Storm: The Deep World

By Don Lawrence & Saul Dunn (British European Associated Publishers)
Storm: The Last Fighter & Storm: The Pirates of Pandarve
By Don Lawrence & Martin Lodewijk (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-0-90761-077-9 and 978-1-85286-083-7

Don Lawrence, one of our greatest comics artists, is rightly revered for his stunning painted artwork on the legendary British weekly strip The Trigan Empire – which was the only reason most kids read the venerable knowledge-dispensing illustrated weekly Look and Learn – but his last and greatest work is largely unknown in the country of his birth. Over the years a number of publishers have attempted to sell a mass-market English-language edition of the Dutch-published science fiction serial Storm with little success, leaving only truly dedicated fans to purchase beautiful but painfully expensive limited-edition, leather-bound, hardback deluxe collectors compendiums.

Nevertheless, to my knowledge three softcover albums were released in the 1980s and still turn up occasionally so it’s worth keeping your eyes open for a stunning fantasy treat…

The concept was first conceived by Martin Lodewijk/Vince Wernham and Laurence in 1976 as a vehicle for the character Commander Grek but declined by Dutch publisher Oberon. Reworked by science fiction author Philip Dunn (who scripted the initial episode using the pseudonym Saul Dunn) with time-lost Terran astronaut Storm as the lead, the series was far more welcome, resulting in nine albums between 1978-1982, scripted by Martin Lodewijk, Dick Matena, Kelvin Gosnell and Lawrence himself, all fondly designated as the Chronicles of Deep World.

The rejected Commander Grek tale was eventually reworked into the continuity as episode 0 and after the series was rebooted Lawrence & Lodewijk produced a further 17 tales – “The Chronicles of Pandarve” – until the artist tragically lost much of his sight and was forced to retire in 1995.

In 1987 Titan Books took up the challenge of popularising the saga – a massive hit in Germany and the Netherlands, with editions also published in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Danish, Finnish, Greek, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Indonesian – but gave up after two volumes…

Storm continued throughout Europe and is still being published today with Dick Matena, Romano Molenaar & Jorg De Vos handling the art.

The first epic, The Deep World by Lawrence and Dunn, was translated and released by British European Associated Publisher in 1982 and told in stunning, luxurious, fully-painted detail the story of astronaut explorer Storm, despatched by United Nations scientists in the 21st century to fly through the mysterious Red Spot of Jupiter. Unfortunately the valiant spaceman is trapped in those cyclonic crimson winds and propelled uncounted millennia into the future.

Dazed, lost and baffled by the seeming disappearance of the Red Spot, Storm spends a year flying back to Earth and discovers a world utterly transformed. His home world has become an icy wasteland, a Snowball Earth, but his desperate investigations uncover even more incredible secrets.

The oceans are gone and civilisation – such as it is – has relocated to the ancient sea floors. As he slowly makes his way down the miles of craggy dry depths, Storm is attacked by bandits who steal his space suit and survival kit, despite his violent resistance. Now clad only in the furs of the attacker he killed, Storm follows and encounters a fantastic planet of incredible jungles and bizarre beasts ruled by barbarian warlord Ghast.

Despite looking like a primitive thug Ghast is no fool: he knows the wearer of the strange clothes must be a commodity of great value and imprisons the wanderer in his dungeons where Storm meets a red-haired beauty called Carrots (alternatively Redhair and Ember) who is part of a secret tribe of knowledge-hoarders opposed to Ghast’s rule.

When her fellows rescue Carrots they take Storm with them and their leader Kiley reveals startling familiarity with the Astronaut’s story and equipment…

Taken to the subterranean land of Tome and a lost sub-surface sea, Storm is unaware that Ghast has tracked them deep below the surface of the Deep World. When they encounter a fantastic survivor from the age of technology and learn the secret history of Earth, Ghast refuses to accept what he sees and triggers a catastrophic explosion and flood…

The Last Fighter (Lawrence & Lodewijk) took up the tale with Storm and Carrots – now permanently dubbed Ember – washed ashore in a mountainous region which was once the Bahamas, where they are captured by slavers in a travelling circus/gladiator show.

Even held by deadly living insectoid shackles the bellicose Storm is a constant problem and when he acts up too openly in front of paying customers he finds himself made one city’s champion in a contest to capture the Throne of the Gods.

If he rebels Ember will be fed to a giant monster…

Competing against a number of other champions, Storm must invade the “Palace of Death”, sit on “The Throne” and win “The Powers” for his city…

He complies and undertakes the lethal quest and discovers a huge, unexpected advantage: he is the only man alive who recognises the Palace as a crashed starship with all its deadly automatic defences activated and the throne as a captain’s command chair. Of course, that’s no real help when battling through the colossal booby-trapped corridors of the vast vessel to the off-switch, nor proof against the weapons of his rival champions or the schemes of the corrupt organisers of the contest…

After this Titan jumped immediately to the tenth tale, The Pirates of Pandarve, which saw an abrupt transition in the series as, after ages wandering the Deep World of Old Earth, Storm and Ember were suddenly catapulted into a universe of cosmic strangeness. Pandarve is a multiversal junction point where the laws of physics vary from moment to moment; a place of many worlds and planetoids with only localised gravity fields, circling an immense super-planet, all existing in a breathable atmosphere envelope instead of a special vacuum.

The pocket universe is ruled by power-mad dictator called Marduk, Theocrat of Pandarve – a man obsessed with temporal energy- whose long-range scanners detect an incredible chronal anomaly on Earth. Determined to possess the phenomenon at all costs, Marduk rips open the gateway of the multiverse and teleports Storm and the hapless collateral casualty Ember to Pandarve…

At that moment rebels attack the Theocrat’s citadel, disrupting the process and his targets materialise in space hundreds of miles above planet Pandave, shocked, terrified yet somehow still alive. Floating helplessly, the pair are rescued by an old man in a sailing boat hunting a space whale, but tragically when the monumental beast attacks Ember is lost…

When Storm and old man Rann reach his home asteroid they find a scene of devastation and the hunter’s daughter abducted by the bloodthirsty marauders of Vertiga Bas. The traumatised elder is saved from suicide by the time-lost Earthman and, believing Ember dead, they determine to pursue the pirates and rescue the stolen child.

Meanwhile, Ember has been picked up by Marduk’s men…

The searchers reach the outlaw habitat where Storm rescues Rann’s daughter in a truly unique manner, but soon falls foul of the Buccaneer city’s unique laws.

Condemned to the water-mines Storm’s last sight is of Ember, broadcast around the pocket universe as Marduk’s next bride…

The tragic hero has no idea that’s it’s all a ploy by the Theocrat to entrap the Anomaly…

In the mines Storm chafes under the trauma and pressure, his only friend the huge warrior called Nomad. With no real hope of success they begin to plan escape and revolution…

And that’s where, after a spectacular battle the magic, mayhem and majesty ends, with a freed Storm searching for his red-headed paramour in a scintillating, cliffhanging promise of more to come…

Those English-language hardback collectors editions were released way back in 2004, and now retail for astonishing amounts of money so surely it’s time for another go at a mass-market competitively priced run?

© 1982 Oberon bv – Haarlem – Netherlands – Don Lawrence/Philip Dunn.

© 1987 Oberon BV/Don Lawrence and Martin Lodewijk. UK edition © 1987 Titan Books, Ltd.

© 1987 Oberon BV/Don Lawrence and Martin Lodewijk. UK edition © 1989 Titan Books, Ltd.

