Beyond Mars volumes 1 & 2


By Jack Williamson & Lee Elias (Blackthorne)
ISBNs: 0-932629-82-2 and 0-932629-84-9

The 1950s was the last great flourish of the American newspaper strip. Always intended as a way of boosting circulation and encouraging consumer loyalty, the inexorable rise of television and spiraling costs of publishing gradually ate away at all but the most popular cartoon features as the decade ended, but the earlier years saw a final, valiant, huge burst of creativity and variety as syndicates looked for ways to recapture popular attention whilst editors increasingly sought ways to maximise every fraction of an inch for paying ads, not expensive cost-centers.

No matter how well produced, imaginative or entertaining, if strips couldn’t increase sales, they weren’t welcome…

The decade also saw a fantastic social change as a commercial boom and technological progress created a new type of visionary consumer – one fired up by the realization that America was Top Dog in the world. The optimistic escapism offered by the stars above led to a reawakening in the moribund science fiction genre, with a basic introduction for the hoi-polloi offered by the burgeoning television industry through such pioneering if clunky programmes as Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and movies from visionaries like Robert Wise (Day the Earth Stood Still) and George Pal (Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, War of the Worlds and others).

For kids of all ages conceptual fancies were being tickled by a host of fantastic comicbooks ranging from the blackly satirical Weird Science Fantasy to the welcoming and openly enthusiastic Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space. In the digest magazines master imagineers such as Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke, Sturgeon, Dick, Bester and Farmer were transforming the genre from youthful melodrama into a highly philosophical art form…

With Flying Saucers in the skies, Reds under the Beds and adventure in mind, the Worlds of Tomorrow were common currency and newspaper strips wanted more. Established features such as Buck Rogers, Brick Bradford and Flash Gordon were no longer enough and editors wanted new fresh visions to draw in a wider public, not just the steady fans who already bought papers for their favourite futurian.

John Stewart “Jack” Williamson was one of the first superstars of American science fiction, a rurally raised, self-taught author with more than 50 books, 18 short story collections and even volumes of criticism and non-fiction to his much lauded name. Born in Arizona in 1908, he was raised in Texas and sold his first story in 1928 to Amazing Stories.

Williamson created a number of legendary serials such as the Legion of Space, The Humanoids and the Legion of Time and is credited by the OED with inventing “terraforming” and “genetic engineering.” He was one of the first literary investigators of anti-matter with his Seetee novels.

“See Tee” or “Contra Terrene Matter” is at the heart of the strip under discussion here, collected in two oversized black and white paperback volumes by Blackthorne in 1987 as part of their Comic Strips Preserves project.

A damning newspaper review of Seetee Ship, Williamson’s second novel in that sequence, claimed the book was only marginally better than a comic strip, prompting the editor of a rival paper to engage Williamson and artist Lee Elias to produce a Sunday page based in the same universe as the books. With Dick Tracy maestro Chester Gould as adviser for the early days, the strip ran exclusively in the New York Daily News from 17th February 1952 to May 13th 1955, a glorious high-tech, high-adventure romp based around Brooklyn Rock in 2191AD, a commercial space station bored into one of the rocky chunks drifting in the asteroid belt ‘Beyond Mars’ -the ideal rough-and-tumble story venue on the ultimate frontier of human experience.

The nominal star is Spatial Engineer Mike Flint, an independent charter-pilot based on the rock (although as the series progressed a progression of sexy women and inspired extraterrestrial sidekicks increasingly stole the show) and the first tale begins with Flint selling his services to pluck Becky Starke who has come to the edge of humanity in search of her missing father, although she cloaks that in the quest for a city-sized solid diamond asteroid floating in the deadly “Meteor Drift”…

Soon Mike and his lisping ophidian Venusian partner Tham Thmith are contending with Brooklyn Rock’s crime boss Frosty Karth, a fantastic raider dubbed the Black Martian, a super-criminal named Cobra and even more unearthly menaces in a stirring tale of interplanetary drug dealers, lost cities, dead civilisations and a fantastic mutation – a semi-feral terran boy who can breathe vacuum and rides deep space on a meteor!

With that tale barely concluded the crew, including the rambunctious space boy Jimikin, fell deep into another mystery – Brooklyn Rock was missing!

However Flint had no time to grieve for the family and friends left behind as he intercepted an inbound star-liner and discovered an old flame and a smooth thug bound for the now-missing space station – moreover, one of them knew where it went…

Unknown to even this mastermind, the Rock, stolen by pirates, was out of control and drifting to ultimate destruction in a debris field, but no sooner wais that crisis averted than the heroes became entangled in a “First Contact” situation with an ancient alien from beyond Known Space – or at least with the devilish devices he/she/it left running…

With Book 1 ending on that dramatic cliffhanger, the concluding chronicle opens with Mike, Tham, Jimikin and curvaceous Xeno-archeologist Victoria Snow narrowly escaping alien vivisection from the robotic relics before the tragic, inevitable conclusion.

Snow’s brother Blackie was a fast-talking ne’er-do-well and when he showed up old enemy Karth took the opportunity to try and settle some old scores, leading Flint into a deadly trap on Ceres and a slick saga of genetic manipulation, eugenic supermen and bonanza wealth…

Meanwhile on an interplanetary liner, a new cast member “resurfaced” in the shape of crusty old coot and Mercurian ore prospector Fireproof Jones, just in time to help Flint and Sam mine their newfound riches. As ever Karth was looking to make trouble for the heroes but he invited some for himself when his young daughter suddenly turned up on the Rock accompanied by the gold-digging Pamela Prim. And suddenly the murderous raider Black Martian returned to plague the honest pioneers of the Brooklyn frontier…

Glamour model Trish O’Keefe caused a completely different kind of trouble when she arrived looking for her fiancé, but Tack McTeak wasn’t the humble space-doctor he claimed to be but a cerebrally augmented criminal mastermind, and his plans to snatch the biggest prize in space led to a sequence of stunning thrills and astonishing action.

