Krampus: the Devil of Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2010 Monte Beauchamp. All rights reserved.

Buck Danny volume 2: The Secrets of the Black Sea

By Francis Bergése & Jacques de Douhet colours by Frédéric Bergése translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebooks)
ISBN: 987-1-84918-018-4

Here’s another of the latest translated versions of a favourite continental classic, courtesy of the fine people at Cinebooks; a publishing outfit dedicated to bringing the fabulous wealth and variety of European comics to we infamously resistant English-speaking graphic novel readers.

Buck Danny premiered in Spirou in January 1947 and continues soaring across the Wild Blue Yonder to this day. The strip describes the improbably long and 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 such as The Korean War, Bosnia and even Afghanistan.

The Naval Aviator was created by Georges Troisfontaines whilst he was director of the Belgian publisher World Press Agency. The series was initially depicted by Victor Hubinon before being handed to the multi-talented Jean-Michel Charlier, then working as a junior artist. When Charlier, with fellow creative legends Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny, formed the Édifrance Agency to promote the specialised communication benefits of comics strips, he continued to script Buck Danny and did so until his death.

From then on, his artistic collaborator Francis Bergése (who had replaced Hubinon in 1978) took complete charge of the adventures of the All-American Air Ace, occasionally working with other creators such as in this captivating political thriller scripted by Jacques de Douhet.

Like so many artists involved in stories about flight Francis 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 soon followed by Amigo, Ajax, Cap 7, Les 3 Cascadeurs, Les 3 A , Michel dans la Course and many others.

Bergése worked as a jobbing artist on comedies, pastiches and WWII strips until 1983 when he was offered the plum job of illustrating the venerable and globally syndicated Buck Danny. Bergése even found time in the 1990s to produce some tales for the European interpretation of Great British icon Biggles. He finally retired in 2008, passing on the reins to illustrator Fabrice Lamy and scripter Fred Zumbiehl.

Like all the Danny tales this second volume is astonishingly authentic: a suspenseful and compelling politically-charged adventure yarn originally published in 1994 as Buck Danny #45: Les secrets de la mer Noire and coloured by Frédéric Bergése) which blends mind-boggling detail and technical veracity with good old fashioned blockbuster derring-do.

It’s 1991 and in the dying days of the Soviet Empire a submarine incident leads the American Chief of Naval Operations to dispatch Buck into the newly open Russia of “Glasnost and Perestroika” to ascertain the true state and character of the old Cold War Foe. All but ordered to be a spy, Buck is further perturbed by his meeting with ambitious Senator Smight, the US dignitary who is supposed to be his contact and cover-story on the trip to heart of Communism.

Moreover, Buck is an old target of the KGB and knows that no matter what the official Party Line might be, a lot of Soviet Cold Warriors have long and unforgiving memories…

No sooner does he make landfall than his greatest fears are realised. Shanghaied to a top secret Russian Naval super-vessel Buck knows he’s living on borrowed time: but his death is apparently only a pleasant diversion for the KGB renegade in charge, whose ultimate plans involve turning back the clock and undoing all the reforms of the Gorbachev administration… and the key component to the scheme is a conveniently dead American spy in the wrong place at the right time…

Of course the ever-efficient US Navy swings into action, determined to rescue their pilot, clean up the mess and deny the Reds a political victory but there’s only so much Tumbler and Tuckson can do from the wrong side of the re-drawn Iron Curtain. Luckily Buck has some unsuspected friends amongst the renegades too…

Fast-paced, brimming with tension, packed with spectacular air and sea action and delivered like a top-class James Bond thriller, The Secrets of the Black Sea effortlessly plunges the reader into a delightfully dizzying riot of intrigue, mystery and suspense. This is a superb slice of old-fashioned razzle-dazzle that enthrals from the first page to the last panel and shows just why this brilliant strip has lasted for so long.

Suitable for older kids and boys of all ages, the Adventures of Buck Danny is one long and enchanting tour of duty no comics fan or armchair adrenaline-junkie can afford to miss. Chocks Away, me hearties…

© Dupuis, 1994 by Bergése& de Douhet. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Buck Danny volume 1: Night of the Serpent

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

I’ve finally picked up some of the newest translated versions of a favourite continental classic serial, courtesy of the wonderful Cinebooks; a fine publishing outfit dedicated to bringing more of the fabulous wealth and variety of European comics to the infamously resistant English-speaking World.

All-American Naval Aviator Buck Danny was created by Georges Troisfontaines and drawn by Victor Hubinon before being handed to Jean-Michel Charlier, then working as a junior artist. Troisfontaines was director of the Belgian publisher World Press Agency whilst Charlier’s fascination with human-scale drama and rugged realism had been seen in such “true-war” strips as L’Agonie du Bismark (‘The Agony of the Bismark’– published in Spirou in 1946).

