The Fat Ninja (GMC Collections Volume 1 #3)

By Gary Amaro, Kris Silver & various (Greater Mercury Comics)

The late 1980s were an incredibly fertile time for American comics-creators. It was as if an entire new industry had been born with the sudden expansion of the Direct Sales market and dedicated specialist retail outlets; new companies were experimenting with format and content and punters even had a bit of spare cash to play with.

Moreover much of the “kid’s stuff” stigma had finally abated and the country was catching up to the rest of the world in acknowledging that sequential narrative might just be a for-real and truly, actual art-form…

Consequently many starry-eyed kids and young start-up companies began competing for the attention and cash of punters who had grown accustomed – or resigned – to getting their sequential narratives from DC, Marvel, Archie and/or Harvey Comics. European and Japanese material had been creeping in and by 1983 a host of young companies such as WaRP Graphics, Pacific, Eclipse, Vortex, Capital, Now, Slave Labor, Comico, Dark Horse, First and many others had established themselves and were making impressive inroads.

New talent, established stars and fresh ideas all found a thriving forum to try something a little different both in terms of content and format. Even smaller companies had a fair shot at the big time and a lot of great material came – and too often, quickly went – without getting the attention or success it warranted. Often utterly superb and innovative material came from the same shoestring outfits generating the worst dreck imaginable and the only way to get in on the next big thing – or better yet – something actually good was to get out and try it…

It really helped if you worked in a comic shop and got first pick before the customers arrived too…

One of the least well-known yet most fun was an unassuming spoof series entitled Fat Ninja which came out of a prolific little outfit calling itself Greater Mercury Comics from August to December 1986. The serial never completed its initial storyline, but that didn’t stop the creators Kristoffer Silver and Gary Amaro collecting the saga thus far into a daft and nifty little trade paperback that still makes me laugh decades later…

Delightfully lampooning the 1980s oriental assassin craze; the ubiquitously dark and ponderous Frank Miller Daredevil (and Wolverine) comics so successfully mined by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the groundbreaking economical graphic bravura of Dave Sim’s incredible Cerebus the Aardvark, this asinine adventure begins the unfinished epic of ‘The Galactic Refrigerator’ as a chunky, katana-wielding, preternaturally hungry silent warrior discovers to his mute horror that someone has unplugged the celestial artefact which provided the raw material for food across the universe.

Appalled and a bit peckish, the sturdy stalwart undertakes an unbelievably violent quest to restore balance and provisions to the world, encountering supernatural warriors Shadow and Flair in ‘Between Light and Darkness’ and follows them back to their immediate superior the Crimson Ninja in ‘Confrontations’. Fat Ninja then traces, via teleporting phone-booth, the reality bending culprit “Sir” to his extraordinary lair in ‘Master Evil’, from where the deadly dictator took the corpulent crusader on a quick tour of the cosmos and gave him a little philosophical testing before once more resorting to gratuitous violence in ‘Shadowplay’

I fear we shall never learn ‘The Secret of the Hacksword’ since the series and this collection end there…

Raw, unrefined, even badly drawn in places Fat Ninja (with additional contributions from P.S. King, Emilio Soltero & Amy Amaro) is nevertheless carried along by its brash, and naively hilarious premise and decidedly likable portly protagonist, and the mere fact that I’m recommending it even though there’s no conclusion should give you some idea of just how amusing this lost oddment actually is.

A genuine original and well worth picking up if the fickle, ill-fed fates ever send a copy your way…
Fat Ninja © 19985-19986 Kristoffer A. Silver. This edition © 1990 Greater Mercury Comics. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents The War that Time Forgot

By Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru, Mike Esposito & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1253-7

The War that Time Forgot debuted in Star Spangled War Stories #90 (April-May 1960) and ran until #137 (May 1968) skipping only three issues: #91, 93 and #126 (the last of which starred the United States Marine Corps simian Sergeant Gorilla – look it up: I’m neither kidding nor being metaphorical…) and this stunningly bizarre black and white compendium contains the monstrously madcap material from #90, 92, 94-125 and 127-128.

Simply too good a concept to leave alone, this seamless, shameless blend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Caprona stories (known alternatively as the Caspak Trilogy or “the Land That Time Forgot”) provided everything baby-boomer boys could dream of: giant lizards, humongous insects, fantastic adventures and two-fisted heroes with lots of guns…

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy in his signature war comics, horror stories, superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman and others genres too numerous to cover here. He scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the first story of the Silver Age which introduced Barry Allen AKA the Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the World in 1956.

Kanigher sold his first stories and poetry in 1932, wrote for the theatre, film and radio, and joined the Fox Features shop where he created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for Blue Beetle and the original Captain Marvel. In 1945 he settled at All-American Comics as both writer and editor, staying on when the company amalgamated with National Comics to become the forerunner of today’s DC. He wrote Flash and Hawkman, created Black Canary and Lady Cop, plus memorable villainesses Harlequin and Rose and Thorn. This last he reconstructed, during the relevancy era of the early 1970s, into a schizophrenic crime-busting super-heroine.

When mystery-men faded out at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved into westerns and war stories, becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles: All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Amy at War. He created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 and added G.I. Combat to his burgeoning portfolio when Quality Comics sold their line of titles to DC in 1956, all the while working on Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Sea Devils, Viking Prince and a host of others.

Among his many epochal war series were Sgt. Rock, Enemy Ace, the Haunted Tank and The Losers as well as the visually addictive, irresistibly astonishing “Dogfaces and Dinosaurs” dramas depicted here. Kanigher was a restlessly creative writer and I suspect that he used this uncanny but formulaic adventure arena as a personal tryout venue for his many series concepts. The Flying Boots, G.I. Robot, Suicide Squad and many other teams and characters first appeared in this lush Pacific hellhole with wall-to-wall danger. Indisputably the big beasts were the stars but occasionally ordinary G.I .Joes made enough of an impression to secure return engagements, too…

The wonderment commenced in Star Spangled War Stories #90 as paratroops and tanks of “Question Mark Patrol” were dropped on Mystery Island from whence no American soldiers have ever returned. The crack warriors discovered why when the operation was plagued by Pterosaurs, Tyrannosaurs and worse on the ‘Island of Armoured Giants!’, all superbly rendered by veteran art team Ross Andru & Mike Esposito. Larry and Charlie, the sole survivors of that first foray, returned to the lost world in #92’s ‘Last Battle of the Dinosaur Age!’ when aquatic beasts attacked their rescue submarine forcing them back to the lethal landmass…

‘The Frogman and the Dinosaur!’ took up most of SSWS #94 as a squad of second-rate Underwater Demolitions Team divers were trapped on the island encountering the usual bevy of blockbuster brutes and a colossal crab as well. What started out as Paratroopers versus Pterodactyls in #95 turned into a deadly turf-war in ‘Guinea Pig Patrol!’ whilst ‘Mission X!’ introduced the Task Force X/Suicide Squad in a terse infiltration story as the increasing eager US military strove to set up a base on the strategically crucial monster island.

