Forbidden Dance


By Hinako Ashihara (TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59182-345-2

This is the charming, if eccentric, tale of Aya, a young girl who has seemingly lost the ability to dance after an accident at the National Ballet Competition damages her ankle.

Her ruined, psychologically-scarred, miserable life finally drastically spins around again after she witnesses the astounding Akira Hibiya dancing with the COOL ballet troupe. The boy quite turns her head and makes her want to dance once more…

Revitalised, she makes joining COOL her life’s ambition, and nothing – not even the fact that Akira thinks she is just another crazy girl-fan stalker or, more importantly, that COOL is an all-male company – is going to stop her…

Aimed at a young teen audience, Forbidden Dance is replete with the school angst and constant, overwhelming pressure to succeed that dominates this branch of manga fiction, but the energy, power and enthusiasm of Hinako Ashihara’s story-telling elevates the tale above the crush of its peers.

As Aya’s story progresses (through 4 translated volumes originally released in 2003) the ending is never a foregone conclusion and even the most jaded reader must wonder “what next?”

In a crowded and conservative market, it’s good to see quality story-telling in varied settings, and many jaded comics fans or newcomers to our weird world would probably benefit from giving this book and its sequels a chance… if they can find them.
© 2003 Hinako Ashihara. All Rights Reserved.

Girls Bravo volumes 1-3


By Mario Kaneda, translated & adapted by Asuka Yoshizu & Steve Bunche (TokyoPop)
ISBNs: 978-1-59816-040-6, 978-1-59816-041-3 & 978-1-59816-042-0

Here’s another large, strange slice of manga magic that took the world by storm when it inevitably transferred to the anime screen, and another of those uncomfortably inappropriate teen-sex comedies that so delight the Japanese and generally bewilder we less socially ossified westerners.

Aimed at older teens, this type of tale fully acknowledges and draws seemingly endless amusement from the fact that boys and girls of a certain age are hormone-crazed muskrats desperate to catch furtive snatches of each other’s proscribed bits, and only conscience and social pressure keeps them from being even more intolerable than they are.

If only it got any easier with advanced age…

These stories first appeared in Japanese magazine Shōnen Ace from 2000 to 2005 and were eventually collected in ten volumes of frantic, frenetic slapstick, excruciating comedy-of-manners gaffes, replete with gusset glimpses, shower-scenes, fantasy fun and burgeoning young love.

‘Gārusu Burabō’ is the story of a hapless high school student named Yukinari Sasaki, a short, dim nebbish who is so put upon, teased and bullied by girls – and even his female teachers – that he has developed a condition which brings him out in hives every time anything with no Y chromosomes touches him.

His unfortunate condition is further compounded by the fact that the neighbours’ daughter Kirie, a girl he has known since childhood, and one he can at least talk to, has recently changed.

Her shy and awkward nature has developed into a crush he is utterly oblivious to, but unfortunately said crush has devolved into a series of violent assaults every time she gets flustered, and with Sasaki, she gets flustered a lot…

At some time when nobody was paying attention, she blossomed into an astonishingly well-endowed young woman – something else that embarrasses her greatly and often leads to red-faced punches and breath-curtailing kicks…

After a particularly trying day Yukinari returns home and stumbles into Kirie using his shower. He’s flustered, she’s naked and while he’s being pummelled by the blushing, panicked girl he falls into the bath… and emerges into another world and another naked girl’s bath…

But this is a completely different kind of girl. She is genuinely concerned, solicitous, even shorter than him and – most importantly – not screaming or hitting. Moreover, Miharu can touch him without setting off his allergic reaction. All she cares about is his welfare and what earth food is like.

The world of Siren is a revelation; a magical place where women outnumber men 9-1. When Miharu’s older sister Maharu spots the unattached male she makes a violent play for Yukinari, chasing him into the streets where every female in range also competes to capture the fleeing boy-toy.

Miharu rescues him and they double back to her bathroom, but the pursuers are too close and the fugitives fall into the bath – and arrive back in Yukinari’s shower. It is still occupied by the perplexed, naked and fuming Kirie.

Miharu is apparently stuck on Earth: the perfect companion for the gynophobic lad. She never attacks him, doesn’t cause hives, has magic powers and only cares about food. Unfortunately, she’s bewitchingly beautiful and as naive as a newborn hamster, so the hoi-polloi at school trail after her like dogs after biscuits, especially wealthy school stud Fukuyama.

He’s a real catch: a glorious young god of legendary manliness, but conceals a tragic secret of his own. Unknown to all, he is so male-phobic that he has an attack of hives every time a male touches him. Fukuyama is driven crazy by Miharu’s indifference to him…

Meanwhile, hopeless Yukinari is still being teased and bullied by girls of every type and regularly stumbling into situations where Kirie is undressed, volatile and trigger-primed to explode…

The first volume covers the set-up of the formulae, with lots of stories about simplistic Miharu’s desire to eat anything not nailed down, platonically care for Yukinari and her tendency to be duped into wearing revealing or fetishistic clothing by the lecherous Fukuyama.

