Mega Robo Bros volume 2: Mega Robo Rumble


By Neill Cameron with Abby Bulmer & Lisa Murphy (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910989-81-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The Future of Fun… 9/10

After far too long an interval, the second sterling all-ages outing for Neill (Tamsin of the Deep, How to Make Awesome Comics, Pirates of Pangea) Cameron’s marvellous metal and plastic paladins return to share more of their awesome adventures and growing pains!

It’s the Future!

In a London much cooler than ours Alex and his younger brother Freddie are (mostly) typical kids: boisterous, fractious, always arguing, but devoted to each other and not too bothered that they’re adopted. It’s no big deal for them that they were constructed by the mysterious Dr. Roboticus (before he vanished from all human knowledge) and are considered by those in the know as the most powerful robots on Earth.

They recently became super-secret agents too, but almost the entire world knows that…

It’s enough for the digital duo that Mum and Dad love them, even though the boys are a bit more of a handful than most kids. They live as normal a life as possible; going to school, making friends, putting up with bullies and hating homework: it’s all part of the Mega Robo Routine combining boring lessons, fun with friends, playing games, watching TV and training in the covert combat caverns under RAID HQ…

When occasion demands, the lads undertake missions for bossy Baroness Farooq, head of government agency R.A.I.D. (Robotics Analysis Intelligence and Defence). They think it’s because they are infinitely smarter and more powerful than the Destroyer Mechs and other man-made minions she employs…

However, although Dad may be just your average old guy it’s recently become clear that Mum is a bit extraordinary herself and, as renowned boffin Dr. Nita Sharma, harbours some surprising secrets of her own…

All the same, life in the Sharma household is pretty normal. Freddie is insufferably exuberant and over-confident whilst Alex is at the age when self-doubt and anxiety begin to manifest. Of course, their parents’ other robot rescues can be a bit of a trial.

Baby triceratops Trikey with his dog-programming is ok, but French-speaking deranged ape Monsieur Gorilla can be mighty confusing whilst gloomily annoying, existentialist aquatic fowl Stupid Philosophy Penguin constantly quoting dead philosophers all the time makes most people rapidly consider self-harm or manic mayhem …

Culled from the pages of fabulous UK weekly comic The Phoenix, this fistful of fun kicks off with ‘Chapter 1: Mega Robo Schooldays’ as Alex gets a hard time from classmates Mira and Taia. They used to be best friends, but with all his extra-curricular activities the girls are feeling a bit neglected. Alex’s guilt turns to something far worse on Monday at Oak Hill Primary School after a heated football match leads bully Jamal to make a startling accusation. But actually, how do we know if Alex is a Boy or a Girl…?

Deeply shaken the startled hero naturally asks Mum, and she’s never been more grateful for a sudden sneaky Surprise Giant Robot Attack…

In ‘Chapter 2: Mega Robo Underground’ Alex and Freddie are called in by Baroness Farooq, and jet over to Aldgate Tube Station to battle a colossal driller-droid. Further investigation leads the lads and a R.A.I.D. science team deep, deep into the abandoned transport tunnels beneath the city.

Here they encounter an army of rejected and rebuilt robots all undertaking the bizarre agenda of a crazy bag-lady calling herself “The Caretaker”. When she abruptly loses control of her precious charges, all Hell breaks loose. After a massive fight, she escapes to an even more secret lair and an ongoing repair project with hidden ramifications that will have dire consequences for the bombastic boys and the entire world…

Freddie gets to see Mum’s stern side when she takes him – kicking and screaming – clothes shopping in ‘Chapter 3: Mega Robo Weekend’ after which shameful incident ‘Chapter 4: Mega Robo Celebrities’ zooms in on the price of fame when Prettiest Girl in School Jamila finally notices Alex.

With his shiny head all turned around, he’s in no mood for Freddie’s jealous response: candid home videos posted on VuTube. He’s even less chuffed when the postings go mega-viral but cheers up when Freddie’s celebrity bubble inevitably implodes in a most unfortunate manner…

Wrapping up with a spectacular big finish, ‘Chapter 5: Mega Robo Expo’ finds the kids – and their surprisingly famous mum – as guests of a massive Robot Show. After taking down obnoxious, fame-craving mech-makers Team Robotix in a gladiatorial contest, the lads think the action portion of the entertainment has ended, but then the Caretaker’s darkest secret bursts in with mass-murder in mind…

The huge rampaging robot quickly reinforces all humanity’s fears and anxieties about sentient mechanicals, but as the Mega Robo Bros drive the belligerent Wolfram off, Alex realises with alarm that Mum knows far more about the rogue – and her own “sons” – than she’s letting on…

To Be Continued…

Crafted by Cameron and his doughty colouring assistants Abby Bulmer & Lisa Murphy (Tamsin of the Deep, How to Make Awesome Comics, Pirates of Pangea), this is another exceedingly engaging romp which rockets along like anti-gravity rollercoaster, blending mirth with warmth, wit and incredible verve. Alex and Freddy are utterly authentic boys, irrespective of their artificial origins, and their antics strike exactly the right balance of future shock, family fun and bombastic superhero action to capture readers’ hearts and minds. What a movie this would make!

Unmissable excitement for kids of all ages and vintage, this is a true “must-have” item.
Text and illustrations © Neill Cameron 2016. All rights reserved.

And while we’re talking perfect X-Mas gifts, why not pick up Mega Robo Bros volume 1 and enjoy the whole superb saga to date?

Steve Ditko Archives volume 2: Unexplored Worlds


By Steve Ditko & various, edited by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-289-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Immaculate Yule Yarn-Spinning… 9/10

Once upon a time the anthological title of short stand-alone stories was the sole staple of the comicbook profession, where the plan was to deliver as much variety as possible to the reader. Sadly, that particular vehicle of expression seems all but lost to us today…

Steve Ditko is one of our industry’s greatest talents and one of America’s least lauded. His fervent desire to just get on with his job and to tell stories the best way he can – whilst the noblest of aspirations – has always been a minor consideration or even stumbling block for the commercial interests which for so long controlled all comics production and still exert an overwhelming influence upon the mainstream bulk of comicbook output.

Before his time at Marvel, young Ditko perfected his craft creating short sharp yarns for a variety of companies and it’s an undeniable joy today to be able to look at this work from such an innocent time when he was just breaking into the industry: tirelessly honing his craft with genre tales for whichever publisher would have him, utterly free from the interference of intrusive editors.

This superb full-colour series of hardback collections (also available as digital editions) has reprinted those early efforts (all of them here are from 1956-1957) with material produced after the draconian, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority sanitised the industry following Senate Hearings and a public witch-hunt.

Most are wonderfully baroque and bizarre supernatural or science fantasy stories, but there are also examples of Westerns, Crime and Humour: cunningly presented in the order he completed and sold them rather than the more logical but far-less-revealing chronological release dates. Moreover, they are all helpfully annotated with a purchase number to indicate approximately when they were actually drawn – even the brace of tales done for Stan Lee’s pre-Marvel Atlas company.

Sadly, there’s no indication of how many (if any) were actually written by the moody master…

This second sublime selection reprints another heaping helping of his ever-more impressive works: most of it courtesy of the surprisingly liberal (at least in its trust of its employees’ creative instincts) sweat-shop publisher Charlton Comics.

And whilst we’re being technically accurate, it’s also important to reiterate that the cited publication dates of these stories have very little to do with when Ditko crafted them: as Charlton paid so little, the cheap, anthologically astute outfit had no problem in buying material it could leave on a shelf for months – if not years – until the right moment arrived to print. The work is assembled and runs here in the order Ditko submitted it, rather than when it reached the grubby sweaty paws of us readers…

Following an historically informative Introduction and passionate advocacy by Blake Bell, concentrating on Ditko’s near-death experience in 1954 (when the artist contracted tuberculosis) and subsequent absence and recovery, the evocatively eccentric excursions open with a monochrome meander into the realms of satire with the faux fable – we’d call it a mockumentary – ‘Starlight Starbright’ as first seen in From Here to Insanity (volume 3 #1 April 1956) before normal service resumes with financial fable ‘They’ll Be Some Changes Made’ (scripted by Carl Wessler from Atlas’ Journey Into Mystery #33, April 1956) wherein a petty-minded pauper builds a time machine to steal the fortune his ancestors squandered, whilst a crook seeking to exploit a mystic pool finds himself the victim of fate’s justice in ‘Those Who Vanish’ (Journey Into Mystery #38, September 1956 and again scripted by Wessler).