The Navy took the lead in #97’s ‘The Sub-Crusher!’ with equally dire results when a giant gorilla joined the regular cast of horrors, whilst a frustrated palaeontologist was blown off course and into his wildest nightmare in ‘The Island of Thunder’. The rest of his airborne platoon weren’t nearly as happy at the discovery…

The Flying Franks were a trapeze family before the war, but as “The Flying Boots” Henny, Tommy and Steve won fame as paratroopers. In #99’s ‘The Circus of Monsters!’ they faced the greatest challenge of their lives when they washed up on Mystery Island, narrowly escaping death by dinosaur, so they weren’t too happy on being sent back next issue to track down a Japanese secret weapon in ‘The Volcano of Monsters!’

‘The Robot and the Dinosaur!’ in #101 ramped up the fantasy quotient as reluctant Ranger Mac was dispatched to the monstrous preserve to field-test the Army’s latest weapon – a fully automatic, artificial G.I. Joe, who promptly saved the day and returned to fight a ‘Punchboard War!’ in the next issue; tackling immense killer fish, assorted saurians and a giant Japanese war-robot that even dwarfed the dinosaurs, which carried over and concluded in #103’s ‘Doom at Dinosaur Island!’, after which the Flying Boots returned in Star Spangled #104’s ‘The Tree of Terror!’ as a wandering pterodactyl dragged the brothers back to the isle of no return for another explosive engagement.

‘The War on Dinosaur Island!’ found the circus boys leading a small-scale invasion, but even tanks and the latest ordnance proved little use against the pernicious and eternally hungry reptiles, after which ‘The Nightmare War!’ found a dino-phobic museum janitor trapped in his worst nightmare. At least he had his best buddies and a goodly supply of bullets and bombs with him…

The action shifted to the oceans around the island for the sub-sea shocker ‘Battle of the Dinosaur Aquarium!’ with plesiosaurs, titanic turtles, colossal crabs and crocodilians on the menu, and hit the beaches in #108 for ‘Dinosaur D-Day!’ as the monsters took up residence in the Navy’s landing craft. ‘The Last Soldiers’ pitted determined tank-men against a string of scaly perils on land, sea and air, after which a new Suicide Squad debuted in #110 to investigate a ‘Tunnel of Terror’ into the lost land of giant monsters: this time though the giant gorilla was on their side…

The huge hairy beast was the star of ‘Return of the Dinosaur Killer!’ as the Squad leader and a wily boffin (visually based on Kanigher’s office associate Julie Schwartz) struggled to survive on the tropically reptilian atoll, whilst ‘Dinosaur Sub-Catcher!’ shifted the locale to freezing ice-floes as a pack of far-roving sea dinosaurs attacked a polar submarine and a US weather station.

Star Spangled War Stories #113 returned to the blue Pacific for ‘Dinosaur Bait!’ where a pilot was tasked with hunting down the cause for so many lost subs but ‘Doom Came at Noon!’ once more returned to snowy climes as dinosaurs inexplicably rampaged through alpine territory making temporary allies out of old enemies dispatched to destroy hidden Nazi submarine pens.

Issue #115’s ‘Battle Dinner for Dinosaurs!’ found a helicopter pilot marooned on Mystery Island and drawn into a spectacular aerial dogfight, after which a duo of dedicated soldiers faced ice-bound beasts in ‘The Suicide Squad!’ – the big difference being that Morgan and Mace were more determined to kill each other than accomplish their mission…

‘Medal for a Dinosaur!’ bowed to the inevitable and introduced a (relatively) friendly baby pterodactyl to balance out Mace and Morgan’s barely suppressed animosity, whilst ‘The Plane-Eater!’ found the army odd couple adrift in the Pacific and in deep danger until the little leather-winged guy turns up once more…

The Suicide Squad were getting equal billing by the time of #119’s ‘Gun Duel on Dinosaur Hill!’ as yet another group of men-without-hope battled reptilian horrors and each other to the death, after which the un-killable Morgan and Mace returned and Dino, the flying baby dinosaur, found a new companion in handy hominid Caveboy before the whole unlikely ensemble struggled to survive against increasingly outlandish creatures in ‘The Tank Eater!’

Issue #121 presented another diving drama when a UDT frogman gained his Suicide Squad rep as a formidable fighter and ‘The Killer of Dinosaur Alley!’ Increasingly now, G.I. hardware and ordnance began to gain the upper hand over bulk, fang and claw…

Representational maestro Russ Heath added an edge of hyper-realism to ‘The Divers of Death’ in Star Spangled War Stories #122 wherein two Frogman brothers battled incredible underwater insect monsters but were still unable to gain the respect of their land-lubber older siblings, whilst Gene Colan illustrated the aquatic adventure of ‘The Dinosaur who Ate Torpedoes!’ and Andru & Esposito returned to depict ‘Terror in a Bottle!’, the second short saurian saga to grace issue #123 and another outing for that giant ape who loved to pummel pterosaurs and larrup lizards.

Undisputed master of gritty fantasy art Joe Kubert added his pencil-and-brush magic to a tense and manic thriller ‘My Buddy the Dinosaur!’ in #124 and stuck around to illumine the return of the G.I. Robot in the stunning battle bonanza ‘Titbit For a Tyrannosaurus!’ in #125, after which Andru & Esposito covered another Suicide Squad sea saga ‘The Monster Who Sank a Navy!’ from #127 and Colan returned to draw a masterfully moving human drama which was actually improved by the inclusion of ravening reptiles in ‘The Million Dollar Medal!’ (#128 and the last tale in this volume).

Throughout this eclectic collection of dark dilemmas, light-hearted romps and spectacular battle blockbusters the emphasis is always on human fallibility; with soldiers unable to put aside long-held grudges, swallow pride or forgive trespasses even amidst the strangest and most terrifying moments of their lives, and this edgy humanity informs and elevates even the daftest of these wonderfully imaginative adventure yarns.

Classy, intense, insanely addictive and Just Plain Fun, The War that Time Forgot is a deliciously guilty pleasure and I for one hope the remaining stories from Star Spangled War Stories, Weird War TalesG. I. Combat and especially the magnificent Tim Truman Guns of the Dragon miniseries all end up in sequel compilation sometime soon.