Johnny Hazard: Mammoth Marches On

By Frank Robbins (Pacific Comics Publications)

Johnny Hazard was a newspaper strip created in answer to and in the style and manner of Terry and the Pirates, but in many ways the steely-eyed hero most resembles – and indeed presages – Milton Caniff’s second magnum opus Steve Canyon.

Unbelievably, until last year this stunningly impressive and enthralling adventure strip has never been comprehensively collected in graphic novels – at least in English – although selected highlights had appeared in nostalgia magazines such as Pioneer Comics and Dragon Lady Press Presents.

However, sporadic compendiums of the full-colour Sunday pages have popped up over the years, such as this glorious and huge (340 x 245mm) landscape tabloid produced by re-translating a collected Italian edition back into English, courtesy of the Pacific Comic Club.

Frank Robbins was a brilliant all-around cartoonist whose unique artistic and lettering style lent themselves equally to adventure, comedy and superhero tales and his stunning cunning storytellers mind made him one of the best writers of three generations of comics.

He first came to fame in 1939 when he took over the Scorchy Smith newspaper strip from the legendary Noel Sickles and created a Sunday page for the feature in 1940. He was offered the prominent Secret Agent X-9 but instead created his own lantern jawed, steely-eyed man of action. A tireless and prolific worker, even whilst producing a daily and Sunday Hazard (usually a separate storyline for each) Robbins freelanced as an illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post, Look, Life and a host of other mainstream magazines.

In the 1960s and 1970s he moved into comicbooks, becoming a key contributor to Batman, Batgirl, Detective Comics (where he created Man-Bat with Neal Adams), The Shadow and DC’s mystery anthologies before settling in as an artist at Marvel on a variety of titles including Captain America, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Morbius, Human Fly, Man from Atlantis, Power Man and The Invaders, which he co-created with Roy Thomas.

When the strip launched on Monday June 5th 1944, Johnny Hazard was an aviator, in the United States Army Air Corps and when hostilities ceased became for a while a freelance charter pilot and secret agent before settling into the bombastic life of a globe-girdling troubleshooter, mystery-solver and modern day Knight Errant babe-magnet.

The strip ended in 1977: another victim of diminishing panel-sizes and the move towards simplified, thrill-free, family-friendly gag-a-day graphic fodder to wrap around small-ads.

With the release at long last of a dedicated collection of the black and white Daily strips, I thought I’d spotlight a few of those fabulous landscape tomes which kept Johnny Hazard alive in fans hearts during years after it ceased publication beginning with the thoroughly captivating Mammoth Marches On and subsequent sequences which first appeared in American Sunday Supplements between January 27th 1952 to April 12th 1953.

In the steaming jungle heat of French Indo-China the pilot is transporting famed Movie Director Grippman of Mammoth Studios, and his star attraction Cerise to the heart of the rain forest on a location-shoot is stricken with malaria. Forced to land at a Military field they make the fortuitous acquaintance of our hero and his friends Brandy and Blitz Martin; all currently without a plane of their own…

Also in tow are an entire film crew, assorted extras and a baby Elephant, all destined for a distant abandoned temple and village of unsuspecting natives. Short of cash and with nothing to do, Johnny lets himself be talked into taking the pilot’s place whilst wandering journalist Brandy agrees to act as the haughty Cerise’s stand-in and body double… to limit the star’s exposure to sun, insects and peasants…

Amidst all the drama and passion such events always generate, Johnny warily keeps aloof. The big scene involves an ancient idol for which Grippman has brought a fist-sized hunk of glass to replace the legendary lost diamond eye it boasted until white explorers first appeared a century ago…

When Cerise makes a play for Hazard and is rebuffed she storms into the temple and falls into a secret chamber, finding the genuine lost sparkler. In a fit of greedy pique she replaces the fake with the real thing…

The trained baby elephant Mammoth has seen it all and Cerise determines to get rid of the four-footed witness in an increasing dangerous series of arranged accidents…

Things come to head when the monsoon hits early and disaster strikes for the greedy starlet…

The strip then effortlessly segues into blistering criminal action with ‘The Hunted’ as Johnny ferries the film crew on to Tokyo where old pal Blitz buys a souvenir samurai sword from a street vendor. Of course nobody realised that the katana was a thousand year old relic most recently owned by Baron Takana: a big shot in the recent war and a fugitive war criminal ever since.

When the sword is stolen and a venerated historical expert murdered, suspicion rests equally on the elusive Takana and Hazard’s sexy femme fatale foe Baroness Flame, but as the hunt continues the drama escalates into full-blown crisis when the fugitive Baron is cornered and threatens to detonate a stolen atomic weapon…

The fabulous frantic fun and thrills conclude with ‘Scavengers’ as Johnny is asked by his old boss Lisbeth Manning to investigate a series of mysterious plane crashes and cargo thefts. With typical savvy Hazard deduces the method and tracks the gang of highly sophisticated bandits to a deadly confrontation in the jungles between Vietnam and Cambodia, before this stunning old-fashioned romp ends with the thieves in custody and the tantalising opening pages of the next mind-boggling yarn ‘Ceiling Zero-Minus’.

To be continued…

These exotic action romances perfectly capture the mood and magic of a distant but so incredibly familiar time; with cool heroes, hot dames and very wicked villains decorating captivating locales and stunning scenarios, all peppered with blistering tension, mature humour and visceral excitement.

Johnny Hazard is a brilliant two-fisted thriller strip and even if you can’t easily locate these fantastic full-colour chronicles, at least the prospect of an eventual new Sunday strip collection is a little closer at last…
© 1952-1953 King Features Syndicate. © 1979 Pacific C.C.

Space Clusters – DC Graphic Novel #7

By Arthur Byron Cover & Alex Niño (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-930289-14-0

During the 1980s DC, like many publishers large and small galvanised by fresh print-formats and price-tags, attempted to free comics narrative from its previous constraints of size and format as well as content.

Graphic novels were still an unproven quantity in America and Big Guns DC and Marvel as well as angelic upstarts First and Comico adopted a kind of scattershot “suck it and see” attitude, although all parties were apparently content on switching decided on the now extinct (more’s the pity) 8½ by 11 inch European Album page format.

Whereas the House of Ideas had a solid publishing plan that didn’t stray too far from their usual periodical product, DC looked to expand or overlap markets by creating “boutique” imprints such as the Science Fiction Graphic Novel line (adapting classic short stories and novellas into highly experimental graphic narratives) and the plain old catch-all – if unimaginative – DC Graphic Novel Series. Often, at least in sequential narrative terms, there’s not much discernible difference between the two.

However, as this is a place to review and promote graphic novels, please be assured that this is one that works excessively well; evocative, bold and beautifully realised.

To accompany such venerable in-house landmarks as Jack Kirby’s Hunger Dogs and licensed material like Star Raiders and Warlords, the company commissioned all-new tales such as the spectacular and unique and eons-spanning cosmic fantasy of the Space Clusters.

Scripted by author Arthur Byron Cover (Autumn Angels, An East Wind Coming) the true lure here is the lavish full-colour illustration of the most stylish and uncompromisingly impressive artists of the 1970s Filipino invasion – Alex Niño.

The artist was born in 1940, son of and later assistant to a professional photographer. He studied medicine at University of Manila but dropped out in 1959 to pursue his dream of being a comics artist.

He apprenticed with Jess Jodloman and worked on a number of successful features before following Tony DeZuniga in the first wave of Islands artists to work for DC, Marvel and Warren. A stand-alone stylist even amongst his talented confederates, Niño started on DC’s anthology mystery series such as House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion, Secrets of Sinister House, Weird War Tales, Weird Mystery Tales and The Witching Hour before moving into series such as Korak, Son of Tarzan, Space Voyagers and period Caribbean pirate Captain Fear which he co-created with Robert Kanigher.

