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.

Star Hawks volumes 1-4


By Ron Goulart & Gil Kane, with Archie Goodwin and various (Blackthorne)
ISBN’s: 0-932629-21-0, 0-932629-46-6, 0-932629-55-5, 0-932629-80-6

By the 1970s the era of the adventure comic strip in newspapers was all but over, but there were still a few dynamic holdouts, and even a new masterpiece or two still to come. One such was this unbelievably addictive space opera/cop procedural which debuted on October 3rd 1977.

Created by novelist, comics scripter and strip historian Ron Goulart (and later carried on by the legendary Archie Goodwin who sewed up the sci-fi strip genre by also writing the Star Wars newspaper serial which premiered in 1979) the feature was blessed with the overwhelmingly dynamic art of Gil Kane and an innovative format for strips: a double tier layout that allowed far bigger, bolder graphics than the traditional single bank of frames.

The premise is magically simple: in our future man has spread throughout the galaxy and inhabits many worlds, moons and satellites. And wherever man goes there’s a need for policemen and peacekeepers…

As Goulart explains in his introductory notes the working title was “Space Cops” but that was eventually replaced with the more dashingly euphonious Star Hawks. In 2004 a wonderful collectors edition of this last great adventure strip was released, but is now, naturally, out-of-print and hard to acquire, so I’m concentrating here on the much more accessible four paperback collections published by Blackthorne in the mid 1980s, and which neatly cover Goulart’s tenure.

If you can’t find or afford the classy Hermes Press edition, these cheap and cheerful volumes are almost as good, and, who knows, perhaps somebody will re-release the complete volume sooner rather than later…

Book 1 steams straight in by introducing the villainous Raker and his sultry, sinister boss Ilka, hunting through the slums and ruins of alien world Esmeralda for a desperate girl plagued by dark, dangerous visions…

Enter Rex Jaxan and the ladykiller Latino Chavez, two-fisted Star Hawks on the lookout for trouble, who save the lass from slavers only to become embroiled in a dastardly plot to overthrow the local Emperor by scurrilous arms merchants. Also debuting in that initial tale is the cops’ sexy boss Alice K. Benyon (far more than just a romantic foil for the He-Hunk Jaxan), the floating space station “Hoosegow” and Sniffer, the snarkiest, sulkiest, snappiest robo-dog in the galaxy. The mechanical mutt gets all the best lines…

Barely pausing for breath the star-born Starsky and Hutch (that’s Goulart’s take on them, not mine) are in pursuit of an appalling new weapons system developed to topple the military dictatorship of Empire 13 – the “Dustman” process. Before long however the search for the illegal WMD develops into a full-on involvement in what should have stayed a local matter – civil war…

Book 2 finds the pair investigating stupendous resort satellite Hotel Maximus, with Alice K. along to bolster their undercover image. On Maximus every floor holds a different daring delight – from dancing to dinosaur wrangling to Alpine adventure – but the return of the malevolent Raker heralds a whole new type of trouble as he is revealed to be an agent of a pan-galactic cartel of criminals: The Brotherhood.

Moreover, the Maximus is the site of their greatest coup – a plot to mind-control the universe’s richest and most powerful citizens. So pernicious are these villains that the Brotherhood can even infiltrate and assault Hoosegow itself…

Foiling the raiders the Star Hawks quickly go on the offensive, hunting the organisation to the pesthole planet Selva, a degraded world of warring tribes and monstrous mutations, where new recruit Kass distinguishes himself, but the Brotherhood is deadly and persistent and new leader Master Jigsaw has a plan to destroy the Star Hawks from within…

With Book 3 Kane took on some impressive, if uncredited, assistants to help with the punishing deadlines of what was basically two strips per day and a Sunday supplement every week. The incarcerated Raker escapes, to be hunted by both cops and robbers, and even after he dies he has no peace since, with his memories transferred into a robot head by the science wizard Doc Ajax (a delightful rogue based on Isaac Asimov), the deceased arch-villain is more dangerous than ever…

As brainwashed Star Hawk agents sabotage the Hoosegow, Raker’s new brain is purloined, sparking a hunt across a dozen systems and leading at last to the hellish planet Empire 99: lawless refuge of criminals and monsters. Allying themselves with the super-powered mutants known as the Kwark Clan, Jaxan and Chavez are nearly overmatched until a ghastly, tragic rad-beast proves that looks can be deceiving…