The scene switched to Earth as the cast visited “civilisation” and found it far from hospitable, so the chance to battle manufactured monsters and the mysterious Dr. Moray on his private tropical island was something of a welcome, if mixed, blessing.

By this time the writing must have been on the wall, as the strip had been reduced to a half page per week, but the creators had clearly decided to go out in style. The sheer bravura spectacle was magnificently ramped up and all the tools of the science fiction trade were utilized to ensure the strip went out with a bang. Moray’s plans were catastrophically realised when the villain used an anti-gravity bomb to steal Manhattan, turning it into a deadly Sword of Damocles in the sky…

The series ended when the paper changed its editorial policy and dropped all comics from its pages. The decision was clearly a quick one as the saga finished satisfactorily but quite abruptly on Sunday 13th March 1955.

Beyond Mars is a breathtaking lost gem from two master craftsmen that successfully blended the wonders of science and the rollicking thrills of Westerns with broad, light-hearted humour to produce a mind-boggling, eye-popping, exuberantly wholesome family space-opera the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again until Star Wars put the fun back into futuristic fiction. This is a saga crying out for a definitive collectors edition.
© 1987 Lee Elias Jack & Williamson. Lee Elias. All rights reserved.

The Last Days of American Crime


By Rick Remender & Greg Tocchini (Radical Books)
ISBN: 978-0-935417-06-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for thrillseekers needing to get that pulse pounding again…  8/10

If you’re in need of a sobering dose of deeply disturbing hyper-reality then I thoroughly recommend this brilliant, extremely adult, cross-genre thriller which posits a fascinating premise, starts the countdown clock ticking down and delivers a killer kick to finish the rollercoaster ride.

America is a mess and the government need to take drastic action if they want to keep control. Terrorism and crime are rampant but luckily the boffins have come up with a radical solution: the American Peace Initiative – a broadcast frequency that utterly suppresses the ability to knowingly break a law. Any law.

Taking the radical decision to make all lawbreaking impossible (which is the only logical flaw I can find: what politician is ever going to make bribery obsolete?), and fearing a social meltdown in the run-up to going live, the powers-that-be also set up a distraction in the form of a complete switch-over from a cash economy to universal electronic transfers – an unstealable digital currency.

From D-Day on citizens will top up pay-cards from charging machines which are tamper-proof and impossible to hack and from that day every transaction in the USA will be recorded and traceable and every illegal purchase – drugs, guns, illicit sex – impossible…

In the weeks before the big switchover there is a huge exodus for the borders of Canada and Mexico and a total breakdown of law and order in the country’s most degenerate areas, but generally everybody seems resigned to the schemes – even when the anti-lawbreaking API broadcast plan is leaked…

With the world about to change forever low-rent career criminal Graham Bricke spots a chance for the biggest score of his life. He’s working as a security guard in one of the banks that will house the new currency technology and has an unmissable opportunity to steal one of the charging machines before the system is locked down forever. Unfortunately because of the API broadcast he has to pull off the caper before it becomes impossible to even contemplate theft…

In a hurry and needing specialised help Bricke and his silent partner are forced to hire a crew of strangers, but as the days dwindle he realises that safecracker Kevin Cash and hacker Shelby Dupree are trouble: a murderous psychotic and crazed libidinous wild-child with daddy issues. If only he can work out which is which…

Moreover there are other distractions. Graham is being hunted by a manic gangbanger and his posse and there’s a good chance at least one of his team are planning a double-cross…

This is a fascinating idea carried out with dizzying style and astounding panache: smart, sexy, unbelievably violent and utterly compelling, combining all the brooding energy of The Wire, the unremitting tension of 24’s first season and the off-centre charm of Reservoir Dogs. It has blockbuster movie written all over it – which is no surprise as Remender’s previous efforts include comicbooks, like All-New Atom , X-Men and Punisher, computer games Dead Space and Bulletstorm and the animated feature Titan A.E.

Cannily concocted by Rick Remender and stunningly executed in dazzling colour by Greg Tocchini, this economical paperback also includes an extensive sketch and design section, an interview with the author and a lavish cover gallery which includes variants from Alex Malleev, Jerome Opeña & Matt Wilson and Joel dos Reis Viegas.

Short. Sharp. Shocking. Let’s hope they can do it again…

© 2010 Rick Remender and Radical Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.

Networked: Carabella on the Run


By Gerard Jones & Mark Badger (Privacy Activism/NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-586-3

Comics are an immensely effective teaching tool and not just for youngsters, either. The organisation Privacy Activism is a non-profit organisation which seeks to educate and inform the public about online safety, democratic principles in a global commercial environment and personal information protection through a variety of methods and after a couple of video game projects has worked here with comicbook creators Gerard Jones and Mark Badger and publisher NBM to produce a graphic novel starring their proprietary character Carabella; a blue-skinned teenaged girl from someplace stranger and nastier than here…

In Networked: Carabella on the Run the defensive, secretive lass is starting college and horrified at how easily her anonymity can be destroyed by even well-meaning friends through online social networking and messaging. Even her picture is soon being beamed all over the planet – all without her permission or knowledge.

Still, it’s not as if she has anything to hide, is it?