His Marvel work included adaptations for their own “illustrated Classics” line and landmark interpretations of Ellison’s ‘“Repent Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman’ and Moorcock’s ‘Behold the Man’ for Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction as well as the stunning Savage Sword of Conan classic ‘People of the Dark’ and miscellaneous inking work in the superhero titles.

He found his fullest expression in Warren Publishing’s mature-oriented magazines Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella and the outrageously over-the-top sci-fi title 1984/1994 before largely leaving the industry for Hollywood design work, although a stint on Archie’s The Comet and Shield/Steel Sterling and DC’s Thriller and Omega Men were fairly impressive swan-songs. He also worked for a variety of smaller companies during the 1980s Independents boom and curious true-fans should try to track down his one-man band Alex Niño’s Nightmare #1 featuring translated Filipino material, published in 1989 by Innovation.

He has since occasionally returned to comics in such titles as Dark Horse Presents, Shaman, John Jakes’ Mullkon Empire, Savage Sword of Conan and God the Dyslexic Dog.

With overtones of Les Miserables and The Forever War, the saga begins here as beloved rogue and man of the people Ethan Dayak is finally cornered by dedicated Earth cop Lieutenant Kara Basuto of the Terran Interplanetary Corps on a far-flung alien world.

She has pursued the smuggler of decadent art across the universe at sub-light speeds for eighty years, aging only when she hits a new planet and emerges from suspended animation.

Kara is cold, fanatical and dedicated whilst Dayak is an affable, personable and loving man every race and sentient species he encounters instantly adores…

During their latest confrontation Ethan again escapes, thanks to the intervention of his latest paramour, causing the increasingly remorseless Basuto to finally cross the line and kill civilians…

Crushed, defeated and despondent Dayak sets course for the edge of the galaxy, intending to sleep his way to infinity but even this does not deter Basuto who implacably follows.

Time becomes nothing and eventually both fall into the event horizon of a Black Hole where something incredible happens: both are transformed into supernal, sentient energy phenomena, still trapped in their course of flight and relentless pursuit…

However here at the end of space and time a mighty new race populates the universe and how these ancient new gods deal with the last life of the cosmos makes for a powerful and beguiling drama no fan of the genre will want to miss, especially as the expanded page size and enhanced colour palette give Niño ample opportunity to let his fantastic imagination run wild.

It’s an inexpressible pity they’re all currently out of print and this is an experiment the company should seriously consider resuming. Moreover, as I’ve stated before: these DC Science Fiction graphic novels would make an irresistible “Absolute” compilation…
© 1986 DC Comics Inc. All rights reserved.

The Drops of God Book 1: Les Gouttes de Dieu

By Tadashi Agi & Shu Okimoto translated by Kate Robinson (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-93565-427-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: 7/10. Perfect for that impossible-to-buy-for relative.

Every so often a graphic novel jumps the ghetto walls and makes a splash in the wider world and this intriguing manga monolith is the latest: eschewing the usual icebreakers of horror, sci fi or blood-soaked action to target the lofty and insular world of the high-end vinter trade and the obsessive fascination of oenophilia (I’m chucking in a bunch of technical terms all enticingly explained in the book, but you can cheat and use your search-engine of choice).

Created by brother and sister thriller-writing team Shin & Yuko Kibayashi (Kindaichi’s Case Files, GetBackers) under their nom de crime Tadashi Agi and stunningly illustrated by Shu Okimoto, Kami no Shizuku debuted in 2004 in Kondansha’s Morning and began book compilation a year later. The siblings are also two of the most influential wine connoisseurs in the world and their expertise and passion shine through every page of this monolithic manga tome (430 pages) which has taken the wine world by storm and won the Gourmand and Cookbook Award 2009 – presumably a first for any work of fiction, let alone graphic novel – and has been described by Decanter Magazine as “arguably the most influential wine publication in the past 20 years.”

Of course all I care about is comics, but even on my terms the tale of prodigal son Shizuku Kanzaki, raised from birth to follow his father’s obsession only to rebel and seek his own path until tragedy and circumstance pull him back to his destiny, this is a thoroughly entertaining immaculately realised soap/thriller drama that would make fans of Jackie Collins or Dick Francis rethink their allegiances…

The first eighteen chapters of the ongoing saga are contained in this first English translation, beginning with ‘The Scent of a Hundred Flowers’ and introducing apprentice Sommelier Miyabi Shinohara who almost shames her wine-bar/restaurant employers in front of a prominent – but boorish – wine snob until a dashing young man saves the day with a bit of daredevil decanting.

It transpires that the lad is a small cog in a vast beer-making concern and has never tasted wine: a shocking admission as Shizuku is the son of global superstar of wine criticism Yutaka Kanzaki…

It seems old man Kanzaki had great hopes and aspirations for his son, training the boy from birth in flavours, odour detection and discrimination like a vintner version of Doc Savage, but the boy rebelled and rejected his father’s passion.

The situation changes when Shizuku is informed of his sire’s death and a unique will…

‘A Prayer to the Fruitful Earth’ reveals the elder Kanzaki had a vast and valuable private collection of stellar vintages and has left them, his house and fortune to his wayward son under a bizarre condition. The lad must indulge in a duel with dark prince of Wine-tasters – and inheritor of Kanzaki’s mantle as greatest critic in Japan – Issei Tomine in a dozen blind tastings of the greatest vintages in the collection – the “Twelve Apostles” – as well as the mysterious thirteenth bottle known only as “the Drops of God”. To the one who most closely agrees with the master’s own description goes everything…

At first Shizuku doesn’t care, but the arrogance of Tomine and a burning desire to understand the father who pushed him to such extraordinary lengths moves the orphan to an alliance with Miss Shinohara and a crash-course in the history, lore and philosophy of the wine industry and craft in ‘The Profound and Subtle Queen’ as well as his first ever actual taste of the magical elixir…

For reasons even he doesn’t understand the neophyte decides to accept the challenge of the Drops of God in ‘Over the Bed Wafts an Aroma of Awakening’ and begins his education, inestimably assisted by his incredible sense of smell, expanded palate and the physical skills he never even knew he possessed, courtesy of his early training.

In episodes with such evocative titles as ‘The God of Burgundy’, ‘A Maiden Fleeing through Strawberry Fields’, ‘Tasting in the Park’ and ‘Cradling God’s Blessing in Both Hands’, what follows is a dazzling display of hard fact and the theosophical fervour of the grape-growers art, seamlessly blended with a canny melodrama of rivalry, redemption and possibly burgeoning young love as Shizuku discovers the obsessive power of his father’s life.

The cast expands as the story unfolds and the nigh-mystical nature of wine is seen to mend fences, restore lost lovers and even diagnose illness in ‘Draining the Glass of Reunion’, ‘A Maiden Smiling in the Strawberry Fields’, ‘The Sweet Dessert of Parting’ and ‘The Ones Who Watch Over’.

Even Shizuku’s career alters as he transfers from sales to the Beer company’s small and struggling wine division and discovers that even all he has learned is not enough when he falls foul of snobbery and bigotry in ‘At All the Battles’ Start’, ‘A Lovely Cruel Flower’, ‘Tough Love for a Saucy Lolita’, ‘The Mystery Man of the Wine Division’ and ‘Merry-Go-Round’.

Meanwhile Tomine has begun to stack the odds in his favour by introducing a seductive secret agent into the lives of Shizuku and Miss Shinohara in ‘A Fantastico Night’ wherein some nasty facts about the true character of the Prince of wine-critics is revealed…

As much religion and philosophy as science and art, the cachet and inherent excitement of the wine trade transfers readily and effectively in this tale to make for a superbly readable tale for older readers.