Now Read This book and you will too…
© 1960-1966, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Kingdom Come

By Mark Waid & Alex Ross (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2034-1

In the mid 1960s a teenaged Jim Shooter wrote a couple of stories about the Legion of Super-Heroes set some years into the team’s own future. Those stories of the adult Legionnaires revealed hints of things to come that shackled the series’ plotting and continuity for decades as eager, obsessed fans (by which I mean all of us) waited for the predicted characters to be introduced, presaged relationships to be consummated and heroes to die.

By being so impressive and similarly affecting the astonishing miniseries Kingdom Come accidentally repeated the trick and has subsequently painted the entire DC Universe into the same creative corner…

Envisaged and designed by artist Alex Ross as DC’s answer to the epic and groundbreaking Marvels, Kingdom Come was released as a 4-issue Prestige Format miniseries in 1996 to rapturous acclaim and, although set in the future and an “imaginary story” released under DC’s Elseworlds imprint, almost immediately began to affect the company’s mainstream continuity.

Set approximately twenty years into the future the grandiose saga details a tragic failure and subsequent loss of Faith for Superman and how his attempt to redeem himself almost led to an even greater and ultimate apocalypse.

The events are seen through the eyes and actions of Dantean witness Norman McCay, an aging cleric co-opted by Divine Agent of Wrath the Spectre after the pastor officiated at the last rites of dying superhero Wesley Dodds. As the Sandman, Dodds was cursed for decades with precognitive dreams which compelled him to act as an agent of justice.

The first chapter ‘Strange Visitor’ shows a world where metahumans have proliferated to ubiquitous proportions: a sub-culture of constant, violent clashes between the latest generation of costumed villains and vigilantes, all unheeding of the collateral damage they daily inflicted on the mere mortals around them.

The shaken preacher sees a final crisis coming, but feels helpless until the darkly angelic Spectre comes to him and takes him on a voyage of unfolding events and to act as his human perspective whilst the Spirit of Vengeance prepares to pass final judgement on Humanity. First stop is the secluded hideaway where farmer Kal-El has hidden himself since the ghastly events which compelled him to retire from the Good Fight and the eyes of the World.

The Man of Steel was already feeling like a dinosaur when newer, harsher, morally ambiguous mystery-men began to appear. After the Joker murdered the entire Daily Planet staff and hard-line new hero Magog executed him in the street, the public applauded the deed and, heartbroken and appalled, Superman disappeared for a decade. His legendary colleagues also felt the march of unwelcome progress and similarly disappeared.

With Earth left to the mercies of dangerously irresponsible new vigilantes, civil unrest soon escalated. The younger heroes displayed poor judgement and no restraint with the result that within a decade the entire planet had become a chaotic arena for metahuman duels.

Civilisation was fragmenting. Flash and Batman retreated to their home cities and made them secure, crime-free solitary fortresses. Green Lantern built an emerald castle in the sky, turning his eyes away from Earth and into the deep black fastnesses of space. Hawkman retreated to the wilderness, Aquaman to his sub-sea kingdom and Wonder Woman returned to her hidden paradise. She did not leave until Armageddon came one step closer.

When Magog and his Justice Battalion battled the Parasite in St. Louis the result was a nuclear accident which destroyed all of Kansas and much of Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska. Overnight the world f aced starvation as America’s breadbasket turned into a toxic wasteland. Now with McCay and the Spectre invisibly observing, Princess Diana convinces the bereft Kal-El to return and save the world on his own terms…

In ‘Truth and Justice’ a resurgent Justice League led by Superman begins a campaign of unilateral action to clean up the mess civilisation has become; renditioning “heroes” and villains alike, imprisoning all dangerous elements of super-humanity, telling governments how to behave, all utterly unaware that they are hastening a global catastrophe of Biblical proportions as the Spectre invisibly gathers the facts for his apocalyptic judgement.

In the ensuing chaos, crippled warrior Bruce Wayne rejects Superman’ paternalistic, doctrinaire crusade and allies himself with mortal humanity’s libertarian elite – Ted (Blue Beetle) Kord, Dinah (Black Canary) Lance and Oliver (Green Arrow) Queen – to resist what can only be a grab for world domination by the meta-human minority. As the helpless McCay watches in horror Wayne’s group makes its own plans; another dangerous thread in a tapestry of calamity…

At first Superman’s plans seem blessed to succeed, with many erstwhile threats flocking to his banner and his rules of discipline, but as ever there are self-serving villains with their own agendas. Lex Luthor organises a cabal of like-minded compatriots – Vandal Savage, Catwoman, Riddler, Kobra and Ibn Al Xu’ffasch, Son of the Demon Ra’s Al Ghul – into a “Mankind Liberation Front”.

With Captain Marvel as their slave, the group are determined the super-freaks shall not win and their cause is greatly advanced once Wayne’s clique joins them…

‘Up in the Sky’ sees events spiral into a deadly storm as McCay, still wracked by his visions of Armageddon, is shown the Gulag where all the recalcitrant metahumans have been dumped and sees how it will fail, learns from restless spirit Deadman that the Spectre is the Angel of Death and watches with growing helplessness as Luthor’s plan to usurp control from the army of Superman leads to a shocking confrontation, betrayal and a deadly countdown to the End of Days. The deadly drama culminates in a staggering battle of superpowers, last moment salvation and a second chance for humanity in ‘Never-Ending Battle’

Thanks to McCay’s simple humanity the world gets another chance and this edition follows up with an epilogue ‘One Year Later’ which end this ponderous epic on a note of renewed hope…

This edition comes with an introduction by author and past DC Comics scribe Elliot S. Maggin, assorted cover reproductions and art-pieces, an illustrated checklist of the vast cast list and a plethora of creative notes and sketches in the ‘Apochrypha’ section, plus ‘Evolution’: notes on a restored scene that never made it into the miniseries.

Epic, engaging and operatically impressive Kingdom Come continues to reshape the DC Universe to this day and remains a solid slice of superior superhero entertainment, worthy of your attention.
© 1996, 2008, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Speed Racer Classics

By Tatsuo Yoshida, translated by Nat Gertler (Now Comics)
ISBN: 0-70989-331-34

During the 1960s when Japanese anime was first starting to appear in the West, one of the most surprising television hits in America was a classy little cartoon series entitled Speed Racer. It first aired in 1967-1968 (52 high velocity episodes) and back then nobody knew the show was based on and adapted from a wonderful action/science fiction/sports comic strip created by manga pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida in 1966 for Shueisha’s Shōnen Book periodical.

The comic series was itself a recycled version of Yoshida’s earlier racing hit ‘Pilot Ace’.