Almost – if not all – the Charlton material was scripted by the astoundingly fast and prolific Joe Gill at this time, and records are spotty at best so let’s assume his collaboration on all the material here beginning with ‘The Man Who Could Never Be Killed’ from Strange Suspense Stories #31, published in February 1957. This tale of a circus performer with an incredible ethereal secret segues into ‘Adrift in Space’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #8 June 1958) wherein a veteran starship captain pushes his weary crew over the edge whereas ‘The King of Planetoid X’ – from the previous MoUW (February) details a crisis of conscience for a benevolent and ultimately wise potentate…

The cover of Strange Suspense Stories #31 (February 1957) leads into ‘The Gloomy One’ as a misery-loving alien intruder is destroyed by simple human joy before the cover to Out of This World #5 September 1957 heralds that issue’s ‘The Man Who Stepped Out of a Cloud’ and an alien whose abduction plans only seem sinister in intent…

Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 (October 1957) tells the story of a young ‘Stowaway’ who finds fulfilment aboard a harshly-run space ship after which the cover for Out of This World #3 (March 1957) leads to an apparent extraterrestrial paradise for weary star-men in ‘What Happened?’

Next up is a tale from one of Charlton’s earliest star characters. The title came from a radio show that Charlton licensed the rights to, with the lead/host/narrator acting more as voyeur than active participant. “The Mysterious Traveler” spoke directly to camera, asking readers for opinion and judgement as he shared a selection of funny, sad, scary and wondrous human-interest yarns, all tinged with a hint of the weird or supernatural. When rendered by Ditko, whose storytelling mastery, page design and full, lavish brushwork were just beginning to come into its mature full range, the contents of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler were always exotic and esoteric and utterly mesmerising…

From issue #2, February 1957, ‘What Wilbur Saw’ reveals the reward bestowed on a poverty-stricken country bumpkin who witnessed a modern-day miracle after which Out of This World #3 provides a cautionary tale of atomic mutation in ‘The Supermen’

The eerie cover to Out of This World #4 (June 1957) leads to a chilling encounter for two stranded sailors who briefly board the ‘Flying Dutchman’ and Strange Suspense Stories #32’s cover (May 1957) dabbles in magic art when a collector is victimised by a thief who foolishly stumbles into ‘A World of His Own’. From the same issue comes a salutary parable concerning a rich practical joker who goes too far before succumbing to ‘The Last Laugh’, after which ‘Mystery Planet’ (Strange Suspense Stories #36, March 1958) offers a dash of interplanetary derring-do as a valiant agent Bryan Bodine and his comely associate Nedra confounds an intergalactic pirate piloting a planet-eating weapon against Earth!

A similarly bold defender then saves ‘The Conquered Earth’ from alien subjugation (Out of This World #4, June 1957) whilst in ‘Assignment Treason’ (Outer Space #18. August 1958) the clean-cut hero goes undercover to save earth from the predatory Master of Space whilst in Out of This World #8 (May 1958) ‘The Secret of Capt. X’ reveals that the inimical alien tyrant threatening humanity is not what he seems to be…

The cover to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #3 (April 1957) gives way to a trio of fantastic thrillers beginning with ‘The Strange Guests of Tsaurus’ as an alien paradise proves to be anything but and ‘A World Where I Was King’ sees a clumsy janitor catapulted into a wondrous realm where he wins a kingdom he doesn’t want. Diverting slightly, Fightin’ Army #20 (May 1957) provides a comedic interlude as a civil war soldier finds himself constantly indebted to ‘Gavin’s Stupid Mule’ before ‘A Forgotten World’ wraps up the MoUW #3 contributions with a scary tale of invasion from the Earth’s core…

‘The Cheapest Steak in Nome’ turns out to be defrosted from something that died millions of years ago in a light-hearted yarn from Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #7 (February 1958) after which the cover to MoUW #4 (July 1957) precedes more icy antediluvian preservations found in the ‘Valley in the Mist’ whilst the cover to Strange Suspense Stories #33 (August 1957) leads into a bizarre corporate outreach project as the ‘Director of the Board’ attempts to go where no other exploitative capitalist has gone before…

It’s back to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #3 for a brush with the mythological in ‘They Didn’t Believe Him’ before ‘Forever and Ever’ (Strange Suspense Stories #33) reveals an unforeseen downside to immortality and Out of This World #3 sees a stranger share ‘My Secret’ with ordinary folk despite – or because – of a scurrilous blackmailer…

cover Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 October 1957

‘A Dreamer’s World’ from Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 (October 1957) follows the chilling cover thereof as a test pilot hits his aerial limit and discovers a whole new existence, before Unusual Tales #7 (May 1957) traces the tragic path of ‘The Man Who Could See Tomorrow’ whilst the cover of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #4 (August 1957) opens a mini-feast of the voyeur’s voyages beginning with that issue’s ‘The Desert’ a saga of polar privation and survival.

Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #3 (May 1957) offers the appropriate cover and a ‘Secret Mission’ for a spy parachuted into Prague after which TotMT #4 offers ‘Escape’ for an unemployed pilot dragged into a gun-running scam in a south American lost world; ‘Test of a Man’ sees a cruel animal trainer receive his just deserts and ‘Operation Blacksnake’ grittily reveals American venality in the ever-expanding Arabian oil trade…

Returning to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5, ‘The Mirage’ torments an escaped convict who thinks he’s escaped his fate whilst Texas Rangers in Action #8 (July 1957) sees a ruthless rancher crushed by the weight of his own wicked actions in ‘The Only One’, after which the stunning covers to Unusual Tales #6 and 7 (February and May 1957) lead into our final vignette ‘The Man Who Painted on Air’: exposing and thwarting a unique talent to preserve humanity and make a few bucks on the side…

This sturdily capacious volume has episodes that terrify, amaze, amuse and enthral: utter delights of fantasy fiction with lean, plots and stripped-down dialogue that let the art set the tone, push the emotions and tell the tale, from times when a story could end sadly as well as happily and only wonderment was on the agenda, hidden or otherwise.

These stories display the sharp wit and contained comedic energy which made so many Spider-Man/J. Jonah Jameson confrontations an unforgettable treat half a decade later, and this is another cracking collection not only superb in its own right but as a telling tribute to the genius of one of the art-form’s greatest stylists.

This is something every serious comics fans would happily kill or die or be lost in time for…
Unexplored Worlds: The Steve Ditko Archive Vol. 2. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2010 Blake Bell. All rights reserved.

Misty featuring Moonchild & The Four Faces of Eve


By Pat Mills, Malcolm Shaw, John Armstrong, Brian Delaney, Shirley Bellwood & various (Rebellion)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-452-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Spooky Treats for Every Stocking… 9/10

Like most of my comics contemporaries I harbour a secret shame. Growing up, I was well aware of the weeklies produced for girls but would never admit to reading them. My loss: I now know that they were packed with some great strips by astounding artists and writers, many of them personal favourites when they were drawing stalwart soldiers, marauding monsters, evil aliens or strange superheroes (all British superheroes were weird and off-kilter…).

I actually think – in terms of quality and respect for the readership’s intelligence, experience and development – girls’ periodicals were far more in tune with the sensibilities of the target audience, and I wish I’d paid more attention to Misty back then…

Thus, I’m overjoyed to see this superb first collection from what originating editor Pat Mills reveals in his Foreword was intended to be as iconoclastic and groundbreaking a publication as his previous creation.

You know the one… 2000AD

Despite never living up to his expectations – for all the traditional editorial reasons that have scuppered bold new visions since the days of Caxton – Misty was nothing like any other comic in the British marketplace: a Girls’ Juvenile periodical addressing modern issues through a lens of urban horror, science fictional and historical mysteries and tense suspenseful dramas. It was also one of the best drawn comics ever seen and featured stunningly beguiling covers by unsung legend Shirley Bellwood, a veteran illustrator who ought to be a household name because we’ve all admired her work in comics and books since the 1950s even if we’ve never been privileged to see her by-line…

Unlike most weeklies, Misty was created with specific themes in mind – fantasy, horror and mystery – and over its too-short existence introduced numerous self-contained features serialised like modern graphic novels, rather than the continuing adventures of star characters.

Although adulterated from Mill’s original design, the comic launched on February 4th 1978 and ran until January 1980 whereupon it merged with the division’s lead title Tammy, extending its lifeline until 1984. As was often the case, the brand also continued through Annuals and Specials, running from 1979 until 1986…

The first of a series working under the umbrella of The Treasury of British Comics, this compact monochrome softcover compilation offers two complete part-work novellas from the comic’s canon of nearly 70 strip sagas, starting with the gripping history of Moonchild. Scripted by Mills and illustrated by John Armstrong (Bella in Tammy; The Secret Gymnast in Bunty; Grange Hill), the eerie adventure was based on Stephen King’s Carrie, and ran as lead feature in issues #1-13.

The turbulent coming-of-age of abused and confused schoolgirl Rosemary Black: born into a family afflicted with an apparent curse. All the women who bore a hereditary crescent birthmark on their foreheads were eventually consumed by burgeoning psychokinetic powers…

Rosemary’s mother brutally and zealously tries to suppress her daughter’s growing abilities but with sociopathic mean girls Norma, Dawn and Freda making her a constant target for bullying and humiliation, the force inside Rosemary keeps expressing itself in ever more violent manner…

Moreover, when school physician Doctor Armstrong realises the truth about the girl so often sent to see him, he sees nothing but an opportunity to be exploited…

When Norma’s bullies embark on their most ambitious scheme to torture Rosemary, sheer disaster is barely averted when the Moonchild’s long missing grandmother suddenly appears with a shocking secret to reveal…

Following a handy hints feature – how to make a Witch’s Hat – The Four Faces of Eve carries on the chilling bewilderment.