With fellow master-storytellers Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny, Charlier formed the Édifrance Agency, which promoted and specialised in communication arts and comics strips. Charlier and Goscinny were editors of Pistolin magazine (1955 to 1958) and created Pilote in 1959.

Charlier’s greatest triumph is the iconic Western Blueberry (created in 1963 with Jean Giraud/Moebius). Charlier wrote Buck Danny until his death whereupon his artistic collaborator Francis Bergése (who had replaced Hubinon in 1978) took sole charge of the adventures of the Yankee Air Ace.

Like so many artists involved in stories about flight Francis 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 early 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 soon followed by Amigo, Ajax, Cap 7, Les 3 Cascadeurs, Les 3 A , Michel dans la Course and many others.

Bergése worked as a jobbing artist on comedies, pastiches and WWII strips until 1983 when he was offered the plum job of illustrating the venerable and globally syndicated Buck Danny. When Charlier died Bergése took over the writing too and even found time in the 1990s to produce some tales for the European interpretation of Great British icon Biggles. He retired in 2008, passing on the creative chores of Buck Danny to illustrator Fabrice Lamy and scripter Fred Zumbiehl.

Buck Danny premiered in Spirou in January 1947 and continues to this day. The strip describes the improbably long and 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 such as The Korean War, Bosnia and even Afghanistan.

Like all the Danny tales this premier edition is astonishingly authentic: a breezy and compelling action thriller – originally published as Buck Danny #49: La nuit du serpent in 2000 – with colouring by Frédéric Bergése (I’m assuming that’s his son, but I’m not certain) which blends 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 American military swings into action, determined to rescue their pilot, clean up the mess and deny the Reds either a tangible or political victory. Danny, 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 Colonel Maxwell has stumbled into a fantastic secret under 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 boys of all ages the Adventures of Buck Danny is one long and 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.

The Story of Lee volume 1

By Seán Michael Wilson & Chie Kutsuwada (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163- 594-8

Here’s a lovely simple treat for romantics everywhere and manga fans in particular and, like the subject matter itself, the product of more than one country. Written by British émigré and current resident of Japan Seán Michael Wilson and illustrated by Manga Shakespeare artist Chie Kutsuwada, The Story of Lee follows the budding romance of a dedicated but restless Hong Kong girl as she meets and falls for a young Scottish poet and teacher.

Lee is a young woman with frustrated dreams dutifully working in her father’s shop in Hong Kong. The situation is uncomfortable: the elder means well, but he disapproves of almost everything she does and is not reluctant to tell her so. Even as he chides and disparages Lee his constant pushing for her to achieve something whilst staying true to his old-fashioned ideas is pulling her apart. Moreover, Wang, the nice, proper Chinese boy he perpetually and insistently forces upon her, is creepy and just turns her off.

Lee has a secret: she is a closet poet and besotted with western culture, particularly pop music. In these unwelcome fascinations she is clandestinely supported by her frail and aging grandmother and her unconventional Uncle Jun, a globe-trotting playboy who long ago abandoned convention and tradition to follow his dreams to America.

Lee is 24 and being gradually worn away when the gorgeous temporary teacher Matt MacDonald wanders into the store. He is Scottish; polite, charming, exotic and, as Lee discovers when empting the wastepaper basket, a sensitive and talented poet…

Soon Lee is defying her father as her relationship with Matt inexorably deepens, but when tragedy strikes her life is further complicated as Matt prepares to leave for home. And then he drops the bombshell and asks her to go with him…

Never strident but compellingly seditious, this charming tale uses the powerful themes of cultural differences, mixed-race-relationships, family pressures and the often insurmountable barrier of generational gulf warfare to weave an enchanting tale of desire, duty and devotion.

It all ends on a gentle cliffhanger and I can’t wait to see how it all resolves in the next volume… So will you when you pick up on this mature, addictive story.

©Seán Michael Wilson & Chie Kutsuwada.

Krazy & Ignatz 1919-1921: “A Kind, Benevolent and Amiable Brick”

By George Herriman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-364-4

I must admit to feeling like something of a fraud and an idiot reviewing George Herriman’s masterpiece of eternal unrequited love. Although Krazy Kat is unquestionably a pinnacle of graphic innovation, a hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry and an undisputed treasure of world literature, some readers – from the strip’s querulous beginnings in 1913 right up to this morning – just don’t “get it”. So those in the know are already fans (trust me; they just are) whilst those sorry few who are oblivious to the strip’s inimitable charms are beyond my meagre capacity to reach or help.

Still, since everyday there’s newcomers to the wonderful world of comics I’ll assume the missionary position once more and hope to catch and convert some fresh soul – or as I like to think of it save one more “lil Ainjil”…

Krazy and Ignatz, as it is dubbed in these lovely collected tomes from Fantagraphics, is not and never has been a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex multilayered verbal and pictorial whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is the closest thing to pure poesy that narrative art has ever produced.

