Captain Midnight Archives volume 1: Captain Midnight Battles the Nazis


By Dave Gormley, Leonard Frank, Carl Pfeufer, Dan Barry & various (Dark Horse Comics)
ISBN: 78-1-61655-242-8                    eISBN: 978-1-62115-884-4

Captain Midnight began his bombastic life as a radio serial star in the days when two-fisted, troubleshooting aviators were the acme of adventure genre heroes. Created by broadcast writers Wilfred G. Moore and Robert M. Burtt, the show was conceived by Chicago ad-men to promote Skelly Oil in the American Midwest.

The Captain Midnight Program soldiered on from 1938 to 1940 until the Wander Company acquired the sponsorship rights to promote their top product; Ovaltine. From there on, the sky was the limit: national radio syndication led to a newspaper comic strip (by Erwin L. Hess, running from June 29th 1942 until the end of the decade); a movie serial (1942) and – later – two TV serials (1953 and 1954-1956 but syndicated as “Jet Jackson, Flying Commando” well into the 1960s) plus a mountain of merchandise such as the legendary Captain Midnight Secret Decoder Ring

There was also a comicbook franchise or – more accurately – two…

The basic premise was that after World War One ended, pilot and aviation inventor Captain Jim Albright returned home having earned the sobriquet “Captain Midnight” after a particularly harrowing mission that concluded successfully at the witching hour. He formed a paramilitary “Secret Squadron” of like-minded pilots and did good deeds -often at the covert behest of the President – using guts and gadgets to foil spies, catch crooks and defend the nation.

Captain Midnight really hit his stride after the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, becoming an early Home Front media sensation of the war years. However, his already fluid backstory and appearance underwent a radical makeover when he switched comicbook horses in midstream.

This stunningly engaging full-colour hardback collection (also available as an eBook) gathers tantalising snippets from the vast comicbook canon of the “Sovereign of the Skies”, rather arbitrarily collected from Dell Comics anthologies The Funnies #59 (September 1941) and Popular Comics 76 & 78 (June and August 1942) as well as Fawcett Comics’ Captain Midnight #4-6, 9, 12, 31, 44, 47, 58 and 61, released between January 1943 and March 1948. The solo title was initially released fortnightly with #1 bearing a September 30th 1942 cover-date.

Much of this material is unattributed but amongst the regular writers were Joseph J. “Joe” Millard, Wilford Hamilton Fawcett, Bill Woolfolk and Otto Binder whilst artists included Jack Binder and his art stable, as well as the engagingly workmanlike Leonard Frank, Carl Pfeufer, Ken Bald, Jack Keller, Sheldon Moldoff and – latterly – young but constantly improving legends-to-be Leonard Starr and Dan Barry.

Following a fond appreciation and passionate reminiscences from David Scroggy in his effusive Introduction, the cartoon classics begin with an action-packed but confusing chapter from The Funnies #59. Here Dave Gormley depicts the Captain – still clad in regulation leather jacket, aviator flight cap and goggles – and his Secret Squadron in pursuit of nefarious archenemy Ivan Shark before Popular Comics #76 sees them battling to prevent the insidious Ivan’s airborne conquest of America.

Popular Comics #78 (with art by Bob Jenney) renews and continues that titanic struggle as Shark’s henchman Gardo rushes to his master with information that could destroy democracy forever…

When Fawcett took over the comicbook license in 1942 they gave Albright a stripped-down operation, flashier gimmicks and a rather striking superhero costume. They also abandoned continued serials in favour of short complete adventures as the Sky Sovereign added Nazi and Japanese villains to his macabre rogue’s gallery.

The initial Fawcett offering comes from Captain Midnight #4 (January 8th 1943) as the sabotaging ‘Gremlins of Graham Field’ – possibly illustrated by Frank? – are exposed as malevolent Nazi dwarves whilst #5 sees Albright and his ward Chuck Ramsay overseas in Alexandria proving that ‘The Beasts That Flew Like Birds’ (Carl Pfeufer) were not ancient vampires but far more insidious and dangerous modern monsters…

Plucky mechanic and comedy stooge Icky was one of three regular holdovers from the radio iteration of the Secret Squadron and he eventually won his own back-up strip and codename: Sergeant Twilight.

A brace of tales from #6, begins with ‘Presenting Ichabod Mudd, Cowboy!’ as the homely oaf accidentally outs a band of Nazis masquerading as cattle rustlers in Nevada, aiming to prevent the government feeding its troops, after which ‘Broadcast of Death’ sees more Nazis jamming crucial shortwave radio communications and morale-lifting programs until the Captain and his crew step in.