Created by Malcolm Shaw (Misty’s Editor and writer of dozens of strips in Britain and Europe) & Brian Delaney (Hart to Hart; Grange Hill; The Professionals) this marvel of malign medical malpractice ran in issues 20-31, tracing the seemingly paranoid path of Eve Marshall, recently discharged from hospital still suffering partial amnesia.

Despite returning to her home and her high-powered scientist parents, Eve remains troubled, especially by horrifically vivid dreams of other girls who died painful, violent deaths…

Inconsolable and increasingly suspicious, Eve snoops around the house she doesn’t remember and discovers mounting evidence that the Marshalls are not her real parents. When the house is later burgled the police forensics team uncover another impossible anomaly: Eve’s fingerprints match a thief who died months ago…

Scared and haunted by traumatic dreams, Eve runs away and hides in a circus, only to be tracked down and dragged back home by her faux parents. However, the pieces are inexorably falling into place and she soon has to face the appalling truth she has deduced about herself and the monsters she lives with…

Also including a fulsome tribute to ‘Shirley Bellwood – An Unsung Heroine of British Comics’, creator biographies and one final activity page (‘Misty Says… Be a Devil – and Here’s How’) this slight but supremely engaging tome is a glorious and long-overdue celebration of a uniquely compelling phenomenon of British comics and one that has stood the test of time. Don’t miss this second chance to get in on something truly special and splendidly entertaining
Misty © Egmont UK Limited 1978. All rights reserved.

Yoko Tsuno volume 12: The Titans


By Roger Leloup translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-302-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An Alluring Epic of Understanding Overcoming Suspicion… 8/10

Indomitable intellectual adventurer Yoko Tsuno debuted in Le Journal de Spirou in September 1970 and is still delighting regular readers and making new fans to this day. Her astounding, all-action, excessively accessible adventures are amongst the most intoxicating, absorbing and broad-ranging comics thrillers ever created.

The globe-girdling, space-&-time-spanning episodic epics starring the Japanese technologist-investigator were devised by monumentally multi-talented Belgian maestro Roger Leloup, who began his own solo career after working as a studio assistant on Herge’s Adventures of Tintin.

Compellingly told, superbly imaginative and – no matter how implausible the premise of any individual yarn – always solidly grounded in hyper-realistic settings underpinned by authentic, unshakably believable technology and scientific principles, Leloup’s illustrated escapades were at the vanguard of a wave of strips to change the face of European comics in the mid-1970s.

That long-overdue revolution centred on the rise of competent, clever and brave female protagonists, all taking their places as heroic ideals beside the boys; uniformly elevating Continental comics in the process. Happily, most of their endeavours are as timelessly engaging and potently empowering now as they ever were, and none more so than the trials and tribulations of Miss Tsuno.

Her very first outings (the still unavailable Hold-up en hi-fi, La belle et la bête and Cap 351) were simple introductory vignettes before the superbly capable electrical engineer and her valiant if less able male comrades Pol Paris and Vic Van Steen properly hit their stride with premier full-length saga Le trio de l’étrange in 1971 with Spirou’s May 13th issue…

Yoko’s exploits generally range from explosive exploits in exotic corners of our world, time-travelling jaunts and sinister deep-space sagas – such as this one – with the secretive, disaster-prone alien colonists from planet Vinea.

There have been 28 European albums to date, with today’s tale originally serialised in 1977 and collected a year later as 8th album Les Titans. Technically the 13th Yoko Tsuno exploit – and the fourth to feature the extraterrestrial Vineans – it appears here via UK translation powerhouse Cinebook, offering a chilling clash of alien cultures tempered and ultimately quelled by human sentiment and empathy in equal measure…

In their first outing together, Yoko, Vic and frivolous Pol discovered a race of dormant extraterrestrials hibernating in the depths of the Earth. After freeing them from robotic tyranny the valiant humans helped the alien refugees rebuild their lost sciences. Eventually they even went with the Vineans on their first scouting mission when the awakened sleepers opted to return to their own system and the supposedly dying homeworld they had fled from two million years previously.

Set a few months after that initial bold excursion, The Titans finds Yoko, Vic and Pol back for a second visit; this time carrying samples of Earth fauna and pest control to help the Vineans regain control of a world that has grown wild and unmanageable in the intervening eons…

Old friend and boon companion Khany has a specific reason for requesting the curious trio bring samples of insect life and assorted chemical weapons. As the Vineans slowly expanded out into all the corners of their recovered world they found some strange and unsettling artefacts. Comparisons with Yoko’s Earth specimens confirm them as strikingly similar to Terran insect limbs: albeit two metres long and augmented by titanium medical implants…

The worrying assessment results in an exploratory expedition to the newly-recovered marshy region. Lying beyond the controlled environment of the artificially managed temperate zone, the are is a lush floral wonderland to be meticulously examined in search of the Vineans’ greatest fear: that in the millennia of their absence another sentient, scientifically advanced species has evolved on their world…

The expedition soon goes disastrously wrong. Gigantic aquatic centipedes attack the researchers, the base camp is wrecked, and eventually all but Khany and Yoko vanish without trace…

As the desperate pair search the mire forest of colossal abundant verdure, they encounter another centipede locked in mortal combat with a titanic insect. However, the metres-tall (25 at least!) grasshopper-like creature is not only intelligent but telepathic and Yoko refuses to let it be killed by a ravenous monster…

After ending the centipede with a disintegrator, Yoko and Khany befriend the Titan Xunk and learn of its space-faring culture, noting especially that the insectoids have established a base on Vinea with a view to colonial expansion…

With Xunk a willing ally, the humanoids invade the monumental starbase, striving to convince hive director The Great Migrator to release the Vineans and humans it holds and seek a peaceful solution before inevitable interspecies warfare destroys them all…

Sadly, before a diplomatic solution can be reached, the humans have to survive the self-preservation instincts, violent attacks and coldly rational scientific probing of the giant savants who have been examining the earthly exhibits – dead bugs pinned to boards – and reached the logical conclusion that the two-legged beings are masters of insect genocide…

Terse, suspenseful and action-packed, this moody “Big Sky” sci fi thriller combines drama with potent and never-more-timely messages about ecological ethics and the benefits of diversity and cooperation, and, as ever, the greatest advantage of this breathtaking yarn is the astonishingly authentic and staggeringly detailed draughtsmanship and storytelling, which superbly benefits from Leloup’s diligent research and meticulous attention to detail.

A powerful fable and phenomenally engaging romp, The Titans is a life-affirming epic to delight and amaze any lover of wide eyed wonderment, stuffed with twists and revelations, and delivering a powerfully moving denouement.
Original edition © Dupuis, 1978 by Roger Leloup. All rights reserved. English translation 2017 © Cinebook Ltd.

The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer volume 5: The Strange Encounter


By Van Hamme & Benoit, coloured by Madeleine De Mille and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-75-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Dashing Deeds in the Grand Manner… 8/10

Belgian Edgard Félix Pierre Jacobs (1904-1987) was one of the founding fathers of the Continental comics industry. Although his output was relatively modest compared to many of his iconic contemporaries, Jacobs’ landmark serialised life’s work – starring scientific trouble-shooters Professor Philip Mortimer and Captain Francis Blake – practically formed the backbone of the modern action-adventure comic in Europe.

His splendidly adroit, roguish and thoroughly British adventurers were conceived and realised for the very first issue of Le Journal de Tintin in 1946, and quickly became a crucial staple of life for post-war European kids – much as Dan Dare was in 1950s Britain.

After decades of fantastic exploits, the series apparently ended with the eleventh album. The gripping contemporary adventure had been serialised between September 1971 and May 1972 in Tintin, but after the first volume was completed Jacobs simply abandoned his story due to failing health and personal issues. He died on February 20th 1987, never having returned to or completing extended adventure Les 3 formules du professeur Satō.

That concluding volume was only released in March 1990 after veteran cartoonist Bob de Moor was commissioned by the Jacobs family and estate to complete the tale from the grand originator’s pencils and notes. The long-postponed release led to a republishing of all the earlier volumes, followed in 1996 by new adventures from two separate creative teams hired by the Jacobs Studio.

The first was the L’Affaire Francis Blake by Jean Van Hamme & Thierry “Ted” Benoit which settled itself into a comfortably defined and familiar mid-1950s milieu whilst unfolding a rousing tale of espionage and double-dealing.