Think of it as Dylan Thomas and Edward Lear playing “I Spy” with James Joyce amongst dry cactus fields whilst Gabriel García Márquez types up the shorthand notes and keeps score…

Some brief background then: Herriman was already a successful cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse that had been cropping up in his outrageous domestic comedy strip The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs graduated to their own feature. “Krazy Kat” debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on Oct 28, 1913 and mainly by dint of the publishing magnate’s overpowering direct influence spread throughout his vast stable of papers.

Although Hearst and a host of the period’s artistic and literary intelligencia (which included e.e. Cummings, Frank Capra, John Alden Carpenter, Gilbert Seldes, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and Jack Kerouac) adored the strip many local editors did not and took every career-risking opportunity to drop it from the comics section. Eventually the feature found a home in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s papers. Protected by the publisher’s patronage the strip flourished unharmed by editorial interference and fashion and ran until Herriman’s death in April 1944.

The basic premise is simple: Krazy is an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive and romantic feline of indeterminate gender in love with Ignatz Mouse: rude crude, brutal, mendacious and thorougly scurrilous.

Ignatz is a real man; drinking, stealing, neglectful of his wife and children and spurns Krazy’s genteel advances by regularly hitting the cat with a well-aimed brick (obtained singly or in bulk from noted local brickmaker Kolin Kelly). A third member of the eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp, hopelessly in love with Krazy, well aware of the Mouse’s true nature, but bound by his own timidity and sense of honour from removing his rival for the cat’s affections. Krazy is blithely oblivious of Pupp’s dilemma…

Also populated with a stunning supporting cast of inspired anthropomorphic bit players such as Joe Stork, (deliverer of babies), the hobo Bum Bill Bee, Don Kiyoti, busybody Pauline Parrot, Walter Cephus Austridge, the Chinese mallard Mock Duck, Joe Turtil and a host of audacious characters – all capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features – the episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Coconino (based of the artist’s vacation retreat Coconino County Arizona) and the surreal playfulness and fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscape are perhaps the most important member of the cast.

The strips are a masterful mélange of unique experimental art, strongly referencing Navajo art forms and sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully expressive language: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous and compellingly musical (“He’s simpfilly wondafil”, “A fowl konspirissy – is it pussible?” or “I nevva seen such a great power to kookoo”), yet for all that the adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerie, idiosyncratic and utterly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous slapstick.

There have been an absolute wealth of Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the fondly remembered strip was generally rediscovered by a far more accepting audience and this particular compendium continues the complete year-by-year series begun by Eclipse and picked up by Fantagraphics when the former ceased trading in 1992. The current publisher’s avowed intent is to complete the collection and then keep the works in print and more power to them for that. This fabulous black and white volume Krazy & Ignatz: “A Kind, Benevolent and Amiable Brick” re-presents the years 1919-1921.

Within this magical atlas of another land and time the eternal game plays out as usual, but with some intriguing diversions such as recurring tribute’s to Kipling’s “Just So Stories” as we discover how the Kookoo Klock works, why bananas hang around in bunches and why Lightning Bugs light up; peer into the misty past to see Kwin Kleopatra Kat and Marcatonni Maus and explore the ever-changing seasons in a constant display of visual virtuosity and verbal verve…

Also included are fascinating articles and background features (‘A Mouse by any Other Name: Krazy and Ignatz’s Early Life Under the Stairs’ by Bill Blackbeard, ‘Geo. Herriman’s Los Angeles’ by Bob Callahan and the highly informative and instructional  ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Pages’), some intimate archival illustrations and photos and even unpublished and lost art.

Herriman’s epochal classic is a genuine Treasure of World Art and Literature and these comic strips have shaped our industry and creators, inspired creative auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, dance, animation and jazz music and delivered delight and delectation to generations of devoted wonder-starved fans.

If however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this latest glorious annotated compendium from Fantagraphics is one of the most accessible and certainly the most easily obtained book yet, so don’t waste this opportunity.

Just remember: not everybody gets it and some of them aren’t even stupid or soulless – they’re just unfortunate… “There Is A Heppy Lend Furfur A-Waay”

© 2011 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 3: 1941-1942

By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-407-8

Possibly the most successful and evergreen fantasy creation ever conceived, the Sunday page Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched on February 13th 1937, a luscious full-colour weekly window onto a perfect realm of fantasy and romance. The strip followed the life and adventures of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his ancestral homeland in faraway Thule who roamed the world and rose to a paramount position amongst the mightiest heroes of fabled Camelot.