Despite being always hungry and able to consume practically anything Miharu is a brilliant cook, unlike Kirie whose recipes are only really appreciated by terrorists looking for new bio-weapons. Yukinari increasingly has to spend his time protecting the gullible alien’s non-existent modesty…

Gradually the series takes a more supernatural turn as the unhappy ménage-a-trouble encounter an undressed ghost girl (and Fukuyama’s sister) Risa: a young sorceress convinced that beleaguered Yukinari is her predestined husband and thus willing to use all her wiles and witchcraft to make him hers. Even if it means destroying or even befriending Miharu and Kirie…

The first volume ends with a light-hearted and hottie-filled adaptation of traditional Japanese folk-tale Momotaro (the Peach Boy).

Volume 2 continues Risa’s campaign. She casts spells on Yukinari, and tries to convince Miharu that her attentions are preventing the diminutive lad from forming normal relationships or shaking his allergic phobia. Things get completely crazy when the Siren girl drinks alcohol and begins to replicate herself uncontrollably…

Yukinari still keeps getting accidental, unwelcome and concomitantly painful glimpses of undraped girls whilst growing increasingly fond of Miharu, even battling the hulking alpha male Fukuyama to protect her, but when amnesiac Koyomi appears thing get very strange indeed.

For one thing she is the only other girl able to resist the school stud’s dubious charms; she doesn’t give Yukinari contact-hives and, when she is flustered or scared, giant pits open in the floor under her…

She is in fact an agent from Siren sent to recover the missing Miharu, and when her memory returns Koyomi transports her quarry home before Yukinari’s tear-filled eyes…

Of course, the adored catalyst does return, and volume 2 concludes with another side story; a day in the life of sexy super-stud Fukuyama – or at least in his fevered, fetid mind…

Volume 3 opens with the cast being coerced by the loathsome Lothario into a game of strip Mah-Jong with the returned Konomi (on a secret mission for Miharu’s sister): Fukuyama’s latest lewd target. Sadly for him, she suffers from the same condition as he does – she too is androphobic and repelled by the touch of men…

Konomi’s mission is at last exposed and she begins searching for a perfect husband for Miharu’s strident, overbearing sister. This inevitably leads to some very uncomfortable situations, as do the girls’ communal attempts to earn some extra money, before everything goes really crazy after Kirie falls through Risa’s mirror into a world where all her friends have reversed personalities…

Sweet-natured Miharu’s attempts to buy all her friends New Year’s Gifts go painfully awry before all ends well, and her celebration of the Setsubun festival (where bad luck is symbolically removed by throwing Soya beans out of the house) also falls flat – but only because Risa summoned real evil spirits to the party…

The volume ends on a heartbreakingly beguiling tale of a little girl abandoned in the snow – a story so moving it’s worth buying all three volumes just to read this sparkling gem in perfect context…

Irrepressibly juvenile and hormone-fuelled but great fun and beautifully drawn, this is a series as likely to titillate as offend, but it’s all good clean smut really, harmless and charming and bound to delight girl watchers and anyone enduring puberty or recalling it with any degree of honesty…
© 2001, 2002 Mario Kaneda. English text © 2005, 2006 Tokyopop Inc. All rights reserved.

Kevin Keller: Welcome to Riverdale


By Dan Parent & Rich Koslowski & various (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-936975-23-5 (TPB)

Created by writer/artist Dan Parent and inker Rich Koslowski, Kevin Keller debuted in Veronica #202 (September 2010), a charming, good-looking and exceedingly together lad who utterly bowled over the rich go-getter. She was totally smitten with him whilst he was far more interested in food, sports and hanging out with Jughead…

When Kevin finally explained to Veronica why she was wasting her time, she became his best buddy: after all they had a lot in common – stylish clothes, shopping and boys…

Immensely popular from the outset (Veronica #202 was the first comicbook in the company’s long history to go into a second printing), Kevin struck a chord with the readership and soon guest shots evolved into a miniseries before the new kid on the block inevitably won his own ongoing title.

Trade paperback & eBook compilation Kevin Keller: Welcome to Riverdale collects the first four issues of his groundbreaking solo monthly title and opens here with handy text feature ‘Kevin Keller: Catch up with the Characters’: reintroducing the bonny lad, his (retired army colonel) dad Thomas, mum Kathy and feisty sisters Denise and Patty.

The feature also brings newcomers up to speed on recent history as seen in the previous volume) before the mirth and merriment kick off with ‘There’s a First Time for Everything’ from issue #1 wherein the much-travelled, journalism-obsessed “Army Brat” finally begins settling in at Riverdale High.