The original title ‘Mach Go Go Go’ was a torturously multi-layered pun, and played on the fact that boy-racer Gō Mifune – more correctly Mifune Gō – drove the super-car Mach 5. “Go” is the Japanese word for five and a suffix applied to ship names whilst the phrase Gogogo is the usual graphic sound effect for “rumble”. All in all, the title means “Mach-go, Gō Mifune, Go!” which was adapted on US screens as “Go, Speed Racer, Go!”

In 1985 Chicago-based Now Comics took advantage of the explosion in comics creativity to release a bevy of full-colour licensed titles based on popular nostalgic icons such as Astro Boy, Green Hornet, Fright Night and Ghostbusters, but started the ball rolling with new adventures of Speed Racer.

The series was a palpable hit and in 1990 the company released this magical selection of Yoshida’s original stories in a beautiful monochrome edition graced with a glorious wraparound cover by Mitch O’Connell. It was probably one of the first manga books ever seen in American comic stores.

Although the art and stories are relatively untouched the large cast, (family, girlfriend, pet monkey and all) are called by their American identities, but if you need to know the original Japanese designations and have the puns, in-jokes and references explained, there are many Speed Racer websites to consult.

Pops Racer is an independent entrepreneur and car-building genius estranged from his eldest son Rex, a professional sports-car driver. Second son Speed also has a driving ambition to be a pro driver (we can do puns too, you know) and the episodes here follow the family concern in its rise to success, all peppered with high drama, political intrigue, criminal overtones and high octane excitement (whoops!: there I go again)…

The action begins with ‘The Return of the Malanga’ as, whilst competing in the incredible Mach 5, Speed recognises an equally unique vehicle believed long destroyed whilst running this same gruelling road-race. The plucky lad becomes hopelessly embroiled in a sinister plot when he learns that the driver of the resurrected car crashed and died in mysterious circumstances years ago and now all the survivors of that tragic incident are perishing in a series of fantastic “accidents”…

Are these events the vengeance of a restless spirit or is there an even more sinister explanation…?

In ‘Deadly Desert Race’ the Mach 5 is competing in a trans-Saharan rally when Speed is drawn into a personal driving duel with spoiled Arab prince Kimbe of Wilm. When a bomb goes off young Racer is accused of attempting to assassinate his rival and has to clear his name and catch the real killer by traversing the greatest natural hazard on the planet in a spectacular competition and a blistering military battle…

After qualifying for the prestigious Eastern Alps competition the young ace meets the mysterious Racer X: a masked driver with a shady past who has a hidden connection to the Racer clan. ‘This is the Racer’s Soul!’ reveals the true story of Pops’ conflict with Rex Racer when criminal elements threatened to destroy everything the inventor stood for.

After the riveting race action and blockbusting outcome, this volume concludes with a compelling mystery yarn as in ‘The Secret of the Classic Car’ Speed foils the theft of a vintage vehicle and is sucked into a criminal plot to obtain the lost secret of automotive manufacture hidden by Henry Ford.

When ruthless thugs kidnap Speed, Pops launches into action and the saga culminates in a devastating duel between rival super-cars…

These are delightfully magical episodes of grand, old-fashioned adventure, perfectly rendered by a master craftsman and worthy of any action fan’s eager attention, so even if this particular volume is hard to find, other editions and successive collections from WildStorm and Digital Manga Publishing are still readily available.

Go, Fan-boy reader! Go! Go! Go!
Speed Racer ™ and © 1988 Colour Systems Technology. All rights reserved. Original manga © Tatsuo Yoshida, reprinted by permission of Books Nippan, Inc.

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 2 1936-1937

By Roy Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-391-0

The comics industry evolved from newspaper strips and these circulation boosting pictorial features were, until relatively recently, utterly ubiquitous, hugely popular with the public and thus regarded as invaluable by publishers who used them as an irresistible sales weapon to guarantee consumer loyalty, increase sales and  ensure profits. Many a scribbler became a millionaire thanks to their ability to draw pictures and spin a yarn…

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

From the very start humour was paramount; that’s why we call them “Funnies” or “Comics”, after all. From these gag and stunt beginnings, blending silent movie slapstick, outrageous antics, fabulous fantasy and vaudeville shows, came a thoroughly unique entertainment hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

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

Tubbs was a diminutive, ambitious young shop clerk when the strip began, but gradually he moved into mock-heroics, then through harm-free action into full-blown, light-hearted, rip-roaring adventure series with the introduction of pioneering he-man, moody swashbuckling prototype Captain Easy in the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

As the tales became increasingly more exotic and thrill-drenched the globe-trotting little dynamo clearly needed a sidekick who could believably handle the combat side of things, and thus in the middle of a European war Tubbs liberated a mysterious fellow American from a jail cell and history was made. Before long the mismatched pair were inseparable comrades; travelling the world, hunting treasure, fighting thugs and rescuing a bevy of startlingly comely maidens in distress…

The two-fisted, bluff, completely capable and utterly dependable, down-on-his-luck “Southern Gentleman” was something not seen before in comics, a raw, square-jawed hunk played straight rather than the buffoon or music hall foil of such classic serials as Hairsbreadth Harry or Desperate Desmond. Moreover Crane’s seductively simple blend of cartoon exuberance and compelling page-design was a far more accessible and powerful medium for action story-telling than the static illustrative style favoured by artists like Hal Foster (just starting to make waves on the new Tarzan Sunday page).

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

After a couple of abortive attempts starring his little hero, Crane bowed to the inevitable and created a full colour Sunday page dedicated to his increasingly popular hero-for-hire. Captain Easy debuted on 30th July 1933, in madcap, two-fisted exploits (originally) set before his fateful meeting with Tubbs.

Following a foreword from historian, archival publisher and critic Rick Norwood, ‘Stealing Color From Black and White’ a fascinating extended introduction by award-winning cartoonist Paul Pope and ‘Three Strip Monte’ a brief history of Crane’s career gambles by legendary strip historian Bill Blackbeard, this second volume (of four) really begins with ‘Gold of the Frozen North’ as the dour, sour soldier of fortune reaches the chilly snow-swept mining boom-town of Bugaboo.

Exhausted after his part in the war between Nikkateena and Woopsydasia (as seen in Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 1) all Easy wanted was a meal and a bed, but his innate chivalry defending a bar-girl’s honour soon had him on the run from Nikky Eskota, the savage gang-boss who ran the town. He then compound the error by helping beautiful Gizzy escape the brute’s amorous attentions and escorting down the frozen river to trade her fathers’ diamonds.