Written and drawn by unsurpassed master draftsman Harold “Hal” Foster, that noble scion would grow to manhood in a heady sea of wonderment, visiting far-flung lands and siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts.

There have been films, animated series and all manner of toys, games and collections based on the strip – one of the few to have lasted from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (over 3800 episodes and counting) and even in these declining days of the newspaper strip as a viable medium it still claims over 300 American papers as its home. It has even made it into the very ether with an online edition.

Foster produced the strip, one spectacular page a week until 1971, when, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt artist John Cullen Murphy was selected to draw the feature. Foster carried on as writer and designer until 1980, after which he fully retired and Murphy’s son assumed the writer’s role.

In 2004 the senior Cullen Murphy also retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip has soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of artist Gary Gianni and writer Mark Schultz.

This third exquisite hardback volume reprints in glorious colour – spectacularly restored from Foster’s original Printer’s Proofs – the Sunday pages from January 5th 1941 to 20th December 1942.

After an epic clash against corrupt officials in the rapidly declining city of Rome, Valiant and fellow knights Tristan and Gawain headed for home. Splitting up to thwart their incensed pursuers, Valiant took ship on a pirate scow bound for Sicily. Now read on…

After a Dan Nadel’s erudite foreword ‘Modestly, Foster’ the action opens in the shadow of fiery Vesuvius as Val’s vessel is attacked by self-proclaimed Sea-King Angor Wrack. Even the fierce warrior-prince’s martial might is insufficient against such great odds and the boy is eventually captured and enslaved, his fabled Singing Sword confiscated by the victorious pirate.

Thus begins an astonishingly impressive chapter in the hero’s history as Val becomes a galley slave, escapes and washes up starving and semi-comatose on the lost shores of the Misty Isles. Delirious, the boy glimpses his future wife Queen Aleta when she re-provisions his boat before casting him back to the sea’s mercies. The Misty Isles are safe only because of their secret location and the noble girl has broken a great taboo by sparing the shipwrecked lad…

Replenished but lost Val drifts helplessly away but resolves that one day he will discover again the Misty Isles and the enigmatic Aleta…

Eventually he is picked up by more pirates but overwhelms the captain and takes charge. Finding himself in the island paradise of Tambelaine courting the daughters of the aged king Lamorack, Val encounters Angor Wrack once more but fails to regain the Singing Sword, precipitating an extended saga of maritime warfare and spectacular voyaging across the Holy Land from Jaffa to Jerusalem.

The vendetta results in both Angor and Val being taken by Arab slavers, but the boy nobly allows Wrack to escape whilst he battles the Bedouin hordes… Enslaved in Syria Val’s indomitable will and terrifying prowess are insufficient to his need so he seduces his owner’s daughter to effect his escape only to stumble into a marital spat between the region’s greater necromancer and his tempestuous bride.

Reaching Jerusalem Val finally regains his sword and settles all scores with Angor Wrack before determining to return to the hidden Misty Isles, but once again falls afoul of the pirates infesting the region. After incredible hardships he is reunited with Aleta but fate drags them apart again and he departs alone and despondent.

Not for long though, as he reaches Athens and meets the far-larger-than-life Viking Boltar: a Falstaff-like rogue and “honest pirate”. Together they rove across the oceans to the heart of the African jungles…

Securing a huge fortune their dragonship reaches Gaul and Val is reunited with Gawain. After settling a succession of generational feuds between knights and defeating a seductive maniac the paladins at last return to Britain courtesy of Boltar, just in time to be dispatched by Arthur to the far North to scout Hadrian’s Wall and see if it can still keep the belligerent Picts out.

Unfortunately libidinous Gawain abandons Val and the boy is captured by the Caledonian wild-men and their new allies – a far nastier breed of Vikings intent on conquering England. Tortured almost to death the Prince is saved by the ministrations of Julian – a Roman warrior who has seemingly safeguarded the wall for centuries…

When he is recovered Prince Valiant begins to inflict a terrible and studied revenge upon his tormentors…

To Be Continued…

Rendered in an incomprehensibly lovely panorama of glowing art Prince Valiant is a non-stop rollercoaster of stirring action, exotic adventure and grand romance; blending realistic fantasy with sardonic wit and broad humour with unbelievably dark violence (the closing text feature ‘Too Violent for American Dog Lovers’, reveals a number of censored panels and changes editors around the world inflicted upon the saga during this period).

Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring the strip is a World Classic of storytelling and something no fan can afford to miss. If you have never experienced the intoxicating majesty and grandeur of Foster’s magnum opus these these magnificent, lavishly substantial deluxe editions are the best way possible to start and will be your gateway to an eye-opening world of wonder and imagination…

Prince Valiant © 2011 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2011 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.