In short order he is elected Class President, has his first commercial writing published and reveals a shocking secret…

For all his accomplishments Kevin has never gone on a real date, and when a certain someone asks him out, the Keller kid turns to Betty for some confidence-boosting advice. He isn’t a complete neophyte; there was something like a date before, but due to his catastrophic nervousness it turned into a major disaster…

Unfortunately, Reggie overhears their huddled conversation and the self-proclaimed romance expert elects to give Kevin the benefit of his vast masculine experience…

The exuberant preparations turn into a catalogue of horror and, as more well-meaning friends get involved, it looks certain that Kevin will repeat that horrific experience…

Thankfully a few stabilising words from love-hating Jughead and an eventful morning with the remarkably understanding Colonel Keller quickly restore some necessary calm and equilibrium…

The next tale moves from straight slapstick to heart-warming empathy as Class President Kevin is asked to organise a prom in ‘May I Have this Dance?’ Only then does he discover that he has a secret admirer. Of course, once Veronica finds out it’s not a secret for long…

As the seventies-themed fashion disaster begins to take shape, further furtive communications reveal that the clandestine would-be wooer is someone still not fully at ease with his sexual orientation; forcing Kevin to be at his most understanding and forgiving…

Contentious themes and prejudices are tackled in ‘Stranded in Paradise’ when the summer vacation begins and Kevin gets a job as a lifeguard.

The beach is the time-honoured hangout of all Riverdale kids, but when spoiled princess Cheryl Blossom and her rich Pembroke School cronies invade the space, sparks soon fly. The grubby “Townies” are challenged to a surfing contest for possession of the sands with Kevin a star competitor and secret weapon for the home team. The fair-minded stalwart has, however, completely underestimated the vicious tactics of loathsome homophobe Sloan

The comics portion of this tome concludes with an international epic set at the 2012 London Olympics. ‘Games People Play’ sees Colonel Keller – who has dual British and American citizenship – invited to be a torchbearer.

Having spent four years in England, Kevin is delighted to be going back for a visit and reconnecting with old pal Brian. He doesn’t even mind when shopping-crazy Veronica inveigles an invite to join the family.

Moreover, when his nominated-runner Dad falls foul of London’s Underground at a crucial moment, Kevin is ready and more-or-less willing to step in for what appears to be the unluckiest and most dangerous section of the entire torch route…

Following a moving and appreciative ‘Afterword’ by Dan Parent there’s also a splendid section of ‘Official Kevin Keller Bonus Features’ including ‘Retro Fashion’ pages, ‘Kevin’s Prom Style’, ‘Kevin’s Summer Style with B & V’, ‘Kevin Keller & Friends Style’ and a triptych of ‘Unreleased Promotional Sketches’.

With a cover gallery that includes modern cartoon masterpieces and remastered classic Archie images retrofitted to suit our 21st century all-star, this is a superb, hilarious and magically inclusive collection for you, your kids and grandparents to enjoy over and over again…
© 2012 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Archie’s Pal Kevin Keller


By Dan Parent, Rich Koslowski, Jack Morelli & Digikore Studios (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-87979-493-1 (HC)

Following the debut of Superman, MLJ were one of many publishers to jump on the “mystery-man” bandwagon, concocting their own small but inspired pantheon of gaudily clad crusaders. In November 1939 they launched Blue Ribbon Comics, and swiftly followed up with Top-Notch and Pep Comics. The content was the era’s standard mix of masked champions, clean-cut two-fisted adventurers, genre prose pieces and gags.

Not long after, Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater (hence MLJ) spotted a gap in the blossoming yet crowded market. In December 1941 the Fights ‘n’ Tights, heaving He-Man crowd were gently nudged aside by a far less imposing hero; an ordinary teenager having mundane adventures just like the readership, but with the companionable laughs, good times and romance emphasised.

Goldwater developed the youthful everyman protagonist concept and tasked writer Vic Bloom & artist Bob Montana with making it work. Inspired by and referencing the successful Andy Hardy movies (starring Mickey Rooney), their new notion premiered in Pep Comics #22. The unlikely star was a gap-toothed, freckle-faced, red-headed kid obsessed with impressing the pretty blonde next door.

A 6-page untitled tale introduced hapless boob Archie Andrews and wholesomely fetching Betty Cooper. The boy’s wry and unconventional best friend and confidante Jughead Jones also debuted in that vignette, as did idyllic small-town utopia Riverdale. It was a huge hit and by the winter of 1942 the kid had won his own series and then a solo-starring title.

Archie Comics #1 was MLJ’s first non-anthology magazine and with it began an inexorable transformation of the entire company. With the introduction of ultra-rich, raven-haired Veronica Lodge, all the pieces were in play for the industry’s second Genuine Phenomenon…

By 1946 the kids were in charge, and MLJ officially reinvented itself as Archie Comics, retiring most of its costumed characters years before the end of the Golden Age and becoming, to all intents and purposes, a publisher of family-friendly comedies.