A trio of tales from Captain Midnight #9 (June 1943) opens with ‘Silent Wings of Destruction’ as the Monarch of the Skies tracks down undetectable planes bombing US war production plants and discovers an astounding Nazi aviation advancement.

In ‘Black Tornadoes’ a German inventor then unleashes all the fury of nature against the Midwest until the Captain tracks him down whilst Albright’s robotic ‘Samson the Mechanical Man’ proves a major breakthrough after uncovering enemy agents in the lab…

Three more classics come from #12 (September 1943) as ‘The Puzzle of the Flying Houses’ finds spies using cloud-cover and dwelling-shaped zeppelins to photograph military secrets whilst ‘Buy War Bonds!’ offers a breathtaking ad from the period before ‘The Sinister Angels’ suborning South American peasants and fomenting rebellion are ultimately exposed by our heroes as craftily disguised enemy agents.

A big jump to Captain Midnight #31 (April 1945) opens post-war proceedings with ‘Sgt. Twilight’s Flying School’ as lovably bumbling goof Icky is gulled into teaching a gang of wily thugs how to commit seemingly impossible crimes with aircraft… before finally wising up and lowering the boom…

Issue #44 (September 1946) heralds the resurrection of a deadly foe as ‘Return of the Shark’ sees the villain copying Albright’s latest invention to facilitate robbing planes in mid-air before a literally mad scientist forces Captain Midnight to participate in a deadly ‘Invention Duel to the Death’

December 1946’s CM #47 tangentially addresses the growing interest in horror material with ‘Fangs of the Werewolf’ (Frank art) as Midnight hunts an amnesiac GI in the US Sector of newly-partitioned Germany and encounters maniacal Nazi holdout Storm von Cloud who plans a wave of terror with his sinister Werewolf Corps of commandos.

As the 1940s drew to a close technological advancement, science fiction and crime became the most popular topics for action tales, and from #58 (December 1947) ‘Test Tunnel’ uses all those elements to great effect as Shark discovers Midnight’s true identity and lays a lethal trap in Albright’s latest plane-proving system…

Wrapping up this glorious grab-bag of Golden Age goodies is a tale of dogged endurance as ‘Captain Midnight Masters Glacier Peak’ (#61, March 1948; credited to Leonard Starr, but it looks like Dan Barry to me) sees Albright embroiled in a brutal struggle between rival Arctic expeditions to claim acclaim and vast riches at the top of the world…

With an eye-popping gallery of covers by Gormley, Binder, Mac Raboy and Frank, plus mesmerising period ads and mini-features such as ‘Captain Marvel Secret Messages’, ‘Captain Midnight’s Air Quiz’, ‘Captain Midnight’s Air Insignia’ and ‘Fawcett Comix Cards’ this is a superbly engaging feast of comics history and timeless thrills.
Captain Midnight Archives volume 1: Captain Midnight Battles the Nazis ® and ©Dark Horse Comics 2013. All rights reserved.

The Bluecoats volume 5: Rumberley


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-108-2

The myths and legends of the filmic American West have fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of owlhoots and gunfighters. Hergé and Moebius were passionate devotees and the wealth of stand-out Continental comics series ranges from Italy’s Tex Willer to such Franco-Belgian classics as Blueberry and tangential children’s classics such as Yakari. Even colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World and Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt’s Indian Summer fit the broad-brimmed bill.

As devised by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Cauvin – who has scripted every best-selling volume – Les Tuniques Bleues (or as we know them The Bluecoats) debuted at the end of the 1960s, specifically created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic gunslinger defected from weekly anthology Spirou to rival publication Pilote.

The substitute swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée series in Europe.

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour school, and when he died suddenly in 1972 his replacement, Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte slowly introduced a more realistic – but still overtly comedic – illustrative tone and manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936 and, after studying Fine Art in college, joined publishing giant Dupuis as a letterer in 1952.

Born in 1938, scripter Cauvin is also Belgian and before entering Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy writing – and began a glittering and prolific career at Spirou. In addition to Bluecoats he has written dozens of long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies of its 60 (and counting) album series.

As translated for English audiences, our sorry, long-suffering protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch; a pair of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel & Hardy: hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier and various key points of fabled America during the War Between the States.

The original format featured single-page gags set around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but from the second volume Du Nord au Sud (North and South) the sad-sack soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (a tale was rewritten as 18th album Blue rétro to describe how the chumps were drafted during the war).

Every subsequent adventure, although often ranging far beyond America and taking in a lot of thoroughly researched history, is set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your run-of-the-mill, whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other (easier) option is available.