She soon strikes up a tentative relationship with Nick, an engineering student who has invented shoes which can film and monitor the wearer’s movement’s, record and broadcast physical responses and generally turn each owner into a walking market research report. Of course that wasn’t his intention – he just though it would be cool for friends to share their lives with others…

Unfortunately where Carabella comes from such information has long been used to oversee, segregate, program and control the population, so when hunters seeking her return align themselves with aggressive venture capitalists and sections of the Government she realises that the privacy, liberty and choices available to her and her friends might become just as obsolete as on her own world…

Combining a sensible, well-reasoned argument for common sense and practical personal protection with solid adventure-thriller plotting and the requisite amount of romance, action and fun, this is a great read with an important message that doesn’t overload the necessity to keep things interesting and enjoyable.

Most of Networked is available online in a slightly altered form if you want a peek, and the printed form is a perfect and potentially reassuring gift for parents to buy their kids alongside the mobile-phones and think-pods they’ll be clamouring for this year.

© 2010 Privacy Activism.

Ronin


By Frank Miller with Lynn Varley (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-930289-21-8

I always feel a bit daft reviewing stuff that everyone already knows about, but I’m constantly being reminded that even though somebody talks about the classics of our art-form it doesn’t mean they actually have read them. Moreover, the great thing about comics is that they’re meant to be re-experienced, over and over and over…

So here’s a quick look at Frank Miller’s breakthrough epic: a canny blending of East and West, ancient and futuristic, mythical and technological, all used to scrutinise the unchanging nature of human passion, readily available in a number of paperback versions and even as an Absolute Ronin edition, released in 2008…

Set mostly in a near future where society has irretrievably broken down, our story actually opens eight centuries ago in feudal Japan, where a beloved, noble lord and his youngest, most untried samurai are besieged by the forces of a terrible demon named Agat who wants the mystical sword the old daimyo protects.

Eventually the unrelenting attacks succeed and Lord Ozaki is compromised and murdered. Shamed at his failure and maimed by the shape-shifting demon, the samurai becomes a masterless warrior, a Ronin, forced to wander the Earth until he can regain his honour…

Meanwhile in the 21st century, New York City and indeed the entire planet are dying, destroyed by economic, industrial and societal abuse. However at the heart of the dystopian nightmare a small team of free-thinking and idealistic scientists are pioneering a scheme to save humanity from itself.

Technological wizard Peter McKenna has invented self-replicating “bio-circuitry” that feeds itself from the polluted earth to grow clean buildings and even new prosthetic limbs. His greatest achievement is the Aquarius complex, a self-staining habitat governed by a benevolent Artificial Intelligence dubbed Virgo. Peter’s wife Casey runs the security of the complex whilst their friend Taggart runs the corporation they jointly founded, selling their world saving tech – and message – to the rest of humanity.

The maternal Virgo is increasingly becoming the fourth member of the team: making autonomous decisions for the benefit of all. She works closely with Billy Challas, an extreme congenital quadriplegic with latent psionic abilities. His hidden mental abilities have enabled Virgo to make huge leaps in replacement limbs, but recently his dreams have been disturbed by visions of Ozaki, Agat and the Ronin. Virgo is troubled by how historically accurate the nightmares are…

In ancient Japan the Ronin has wandered for years continually defending the magic sword from Agat’s forces, until in one self-sacrificing final duel demon and hero are both killed by the eldritch blade…

When Virgo’s researches uncover the dream Katana in a junk shop eight centuries later she accidentally causes an explosion which decimates part of the Aquarius complex, releasing Agat into our world again. Mercifully the spirit of the Ronin simultaneously enters Billy, who uses his submerged mind-powers to reconfigure his deformed flesh into the form of the ancient warrior.

Lost, dazed and confused, the Ronin wanders through the horrific landscape of post-civilised New York amongst a debased and corrupted populace whilst the demon possesses the body of Taggart and begins to subvert the pacifist, redemptive mission of Aquarius.

Casey McKenna, as head of security, begins to dig (quite literally) into the problem and with Virgo’s help is able to track down Billy/Ronin, but rather than saving the lad she is terrifyingly drawn into his mystical confusion. Meanwhile, as “Taggart” retools the complex into a munitions super-factory, Peter McKenna begins unravelling the mystery and discovers that nothing is as it seems and that there are far more sinister threats than debased gang-mutants and ancient demonic creatures. The entire world is under imminent threat and the clock is ticking…

This tale was not well received when it initially launched: the heady mix of manga influences (particularly Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s stunning Lone Wolf and Cub saga which permeates and guides this tale like a ghostly grandfather), science fiction, social politics and supernatural ultra violence was clearly not what the superhero reading fans had expected. Although some of the thematic overtones remained this was clearly no continuation of Miller’s landmark Daredevil run for Marvel: those issues were returned to in successive DC epics The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One.

However Ronin did effectively alter the comicbook marketplace forever, allowing the adult sensibilities that had flourished in Europe and Japan for decades to finally gain a solid foothold in the dogmatically juvenile American comics market. Of course it wasn’t alone, but with American Flagg! and a few precious others it was at the vanguard of the zeitgeist that put style and mature content above Fights, Tights and empty frights…

Oppressive, exhilarating and scarily mystifying, Ronin is a spectacular visual tour de force that reshaped what we read and how we read it. As a fan you have a divine obligation to see it for yourself…
© 1983, 1984, 1987 Frank Miller, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Annihilation Conquest Book 1


By various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-8751-2782-6

Annihilation was another of those company-wide publishing events that “Changed The Marvel Universe Forever” (and don’t they all?) which ran for most of 2006, and involved most of the House of Ideas’ outer space outposts and cosmic characters. Among the stalwarts in play were Silver Surfer, Galactus, Firelord (and a host of previous heralds of the world-eater), Moondragon, Quasar, Star-Lord, Thanos, Super-Skrull, Tana Nile, Gamora, Ronan the Accuser, Nova, Drax the Destroyer, a Watcher and a host of alien civilisations such as the Kree, Skrulls, Xandarians, Shi’ar et al., all falling before a invasion of rapacious negative zone bugs and beasties unleashed by the insectoid horror Annihilus.