The Archies & Josie and the Pussycats: Archie & Friends All Stars Series volume 8

By Dan Parent, Bill Galvan, Rick Koslowski & Jim Amash (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-879794-61-0

MLJ were a publisher who jumped on the “mystery-man” bandwagon following the debut of Superman with their own small but inspirational pantheon of gaudily clad crusaders, beginning in November 1939 with Blue Ribbon Comics, promptly followed by Top-Notch and Pep Comics. The content was the standard blend of costumed heroes, two-fisted adventure strips, prose pieces and gag panels.

After a few years Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater (hence MLJ) spotted a gap in their blossoming market. In December 1941 the costumed heroes and two-fisted adventure strips were nudged aside by a far less imposing hero, an “average teen” who would have ordinary adventures like the readers, but with the laughs, good times, romance and slapstick emphasised.

Pep Comics #22 introduced a gap-toothed, freckle-faced red-headed goof showing off to the pretty blonde next door. Taking his lead from the popular Andy Hardy matinee movies starring Mickey Rooney, Goldwater developed the concept of a youthful everyman protagonist, tasking writer Vic Bloom and artist Bob Montana with the job of making it work. The six-page tale entitled ‘Archie’ introduced goofy Archie Andrews and pretty girl-next-door Betty Cooper. Archie’s unconventional best friend and confidante Jughead Jones also debuted in that first story as did the small-town utopia of Riverdale.

The feature was an instant hit and by the winter of 1942 had won its own title. Archie Comics #1 was the company’s first non-anthology magazine and with it began the gradual transformation of the entire company. With the introduction of rich, raven-haired Veronica Lodge, all the pieces were in play for the comicbook industry’s second Genuine Phenomenon (Superman being the first).

By 1946 the kids had taken over, so the company renamed itself Archie Comics, retiring its heroic characters years before the end of the Golden Age and becoming to all intents and purposes a publisher of family comedies. Its success, like the Man of Steel’s, changed the content of every other publisher’s titles, and led to a multi-media industry including TV, movies, a chain of restaurants and in the swinging sixties a pop hit as “Sugar, Sugar” (a tune from their animated show) became a global smash. Their wholesome garage band “The Archies” has been a fixture of the comics ever since.

With such a successful format, naturally the company tried to add supplemental stars to their four-colour firmament, Wilbur Wilkins (1994), Suzie (1945), Ginger (1951) and Seymour, My Son (1963), with varying degrees of success. However another 1963 debut did catch and hold the readers attention. Her name was Josie and she was created by Dan DeCarlo as a veritable female clone of Archie.

With issue #45 (1967) the titian-haired ingénue and her best friend Melody formed a band and the title was changed to Josie and the Pussycats. Fame, stardom, a TV cartoon series, a major motion picture and two soundtrack albums later the band were only occasional visitors in the Archie universe until someone had a cunning idea…

Most of her supporting cast was introduced in the first issue, including best friend Pepper, boyfriend Albert… and Melody. Spoiled rich kids Alex and Alexandra Cabot soon joined the cast and the book changed its name with issue #45, and that it remained until the final issue in 1982.

One other fact about Archie’s publisher’s is that they certainly know how to create different publishing events that capture the attention of the general public – as anybody who saw the 1994 Archie Meets the Punisher inter-company crossover will attest…

The Archies & Josie and the Pussycats collects a storyline from 2009-2010 wherein ‘It Starts with a Kiss!’ as the two clean-living bands are signed to tour together, and our red-headed star and the Pussycats’ African-American bassist Valerie are drawn irresistibly together.

After a stolen kiss during a late-night song-writing session the attraction grows stronger in ‘More Than Words’ as hapless Archie tries to concentrate on his daily life – and Betty and Veronica – but can’t get Val off his mind. Moreover, the normally “sensible one” in Josie’s band is similarly distracted…

Luckily for all the tour soon ends and the girls are bound for Europe and a series of solo gigs, but the tearful farewell proves the attraction has grown into something far more serious. All the while the Pussycat’s rat-bag manager Alex Cabot has been trying to scotch the situation and now goes into overdrive in his scheming.

The 2-part ‘Love Smackdown!’ follows the separated and lovelorn Archie and Valerie as distance, daily drudgery, temptation and Alex all operate to keep them apart. After a misunderstanding leaves the couple acrimoniously separated forever events a new combined tour seems destined to rekindle the fire – but do Betty and Veronica want Archie for themselves or do they want him to be happy…?

Moreover, what’s the deal with Valerie’s old flame Declan McCord? He says he’s just a fill-in musician, but does the charismatic Celtic pop-star have plans to win Valerie back for himself…?

