Archie’s Favorite Christmas Comics


By many and various (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-936975-80-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: For All Good Girls & Boys Who’ve Been Nice This Year 9/10

As long-term readers might recall, my good lady wife and I have a family ritual we’re not ashamed to share with you. Every Christmas we barricade the doors, draw the shutters, stockpile munchies and stoke up the radiators before settling down with a huge pile of seasonal comics from yesteryear.

There’s a few older DC’s, loads of Disney’s and some British annuals, but the vast preponderance is Archie Comics. From the earliest days this too-often neglected comics institution has quite literally “owned Christmas” with a gloriously funny, charming, nostalgically sentimental barrage of cannily-crafted stories capturing the spirit of the season through a range of comicbooks running from Archie to Veronica, Betty to Sabrina and Jughead to Santa himself…

For most of us, when we say comicbooks people’s thoughts turn to buff men and women in garish tights hitting each other, bending lampposts and lobbing trees or cars about, or stark, nihilistic crime, horror or science fiction sagas aimed at an extremely mature and sophisticated readership of confirmed fans – and indeed that has been the norm of late.

Throughout the years though, other forms and genres have waxed and waned but one that has held its ground over the years – although almost completely migrated to television these days – is the genre of teen-comedy begun by and synonymous with a carrot topped, homely (at first just plain ugly) kid named Archie Andrews.

MLJ were a small publisher who jumped on the “mystery-man” bandwagon following the debut of Superman. In November 1939 they launched Blue Ribbon Comics, promptly following-up with Top-Notch and Pep Comics. The content was the common blend of funny-book costumed heroes and two-fisted adventure strips, although Pep did make a little history with its first lead feature The Shield, who was the American industry’s first superhero to be clad in the flag (see America’s 1st Patriotic Hero: The Shield)

After initially revelling in the benefits of the Fights ‘N’ Tights game, Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater (MLJ, duh!) spotted a gap in their blossoming market and in December 1941 the costumed cavorters and two-fisted adventurers were gently nudged aside – just a fraction at first – by a wholesome, improbable and far-from-imposing new hero; an unremarkable (except, perhaps, for his teeth) teenager who would have ordinary adventures just like the readers, but with the laughs, good times, romance and slapstick emphasised.

Almost certainly inspired by the hugely popular Andy Hardy movies, Goldwater developed the concept of a youthful everyman protagonist and tasked writer Vic Bloom & artist Bob Montana with the job of making it work. Their precocious new notion premiered in Pep #22: a gap-toothed, freckle-faced, red-headed kid obsessed with impressing the pretty blonde girl next door.

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

Archie Comics #1 was MLJ’s first non-anthology magazine and with it began the slow 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, so MLJ became Archie Comics, retiring most of its costumed characters years before the end of the Golden Age to become, 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 best bud Jughead Jones and scurrilous rival Reggie Mantle to test, duel and vex our boy in their own unique ways – the scenario was one that not only resonated with the readership but was infinitely fresh…

Archie’s success, like Superman’s, forced a change in content at every other publisher (except perhaps Gilberton’s Classics Illustrated) and led to a multi-media brand which encompasses 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 pop smash. Clean and decent garage band “The Archies” has been a fixture of the comics ever since…

That Andrews boy is good-hearted, impetuous and lacking common sense, Betty his sensible, pretty girl next door who loves the ginger goof, and Veronica is rich, exotic and glamorous: only settling for our boy if there’s nobody better around. She might actually love him too, though. Archie, of course, is utterly unable to choose who or what he wants…

The unconventional, food-crazy Jughead is Mercutio to Archie’s Romeo, providing rationality and a reader’s voice, as well as being a powerful catalyst of events in his own right. That charming triangle (and annexe) has been the rock-solid foundation for seven decades of funnybook magic. Moreover the concept is eternally self-renewing…

This 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 aspiring comicbook cartoonist Chuck amongst many others) growing into an American institution and part of the nation’s cultural landscape.

The feature has thrived by constantly re-imagining its core archetypes; seamlessly adapting to the changing world outside its bright, flimsy pages, shamelessly co-opting youth, pop culture and fashion trends into its infallible mix of slapstick and young romance. Each and every social revolution has been painlessly assimilated into the mix and, over the decades, the company has confronted most social issues affecting youngsters in a manner always both even-handed and tasteful.

Constant addition of new characters such as African-American Chuck and his girlfriend Nancy, fashion-diva Ginger, Hispanic couple Frankie and Maria and spoiled home-wrecker-in-waiting Cheryl Blossom have contributed to a wide and appealingly broad-minded scenario. In 2010 Archie jumped the final hurdle when openly gay Kevin Keller became an admirable advocate capably tackling and dismantling the last major taboo in mainstream Kids’ comics.

One of the most effective tools in the company’s arsenal has been the never-failing appeal of the seasons and holiday traditions. In Riverdale it was always sunny enough to surf at the beach in summer and it always snowed at Christmas…

The Festive Season has never failed to produce great comics stories. DC especially have since their earliest days perennially embraced the magic of the holiday with a decades-long succession of stunning and sentimental Batman thrillers – as well as many other heroic team-ups incorporating Santa, Rudolph and all the rest.

Archie too started early and kept on producing year-end classics. The stories became so popular and eagerly anticipated that in 1954 the company created a specific title – Archie’s Christmas Stocking – to cater to the demand, even as it kept the winter months of its other periodicals stuffed with assorted tales of elves and snow and fine fellow-feeling…

This splendidly appealing, cheap-&-cheerful full-colour pocket-digest (as long as your pockets are both deep and strong), gathers and re-presents a superb selection of cool Yule extravaganzas of ancient and relatively recent vintages which begins, after jolly, informative Introduction ‘Christmas in Riverdale!’ from Paul Castiglia, with a selection from ‘The Early Years’.

It naturally kicks off with ‘Archie Andrews’ Christmas Story’ by Montana (from Jackpot Comics #7 1942) wherein our hapless boy wonder is even more obvious than usual and ends up with a surfeit of the same present from everybody he cares about. His antics to offload the unwanted extras lead to a painful comeuppance…

Also from 1942 and Montana, ‘The Case of the Missing Mistletoe’ debuted Archie #1, and found Archie and Jughead at loggerheads after unknowingly taking identical twins to a party whilst a few unchanging years later ‘Christmas Cheers’ (Pep Comics #46, 1944, by Harry Sahle, Ed Goggin & Ginger) saw the red-headed fool in deep trouble after losing his diligently deliberated present list – and all his savings…

The next two tales originate from Archie Giant Series #5, 1958, and are both by Dan DeCarlo, Rudy Lapick & Vincent DeCarlo, beginning with ‘Generous to a Fault’ wherein Betty and Veronica convince all the boys in town to elect the most “giving” among them from over the last year and instigate a major riot, whilst ‘Seasonal Smooch’ sees Reggie abusing mistletoe privileges with agonising consequences…

The theme of ‘Christmas Trees and Decorations’ opens with ‘A Christmas Tale’ (Life With Archie #33, 1965 by Frank Doyle, Bob White & Marty Epp) as arch-rivals Andrews and Mantle try to establish the manly pecking order by competing to cut down the best tree before ‘ ‘Tis the Season for Extreme Decorating’ (Betty & Veronica Spectacular #80 2007, by Dan Parent, Rich Koslowski, Barry Grossman & Jack Morelli) finds the distaff competitors succumbing to another bout of insane one-upmanship over who can spruce up and illuminate a home best…

When loaded Mr. Lodge hires ‘Tree Experts’ (Veronica #191, 2009 by Mike Pellowski, Parent, Jim Amash, Grossman & Morelli) to trim the Mansion’s huge pine, Archie’s wistful nostalgia produces a sentimental change of heart before ‘Price Clubbed’ (Archie Digest #248, 2008, Pellowski, Randy Elliott & Bob Smith) finds him and his own dad spending special time obtaining their tree. The chapter concludes with Betty & Veronica one-pager ‘Snow Flakes’ featuring some punishingly accurate satirical snowmen…