The Japanese excel at making superb comics which simultaneously entertain and educate (check out economics textbook Japan Inc. by Shotaru Ishinomori to see what I mean) and the powerful, evocative imagery used to capture the sensorial effect of wine on the tongue and myriad fragrances in the nostrils is staggeringly effective – a perfect use of the disciplines which only comics can muster.

This is a surprisingly compelling comics-read and might well be the perfect gift for all those people you thought you couldn’t buy a graphic novel present for…

This black and white book is printed in the traditional ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format.

© 2011 Tadashi Agi/Shu Okimoto. All rights reserved.

Animal Land book 1

By Makoto Raiku, translated and adapted by Stephen Paul (Kondansha USA)
ISBN: 978-1-935429-13-5

Here’s a sly and rather subtle allegory from relative manga newcomer Makoto Raiuku (Newtown Heroes, Genmai Blade, and the enormously popular Konjiki no Gash!! which hit American TV screens as Zatch Bell!!).

Dōbutsu no Kuni or “Animal Country” began in 2009 and follows the incredible life of a seemingly human baby abandoned and cast adrift on a river only to wash up in the land of animals: a dog-eat-dog, literally bestial world of raw savagery where the weak always die and only the strong are able to survive.

‘Word 1: Hello, Baby’ opens proceedings with little Monoko, an orphan Tanuki (a sort of tiny raccoon dog indigenous to Japan). Since her parents were eaten by wild cats she’s been unable to pull her weight in the hard-pressed Tanuki community; all rushing to store enough for the rapidly approaching winter. It doesn’t look like she’s going to make it…

Her world and existence change forever when she adopts the strange hairless monkey cub which washes up on the river bank one cold day. This is a very strange baby and Monoko insanely decides to become its new mother against all the advice of the village.

In Animal Land all creatures are at odds and cannot understand other species cries, but Monoko decides to risk everything – including being eaten by cats such as the fearsome Kurokagi – to steal some milk for the foundling to drink.

Despite a horrifying but successful mission the baby is cold and dying: it has no will to live and the Tanuki elders brusquely tell her to stop wasting everybody’s time and resources.

Desperate Monoko cuddles it with her body, sharing her warmth in a desperate, lonely struggle to keep it alive one more night. When she awakes she discovers something miraculous and staggering game-changing…

The initial episodes ends with another huge shock: the baby can speak Tanuki…

The mystery increases in the second instalment ‘Word 2: Baby’s Power’ when the infant reveals that he can converse and understand the speech of all animals – even the ultimate predator Kurokagi – thereby discovering the dire marauder’s tragic secret and further reshaping the nature and destiny of the savage domain, whilst the third and final chapter ‘Word 3: Baby Cries Over His Name’ sees Monoko’s first maternal crisis as she finds a keepsake from the baby’s biological mother and fears her joyous new world is crumbling around her until once more the wonder baby comes to her emotional and physical rescue…

Despite what the publishers would have you believe this isn’t just another cute kiddie-book. For starters it’s filled with scatological asides and the audience advisory is 13 and older. Moreover, despite being filled with action, adventure and slapstick/social gaffe humour in the grand manga manner, this is a tale filled with scary moments, brutal situations and heartbreaking poignancy, with a lot to say about family, community, integration, unity and understanding through plain-talking and communication.

Also included in this initial monochrome volume are translator’s notes, a guide to Japanese honorifics, Omake pages (“extra” or “bonus”) of short cartoon strips and a longer piece wherein Makuto Raiku lets us in on the background of and inspiration for the strip: sharing the bittersweet story of his and wife’s best friend Riku – an abandoned wounded puppy…

More Animal Farm than The Gruffalo, this is a brilliant piece and impressive slice of social fantasy for kids, and would make a great gift for older children getting too big for traditional kids stuff.

This volume is printed in the traditional front-to-back, right-to-left reading manner.

© 2010 Makoto Raiku. English translation © 2011 Makoto Raiku. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents The Witching Hour volume 1

By Alex Toth & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-85768-196-6

American comicbooks started slowly until the creation of superheroes unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and invented a new genre. Implacably vested in the Second World War, the Overman swept all before him (and the far too occasional her) until the troops came home and more traditional genres supplanted the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Although new kids kept up the buying, much of the previous generation also retained their four-colour habit but increasingly sought older themes in the reading matter. The war years altered the psychology of the world, and as a more world-weary, cynical young public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything, their chosen forms of entertainment (film and prose as well as comics) reflected this. As well as Western, War and Crime comics, madcap escapist comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features were immediately resurgent, but gradually another periodic revival of spiritualism and interest in the supernatural led to a wave of increasingly impressive, evocative and even shocking horror comics.

There had been grisly, gory and supernatural stars before, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in mystery-man garb and trappings (The Spectre, Mr. Justice, Sgt. Spook, Frankenstein, The Heap, Dr. Fate and dozens of others), but these had been victims of circumstance: the unknown as a power source for super-heroics. Now the focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken or control with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering the reader.

Almost every publisher jumped on the increasingly popular bandwagon, with B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launching the first regularly published horror comic in the Autumn of 1948, although Adventures Into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon who had released an impressive single issue entitled Eerie in January 1947 before launching a regular series in 1951, by which time Classics Illustrated had already long milked the literary end of the medium with adaptations of the Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

If we’re keeping score this was also the period in which Joe Simon and Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap and invented the Romance comic (Young Romance #1, September 1947) but they too saw the sales potential for spooky material, resulting in the seminal Black Magic (launched in 1950) and boldly obscure psychological drama anthology Strange World of Your Dreams (1952).

The company that would become DC Comics bowed to the inevitable and launched a comparatively straight-laced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

When the hysterical censorship scandal which led to witch-hunting hearings (feel free to type Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, April-June 1954 into your search engine at any time… you can do that because it’s notionally a free country now) was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self regulatory rules.

HoM and its sister title House of Secrets were dialled back into rationalistic, fantasy adventure vehicles, which dominated the market until the 1960s when super-heroes (which had started to creep back after Julius Schwartz began the Silver Age of comics by reintroducing the Flash in Showcase #4, 1956) finally overtook them. Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom and a slew of other costumed cavorters generated a gaudy global bubble of masked mavens which even forced the dedicated anthology suspense titles to transform into super-character split-books.

However nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and at the end of the 1960s the Silver Age superhero boom stalled and crashed, leading to the surviving publishers of the field agreeing to loosen their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics. Nobody much cared about gangster titles at that time but as the liberalisation coincided with another bump in global interest in all aspects of the supernatural, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.” Even the ultra wholesome Archie comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle thrillers

With Tales of the Unexpected from #105 and House of Mystery #174 the company switched to anthology horror material before creating an all-new title to further exploit the morbid fascination with the fearsome and spooky (they even resurrected the cancelled House of Secrets in late 1969) for those heady days when it was okay – and profitable – to scare the heck out of little kids by making them laugh.

Edited until #14 by Dick Giordano, The Witching Hour first struck at the end of 1968 (with a February/March 1969 cover-date). From the outset it was an extremely experimental and intriguing beast and this amazingly economical Showcase Presents collection reprints the first 19 issues, completely covering the first three years as the fear fad grew to become the backbone of DC’s sales. It is perhaps the most talent-stuffed title of that entire period.