Of course the wicked thug dispatched an army of heavies to stop them…

This spectacular icy wilderness adventure ran from 8th December 1935 to 19th April 1936, after which ‘The Hook-Nosed Bandit’ (4th April -8th August 1936) found the footloose hero heading to the trouble-soaked nation of Hitaxia where his penchant for trouble soon branded him a wanted criminal fugitive and landed him in the midst of a civil war. As usual a pretty girl was the immediate cause of his many woes and the method of his eventual escape… that and the advent of a bombastic new companion – unconventional millionaire inventor Mr. Belfry.

With Easy and Belfry’s daughter languishing in a Hitaxian jail the sagacious entrepreneur acted to end the crisis in unique manner with a handy shipment of pigs…

When the Belfry’s returned to America, Easy accompanied them only to become embroiled in a whirlwind cops ‘n’ robbers thriller as mobsters and businessmen alike tried to obtain by every means fair and foul ‘The Diamond Formula’ (16th August – 13th December 1936): the inventor’s new process for creating gems from coal or sugar…

After this wild and woolly New York set romp, Crane opted to take the theme into wholly different territory as Easy takes a mild-mannered old daydreamer from Belfry’s Gentleman’s Club on the Screwball comedy of ‘Dinwiddy’s Adventure’ – a fast-paced rollercoaster romp of intrigue, suspense and multiple practical jokes, with a twist and turn on every gloriously rendered page first published between 13th December 1936 and March 14th 1937…

The Club also provided the maguffin for ‘Lost at Sea’ (March 21st – May 9th 1937) as hen-pecked and harassed Benjamin Barton hired the laconic Southern Gentleman to engineer his escape from his ghastly social climbing wife and wastrel children. Barton even left them all his money: the rattled old goof simply wanted peace and quiet and perhaps a little fishing. Despite all Easy’s best efforts he didn’t get it…

Clearly on a roll with the emphasis on comedy Crane then introduced one of his wackiest characters in ‘The King of Kleptomania’ (16th May – November 14th 1937), as an audacious, freeloading, lazy, good-for-nothing hobo actually turned out to be Kron Prinz Hugo Maximillian von Hooten Tooten; the audacious, freeloading, lazy, good-for-nothing spendthrift heir to a European nation who was paid by the Dictator of Kleptomania to stay away and not seek his rightful throne.

Saving the bum’s life in America only caused the lovable leech to attach himself to Easy, but after going through his bi-annual stipend of $25, 000 in mere days “Hoot” decided to welsh on his deal with the despot and take back his country. Against his better judgement and to his lasting regret, Captain Easy goes along for the ride and is soon knee deep in ineptitude, iniquity and revolution…

With the war over Easy is stranded in Ruritanean Europe and stumbles into an espionage plot culminating in a welcome reunion and ‘The Firing Squad’ (21st November 1937 – 15th May 1938). Framed and jailed again Easy is to be shot so it’s luckily that the captain of the aforementioned executioners is his long-lost pal Wash Tubbs!

Risking life and diminutive limb to save his old pal, Wash also rescues sultry spitfire Ruby Dallas who promptly entangles them in her desperate tale of woe. Ruby was unfortunate enough to have witnessed a murder in America and has been on the run ever since. The killer was a prominent millionaire with too much to lose so he’s been hunting her ever since, but once the trio escape murderous cutthroats, slavers and assassins they soon settle his hash…

When he began the Sunday page Crane’s creativity went into overdrive: an entire page and vibrant colours to play with clearly stirred his imagination and the results were wild visual concoctions which achieved a timeless immediacy and made each instalment a unified piece of sequential art. The effect of the pages can be seen in so many comic and strips since – even in the works of such near-contemporaries as Hergé and giants in waiting like Charles Schulz.

These pages were a clearly as much of joy to create as to read. In fact, the cited reason for Crane surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les Turner in 1937 was NEA Syndicate’s abrupt demand that all its strips be henceforward produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate them being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated. You can actually see the day that happened in this volume.

Whilst the basic drawing of Crane and Turner is practically indistinguishable the moment when the layout and composition were shackled stands out like a painful sore thumb. Crane just walked away from his playground, concentrating on the daily feature, until in 1943, contract expired he left the NEA to create the aviation adventure strip Buz Sawyer.

In this selection Roy Crane’s irrepressible humour comes perfectly into focus and this enchanting serial abounds with breezy light-hearted banter, hilarious situations and outright farce – a sure-fire formula modern cinema directors still plunder to this day.

Easy is Indiana Jones, Flynn (the Librarian) Carsen and Jack (Romancing the Stone) Cotton all at once and clearly set the benchmark for all of them.

This superb hardback and colossal second collection is the perfect means of discovering or rediscovering Crane’s rip-snorting, pulse-pounding, exotically racy adventure trailblazer. The huge pages in this volume (almost 14 ½ by 10½ inches or 21x14cm for the younger, metric crowd) provide the perfect stage to absorb and enjoy the classic tale-telling of a master raconteur.

This is storytelling of impeccable quality: unforgettable, spectacular and utterly irresistible. These tales rank alongside the best of Hergé, Tezuka, Toth and Kirby and unarguably fed the imaginations of them all as he still does for today’s comics creators. Now that you have the chance to experience the strips that inspired the giants of our art form, how can you possibly resist?

Captain Easy strips © 2011 United Feature Syndicate, Inc. This edition © 2011 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights

Showcase Presents The House of Secrets volume 1

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-054-3

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 very occasional her or it) until the troops came home and the more traditional genres resurfaced and eventually 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 psychological landscape 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, celebrity tie-ins, madcap escapist comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features were immediately resurgent, but gradually another of the cyclical revivals of spiritualism and public fascination with the arcane led to a wave of increasingly impressive, evocative and 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, Sargon the Sorcerer, Zatara, Zambini the Miracle Man, Kardak the Mystic, 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 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 apparently a free country now) was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self regulatory rules. Horror titles produced under the aegis of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised and anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore but the appetite for suspense was still high and in 1956 National introduced the sister title House of Secrets which debuted with a November-December cover-date.

Stories were dialled back into marvellously illustrated, 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 with Martian Manhunter and Dial H for Hero in House of Mystery and Mark Merlin -later Prince Ra-Man – sharing space with Eclipso (see Showcase Presents Eclipso) in House of Secrets.

When the caped crusader craziness peaked and popped, Secrets was one of the first casualties and the title folded with #80, the September-October 1966 issue.

However nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and at the end of the 1960s the Silver Age superhero boom was over, with many titles gone and some of the industry’s most prestigious series circling the drain too…

This real-world Crisis led 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 but as the liberalisation coincided with another bump in public interest in all aspects of the Worlds Beyond, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.” Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle Chillers…

Thus with absolutely no fanfare at all House of Secrets was resurrected with issue #81, cover-dated August-September 1969 – just as big sister The House of Mystery had done a year earlier.