Returning to Hoosegow the Star Hawks are greeted with another mystery: Doc Ajax has vanished, but at least as this volume ends on a cliffhanger, fans can revel in the unsung assistance of artists Howard Chaykin and Ernie Colon working their individualistic magic over Kane’s pencils…

The final volume of this series opens with Colon and Chaykin still adding their distinctive inks to the saga as Rex and Chavez return to planet Esmeralda hunting the missing Doc Ajax, finding him in the less-than-tender clutches of the deadly Ilka, who has forced him to build a new body for Raker. A deadly duel in arctic climes ensues but at its end a far greater threat materialises in the portly form of pencil-pushing Superior Agent Stamms; an imperious, officious Star Hawk auditor come to investigate improprieties and lapses in protocol. He’s come to take names and tick boxes and isn’t the sort of problem a swift punch can resolve…

Next is Goulart’s final yarn; an unsavoury investigation into Star Hawk legend Miles Hardway, friend and mentor to our indomitable space cops. Is he just past his prime, corrupt or crazy? Or perhaps it’s something far, far worse…

This book ends with an uncompleted tale that begins to explore Jaxan’s chequered past, as Archie Goodwin assumes the writer’s reins. A cryptic message at last reaches Rex, relayed from a distant, off-limits and almost forgotten planet: a world called “Earth” – the lost world upon which Rex Jaxan grew to manhood and where somebody waits to kill or be killed by him …

Regrettably you will need the aforementioned special edition to see how that epic ends… Star Hawks ran until 1981, garnering a huge and devoted audience, critical acclaim and a National Cartoonists Society Award for Kane (Story Comic Strip Award for 1977). It is, quite simply one of the most visually exciting, rip-roaring, all-out fabulous sci-fi sagas in comics history and should be part of every fan’s permanent collection. In whatever format you can find this is a “must-have” item.
© 1977, 1978, 1979, 1986, 1987 NEA, Newspaper Enterprise Association. All rights reserved.

James Patterson’s Maximum Ride Book 1


Adapted by NaRae Lee (Arrow Books)
ISBN: 978-0-099-53836-3

When young Max dreams of being chased by mysterious beastmen her method of escape is to sprout wings and fly like an angel. However, when she wakes up and rejoins the rest of the little gang of juvenile misfits she lives with we discover that Maximum Ride’s nightmares are merely memories…

Among his many works James Patterson’s has written seven teen novels (beginning in 2005 and still proceeding) starring a band of human/bird hybrid kids on the run from mysterious forces. This manga adaptation gets underway as we’re introduced to that band of youngsters hiding out in a dilapidated house, whilst “the Erasers” – artificial werewolves and high-tech mercenaries – hunt them down.

Four years previously they were brought to their isolated hideaway by Jeb Batchelder who rescued them from their creators in the sinister complex known as “The School”. After years in hiding with them, one day Jed disappeared and Max, as the eldest, became a sort of den-mother for the brood…

Although beautifully illustrated and captivatingly well-paced, too much of this first adapted volume is spent trying not to not reveal the secret of the human/avian heroes, but for the sake of expediency I’m going to risk a little spoiler. They have highly efficient and totally concealable wings, hollow bones, improved lungs, hearts, muscles and eyesight. They are human hawks, and may even have other dormant powers and abilities…

The kids are the result of rogue scientific research but have fled from their creators, who want them back and are slowly closing in. When Eraser raiders capture the youngest girl, Angel, the rest of “The Flock” – Fang, Iggy, Nudge and Gasman – stop hiding and decide to get her back. With Max leading they return to civilisation and begin the search for their sister and their origins…

Along the way Max is separated from the rest and wounded, but finds help in the form of Ella Martinez and her mother. As a vet, Ella’s mum has access to some impressive equipment and while patching up Max’s wing discovers that the little hawk-girl has an electronic transmitter embedded deep within her, far too deep for anyone to remove…

Hard on the heels of this revelation the Erasers move in and the entire Flock is captured. Looked in an interrogation cell, Max fears the worst when suddenly a face from the past surprises her with the biggest shock of all – the incredible purpose for which the hybrids were created…

The scenario and atmosphere of Patterson’s series about The Flock will feel very familiar to any comics fan who has read X-Men and its myriad mutant offshoots, and this book is compiled of chapters that originally appeared in the manhwa magazine Yen-Plus. The tale is a fine example of the sort of “Us against the World” orphan-fiction young readers seem naturally drawn to: fast-paced, emotive, evocative, cute and thrilling.