Here the usual cool and creepy horror hosts who introduced the tales were three witches – based as much on Macbeth as the ancient concept of Maiden, Mother and Crone – a torrid trio who constantly battled to outdo or out-gross each other in the telling of terror tales. Moreover, Cynthia, Mildred and Mordred – as well as shy monster man-servant Egor – were designed and usually drawn by master artist Alex Toth; making the framing sequences between yarns as good as and sometimes better than the stories they brazenly bracketed.

One minor quibble: records from the period are not complete and occasionally a creator is unknown, but this volume also sadly misattributes the artist too. I’ve attempted to correct the mistakes when I’m certain, but please be warned and beware – I’m not always right either…

Following a stunning Nick Cardy cover, Toth starts the ball rolling by introducing the sinister sisters and their ongoing contest before Dennis O’Neil & Pat Boyette relate the story of a time-travelling tap-dancer in ‘Save the Last Dance For Me’, after which Toth writes and illustrates a compelling period piece of peril in ‘Eternal Hour!’ and Jack Sparling relates the eerie fate of wave-obsessed Stanley’s search for ‘The Perfect Surf’. Toth’s scary sisters then close out the premier issue (with, I suspect, additional inks from Neal Adams), but still find room for ‘Silk Gauze’, an informational page by persons unknown which first appeared in Tales Unexpected #126.

Although attributed to Toth, #2’s introductory episode is by his old Standard Comics stable-mate Mike Sekowsky (inked by Giordano) and leads into Sparling’s dream-chiller ‘Scream!’, after which young José Delbo delineates a shocking period tale of slavery and vengeance ‘The Trip of Fools!’ before Sid Greene’s short ghost story ‘The Beat Goes On!’ and Sparling’s ‘Once Upon a Surprise Ending!’ end an issue regrettably short on writer credits.

Following another Sekowsky/Giordano intro, Toth & Vince Colletta illustrated Don Arneson’s medieval mood masterpiece ‘The Turn of the Wheel!’, whilst Alan Riefe & Sparling told a decidedly different ghost-story in ‘The Death Watch’, after which Steve Skeates & Bernie Wrightson revealed a very alterative fantasy hero in ‘…And in a Far-Off Land!’, followed by the first of a series of short prose vignettes: an anonymous fright-comedy entitled ‘Potion of Love’.

Toth illustrated the sisters’ ‘Witching Hour Welcome Wagon’ (a useful identifying rule of thumb for the uninitiated is that the master usually signed his work – and was allowed too…) after which new kid Gerard Conway spectrally scripted ‘A Matter of Conscience’ for art veterans Sparling & George Roussos. Another anonymous prose piece ‘If You Have Ghosts’ preceded a smashing yarn entitled ‘Disaster in a Jar’ by Riefe & Boyette and Conway scripted the period witchfinder thriller ‘A Fistful of Fire’ for Delbo – a vastly underrated artist who was on the best form of his career at this time.

Toth’s Weird Sisters closed out that issue and eerily, hilariously opened #5 before Wrightson lavishly embellished a nifty but uncredited (as is every script in this one) nautical nightmare ‘The Sole Survivor!’, followed by text-teaser ‘The Non-Believer!’ and Boyette’s stunning, clownish creep-feature ‘A Guy Can Die Laughing!’, whilst Stanley Pitt & Giordano’s dating dilemma ‘The Computer Game’ was one of the first to explore that now-hoary plot. After Toth signs off the witches, there’s an added one-page black-comedy bonus from Sid Greene with ‘My! How You’ve Grown!’

Sekowsky & Giordano limned Dave Kaler’s take on the sisters’ intro for The Witching Hour #6 after which a far darker horror debuted in ‘A Face in the Crowd!’ by Conway, Mike Roy & Mike Peppe, as a Nazi war criminal and a concentration camp survivor met in an American street; Marv Wolfman & Delbo described a tale of neighbourly intolerance in ‘The Doll Man!’ and ‘Treasure Hunt’ by Skeates, John Celardo & Giordano showed why greed isn’t always good. Also included were Conway’s prose tale ‘Train to Doom’, ‘Mad Menace’ – a half-page gag strip by John Costanza – and ‘Distortion!’ another Greene-limned one-pager.

Toth & Mike Friedrich were on spectacular form for #7’s introduction and bridging sequences, and Bill Draut was compulsively effective in prison manhunt saga ‘The Big Break!’ whose scripter Steve Skeates also wrote modern-art murder-mystery ‘The Captive!’ for Roussos, after which Friedrich & Jack Abel advised a most individual baby to ‘Look Homeward, Angelo!’. Text piece ‘Who Believes Ouija?’ and Jack Miller & Michael Wm. Kaluta’s gothically lovely ‘Trick or Treat’ round out the sinister sights in this issue.

Sergio Aragonés & Neal Adams provided the witch-bits for #8, bracketing their own satanically sardonic ‘Above and Beyond the Call of Duty!’, as well as ‘Three Day Home Trial!’ (Aragonés & Cardy) and the staggeringly inventive ‘Computerr’ by that man again and Toth. ‘The Career Man’ was a witty but anonymous prose piece and the issue closed with a Twice Told Tale by Ron Whyte & Sparling, as an urban myth was revealed in ‘The Sign of the Hook!’

Toth & Draut began #9, after which Bob Brown & Murphy Anderson illustrated ghostly tale ‘The Long Road Home!’ and, after text story ‘The Dark Well’, the peripatetic, post-apocalyptic, ironic occasional series ‘The Day after Doomsday’ by Len Wein & Sparling made a welcome appearance. Delbo delightfully delineated a terrifying tale of Old China in ‘The Last Straw’ and, after George Tuska took over the Weird Sisters linking-segments, a doomsday debacle closed the dramas with a ‘Trumpet Perilous!’ drawn by Sparling & Abel.

The witches’ opening issue #10 were once more by Toth & Draut, promptly followed by a magnificent illustration job by the great Gray Morrow on the regrettably uncredited ‘A Warp in Time… Loses Everything!’ – work inestimably improved by being seen in monochrome – after which the all-word ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’ preceded Conway & Toth’s superb forbidden romance ‘Hold Softly, Hand of Death!’. Tuska handles the Sisters before Sparling’s faux-fact page ‘Realm of the Mystics’ ends this excursion into the dark.

Toth drew the intro and Jack Oleck’s ‘The Mark of the Witch’ (inked by Draut) in #11, whilst – after text-tale ‘Retired Undefeated!’ – Tuska inspirationally illustrated the creepy chronal conundrum ‘The Sands of Time, the Snows of Death!’, and The Witching Hour #12 was similarly blessed, as after a sinisterly sexy Skeates/Toth intro the devilish duo then described an horrific ‘Double Edge’ battle between witch-queens and valiant mortals, followed by a Machiavellian actor’s ‘Double Take’ (Skeates & Tuska) and a demonic duel and ‘Double Cross!’ by Skeates & Gil Kane. The ever-anonymous prose piece was the mordantly merry ‘The Dead Can’t Talk But…’

Giordano’s last issue was editor was #13, which opened in grand style as fellow comicbook hosts Cain, Abel and the Mad Mod Witch (from Houses of Mystery and Secrets and The Unexpected respectively) attended ‘New Year’s Eve at the Witching Hour’ (illustrated by Neal Adams) followed by a marvellously experimental and effective psycho-thriller by Alan Gold & Gray Morrow entitled ‘The Maze’, a far more traditional but no less scary story ‘The Accursed Clay!’ (Miller, Sparling & Frank Giacoia) and the just plain strange tale of ‘The Rush-Hour Ride of Abner Pringle!’, by Wein & Delbo. As an added treat the text token was ‘The Witching Hour Mistree’ by that shy but not retiring rogue Egor…

When veteran editor Murray Boltinoff assumed the reins with #14 (April-May 1971) an element of experimentalism was surrendered but the more conventional material was no less welcomed by the horror-hungry readership: more proof, if any were needed, that artistic endeavour and envelope-pushing aren’t to everybody’s taste. George Tuska replaced Toth as regular illustrator of the introductory and bridging sections, but otherwise most fright-seeking kids could hardly tell the difference.