Under a spooky bold banner declaiming “There’s No Escape From… The House of Secrets” writer Mike Friedrich, Jerry Grandenetti & George Roussos introduced a ramshackle, sentient old pile in ‘Don’t Move It!’ after which Bill Draut illustrated the introduction of caretaker Abel (with a guest-shot by his murderous older brother Cain from HoM) in ‘House of Secrets’, after which the portly porter kicked off his storytelling career with the Gerry Conway & Jack Sparling yarn ‘Aaron Philip’s Photo Finish!’, and the inaugural issue was put to bed with a Draut limned ‘Epilogue’

There are no scripter credits for most of HoS #82 but Draut drew both ‘Welcome to the House of Secrets’ and the ‘Epilogue’, whilst cinema shocker ‘Realer Than Real’ was illustrated by Werner Roth & Vince Colletta. ‘Sudden Madness’ was a short sci fi saga from the brush of Dick Giordano, ‘The Little Old Winemaker’ (Sparling art) a salutary tale of murder and revenge and ‘The One and Only, Fully-Guaranteed, Super-Permanent, 100%’ – written by Marv Wolfman and realised by Dick Dillin & Neal Adams – a darkly comedic tale of domestic bliss and how to get it…

After Draut & Giordano’s ‘Welcome to the House of Secrets’ piece superstar Alex Toth made his modern HoS debut with the Wolfman written fantasy ‘The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of’, Mikes Royer & Peppe visualised the sinister love-story of ‘Bigger Than a Breadbox’ and Conway & Draut revived time-honoured gothic menace for a chilling fable ‘The House of Endless Years’.

Conway & Draut maintained the light-hearted bracketing of the stories as #84 began with ‘If I Had but World Enough and Time’ (Wein, Dillin & Peppe), a cautionary tale about too much television, after which the tension grew with Wolfman & Sid Greene’s warning against wagering in ‘Double or Nothing!’ and an utterly manic parable of greed ‘The Unbelievable! The Unexplained!’ (by Steve Skeates, Sparling & Jack Abel), before Wein & Sparling messed with our dreams in ‘If I Should Die before I Wake…

Cain and Abel acrimoniously opened HoS #85 after which Wein & Don Heck disclosed what happens to some ‘People Who Live in Glass Houses…’ whilst art-legend Ralph Reese illustrated Wein’s daftly ironic ‘Reggie Rabbit, Heathcliffe Hog, Archibald Aardvark, J. Benson Babboon and Bertram the Dancing Frog’

John Costanza contributed a comedy page entitled ‘House of Wacks’ and Conway, Gil Kane & Neal Adams heralded the upcoming age of slick and seductive barbarian fantasy with the gloriously vivid and vital ‘Second Chance’. Issue #86 featured the eerily seductive ‘Strain’ with art by George Tuska, a powerful prose puzzler ‘The Golden Tower of the Sun’ written by Conway with illustrations from Gray Morrow, after which the writer and Bill Draut tugged heartstrings and stunned senses in the moving, moody madness of ‘The Ballad of Little Joe’

The issue ends with an episode of the peripatetic, post-apocalyptic, ironic occasional series ‘The Day after Doomsday’ courtesy of Wein and Sparling.

The chatty introductions and interludes with Abel were gradually diminishing to make way for longer stories and experimental episodes such as #87’s ‘And in the Darkness… Light’, sub-divided into ‘Death Has Marble Lips!’, a sculptural shocker from Robert Kanigher, Dillin & Giordano; sinister sci fi scenario ‘The Man’ from Wolfman, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito and the excellent weird pulp pastiche ‘The Coming of Ghaglan’ by veteran Raymond Marais & talented newcomer Michael Wm. Kaluta. Much the same was #88’s dread duo ‘The Morning Ghost’ by Wolfman, Dillin & Frank Giacoia and ‘Eyesore!’ by Conway & Draut.

Most of the covers were the magnificent work of Neal Adams but HoS #89 sports a rare and surprisingly effective tonal image by Irv Novick (although attributed here to Gray Morrow): a gothic romance special with period thrillers ‘Where Dead Men Walk!’ which is drawn by Morrow and ‘A Taste of Dark Fire!’ from Conway & Heck. This latter tale debuted Victorian devil-busting duo Father John Christian and Rabbi Samuel Shulman who appeared far too infrequently in succeeding years (see also Showcase Presents the Phantom Stranger volume 2).

Tuska illustrated the uncredited futuristic thriller ‘The Distant Dome’ in #90, whilst Wolfman, Rich Buckler & Adams described the short, sharp lives of ‘The Symbionts’, after which Mike Friedrich & Morrow ended this S-F extravaganza with the perplexing tale of ‘Jedediah!’

There are no writer’s credits for #91 but South American revolutionary rollercoaster ‘The Eagle’s Talon!’ was drawn by Wally Wood; Jack Sparling illustrated the faux-factual feature ‘Realm of the Mystics’, Sam Glanzman produced a potent parable of alienation in ‘Please, Don’t Cry Johnny!’ and Murphy Anderson wrapped up the wonderment with a deadly doppelganger drama ‘There are Two of Me… and One Must Die!’

Issue #92 was one of those rare moments in comics when all the factors are in perfect alignment for a major breakthrough. The twelfth anthology issue of House of Secrets cemented the genre into place as the industry leader. In it writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson produced a throwaway thriller set at the turn of the 19th century, wherein gentleman scientist Alex Olsen is murdered by his best friend and his body dumped in a swamp. Years later his beloved bride, now the unsuspecting wife of the murderer, is stalked by a shambling, disgusting beast that seems to be composed of mud and muck…

‘Swamp Thing’ was cover-featured and eerily illustrated by Wrightson for HoS #92 (June-July 1971) striking an instant and sustained chord with the buying public. It was the bestselling DC comic of that month and reader response was fervent and persistent. By all accounts the only reason there wasn’t an immediate sequel or spin-off was that the creative team didn’t want to produce one.

Eventually however, bowing to interminable pressure, and with the sensible idea of transplanting the concept to contemporary America, the first issue of Swamp Thing (see Swamp Thing: Dark Genesis) appeared on newsstands in the Spring of 1972. It was an instant hit and an immortal classic.