‘Gifts and Giving’ opens with a ‘Holiday Rush’ (Holiday Fun Digest #11 2006 from Pellowski, Tim Kennedy, Koslowski, Grossman & Morelli) as Betty and Veronica bemoan the early advent of Xmas overload, ‘Gift Exchange’ (Betty & Veronica #87 1965, Doyle, Dan & Vincent DeCarlo) then deals with the repercussions of the little rich girl giving her friends away – as presents – and ‘Christmas Misgivings’ (Veronica #60 1997, Barbara Slate, Jeff Shultz, Rudy Lapick, Grossman & Bill Yoshida) sees her friends reactions after they all sneak a peek in Ronnie’s shopping bags and reach all the wrong conclusions about who’s getting what…

‘Stamp of Approval’ (Archie Giant Series #6 1959 by Doyle, Dan DeCarlo, Lapick Sheldon Brodsky & Vincent DeCarlo) sees Betty obsessed with collecting Green Stamps to offset her regular lack of funds for presents whilst ‘Gift Exchange’ (Holiday Fun Digest #11 2006 by Pellowski, Tim Kennedy & Al Nickerson) finds Chuck and Big Moose inadvertently selecting perfect prezzies for their girlfriends by mixing up their purchases…

‘Snuggle Up’ (Betty & Veronica #244, 2009 by Parent, Shultz, Koslowski, Grossman & Morelli) then reveals how the loaded Lodge lass really feels about the hideous thing Archie got for her when left all alone…

‘Fit to be Yuletide’ (Jughead #125, by Craig Boldman, Rex Lindsey, Koslowski, Grossman & Morelli from 2000) follows snide sidekick Juggy as he goes to extraordinary lengths to find the perfect present for his arch-enemy Trula Twist after which selfish, conceited Reggie surprises everyone when they follow to see how he actually spends his holidays in ‘The Gift Horse Laugh!’ from Archie Digest #248, (2008 by Pellowski, Pat Kennedy & Ken Selig).

The next selection concentrates on ‘Playing Santa’, opening with ‘Wanted: Santa Claus’ (Archie and Me #26 from 1969, by Joe Edwards & Jon D’Agostino) wherein long-suffering School Principal Mr. Weatherbee pines for the annual dress-up role he claims to despise and ‘Santa Claws’ (Archie Digest #248, 2008 from Bill Golliher, Pat Kennedy & Amash) sees our red-headed loon deeply regretting accepting the opportunity to make extra cash by being the Santa in a pet shop.

Even more upset is the raven-haired rich girl when she inveigles the position of ‘Santa’s Little Helper’ (Veronica #176, 2007 Parent, Amash, Grossman & Teresa Davidson) to be near Archie yet ends up as elf assistant to a creepy stalker-nerd before enjoying a jumbo crop of jolly red fellows after announcing there’s a ‘Santa Shortage’ (Betty & Veronica #231, 2008 by Pellowski, Shultz & Al Milgrom) at a party for needy kids. The chapter concludes with a vivacious pin-up of ‘Veronica’s Christmas Card’

‘Santa and His Elves’ opens with ‘Playing Santa’ from Jughead & Friends Digest #35 (2010 by Pellowski, Fernando Ruiz, Milgrom, D’Agostino & Grossman) as a posse of pixies pressgang laconic young Mr. Jones into making the all-important delivery run as St. Nick is out of action, after which elfin Lisa seemingly spoils the Season of Giving with her new-fangled online ordering website to replace letters to Santa. Oddly, things work out fine anyway, as everyone gets ‘Surprise Presents’ (Archie Digest #248, 2008 by George Gladir, Shultz, Koslowski, Morelli & Grossman)…

‘Pizza and Good Cheer’ (Jughead’s Double Digest #145, 2009 from Pellowski, Ruiz, Nickerson, Morelli & Grossman) displays Jughead at his most engaging when the greedy goof wins a year’s worth of pies and hands them out to Riverdale’s destitute, unaware that the ever-watching little people have had a hand in his generous gesture…

This section then slapsticks to a sharp stop via a typically rambunctious pin-up of ‘Archie’s Christmas Card’

Jingles the Elf has been an Archie regular for decades and ‘Santa’s Sprites’ raids the archives for some of his best moments, beginning with first appearance ‘A Job for Jingles’ from Archie Giant Series #10 (1961 by Doyle, Dan DeCarlo, Lapick & Vincent DeCarlo) as the playful imp – who cannot be seen by adults – spends his day off just like any normal kid.

He resurfaced in ‘Return of Jingles’ (Archie Giant Series #20, 1963 by the same creative team) but found himself upstaged by a brace of his workbench associates who wanted to see for themselves how much fun humans have, but in ‘Season of Magic’ (Archie Giant Series #158, 1969, Doyle, White & Yoshida) Jingles met his puckish, pranksterish match when Reggie decided to teach him a lesson…

Perhaps it was in retaliation for ‘Treed’ (Archie Giant Series #150, 1968 Doyle, Al Hartley & Yoshida) wherein Jingles aided and abetted Archie in the yearly ritual of impressing Ronnie by chopping down a Christmas fir for the Lodge Mansion…

Rivalry resulted in sweet music in ‘Jingles Rocks’ (Archie & Friends #21, 2012 by Golliher, Lapick, Grossman & Yoshida) when the showy sprite tried out as lead singer in Archie’s band but had to make some radical wardrobe changes to be seen and heard by the over-21s…

Always adept at seeing issues from the female point of view, the editors soon added a feminine counterpart to Jingles; someone with the same magical powers and festive mission, but a bitter despised rival – and in a miniskirt…

‘Some Things Never Change’ (Betty & Veronica #156, 2001 by Kathleen Webb, Shultz & Henry Scarpelli) saw effusive Sugar Plum Fairy pop in for her annual visit only to find the too-cool kids already out of Christmas cheer. Her solution is carol singing…

Another year and Webb, Dan DeCarlo, Grossman & Yoshida crafted ‘Visions of a Sugar Plum’ (Betty & Veronica #108, 1997). Now it was the twinkly sprite who couldn’t catch the mood – until B & R convinced her to turn human-sized and come shopping. Everything was fine until hunky elf boyfriend Troll – the cause of her Yule blues – came to Riverdale to find her and made a lasting impression on the town’s available young ladies…

In ‘Tis the Season to be Jolly’ (Betty & Veronica #120, 1998, Webb, Dan DeCarlo, Alison Flood, Grossman & Yoshida) Sugar Plum brought flu-ridden Ronnie a stolen dose of Santa’s special pick-me-up – and the cure proved worse than the ailment – whilst in ‘She’s So Gifted’ (Veronica #191, 2009 by Parent & Amash) the fairy comforted our spoiled heiress after everybody decided to make presents and Ronnie found she had no talent for anything. At least that’s what she thought until Sugar Plum pointed out the obvious thing she’s overlooked…

Santa himself sent Sugar to sort out a depletion of seasonal cheer afflicting B & V in ‘The Gifted’ (Betty & Veronica #169, 2002 Webb, Shultz, Scarpelli, Yoshida &Grossman) whilst an all-out magic war broke out in Riverdale when ‘Holiday Watch’ (Betty & Veronica #244, 2009 by Parent, Shultz, Koslowski, Morelli & Grossman) saw the Fairy and Jingles vying for the young mortals’ attentions before ‘Jingles All the Way’ (Betty & Veronica Spectacular #86, 2009 by Parent, Koslowski, Rosario “Tito” Peña & Morelli) proves an old truism when the elfin enemies – thanks to Betty, Ronnie and Archie – are convinced to quit hissing and start kissing…

The merriment then concludes with manga-styled ‘The Naughty Clause’ (Archie #639, 2013 by Alex Segura, Gisele, Koslowski, Digikore Studios & Morelli) as Jingles takes the entire gang to the North Pole so Santa can give Reggie a little personal attitude adjustment…