If you’re new to the Marvel universe and that bewildering list of daunting data didn’t leave you screaming in frustration, then please read on…

As is usual in these public thinnings of the herd, a number of good guys and bad died and had their trademark assumed by a new and glitzier model whilst some moribund careers got a successful and overdue shot in the arm…

The event spawned a number of specials, miniseries and new titles, (subsequently collected as three volumes plus a Classics compilation that reprinted key appearances of a number of the saga’s major players) and inevitably led to a follow-up event: Annihilation: Conquest.

The first volume of this surprisingly engaging sequel series collects Annihilation: Conquest Prologue, Annihilation: Conquest Quasar #1-4, Annihilation: Conquest Star-Lord #1-4 and Annihilation Saga, opening on a scarred and war-torn realm of known space, decimated and still reeling from the chaos of the Annihilation Wave and its aftermath.

The Kree and Skrull empires are splintered, the Nova Corps of Xandar reduced to a single agent, ancient gods are loose and a sizable portion of the Negative Zone invaders have tenuously established themselves in territories stolen from the billions of dead sentients that once populated the cosmos. The Supreme Intelligence is gone and arch-villain Ronan has become a surprisingly effective ruler of the Kree remnants. Cosmic Protector Quasar is dead and Phyla-Vel, daughter of the first Captain Marvel has inherited both his powers and name…

In ‘Prologue’ (written by Dan Abnett & Any Lanning, illustrated by Mike Perkins and coloured by Guru eFX) Phyla-Vel and psychic demi-goddess Moondragon are working with the pacifist Priests of Pama to relieve the suffering of starving survivors, whilst Peter Quill, one time cosmic champion Starlord, is working with Ronan and the remnants of the warlike Kree on the planet Hala to shore up the battered interstellar defences of the myriad races in the sector.

Quill has brokered an alliance with the Spaceknights of Galador (an old noble cyborg species most famously represented by 1980s hero Rom) that should enhance the all-pervasive etheric war-net, but once uploaded the date instantly causes disastrous problems throughout the system. In seconds all technology in the region is compromised: overruled by a murderous, electronic sentient parasitic species known as the Phalanx, whose cybernetic credo is “peace and order through assimilation”. Once more organic life is facing total extinction…

On planet Pama, Phyla and Moondragon are targeted by enslaved Kree automatons as the Phalanx attempt to destroy any credible resistance before spectacularly cutting off the entire quadrant from the rest of the universe. If life is to survive this threat it must be saved by the champions trapped inside…

The miniseries ‘Starlord’ (written by Keith Giffen, with art from Timothy Green II, Victor Olazaba & Nathan Fairbairn), finds the one-time Cosmic Avenger stripped of his powers and technological enhancements – all now liabilities when facing a predator species that infests electronic devices – and seconded to a Kree resistance division. Here he is tasked with turning Kree prisoners into a Penal Strike Force (a highly engaging intergalactic Dirty Half-Dozen) and taking out the Phalanx base where the invaders are perfecting a more efficient way to assimilate organics into their mechanistic hive-mind.

Once a major bad-guy race in the Marvel mainstream, whoever the Kree consider criminals look surprising like failed heroes to me. Firstly there’s Galactic Warrior Bug (originally from the 1970’s phenomenon Micronauts), the current Captain Universe (ditto), the Shi’ar berserker Deathcry, failed Celestial Madonna Mantis, anamorphic adventure Rocket Raccoon and the gloriously whacky “Kirby Kritter” Groot, a Walking Tree and one-time “Monarch of Planet X.”

With this reluctant team in tow and using natural abilities and decidedly primitive weapons the squad invades Hala, now the central beachhead of the Phalanx, to discover and destroy the augmented assimilation project, but they have drastically underestimated the remorseless ingenuity and creative callousness of the electronic invaders…

Sharp, witty and ingenious, this is a magnificent romp full of thrills and worthy sacrifice that no comic fan could possibly resist, and is promptly followed by the epic tragedy of Phyl-Vel, the new Quasar as she and her lover Moondragon endure a terrible quest to the heart of the imprisoned Quadrant, following a mysterious voice that urges them to save the one being who could possibly turn back the seemingly irresistible tide of Phalanx assimilation.

‘Quasar: Destiny’ (written by Christos N. Gage, illustrated by Mike Lilly, Bob Almond, Scott Hanna, Mark McKenna, Roland Paris & Stephane Peru) sees the couple journey to a hidden world of hope, dogged by the deadly Earth automaton Super-Adaptoid, now a fully-integrated Phalanx super-warrior possessing the powers of the Avengers and Phyla’s father the first Captain Marvel. Moreover, even plagued by overwhelming berserker rages and cut off from her power source, the untried Quasar must succeed before her abilities fade forever…

Little does she realise that Moondragon, her bedrock in these times of overwhelming trouble, is slowly undergoing an inevitable contamination potentially more hideous than Phalanx assimilation…

This epic race across the universe ends in a tragic surprise and one final glimmer of hope for the desperate champions of organic life – which will have to wait until the second volume to flourish or die.

This tome doesn’t end here, though. Rounding out the book is a selection of design sketches from Timothy Green II & Nathan Fairbairn and the invaluable and incisive Annihilation Saga, written by Michael Hoskin – a 34 page text précis using a huge selection of illustrations from the various Annihilation storylines to fill in and bring up to speed any readers (such as myself at the time so I can verify its usefulness and efficacy) who missed the original event.

Artists and writers sampled here include Aleksi Briclot, Nic Klein, Matt Wilson, Andrea DiVito, Laura Villari, Mitch Breitweiser, Scott Kolins, Ariel Olivetti, Kev Walker, Rick Magyar, Renato Arlem, Gregory Titus, Jorge Lucas, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Mike McKone & Sean Chen.

