the daily devious duplicity of Checkmate (a covert UN agency tasked with overseeing superhuman activity) with the take-no prisoners-and-make-no-excuses crusade of the Outsiders for an epic of unrealpolitik and edgy, cynically grim-and-gritty nastiness…

Collecting a six-part crossover (Checkmate #13-15 and Outsiders #47-49, June-September 2007) it all began in ‘Checkout part 1’ illustrated by Joe Bennett & Jack Jadson, with off-the-grid fugitives Captain Boomerang, Katana, Metamorpho, Thunder and Grace attacked and subdued by Checkmate operatives. It didn’t go strictly to plan however and Nightwing soon turned the tables by invading the agency’s HQ and capturing Black Queen Sasha Bordeaux

Part two, with art by Matthew Clark & Art Thibert, saw him liberate his comrades and set about trashing the place until the Queen convinced the Outsiders to work with them on a mission far too dirty for their own rule-bound agents; namely invading Oolong Island, a rogue state peopled by criminal absconders and the mad scientists of many nations.

Checkmate wanted the deranged tinkerers stopped, but the new nation had hidden international allies and its proximity to China and North Korea made the situation a political powder-keg…

The Outsiders accepted the offer, but knew they were being played…

Illustrated by Bennett, Eddy Barrows & Jadson, the third chapter opens when a combined force which included Bordeaux, Count Vertigo, Fire, Thomas Jagger, Josephine “Mlle. Marie” Tautin and disembodied electronic intellect The Thinker infiltrated the fortress of evil, and Boomerang let slip that he’d worked with some of the agents before – on illegal, unsanctioned missions – compelling White Queen Amanda Waller to sabotage the mission and save herself from the censure of the Checkmate Royal Council…

Trapped on Oolong the squad desperately fought free of a bucket load of technological terrors and retreated, but Boomerang, Nightwing and Bordeaux were left behind after the Black Queen ordered her operatives to escape with crucial data and evidence that Waller was a traitor, in a blistering all-action chapter from artists Clark, Ron Randall & Art Thibert.

However, apparent proof of Chinese involvement in the malignant Rogue State appeared when symbionic super-fighter Immortal Man in Darkness intercepted the fleeing Outsiders jet, whilst far behind them monstrous scientific sadist Chang Tzu AKA Egg Fu prepared to vivisect and examine his prisoners under the supervision of the People’s Hero August General in Iron

‘Checkout Part 5’ (Bennett & Jadson) saw terse diplomatic double-dealing almost disclose China’s role before that nation cut loose all its embarrassing ties. As a rescue mission began, Chang’s appalling investigations brought Boomerang and Bordeaux to the edge of a merciful death before Nightwing finally broke free…

‘Checkout: Conclusion’ (by Clark, Randall & Thibert) saw the united forces of Checkmate and the Outsiders roar to the rescue only to find they’d be played for fools. Happily White King Mr. Terrific and Batman had a better grip on matters and tracked Chang to his true sponsors in North Korea…

With the battered team survivors rather than victors, the Dark Knight then decided to take charge of the Outsiders and run things his way again…

If you love outrageous action, sexy heroes and truly vile bad-guys (many of them working for “our side”), this dark, utterly Gung-Ho blockbuster has great pace, superb dialogue, loads of gratuitous violence and beautifully cool art.

Brutal, uncompromising and savagely action-packed, the dark saga the Outsiders inevitably led to a big finish long ago, yet these painfully plausible superhero sagas are still gripping, shocking and extremely readable: compelling tales which will enthral older fans of the genre.
© 2007, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.