The all-science fiction issue’s terror-tales began with a beautiful but oddly stilted yarn from Conway and Jeff Jones who explored the solitary burdens of ‘Fourteen Months’ in deep space, whilst ‘Which Witch is Which?’, by Kaler, drawn by Stanley & Reg Pitt, related the comeuppance of an intergalactic Lothario. As “Al Case”, Editor Boltinoff provided the text feature ‘Dead Letter Office’ and the issued ended on a classic visual high note with ‘The Haunted House in Space!’ illustrated by the dream team of Al Williamson & Carlos Garzon.

After the usual ghastly graphic girl talk TWH #15 started with a murder masterpiece from George Kashdan & Wally Wood revealing that ‘Freddy is Another Name For Fear!’, after which Al Case scripted ‘End of a World’ before Phil Seuling & Gray Morrow stole the show with the fearsome fable of the ‘Bayou Witch’ and Case & Art Saaf rang down the curtain with ‘I Married a Witch!’

Issue #16 saw House of Mystery expand from 32 to 52 pages – as did all DC titles for the next couple of years, opening the doors for a superb period of new material and the best of the company’s prodigious archives to an appreciative, impressionable audience. The mysterious magic began after Tuska’s punchy prelude with the cautionary ‘Never Kill a Witch!’ by Carl Wessler, John Calnan & Bernie Case, after which Boltinoff – as Bill Dennehy – provided a slick and edgy reinterpretation of a classic fairytale for Morrow to lavishly limn in ‘The Spell of Sinner Ella!’ before switching back to his Case persona for the Tony DeZuniga illustrated duelling drama ‘You Can’t Hide From Death’. The classic reprints began with ‘The Wondrous Witch’s Cauldron’ (drawn by the legendary Lee Elias from House of Secrets #58), followed by a Joe Orlando illustrated, Charles King scripted text piece ‘Last Meal’ and Howie Post and Draut’s ghoulish period parable ‘The Curse of the Cat’ which both first saw print in House of Mystery #177.

Kashdan & Heck opened #17 with a modern magic myth in ‘This Little Witch Went to College’ after which a classic 1950’s fear-feature from Sensation Mystery Comics #109 saw Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella devastatingly depict the ‘Fingers of Fear!’ whilst from House of Secrets #46, Howard Sherman delineated ‘The Second Life of Simon Steele’. Dennehy, Calnan & Colletta provided a new yarn with an old moral in ‘The Corpse who Carried Cash!’ before Wessler & mood-master Jerry Grandenetti fantastically finished the fear-fest with ‘The Man in the Cellar’.

The same team opened #18 with ‘The Worm that Turned to Terror’, a schizophrenic slice of domestic hell followed by ‘The Diggers!’ a nasty, vengeful yarn from Bobs Haney and Brown with Giacoia inks that encompassed half a century of French war and regret. Tales of the Unexpected #13 was the original source of both the Ed Herron/Jack Kirby conundrum ‘The Face Behind the Mask’ and the Herron/Cardy creepy-crime caper ‘I Was a Prisoner of the Supernatural’, after which modernity returned with Jim Aparo’s ‘Hypnotic Eye’ and the Kashdan, Calnan & Colletta cautionary tale ‘When Satan Comes Calling!’

The final issue in this superbly spooky compendium is The Witching Hour #19, which, after the customary Tuska drawn kaffeeklatsch with Mordred, Mildred and Cynthia, commences in a stylish, sparkling Jack Phillips & Grandenetti chiller ‘A Tomb for the Winning!’, swiftly followed by ‘The Four Threads of Doom’ (by anonymous & Cardy from Tales of the Unexpected #12) after which a different anonymous and Tuska provided a fresh new thriller in ‘Stop Beating, Heart! You’re Killing Me!’. One final Cardy reprint ‘The Lamp That Changed People!’ (House of Mystery #20) follows before this wonderful debut volume of witchly wonderment concludes with the Kashdan/Elias shocker ‘What Evil Haunts This House?’

These terror-tales captivated the reading public and critics alike when they first appeared and it’s likely the supernatural sector saved DC during one of the toughest downturns in comics publishing history. Now their blend of garish mordant mirth, classic horror scenarios and suspense set-pieces can most familiarly be seen in such children’s series as Goosebumps, Horrible Histories and their many imitators.

If you crave beautifully realised, tastefully gore-free sagas of tension and imagination, not to mention a huge supply of bad-taste, kid-friendly cartoon chaos, stay up past The Witching Hour as long and as often as you possibly can…

© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 4: 1943-1944

By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-455-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Ideal for anybody who ever strived or dreamed or wished… 9/10

Almost certainly the most successful comic strip fantasy 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 perfect adventure and romance. The strip followed the life and exploits of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his ancestral homeland in Scandinavian Thule who grew up to roam the world and rose to a paramount position amongst the mightiest heroes of fabled Camelot.

Written and drawn by sublime master draftsman Harold “Hal” Foster, the little princeling matured to clean-limbed 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 narrative 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 fourth luxurious oversized full-colour hardback volume reprints – spectacularly restored from Foster’s original Printer’s Proofs – the strips from January 3rd 1943 to 31st December 1944 and sees the beginning of his celebrated but rarely seen “Footer strip” The Mediaeval Castle.

As comprehensively explained in Brian M. Kaine’s introductory essay ‘Hal Foster’s The Mediaeval Castle in the Days of President Roosevelt’ wartime paper rationing forced newspapers to dictate format-changes to their syndicated strip purchases and properties like Prince Valiant began to appear with an unrelated (and therefore optional) second feature, which individual client papers could choose to omit according to their local space considerations.

Apparently the three-panel-per week saga starring the 11th century family of Lord and Lady Harwood, their young sons Arn and Guy and teenaged daughter Alice – a feudal pot-boiler so popular that it spawned a couple of book collections – wasn’t dropped by a single paper throughout its 18-month run from April 23, 1944 to the dog-days of 1945, but Foster was happy to return to one epic per full page once the newsprint restrictions were lifted. This volume also includes a candid glimpse of a painting by the artist lost since his death and only recently discovered at auction.

This comic chronicle opens with Valiant leading King Arthur’s forces in a cunning war of attrition against united Scottish Picts and invading Vikings – but only until the wily young paladin starts sowing deadly discord amongst their assembled ranks, breaking the invasion force by turning it upon itself.

After the clash of arms subsides, restless Val is haunted by visions of Queen Aleta of The Misty Isles, whom he believes has bewitched him, utterly unaware that she saved his life not once but twice.

Determined to lose his dolorous mood, he revisits the fenland swamps of his youth and spends a tempestuous time with the wizard Merlin, before moving on to Camelot and a joyous reunion with his dashing and outrageous comrade Gawain. Even in such company Val’s mood is poor and he determines to visit his father King Aguar in distant Thule, stopping only to eradicate two bands of bandits and cut-purses lurking in the great forest, ably assisted by his devoted squire Beric.

Taking passage to Scandia, the heroes stumble into a turbulent shipboard romance and extended drama which ends tragically as the great vessel Poseidon, carrying them all to Uppsala, founders in a mighty storm.