The tale controversially omitted the fantastic elements of futuristic fiction and fringe science which had characterised Jacobs’ creation, whilst focusing on the suave MI5 officer rather than bombastic, belligerent boffin and inveterate scene-stealer Mortimer…

The same was broadly true for the follow-up release, published in 1999, although references to the space race and alien infestation did much to restore the series’ credentials regarding threats in uncanny circumstances in The Voronov Plot by Yves Sente (Le Janitor, Thorgal) & André Juillard (Bohémond de Saint-Gilles, Masquerouge, Mezek)…

Those charges can’t be levelled against Van Hamme & Benoit’s next outing. L’Étrange Rendez-Vous was released in 2001, the 15th official Blake and Mortimer tome and deftly combining elements of pure science fiction with sinister Cold War machinations and even the uncanny return of a former arch-fiend!

The story begins in October 1777 when British survivors of the Battle of Saratoga are fleeing for their lives. That night an uncanny light show shatters the sky and when it ends Major Lachlan McQuarrie has vanished, never to be seen again…

In Colorado 177 years later, another trio of light beams terrifies ranchers and cattle and investigation reveals the freshly expired and unaged cadaver of a British major in full War of Independence livery…

The case is discussed by Professor Philip Mortimer and his close friend Captain Francis Blake of MI5 as they wing over the Atlantic on separate missions to America. Blake has unspecified business with his US counterparts, whilst the boffin is travelling for a far more personal reason. Tried in absentia for desertion, Lachlan McQuarrie has been the black sheep of the Mortimer family for almost two centuries. Now, having been asked to identify the body recently recovered, the Professor harbours hopes of cleaning a stain off the clan’s escutcheon…

When they split up at the airport Mortimer heads to the SUFOS (Section of UFO Studies) Lab in Kansas whilst Blake heads to Washington DC. The scientist is accosted by rowdily over-friendly physicist Dr. Jeronimo Ramirez whereas the security man’s reception is far more dangerous since mysterious men in dark glasses trail him before targeting him with incredible futuristic weapons in an ambush he barely survives…

Meanwhile in Kansas, the Professor and Section Director Dr. Walter Kaufman convene and confirm with astonishment that the body under discussion is indeed McQuarrie. Born in 1743 he appears to have died of asphyxiation in the last couple of days. He still looks to be 34 years old.

Amongst his possessions is a leather baldric with a hastily inscribed but baffling message – “Yellow King, 8061, Danger, Light, Plutonian, H, Poplar Trees, Temple 1954”. Also found with the body was a strange pair of dark glasses and a metal rod that projects an unknown energy causing unconsciousness…

And thus begins a twist-packed, fast-paced mystery yarn of time-travel invasions, alien incursions, atomic armageddon, nuclear piracy and a bizarre scheme to resurrect and reinstate the most despised despot of the 20th century, with Blake and Mortimer battling separately on two fronts to save not only the precariously imperilled present but also prevent the worst of all possible futures from coming to pass…

Balancing suspenseful drama with blazing action, and fantastic science with scurrilous skulduggery and paranoiac espionage, this wild ride is a splendid tribute to 1950s B-Movie sci fi such as Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers: a devilishly devised conundrum overflowing with period style and grittily terse adventure. The Strange Encounter is another superbly entertaining addition to the captivating canon of the Gentleman Adventurers and one no fan of comics or entertainment should miss.
Original edition © Editions Blake & Mortimer/Studio Jacobs (Dargaud-Lombard S. A.) 2001 by Ted Benoit & Jean Van Hamme. All rights reserved. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.

Spirou and Fantasio volume 13: Z is for Zorglub


By André Franquin, with Jidéhem & Greg, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-362-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Masterful Madcap Mirth and Melodrama… 9/10

Spirou (which translates as both “squirrel” and “mischievous” in the Walloon language) was created by French cartoonist François Robert Velter using his pen-name Rob-Vel for Belgian publisher Éditions Dupuis in direct response to the phenomenal success of Hergé’s Tintin over at rival outfit Casterman.

Soon-to-be legendary weekly comic Spirou launched on April 21st 1938 with a rival red-headed lad as lead feature in an anthology which bears his name to this day.

The eponymous young hero was originally a plucky bellboy/lift operator employed in the Moustique Hotel – a sly reference to the publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique – whose improbable adventures with pet squirrel Spip gradually evolved into high-flying, far-reaching and surreal comedy dramas.

Spirou and his chums have spearheaded the magazine for most of its life, with a phalanx of truly impressive creators carrying on Velter’s work, beginning with his wife Blanche “Davine” Dumoulin who took over the strip when her husband enlisted in 1939. She was assisted by Belgian artist Luc Lafnet until 1943 when Dupuis purchased all rights to the property, after which comic-strip prodigy Joseph Gillain (“Jijé”) took the helm.

In 1946 Jijé’s assistant André Franquin assumed the creative reins, gradually ditching the well-seasoned short gag vignettes in favour of epic adventure serials. He also expanded the cast, introducing a broad band of engaging regulars and eventually creating phenomenally popular magic animal Marsupilami to the mix.

First seen in Spirou et les héritiers in 1952, the elastic-tailed anthropoid eventually spun-off into his own strip series; becoming also a star of screen, plush-toy store, console games and albums. Franquin continued concocting increasingly fantastic tales and spellbinding Spirou sagas until his resignation in 1969.

He was followed by Jean-Claude Fournier who updated the feature over the course of nine stirring adventures which tapped into the rebellious, relevant zeitgeist of the times: offering tales of environmental concern, nuclear energy, drug cartels and repressive regimes.

By the 1980s the series seemed outdated and without direction: three different creative teams alternated on the feature, until it was overhauled and revitalised by Philippe Vandevelde (writing as Tome) and artist Jean-Richard Geurts AKA Janry, who adapted, referenced and in many ways returned to the beloved Franquin era.

Their sterling efforts revived the floundering feature’s fortunes and resulted in fourteen wonderful albums between 1984 and 1998. As the strip diversified into parallel strands (Spirou’s Childhood/Little Spirou and guest-creator specials A Spirou Story By…) the team on the core feature were succeeded by Jean-David Morvan & José-Luis Munuera. In 2010 Yoann & Vehlmann took over the never-ending procession of amazing adventures…

Cinebook have been publishing Spirou & Fantasio’s exploits since 2009, alternating between Tome & Janry’s superb reinterpretations of Franquin and earlier efforts from the great man himself.

André Franquin was born in Etterbeek, Belgium on January 3rd 1924. Drawing from an early age, he only began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943. When war forced the school’s closure a year later, he found work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels. There he met Maurice de Bévère (Lucky Luke creator “Morris”), Pierre Culliford (Peyo, creator of The Smurfs) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945 – with the exception of Peyo – they all signed on with Dupuis and Franquin began a career as a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator; producing covers for Le Moustique and Scouting magazine Plein Jeu.

In those early days Franquin and Morris were tutored by Jijé – the chief illustrator at Spirou. He turned the youngsters and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite AKA Will (Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, Le jardin des désirs) into a smooth creative bullpen known as La bande des quatre or “Gang of Four”.

They later reshaped and revolutionised Belgian comics with their prolific and engaging “Marcinelle school” style of graphic storytelling…

Jijé handed Franquin all responsibilities for the flagship strip part-way through Spirou et la maison préfabriquée, (Spirou #427, June 20th 1946). The new guy ran with it for two decades; enlarging the scope and horizons until it became purely his own. Almost every week fans would meet startling new characters such as staunch comrade and rival Fantasio or crackpot inventor and Merlin of mushroom mechanics the Count of Champignac

Spirou and Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, travelling to dangerously exotic places, uncovering crimes, exploring the fantastic and clashing with a coterie of exotic arch-enemies such as Fantasio’s rascally cousin Zantafio and the star of this particular tale, the maddest of scientists Zorglub.

In a splendid example of good practise, Franquin mentored his own band of apprentice cartoonists during the 1950s. These included Jean Roba (La Ribambelle, Boule et Bill), Jidéhem (Sophie, Starter, Gaston Lagaffe) and Greg (Bruno Brazil, Bernard Prince, Achille Talon, Zig et Puce), who all worked with him on Spirou et Fantasio over the years.

In 1955 contractual conflicts with Dupuis droved Franquin to sign up with rival outfit Casterman for Tintin magazine. Here he collaborated with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the raucous gag strip Modeste et Pompon.

Although Franquin soon patched things up with Dupuis and returned to Spirou – subsequently co-creating Gaston Lagaffe in 1957 (and Cinebook’s latest translated comedy star under the oddly inelegant title of Gomer Goof – and coming soon to a review near you!) Franquin was now contractually obliged to carry on his Tintin work too…

From 1959 on, co-writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem increasingly assisted Franquin but by 1969 the artist had reached his limit and resigned.

His later creations include fantasy series Isabelle, illustration sequence Monsters and bleak adult conceptual series Idées Noires, but his greatest creation – and one he retained all rights to upon his departure – is Marsupilami.

Plagued in later life by bouts of depression, Franquin passed away on January 5th 1997. His legacy remains; a vast body of work which reshaped the landscape of European comics.

Z comme Zorglub was originally serialised in Spirou #1096-1136 between 1959-1960 before being released on the continent in 1961 as the 15th hardcover album.