I admit to having a deep-seated antipathy to and suspicion of these vast inter-connected, braided mega series; always worrying that readers are subjected to unnecessary pressure to include titles and tales they normally wouldn’t care to try (and usually subsequently discovering that they needn’t have once the super-sagas are concluded) but every so often the publishing stunt is elevated by sheer quality of material and those rare instances result in pure comics gold. Annihilation: Conquest, with its blend of bombastic derring-do, metaphorical war allegories, dashing adventure, dry humour and Armageddon politics is one such example and I wholeheartedly commend it to your house…

© 2007, 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Watchstop: Adventures in Time and Space


By Ken Macklin (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 0-913035-85-8

Before becoming a successful games artist for LucasArts graphic adventure games (I don’t actually grok push-button fun but I gather that Maniac Mansion, Loom, the second and third Monkey Island contraptions and the character Bubsy the bobcat number among his electronic hits) Ken Macklin was an underground/small press creator who delighted in cleverly whimsical and witty funny animal strips during the late 1970s in indy publications such as Quack!

Married to equally talented anthropomorphic raconteur Lela Dowling, he assisted and contributed to her marvelously manic Weasel Patrol tales, which were published in the lost and long-lamented sci-fi anthology Fusion whilst producing his own diabolically wonderful one-shot space opera romp Contractors and the stimulating vignettes gathered here.

As well as a talented designer and illustrator Macklin is a gifted painter and slyly devious writer and in 1982 he began selling brief, luxurious mini-epics starring an astonishingly brilliant but outrageous innocent multi-discipline savant named Dr. Watchstop to Epic Illustrated and Fusion: high quality graphic fantasy magazines aimed at older readers.

In an era where science fiction was synonymous with and indistinguishable from cops and cowboys with blasters, Watchstop’s antics were contemplative, slapstick, wickedly ironic, eyes wide-open wonderments that only saw the ridiculous side of technology and the future cosmos…

Still readily available this oversized compilation gathers all those marvelously intellectual, winningly funny spoofs and japes, opening in glorious painted colour with ‘Dr. Watchstop Faces the Future’ (Epic #10 February 1982), possibly the last word in time paradox tales, followed by an amoebic dalliance ‘One Cell at a Time’ before demonstrating the downside of ancient alien artifacts in ‘Time Bomb’ (Epic #14 and #17 respectively).

If possible Macklin’s art is even better as monochrome tonal washes, as perfectly illustrated in the hilarious ‘Unique Specimen’ (Fusion #1, January 1987), life-through-a-lens fable ‘Modern Culture’ (Fusion #3) and natural history segments ‘Right Stuff’ (Fusion #7) and ‘Bugs’ (Fusion #5).

‘Relic’ (Fusion #2) is pure Future Shock whilst full-colour ‘The Single Electron Proof’ from Epic #21(September 1983, and with the timely assistance of Toren Smith) will stretch the higher mathematics prodigies amongst us with a little metaphysical tomfoolery.

Epic #29 provided a first home for ‘In Search of Ancient Myths’, #33 both ‘Reaching Out’ and ‘Beating the Heat’ whilst the last colour cosmic conundrum ‘Wasting Time’ debuted in #34. The remainder of this collection features more black and white antics from Fusion, beginning with the vaudevillian ‘Gone Fishing’ (#4), moving adroitly into ‘Xlerg’s Fossil Emporium’ (#8) and anarchically culminating in a riotous Weasel Patrol collaboration enigmatically entitled ‘The Weasels Fill In’ from Fusion #9 (May 1988)

Sheer artistic ability and incisive comedy for smart people is never going to be out of style and this stellar compilation will be a constant joy for any fan smart enough to unearth it.
© 1989 Ken Macklin, and where appropriate Raymond E. Feist, Toren Smith, Lela Dowling and LX Ltd. All rights reserved.

The X Files


By Frank Spotnitz, Marv Wolfman, Doug Moench & Brian Denham (WildStorm)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2527-8

The X Files took the world by storm when it launched in 1993, running for nine seasons, a total of 202 episodes, before ending in 2002. In addition it spawned two television spin-offs Millennium and The Lone Gunmen as well as two big screen movies in 1998 and 2008. Its blend of drama, cynicism, paranoia and open-eyed wonder struck a deep cultural chord, echoing popular disquiet about government double-dealing, the rise of conspiracy theories and a search for spirituality, mysticism and non-human intelligence. Many of the show’s key features became pervasive pop culture slogans. Moreover, it was usually utterly engrossing adventure storytelling.

Of course there was a slew of associated merchandise including a superb run of comics from trading card and sometime publisher Topps (41 issues plus a number #0 from January 1995 to September 1998, two annuals, three digest reprint editions and the 1997-1998 miniseries ‘Ground Zero’).

Fox Mulder is a burned out FBI whiz-kid who had himself assigned to the organizational sin-bin of the X Files division: unsolved cases involving unexplained and irrational aspects (themes returned to in recent years with the TV series’ Fringe and FlashForward). A brilliant scientist, he is obsessed with all aspects of the paranormal and particularly evidence of extraterrestrial life, but was dragged out into the real(ish) world by rationalist and cynic Dana Scully. Over the years they formed a co-dependent relationship and found trustworthy allies as they continued to prove that “the truth is out there.”

WildStorm picked up the comics franchise with this intriguing, engaging volume, collecting another #0 and a six issue run reprising the classic format of the feature when Mulder and Scully roamed America, solving mysteries and piecing together an incomprehensible puzzle.