‘Once upon a Yuletide’ focuses on the odder ends of Archie history with ‘A Children’s Story’ coming from The Adventures of Little Archie #29, (Winter 1963-64 by amazing one-man band Dexter Taylor) which see the little red-headed scamp entertain a lost Santa Claus from a strange other world whilst ‘Let it Snow’ (from Archie’s Weird Mysteries #18, 2002 by Paul Castiglia, Ruiz, Koslowski, Stephanie Vozzo & Vickie Williams) introduces a quartet of seasonal superheroes to while away a quiet night of tale-telling. The fanciful feast finishes with two half-page gag-fests starring Dan DeCarlo’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch enduring a ‘Hanging Hang-Up’ and experiencing ‘Foto Fun’

A selection of ‘Winter Wonderland’ escapades starts with ‘Ski-Cart Catastrophe’ from Laugh Comics #300 (1976, by George Gladir, Sal Amendola, D’Agostino, Grossman & Yoshida) wherein the lads covert a shopping cart into an idiot-powered ski-mobile, resulting in many pains for them and pained looks from the girls after which golden greats of slapstick Frank Doyle & Harry Lucey treat us to a ‘Slay Ride’ (Archie Giant Series #5, 1958) wherein Archie and a borrowed horse make much manic mischief in the Lodge Mansion…

‘Frosty Fairy Tales’ (Betty & Veronica #120, 1998 by Pellowski, Dan DeCarlo, Grossman & Yoshida) sees Betty get the good-looking guy – but not Archie – when she and Ronnie go skiing and it all concludes with a silent romantic interlude involving ‘Snowmobile Snuggles’

‘Holiday Party Time’ shows the gang at their best and worst starting with ‘Party Time’ (Betty & Veronica Double Digest #176, 2010 by Gladir, Shultz & D’Agostino) as Ronnie refuses to give up a long planned-for ball by merging it with a charity supper after her guests all decide to help the needy…

Her soiree for the town’s pets is much less of a hit with the ‘Party Dogs’ (Betty & Veronica #222, 2007, Gladir, Shultz & Milgrom) but some ‘Give and Take’ (Archie Digest #258, 2009, Parent, Amash & Grossman) turns a pot-luck shindig into the roaring success of the season. After voracious Jughead accidentally eats all the treats intended for Riverdale Orphanage he pulls out all the stops to ensure ‘The Party’ (Betty & Veronica Digest #189, 2009, Gladir, Shultz & D’Agostino, Morelli & Grossman) is still a howling hit…

Closing out this epic tome is a hearty heaping of ‘Christmas Spirit’ beginning with ‘You’re Cooked’ (Veronica #176, 2007 by Parent, Amash, Grossman& Teresa Davidson) as Betty teaches infamous Anti-chef Ronnie how to cook something festive – and Juggy descends like a locust – whilst ‘She Needs a Little Christmas’ (Betty & Veronica #132, 1999, Webb, Dan DeCarlo, Scarpelli, Grossman & Yoshida) finds him teaching the rich miss a few things about flaunting her wealth…

Ronnie’s social credibility takes a mortal hit when the true origin of the hyper-prestigious and ultra-exclusive Lodge family Christmas confection is revealed in ‘A Couple of Fruitcakes’ from Betty & Veronica #169 (2002 by Webb, Shultz & Scarpelli) and an impromptu sing-along turns into an inclusive town event in ‘Here We Come A-Caroling’ (Holiday Fun Digest #8, 2003, by Greg Crosby, Tim Kennedy, Lapick & Yoshida) before all the graphic good will pops to a stop with a deep dip into ‘Archie’s Holiday Fun Scrapbook’ (Holiday Fun Digest #12, 2007, by Parent) offering revealing glances at the Riverdale gang over many happy years.

These are perfect stories for young and old alike, crafted by a host of Santa’s most talented Helpers, epitomising the magic of the Season and celebrating the perfect wonder of timeless children’s storytelling. What kind of Grinch could not want this book in their kids’ stocking (from where it can most easily be borrowed)?
© 2014 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Story of Lee volume 2


By Seán Michael Wilson & Nami Tamura (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1 56163-973-1

Win’s Christmas Recommendation: A Fine Tale of Families Far Apart… 8/10

After far too long a wait here’s a supremely engaging sequel to an endearing romantic confection which delighted readers in 2011: a sweet transatlantic/transpacific shojo manga, which like its subject matter and stars was the happy product of more than one country…

As written by Scottish émigré and current resident of Japan Seán Michael Wilson and illustrated by Manga Shakespeare artist Chie Kutsuwada, The Story of Lee detailed the growing relationship of a restless Hong Kong girl who fell for a young celtic poet and teacher.

Lee endured frustrated dreams dutifully working in her father’s shop. The situation was uncomfortable: although the elder meant well, he disapproved of almost everything Lee did and never stinted in telling her so. His disparagement and constant pushing for her to achieve something (becoming a dentist) whilst staying true to his old-fashioned ideas was tearing her apart, and Wang, the nice, proper Chinese boy he perpetually forced upon her, was a really creepy turn-off.

What they never realised was that Lee was a closet poet and pop music junkie besotted with western culture, particularly myth-laden London. In those unwelcome fascinations she was clandestinely supported by her frail, aging grandmother and unconventional Uncle Jun, a globe-trotting playboy who long ago abandoned convention and tradition to follow his own dreams to America…

At 24 Lee was being gradually eroded away until she met gorgeous temporary teacher Matt MacDonald. Exotically Scottish, he was polite and charming: a sensitive, talented poet…

Lee quietly defied her father and her relationship with Matt deepened, but when tragedy struck and grandmother was no longer a factor, further upheaval occurred when Matt announced that he was returning to his home thousands of miles away.

…And then he dropped his bombshell and asked her to go with him…

With the second instalment – illustrated by British-based Japanese artist Nami Tamura – the tale resumes with the lovers in flight for the UK and, after a whirlwind tour of London, on a long and gloriously picturesque train journey to Edinburgh where Lee will study for a year on a student visa. It also happens to be Matt’s home town.

A minor skirmish with rude, rowdy but generally harmless lads travelling to Newcastle is not as distressing to the sheltered, culture-shocked waif as the baffling array of accents, dialects and slang which constantly overwhelm her plainly inadequate textbook understanding of English…

The city itself is a revelation: so many old and beautiful buildings, unlike HK where everything is always being torn down and rebuilt, and perhaps it’s just that dizzying cultural adjustment which makes her feel Matt is acting a little differently now that he’s in his on his own turf again…

Or maybe it’s the oddly intimate relationship he has with the old college chum they’re crashing with? Richard is warm, welcoming and coolly into all the right music, but she can’t shake the feeling that his relationship with her man might go beyond the bonds of friendship…

Over following days Lee’s apprehensions increase as Matt gleefully shows her around the nostalgic landmarks of his past and apparent proofs of Richard’s feelings begin to emerge. Moreover, her charming man seems to be changing too: his gentle patience evaporates; he’s snappish and even reacts jealously when other students – and even the local musicians she slavishly seeks out – pay attention to her…

One thing she cannot adjust to is the undercurrent of hostility and casual aggression expressed by the young men in Scotland…

Lee has never felt more vulnerable. She is a world away from home and security and increasingly wonders if she’s made the biggest mistake of her life. As tensions rise and the nurturing warmth the lovers shared deteriorates further, unexpected aid appears in the form of Uncle Jun who pops up for a visit and offers some startling advice…

Things boil over after a particularly savage argument and the boys steam off together to a party but what Lee sees when she returns and finds them together is beyond comprehension and seems to confirm all her worst fears…

To Be Continued…

Supplemented by a copious Glossary and Notes section defining the specific vagaries of accent and slang whilst offering geographical and historical perspective on the many actual locations depicted, this is a deliciously compelling drama playing with well-established conventions and idioms of romantic fiction and teen soap opera.