Chesterfield is a big burly professional fighting man; a career soldier who has passionately bought into all the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little troll of a pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers and simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

Rumberley was the fifth translated Cinebook album (chronologically the 15th Franco-Belgian volume) and a far darker affair than usual. After a horrific battle Union and Confederate forces are spent and exhausted, although the Blues have advanced far into the South as a result of the sustained slaughter. However, with dwindling food and little ammunition the Generals decide to fall back and re-supply with fresh troops and munitions.

The only problem is what to do with the wounded. After all, bringing them back to safety would only slow down the rearward advance…

Then one bright privileged spark has the notion of just billeting the unfit Union soldiers on the nearest – albeit enemy – town…

Amongst the dead and dying are grievously injured Chesterfield and war-crazy Captain Stark. Even Blutch is there, although his leg wound might be minor, self inflicted or possibly even utterly bogus…

Their reception by the women, children, aged and infirm of Rumberley is hostile to say the least, but the Union dregs have no place else to go and no strength left to leave anyway. Forcibly appropriating the livery stable as a field hospital, Blutch and Chesterfield aid the exhausted doctors and surgeons as best they can but the simmering tension and occasional assaults by the townsfolk indicates that there is real trouble brewing and this kettle is about to boil over very soon…

And then the townsfolk start drifting away and rumours spread that a Confederate force is approaching Rumberley. The doctors opt to move their charges out, and Blutch finds himself in the uncanny position of staying behind as rearguard when Chesterfield decides to buy them time to get away…

When it comes, the battle is a bizarre affair. The Rebs are fit but have little ammunition so the Bluecoats give a good accounting of themselves, but are almost done for when Stark unexpectedly leads a life-saving cavalry charge of the Union wounded to save them. During the insane clash the town buildings are set afire and the citizens of Rumberley rush back to save their home and possessions…

And then something strange happens: the killing stops and Blues, Greys and civilians work together to save rather than destroy…

Here is another hugely amusing anti-war saga targeting younger, less world-weary audiences. Historically authentic, and always in good taste despite an uncompromising portrayal of violence, the attitudes expressed by the down-to-earth pair never make battle anything but arrant folly and, like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan, these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Funny, thrilling, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the sort of war-story and Western which appeals to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1979 by Lambil & Cauvin. English translation © 2011 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

Merry Christmas, Boys and Girls!

In keeping with my self-imposed Holiday tradition here’s another pick of British Annuals selected not just for nostalgia’s sake but because it’s my house and my rules…
After decades when only American comics and memorabilia were considered collectable or worthy, the resurgence of interest in home-grown material means there’s lots more of this stuff available and if you’re lucky enough to stumble across a vintage volume or modern facsimile, I hope my words convince you to expand your comfort zone and try something old yet new…
Still topping my Xmas wish-list is further collections from fans and publishers who have begun to rescue this magical material from print limbo in (affordable) new collections…
Great writing and art is rotting in boxes and attics or the archives of publishing houses, when it needs to be back in the hands of readers once again. As the tastes of the reading public have never been broader and since a selective sampling of our popular heritage will always appeal to some part of the mass consumer base, let’s all continue rewarding publishers for their efforts and prove that there’s money to be made from these glorious examples of our communal childhood.

Lion Annual 1967

By many and various (Fleetway)
No ISBN: ASIN: B001Q8Y308

From the late 1950s and increasingly through the 1960s, Scotland’s DC Thomson steadily overtook their London-based competitors – monolithic comics publishing giant Amalgamated Press.

Created by Alfred Harmsworth at the beginning of the twentieth century, AP perpetually sought to regain lost ground, and the sheer variety of material the southerners unleashed as commercial countermeasures offered incredible vistas in adventure and – thanks to the defection of Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid to the enemy – eventually found a wealth of anarchic comedy material to challenge the likes of the Bash Street Kids, Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and their unruly ilk.

During the latter end of that period the Batman TV show sent the entire world superhero-crazy. Amalgamated had almost finished absorbing all its other rivals such as Eagle’s Hulton Press to form Fleetway/Odhams/IPC and were about to incorporate American superheroes into their heady brew of weekly thrills.

Once the biggest player in children’s comics, Amalgamated had stayed at the forefront of sales by latching onto every fad: keeping their material contemporary, if not fresh. The all-consuming company began reprinting the early successes of Marvel comics for a few years; feeding on the growing fashion for US style adventure which had largely supplanted the rather tired True Blue Brit style of Dan Dare or DC Thompson’s Wolf of Kabul.