Star-crossed love and nigh-torrid melodrama combine with classic Riverdale slapstick in this delightful young romance that shows a burgeoning slice of maturity in the world’s favourite teenager (and don’t quibble: Justin Bieber has a limited shelf-life but Archie has been a teen heartthrob for seven decades) and the tale ends on a fascinating and intriguing open note…

This snazzy tome also has some impressive extra features including writer Dan Parent’s ‘Liner Notes’, full background and histories for The Archies and Josie and the Pussycats, and ‘Once More With Feeling’, 8 pages of penciller Bill Galvan’s art and unused covers reproduced before inkers Rick Koslowski & Jim Amash worked their own particular magic upon them.

All the world loves a lover, and this satisfyingly enticing down-to-earth comedy-drama is a solid example of the kind of comics there just aren’t enough of these days. Remember, “Superheroes aren’t the only fruit” – despite all the tights and stuff…

© 2010 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Archie New Look Series Book 5: Goodbye Forever

By Melanie J. Morgan & Norm Breyfogle (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-879794-63-4

For most of us, when we say comicbooks, people’s thoughts turn to buff men and women in garish tights hitting each other and lobbing trees or cars about, or stark, nihilistic crime, horror or science fiction sagas aimed an extremely mature and sophisticated readership of confirmed fans – and for American comics these days that is indeed the norm. Over the years though (and throughout the rest of the world still), other forms and genres have waxed and waned.

However one company has held its ground against the tide over the years – although probably better known for its spun-off television/movie franchise – is the teen-comedy genre begun by and synonymous with a carrot topped kid named Archie Andrews and the two girls he can’t choose between – Betty Cooper and Veronica Lodge.

Archie has thrived by constantly reinventing its core characters, seamlessly adapting to the changing world outside its bright, flimsy pages, shamelessly co-opting youth, pop culture and fashion trends into its infallible mix of slapstick and young romance.

Each and every social revolution has been painlessly assimilated into the mix (the company has managed to confront a number of social issues affecting the young in a manner both even-handed and tasteful over the years) and the constant addition of new characters such as African-American Chuck – who wants to be a cartoonist – his girlfriend Nancy, fashion-diva Ginger, Hispanic couple Frankie and Maria and a host of others such as spoiled home-wrecker-in-waiting Cheryl Blossom all contributed to a broad and refreshingly broad-minded scenario.

In 2010 Archie even jumped the final hurdle for the family-entertainment medium with the introduction of Kevin Keller, an openly gay young man and a clear-headed advocate capably tackling and dismantling the last major taboo in mainstream kids comics, but he was far from the only innovation.

In 2007 the company tried a risky experiment when they began a series of short serials in the pages of their various publications, featuring the regular cast in a far more realistically rendered manner rather than the gloriously utilitarian and trademarked loose cartoon style pioneered by Bob Montana in Pep Comics (beginning with #22 in 1941, reprinted in Archie: Best of the Forties) and honed to perfection by such unsung geniuses as Bob Bolling, Dan DeCarlo, Joe Edwards, Samm Schwartz, Bill Vigoda and the legendary Harry Lucey.

More importantly they moved away from the broad and outrageous slapstick and whimsical comedy by testing out a mildly soap-operatic sitcom flavour and social issues in tune with contemporary teens of the post MTV generation.

I thought it was a terrible idea – but I was quite wrong…

Not that there weren’t some obvious problems. Most tellingly, if you draw Archie Andrews more realistically what you get is Jimmy Olsen and it’s also really hard to see what hotties like Betty and especially billionaire’s daughter Veronica find so appealing about such a clumsy if well-meaning doofus…

Nonetheless the occasional adventures continued for a couple of years, all scripted by Melanie J. Morgan and illustrated by some of mainstream superhero comics’ most accomplished artists, including Steven Butler, Al Milgrom, Joe Staton, Tod Smith, Rich Burchett and Terry Austin.

This fifth collected yarn (which was first printed in Archie’s Double Digest #200-203, July-November 2009) is drawn by the superb Norm Breyfogle and highlights the biggest disaster that ever hit the happy community of Riverdale; a drama likely to break the hearts of both Betty and Veronica. After years of making do and getting by, Archie’s dad finally gets the promotion he’s always deserved, but the glad tidings have a bitter sting.

If he accepts it means uprooting the entire family from their small town roots and relocating to the big and very different city of Martinsville…

Of course they must go and Archie’s friends and loved ones have to face the fact that within a month he will be nothing but a memory. Idyllic little Riverdale will never be the same again…

Of course it all works out in the end, but while it’s happening there’s a very impressive sense of panic, injustice and loss. If kid’s soaps and dramas were this well produced I’d read less and watch a lot more TV…

Ultimately though, the experimental tales were discontinued and the beautifully garish cartoon universe resumed, as it has for nearly seventy years. Still and all I must admit that I rather enjoyed this “alternate world” of Archie despite all my initial misgivings and since there’s so little comics material for the older kid’s market maybe the company might want to try again – just next time not with my immortal, unchanging legendary freckle-faced fool…

© 2011 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Hammer of the Gods: Mortal Enemy

By Michael Avon Oeming & Frank Cho, (Image/IDW)
Image ISBN: 978-1-58240-271-0, IDW ISBN: 978-1-60010631-6

Mythology has always inspired our fantasies and is never far from our popular culture: just take a look at TV shows like Hercules: the Legendary Journeys and Supernatural or books and films such Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief which again reinvented and expanded the ancient tales for a new generation.