With beguiling subtlety The Story of Lee uses powerful themes of cultural differences, mixed-race-relationships, family and friendship pressures and the often insurmountable barrier of different childhood experiences and expectations to weave an enchanting tale of independence, interdependence and isolation.

It all ends on a gentle cliffhanger and I can’t wait to see how it all resolves in the next volume… and so will you when you pick up on this evocative, addictive story of cultures in conflict and union…
© 2015 Seán Michael Wilson & Nami Tamura.

Fires Above Hyperion


By Patrick Atangan (NBM/Comics/Lit)
ISBN: 978-1561639861

It’s long been an aphorism – if not outright cliché – that Gay (or more contemporarily LGBTQ) comics are the only place in the graphic narrative game where real romance still exists.

As far as I can see though it’s actually true; an artefact, I suppose, of a society which seems determined to demarcate and separate sex and love as two utterly different – and even opposite – things.

I’d prefer to think that here in the 21st century – or at least in the more civilised bits which actually acknowledge and welcome that times have changed – we’ve outgrown the juvenile, judgemental, bad old days and can simply appreciate powerful, moving, wistful, sad and/or funny comics about ordinary people without any kind of preconception, but that battle’s still not completely won yet. Hopefully, thoughtful, inspirational memoirs such as this will aid that transition…

Californian Patrick Atangan (Songs of Our Ancestors, Invincible Days) is a multi-talented Filipino-American creator with many strings to his creative bow: as deft and subtle in his computer-generated comic tales and retellings of Asian myths as with the tools he uses to craft high-end designer furniture.

Now he’s added a wry, charming yet deeply moving collection of short intimate musings and recollections on his “romantic gaffes and failures” to his printed canon for youngsters and the results are enough to make the toughest cookie crumble…

Posited as if “Sex and the City had been created by a gay Charlie Brown” these utterly compelling, seditiously humorous slices of a life lived a little too much inside one’s own head kick off with chronological logic with the still-closeted Patrick attending his ‘Junior Prom’ as escort to obsessive beard Mildred, whose attention to detail and determination to make the event absolutely perfect cannot help but fail. At least the string of disasters the fervent Prom-zilla endures take the spotlight off his own failings, petty jealousies and perceived inadequacies…

‘Secrets’ skips ahead to the liberation of college as the introvert resolves to reinvent himself and begins an ongoing process of Outing which gradually encompasses friends, family and everybody new in his life. Sadly that in turn leads to a sort-of romance with Calvin who never really comes to terms with his own sexual identity…

On leaving academe, another character-building debacle involves ‘Gary’; someone our author considered far too lovely for a dweeb like him – and therefore something of a self-fulfilling prophecy – before eponymous vignette ‘The Fires Above Hyperion’ finds Patrick coolly contemplating the now-annual forest fires threatening Los Angeles whilst foolishly attempting to rekindle or reinvent the three-year relationship he has just ended with Roger

Eschewing his usual ‘New Year’s Eve’ ritual, the narrator attends a big party and suffers inebriation, gastric trauma and the humiliation of mistakenly putting the moves on a chain-smoking straight guy whilst ‘APE Shit’ reveals the sorry fallout of a trip to San Francisco to attend his first Alternative Press Expo in a decade: a concatenation of domestic disasters comprising old friends with new children, commuter congestion and a total change in the way Indy comics are sold. At least he connects with the gorgeous, seemingly ideal Bryan – before Fate and Patrick’s own conscience play a few pranks to spoil what might have been a perfect moment…

More notionally self-inflicted grief comes out of ignoring the custom of a lifetime and attending a wedding as a ‘Plus One’. Naturally he didn’t mind his “date” Julia going off with a guy, but when Patrick zeroes in on wonderful, apparently available Peter, events and the author’s own treacherous tuxedo conspire to make the soiree memorable for all the wrong reasons.

A heartbreakingly harsh assessment of Patrick’s failings then lead him to the dire conclusion that he is ‘Nobody’s Type’ before the excoriating romantic recriminations end with another ill-fated, self-sabotaged first date that founders because of too much introspection and an accumulation of ‘Baggage’

Insightful, penetrating, invitingly self-deprecating, guardedly hopeful and never afraid to be mistaken for morose when occasion demands, this collection of misjudged trysts and missed chances offers a charming glimpse at the eternally hopeful way most folks live their love-lives and the result is magical and unforgettable.

Atangan has stated that he is contemplating quitting comics, but after seeing this beguiling confection I’m sure a legion of fans hungry for more of his slick, stylish and earnest entertainments will be determined to change his mind…
© 2015 Patrick Atangan.

Heart in a Box


By Kelly Thompson & Meredith McClaren (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-694-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Fearsome Mature Fable for the Family Season… 8/10

Let’s face it kids, Love Hurts and this mesmerising modern parable demonstrates that maxim with stunning audacity and devilish charm as author Kelly Thompson (Storykiller, The Girl Who Would be King, Jem and the Holograms) and illustrator Meredith McClaren (Hinges) take a young woman on a harsh yet educative road trip to learn a life lesson regarding ill-considered wishes and Faustian bargains…

After young Emma had her heart broken by her unforgettable “Man with No Name” she foolishly listens to an insistent stranger who promises to make the shattering pain go away forever.

He’s as good as his word, too, but within nine days Emma realises that what she feels after he’s worked his magic is absolutely nothing at all and that’s even worse than the agony of loss and betrayal which nearly ended her…

The aggravating Mephistophelean advisor – she calls him “Bob” – is still popping in however, and promptly offers her a way to can reclaim the seven shards of sentiment/soul she threw away. There will of course be a few repercussions: as much for her as those folks who have been enjoying the use of a little feeling heart ever since Emma so foolishly dispensed with it and might not want to relinquish that additional loving feeling…

But as she doggedly travels across America, hunting down those mystically reassigned nuggets of passion, she discovers not only how low she’ll stoop to recover what’s hers but also where and when all the moral boundaries she never thought she had can’t be bent, bartered or broken…

A dark delight, Emma’s literal emotional journey takes her into deadly danger, joyous cul-de-sacs and life-changing confrontations with her past and future in a clever reinvigoration of one of literature’s oldest plots and probably mankind’s most potent and undying philosophical quandaries…

Funny, sad, scary and supremely uplifting Heart in a Box is a beguiling rollercoaster ride to delight modern lovers and every grown-up too mature to ever be lonely or dependent…
© 2013, 1979 Semi-Finalist Inc. & Meredith McClaren. 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

Simon & Kirby presaged and ushered in the first American age of mature comics – not just with the Romance genre, but with all manner of challenging modern material of 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 industry contracted throughout the 1950s.

As the popularity of flamboyant escapist superheroes waned after World War II, newer yet more familiar genres such as Crime and Horror came to the fore in American comics, as audiences increasingly rejected upbeat fantasy for grittier, more sober older themes in mass entertainment.

Some, like Westerns and Funny Animal comics, 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 become categorised as Film Noir offered the new 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, even frightening tales of seductive dames, big pay-offs and glamorous thugs.

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 Joe Simon & Jack Kirby – who were already capitalising on a True Crime boom – legendarily invented the comicbook Romance genre 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…

Beginning with the semi-comedic prototype My Date for Hillman in early 1947, S&K plunged in full force with Young Romance #1 in September of that year for Crestwood Publications: a minor outfit which had been creating interesting but not innovative comics since 1940 as Prize Comics.

Following Simon’s plan to make a new marketplace from the grievously uncatered-for 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 releasing spin-offs Young Love (February 1949), Young Brides and In Love 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 social doomsmiths 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 society and plummeting profits forced the art form to adapt, evolve or die.

Those tales from a simpler time, exposing a society in meltdown and suffering cultural PTSD, are mild by modern standards of behaviour but the quality of art and writing make those pivotal years a creative highpoint long overdue for a thorough reassessment.