This outrageous Bond Movie-flavoured sci fi rollercoaster ride begins as an oddly oblivious but extremely sturdy gentleman determinedly delivers a package to the home of our heroes. It looks like a hairdryer, but when vainglorious Fantasio tries it on his own unruly locks, the device plunges him into a coma.

In a panic, Spirou dashes for help and misses the next stage: a mind-controlled Fantasio leaving the house and getting into a remote-controlled car…

It isn’t very well remote-controlled however, and after a calamitous chase through the city crashes into a shop. A little later, baffled, angry and with a badly mangled foot, Fantasio angrily discharges himself from hospital, swearing vengeance on he knows not whom, but the hidden mastermind has not yet finished with the dauntless duo…

Spirou is the next and more successful victim of the mind-warping mystery villain, and the plan quickly becomes clearer: the evil predator is called Zorglub and he doesn’t care about the journalists. He’s simply using the adventurers to get at their inspirational acquaintance: mushroom-mad boffin Count Champignac…

When informed of the situation the sagacious tinkerer is not surprised, he remembers what Zorglub was like when they were at school together…

The enormity of the plot soon becomes clear when megalomaniacal Zorglub confronts his old chum at his mushroom-laden chateau in the generally placid hamlet of Champignac-in-the-Sticks. The wicked mastermind has conceived a grand plan. He will conquer Earth and dominate the solar system but first he requires just a little technical assistance from the Count.

Zorglub cannot believe or accept Champignac’s unflinching refusal…

And thus begins an escalating duel of intellects and war of nerves and inventions as the smug madman tries ploy after ploy to force the Count’s compliance: capturing Fantasio, turning the Champignac-in-the-Sticks citizens into a rampaging mob hungry for blood and even creating an army of mind-warped “zorglmen” to pilot his incredible war machines against the Count and his doughty defenders…

The maniac is, however, caught completely off guard when Spirou, Spip and the Marsupilami enact a bold and rather rash counter offensive with Champignac, just as Zorglub triggers his grand plan and sends his fleet of rockets hurtling towards the Moon!

The end is a sudden, shocking, twist-laden comeuppance but the good guys have not seen the last of Zorglub…

Fast-paced, compellingly convoluted and perfectly blending helter-skelter excitement with keen suspense and outrageous slapstick humour, Z if for Zorglub is a terrific romp to delight devotees of easy-going adventure.

Stuffed with an astounding array of astonishing hi-tech spoofery, riotous chases and gazillions of sight gags and verbal ripostes, this exultant escapade is a fabulous fiesta of angst-free action and thrills. Readily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with beguiling style and seductive élan, this is pure cartoon gold, truly deserving of reaching the widest audience possible.

Buy it for you, get another for the kids and give copies to all your friends…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1961 by Franquin, Jidéhem & Greg. All rights reserved. English translation 2016 © Cinebook Ltd.

Jeff Hawke: The Ambassadors


By Sydney Jordan & Willie Patterson (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-598-9

One the world’s most captivating comics strips is inexplicably almost unknown amongst modern readers, but this appalling state of affairs could so easily be rectified simply by seeking this spiffy deluxe hardback from Titan Books – and its recently reviewed predecessor and falling under the intoxicating spell of some of the wittiest, most intriguing and outright astounding British science fiction ever written or drawn.

In both style and quality these superb tales from the 1960s are the only serious rival to the legendary Dan Dare that Britain has ever produced.

Sydney Jordan began his saga of a thinking man’s Flash Gordon in the Daily Express on February 2nd 1954, writing the first adventures himself. In 1956 his old school friend and associate Willie Patterson moved from Scotland to London to assist with fifth adventure ‘Sanctuary’, and stayed on to script the next one – ‘Unquiet Island’ – whilst sorting out his own career as a freelance scripter for such titles as Amalgamated Press’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, Caroline Baker – Barrister at Law and eventually Fleetway’s War Picture Library series.

Jordan was never comfortable scripting, preferring to plot and draw, but his choice of collaborators was always immaculate – comicbook creator and sci fi novelist Harry Harrison wrote ‘Out of Touch’, (October 10th 1957 – April 5th 1958), Nick Faure and Martin Asbury worked with him in the 1970s and during the feature’s final days Syd hired a couple of talented tykes named Brian Bolland and Paul Neary to assist…

Patterson continued to supplement and assist Jordan intermittently until 1960 when – with fourteenth tale ‘Overlord’ – Patterson assumed the writing duties on a full-time basis, thereby launching the strip’s Golden Age. He remained the wordsmith-in-chief until 1969.

This second superb hardback volume (begging for re-release – or at least revival via a digital edition) opens with another fascinating memoir from Jordan himself before the wonderment begins.

‘Pastmaster’ (August 3rd – October 18th 1961) sees Space Scientist and trouble-shooter Hawke visiting the British Moonbase just as a crazed time-traveller from the future materialises, intent on changing history by transporting the entire complex back 10,000 years, and giving humanity a huge technological jump-start in the race’s development.

A terrific mix of sly comedy and startling action in the inimitable, underplayed style of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the best of John Wyndham, this romp of time-bending cops-&-robbers is a splendid appetiser for ‘The Immortal Toys’ (October 19th – 5th April 1962) which immediately follows.

Here, ancient Hindu jewels in the shape of insects are revealed to be something else entirely, leading Hawke and a rambunctious archaeologist reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s bombastic Professor Challenger to a long-hidden tomb and concrete evidence of alien visitors from Earth’s earliest pre-history.

No fan of Indiana Jones would want to miss this yarn – especially as here all the science, history and stunts are both plausible and possible and there are no nuke-defying fridges to be found anywhere…

‘The Ambassadors’ (6th April 1-13th July) is a winningly sharp, slick social satire with a brace of avian aliens – looking just like owls – arriving in London to offer Earth – free, gratis and for nothing – a device that will do away with work forever.

Instantly politicians and the media descend like vultures and the dry, self-deprecatory comedy of films like The Mouse That Roared resonates beside the wit and influence of Jonathan Swift as events snowball to a conclusion. Patterson could employ humour like a scalpel and, augmented by Jordan’s fantastic artwork and rich, incisive facility with expressions, produced here a gentle satire to rival the best of Private Eye, Tom Lehrer or TW3. If you’re also a devotee of Robert Sheckley or Eric Frank Russell, you’ll delight in how this yarn celebrates and exposes the worst of humanity…

Trust me, you’ll believe an owl can cry…

Exotic high adventure and Big Concept science dominates ‘The Gamesman’ (14th July – September 23rd) as a bored alien employs sub-atomic worlds for role-playing diversions; abducting a giant warrior, a technical wizard, a feisty “princess” and Hawke and his assistant from their respective worlds to play with – and for – him.

Unfortunately, ambition is a universal problem and the extraterrestrial dungeon-master quickly finds himself “played”…

The last tale in this sublime volume is another human-scaled fable touching on contemporary concerns, but although humour is still present in ‘A Test Case’ (September 24th 1962- 2nd January 1963), the over-arching theme is nuclear terror, as a second-rate scientist is granted ultra-advanced atomic knowledge by well-meaning aliens who have no idea how fragile a human mind can be…

The frantic desperation and tension as Hawke and the authorities scour London for a super-nuclear device primed to eradicate them all is chillingly reminiscent of the Boulting Brothers 1950 film classic Seven Days to Noon and makes of this memorable tale a timeless salutary warning…

Maybe we should send a copy to Pyongyang and Mar-a-Lago…

These are stories that appeared in daily episodes and their sardonic grasp of the nature of “the man-in-the-street” make them a delightful slice of social history as well as powerful and pure escapist entertainment.

Jeff Hawke is a rightly revered and respected milestone of graphic achievement almost everywhere except his country of origin. Hopefully there will be further attempts to reprint these graphic gems that will find a more receptive audience, and maybe we’ll even get to see those elusive earlier stories as well for a more receptive audience in the 21st century World of Tomorrow.
© 2008 Express Newspapers Ltd.

Jeff Hawke: Overlord


By Sydney Jordan & Willie Patterson (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-597-2

Have you ever heard of Jeff Hawke? If you’re a hard-science Sci Fi and comics fan, your horizons may just have expanded exponentially…

Sydney Jordan began his saga of the thinking man’s hero in the Daily Express on February 2nd 1954, devising and scripting the first few adventures himself. In 1956 his old school friend and associate Willie Patterson moved from Scotland to London and helped out with fifth adventure ‘Sanctuary’.

He wrote follow-up ‘Unquiet Island’, whilst sorting out his own career as a freelance scripter for such titles as Amalgamated Press’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, Caroline Baker – Barrister at Law and eventually Fleetway’s War Picture Library series.

Patterson continued to supplement and assist the artist intermittently as Jordan was never comfortable scripting; preferring to plot and draw the strips. Another confederate of the time was Harry Harrison, who wrote the ninth Hawke tale ‘Out of Touch’ – running from October 10th 1957 through April 5th 1958.

With the fourteenth tale, Patterson assumed writing chores on a full-time basis and began the strip’s Golden Age. He would remain until 1969.