At the turn of this century all-rounder Michael Avon Oeming re-imagined the Norse tales which had already been so thoroughly exploited by Marvel (and even tangentially by DC in the splendid Arak, Son of Thunder series) to produce an outrageously addictive post-modern take in the five issue miniseries Hammer of the Gods. He was thoroughly aided and abetted by co-plotter, inker, letterer and colourist Mark Wheatley – a veteran comics maker who has been criminally undervalued for decades (see for example the staggeringly impressive Breathtaker to glean what I mean).

The lands of the far North are hard and cold and unforgiving, just like the gods that rule over them. In ‘Hammer of the Gods’ a peasant couple stand the deathwatch for their newborn son who will not survive the night, when a stranger comes seeking shelter from the icy storms. She is welcomed even though old Tyr and Gerda have nothing…

Delighted to finally find mortals who keep the old ways of hearth and hospitality the fierce warrior woman rewards them by blessing their child. He will live, growing strong and wise. Moreover he will possess the strength of the gods so long as he never wields a weapon. Knowing he will thrive the couple finally name their boy: “Modi” which means both Courage and son of Thorr…

The boy grows strong enough to topple trees with a blow and carve wood without a blade and becomes devout in the worship of the Thunder God he is named for. Because he will not fight the other village children constantly pick on him, but Modi is patient as well as strong…

When mature he becomes a globe-girdling explorer. After years he returns to his birthplace only to find the village destroyed by giants and monsters that have escaped from bleak Jotunheim to plague the Earth. Realising his beloved deities have done nothing to save his family or people, Modi swears a mighty oath and denounces the gods forever. Easily slaying the Frost Giant which destroyed his village, Modi pledges to walk the world until he has made the negligent gods pay for abandoning the devoted charges in their care…

Modi’s epic voyages begin in ‘Entrance to Valhalla’, as he roams the cold world destroying beasts and devils, recruiting like-minded men to his crusade. Soon he leads an army of hardened warriors embittered and disillusioned by the disdain and delinquency of their gods.

United together they eradicate the magical horror that plagues mankind, but it is never enough: what Modi wants is a confrontation with the gods themselves…

In ‘Falling For Gods!’ he first battles and then allies himself with Skögul, a fallen Valkyrie who shares his opinions, but when the trickster god Loki also tries to join them she preaches caution. Why would any overlord of Asgard offer them a free pass to Valhalla and their longed-for meeting with the absentee immortals? They refuse the overture and wander the world together, growing ever closer as they seek another way to storm the stronghold of the gods…

Eventually they find a way and enter Asgard for ‘The Final Battle’ only to receive a terrible shock: the magic hammer of Thorr has lost its power and the gods are old and broken men, helpless before the constant onslaught of the giants and demons of Ragnarok.

Much as he despises gods Modi hates giants more and soon he is whittling the frozen horde down to size, but even his might is not inexhaustible. Only a miracle can save him and all the lands of humanity…

This is a rousing rollercoaster ride of sheer adventure beautifully illustrated and magically compelling, with just the right touch of worldly cynicism and passionate mystery to fire up any reader who thinks they’ve seen all that can be done with these hoary old themes.

The book (which was re-issued by IDW in 2009) also includes text pieces from Peter David, WWE star Raven, Oeming and Wheatley, plus development sketches, front and back cover designs, pencil drafts, privately commissioned artworks and cover images and illustration art by Adam Hughes, Frank Cho and Dave Johnson.

™ Michael Avon Oeming and © 2002, 2009 Michael Avon Oeming & Mark Obie Wheatley. All Rights Reserved.

Deathstroke the Terminator: Full Cycle

By Marv Wolfman, Steve Erwin, Willie Blyberg & others (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-93028-982-9

Deathstroke the Terminator is a flamboyant cover identity for mercenary/assassin Slade Wilson who underwent an experimental procedure whilst an American Special Forces soldier. He was invalided out but later developed fantastic physical abilities that augmented his military capabilities.

He debuted in New Teen Titans #2 (1980), assuming a contract that had been forfeited when neophyte costumed assassin The Ravager died trying to destroy the kid heroes. The deceased would-be killer was actually Grant Wilson, a troubled young man trying to impress his dad. Slade Wilson’s other children would also be the cause of much heartache and bloodshed over the years…

Deathstroke was an implacable Titans foe for years, instigating many complex schemes to destroy the team before a weary détente was achieved, all of which led to the graphic novel under review here. In recent years Deathstroke has returned to the path of pure – if complex – villainy.