The hometown settings and perpetually fruitful premise of an Eternal Romantic Triangle – with girl-hating Jughead to assist or deter and scurrilous love-rat rival Reggie Mantle to test, duel and vex our boy in their own unique ways – the scenario was one that not only resonated with fans but was somehow infinitely fresh and engaging…

Like Superman’s, Archie’s success forced a change in content at every other US publisher (except Gilberton’s dry and po-faced Classics Illustrated), creating a culture-shifting multi-media brand which encompassed TV, movies, newspaper strips, toys and merchandise, a chain of restaurants and (in the swinging sixties) a pop music sensation when Sugar, Sugar – from the animated TV cartoon – became a global summer smash hit.

Clean and decent garage band “The Archies” has been a fixture of the comics ever since…

The perennial eternal triangle has generated thousands of charming, raucous, gentle, frenetic, chiding and even heart-rending humorous dramas ranging from surreal wit to frantic slapstick, with the kids and a constantly expanding cast of friends (boy genius Dilton Doily, genial giant jock Big Moose and occasional guest Sabrina the Teenage Witch amongst so many others), growing into an American institution and part of the American cultural landscape.

The feature has thrived by constantly refreshing its core archetypes; boldly and seamlessly adapting to the changing world outside its bright and cheerful pages, shamelessly co-opting youth, pop culture, fashion trends and even topical events into its infallible mix of comedy and young romance.

Each and every social revolution has been painlessly assimilated into the mix and over the decades the company has confronted most social issues affecting youngsters in a manner both even-handed and tasteful.

Constant addition of new characters such as African-American Chuck Clayton and his girlfriend Nancy Woods, fashion-diva Ginger Lopez, Hispanic couple Frankie Valdez and Maria Rodriguez, student film-maker Raj Patel and spoiled home-wrecker-in-waiting Cheryl Blossom all contributed to a wide and refreshingly broad-minded scenario.

In 2010 Archie jumped the final hurdle – for decades a seemingly insurmountable one for kids comicbooks – when openly gay student Kevin Keller became an admirable advocate capably tackling and dismantling the last major taboo in mainstream comics.

Created by writer/artist Dan Parent and inker Rich Koslowski (lettered by Jack Morelli and coloured by Digikore Studios), Kevin debuted in Veronica #202 (September 2010). It was the first comicbook in the company’s long history to go into a second printing…

This landmark hardback (and eBook) compendium gathers that delightful debut from Veronica #205 plus the 4-issue Kevin Keller miniseries which cemented the new star’s popularity.

It all begins with context-establishing essay ‘Get to Know Kevin Keller’ before comic introductions are made in ‘Isn’t it Bro-Mantic’ as Veronica encounters a charming, good-looking and exceedingly-together lad who utterly bowls her over.

She is totally smitten with him even though he can out-eat human dustbin Jughead and loves sports. Although suave Kevin inexplicably loves hanging out with the ghastly Jones boy she is determined to make him exclusively hers.

Jughead (who clearly possesses fully-functioning gaydar) is truly cool with his new pal, and soon sees an opportunity to pay Ronnie back for many of the mean things she has said and done over the years…

When Kevin finally explains to Veronica why she is wasting her time, she takes it fabulously well and soon they are hanging out as best buds. After all, they have so much in common: chatting, stylish clothes, shopping, boys…

Immensely popular from the outset, Kevin struck a chord with the readership and returned a few months later in ‘The Buddy System’, with Veronica’s bombastic dad giving the obviously perfect new student the all-clear to monopolise his daughter’s time. The following fun-filled days do have one major downside however, as poor Betty is increasingly neglected…

You’d think Archie would be jealous too, but he’s just glad that someone “safe” is keeping other guys away from “his” Ronnie. It seems the ideal scenario for everyone but Betty, but then man-hunting, filthy rich over-privileged and entitled princess Cheryl Blossom hits town and puts everything back into perspective…

The repeat guest shots rapidly evolved into a miniseries, expanding Kevin’s role whilst answering many questions about his past. It started with ‘Meet Kevin Keller’ wherein we learned he was an army brat, born in Britain but raised all over the world, and now lives in Riverdale with his dad (retired and invalided army colonel) Thomas, mum Kathy and feisty sisters Denise and Patty.