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

Although their output as interchangeable writers/pencillers/inkers (aided by Joe’s brother-in-law Jack Oleck in the story department) was prodigious and astounding, 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’ deftly analyses the scope and impact 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 after which ‘Her Tragic Love’ – from the same issue – delivers a thunderbolt of melodrama as a lovers’ triangle encompassing a wrongly convicted man on death row presented 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 dealt with a high flying young lady too proud to acknowledge her own scrub-woman mother whenever her flashy boyfriend was around.

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

Here S&K cleverly built 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 and Western Love #2, 1948 offered ‘Kathy and the Merchant of Sunset Canton!’ as a city slicker found his modern mercenary management style made him no friends in cowboy country until one proud girl took the chance on getting to know him whilst ‘Sailor’s Girl!’ (Young Romance #13/Vol. 3, #1 1949) explores the troubles of an heiress who marries a dauntless sea rover who works for daddy, confident that she can tame his wild free spirit…

We head out yonder once more to meet ‘The Perfect Cowboy!’(Real West Romances # 4 1949) – at least on set – and the simple sagebrush lass whose head he briefly turned 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…

‘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 magnificent melodramas 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 use a male narrator’s voice when 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 triangles then results in one marriage, one forlorn heartbreak, war, vengeance and a most perfect ‘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 anodyneing 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) as a young man confronts his grizzled cop dad who has no intention of letting his son make a mess of his life, after which 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 next 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’ wedding the girl of everybody’s dreams even as ‘My Cousin from Milwaukee’ exposes a gold-digger and reserves her handsome relative for herself…

The bowdlerised tales 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’ before everything wraps 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 and 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 fill most of this book, making for an extremely engaging, strikingly powerful and thoroughly addictive collection of great stories 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.

Young Romance 2: the Early Simon & Kirby


By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby,restored by Chris Fama & edited by Michael Gagné (Fantagraphics Books)

ISBN: 978-1-60699-732-1

As the popularity of flamboyant escapist superheroes waned after World War II, newer yet more familiar genres such as Crime and Horror came to the fore in American comics, as audiences increasingly rejected upbeat fantasy for grittier, more sober older themes in mass entertainment.

Some, like Westerns and Funny Animal comics, 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 become categorised as Film Noir offered the new civilian society a bleakly antiheroic worldview that often hit too close to home and set fearful, repressive, middleclass 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 beguiling, even frightening tales of seductive dames, big pay-offs and glamorous thugs.

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 Joe Simon & Jack Kirby – who were already capitalising on the True Crime boom – famously invented the comicbook Romance genre with mature, beguiling, explosively contemporary social dramas that equally focussed on the changing cultural scene and adult-themed relationships. They also, with very little shading, discussed topics of a sexual nature…

Beginning with the semi-comedic prototype My Date for Hillman in early 1947, S & K plunged in full force with Young Romance #1 in September of that year for Crestwood Publications: a minor outfit that had been creating interesting but not innovative comics since 1940 as Prize Comics.

Here, however, following Simon’s plan to make a new market out of the grievously uncatered-for older girls of America, they struck gold with stories addressing the serious issues and hazards of relationships…

Simon & Kirby presaged and ushered in the first American age of mature comics – not only with the creation of the Romance genre, but with challenging modern tales of 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 industry contracted throughout the 1950s.

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 swiftly expanded: releasing spin-offs Young Love (February 1949), Young Brides and In Love under a unique profits-sharing deal that quickly paid huge dividends to the creators and their growing studio of specialists as well as the publisher.

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 social doomsmiths 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 society and plummeting profits forced the art form to adapt, evolve or die.

Those tales from a simpler time, exposing a society in meltdown and suffering cultural PTSD, are mild by modern standards of behaviour but the quality of art and writing make those pivotal years a creative highpoint long overdue for a thorough reassessment.

In 2012 Fantagraphics released Young Romance: the Best of Simon & Kirby’s Romance Comics and that superb compilation, unable to do justice to the sheer volume of breakthrough material, has happily spawned this magnificent sequel, dedicated to the master creators’ first bold experiments with their astonishingly adult new genre.

Fictionalising “True Crime Cases” was tremendously popular at the time, and of the assorted outfits that generated such material nobody did it better than S&K. That technique of first-person confession also naturally lent itself to the just-as-hard-hitting personal sagas of a succession of archetypal women and girls who populated their new comicbook smash.

Although their output as interchangeable writers/pencillers/inkers (possibly aided by Joe’s brother-in-law Jack Oleck in the story department) was prodigious and astounding, 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…

‘Introduction: A New Comic Book Genre Begins’ by Bill Schelly scrupulously traces the trajectory of the innovation and its impact on the industry before the shocking revelations begin with ‘I was a Pick-Up!’ from Young Romance #1 (September/October1947).

Here discontented teenager Toni Benson relates the circumstances that led to her being dumped by a sleazy rich kid in an underworld dive and of the sullied knight who saved her from a nasty end, whilst from the same issue ‘Misguided Heart’detailed how factory worker June Collins was slowly seduced by sleazy owner’s son Karl Barton until shy, self-effacing blue-collar Sherman could stand it no longer…

Story length varied from seven to fifteen pages and ‘Marriage Contract!’(YR #3, January/February 1948) took a gloriously expansive time to detail how destitute but proud slum-dweller Kitty Burke escaped parental pressure if not poverty by refusing to wed the career criminal her dad brokered for her, eventually finding happiness with a decent man prepared to honestly work his way to success, whilst the 8-page ‘Her Best Friend’s Sweetheart!’from the same issuetook a more light-hearted tone to detail how a soldier’s buddy sneakily put the moves on the girl he was supposed to be watching over…

Young Romance #4 revealed how excessively hard to please Nancy Hunter finally and painfully learned she would never find true love by only being a ‘Blind Date!’after which a brace of yarns from Young Romance #5 (May/June 1948) begins with ‘I Fell in Love With My Star Pupil!’:a fascinating study in small-town prejudice which found newly qualified teacher Mary Temple slandered, shunned and censured by petty, dirty minds in rural Pinesville when she began teaching an illiterate full-grown man the knowledge he needed to better himself. ‘Gold Digger’thensaw spoiled, avaricious Rusty Taylor taken down a peg or two when the boys she’d been exploiting brought in a ringer to teach her a much-needed lesson…

Simon & Kirby took much of their tone if not content from the movie melodramas of the period such as Smash-Up; the Story of a Woman or Johnny Belinda and Noir romances like Blonde Ice or Hollow Triumph and, unlike what we might consider suitable for romantic fiction today, their comicbook stories crackled with tension, embraced violent action and oozed unsavoury characters and vicious backstabbing, gossiping hypocrites.

‘Disgrace!’in #6 featured coal miner’s daughter Katie Markos who despised the raw brutal violence of boxing which offered her brother his only escape from poverty, but she was horrified at the relentless attraction she felt for his next opponent “Killer” Grant

The creators were not afraid of complex plots either. ‘War Bride’,the first of two selections from Young Romance #7 (September/October 1948), saw French miss Janine Arday brought to America to marry her man, only to see him die on the docks as she debarked.

Stuck without a man to guarantee her citizenship, she desperately accepted a pre-proposal from wealthy French émigré Aristide Renault but after moving onto his estate found herself increasingly attracted to freewheeling idler Tony, son of the housekeeper Mrs. Cummings.

This tale would be considered mature even by today’s sophisticated standards…

The second tale reversed the standard format as male confessor Frank Craig revealed ‘I Stole for Love!’and catalogued the foolish thoughts which forced him to embezzle funds for a devoted bride who only wanted him, not useless trinkets…

A couple from Young Romance #8 lead with ‘Love or Pity’wherein eager bride-to-be Ginny Harlan finds her perfect life destroyed by vicious gossip when her brother is erroneously implicated in mail fraud. Happily her man Ken is a decent straight shooter…

By contrast ‘Love Can Strike So Suddenly’offers a lavish exotic adventure wherein manipulative, ambitious Evie injects herself as a chaperone into her older sister’s life: accompanying the serious Ann on a business trip to India organised by dreamy tycoon Warren Wright.