Presented in Titan’s spiffy Deluxe hardback format, this superb collection of strips from the only serious rival to Dan Dare in either popularity or quality, not just in Britain but in the entire world, offers a tantalising glimpse at a transitional period in Britain and a fondly missed view of a Tomorrow that never was…

‘Overlord’ began on February 10th 1960. Here British Space Scientist Jeff Hawke meets for the first time a character who would become one of the greatest villains in pictorial fiction: Chalcedon, galactic criminal and would-be Overlord of Space.

When an alien ship crashes into the Egyptian desert, it reveals that two huge fleets of spaceships are engaged in a running battle within the Solar System and the Earth is directly in their path. After interminable babble and shilly-shallying at the UN, Hawke convinces the authorities to let him take a party to the warring factions in the hope of diverting them from our poor, endangered world and its potential future as a collateral casualty.

What Hawke finds is not only terrifying and fantastic but, thanks to Jordan’s magical illustration and Patterson’s thrilling, devastatingly wry writing, incredibly sophisticated and very, very funny.

Running until June 20th the saga was followed by a far more traditional and solemn yarn. ‘Survival’ (21st June to December 12th) follows the events of an interplanetary prang that severely injures Hawke’s assistant Mac Maclean.

Repaired – and “improved” by the penitent extraterrestrials who caused the accident – Mac rejoins the Earth crew, but is no longer one of them. Moreover, they are all still marooned on a desolate asteroid with no hope of rescue, and must use all their meagre resources to save themselves. This gritty tale of endurance and integrity was mostly illustrated by fellow Scot Colin Andrew as Jordan was busily preparing art for a proposed Jeff Hawke Sunday page, which tragically never materialised, although that art was recycled as 18th adventure ‘Pastmaster’.

It was a return to Earth and satirical commentary with the next tale. ‘Wondrous Lamp’ (13th September 1960 to 11th March 1961) opens in second century Arabia when an alien survey scout crashed at the feet of wandering merchant Ala Eddin, briefly granting him great powers before his timely comeuppance.

Nearly two thousand years later the ship – which looks a bit like a lamp – precipitates a crisis when its teleportation circuits lead to an invasion by a couple of million of the universe’s toughest warriors…

This brilliantly quirky tale, like all the best science-fiction, is a commentary on its time of creation, and the satirical view of Whitehall bureaucracy and venality, earthbound and pan-galactic, is a wry, dryly cynical delight, as as telling now as it was in the days before the Profumo Affair.

Chalcedon returns for the final tale in this volume. ‘Counsel for The Defence’ (13th March -August 2nd 1961) sees Hawke and Maclean press-ganged into the depths of Intergalactic Jurisprudence as the Overlord, brought to Justice at last, chooses interfering Earthman Hawke as his advocate in the upcoming trial. Naturally the villain has a sinister motive and naturally nothing turns out as anybody planned or expected it to, but the art is breathtaking, the adventure captivating and the humour timeless…

Jeff Hawke is a rightly revered and respected milestone of graphic achievement almost everywhere except its country of origin. Hopefully there will be more attempts to reprint these graphic gems – at least digitally – that will find a more receptive audience, and maybe we’ll even get to see those elusive earlier stories as well.
© 2007 Express Newspapers Ltd.

Valerian – The Complete Collection volume 3


By J.-C. Méziéres & P. Christin with colours by E. Tranlé and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-357-4

Valérian: Spatio-Temporal Agent blasted off in 1967 in the November 9th edition of Pilote (#420) in an introductory tale which ran until February 15th 1968. Although a huge hit, graphic album compilations only began with second tale – The City of Shifting Waters – as the creators concerned considered the first yarn more a work-in-progress and not quite up to their preferred standard.

You can judge for yourself, by getting hold of the first hardcover compilation volume in this cinematic tie-in sequence…

The groundbreaking series followed a Franco-Belgian mini-boom in science fiction comics triggered by Jean-Claude Forest’s 1962 creation Barbarella. Other notable hits of the era include Greg & Eddy Paape’s Luc Orient and the cosmic excursions of Philippe Druillet’s Lone Sloane, which all – with Valérian – boosted public reception of the genre and led in 1977 to the creation of dedicated fantasy periodical Métal Hurlant.

Valérian and Laureline (as the series became) was a light-hearted, wildly imaginative time-travel adventure-romp (a bit like Doctor Who, but not really so much), drenched in wry, satirical, humanist and political social commentary, starring (at least at first) an affable, capably unimaginative by-the-book cop tasked with protecting universal time-lines and counteracting paradoxes caused by casual, incautious or criminally minded chrononauts…

In the course of that debut escapade Valerian picked up fiery, far smarter Laureline, who originated in the 11th century before becoming our hero’s assistant and deputy. The indomitable lass was hot-housed as a Spatio-Temporal operative and soon accompanying Val on missions throughout time and space… luckily for him…

Valérian adventures were initially serialised in weekly Pilote until the conclusion of 13th mission The Rage of Hypsis (January 1st-September 1st 1985) after which the mind-bending exploits simply premiered as all-new, complete graphic novels, until the saga ended in 2010.

(One clarifying note: in the canon “Hypsis” is counted as the twelfth tale, due to the collected albums being numbered from The City of Shifting Waters. When Bad Dreams was finally released in a collected edition in 1983 it was designated number #0).

This terrific third oversized hardback compendium – released to capitalise on the summer’s spectacular movie adaptation from Luc Besson, and also available as an eBook – once again boasts a wealth of text features, including the final chapter of ‘Interview Luc Besson, Jean-Claude Méziéres and Pierre Christin’.

Stan Barets highlights the creative highpoints and methodology of illustrator Méziéres in his essay Méziéres, or the Art of Bande Dessinee’ with plenty of epic examples, garnishing those delights with sidebar ‘Méziéres Seen by Christin’ before throwing a well-deserved spotlight on ‘Évelyne. Tranlé: The One by Whom the Colour Comes’…

‘And Meanwhile’ then explores the artist’s mid-1970s other strips: specifically, semi-autobiographical ‘Mon Ameriqué à moi’ (Pilote, 1974) and sci fi shorts ‘Les Baroudeurs de l’espace’ (1976) and ‘Retour à la nature’ (1979), both seen in aforementioned Métal Hurlant. This is backed up by Méziéres’ own photo-feature reminisces of his 18 months living the American dream as a cattleman in Montana, Wyoming and Utah as recounted in ‘Far West 67 – The Adventures of a Parisian Cowboy’, before ‘The Stories in this Book’ provides context and a taste of things to come in the stories that follow…

Once more re-presenting a trio of classic formative fantasy-fests, the fabulous fun resumes here with Ambassador of the Shadows originally from Pilote July to October 1975.

The craftily subversive story finds the wide-ranging Spatio-Temporal agents assigned to an arrogantly obnoxious Terran diplomat transferring to the cosmically cosmopolitan space edifice known as Point Central.

Over eons many races and species have converged there for commerce and social intercourse by the simple expedient of bolting their own prefabricated and constructed segment to the colossal, continually expanding higgledy-piggledy whole…

With no central authority, different species take turns presiding over the amassed multitudes via the immense Hall of Screens. However, no decent species would ever physically leave its own tailor-made environment…

And now it is Earth’s turn to take the lead, but, as they vector in for landing, the pompous martinet they are escorting informs Valerian and Laureline of a slight modification in their orders. They are still to act as the Ambassador’s bodyguards but must stay extra-vigilant as Earth is going to uses its term in office to bring “order and discipline” to the lackadaisical way the universe is run.

Think of Britain in the months leading up to the Brexit referendum, if you like…

The assembled races will be invited to join a federation run – and policed – by Earth …and just to make sure, there’s a Terran space fleet of 10, 000 warships manoeuvring just out of Point Central’s sensor range…

Laureline is outraged, but like Valerian can do nothing except acquiesce. For her pains, she is put in charge of the mission’s funds: a Grumpy Transmuter from Bluxte, which can mass-excrete any currency or object of trade or barter forcibly swallowed by its always-scowling other end…

All kitted-out, the human trio and living cash-machine spacewalk to Point Central, but before the mission can begin an alien ambush occurs. Mystery warriors using Xoxos cocoon guns inundate the attending officers and dignitaries and only Valerian escapes plastic entombment.

As the raiders make off with the Ambassador, the Spatio-Temporal Agent gives chase but is easily captured and dragged off too…

By the time Laureline breaks loose they are long gone and she is left to pick up the pieces with stiff-necked human bureaucrat Colonel Diol, Under-Chief of Protocol. Determined but with little to go on, Laureline is cautiously optimistic when a trio of aliens come knocking. Ignoring Diol’s protest at the shocking impropriety, she invites the scurrilous Shingouz into the Earth Segment. They are mercenary information-brokers and claim to have been invited by the Ambassador before his abduction…

From them – and thanks to the discomforted efforts of the Grumpy Transmuter – she purchases a few hints and allegations as well as a map of Point Central which might lead to Earth’s secret allies in the cosmopolis…

With the constantly bleating Diol reluctantly in tow, Laureline undertakes a quest through the underbelly of the station, seeing for the first time the mute but ubiquitous Zools: a much-ignored under-race who have been maintaining Point Central for millennia.