This rather hard to find volume comes from that grim-and-gritty era when ruthless vigilantes and killers-with-a-code-of-honour were market leaders, so a villain-turned (anti)hero in the vein of Marvel’s Punisher was sound business sense. When the Terminator got his own title (with covers by the Punisher’s Mike Zeck, all included here at no extra cost to you) it instantly became a smash-hit: issue #1 even had a second printing – an extremely rare event back in the early 1990s.

Full Cycle opens with a detailed prose account of the events which led to the release of Deathstroke from Editor Jonathan Peterson before beginning the non-stop action with the contents of The New Titans #70 (October 1990) a fill-in issue by Marv Wolfman, Steve Erwin & Willie Blyberg, that abandoned the titular teens for an entire adventure of their greatest enemy as he undertook a highly suspicious contract in a war-torn South American nation.

‘Clay Pigeons’ found Wilson and his faithful aide-de-camp Wintergreen hired to keep a charismatic peace-making rebel leader alive whilst the republic of San Miguel negotiated a longed for lasting solution to decades of apartheid and revolution. But if every clique and faction needed Jorge Zaxtro alive who could be behind all the brutal attempts on his life?

That tale preceded ‘Titans Hunt’ an extended epic which heavily involved Deathstroke wherein the tragic mercenary was forced to kill his other son Joe – the hero code-named Jericho – but you’ll need to look elsewhere for that epic. Full Cycle commences in the aftermath of that tragedy as a deeply shaken Slade Wilson retreats to his home in Africa to lick his psychic wounds.

‘Assault!’ opens the campaign with a devastating mercenary attack on a train transporting nuclear material through Germany. At the same time a helicopter raid almost kills Wilson and Wintergreen. Later, we gain insight into Deathstroke’s past when the mercenary visits the bedside of a survivor of the railway raid – his estranged wife Adeline.

She was his army trainer, schooling him in exotic battle techniques before the secret experiment augmented his combat abilities. They found love and married but when Slade’s arrogance and neglect resulted in their son Joey being maimed by a terrorist dubbed The Jackal Addie shot her husband in the face and divorced him.

As she slowly recovers in a German hospital she has no idea that Slade has just killed her beloved boy…

Slade has never stopped loving Addie and begins hunting her attackers; reviewing his own past too since whoever attacked her is also targeting his few remaining loved ones. Even so, there must also be some other motive in play…

‘Kidnapped!’ builds on the frantic action and piles the bodies high as Slade closes in on the brutal and all-pervasive enemy, only briefly detouring to rescue a young boy abducted to force his mother to reveal her husband’s munitions secrets. Meanwhile somebody claiming to be the long-dead Ravager is slaughtering both Wilson and Adeline’s people, with a trail leading to the rogue middle-Eastern state of Qurac.

And then the CIA get involved…

‘War!’ sees Deathstroke go bloodily berserk in the strife-torn desert kingdom as its new ruler General Kaddam seeks to consolidate his power whilst demonstrating to the West that Qurac is still the World’s principal exporter of Terror. As his alliance with the Ravager looks set to shake the entire globe, a clandestine group hidden within the CIA makes their own move and their target too, is Slade Wilson…

After a near fatal clash with Kaddam and Ravager, Terminator is captured. Bombastically breaking out he drags the gravely wounded Wintergreen out of the Middle East as the scene shifts to Washington DC where the stolen Plutonium is being readied for use. ‘…Bombs Bursting in Air!’ sees the terrorists turn on each other before Wilson becomes an unlikely and utterly secret saviour of the free world after a savage final clash with the new Ravager…

Meanwhile, the recuperating Adeline has learned of her son’s death …but not yet who killed him…

The first Deathstroke epic ends rather inconclusively in ‘Revelations and Revolutions’ as writer Wolfman and artists Erwin and Blyberg laid plot threads for succeeding story-arcs. Slade is visiting Adeline in the aftermath of atomic plot when the covert agents within the CIA stage an all-out armed assault on the hospital where both she and the faithful Wintergreen are recovering. Never a dull moment…

Complex, violently gratuitous and frenetic, the tale is sometimes too complicated for its own good, but nevertheless the pace, varied exotic locations and all-out, human-scale action (like a James Bond film where everyone wears masks and tights) result in a frenzied rollercoaster of gory fun for any fan of blockbuster adventure. Deathstroke the Terminator is a perfectly-produced slice of lost DC history that still holds up and could easily find new devotees if given the chance…
© 1990, 1991, 1992 DC Comics Inc. All Rights Reserved.