It also reveals Kevin is a typical guy: he loves practical jokes as much as food and sports…

Whilst sharing these facts with Betty and Ronnie, he also lets slip some less impressive details: how he was a nerdy, braces-wearing late-developer who was frequently the target of bullies…

‘The Write Stuff’ is set during the build-up to his father’s surprise birthday party and discloses how Kevin plans to serve in the army before becoming a journalist, whilst also showing the gentle hero’s darker side after he is compelled to intervene – and end – the persecution of a young Riverdale student by bullies…

In ‘Let’s Get it Started’ the newcomer is ambushed and pressganged by his new friends into participating in a scholastic TV quiz show where his nerves almost get the better of him. Happily, Ronnie inadvertently breaks his paralysing stage-fright with a humiliating gaffe, but that’s just a palate cleanser for a potent object lesson in the concluding chapter…

As Kevin steps in to shelter and help one of the kids who used to torment him long ago, ‘Taking the Lead!’ also finds him reluctantly running for Class President at the insistent urging of Ronnie and the gang.

It’s not that he wants the position particularly, but when bigoted jock and star school quarterback David Perkins starts a campaign based on intolerance, innuendo and intimidation, Kevin feels someone has to confront the smugly-macho, “real man” who boasts he is the most popular boy in school…

And despite a smear campaign and dirty tactics any Presidential candidate would be proud of, truth, justice and decency win out…

This breezy and engaging collection concludes with ‘An Interview with Kevin Keller’ offering further background direct from the horse’s mouth and also includes a host of covers, variants and remastered classic Archie images retrofitted to suit our 21st century star. Archie’s Pal Kevin Keller is a joyous and magically inclusive collection for you and everyone you know and like to enjoy over and over again.
© 2012 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Moon Looked Down and Laughed – a Holy Cross graphic novel


By Malachy Coney & Paul J. Holden (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-263-1

The Irish have always rightly prided themselves on their innate ability to tell a tale and comics especially have long-benefited from that blessed boon. One writer especially gifted and yet inexplicably still not world famous is Malachy Coney, who first started turning heads in Fleetway’s socially informed Crisis anthology in 1989 when he was invited by Pat Mills to co-write a sequence of the controversial serial Third World War set in Ireland.

Coney was raised in the Ardoyne area of Belfast during the time of “The Troubles” and much of his work deals with the politics of the era and issues of gender and gay rights.

In 1993 he scripted the miniseries Holy Cross for Fantagraphics: three separate tales all linked by history, geography and incidental characters Jimmy and Davy – a local gay couple. The yarns were illustrated respectively by Davy Francis, Chris Hogg and P. J. Holden. That lost delight happily led to the lovely book under discussion on this most Gaelic of days.

Coney, who is also a cartoonist and publisher, latterly wrote a number of Gay-themed superhero tales (Major Power and Spunky, The Dandy Lion, The Simply Incredible Hunk), socially aware material such as The Good Father and Catholic Lad; worked with Garth Ennis on Top Cow’s The Darkness and Steven Grant on Vampirella.

Active in the arts in Northern Ireland, he co-wrote animated short film Second Helpings and has contributed to DNASwamp, Small Axe and Fortnight, whilst producing material for the internet and self-publishing his own Good Craic Comics.

Paul Jason Holden is also from Belfast and, as well as working closely with Coney on the Holy Cross stories, The Dandy Lion and The Simply Incredible Hunk, has illustrated Mike Carey’s ‘Suicide Kings’ and worked for Warhammer Monthly, 2000AD, Judge Dredd Megazine, Image Comics, Garth Ennis’ Battlefields and Strip Magazine. He is also active in developing web- and app-based comics…

Rendered in stark and seductive monochrome, The Moon Looked Down and Laughed is again set in the Holy Cross district of Belfast and narrated by hopeful writer Tommy Doherty, a decent and sentimental young man just starting to learn the way of the world.

Tommy’s always got time to listen to his old dad’s stories about the bad days just past, especially the one when he was a young man doing odd jobs for a mean, rich old sod named Burke.

That privileged, demented sour swine used to work him like a slave every day and then set the dog on him if he stayed on his land one second after quitting-time. Sometimes Burke even deliberately kept him late just to watch him run…

That all changed on the fateful day Pa Doherty’s watch stopped and the vicious landowner gloatingly gawped as the manic canine brought him down…

Of course, that was the day sheer terror made the worm turn and a scared lad learned another use for the hated shovel in his calloused hands…

From that event, the Da learned a hard but necessary lesson: there are mad dogs everywhere and usually the shovel is the best way of dealing with them…

With thoughts of wildlife documentaries, carnivores and prey in his head, Tommy heads for the pub and a drink with his outrageous pals Jimmy and Davy. However he obliquely encounters the district’s apex predator when Francie O’Neill’s gang of thugs and troublemakers harass him for hanging out with “faggots”…

It had only been weeks since the surly pack of jackals had beaten up Jimmy and Davy in one more gay-bashing incident. O’Neill had been a bully since they were all at school but always managed to come off like some roguish golden boy. Nobody could understand why the loveliest girl in school had married him, especially Tommy, for whom Annie would always be “the one”, ever since that incident when they played “spin-the-bottle” as nippers…

Now she was shackled to a possessive, brutal thug, permanently pregnant and with all the life leaching slowly out of her.