Accompanied by a welcome cartoon afterword by Korean artist Narae Lee, who can’t be much older than the target audience, this is a solid read and great fun, but be warned, is only the trip of a huge iceberg. There’s lots more to come before just the first prose novel is completely adapted, so impatient readers might want to wait until they can pick up a bunch of the graphic novels all at once (volumes #3 and 4 are still forthcoming from a scheduled set of 10). However if you want to beat the rush before the forthcoming movie franchise kicks off you could get a flying start by buying this book now…

© 2009 SueJack, Inc. Illustrations © 2009 Hachette Book Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Lightrunner


By Lamar Waldron & Rod Whigham with Susan Barrows (Donning/Starblaze)
ISBN: 0-89865-315-0

During the 1980s a burgeoning science fiction and fantasy book market, bolstered by cinematic and even television blockbusters, fed into the new creative boom in the comicbook market, giving “graphic novels” their first tentative push into the real, bigger world outside established fandom as part of a greater zeitgeist. There was also a very real entrepreneurial creative buzz which led to many European and Japanese works finally breaking into the US market, and most importantly, a lot of attention was paid to new, homegrown material…

Among the important early players was The Donning Company Publishers, a Virginia-based outfit established in the 1970s who briefly blazed a pioneering trail with their Starblaze Graphics imprint.

Probably inspired by the innovative breakthrough work of Byron Preiss (Starfawn, Empire, The Swords of Heaven, The Flowers of Hell) Donning invested in lavish, visually impressive volumes targeting a broad crossover market. The began with a volume collecting the first chapters of Wendy and Richard Pini’s independent comics sensation Elfquest, and produced strip adaptations of popular prose properties such as Robert Asprin’s MythAdventures and the co-operative shared-universe fantasy series Thieves’ World. Along the way they also brought Colleen Doran’s first of A Distant Soil and Phil Foglio’s Buck Godot to a relatively small but crucially mainstream public.

The company’s output was small but highly effective and although the venture ended badly – in court, as many creators sued to regain control of their works – the beautiful, high quality works such as the graphic novel under review here showed that big, bold, expensive high-quality material was the future in an industry and art form that had always cut every corner, paid poorly and worked on miniscule margins…

Lightrunner is very much a product of its time, a riotous intergalactic rollercoaster rocket-ride which began life as a serial in the semi-pro fanzine Visions, and still packs a punch for any fan of brash, flashy space opera.

In the future, capitalism runs the universe in the form of planetary Corprostates held together by a web of trade undertaken by tachyon-driven solar sailing ships plying the perilous routes of the “Star Stream”. The Empyrean Alliance is a tenuous association of Free States, restive, politically insecure and greatly dependent on the trustworthy valour of the apolitical Empyrforce – a Navy-style peacekeeping/police militia.

The tale begins with young Burne Garrett, son of a legendary Empyrforce hero, who failed to make the grade and scrubbed out of his military training. Garrett is a pathetic disappointment to himself and everybody else. Now a lowly PR hack he is filming the initial tests of a radical new type of faster than light starship – The Stream Breaker – when calamity comes calling.

The new super-vessel suddenly comes to eerie life and takes off with him aboard, vanishing into the unknown, and the unwitting fool is suddenly Public Enemy #1! Framed, lost and desperate Garrett is soon plunged deep into the seedy underbelly of civilisation, a pawn of pirates and raiders until he is adopted by the spoiled, rich wild-child Lanie of Abul Sara (think Paris Hilton in lace-up high heel thigh-boots with a ray-gun… and now stop thinking of that because that’s not how she looks but what she’s like…).