Even though sales of all British comics were drastically declining, the 1960s were a period of intense and impressive innovation with publishers embracing new sensibilities and constantly trying new types of character and tales. At this time Lion and its stable-mate Valiant were the Boys’ Adventure big guns (although nothing could touch DC Thomson’s Beano and Dandy in the comedy arena).

From that creative zenith comes this sturdy compendium: the 14th Lion Annual (on sale from the end of August 1966) which opens in a blaze of colour with history-feature ‘Famous Planes of World War II’, delivering the crucial specs on the ten most famous flying craft of the conflict as well as the captivating Contents of what’s to come.

The comic action commences with a fully-coloured painted exploit of a beloved icon. ‘Robot Archie and the Invaders’ (illustrated by Alan Philpott) pits the metal marvel and his human sidekicks Ted Ritchie and Ken Dale against malign interplanetary mechanoids.

Created by E. George Cowan & Philpott The Jungle Robot had debuted in Lion’s first issue in 1952 but vanished from sight after his initial serial. On his return in 1957 Archie became one of the most popular heroes of the British scene.

Prose thriller ‘“Avenger” versus the Atom Sub’ has potent spot illustrations from Bill Lacey and tells how Canadian reporters Rick Slade and Bill Hanley are crucial in scuppering the schemes of mad scientist Dr. Felipe Estramadura and returning a nuclear super submersible to its rightful owners. Then ultra-observant ‘Zip Nolan – Highway Patrol’ motorcycle cop shines in a short strip by Leo Rawlings, explosively capping a blazing oil well…

Joe Colquhoun’s venerable sky warrior ‘Paddy Payne – Fighter Ace!’ solves the mystery of seemingly invisible German fighter planes as a teaser to a glossy monochrome essay feature on pilots who won the Victoria Cross in ‘Warriors with Wings’ (accompanying art from John Batchelor), Graham Coton’s ‘Secrets of the Sea’ shares ghostly tales of nautical mystery and ‘The Bird That Flies Through Space’ reveals the photo-packed details of the then-latest advances in satellite technology.

The fascination of military gaming is explored in ‘War on Your Table Top’ before the comics strike back with medieval crusader ‘Maroc the Mighty’ losing his strength-enhancing magic bracelet yet still overcoming a vile feudal tyrant in a supernatural thriller by Alfredo Marculeta…

Pilot and troubleshooter Steve Darby invades an ‘Island of Secrets’ in text tale of modern-day piracy limned by John Vernon before Tarzan spoof ‘Charlie of the Chimps’ (by Colquhoun or possibly Spanish artist Rafart?) gets into all sorts of bother looking for breakfast.

In ‘The Return of the Sludge’ Lacey paints an all-colour classic as Slade and Hanley face again the all-consuming muck-monster which almost devoured the Earth. With their previous solution now untenable the ingenious journalists are forced to consider a nuclear option…

Coton then embellishes a tense prose tale of Court Martial in ‘Bill Duggan – Sapper Sergeant in King’s Corporal’ before a general knowledge ‘Picture Quiz’ takes us to a Ted Kearnon episode of ‘Zip Nolan – Highway Patrol’ who saves a visiting dignitary from assassination.

The story of the fall of Tippoo Sultan is revealed in text essay ‘The Tiger of Mysore’ after which ‘Robot-Archie and the Z-Ray’ (John Vernon) finds the irrepressible artificial avenger battling a mad scientist in all his monochrome glory before Coton offers more spooky sightings in eerie essay ‘Seen Any Good Ghosts Lately?’

More glossily formal fact-checking follows in photo features on ‘Living Under the Sea’, ‘Trains’, ‘Machines That See in the Dark’ and ‘Armoured Giants’ (tanks to you and me) until the indisputable star of the book makes his unmistakable presence felt.

The Spider was a mysterious super-scientist whose goal was to be the greatest criminal in the world. As conceived by Ted Cowan, he began his public career by forming a small team of crime specialists and when he decided fighting villains was more of a challenge he ordered Professor Pelham and cracksman Roy Ordini to reform too… with limited success.

Painted here in turbulent duo-tones of magenta and black by sublime stylist Reg Bunn, ‘The Spider in Cobra Island’ finds our reformed super-thief challenging a monstrous fiend turning people into zombie slaves and delivers his unique form of justice once again…

Vernon illustrates the prose yarn of ‘The Micro King’ with Special Investigator Mark Zeppelin hard-pressed to catch a maniac with a shrinking ray

In glittering red-&-black the history of elite military regiment The Green Howards is detailed in strip form in ‘The Battling Yorkshiremen!’ before monochrome fantasy fun resumes as ‘Jimmi from Jupiter’ (by Mario Capaldi) uses his alien abilities to teach a bully a memorable lesson and ‘The Rocket Jockeys’ offers a tense text tale of Lunar Mining and meteorite collision with pictures by Selby Donnison.