Staggering away at closing time, Tommy and the boys spot Francie stalking the streets, looking for a fight to start. Not for the first time, the writer ponders the worth of pens against swords and why people like that are allowed to get away with so much…

Pa Doherty’s pride and joy is his allotment garden and on the way to it next day, father and son see an ambulance rushing away. It seems poor fat Big Junior has had a breakdown and harmed himself. The lad hasn’t been the same since his ma died and surely the constant bullying and sadistic harassment by certain people has pushed him over the edge…

As they watch Annie O’Neill and her two oldest pass by, Pa invites them to spend time in his garden. The kids have the best day of their life just playing and, with a bit of peace at last, Annie idly chats about the old days with Tommy…

The next day the author-in-waiting answers a desperate call: the father is in a bad way. It seems someone has destroyed his precious, beloved garden; razed it to rubble and ruins…

Consoling the heartbroken, despondent elder, Tommy sees Francie’s unmistakable signature in the despicable act. Soon after, locating the psychotic lout terrorising his own wife and children, the frustrated scribe realises he has found his own mad dog…

Disposing of the body on the nearby railway tracks, the shell-shocked and traumatised scribe is utterly unaware that Jimmy and Davy have been witnesses to the whole thing…

And that’s just the start of Tommy Doherty’s road from boy to man in this superbly told tale, blending wry humour and bucolic Celtic charm with shatteringly personal conflicts that test the miraculous bonds of childhood loyalty and friendship, revealing not only the horrific acts good men can be pushed to, but also how deeds shape character and how little the universe cares…

Long overdue for re-issue – preferably in a bumper edition collecting the three-issue Holy Cross miniseries and the fabled unpublished fourth issue as well – this is a sublimely beguiling and memorably incisive story of human life at its most vibrant and compelling…
© 1997 Malachy Coney & Paul J. Holden. This edition © 1997 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

From Headrack to Claude – Collected Gay Comix of Howard Cruse


By Howard Cruse (Nifty Kitsch Press/Northwest Press)
ISBN: 978-0-578-03251-1 (TPB)

It’s long been an aphorism – if not an outright cliché – that Gay (or we could be contemporary and say LGBTQ) comics have long been the only place in the graphic narrative business to see real romance in all its joy, pain, glee and glory.

It’s still true: an artefact, I suppose, of a society seemingly obsessed with demarcating and separating sex and love as two utterly different and possibly even opposite things. I prefer to think that here in the 21st century – at least in most sensible, civilised parts of it – we’ve outgrown the juvenile, judgemental, bad old days and can simply appreciate powerfully moving and/or funny comics about people of all sorts without any kind of preconception, but that battle’s still not completely won yet. Hopefully, compendia such as this will aid the fight…

Oh, and there’s sex and swearing so if you’re the kind of person liable to be upset by words and pictures of an adult nature (such as joyous, loving fornication between two people separated by age, wealth, social position and race who happily possess and constantly employ the same type of naughty bits on each other, or sly mockery of deeply-held, outmoded and ludicrous beliefs) then go away and read something else.

In fact, just go away: you have no romance in your soul or love in your heart.

Howard Cruse has enjoyed a remarkable cartooning career which has spanned decades and encompassed a number of key moments in American history and social advancement.

Beginning as a hippy-trippy, counter-culture, Underground Comix star with beautifully drawn, witty, funny (not always the same thing in those days – or now, come to think of it) strips, his work has evolved over the years into a powerful voice for change in both sexual and race politics through such superb features as Wendel and his masterpiece Stuck Rubber Baby – an examination of oppression, tolerance and freedoms in 1950s America.

Since then he has become a columnist, worked on other writers’ work, illustrating an adaptation of Jeanne E. Shaffer’s The Swimmer With a Rope In His Teeth and continued his own unique brand of cartoon commentary.

Born in 1944 the son of a Baptist Minister in Birmingham, Alabama, Cruse grew up amid the smouldering intolerance of the region’s segregationist regime; an atmosphere that shaped him on a primal level. He escaped to Birmingham-Southern College to study Drama in the late ’60s, graduating and winning a Shubert Playwriting Fellowship to Penn State University.

Campus life there never really suited him and he dropped out in 1969. Returning to the South he joined a loose crowd of fellow Birmingham Bohemians which allowed him to blossom as a creator and by 1971 was drawing a spectacular procession of strips for an increasingly hungry and growing crowd of eager admirers.

Whilst working for a local TV station as both designer and children’s show performer he created a kid’s newspaper strip about talking squirrels, Tops & Button, still finding time to craft the utterly whimsical and bizarre tales of a romantic quadrangle starring a very nice young man and his troublesome friends for the more discerning college crowd he remained in contact with. The strips appeared in a variety of college newspapers and periodicals

He was “discovered” by publishing impresario Denis Kitchen in 1972 who began disseminating Barefootz to a far broader audience in such Underground publications as Snarf, Bizarre Sex, Dope Comix and Commies From Mars: all published by his much-missed Kitchen Sink Enterprises outfit.