The fugitive Garrett joins the tense and tentative crew of her beloved star-craft “Lightrunner.” Along the way he also picks up a pet monkey that might be the mightiest telepath in the galaxy…

As Garrett tries to clear his name, hunted by his own deeply disillusioned galactic-hero father and the true culprits who still want the Stream Breaker prototype he has so providentially hidden, the lad uncovers a clandestine plot of cosmic proportions that might just mean the end of the entire Alliance…

Although there have since been better variations of this plot and set-up, especially in films, this breezy, spectacular romp still reads incredibly well and looks great. Fans of this particular form of chase-based science fiction will be well rewarded for seeking out Lightrunner, and as the book is readily available and quite inexpensive all that fun can even be considered a bargain.
© 1983 Lamar Waldron and Rod Whigham.  All Rights Reserved.

Artemis Fowl: the Graphic Novel


By Eoin Colfer & Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano, colour by Paolo Lamanna (Puffin Books)
ISBN: 978-0-141-32296-4

I just couldn’t let Puffin Books’ 70th anniversary pass without a congratulatory comment, and this exceedingly entertaining adaptation of one of the best children’s novels (and how I wish that didn’t sound like that makes kids fiction somehow less valid than “grown up” books) of recent years is a perfect way so to do.

Puffin Books began in 1939, the brainchild of Allan Lane who had revolutionised the world four years previously with the launch of Penguin Books, successfully establishing the mass-market paperback. Despite war-time paper shortages Puffin grew from strength to strength, especially when journalist Kaye Webb took over as editor in 1961, introducing a higher rate of illustration to the books, widening the parameters of the kids market by commissioning a huge variety of new authors and in 1967 creating the world’s greatest and best book society – the Puffin Club.

If you grew up in Britain over the last fifty years you have read one of the books she was responsible for. …

Webb passed away in 1996 but her innovative influence still permeates Puffin, as can be seen in the captivating adventures of Artemis Fowl II, criminal mastermind, scion of Ireland’s greatest family of rogues and villains and probably the greatest intellect on the planet. He inherited the family business when his father mysteriously vanished on a caper, a loss from which Artemis’ mother has never recovered.

This Machiavellian anti-hero is a teenager so smart that he has deduced that fairies and mystical creatures actually exist and he spends this first book stealing their secrets to replenish the family’s depleted fortunes and fulfil his greatest heart’s desire…

His greatest ally is Butler, a manically loyal and extremely formidable hereditary retainer who is a master of physical violence. The first of the six novels published thus far is here adapted by the author and Andrew Donkin, and illustrated in a kind of Euro-manga style that won’t suit everybody but which nevertheless perfectly captures the mood and energy of the original. This lavish adventure is also interspersed with comprehensive and clever data-file pages (by Megan Noller Holt) to bring everybody up to full speed on this wild, wild world…

Fowl is utterly brilliant and totally ruthless. Once determining that the mythological realm of pixies, elves, ogres and the like are actually a highly advanced secret race which predated humanity and now dwells deep underground, he “obtains” and translates their Great Book and divines all their secrets of technology and magic.

Fowl has a plan for the greatest score of all time, and knows that he cannot be thwarted, but he not reckoned on the wit, guts and determination of Holly Short, an elf who works for the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance Force. She is the only female LEPRecon allowed to work on the surface and has had to prove herself every moment of every day…

Combining sinister mastery, exotic locales, daring adventure, spectacular high fantasy concepts and appallingly low puns and slapstick, this tale has translated extremely well to the comics medium (but that’s no reason not to read the books too) with a clever plot and characters that are both engaging and grotesquely vulgar – perfect fare for kids. I especially admire the kleptomaniac dwarf Mulch Diggum, whose species’ self-defence mechanism consists of overwhelming explosive flatulence…

Farting, fighting and fantasy are pretty much the perfect combination for kid’s fiction and boys especially will revel in the unrestrained power of the wicked lead character. This is a little gem from a fabulously imaginative creator and an unrelentingly rewarding publisher. Long may you all reign…
Text © 2007 Eoin Colfer. Illustrations © 2007 Giovanni Rigano. All rights reserved.

Ironwolf: The Fires of the Revolution


By Howard Chaykin, John Francis Moore, Michaela Mignola & P. Craig Russell (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-065-8

In the early 1970s, when Howard Chaykin and other luminaries-in-waiting such as Bernie Wrightson, Walt Simonson, Al Weiss, Mike Kaluta and others were just starting out in the US comics industry, it was on the back of a global fantasy boom. DC had the comic-book rights to Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales (beautifully realised in five issues of Swords and Sorcery by Denny O’Neil and many of the above-mentioned gentlemen) as well as the more well-known works of Edgar Rice Burroughs – Tarzan, Korak, John Carter of Mars, Carson of Venus, Pellucidar and even Beyond the Farthest Star.