Enemies become comrades and even friends as they all struggle for survival, with Val, Beric and a few others, including Jewish merchant Ahab and a rowdy Saxon yclept Eric, finally continuing their voyage in small skiff, encountering Viking raiders and deep sea monsters before safely beaching in Trondheim.

Eric joins Val and Beric for the final leg of the journey to Thule, but as they near King Aguar’s palace they become fortuitously embroiled in a plot to oust the aged monarch, leading to insidious intrigue and a spectacular confrontation. As the heroes of the day bask in deserved glory, the boastful and flirtatious Eric is easily and permanently tamed by the delightfully capable maid Ingrid, but the idyllic days don’t last long as the other elements of the proposed coup become known.

For a change, Val uses diplomacy to end the crisis but danger still cloaks him like a shroud. When a hunting accident almost kills him, he accidentally plays Cupid for a crippled artist and a Viking’s daughter and, barely recovered, repulses an invasion by barbarian Finns.

After a collapsing glacier nearly ends his life he is captured by rebellious nobles determined to be rid of his sire. Tortured and used as bait, Valiant escapes, turns the tables on his captors and presides over a grim and merciless siege which sees them all destroyed like vermin.

Midway through that action The Mediaeval Castle debuted, beginning with details of daily life for the noble Harwoods before launching into an epic feud between rival lords that lasted until the end of this collection whilst depriving the lead feature of fully a third of its usual story-space each Sunday.

Undeterred Foster then launched his longest yarn to date: a twenty-month extravaganza which saw Prince Valiant set out for the Misty Isles to free himself of the “spell” of grey-eyed siren Aleta. Returning to Camelot the tormented Prince enlists the aid of Gawain and they promptly set off across the kingdoms of Europe. In Germany they are attacked by barbaric Goths, before taking ship in Rome and being shipwrecked. Beric and the now amnesiac Val are marooned whilst Gawain, who is held hostage by an ambitious Sicilian noble, takes the spotlight for a few weeks.

The sheer bravura of Foster’s storytelling ability comes to the fore now: in modern times an author of a periodical tale would blanch at the spending of a great and well-established character, but as Valiant finally recovers and lands on the extremely hostile Misty Isles one of the most loved players dies nobly to save the Prince’s life…

Aleta, the spellbinder of Val’s nightmares, has been ill-used by fate and is not the monster the bold voyager believes. She is however, in dire straits with a flock of suitors and her own courtiers pressing her to marry immediately and produce an heir. So it’s with mixed emotions that she sees the boy she once rescued burst in, snatch her up and flee the Isles with her as his uncomplaining prisoner.

As for the exhausted but exultant Val, he now has the cause of all his woes chained and at his mercy…

To Be Continued…

Rendered in a simply stunning panorama of glowing visual passion and precision, Prince Valiant is a non-stop rollercoaster of stirring action, exotic adventure and grand romance; blending human-scaled fantasy with dry wit and broad humour with shatteringly dark violence. Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring the strip is a World Classic of fiction and something no fan can afford to miss. If you have never experienced the intoxicating grandeur of Foster’s magnum opus these magnificent, lavishly substantial deluxe editions are the best way possible to do so 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.

Valerian and Laureline book 2: The Empire of a Thousand Planets

By J.-C. Méziéres & P. Christin, with colours by E. Tranlé and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-087-0

Valérian is arguably the most influential comics science fiction series ever drawn – and yes, I am including both Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in that expansive and undoubtedly contentious statement.

Although to a large extent those venerable strips defined the medium itself, anybody who has seen a Star Wars movie has seen some of Jean-Claude Méziéres & Pierre Christin’s brilliant imaginings which the filmic phenomenon has shamelessly plundered for decades: everything from the look of the Millennium Falcon to Leia’s Slave Girl outfit -as this second volume powerfully proves in a stunning comparisons feature following after the magnificent adventure contained herein…

Simply put, more carbon-based lifeforms have experienced and marvelled at the uniquely innovative, grungy, lived-in tech realism and light-hearted swashbuckling rollercoaster romps of Méziéres & Christin than any other cartoon spacer ever imagined possible.

The groundbreaking series followed a Franco-Belgian mini-boom in fantasy fiction triggered by Jean-Claude Forest’s 1962 creation Barbarella. Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent launched in the November 9th, 1967 edition of Pilote (#420) and was an instant hit. In combination with Greg & Eddy Paape’s Luc Orient and Philippe Druillet’s Lone Sloane, Valérian’s hot public reception led to the creation of dedicated adult graphic sci fi magazine Métal Hurlant in 1977.

Valérian and Laureline (as the series eventually became) is light-hearted, wildly imaginative time-travelling, space-warping fantasy (a bit like Dr. Who, but not really at all…), drenched in wry, satirical, humanist action and political commentary, starring, in the beginning, an affable, capable, unimaginative and by-the-book cop tasked with protecting the official universal chronology and counteracting paradoxes caused by casual time-travellers.

When Valérian travelled to 11th century France in the initial tale ‘Les Mauvais Rêves (‘Bad Dreams’) he was rescued from doom by a fiery, capable young woman named Laureline whom he brought back to the 28th century super-citadel and administrative wonderland of Galaxity, capital of the Terran Empire. The indomitable lass trained as a Spatio-Temporal operative and began accompanying him on his missions.

Every subsequent Valérian adventure until the 13th was first serialised weekly in Pilote until the conclusion of ‘The Rage of Hypsis’ after which the mind-boggling sagas were only published as all-new complete graphic novels, until the whole spectacular saga resolved and ended in 2010.

The Empire of a Thousand Planets originally ran in Pilote #520-541from October 23rd 1969 to March 19th 1970 and saw the veteran and rookie despatched to the fabled planet Syrte the Magnificent, capital of vast system-wide civilisation and a world in inexplicable and rapid technological and social decline.

The mission is one of threat-assessment: staying in their base time-period (October 2720) the pair are tasked with examining the first galactic civilisation ever discovered that has never experienced any human contact or contamination, but as usual, events don’t go according to plan…

Despite easily blending into a culture with a thousand sentient species, Valerian and Laureline soon find themselves plunged into intrigue and dire danger when the acquisitive girl buys an old watch in the market.

Nobody on Syrte knows what it is since all the creatures of this civilisation have an innate, infallible time-sense, but the gaudy bauble soon attracts the attention of one of the Enlightened – a sinister cult of masked mystics who have the ear of the Emperor and a stranglehold on all technologies….

The Enlightened are responsible for the stagnation within this once-vital interplanetary colossus and they quickly move to eradicate the Spatio-temporal agents. Narrowly escaping doom, the pair reluctantly experience the staggering natural wonders and perils of the wilds beyond the capital city before dutifully returning to retrieve their docked spaceship.

Soon however our dauntless duo are distracted and embroiled in a deadly rebellion fomented by the Commercial Traders Guild. Infiltrating the awesome palace of the puppet-Emperor and exploring the mysterious outer planets Valerian and Laureline discover a long-fomenting plot to destroy Earth – a world supposedly unknown to anyone in this Millennial Empire…

All-out war looms and the Enlightened’s incredible connection to post-Atomic disaster Earth is astonishingly revealed just as inter-stellar conflict erupts between rebels and Imperial forces, with our heroes forced to fully abandon their neutrality and take up arms to save two civilisations a universe apart yet inextricably linked…

Comfortingly, yet unjustly familiar, this spectacular space-opera is fun-filled, action-packed, visually breathtaking and mind-bogglingly ingenious.  Drenched in wide-eyed fantasy wonderment, science fiction adventures have never been better than this.

© Dargaud Paris, 1971 Christin, Méziéres & Tran-Lệ. All rights reserved. English translation © 2011 Cinebook Ltd.