‘All About the West’ provides cartoon facts and potted history before the Festive furore concludes with mock-heroic shenanigans as a young lad asks ‘What Did You Do In The War, Dad?’ What the boy is told and what artist Bruno Maraffa depicts for us to see are of course radically different tales…

Slowly adapting to a more sophisticated audience, the editors were gradually giving Lion a unique identity as the decade passed. This collection would be the last to feature a general genre feel. Future years had pages filled with increasingly strange and antiheroic – even monstrous – material which made readers into slavish but delighted fanatics. However, viewed from today’s more informed perspectives this book is a splendid collection of graphic treats and story delights to enchant any kid or adult.
© Fleetway Publications Ltd. 1966. All rights reserved.

Batman Annual 1967

By Bill Finger, Jack Miller, Sheldon Moldoff, Joe Certa, Dick Sprang, Henry Boltinoff & various (Atlas Publishing & Distributing Co. Ltd/K. G. Murray Publishing)
No ISBN

Before DC Comics and other American publishers began exporting directly into the UK in 1959, our exposure to their unique brand of fantasy fun came from licensed reprints. British publishers/printers like Len Miller, Alan Class and Top Sellers bought material from the USA – and occasionally Canada – to fill 68-page monochrome anthologies – many of which recycled the same stories for decades.

Less common were the strangely coloured pamphlets produced by Australian outfit K. G. Murray and exported to the UK in a rather sporadic manner. The company also produced sturdy Annuals which had a huge impact on my earliest years (I strongly suspect my adoration of black-&-white artwork stems from seeing supreme stylists like Curt Swan, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson uncluttered by flat colour…).

In Britain we began seeing hardcover Atlas Batman Annuals in 1960 and, due to the vagaries of licensing, once the TV series started in 1966 were soon inundated with a wealth of choices as Top Sellers and World Distributors (Batman Storybook Annuals) released their own collections between 1967 and 1970.

Since then a number of publishers have carried on the tradition but only one at a time…

This particular tome emerged at the start of that Batman phenomenon which briefly turned the entire planet Camp-Crazed and Bat-Manic, and offers a delightfully eclectic mix of material crafted just before Julie Schwartz’s 1964 stripped-down relaunch of the character.

Here crimebusting is intermixed with alien fighting and idle daydreaming with the world’s greatest crime-fighters indulging in a comfortably strange, masked madness that was the norm in the Caped Crusader’s world.

This collection is printed in the cheap and quirky mix of alternatively monochrome, dual-hued and full-colour pages which made Christmas books such bizarrely beloved treats.

The sublime suspense and joyous adventuring begins with ‘The Return of the Second Batman and Robin Team’ by Bill Finger & Sheldon Moldoff from Batman #135 (October 1960): a sequel to a tale within a tale wherein faithful butler Alfred postulated a time when Bruce Wayne married Batwoman Kathy Kane and retired to let their son join grown-up Dick Grayson as a second generation Dynamic Duo.

Here the originals are forced to don the bat mantles one last time when an old enemy captures the new kids on the block…

British books always preferred to alternate action with short gag strips and the Murray publications depended heavily on the amazing output of DC cartoonist Henry Boltinoff. Delivery man ‘Homer’ then suffers a canine interruption before Batman invades ‘The Lair of the Sea Fox’ (Batman #132; (June 1960, by Finger, Moldoff & Charles Paris). The nefarious underwater brigand’s schemes to use Gotham City’s watery substructure to facilitate his plundering soon founders when the Caped Crusaders break out the Bat-Sub…

Boltinoff’s crystal-gazing ‘Moolah the Mystic’ clears up the ether his way as a prelude to the introduction of this Annual’s engaging co-star. John Jones, Manhunter from Mars debuted at the height of American Flying Saucer fever in Detective Comics #225. He was created by Joe Samachson, and is arguably the first superhero of the Silver Age, beating by a year the new Flash (who launched in Showcase #4 cover-dated October 1956).

The eccentric, often formulaic but never disappointing B-feature strip depicted the clandestine adventures of stranded alien J’onn J’onzz. Hardly evolving at all – except for finally going public as a superhero in issue #273 (November 1959) – the police-centred strip ran in Detective until #326, (1955- 1964 and almost exclusively written by Jack Miller from issue #229 and illustrated from inception by Joe Certa) before shifting over to The House of Mystery (#143 where he continued until #173) and a whole new modus vivendi.