Those beautiful fantasy strips began as back-up strips in the jungle books but soon graduated to their own title Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Weird Worlds, where they enthralled for just seven magnificent issues before returning to back-up status in Tarzan and Korak. Dropping the ERB strap line the comic itself ran for three more issues before folding in 1974, featuring an all new space opera scenario by O’Neil and Chaykin – ‘The saga of Ironwolf’.

Predating Star Wars by years it only just began the story of a star-spanning empire fallen into dissolution and decadence and the rebellion of one honest aristocrat who threw off the seductive chains of privilege to fight for freedom and justice. Artificial vampires, monsters, vast alien armies and his own kin were some of the horrors he tackled with his loyal band of privateers from his gravity defying wooden star-galleon the Limerick Rake.

With impressive élan Ironwolf mixed post-Vietnam, post-Watergate cynicism with youthful rebellion flavoured by Celtic mythology, Greek tragedy, the legend of Robin Hood and pulp science fiction trappings to create a rollicking, barnstorming romp unforgettable. It was cancelled after three issues.

In 1986 those episodes were collected as a special one shot which obviously had some editorial impact as a few years later this slim but classy all-star conclusion was released in both hardcover and paperback.

In the Empire Galaktika no resource was more prized than the miraculous anti-gravity trees of Illium – ancestral home of the lords Ironwolf. These incredible plants took a thousand years to mature, would grow on no other world, and were the basis of all star ships and travel in the Empire.

After untold years of comfortable co-existence the latest Empress, Erika Morelle D’Klein Hernandez, steeped in her own debaucheries, declared that she was giving the latest crop of mature trees to the monstrous aliens she had welcomed into her realm. Disgusted at this betrayal, nauseated by D’Kein’s blood-sucking allies and afraid for the Empire’s survival, Lord Brian of Illium destroyed the much-coveted trees and joined the revolution.

With a burgeoning republican movement he almost overthrew the corrupt regime in a series of spectacular battles, but was betrayed by one of his closest allies. Ambushed, the Limerick Rake died in a ball of flame…

Ironwolf awakes confused and crippled in a shabby hovel. Horrified he learns he has been unconscious for eight years, and although the Empire has been replaced with a Commonwealth things have actually grown worse for humanity. The Empress still holds power and men are no more than playthings and sustenance not only for the vampiric Blood Legion but also the increasingly debased Aristocrats he once called his fellows.

Clearly he has a job to finish…

After decades away much of the raw fire of the young creators who originated Ironwolf has mellowed with age, but Chaykin has always been a savvy, cynical and politically worldly-wise story-teller and still had enough indignant venom remaining to make this tale of betrayal and righteous revenge a gloriously fulfilling read, especially with the superbly enticing artwork of Mike Mignola and P. Craig Russell illustrating his final campaign to liberate the masses.

Although this tale (which links into Chaykin and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez’s DC future-verse Twilight epic – and no, that one has nothing to do with fey vampires in love) is still readily available, I think the time is right for reissuing the entire vast panoramic saga in one complete graphic novel.

Let’s all hope that somebody at DC is reading this review…
© 1992 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Adam Strange: Planet Heist


By Andy Diggle, Pascal Ferry & Dave McCaig (DC Comics)
ISBN: 9787-1-4012-0727-4

As the Silver Age began in the late 1950s, reintroducing costumed superheroes to markets overflowing with cops and cowboys and cosmic invaders, Showcase #17 (cover-dated November-December 1958) launched a true hero for the space-age in a feature entitled ‘Adventures on Other Worlds’. An instant success, it debuted as the lead in Mystery in Space #53, enchanting and enthralling a generation of thrill-starved kids under the title Adam Strange.

Strange was an Terran archaeologist who, whilst fleeing from enraged natives in Peru, jumped a 25ft chasm only to be hit by a stray teleport beam from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. He materialised on another world, filled with monsters, fabulous civilisations and was rescued by a beautiful woman named Alanna.