The kid’s aplomb and composure swiftly dissipate once she meets the unflappable pilot/guide Bascomb Fuller who preferred the moody soubriquet “Deadeye”

‘Was Love to be My Sacrifice!’ from Young Romance #9 (January/February 1949) took a hard look at careers as Chris Lorraine increasingly rebelled at being one half of a sister-act – the part that wanted nothing to do with her mother’s ruthless dream of stardom by proxy. Despondent, frustrated Chris was far more interested in marriage to their long-suffering agent Sam

With Young Romance a runaway success, the first spin-off debuted in February 1949 and from Young Love #1 comes the complex and intriguing ‘The Man I Loved Was a Woman-Hater’wherein vacationing Karen Nelson was saved from drowning by a reclusive artist who promptly ignored her thereafter. Unable to leave well enough alone she soon discovered a manipulative vixen who still had a ferocious financial and moral hold upon the surly but magnificent Pete Lewis

Young Romance #10 (March/April 1949) provides two more challenging melodramas beginning with ‘This Man I Loved was a Mama’s Boy!’as Julie Decker finally meets her prospective mother-in law and realises how completely under her thumb brilliant young doctor Orin Fleming truly is.

It takes a deadly family joyride with her wild, juvenile delinquent brother-in-law-to-be before everybody is horrifyingly shaken out of their cloying, smothered roles…

‘Unwanted!’meanwhile focuses on a young girl fresh out of prison unwillingly drawn back towards her old life by controlling boyfriend and gangster Joe Crane.

When a well-meaning bank clerk steps in to save her, the bandit plans a savage revenge…

This sublime ride back to a time of hungry hearts and dark desires ends with ‘Too Wise for Romance!’from Young Love #2 wherein a star-struck but luckless performer descends into a tawdry life as a bar-hostess and taxi-dancer, blithely unaware that the boy she casually spurned has never forgotten her…

Augmenting this parade of earthy fantasy is a beguiling feature ‘About the Restoration’ needed to compile this full-colour wonder and ‘Biographies’ of the canny creatives involved.

This is an extremely engaging, strikingly powerful and thoroughly addictive collection of great stories by brilliant masters of the comics arts and one no lover of the medium should miss…

Young Romance 2 © 2014 Fantagraphics Books Inc. Introduction © 2014 Bill Schelly. Restored comics © 2014 Chris Fama. All rights reserved.

My Little Monster volume 1


By Robico translated by Joshua Weeks (Kodansha Comics USA)
ISBN: 978-1-61262-597-3

Solidly appealing to lovers of traditional  Shōjo (“girls’ comics”) comes a grand and sassy tale of Right Girl, Right Time, Wrong Boy from enigmatic mangaka Robico, dealing with the thorny topic of wasteful distractions at school…

Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun or ‘The Monster Sitting Beside Me’ debuted in Dessert Magazine in 2008 with the first volume of a dozen collections appearing a year later. The serial ran until June 2013 and spawned a highly successful anime adaptation.

Shizuku Mizutani is a schoolgirl determined to succeed. Only one person has ever gotten higher grades than her throughout her entire scholastic career – and she’s still burned up about it – but otherwise she’s solidly – comfortably – set her sights on exceptional achievement and a great job and nothing’s going to force her off her well-planned, carefully projected course.

Her teen travails begin in ‘My Classmate Yoshida-kun’ as she explains how she’s never seen the boy who sits next to her. He got into a fight on his first day and hasn’t come to school since. That was three years ago.

Now for some incomprehensible reason the ideal student is stuck delivering printouts to the epic absconder as a “favour” (bribe) to teacher Saeko-Sensei. She finds him in the skeevy games arcade where he hangs out. Shizuku wasn’t expecting much, but Haru Yoshida fails to live up to even those low expectations.

He’s a veritable wild boy: manic, ill-mannered, actively extremely rude and his associates are little better than thugs and gangsters.

He even attacks her, accusing her of spying on him.

All the school rumours must be true; how he hospitalised three upperclassmen and was suspended…

The ice broken, Saeko then pushes her star student to lure the boy back to school (his suspension being long expired) but when he starts regularly attending tongues start wagging. He then arbitrarily decides they’re friends and begins to follow Shizuku everywhere…

She’s never been more angry or frustrated. He’s always there, distracting her, getting in the way of her future. She can’t stop thinking about him…

Following a brace of humorous of mini-strips ‘I was Running as Fast as I Could!’ and ‘Spot-Billed Duck’ the School Daze resume with ‘I Don’t Hate You’ as the apparently imprinted malcontent begins appearing everywhere she goes and captivatingly showing his softer, fragile side.

Unfortunately he’s painfully gullible and falls for many embarrassing pranks from his classmates which he responds to with devastating violence. Soon he has gained an irresistibly dangerous reputation…

He also seems to start noticing other girls, but why should Shizuku care about that? She’s far more upset to learn that he was the student who beat her test scores and that even after three years of skipping education he’s probably still smarter than her…

And now for some reason she’s finding it impossible to bear down and study, the only thing she used to be good at…

And then Haru kisses her… but decides they can still be friends anyway…

After micro strips ‘Because She’s a Lady’ and ‘It’s Hard Not to Say It’, the main event starts again with ‘Weird’, wherein the wild boy starts displaying the attention span of a mayfly.

Adopting and then palming off a chicken on his newfound friends and tutoring vacuous Asako Natsune so she can avoid going to Afterschool Classes instead of partying are bad enough, but most significantly he utterly ignores the change in their own relationship, or even that they have one…

Two small interludes with ‘Natsume and Haru’ then lead into the final chapter as Shizuku is forced to admit to herself how much Haru has changed her life. However when she finally confesses just how much she likes the annoying, confusing oaf, all he can say in response is that she’s not a ‘Nuisance’

To Be Continued…

Wrapping things up are two final cartoon vignettes ‘Just as Short’ and ‘That Guy’, plus a Comment from the author and a section of handy Translation notes.

Sweet, cruel and silly by turns, this is a delightful coming of age comedy, brimming with those crucial, critical moments that stay with you for decades after high school ends, but cleverly leavened with light charming characters and situations all superbly illustrated by a master of the genre.

Not everybody’s cup of tea but sheer poetry for those of us who remember love can – and should – be fun.
© 2009 Robico. English translation © 2014 Robico. All rights reserved.

This book is printed in ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format.

The Plain Janes


By Cecil Castellucci & Jim Rugg (Minx Books/DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1115-8

In 2007 DC comics had an honest go at building new markets by creating the Minx imprint. Dedicated to producing comics material for the teen/young adult audience and especially the ever-elusive girl readership, the intent was to tailor material for readers who had previously embraced foreign material such as manga and momentous global comics successes like Maus and Persepolis and the abundant market for prose serials/pop phenomena as Roswell High, Twilight and even Harry Potter.

Sadly after only a dozen immensely impressive and decidedly different black-&-white graphic novels, Minx shut up shop in October 2008, magnanimously NOT citing publishing partner Random House’s failure to get the books onto the appropriate shelves of major bookstore chains as the reason.

Nevertheless the tomes that did reach the bookshelves are still out there and most of them are well worth tracking down – either in the US originals or the British editions published by Titan Books.

One of the most impressive – and the title selected to launch the line – was The Plain Janes, written by Young Adult fiction author Cecil Castellucci (Boy Proof, The Queen of Cool) and illustrated by Jim Rugg (Street Angel, Afrodisiac, One Model Nation).

Their impressive collaboration captivatingly turned the hoary new-kid-in-town trope on its head, wittily blending loss, crushing on the wrong guy and teen rebellion into a tale of dogged determination to overcome all obstacles and establish your own place in the world…

When the bomb went off in Metro City young Jane Beckles was one of the lucky survivors. Her near-death experience obsessed her parents, however, so they closed their successful hairdressing business and headed across country to the somnolent safe suburb of Kent Waters.