Illustrated by Brian Denham with colour art by Kelsey Shannon & Carlos Badilla, the first cases unfold courtesy of screen writer Frank Spotnitz, who has the dynamic duo seeking a violent killer in the wilds of Indiana. Unfortunately this murderer seems to be a phantom force that can jump into bodies and make monsters out of the most innocent of citizens…

A different kind of possession phenomena then leads the investigators to Virginia, where government military contractors have developed the most sinister and cost-effective anti-personnel weapon imaginable…

Comics veteran and horror specialist Marv Wolfman scripts the next two-part saga as Mulder and Scully tackle a baffling case involving Chinese Tongs and an assassin who can apparently teleport. Elderly Chinese-Americans are being murdered, some almost simultaneously, by the same person. Forensics and DNA can’t be fooled, but if matter transportation is ruled out what else could possibly account for the rising death-toll?

Doug Moench, another comic creator with a long track record and impeccable pedigree contributes the final conundrum as the FBI’s least wanted are dispatched to the Badlands of South Dakota to track down a number of missing girls. Further investigation uncovers a likely serial killer, but deeper digging reveals that victims have actually been disappearing for hundreds of years. Can the Indian legends of subterranean predators “the Pale People” hold more truth than fancy…?

Moody, atmospheric and unrelentingly clever these stories blend mystery and imagination with tense drama and blistering action. Moreover, stripped of the over-arching, big-story continuity of the television series, these tales afford newcomers a perfect opportunity to revel in the magic of great, baggage-free entertainment.

If you want to believe in great comics, the proof is in here…

© 2009 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Twin Spica volumes 1 & 2


By Kou Yaginuma, translated by Maya Rosewood (Vertical)
ISBNs: 978-1-934287-84-2 & 978-1-934287-86-6

The mystery and imagination of space travel, so much a component of immediate post-World War II industrial society, returns in all its resplendent wonder and glory in this freshly translated new manga series from young talent Kou Yaginuma who first stormed to public attention with the poignant short story ‘2015 Nen no Uchiage Hanabi’ (‘2015: Fireworks’, published in Comics Flapper magazine, June 2000) before turning the subject, themes and characters into a longer epic combining hard science and fiction with lyrical mysticism and traditional school days growth pangs

2024AD: Asumi Kamogawa is a teenaged girl who has always dreamed of going into space. From her earliest moments the lonely child has gazed up at the stars with her imaginary friend Mr. Lion, staring at the heavens, and especially at the twinkling glow of Virgo and the alluring binary star Spica. An isolated, serious child, she lives with her father, a labourer who once worked for the consortium which built the space rockets for Japan’s Space Program.

In 2010, when Asumi was a year old the first Japanese space launch ended in complete disaster when the ship, dubbed Shishigō (“The Lion”), exploded and crashed to earth on the city of Yuigahama. Hundreds of people were killed and injured, including Asumi’s mother. Maimed and comatose, she took years to die and the trauma broke her grieving husband and utterly traumatised the infant Asumi.

In response to the disaster Japan founded an astronaut and space sciences training school and as the first volume opens Asumi discusses with her imaginary friend the best way to tell her dad that she has secretly taken the entrance exam. Tomoro Kamogawa is a no fan of the space program, having lost his wife, his engineering job and his pride to the race for space. He has raised his daughter alone by working two and often three menial jobs at a time for over a decade.

The problem is taken out of her hands when he opens her results letter and sees that she has been accepted for the next intake for the Tokyo National Space School. After initial resistance he surprises Asumi by not only allowing her to go, but also by giving her all his savings to pay her expenses. Arriving in Tokyo, Asumi moves into the dilapidated campus dormitory with a few other students too poor to live in private lodgings. A further surprise comes when she discovers that Shinnosuke Fuchuya, the boy who teased and bullied her all through school, has also been accepted for the Astronaut course. When questioned he grunts that he’d rather do anything other than run the family fireworks shop…

The course is heavily over-subscribed so the candidates are winnowed out by spending the first week in an adaptability stress test: three to a room, in complete isolation, taking mental and physical tests to determine how they would cope with conditions similar to an extended stay in a space capsule. Tiny Asumi (only four feet, eight inches tall) is placed with the jolly Kei Oumi and chilly, acerbic Marika Ukita whilst Fuchuya’s team is cursed with spooky, ultra-cool style-icon Shu Suzuki…

It quickly becomes clear that the tutors are being devious and the tests are actually designed to measure not just their survival capabilities but also their ability to get on in a crisis. As the week progresses tempers fray and Asumi suffers a flashback to the aftermath of The Lion’s crash…

Only thirteen teams make it through the test. However, even though she is a survivor, worse is to come for the young Asumi…

This first volume includes that painfully powerful and wistful tale‘Fireworks: 2015’, the first of five introductory stories the artist produced for Seinen (manga for older readers; mostly males aged 18-30) publication Comics Flapper. Asumi is a troubled little girl: always running away and even stealing the ashes of her mother, who has just died after years in a coma following the crash of the space rocket onto Yuigahama city.

On her travels the little girl meets a man with a lion’s head, who seems to know her teacher Suzinari. Deeply concerned for Asumi, Suzinari also has problems of her own. She still desperately misses her fiancé, who piloted The Lion and died in the tragic explosion five years previously…

‘Asumi’ is another prequel tale, showing the miserable, melancholic period immediately following the disaster. Bullied in elementary school the little stargazer runs away and gets lost in the wild woods, before chief miscreant Fuchuya heroically saves her from drowning. But were the people Asumi met just hallucinations of an oxygen-starved brain or something far more meaningful and miraculous…?