Rann was a world of constant danger: non-stop peril for which brains, not brawn, were the best solution, but Strange was only able to stay on the atomic-war scarred planet for as long as it took the teleporting Zeta Beam radiation to dissipate, whence he would fade away to reappear on Earth until the next beam struck. He found true love with Alanna and unparalleled adventure (see Showcase Presents Adam Strange vol.1) but the universe seemed determined to keep them apart.

After years of travail and turmoil Adam finally relocated permanently to Rann, but his new homeworld grew no less dangerous…

This sharp, compelling rollercoaster ride (collecting the eight issue miniseries which acted as a prequel and introduction to the many story-strands that formed the Infinite Crisis mega-event) finds the once-archaeologist back on Earth to wrap up his affairs. However just when he is ready to depart the Zeta beam never arrives…

After months of increasingly desperate research his Justice League contacts reveal that Rann is gone: while he packed trinkets and underwear a supernova wiped out everything he ever knew and loved…

Desolate and off the rails his life goes swiftly down until he is attacked by alien bounty hunters. In the wake of the resultant destruction he knows something is amiss, and the only logical conclusion must be that Rann still exists…

This is a breakneck-paced science fiction conspiracy-mystery that finally revives the rational, intellectual hero fans haven’t seen since the end of the Julie Schwartz days: an indomitable fighter who thinks things out as he roars through the universe, accused of destroying the very world he seeks, meeting – and usually pursued by – a legion of DC’s outer space icons such as Vril Dox, the Thanagarians, Omega Men and Dark Stars, as well as an unexpected surprise über-villain…

Deducing a greater threat to all reality, avoiding the guns of a billion bloodthirsty foes and the machinations of many malignant masterminds, Adam Strange fights to regain his family and world and in so doing unravels a plot that will shake the very stars…

Bombast aside, this is a superb thriller that rockets along, draped in DC’s convoluted history and continuity, but somehow still fresh and streamlined enough to entertain the most clueless neophyte and seasoned canon-feeder equally. Andy Diggle and Pascal Ferry have crafted a brilliant tale that only falters on the last page, and only then because the solution leads inexorably to another book.

This is well worth any fan of fantastic fiction’s time and attention, but be warned: for final resolutions you’ll probably also need to read Rann-Thanagar War and Infinite Crisis

© 2004, 2005 DC Comics.  All Rights Reserved.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century part 1: 1910


By Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (Top Shelf/Knockabout)
ISBN: 978-0-86166-160-2

The Victorian era saw the birth of mass publishing, particularly in imaginative, entertaining escapist popular literature. The modern genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror and adventure all grew out of the latter half of the 19th century. Writers of varying skill and unshackled imagination recounted personal concepts of honour and heroism, wedded unflinchingly to an unshakable belief in English Superiority. In all worlds and even beyond them the British gentleman took on all comers for Right and Decency, regarding danger as a game and showing “Johnny Foreigner” just how that game should be played.

For all the problems such material might raise with modern sensibilities, most of these stories remain uncontested as classics of literature, generating all the archetypes for modern fictional heroes. Open as they are to charges of Racism, Sexism (even misogyny), Class Bias and Cultural Imperialism the best of them remain the greatest of all ripping yarns.

An august selection of some of these prototypical champions were seconded by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill at the end of the last century, resulting in two more great books about great heroes.

In Century: 1910 the first of a tryptich delineating the hundred years following the previous shared exploits of vampire-tainted Wilhelmina Murray, Great White Hunter Allan Quatermain, Invisible Man Hawley Griffin, charismatic “Hindoo” savant Captain Nemo and Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mister Hyde, the repercussions of both League of Extraordinary Gentleman volumes I and II are being felt through a shaky Empire still recovering from a Martian Invasion.

It is twelve years later and Nemo lies dying. His daughter Janni escapes his deathbed wishes and proclamations, fleeing to England on a ship which also carries the returning Jack the Ripper. Once “Mack the Knife” resumes his old occupation, psychic ghost-breaker Carnacki begins receiving troubling visions which might impact upon the upcoming coronation of the new King.