He temporarily faded away during the Great Superhero Cull of 1968-70 but is back in full fettle these days.

His origins were simple: reclusive genius scientist Dr. Erdel built a robot-brain which could access Time, Space and the Fourth Dimension, accidentally plucking an alien scientist from his home on Mars. After a brief conversation with his unfortunate guest, Erdel died to a heart attack whilst attempting to return J’onzz to his point of origin.

Marooned on Earth, the Martian discovered that his new home was riddled with the ancient and primitive cancer of Crime and – being decent and right-thinking – determined to use his natural abilities (telepathy, psychokinesis, super-strength, speed, flight, vision, super-breath, shape-shifting, invisibility, intangibility, invulnerability and more) to eradicate evil, working clandestinely disguised as a human policeman. His only concern was the commonplace chemical reaction of fire which sapped Martians of all their mighty powers…

With his name Americanised to John Jones he enlisted as a Middletown Police Detective: working tirelessly to improve his new home; fighting evil secretly using inherent powers and advanced knowledge with no human even aware of his existence. Here in a thriller from Detective #299 (January 1962) Miller & Certa’s ‘Bodyguard for a Spy’ sees the mighty Manhunter almost fail in his mission because his human assistant Diane Meade is jealous of the beautiful Princess in his charge…

The magnificent Dick Sprang – with Paris inking – astoundingly illustrated Finger’s script for ‘Crimes of the Kite Man’ (Batman #133, August 1960): a full-colour extravaganza with the Caped Crusader hunting an audacious thief plundering the skyscrapers of Gotham whilst ‘The Deadly Dummy’ (Finger, Moldoff & Paris from Batman #134, September 1960) pitted the Dynamic Duo against a diminutive showman-turned-bandit fed up with being laughed at…

Reverting to monochrome, ‘The Martian Show-Off’ (Detective #295, September 1961) poses a confusing conundrum as the eerie extraterrestrial connives to inexplicably deprive a fellow cop of his prestigious 1000th arrest after which ‘Batman’s Interplanetary Rival’ (Detective Comics #282, August 1960) by Finger Moldoff & Paris finds the human heroes constantly upstaged by an alien lawman hungry for fame and concealing a hidden agenda before the interplanetary intrigue – and the Annual action – ends with The Mystery of the Martian Marauders’ (Detective Comics #301, March 1962) as deranged scientist Alvin Reeves fixes Erdel’s robot brain and accidentally brings Martian criminal invaders to Earth. After battling impossible odds the Manhunter triumphs and wins the ability to return at any time to his birthworld…

Cheap, cheerful and deliriously engaging this is a nostalgic treat no baby-boomer could possibly resist
© National Periodicals Publications Inc., New York 1967. Published by arrangement with the K. G. Murray Publishing Company, Pty. Ltd., Sydney.

Smash! Annual 1972

By many and various (IPC Magazines, Ltd)
SBN: 901267-62-7

Power Comics was a sub-brand used by Odhams to differentiate those periodicals which contained reprinted American superhero material from the company’s regular blend of sports, war, western, adventure and humour comics – such as Buster, Lion or Tiger.

During the Swinging Sixties the Power weeklies did much to popularise the budding Marvel universe characters in this country, which was still poorly served by distribution of the original American imports.

Smash! launched with a cover-date of February 5th 1966: an ordinary Odhams anthology weekly which was quickly re-badged as a Power Comic at the end of the year; combining home-grown funnies and British originated thrillers with resized US strips to capitalise on the American superhero bubble created by the Batman TV series.

By a process of publishing attrition it had become Britain’s last general purpose, non-themed weekly of the century. After it was gone all successive debuts were umbrella vehicles specifically focusing on War, Sport, Science Fiction or Humour in dedicated titles such as Battle, Shoot!, 2000AD or Whoopee!

The increasingly expensive American reprints were dropped in 1969 and Smash! was radically retooled with a traditional mix of action, sport and humour strips. Undergoing a full redesign it was relaunched on March 15th 1969 with all-British material and finally disappeared into Valiant in April 1971 after 257 issues. However, the Seasonal specials remained a draw until October 1975 when Smash Annual 1976 properly ended the era. From then on the Fleetway brand had no room for the old guard – except as re-conditioned reprints in cooler, more modern books…

As I’ve monotonously repeated, Christmas Annuals were forward-dated so this monumental mix of shock, awe and haw-haw was probably being put together between spring and September 1971, combining new strip or prose stories of old favourites with remastered reprints from other Odhams’ comics and a wealth of general interest fact features.