The first book ends with the vignette ‘Another Spica’ wherein wannabe manga artist Yaginuma is working part-time on a soft-drink stand one Christmas when he sees a little girl who twinkled like the stars and a man with a lion’s head…

The second volume follows space cadet Asumi as she adjusts to life in Tokyo: moving into women’s dorm “The Seagull”, making friends, starting classes and scraping by on her meager funds. An assiduous student, she nevertheless incurs the hostility of the astrophysics lecturer Professor Sano. Unknown to her Sano has bad history with her father and will seemingly do anything to thwart her dreams…

Asumi is far smaller than all the other candidates and though determined to succeed in the arduous physical and mental training incurs real problems in the swimming classes due to her near-drowning as a child. Moreover her size means she will need a custom-made pressure suit – giving Sano an opportunity to force her out by citing budget restrictions.

When this doesn’t work he steps up his campaign and really turns the screw on the unsuspecting Asumi, revealing a shocking secret about her father…

This volume also contains prequel stories of Asumi’s early life and in ‘Campanella’s Forest (referencing author Kenji Miyazawa’s novel Night on the Galactic Railroad) and exploring the past of the astronaut who piloted The Lion and highlighting Suzinari’s relationship with him. Meanwhile, Asumi has got lost again and stumbled upon something wonderful in the woods…

Tomoro Kamogawa is the tragic star of ‘Our Stars, Leaf Stars’. In the wake of the Lion disaster Asumi’s father was assigned by the corporation who built the ship to head the reparations committee. Guilt-wracked and himself bereaved, the devastated engineer had to visit and apologize to each and every survivor or victim’s grieving family. Meanwhile, little Asumi has found a new friend: another little girl forever scarred by the crash.

And as always the faithfully attendant Mr. Lion looks sadly on …

The volume concludes with a second ‘Another Spica’ episode as the cartoonist relates the time he worked in a shopping mall and had to dress up in a monkey suit, as that girl and that lion-headed guy simply looked on and mocked…

Twin Spica ran for eight enchanting years (September 2001 to August 2009): sixteen full volumes tracing the path of Asumi and her friends from starry-eyed students to fulltime astronauts and the saga spawned both anime and live action TV series.

This delightful comicbook epic has everything: plenty of hard science to back up the savvy extrapolation, a believable, likable cast, an enduring mystery, tender moments, isolation and teen angst, dawning true friendships, all wrapped up in a joyous coming-of-age drama with supernatural overtones and gobs of pure sentiment.

This tale reinvigorates the magical allure of the Wild Black Yonder for a new generation and is a treat no imagineer with head firmly in the clouds can afford to miss…

These books are printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.

© 2010 by Kou Yaganuma/Media Factory. Translation © 2010 Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Judge Dredd: The Apocalypse War


By John Wagner, Alan Grant, Carlos Ezquerra & various (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-634-7

Britain’s last great comic megastar might be described as a combination of the other two, combining the fantastic science and adventure of Dan Dare with the unrelentingly seditious anarchy and absurdity of Dennis the Menace. He’s also well on the way to becoming the longest-lasting adventure character in our admittedly meagre home-grown comics stable, having been continually published every week since February 1977 when he first appeared in the second issue of science-fiction anthology 2000AD.

However with at least 52 2000AD strips a year, annuals, specials, a newspaper strip (in the Daily Star and later The Metro), the Judge Dredd Megazine, numerous reprinted classic comics collections and even two rather appalling DC Comics spin-off titles, that adds up to a phenomenal amount of material, most of which is still happily in print from Rebellion.

One of the most attractive packages and certainly one of the most compelling is this sharply stylish black and white deluxe hardcover collection featuring one of the greatest storylines in the entire canon.

Judicial Briefing: Dredd and his dystopian ultra-metropolis of Mega-City One were created by a very talented committee including Pat Mills, Kelvin Gosnell, Carlos Ezquerra, Mike McMahon and others but with the major contribution coming from legendary writer John Wagner, who has written the largest portion of the canon under his own and several pseudonymous names.

Joe Dredd is a fanatically dedicated Judge in the super-city, where hundreds of millions of citizens idle away their days in a world where robots are cheaper and more efficient than humans and jobs are both beloved pastimes and treasured commodities. Boredom and madness has reached epidemic proportions and almost everybody is just one askance glance away from mental meltdown. Judges are last-ditch peacekeepers who maintain order at all costs: investigating, taking action and instantly trying all crimes and disturbances to the hard-won equilibrium of the constantly boiling melting pot. Justice is always immediate and final…

They are necessary fascists in a world permanently on the edge of catastrophe, and sadly, what far too many readers never realise is that the strip is a gigantic satirical black comedy leavened with oodles of outrageous, vicarious cathartic action.

Dredd’s world is a polluted and precarious Future Tense with all the key analogues for successful science fiction (as ever a social looking-glass for the times it’s created in) situated and sharply attuned to a Cold War Consumer Civilisation. The planet is divided into political camps with Post-nuclear holocaust America locked in a slow death-struggle with the Sov Judges of the old Eastern Communist blocs: militaristic, oppressive and totalitarian – and that’s by the US Judges’ standards, so just imagine what they’re like…

In 1981 Progs (that’s issue numbers to you) #236-244 featured a nine-part story ‘Block Mania’ which detailed an all-out war between two colossal habitation blocks in Mega-City One. With weekly instalments illustrated by Mike McMahon, Ron Smith, Steve Dillon and Brian Bolland (who also supplied some incredible covers) the all-out confrontation between Enid Blyton and Dan Tanna Blocks rapidly proliferated, engulfing surrounding Hab-units, spreading like a plague – or a chemical weapon.

Against a backdrop of utter berserker carnage Dredd discovers a plot by Sov agents to destabilise Mega-City One…

For once the Judge is too late and as his city burns the Dictatorat of East-Meg One launch a nuclear strike, following up with a ground-forces invasion. The Judges hit back with their own nukes and terrified of global Armageddon Mega-City Two and Texas City declare themselves neutral. Mega-City One will stand or fall alone…

Over forty years after the Battle of Britain ‘The Apocalypse War’ stunned and delighted readers. This epic tale of dogged resistance and bloody pyrrhic victory is a masterpiece of drama and tragedy, with Carlos Ezquerra drawing all 26 weekly chapters (even some covers!), and three decades later it still ranks as one of the greatest Dredd tales ever published.