The Earthlings’ perambulations take them to the centaur-like Kamuniks: barbaric feudal mercenaries allied to Galaxity and appreciative of humanity’s martial prowess. Over a lavish feast – liberally augmented by another painfully exotic payment courtesy of the overworked Transmuter – the warriors steer Laureline towards potential suspects the Bagulins: low grade muscle-for-hire who frequent the tawdry red-light sector run by The Suffuss

Despite Diol’s nigh-apoplexy, the adamant and inquisitive Laureline follows the trail to the sin segment where she experiences the particular talents of the hosts: amorphous shapeshifters who can make any carnal dream literally come true.

Well into overtime now, the exhausted Grumpy buys the help of one Suffuss who smuggles the junior Spatio-Temporal operative into a Bagulin party and the next link in the chain…

And so it goes as, with occasional prodding from the Shingouz, Laureline gets ever closer to the enigmatic beings truly pulling all the strings on Point Central whilst elsewhere Valerian frees the Ambassador from bizarre, ethereal captivity only to find the doctrinaire war-maker is undergoing a peculiar change of heart.

Seemingly landing their deserted ship on a paradisiacal “world with no name” they bask in an idyllic paradise and converse with noble primitives who have an uncanny aura of great power.

These beings built the original section of Point Central – and ruled the universe – before withdrawing from mundane material affairs, but they still maintain a watch over their creation from the shadows and won’t allow any race or species to dominate or conquer their pan-galactic melting pot of space…

In a more physical portion of reality, Laureline follows her final clues to reach the strange central area where Val and the Ambassador lie dazed and confused. By the time they all return to the Earth Segment a few major changes have taken place in the governance of the immense star station but, oddly, the Ambassador doesn’t seem to mind…

Socially aware and ethically crusading, this is one of the smartest, most beguilingly cynical comics tales to catch the 1970s wave of political awareness and still ranks amongst the very best to explore the social aspects and iniquities of colonialism.

And, of course, there’s the usual glorious blend of astounding action, imaginative imagery and fantastic creatures to leaven the morality play with space-operatic fun-filled, visually breathtaking and stunningly ingenious wide-eyed wonderment…

On the False Earths first ran in the newly monthly Pilote (issues #M31 to M34, from 30th November 1976 to March 1st 1977) before being collected as seventh album Sur le terres truquées – spectacularly reinforcing the “Spatio-Temporal” aspect of our heroes through a beguiling cosmic conundrum…

The mission starts in frantic full flow as a very familiar figure fights valiantly and dies ignominiously during a pitched battle in 19th century Colonial India. He doesn’t go easy, however, using his ray gun to disintegrate an attacking tiger before beaming back crucial data stolen from a sinister maharaja equipped with technology he simply shouldn’t have…

In deep space, distraught Laureline sees her man die, but her protests are ignored by heartless, man-despising historian Jadna. The scholar cares little for the oafish warrior undertaking a top-secret mission for her. After all, there’s plenty more where he came from…

That’s literally the case as, a little later, another Valerian infiltrates Victorian London Society; breaking into a swank Gentleman’s Club and crashing a meeting of the Empire’s greatest movers and shakers. Once again, these potentates are communicating with a hidden high-tech master, and once again the star-cop expires trying to determine the mastermind’s exact whereabouts.

He resurfaces in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1895 where enquiries arouse the wrath of the local tongs. This Valerian perishes after noting an increasing number of anachronisms – such as an Easy Rider on a chopped Harley Davidson motorbike…

From their secure vantage point on a vast satellite, Jadna and Laureline see their agent expire in another artificially constructed historical microcosm. The callous historian ruminates on their mystery opponent: a being capable of reshaping matter, crafting perfect little worlds and recreating human eras with the skill of a master artist whilst remaining utterly hidden from all their probing searches.

If the enigma hadn’t been detected rifling through Terran time zones – presumably for research – no one would even know of its existence…

The enigmatic creator’s simulacrums are progressively advancing through brutal yet always significant periods of Terran history, but each visit by Valerian brings the investigation team closer to the mysterious maker’s actual location. Soon our hero is cautiously exploring a slice of Belle Époque France, but his enigmatic quarry is cognizant of the constant intrusions and has taken a few liberties with verisimilitude.

Waiting in ambush for Valerian are American gangsters with Tommyguns…

Rubbed out before he can even begin, Valerian is swiftly replaced by another short-lived duplicate whilst the original and genuine lies comatose in a clone-command tank. This last rapid substitution, however, finally allows the watching women to zero in on their target’s true location and they instantly shift their ship through the Universal Continua to reach the incredible being’s astounding base… and none too soon, as Jadna posits that the creature’s next construction will most likely be World War I…

She is proved painfully correct. As they ready themselves for a confrontation with the maker, Laureline and the scholar realise that the astral citadel is a perfect replica of a Great War battlefield. Seizing the initiative, Jadna activates and musters all the remaining clones – as well as the original real McCoy – programming them to play the marauding “boche” in an apocalyptic re-enactment simply as a diversion to allow her to get to the impossibly powerful being she so admires…

Caught up in the incomprehensible slaughter and its bizarre aftermath the Spatio-Temporal agents can only watch in astonishment as Jadna and the seemingly all-powerful artisan discover just how much they have in common…

Trenchant, barbed, socially aware and ethically crusading, Valerian and Laureline stories never allow message to overshadow fun and wonder and On the False Earths is one of the sharpest, most intriguing sagas Méziéres & Christin ever concocted, complete with a superb twist in the tale to delight and confound even the most experienced starfarer…

Wrapping up the interstellar ultra-cosmic antics is Heroes of the Equinox: a sparkling, over-the-top spoof of superheroes and political ideologies which also found time and space to take a good-natured, gentle poke at the eternal battle of the sexes. It was originally serialised in monthly Pilote #M47 – M50 (covering March 21st to June 27th 1978) before being collected later that year as eighth album Les héros de l’équinoxe.

Spectacularly designed and inspirationally conceived, the story starts as a quartet of vastly disparate planetary champions depart for the distant and distressed world of Simlane, where an ancient and cultivated civilisation is experiencing a uniquely tragic crisis…

The heroes comprise three dedicated nigh-fanatical supermen, whilst Galaxity – far more concerned with courting public opinion than actually helping – have packed off a handy and presently unoccupied Spatio-Temporal agent named Valerian, just to show willing…

With Laureline mocking him for the entire trip, Earth’s Prime Champion touches down on Simlane to be greeted by a crowd of effusive doddering oldsters from a glorious city of once-magnificent but now crumbling edifices all with an incredible story to tell.

The inhabitants of the derelict tourist trap are uniformly old, sterile and desperately in need of a new generation of children to repopulate the world, but their manner of achieving their goal is unique. For the lifetime of their civilisation, every hundred equinoxes the best and bravest males of Simlane venture to isolated Filine, Island of Children in a fierce and often deadly competition. The winner then somehow spawns a whole new generation in incredibly quick time, who sail back on little boats to re-people the world.

That didn’t go entirely according to plan last time, so the planetary leaders have invited four prime specimens from other worlds to do the necessary this time – much to the anger and dismay of a creaky host of crotchety, doddering indigenous elderly would-be sire-heroes…

At the packed but painfully weathered Great Theatre the assembled geriatrics are treated to a destructive floor show as the brazen alien warriors display their prowess.

Bombastic Irmgaal of Krahan is a godlike superman wielding a flaming sword whilst proletarian technological wonder Ortzog of worker’s paradise Boorny reveals the power of a united people through his blazing, flailing chains. Mystic nature boy Blimflim of elysian, Arcadian Malamum calmly displays the gentle irresistibility of the spirit harnessed to willpower. Each couldn’t be more different yet the result of each display is catastrophic destruction.

When eager eyes turn to Galaxity’s representative, Valerian simply shoots a chip off a distant stone cornice with his blaster… to tumultuous disinterest…

Dwarfed by Herculean alien supermen, he shambles off to prepare for the great contest and dawn finds him with his fellow contestants, ready to brave the stormy skies for the grand prize and glory…

This is one of the most visually extravagant and exuberant of all the albums, with a huge proportion of the book dedicated to the fantastic foursome overcoming their particular challenges and monstrous foes in astounding demonstrations of bravura puissance and awesome might… well, three of them anyway. The earthman’s travails are generally nasty, dirty, smelly and ingloriously dangerous…

Eventually however, all the warriors prove themselves a credit to their particular lineage and system before facing one final test. It’s in the form of a simple question: “If you sired the next generation how do you envision their future?”

Each strange visitor propounds a glorious agenda of expansion according to the customs and principles of his own culture but it’s the rather diffident and lacklustre vision of the Terran slacker that wins the approval of the incredible being who is the eternal mother of Simlane’s repopulation…

When the trio of failed supermen wash up on the shores of the city, the people realise who has fathered their soon-to-arrive new sons and daughters and patiently wait for the equinox tide to bring them over.