Following a contents page/cast pin-up double page spread, the action kicks off with ‘Moonie’s Magic Mate’ – sublimely painted by Carlos Cruz – detailing how the lucky lad’s bellicose genie hijacks him back to ancient Baghdad and gets into a duel with another stroppy wish-granter.

Then the monochrome section starts with Leo Baxendale’s ‘The Swots and the Blots’ – possibly crafted here by Mike Lacey – who put their long-suffering teacher through another hellish week whilst the initial prose thriller sees flying teen ‘Birdman from Baratoga’ return to the island where he was reared by gulls and other avians. Here he encounters a mad scientist with a paralysis ray before prankish ‘Sam’s Spook’ (Terry Bave?) gets his adopted mortal into more trouble.

‘It’s Wacker’ – originally Elmer when first seen in Buster – finds the un-able seaman accidentally sinking every naval berth he occupies, whether land-based or sea-borne, in a riotous romp from Roy Wilson before showman ‘Janus Stark’ makes himself a guinea pig for scientists and discovers a new ability in time to foil an audacious society thief…

Janus Stark was a fantastically innovative and successful strip. Created by Tom Tully for the relaunch of Smash in 1969, the majority of the art was from Solano Lopez’s Argentinean studio, and the eerie moodiness well suited the saga of a foundling who grew up in a grim orphanage to become the greatest escapologist of the Victorian age.

The Man with Rubber Bones also had his own ideas about Justice, and would joyously sort out scoundrels the Law couldn’t or wouldn’t touch. A number of creators worked on this feature which survived until the downsizing of Fleetway’s comics division in 1975 – and even beyond – as Stark escaped oblivion when the series was continued in France – even unto Stark’s eventual death and succession by his son!

Right here, back then we resume with ‘The Haunts of Headless Harry’ which sees the phantom’s pate at war with his torso at a spectral carnival after which monochrome photo-essay ‘“Timb-err!”’ lays out the details on the glamorous career of lumberjacking in Canada.

Hapless fantasist ‘Big ‘Ead’ (another Buster graduate, limned by Nadal) dreams of a life under the big top whilst social injustice and class war catastrophically break out in Reg Parlett’s deliriously witty ‘Consternation Street’

‘Send for Q-Squad’ – by an artist I recognise but can’t name – finds the elite 5-man team cutting short leave in Cairo to track down and destroy an experimental Nazi death-ray projector in an epic-length exploit, after which ‘Monty Muddle – The Man from Mars’ (originally Milkiway – The Man from Mars in Buster) explores Earth’s penal customs and ‘Smash Hits’ doles out a double helping of single-panel gags.

‘Four-Legged Cops!’ gives the photo-essay lowdown on the history and role of police dogs in Britain, after which ‘Percy’s Pets’ (Stan McMurtry or just possibly Cyril Price) adds a truly pestilential parrot to his menagerie before the compellingly macabre school strip ‘Master of the Marsh’ (Solano Lopez) sees enigmatic hermit/P.E. teacher Patchman roughly dealing with his regular tribe of hooligans and poachers too, to save badgers from being sold as zoo exhibits…

You might have noticed a preponderance of supernatural humour strips here and another follows when the magnificent and prolific Reg Parlett ushers us aboard his chaotic ‘Ghost Ship’ and wannabe pop stars ‘Nick and Nat – The Beat Boys’ (originally The Wacks when they played in Wham! – no, not them, the comic Wham!) experience a little guitar trouble. A full-colour photo-feature then reveals all the secrets of life in the Household Cavalry in ‘Men of Steel’

‘The World-Wide Wanderers’ were a literally international team of footballers drawn from many different countries – talk about prophetic! – who here star in a prose yarn about a cup final starting in a country riven by revolution and ending on an aircraft carrier at sea.

More nautical nonsense abounds as Wacker’ leads his shipmates on an insane sea safari sparked by a misidentified treasure map whilst a monochrome ‘Sporting Gallery’ of contemporary stars and headliners leads to more circus calamity in ‘The Haunts of Headless Harry’ before ‘Bulls-Eye’ offers snaps of and facts on Britain’s then-thriving boom in archery for kids.

Light-hearted everyman ‘His Sporting Lordship’ was one of the most popular strips of the era. Debuting in Smash!, Henry Nobbins survived the merger with Valiant and only retired just before the comic itself did.