The remaining pages in that groundbreaking issue aren’t bad either, with Jack Kirby & Mark Evanier scripting the psychodrama ‘After I Die’ for old Prize/Crestwood Comics stable-mate Bill Draut to illustrate, whilst ‘It’s Better to Give…’ by Virgil North provided an early chance for Al Weiss & Tony DeZuniga to strut their superbly engaging artistic stuff. The issue ends with a sudden shocker by Dick Dillin (possibly via Grandenetti?) entitled ‘Trick or Treat’

House of Secrets #93 (August/September 1971) saw the comicbook expand from 32 to 52 pages – as did all DC’s titles for the next couple of years, opening the doors for a magnificent period of new material married to the best of the company’s prodigious archives for an appreciative, impressionable audience.

Jim Aparo made his HoS debut here in the Skeates scripted spook-fest ‘Lonely in Death’ and so did macabre cartoonist Sergio Aragonés in ‘Abel’s Fables’, after which the reprint bonanza began with ‘The Curse of the Cat’s Cradle’ (originally from My Greatest Adventure #85) stupendously depicted by Alex Toth. Jack Abel’s ‘Nightmare’ was followed by golden oldie ‘The Beast From the Box’; courtesy of Nick Cardy and House of Mystery #24, after which Lore (Shoberg) contributed another page of ‘Abel’s Fables’ before the entertainment ended with the chilling ‘Never Kill a Witch’s Son!’ by John Albano & DeZuniga, rounding out the fearsome fun in period style…

Issue #94 began by revealing ‘The Man with My Face’ (art by Sparling) and ‘Hyde… and Go Seek!’ by Wein & DeZuniga, whilst ‘The Day Nobody Died’ (George Roussos, Tales of the Unexpected #9) and ‘Track of the Invisible Beast!’ (Toth from House of Mystery #109) provided vintage voltage before another Aragonés ‘Abel’s Fables’ and ‘A Bottle of Incense… a Whiff of the Past!’ by Francis Bushmaster, Weiss & Wrightson closed proceedings in devilishly high style…

Albano & Heck showed domesticity wasn’t pretty in ‘Creature…’, everybody got a nasty case of chills in ‘And Thing That Go Bump in the Night!’ (credited to Sparling but probably Tuska & Win Mortimer) before ‘The Last Sorcerer’ (Bernard Baily from House of Mystery #69) and ‘The Phantom of the Flames!’ – a rare DC illustration job for the great Joe Maneely from HoM #71. The dark dramas closed with Jack Oleck and Nestor Redondo’s ‘The Bride of Death’. Issue #95 also included a couple of Lore’s ‘Abel’s Fables’, a Sparling ‘Realm of the Mystics’ and a Wein & Sparling ‘Day after Doomsday’.

‘World for a Witch’ by Oleck & Draut opened the next peril-packed issue, followed by a high-tension, high-tech Toth reprint ‘The Great Dimensional Brain Swap’ (from House of Secrets #48) and Wein, Dillin & Jack Abel’s ‘Be it Ever So Humble…’ whilst Oleck & Wood’s ‘The Monster’ described a different kind of horror before ‘The Indestructible Man’ (by unsung master-draughtsman Bill Ely, and originally seen in Tales of the Unexpected #12) closed the show. Also lurking within this issue was another agonisingly funny Aragonés ‘Abel’s Fables’ contribution…

The penultimate issue in this sparkling collection led with classical creep-show ‘The Curse of Morby Castle’ by Sparling. Skeates & Aparo returned to ‘Divide and Murder’ and Aragonés struck again in ‘Abel’s Fables’. Blasts from the past ‘The Tomb of Ramfis’ (House of Mystery #59, by the fabulous John Prentice) and ‘Dead Man’s Diary’ (drawn by Ralph Mayo for House of Mystery #46) were demarcated by another trenchant Wein & Sparling ‘Day after Doomsday’, before Jose Delbo delineated a manic monster-fest entitled ‘Domain of the Damned’.

The last issue in this first compendium opened with a glorious intro page from Mark Hanerfeld and Kaluta, after which the artist entrancingly illustrated Albano’s tough-as-nails-thriller ‘Born Losers’ and Toth illuminated the ‘Secret Hero of Center City’ (originally seen in House of Mystery #120). After one more Aragonés ‘Abel’s Fables’ Wein, Mikes Roy & Peppe revealed why ‘The Night Train Doesn’t Stop Here anymore!’ and another John Prentice treat was served up in ‘The Fatal Superstition’ (House of Mystery #35) before the great Adolfo Buylla celebrated the end of the affair in grisly fashion with ‘Happy Birthday, Herman!’

These terror-tales captivated the reading public and critics alike when they first appeared and it’s no stretch to posit that they probably saved the company during one of the toughest downturns in comics publishing history. Now their blend of sinister 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 splatter-free sagas of tension and imagination, not to mention a huge supply of bad-taste, kid-friendly cartoon chills, book your stay at the House of Secrets as soon as you possibly can…

© 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Valerian and Laureline book 1: The City of Shifting Waters

By J.-C. Méziéres & P. Christin, with colours by E. Tranlé and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-038-2

Valérian is possibly the most influential 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 newspaper strips formed 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…

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

Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent launched in the November 9th, 1967 edition of Pilote (#420, running until February 15th 1968) and was an instant hit. The graphic novel under discussion here ‘The City of Shifting Waters’ is actually the second chronological yarn.

The groundbreaking series followed a Franco-Belgian mini-boom in science fiction triggered by Jean-Claude Forest’s 1962 creation Barbarella.

Other notable successes of the era include Greg & Eddy Paape’s Luc Orient and Philippe Druillet’s Lone Sloane and, which all with Valérian’s hot public reception led to the creation of dedicated fantasy masterpiece Métal Hurlant in 1977.

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

When Valérian travelled to 11th century France in the first tale ‘Les Mauvais Rêves (‘Bad Dreams’) he was rescued from a tricky situation by a fiery, capable young woman named Laureline and he brought her back with him to the 28th super-citadel and administrative wonderland of Galaxity, capital of the Terran Empire. The indomitable girl trained as a Spatio-Temporal operative and by the time of this book was accompanying him on his missions throughout time and space.

Every subsequent Valérian adventure until the 13th was first serialised weekly in Pilote until the conclusion of ‘The Rage of Hypsis’ (January 1st – September 1st 1985) after which the mind-bending sagas were published as all new complete graphic novels, until the magnificent opus concluded in 2010.

(One clarifying note: in the canon “Hypsis” is counted as the twelfth tale, due to the collected albums being numbered from ‘The City of Shifting Waters’ – the second story but the first to be released in collected book form. When ‘Bad Dreams’ was finally released in a collected edition in 1983 it was given the number #0.)

The City of Shifting Waters was originally published in two tranches; ‘La Cité des Eaux Mouvantes’ (#455 25th July to 468, 24th October 1968) and ‘Terre en Flammes’ (‘Earth in Flames’, #492-505, 10th April to 10th July 1969), and opens here with the odd couple dispatched to 1986 – when civilisation on earth was destroyed due to ecological negligence and political chicanery – to recapture Xombul, a madman determined to undermine Galaxity and establish himself as Dictator of the Universe.