Kitchen also hired Cruse to work on an ambitious co-production with rising powerhouse Marvel Comics, attempting to bring a somewhat sanitised version of the counter-culture’s cartoon stars and sensibilities to the mainstream via The Comix Book: a traditionally packaged and distributed newsstand magazine. It only ran to a half-dozen issues and, although deemed a failure, provided the notionally more wholesome and genteel Barefootz with a larger audience and yet more avid fans…

As well as an actor, designer, art-director and teacher, Cruse has appeared in Playboy, The Village Voice, Heavy Metal, Artforum International, The Advocate and Starlog among countless others, yet the tireless storyman found the time and resources to self-publish Barefootz Funnies, two comic collections of his addictively whimsical strip in 1973.

Here in a captivatingly forthright grab-bag and memoir gathering the snippets and classics left out of previous must-have collections The Compete Wendel and Early Barefootz, Cruse traces his development through his cartoons and strips, all thoroughly and engagingly annotated and contextualised by the author himself and fondly, candidly explored through a backdrop of the men he loved at the time.

This book was originally self-published in 2008 and is now available digitally – with updates and extra material – from those wonderful people at Northwest Press.

Acting as an historical place-setter, Cruse’s informative ‘Preface’ sets the ball rolling, laconically tracing his artistic career and development and using domestic autobiographical strip ‘Communique’ (from Heavy Metal) as a smart indicator of his home life at the time before a more detailed exploration overview of the Queer comics scene in ‘From Miss Thing to Jane’s World’ before the book truly begins.

For a better, fuller understanding you’ll really want to see both the Wendell and Barefootz collections but for now we relive history in first chapter ‘Artefacts & Benchmarks’ Part 1: 1969-76 blending contextualising prose recollection with noteworthy strip ‘That Night at the Stonewall’, advertising art, abortive newspaper strip sample, an episode of Tops & Button, and other published work plus gay sitcom feature ‘Cork & Dork’.

An early example of advocacy comes from wry cartoon homily ‘The Passer-By’ before more reminiscences and picture extracts take us to an uncharacteristically strident and harsh breakthrough.

Preceded by explanatory sidebar ‘Backstory: Gravy on Gay’ we are introduced to Barefootz’, way-out friend confidante and openly gay hippy rebel Headrack in ‘Gravy on Gay’: in which the laid-back easy-going artist is confronted with the ugly, mouthy side of modern living as voiced by obnoxious jock jerk Mort

The march of progress continues in Artefacts & Benchmarks’ Part 2: 1976-80, detailing a variety of comics jobs from Dope Comix and Snarf to the semi-legitimacy of Playboy and Starlog and first meeting with life partner and eventual husband Eddie Sedarbaum before My Strips from Gay Comix 1980-90 traces his editorial career on the landmark anthology by reprints his own strip contributions.

It all begins with ‘Billy Goes Out’: recalling the joyous – or it that empty and tedious? – hedonistic freedoms of the days immediately before the AIDS crisis…

Incisive cloaked autobiographical fable ‘Jerry Mack’ takes us inside the turbulent mind of an ultra-closeted church minister in full regretful denial after which further heartbreak is called up in devious tragedy ‘I Always Cry at Movies…’ and home chores are dealt with in a manly manner in ‘Getting Domestic’.

Some historical and political insight is offered in ‘Backstory: Dirty Old Lovers’ before the outrageous and hilarious antics of the oldest lovers in town scandalise the Gay community in ‘Dirty Old Lovers’, whilst the thinking behind clarion call ‘Safe Sex’ is detailed in a ‘Backstory’ article prior to a straightforward examination of Acquired Immune-Deficiency Syndrome and its effects on personal health and public consciousness…

Surreal comedy infuses the tale of a man’s man and his adored ‘Cabbage Patch Clone’ after which faux ad ‘I Was Trapped Naked inside the Jockey Shorts of the Amazing Colossal Man!’ and Matt Groening spoof ‘Gay Dorks in Fezzes’ closes this chapter to make way for Topical Strips 1983-93.