Laureline, horrified to discover that each successful father is never seen again, quickly sails to the Island of Children and navigates with comparative ease the trials which so tested the wonder men. She arrives at the misty citadel atop Filine in time to see an army of disturbingly familiar-looking toddlers tumble into little sailboats…

Broaching the idyllic paradise further she finally meets the Great Mother and sees what the breeding process has made of her reprehensible, sleazy, typically male partner…

Reaching an accommodation with the gargantuan progenitor, Laureline negotiates the release of her partner and soon they are winging home to Terra, with him having to listen to just what she thinks of him whilst praying Galaxity’s medical experts can make him again the man he so recently was…

Sharp, witty and deliciously over-the-top, this tale is a wry delight, spoofing with equanimity human drives, notions of heroism and political and philosophical trendiness with devastating effect.

Whether super-heroic fascism, totalitarian socialism or even the woolly mis-educated, miscomprehensions of new age eco-fundamentalists who think aromatherapy cures broken legs or that their kids are too precious to be vaccinated and too special to share herd immunity, no sacred cow is left soundly unkicked…

However, no matter how trenchant, barbed, culturally aware and ethically crusading, Valerian and Laureline stories never allow message to overshadow fun and wonder and Heroes of the Equinox is one of the most entertaining sagas Méziéres & Christin ever concocted, complete with a superb sting in the tale…

These stories are some of the most influential comics in the world, timeless, thrilling, funny and just too good to be ignored. The time is now and there’s no space large enough to contain the sheer joy of Valerian and Laureline, so go see what all the fuss is about right now…
© Dargaud Paris, 2016 Christin, Méziéres & Tran-Lệ. All rights reserved. English translation © 2016 Cinebook Ltd.

Danielle


By John M. Burns & Richard O’Neill (First American Edition Series)
ISBN: 0-912277-23-8

If you indulge in the wonders of comics for any appreciable length of time you’ll increasingly find yourself becoming something of an apologist.

“I just like the artwork.”
“They’ll be worth money one day.”
“It’s a metaphor for…”

You get the idea. I often end up having to explain away situations and depictions that might seem (or actually are) racist, sexist or – worst of all – painfully naff, and at first glance, this book and its contents might easily confirm most if not all of those charges.

But I’m not apologising and I urge you not to rush to judgements.

The prime reason for this is the illustrator. John M. Burns is an international star of comics but still remains largely unsung in his own country – which, considering the sheer breadth and quality of his output, is possibly the greatest compliment I can pay him. Britain has always been painfully ignorant of its comics heroes…

Born in Essex in 1938 he apprenticed at Doris White’s Link Studios in 1954 before moving on to Amalgamated Press where he worked on “Young Juvenile” titles such as Junior Express, Girl’s Crystal and School Friend, before graduating to the luxurious photogravure mainstream comic Express Weekly a year later.

After National Service (we used to conscript our young men for two years’ military training in those hazy Cold War days – just in case…) which found him in the RAF and sent to Singapore, he returned to comics in 1961, adapting Wuthering Heights for DC Thomson’s Diana and drew Kelpie in Odhams’ revolutionary weekly Wham!

Spreading himself far and wide, Burns followed Ron Embleton on Wrath of the Gods in Boy’s World and Eagle (scripted by Michael Moorcock – now there’s a strip crying out for collection), as well as The Fists of Danny Pike, Dolebusters and Roving Reporter. He was part of the inimitable and beloved artist stables working on the Gerry Anderson licensed titles TV Century 21 and its sister magazines – and particularly impressive on Space Family Robinson in Lady Penelope.

From 1965 he worked increasingly for newspapers, beginning with The Tuckwells in The Sunday Citizen, The Seekers for The Daily Sketch (1966-1971), Danielle in the Evening News (1973-74), George and Lynne (1977-1984) and The Royals – the official strip biography of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer (1981) in The Sun. He also too-briefly illustrated Modesty Blaise in The Evening Standard. You can see for yourself by picking up Modesty Blaise: Yellowstone Booty

He revived and worked on the legendary Jane for the Daily Mirror (between 1985 and 1989) and has intermittently worked on many others. He was selected to conclude Jim Edgar & Tony Weare’s incredible, immaculate long-running western Matt Marriot in 1977.

Burns’ TV-related work is magnificent. He has worked on licensed series for Look-In, TV Action and Countdown, illuminating the print adventures of UFO, Mission Impossible, The Tomorrow People, Bionic Woman, How the West Was Won and others. For Germany, he drew the strip Julia (also known as Lilli) and worked with Martin Lodewijk on fantasy series Zetari before in 1980 beginning his long association with infamous British science fiction comic 2000AD, where he has worked on Judge Dredd, Trueno, Nikolai Dante and his own Bendatti Vendetta.

He is also a regular adaptor of significant literary masterpieces, having already completed pictorial versions of Lorna Doone, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

So, what about Danielle?

1973 was the height of the much-maligned and deliberately misunderstood “Sexual Revolution”, with women demanding equal rights, equal pay and fair treatment (and isn’t it marvellous that they’ve got all those things now?). Contraception was becoming readily available, apparently everywhere bras were burning, and men thought that sex wasn’t going to be so expensive anymore.

It was a reactionary Male Chauvinist Pig’s Dream, and unrepentant, old-school stand-up comedians were having a field day.

I’m not sure how many of the various editors of daily and Sunday papers were supporters of the Women’s Liberation movement, or whether they simply found a great excuse to turn the industry’s long tradition of naked birds on the comics pages into something at least nominally hip, political and contemporary. I do know that an awful lot of new features appeared, with strident (if not actually liberated), forceful women who nevertheless still had hunky take-charge boyfriends in tow… but not for very long.

One of them was Danielle: at first glance an all-purpose fantasy saga in the sound tradition of Garth, but as the saga unfolded, one that developed beyond its superficial beginnings. The strip launched on Monday, September 17th 1973, introducing a willowy blonde heroine: a rebel against an oppressive regime, and one whose railing against the system resulted in her banishment.

Her crime? She had loved a man.

Danielle had returned to the planet Janus to overthrow her own mother, whose matriarchal dictatorship had kept men as subservient sex-slaves, and to rescue her truly beloved Zabal from the State Brothel he had been condemned to (stop sniggering).

Reversing many of the cherished trappings of Flash Gordon, Danielle fought monsters and militarists before she and Zabal escaped, using a magical Pendant of Power to leap into the chaos of time and space. From then on, the pair roamed the universe like buff, unclad Doctor Who extras, first landing in futuristic Britain in ‘Master Plan’ where the previous situation is utterly reversed and women have been drugged into subservient submission whilst a highly commercialised male hegemony rules virtually unopposed.

When Zabal’s head is turned by freedom and testosterone-soaked male dominance, he betrays Danielle until she unites with the all-female resistance and helps overthrow the Masters. Reunited – but not quite as trusting anymore – the nomadic lovers are then whisked by the Pendant to ‘The Dump’: an intergalactic penal colony where she is the only woman, before the space eddies tear them apart and Zabal is lost…

In ‘Dark Genesis’ Danielle lands on a desolate world where rejects from a super-alien’s genetics program attempt to save her from becoming their creator’s latest stock-breeder. After defeating the alien with old-fashioned common sense, the hapless voyager then materialises at a ‘Black Sabbath’ in 1660 Edinburgh.

Mistaken for a demon, she finds herself at the mercy of Puritan witch-finders and corrupt, debased officers of Cromwell’s New Model Army…

Appalling as these summations perhaps sound, Richard O’Neill’s scripts are a wry and canny counterpoint to the strident zeitgeist of the times. Brought in to overhaul Burns’ initial proposal, the ex-TV 21 editor imposed a studied balance to what was always intended to be a slight, escapist, lad-ish girly-strip with lots of ogle-worthy nudity and loads of fantasy action.

With deliberate overtones of H.P. Lovecraft and Philip José Farmer, the military historian added a knowing lightness to the proceedings which – married to Burn’s imagination and incredible monochrome line-work – resulted in a delight of self-deprecatory storytelling which is far, far from the exploitative, pandering lip-service it might first seem to be.

Nevertheless, the sterling efforts couldn’t save the feature. ‘Superstar’, the last story in this slim black and white, impossibly scarce volume, deviates from the established format as Danielle lands on a Hollywood film set in 1930.

Quickly co-opted by a zany movie director, she becomes a reluctant rising star before being reunited with Zabal who has been marooned on Earth for decades. Roaring along at a rather brisk pace and played strictly for gentle laughs, this final tale abruptly ended Danielle’s cosmic capers on September 14th 1974. Not included in this book is her 54-day revival from 1978, but I suspect that’s for the best…

Heavy-handed at first glance, but stunningly beautiful to look upon; this is a strip with plenty to say about the times it came from and perhaps one that might finally find a welcoming readership in these oh-so-perfect modern days, if only someone can resurrect and reprint it.
© 1984 Associated Newspapers Group. All rights reserved.