The Hidden

By Richard Sala (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-160699-385-6

Richard Sala is a deserving Darling of the Literary Comics movement (if such a thing exists) blending beloved pop culture artefacts and conventions – particularly old horror films – with a soberly effective ability to tell a graphic tale.

He grew up in Chicago and Arizona before earning a Masters in Fine Arts, and after beginning a career as an illustrator rediscovered his love of comicbooks. The potentially metafictional self-published Night Drive in 1984 led to appearances in legendary 1980s anthologies Raw and Blab! and animated adaptations of the series on Liquid Television.

His work is welcomingly atmospheric, dryly ironic, wittily quirky and mordantly funny; indulgently celebrating childhood terrors, gangsters, bizarre events and manic mysteries, with girl sleuth Judy Drood and the glorious trenchant storybook investigator Peculia the most well known characters in his gratifyingly large back catalogue.

Sala’s art is a jolting joy to behold and has graced many outside-industry projects such as work with Lemony Snickett, the Resident and even – posthumously – Jack Kerouac; illustrating the author’s outrageous Doctor Sax and The Great World Snake.

His latest appetising shocker The Hidden returns to the seamy, scary underbelly of un-life with an enigmatic quest tale following the few “lucky” survivors who wake up one morning to discover civilisation has succumbed to an inexplicable global Armageddon, with no power, practically no people and ravening monsters roaming everywhere.

Trapped on in the fog on a mountain, Colleen and Tom emerge into the world of death and destruction before promptly fleeing back to the wilderness. As they run they find an amnesiac bum, who uncomprehendingly leads them to other young survivors with their own tale of terror, a place of sanctuary in the desert and the shocking true secret of the disaster…

Clever, compelling and staggeringly engaging, this fabulous full-colour hardback is a wonderfully nostalgic escape hatch back to those days when unruly children scared themselves silly under the bedcovers at night and will therefore make an ideal gift for the big kid in your life – whether he/she’s just you, imaginary or even relatively real…

© 2011 Richard Sala. All rights reserved.

Twin Spica volume 8

By Kou Yaginuma (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-13-1

The hungry fascination, hopeful imagination and cocksure anticipation of space travel which was an integral component of post-World War II society is the driving narrative engine for this inspiring manga epic from Kou Yaginuma, who first began capturing hearts and minds with his poignant short story ‘2015 Nen no Uchiage Hanabi’ (‘2015: Fireworks’), published in Gekkan Comics Flapper magazine, June 2000).

The author happily expanded and enhanced the subject, themes and characters into a major narrative epic combining hard science and humanist fiction with lyrical mysticism and traditional tales of school-days and growing up.

To recap: diminutive teenager Asumi Kamogawa has always dreamed of going into space. From her earliest moments the lonely child gazed up at the stars with her imaginary friend Mr. Lion, especially at the twinkling glow of Virgo and the alluring binary star Spica. An isolated, serious girl, she lived with her father, a common labourer who once worked for the consortium which built the rockets for Japan’s Space Program.

In 2010, when Asumi was a year old, the first Japanese space-launch ended in utter catastrophe when rocket-ship Shishigō (“The Lion”), exploded: crashing to earth on the city of Yuigahama. Hundreds were killed and many more injured, including Asumi’s mother. Maimed and comatose, the matron took years to die. The shock crushed her grieving husband and utterly traumatised infant Asumi.

In response to the disaster, Japan set up an Astronautics and Space Sciences Acadamy. After years of struggle, in 2024 Asumi was accepted to the Tokyo National Space School and slowly began making real friends like Shinnosuke Fuchuya (who used to bully her as child in Yuigahama), jolly Kei Oumi, chilly Marika Ukita and spooky, ultra-cool style-icon and fashion victim Shu Suzuki. Every day Asumi moved closer to her unshakable dream of going to the stars.

Small, physically weak and very poor, Asumi endures and triumphs. She still talks with Mr. Lion… who might be the ghost of an astronaut who died on the Shishigō

The individual stories are broken up into “Missions” and this particularly tender and thoughtful eighth volume begins with #39 as the still somewhat aloof Asumi undertakes a devout daily personal ritual – absorbing the wonder of the Heavens at the local Planetarium. Times are changing, however and the venerable old edifice is about to close forever, a victim of economic cuts and dwindling public interest…

Later she rejoins classmates Oumi and Ukita on the school roof for more stargazing. Excitement rises when they think they might have discovered a new supernova…

Mission: 40 concentrates on the rapidly approaching end of semester and exams. Oumi is ill and might not pass, whilst enigmatic Shu reveals yet another hidden talent after being given the shocking news that he is confidentially considered for participation in an American Shuttle mission. Meanwhile, Christmas is coming and Asumi is inexplicably growing closer to a shy and extremely diffident boy from the local orphanage, just when she can least afford distractions. With her workload and part-time job she hardly has time to think as it is…

Mission: 41 continues her concentration-busting whilst we learn some tragic secrets regarding the abusive home life of Mr. Perfect Shu Suzuki and the other girls begin to notice physical evidence of her “imaginary friend”. When the orphan boy reveals he is leaving Japan, Asumi has to make a choice between her current emotions and her life’s dream and it takes a dramatic intervention by rival and “frenemy” Fuchuya to set her straight on what she really needs in the truly heartbreaking Mission: 42

The orphan boy’s history and astonishing secret is examined in #43 whilst #44 amps up the school pressure and the conflicted Fuchuya recalls an pivotal moment when his fireworks-maker grandfather sparked his own interest in the stars – and Asumi…

The offer to send a Japanese astronaut up with the US shuttle becomes public in Mission: 45 and a fierce competition for the single placement ensues counter-pointed by more agonising reminiscences from Shu and the main storyline concludes in #46 as the previously isolated Asumi realises her life is changing and she has friends she might soon lose…

The going is getting tougher and now that they are all nearing the end of their training, it becomes increasingly, painfully clear to the determined students that the bonds so painstakingly forged are on the verge of being severed. After only one more year, final selections will be made and most of the class will fail and vanish from each other’s lives. A countdown clock is ticking…

Also included here a couple of ancillary tales: ‘Giovanni’s Ticket’ returns to the early years following the Shishigō crash and explores Asumi and Fuchuya’s formative relationship whilst the poignant ‘Guide to Cherry Blossoms’ follows the path to love and examines roads not taken by Kasumi Suzuki (presumably Shu’s tragic other if the dates hidden in the art work are anything to go by) during the highly symbolic spring festival.

The book ends with a wistfully autobiographical ‘Another Spica’ vignette from author Yaginuma’s days as a part-time server on a soft-drink stand in a theme park; one more charming insight into creative minds and unrequited passions…

These deeply moving marvels originally appeared in 2005 as Futatsu no Supika 8 and 9 in the Seinen manga magazine Gekkan Comics Flapper, targeted at male readers aged 18-30, but this ongoing, unfolding beguiling saga is perfect for any older kid with stars in their eyes…

Twin Spica ran from September 2001-August 2009: sixteen volumes tracing the trajectories of Asumi and friends from callow students to competent astronauts and the series has spawned both anime and live action TV series.

This delightful serial has everything: plenty of hard science to back up the informed extrapolation, an engaging cast, mystery and frustrated passion, alienation, angst and true friendships; all welded seamlessly into a joyous coming-of-age drama with supernatural overtones and masses of sheer sentiment.

Hopefully rekindling the irresistible allure of the Final Frontier for the next generation (and the last ones too) Twin Spica is quite simply the best…

These books are printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.
© 2011 by Kou Yaginuma/MEDIA FACTORY Inc. Translation © 2011 Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.