Jane didn’t want to go but wasn’t consulted. The introspective aspiring young artist was most upset about deserting the man she called John Doe: the still unidentified victim who was found near her, and remained in a coma to this day.

Jane used to visit and talk to him, and when her family moved she took his sketchbook, promising to fill up the pages in his honour and bring it back to him…

Pokey provincial Buzz Aldrin High School was everything she dreaded, but after doggedly declining the entreaties of the Cool Girls’ Clique, the displaced person found solace in the gruff and initially hostile company of three other self-identifying outcasts: aspiring actress Jane, science nerd Jayne and sporty girl-jock Polly Jane

Main Jane describes her concerted efforts to unite and join the trio of loners in her letters to sleeping John, and slowly assimilates – at least at the fringes – into the school social hierarchy.

Whilst watching how her new comrades were daily frustrated in their efforts to succeed in their chosen areas of endeavour, and doodling in John’s sketchbook, Jane conceives a notion and enlists the assistance of her namesake outsiders in a bold and subversive new undertaking…

One morning sleepy Kent Waters wakens to find a guerrilla art project in their ordered tidy environs: the site of a proposed strip mall has been transformed into a pyramidal playground – one signed by “People Loving Art In Neighborhoods”.

The mysterious operatives of P.L.A.I.N. follow up with bolder and more baroque projects – filling the town fountain with bubbles, inundating the animal shelter with cuddly toys – and soon the sleepy hamlet is abuzz with only one topic…

However the campaign quickly polarises the populace along generational lines, with the high schoolers avidly following the cool pranks, and adults like Jane’s increasingly paranoid and PTSD-wracked mom seeing it all as the start of more serious, terrorist-inspired anarchy…

And then one night everything gets more complicated when surly transfer student Damon catches the guerrilla girls setting up another of their inspired installations. Although he says nothing the P.L.A.I.N. Janes are rattled, and the situation worsens next day when overzealous Police Officer Sanchez addresses the entire school, accusing students of causing the disorder and delivering ranting, thinly veiled threats…

After initials qualms the Janes retaliate by turning his police station into a garden gnome sanctuary. The war of wills escalates…

Main Jane meanwhile is developing feelings for Damon, and thinks it’s mutual (but who can tell with boys?)…

The campaign is now enticing all the kids in town to perform meaningless acts of unified and unqualified self-expression and Sanchez has all after-school clubs and activities suspended. When that doesn’t break the student body’s spirit, with the full support of the parents he imposes a mandatory after-dark curfew on all teenagers.

Jane has bigger problems: when her latest letter to John comes back unopened she fears the worst and convinces Damon to drive her to MetroCity in a stolen car…

And in Kent Waters, with New Year’s Eve approaching, the Janes and the entire teenage population gather to plan the greatest art attack of all…

Don’t be fooled by seeming plot similarities to Footloose; The Plain Janes is a clever, warm and beguiling tale of self-expression, personal ambitions, friendship and growing up which confronts and counteracts the hackneyed and stereotypical Stifling-Parents versus Right-On Rebel Kids genre to tell a compassionate, moving story with no easy answers condescendingly served up but plenty of questions and passion on show…

This gloriously understated marriage of smart narrative and sublime cartooning is a perfect vehicle for attracting new and youthful readers with no abiding interest in outlandish power-fantasies or vicarious vengeance-gratification (yes, that does mean girls) to our medium, and whilst Minx may be gone, the stories the company released changed comics for good and for ever.

Why not track them all down and enjoy a genuinely different kind of graphic reading experience?
© 2007 Cecil Castellucci & Jim Rugg. All rights reserved.

Numbercruncher


By Simon Spurrier & P.J. Holden with Jordie Bellaire (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-004-7

I’ve made a resolution to be more terse and concise in my reviews. Let’s see how long that lasts…

Sometimes a story just cries out to be told – especially if your tastes run to the sentimentally cynical, soppily savage or wide-eyed and jaded. If that’s you, Numbercruncher is just what you need to confirm all your suspicions about life whilst having a really good time.

The tale – by Simon Spurrier (Judge Dredd, X-Men: Legacy, Six-Gun Gorilla and others) & P.J. Holden (that man Dredd again, Rogue Trooper, Battlefields, Terminator/Robocop and more) – began as a creator-owned project in Judge Dredd Megazine before being expanded into a 4-issue miniseries from Titan Comics. Now it’s available as a splendid hardback packed with clever, controversial notions that will delight and astound lovers of metaphysical whimsy, romantic fantasy and unnecessarily extreme violence.

Like The Wizard of Oz and especially A Matter of Life and Death, this story is told on two separate levels of existence and differentiated by full-colour earthly sections and black-&-white views of the Afterlife. Unlike them, it’s a nasty and wittily vicious piece of work; just like handy geezer Bastard Zane, operative #494 employed by The Divine Calculator to enforce the Karmic Accountancy and keep souls circulating through the great cosmic all.

The Universe is just numbers and God is a mean, pedantic bean-counter, only concerned with the smooth running of his Grand Algorithm. Unfortunately, it all starts to fall apart when Zane is tasked by the weaselly Big Boss with stopping an in-love and dying young mathematician from gaming the system.

Genius Richard Thyme, in his final seconds of mortal life, has a Eureka moment and divines the true and exact nature of everything – and how to manipulate it…

Armed with such inspirational knowledge, Thyme’s soul arrives before the Writer in the Grand Ledger and wheedles another spin on the Karmic Wheel – Reincarnation.

Brilliant Richard had been utterly in love with a dippy hippy chick named Jessica Reed, and bargains for another chance at a life with her, and mean, petty-minded Divine Calculator gleefully accepts the proposition.

Thyme will be reborn, with all memories intact, but when this second life ends his soul will be employed by the Karmic Accountancy Agency as a collector just like Zane. The standard term of employment is for eternity – unless he can convince somebody to take his place. The indentured operatives call it “Recirculation”…

There is only one get-out: a “Zero-clause” which means that if Thyme can live a life completely and totally without sin, his contract is null and void. But who could possibly live a mortal life without the slightest transgression…?

Of course, The Accountant doesn’t play fair: stacking the deck so that reborn Richard is unable to even get near his lost love until it’s too late. However when Zane finally shows up in 2035AD, eagerly expecting to close the case-file and retire with Thyme taking his long-suffering place in The Register, the frustrated, cheated genius plays his own trump card.

He’d always expected to be short-changed and made his own Karmic deal. By selling his contract to another Accountancy operative, he had bought another life. And as the psychotically furious Bastard Zane soon sees, Thyme has pulled the trick over and over again. No matter how often Richard dies, he’s already being born again somewhere else…

With the mathematician’s sold-and-resold soul promised to practically every agent in the Afterlife, Zane’s only hope of retirement rests in killing the kid’s each and every reincarnation whilst simultaneously slaughtering all the Karmic operatives who have been suckered into a deal with the lovesick little sod…

And on Earth, despite perpetual setbacks, each brief existence inches Richard slowly closer to Jess. That should make his eventual capture inevitable – but even here the genius has an incredible Plan B in operation which even the Supreme Architect of the Cosmos didn’t see coming… one which could well undo the Algorithm underpinning Everything That Is…

Poignant, funny, outrageously gory, gloriously rude and wickedly clever, this is a ferociously upbeat and hilariously dark black comedy no insufferable incurable romantic could possibly resist.

Moreover, for all us dyed-in-the-wool comics freaks, there’s a host of background features included,

Interspersed between a gallery of covers and variants – plus unused iterations – and loads of original art, roughs and sketches, the ‘Author’s Note’ takes us behind the genesis of the tale, which is further expanded upon in ‘A Comic for Talking to God – an interview with Brian Truitt of USA Today’.

A discussion and explanation of Jordie Bellaire’s colouring process is the focus of ‘Working Flat-Out’ and ‘Birth Placement’ details the procedure for creating a cover, before the usual Creator’s Biographies ends things on a knowledgeable note.