As ever spymaster Mycroft Holmes is on top of the situation and assigns Miss Harker, Quartermain, gender-optional immortal Orlando, gentleman thief Raffles and time traveller Andrew Norton to deal with the colliding events, but opposition from a circle of magicians led by “the most wicked man that ever lived” threaten to undo everybody’s plans. Meanwhile Janni’s fortunes have been ill-starred and she resignedly takes charge of the super-vessel Nautilus to exact a terrible vengeance…

Moore’s astounding imagination and vast cultural reservoir have provided the detail-fiends with another elite selection of literary and popular culture touchstones to enhance the proceedings, and this darkly sardonic tale is illustrated with the usual brilliance of the graphic-compulsive Kevin O’Neill.

This certainly bodes well for the future of a concept far too good to abandon. Just be glad there are no more films to tarnish the glister of this superb series…

This book is another fascinating blend of scholarship, imagination and artistry recast into a fabulous pastiche of an entire literary movement. It’s also a brilliant piece of comics magic of a sort no other art form can touch, and just as with the previous volumes there is a text feature at the back, which some might find a little wordy.

Read it anyway: it’s there for a reason and is more than worth the effort as it further outlines the antecedents of the League in an absorbing and stylish manner. It might also induce you to read some other very interesting books…
© & ™2009 Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill. All Rights Reserved.

Super Boxers – A Marvel Graphic Novel


By Ron Wilson, with John Byrne & Armando Gil (Marvel)
ISBN: 0- 939766-77-9

It’s been a long while since Marvel published an all-original graphic novel as opposed to a reprint collection, but not too long ago they were the market leader in the field with an entire range of “big stories” told on larger than normal pages (285 x 220mm rather than the now customary 258 x 168mm) featuring not only proprietary characters but also licensed assets like Conan and even creator-owned properties.

They also took chances on unusual and cross-genre tales such as this little oddity which falls squarely into the category of a “guilty pleasure”.

In the near future Corporations have assumed control of Earth, with the result that the rich have gotten richer – and more bored – whilst an underclass excluded from all rights and privileges scuttles to survive in the dirt beneath their lavish skyscrapers. As the poor daily trade their freedoms and dignity for another meal, in the world of the mega-rich and their wholly-owned contributing citizens, survival is just as harsh and all-pervasive.

Businesses survive and grow by consuming each other and everything is produced to facilitate that overweening drive: product, entertainment, people.  The Corporations are in a perpetual state of Cold War, ostensibly working together but always looking for an edge and a hostile takeover. Delcos is one such business: CEO Marilyn Hart has never been one of the boys, and now her one-time colleagues, sensing weakness, are closing in for the kill…

In the world below Max Turner is a star. A scrapper to his core, he works as a prize-fighter: an old fashioned palooka using his fists (augmented by cybernetic gloves, boots and body armour) to get by in a brutal arena of social Darwinism, providing dangerous entertainment for his daily bread. The Corporations also have Super Boxers: pampered, gussied up, genetic thoroughbreds with their entire lives geared to those explosive moments when they unleash their pedigreed savagery in high-tech arenas for the pleasure and profit of their owners. The greatest of these sporting warriors is the godlike Roman Alexis.

But every society has its malcontents and gadflies: when a slumming talent scout for Marilyn Hart “discovers” Max, the dumb but honest gladiator becomes a pawn in a power play that threatens to tear the corporate world to tatters – but would that really be such a bad thing…?

None of that matters to Max or Roman. For them it’s about personal honour. Tech doesn’t matter, rewards don’t matter, freedom doesn’t matter. Only being the best…

Ron Wilson is probably nobody’s favourite artist, but he is a workmanlike illustrator with a good line in brooding brutes, and Armando Gil’s fluid inks do a lot to sharpen the static, lumpen scenarios, as do the varied tones of colourists Bob Sharen, Steve Oliff, John Tartaglione, Joe D’Esposito and Mark Bright. The letters are provided by Mike Higgens.

Scripted by John Byrne from Wilson’s plot, this is a harsh, nasty, working-class tale reminiscent of such boxing movies as Michael Curtiz’s epic 1937 classic Kid Galahad by way of the Rocky movies, with socio-political undertones that would have been far more comfortable in a European comic like Metal Hurlant or 2000AD.

Ugly, uncompromising, brutal, this is the kind of book to show anybody who thinks that comics are for sissy-boys…
© 1983 Ronald Wilson. All Rights Reserved.