Spectacular, violent, epic and leading to almost incomprehensible actions from someone most readers still considered a “hero” and “good guy” this is as powerful an anti-war story as Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s Charley’s War and deserves as much acclaim and respect.

This volume collects the entire saga and its prequel Block War into one mesmerising and compelling work of glittering triumph and dark tragedy, and should grace the shelves of every serious fan of the medium – and the message.
® & © 2003 Rebellion. All rights reserved.

Judge Dredd Featuring Judge Death


By John Wagner & Brian Bolland (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-386-5

Britain’s last great comic icon could be described as a combination of the other two, combining the futuristic milieu and thrills of Dan Dare with the terrifying anarchy and irreverent absurdity of Dennis the Menace. He’s also well on the way to becoming the longest-lasting adventure character in our admittedly meagre comics stable, having been continually published every week since February 1977 when he first appeared in the second issue of science-fiction anthology 2000AD.

However with at least 52 2000AD strips a year, annuals, specials, a newspaper strip (in the Daily Star and later The Metro), the Judge Dredd Megazine, numerous reprinted classic comics collections and even two rather appalling DC Comics spin-off titles, that adds up to a phenomenal amount of material, most of which is still happily in print.

One of the nicest looking packages and certainly one of the most inviting for new readers is this sharply stylish black and white deluxe hardcover collection featuring some of the formative work of superstar artist Brian Bolland.

Bolland by his own admission was an uneconomically slow artist and much of his Dredd work appeared as weekly portions of large epics with other artists handling other episodes, but all the cases collected here are self-contained or short continued sagas, resulting in a wicked compendium of his best, funniest and most striking material all in one magnificent volume.

FYI: Dredd and his dystopian ultra-metropolis of Mega-City One were created by a committee including Pat Mills, Kelvin Gosnell, Carlos Ezquerra, Mike McMahon and others but with the major contribution coming from legendary writer John Wagner, who has written the largest portion of the canon under his own and several pseudonymous names.

Joe Dredd is a fanatically dedicated Judge in the super-city, where hundreds of millions of citizens idle away their days in a world where robots are cheaper and more efficient than humans and jobs are both beloved pastime and treasured commodity. Boredom has reached epidemic proportions and almost everybody is just one askance glance away mental meltdown. Judges are peacekeepers who maintain order at all costs: investigating, taking action and trying all crimes and disturbances to the hard-won equilibrium of the constantly boiling melting pot. Justice is always immediate…

They are necessary fascists in a world permanently on the edge of catastrophe, and sadly, what far too many readers never realise is that the strip is a gigantic satirical black comedy with oodles of outrageous, vicarious cathartic action.

In Prog (that’s issue number to you) 149-151 (January 26th – February 9th 1980), with the continuity firmly established Wagner, writing as John Howard, introduced ‘Judge Death’, undead lawman from an alternate Earth, where the Judges, when faced with the same problems as our world took their creed to its only logical conclusion: If all crime is perpetrated by the living then to eradicate crime…

With all life ended in his own dimension the ghostly ghoul extended his mission to ours, wiping out criminals and law-abiding citizens alike, with the Judges – even Dredd – unable to stop him until the flamboyant and unconventional psychic hottie Judge Anderson of PSI Division sacrificed herself to trap the evil spirit forever…

As if…

With Wagner clearly on a creative roll the fans spoke long and loud and thus both the Zombie Peacemaker and Anderson were returned within a year in the manic mayhem of ‘Judge Death Lives’ (credited to T.B. Grover but still Wagner really; Progs 224-228, August 8th – September 5th 1981), as a desperate citizen released the horror from his eternal tomb at the behest of three more expired Judges: Mortis, Fire and Fear.

Reunited with their leader the Dark Judges went about their duty executing all of Mega-City One and it took a trip to their home “Deadworld” before Dredd and Anderson could stop the slayers – albeit temporarily. Both Anderson and Death went on to win their own series…

For a while early on in his career, Dredd was seconded to the Moon to oversee the colony there – which was as bonkers as Mega-City One – in conjunction with Cold War enemies the Sov Judges.

From that period came ‘The First Lunar Olympics’ and ‘War Games’ (Progs 50-51, February 5th and 11th 1978) a vicious swipe at contemporary sport’s politicisation which was and still is bloody, brutal and bitingly funny, whilst ‘The Oxygen Board’ and ‘The Face-Change Crimes’ (Progs 57 & 52, March 25th and  February 18th 1978 respectively) are hilariously inventive bank-raid capers with the kind of mordant twists which elevated Dredd so far beyond all other cop and sci-fi strips.

Once rotated back Earthside it was business as unusual in ‘The Fog’ (Prog 127, August 25th 1979) a chillingly atmospheric pastiche of horror film classic House of Wax, whilst in ‘The Forever Crimes’ (Prog 120, July 7th 1979) Dredd showed that being dead was no valid reason for a perp to avoid his sentence and this spectacular chronicle ends with the glorious insane ‘Punks Rule!’ (Prog 110 April 28th 1979), an epilogue to the epic Judge Caligula story-arc, with the Judges slowly resuming control of Mega-City One after a civil war and revolution, with Dredd personally stamping out street gangs that had carved out their own little empires in the aftermath.

Beautifully drawn these are perfect short stories starring modern Britain’s most successful and iconic comic character: timeless classics that no real comic fan can ignore – and just for a change something that you can easily get your hungry hands on…
® & © 2001 Rebellion. All rights reserved.