With Cruse’s particular brand of LGBT commentary reaching more mainstream audiences through publications such as The Village Voice, a brief ‘Backstory’ relates the author’s ultimately unnecessary anxiety to inviting in the wider world through polemical sally ‘Sometimes I Get So Mad’ and wickedly pointed social and media satire ‘The Gay in the Street’. Both that oracular swipe and ‘1986 – An Interim Epilogue’ are also deconstructed by Backstory segments (the latter being a 2-page addendum created for the Australian release of ‘Safe Sex’ in Art & Text magazine) before ‘Backstory: Penceworth’ reveals one of Margaret Thatcher’s vilest moments. In 1988 her government attempted to send back sexual freedom to the Stone Age (or Russia, Nigeria and other uncivilised countries today) by prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality”. The law in Britain – (un)popularly known as Clause 28 – was resisted on many fronts, including the benefit comic AARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia). Invited to contribute, Cruse channelled Hillaire Belloc’s Cautionary Verses and excoriatingly assaulted the New Nazism with ‘Penceworth’: a charming illustrated poem like a spiked cosh snuggled inside a velvet slipper…

Luxuriating in righteous indignation and taking his lead from the New York Catholic Church’s militant stance against the LGBT community, Cruse then illuminated a supposed conference between ‘The Kardinal & the Klansman in Manning the Phone Bank’ and targeted similar anti-gay codicils in America’s National Endowment for the Arts in ‘Homoeroticism Blues’

Another Backstory explains how and why a scurrilous article in Cosmopolitan resulted in ‘The Woeful World of Winnie and Walt’ – a complacency-shattering tale in Strip AIDS USA pointedly reminding White Heterosexuals that the medical horror wasn’t as discriminating as they would like to believe…

That theme is revisited with the kid gloves off in ‘His Closet’, after which ‘Backstory: Rainbow Curriculum Comix’ and ‘The Educator’ clarify how School Board rabble-rouser Mary Cummings set back decades of progress in American diversity education through her oratorical witch hunts. Cruse’s potent responses ‘Rainbow Curriculum Comix’ and ‘The Educator’ follow…

Cruse has been relatively quiet in recent years, and the artist’s Late Entries 2000-08 follow, including a full-colour rebuttal fromm Village Voice to Dr. Bruce Bagemihl’s study on animal homosexuality. ‘A Zoo of Our Own’ is accompanied by a fulsome Backstory and is followed by wry and engaging modern fable ‘My Hypnotist’ and semi-autobiographical conundrum ‘Then There Was Claude’ before the bemused wonderment wraps up with prose article ‘I Must Be Important ‘Cause I’m in a Documentary (2011)’ and a superb Batman pin-up/put down…

This is a superb compilation: smart, funny, angry when needful and always astonishingly entertaining.
© 1976-2008 Howard Cruse. All rights reserved.

For further information and great stuff check out Howardcruse.com

Tramps Like Us volume 1


By Yayoi Ogawa (Tokyopop)
ISBN: 978-1-595321-39-8

Returning to TV screens in 2017 – for the second adaptation since the manga originally debuted – this intriguing, introspective love story offers a beguiling and surprisingly tasteful exploration of modern relationships at the margins of societal norms.

Eventually wracking-up 14 collected volumes, the series originated from stand-alone story ‘Pet’ published in the June 2000 issue of Kiss Carnival. It quickly reappeared in expanded form in Kiss as ‘Kimi wa Pet’: running to 82 chapters between December 2000 and October 2005.

The serial was a global comics hit, translated into many languages and spawning a Japanese live action TV drama series airing in 2003 and a South Korean movie in 2011 plus – as previously mentioned – a new television iteration.

Sumire Iwaya is a thoroughly modern woman, with a good job, promising prospects and all her priorities properly sorted. But like so many career women – especially in Japan – the romantic side of her life is problematic.

Comfortably situated but still recovering from a messy affair with the boss’s son, she is constantly evaluating her admittedly high relationship standards. What this actually means is that most of the time now she’s tired, stressed and terribly, terribly lonely.

For no reason she can explain then, when she one day discovers a beautiful young man inhabiting a dumpster, Sumire grudgingly gives him shelter in her home. The full-grown waif appears to be an utter innocent: vital, energetic and totally without guile – or manners…

Fed up with her life and with the kind of men she seems to attract, the salary woman enters into a bizarre pact with the vagrant. Naming him Momo – after a dog she had as a child – Sumire adopts him as her secret pet.

She will feed, bathe and pamper him in return for companionship, warmth and the kind of unconditional love only an animal can provide.

But what is “unconditional”? As her life proceeds, with friends, career and even a new boyfriend all piling their respective pressures on, her secret pet increasingly becomes her only haven of contentment. But Momo is not a dumb animal. He has his own life no matter how ardently he might seek to deny it….

And in this classic When Harry Met Sally dilemma the couple are being compelled by their own incessantly and increasingly inharmonious natures to reassess their relationship and thereby endanger the only emotional refuge each can retreat to…

Sharp, charming and strikingly drawn, this out-of-print saga is long-overdue for revival: a proper grown-up comics story that manages to be mature and sophisticated whilst still being decorous.
© 2000, 2004 Yayoi Ogawa. All Rights Reserved.

The Batman Adventures: Mad Love Deluxe Edition


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Beloved Stranger


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowly his two existences drift together…

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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