Love, Death, Sex, more Death, Rebirth, lots of Death and Numbers: there’s your Meaning of Life right there…
™ & © 2013 Simon Spurrier & P.J. Holden. All rights reserved.

Numbercruncher is scheduled for release in January 2014.

Heroic Tales: The Bill Everett Archives volume 2


By Bill Everett and others, edited and complied by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-600-3

Thanks to modern technology there is a superabundance of collections featuring the works of too-long ignored founding fathers and lost masters of American comic books. A magnificent case in point is this second superb chronicle revisiting the incredible gifts of one of the greatest draughtsmen and yarn-spinners the industry has ever seen.

You could save some time and trouble by simply buying the book now rather than waste your valuable off-hours reading my blather, but since I’m keen to carp on anyway feel free to accompany me as I delineate just why this tome needs to join the books on your “favourites” shelf.

He was a direct descendent and namesake of iconoclastic poet and artist William Blake. His tragic life and awe-inspiring body of work – Bill was possibly the most technically accomplished artist in US comicbook industry – reveals how a man of privilege and astonishing pedigree was wracked by illness, an addictive personality (especially alcoholism) and sheer bad luck, nevertheless shaped an art-form and left twin legacies: an incredible body of superlative stories and art, and, more importantly, saved many broken lives saved by becoming a dedicated mentor for Alcoholics Anonymous in his later years.

William Blake Everett was born in 1917 into a wealthy and prestigious New England family. Bright and precocious, he contracted Tuberculosis when he was twelve and was dispatched to arid Arizona to recuperate.

Thus began a life-long affair with the cowboy lifestyle: a hard-drinking, smoking, tall-tale telling breed locked in a war against self-destruction, described in the fact-filled, picture-packed Introduction by Blake Bell which covers ‘The Early Years of Comics: 1938-1942’, ‘The Birth of Marvel Comics’ and ‘The Comic Book Production System’, before ‘The Heroes’ precedes a full-colour selection of incredible prototypical adventure champions with a brief essay on the set-up of Centaur Comics, Novelty Press, Eastern Color Printing, Hillman and Lev Gleason Publications…

Accompanied by the covers for Amazing Mystery Funnies volume 2 #3, 5 and 6 (March, May & June 1939, Centaur) are three outer space exploits of futuristic trouble shooter Skyrocket Steele, whilst Tibetan-trained superhero Amazing-Man offers a transformative triptych of titanic tales spanning war-torn Europe, augmented by the covers to Amazing-Man Comics #9-11 February-April 1940.

Everett’s deeply held western dreams are covered next with a brace of rootin’ tootin’ yarns starring Bull’s-Eye Bill from Novelty Press’ Target Comics #3-4 (April & May 1940) whilst from #7-9 (August-October 1940), the author smoothly switched to sophisticated suspense with master of disguise The Chameleon crushing contemporary criminals in scintillating escapades from Target Comics’ answer to The Saint, the Falcon and the Lone Wolf.

Thanks to his breakthrough Sub-Mariner sagas Everett was inextricably linked to water-based action, and Eastern Comics hired him to create human waterspout Bob Blake, Hydroman for the bimonthly Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics. Here, spanning issues # 6-9 (May-November 1941, with the covers for #6 and 7), are four spectacular, eerie, offbeat exploits, covering an extended battle against foreign spies and American Fifth Columnists, after which Red Reed in the Americas! (created by Bob Davis & Fitz) offers the first two chapters in a political thriller wherein a college student and his pals head South of the Border to fight Nazi-backed sedition and tyranny in a stunning tour de force first seen in Lev Gleason’s Silver Streak Comics #20 & 21 (April & May 1942).

A section of Miscellaneous and text illustrations follows, blending Western spot drawings with the eye-catching covers from Amazing Mystery Funnies volume 2 #18, Target Comics #5 and 6, Blue Bolt (vol. 1 #11, vol. 2 #1, 2 and 3) and Famous Funnies #85.

The Humorous and More describes Everett’s forays into other markets: niche sectors such as licensed comics, comedy and romance, and even returns to pulp and magazine illustration as he strove to stay one step ahead of a constantly shifting market and his own growing reputation for binges and unreliability.

‘What’s With the Crosbys?’ is a superbly rendered gossip strip from Famous Stars #2 (1950, Ziff-Davis) whilst a stunning monochrome girly-pin-up of ‘Snafu’s Lovely Ladies’ (from Snafu #3 Marvel, March 1956), and the cover of Adventures of the Big Boy #1 (also Marvel, from the same month) lead into the Back Cover of Cracked #6 (December 1958, Major Magazines) and other visual features from the Mad imitator as well as the colour cover to less successful rip-off Zany (#3, from March 1959).

Everett’s staggering ability to draw beautiful women plays well in the complete romance strip ‘Love Knows No Rules’ (Personal Love #24, November 1953 Eastern Color), and this section concludes with a gritty black and white title page piece from combat pulp War Stories #1, courtesy of Marvel’s parent company Magazine Management, September 1952.

The Horror concentrates on the post-superhero passion for scary stories: an arena where Bill Everett absolutely shone like a diamond. For over a decade he brought a sheen of irresistible quality to the generally second-rate chillers Timely/Atlas/Marvel generated in competition with genre front-runners EC Comics. It’s easy to see how they could compete and even outlive their gritty, gore-soaked competitor, with such lush and lurid examples of covers and chillingly beautiful interior pages…

Following a third informative background essay detailing his life until its cruelly early end in 1973, a choice selection of his least known and celebrated efforts opens with tale of terror ‘Hangman’s House’ (Suspense #5, November, 1950): a grim confrontation with Satanic evil, followed by futuristic Cold War shocker ‘I Deal With Murder!’ and a visit to a dark carnival of purely human wickedness in ‘Felix the Great’ (both culled from Suspense #6, January 1951).

Adventures into Weird Worlds #4 (Spring 1952) offered a laconic, sardonic glimpse into ‘The Face of Death’, whilst from the next issue (April 1952) ‘Don’t Bury Me Deep’ tapped untold depths of tension in a moodily mordant exploration of fear and premature burial. Hard on the heels of the cover to Journey Into Unknown Worlds #14 (December 1952) comes one of its interior shockers as ‘The Scarecrow’ helped an aged couple solve their mortgage problems in a most unusual manner.

The Marvel madness then concludes with a cautionary tale of ‘That Crazy Car’ from Journey into Mystery #20, December 1954, concluding a far too brief sojourn amidst arguably Everest’s most accomplished works and most professionally adept period.

This magnificent collection ends with a gallery of pages and one complete tale from the end of his career; selected from an even more uninhibited publisher attempting to cash in on the adult horror market opened by Warren Publishing with Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella.

Skywald was formed by industry veteran Israel Waldman and Everett’s old friend Sol Brodsky, tapping into the burgeoning black and white market with mature-reader and supernatural magazines Hell-Rider, Crime Machine, Nightmare, Psycho and Scream. Offered an “in” Everett produced incredible pin-ups (included here are three from Nightmare (#1, 2 & 4, December 1970-June 1971), ‘A Psycho Scene’ (Psycho #5, November, 1971) a stunning werewolf pin-up from Psycho #6 and one of revived Golden Age monstrosity ‘The Heap’ from Psycho #4.

Most welcome, however, is a magnificent 10-page monochrome masterpiece of gothic mystery ‘The Man Who Stole Eternity’ from Psycho #3, May, 1971.

Although telling, even revelatory and concluding in a happy ending of sorts, what this book really celebrates is not the life but the astounding versatility of Bill Everett. A gifted, driven man, he was a born storyteller with the unparalleled ability to make all his imaginary worlds hyper-real; and for nearly five decades his incredible art and wondrous stories enthralled and enchanted everybody lucky enough to read them.

© 2013 Fantagraphics Books. Text © 2013 Blake Bell. All art © its respective owners and holders. All rights reserved.
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for art lovers, Marvel Zombies and addicts of pure comics magic… 9/10