To attain his goal the renegade has travelled to New York after a nuclear accident has melted the ice caps and flooded the metropolis (and everywhere else), seeking hidden scientific secrets that would allow him to conquer the devastated planet and prevent the Terran Empire from ever forming…

Plunged back into an apocalyptic nightmare where Broadway and Wall Street are under water, jungle vines connect the deserted skyscrapers, Tsunamis are an hourly hazard and bold looters are snatching up the last golden treasures of a lost civilisation, the S-T agents find unique allies to preserve the proper past, survive even greater catastrophes such as the volcanic eruption of Yellowstone Park and frustrate the plans of the most ambitious mass killer in all of history…

Visually spectacular, mind-bogglingly ingenious and steeped in delightful in-jokes (the utterly-mad-yet-brilliant boffin who helps them is a hilarious dead ringer for Jerry Lewis in the 1963 film “The Nutty Professor”) this is still a timelessly perfect Science Fiction masterpiece every fan of the genre – in whatever medium – would be crazy to miss…
© Dargaud Paris, 1976 Christin, Méziéres & Tran-Lệ. All rights reserved. English translation © 2010 Cinebook Ltd.

Shrine of the Morning Mist volume 1

By Hiroki Ugawa, translated and adapted by Jeremiah Bourque & Hope Donovan(TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59816-343-4

Most manga can be characterised by a fast, raucous and even occasionally choppy style and manner of delivery but the first volume of Hiroki Ugawa’s atmospheric supernatural thriller and moody saga of young love takes its time to get all the elements in play rather than simply steaming in all guns blazing.

Set in the city of Miyoshi in Hiroshima Prefecture (noted for its shrines and beautiful mist-draped landscapes) Asagiri no Miko or Shrine of the Morning Mist first appeared as a serial in the monthly periodical Young King Ours, running eventually to five volumes of eerie mystery, romance comedy and demonic action.

The saga opens here in traditional portentous manner and carefully unfolds the story of young Yuzu Hieda, one of three sisters who are hereditary Miko (a combination of shamans, mediums and priestesses attached to Shinto shrines and temples) attending to the local places of worship.

The sisters are especially gifted with special powers to combat the supernatural threats that menace the locality.

Little more than a teenager herself, schoolgirl Yuzu is troubled by the return of her childhood sweetheart and cousin Tadahiro Amatsu who, after five years away, has come home only to be targeted by evil forces. Despite being teased by sisters Tama and Kurako Yuzu accompanies them to the railway station just in time to save the lad from a sinister, sorcerous old man obsessed with the boy’s blood.

Invited to stay in the Miko’s home the withdrawn boy is disquieted by the teasing and references to his past relationship with Yuzu, but the father of the house proves to be a far-more unforgiving prospect…

Mystic forces are gathering round the introspective, solitary boy – with repercussions felt as far away as Tokyo – and over their dad’s objections Tadahiro is pressured into staying at the Hieda home where he can be properly protected. However next morning when the girls are at school a monolithic, cyclopean demon attacks the house. The assault is instantly perceived by Yuzu who dashes back to save him only to find her long-absent mother already there, having driven off the dark “kami”.

Well, one of them, at least…

Typically even Mother Miyuki thinks Tadahiro and Yuzu are a perfect, predestined couple…

With questions swirling about him, such as “why is everybody so interested in his blood” and “whatever happened to his own parents” the shell-shocked Tadahiro is blissfully unaware that the Miko are forming a protective Council around him, but even he knows something is up when the dark newcomer Koma introduces herself and reveals that she intimately knew his long-departed father…

To be continued…

This uncharacteristically slow-paced, contemplative and almost elegiac tale mystery was partially inspired by a classical tale recorded on the Inō Mononoke scroll and Hiroki Ugawa’s beautiful illustration perfectly captures a sense of brooding ancient powers at war, even during the most juvenile set-piece moments of awkward young romance and generational embarrassment comedy.

A slightly off-beat but intriguing tale for older readers, this black and white volume is printed in the Japanese right-to-left, back to front format.
© 2001 Hiroki Ugawa. All rights reserved. English text © 2006 TokyoPop inc.

“21”: The Story of Roberto Clemente

By Wilfred Santiago (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-892-3

I’m not a big fan of American Sports, favouring the ease and simplicity of our own gentle pastimes such as Rugby and, of course, Cricket, but I am a complete sucker for history and particularly graphic biographies – especially when they are as innovative and imaginative as this superbly passionate and evocative account of the life of a groundbreaking sports star, quietly philanthropic humanitarian and culture-changing champion of ethnic equality.

Roberto Clemente Walker was born in Puerto Rico on August 18th 1934, one of seven kids in a devoutly Catholic family. Baseball and, latterly, his wife Vera and three kids were his entire life. He played for a Puerto Rican team until the Brooklyn Dodgers head-hunted him.

At that time racial restrictions were dominant in the American game so he actually only played against white people in the Canadian League for the Montreal Royals. In 1954 he finally got into the American game when he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates – a working relationship that lasted until his tragic death in a plane crash in December 1972.

During those tempestuous 18 years Clemente broke down many social barriers and became a sporting legend: the first Hispanic player to win a World Series as a starter, the first Latino to win the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award and winner of a dozen Gold Glove Awards. An all round player, he scored 3000 hits and achieved many other notable career highlights.

He worked passionately for humanitarian causes in Latin America, believed every child should have free and open access to sports and died delivering earthquake relief to Nicaragua after the devastating tremor of December 23rd 1972.

He body was never recovered and he was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, again the first Hispanic to receive the honour and the only contemporary player ever to have the five year waiting period waived.

He is a national icon in Puerto Rico and one of the leading figures in the movement to desegregate American sports

Rather than a dry accounting of his life, author Wilfred Santiago’s tale skips forward and back, illustrated in a studied and fiercely expressionistic melange of styles which sketch in tone and mood, and feel the life of a true frontrunner and a very human hero.

With its message of success and glory in the face of poverty and discrimination “21” is delightfully reminiscent of James Sturm’s The Golem’s Mighty Swing but its entrancing, vibrant visual style is uniquely flavoured with the heat of the tropics and the pride of the people Clemente loved.

Lusciously realised in sumptuous earth-tones and powerfully redolent of the spirit of Unjust Times A-Changin’, this is a fabulous book for every fan of the medium and not simply lads and sports-fans…

Art and text © 2011Wilfred Santiago. All rights reserved.

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.