Nobbins was a common labourer when he unexpectedly inherited £5,000,000 and the title Earl of Ranworth. Unfortunately, he couldn’t touch the cash until he restored the family’s sporting reputation… by winning all the championships, prizes and awards that his forebears had held in times past…

Further complicating the issue was rival claimant Parkinson who, with henchman Fred Bloggs, constantly tried to sabotage his attempts. Luckily the new Earl was ably assisted by canny, cunning butler Jarvis

Here (with art by Douglas Maxted?), the capable manservant has his hands full as Henry joins a basketball team where his nemeses are trying to beat him at his own game…

Photo-facts about winter sports tantalise in ‘Snow Men’ whilst ‘Big ‘Ead’ boasts of his sledding expertise after which ‘Lucky to Live!’ reveals a quartet of actual narrow escapes in a prose essay describing being swallowed by a whale, sinking in quicksand, shooting a man-eating lion and extinguishing an engine fire by climbing onto a plane’s wing… without landing first…

‘The Swots and the Blots’ then tackle a coal mountain in the playground and ‘Master of Escape!’ offers a lavishly illustrated history feature on escapologist Harry Houdini before ‘Consternation Street’ and ‘Monty Muddle’ create a lighter mood as we slip comfortably into the two-colour section (Black and orange, this year) for potted histories of ‘Warriors of the World’ Clive of India and Lawrence of Arabia.

‘Sam’s Spook’ then repopulates a haunted castle devoid of phantoms before Smash’s veteran troubleshooter and action-man barely survives ‘Simon Test’s Million-Pound Gamble’ after two aged One-Percenters wager on his ability to avoid their booby-trapped estate in a supreme thriller by Eric Bradbury or a very skilled ghost-artist…

General knowledge and observational skills are challenged in ‘Mike’s Quick Quiz’, the ‘Ghost Ship’ meets its maritime match and ‘The Beat Boys’ play one final encore as very bad buskers before this compendium of fact fun and thrills concludes with a spectacular and suspenseful Sci Fi thriller reprinted from Buster and moodily limned by Solano Lopez. Here, soon to be veteran villain Doctor Droll debuts, having unleashed a wave of killer action figures on a small English town in ‘March of the Toys’ with only plucky kids Jo and Sandy Douglas aware of his schemes or prepared to stop him.

An interesting and pleasing side-note is that in this lengthy yarn, sister Jo is a crucial component and fully equal partner in the villain’s defeat. That’s a pretty big deal in a boys’ comic story from a period where females almost never appeared except as comedy foils or frustrating authority figures…

As my knowledge of British creators from this time is so woefully inadequate, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve misattributed and besmirched the good names of Leo Baxendale, Mike Brown, Gordon Hogg, Stan McMurtry, Graham Allen, Mike Lacey, Terry Bave, Artie Jackson and numerous international artists anonymously utilised throughout this period. Even more so the unsung authors responsible for much of the joy in my early life – and certainly the childhoods of millions of others…

Christmas simply wasn’t right without a heaping helping of these garish, wonder-stuffed compendia offering a vast variety of stories and scenarios. Today’s celebrity, TV and media tie-in packages simply can’t compete, so why not track down a selection of brand-old delights with proven track record and guaranteed staying power…?
© IPC Magazines, Ltd. 1971.

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash


By Dave McKean & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-108-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Magnificent and thought-provoking… 9/10

After years of being sidelined and despised, sequential narrative has finally been acknowledged as one of humanity’s immortal and intrinsic art forms. That’s never been more apparent than in this astounding biographical examination of celebrated surrealist, landscape painter and war artist Paul Nash, as conceived, designed and created here by modern master of many disciplines Dave McKean.

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash was commissioned to supplement a major retrospective exhibition of Nash’s work, running at London’s Tate Gallery from October 26th 2016 to March 5th 2017, as part of 14-18 Now; the Arts plank of Britain’s national centenary commemoration of the Great War.

The project was set in motion as a result of the wonderful Lakes International Comic Art Festival (so you should also look them up, send an effusive thank you and book early for next year’s shindig) and also comes in a limited edition run of 400 signed hardbacks…

Rendered as a stunning melange of styles whilst alternatively racing and meandering through Nash’s nightmares and memories – as distilled from his works, correspondence and writings – this huge (280 x 219 mm) comics chronicle examines the artist’s thoughts and reactions in dreamlike snippets as he comes to terms with a troubled family life, the staggering shocks of war and his lifelong striving for a clear artistic vision.

These visions are all filtered through a lens of mud, blood and unremitting horror which didn’t diminish after surviving life in the trenches.

Potent and evocative, this is a compelling visual poem not meant as a primer, biographical introduction or hagiography. It’s a celebration of Nash’s art and ethos, and a reminder of the pointless futility of throwing away people’s lives, delivered in styles and imagery deftly chosen for emotional impact.

As such it might require you to consult a favourite search engine to grasp the subtler nuances.

Trust me, it’s definitely worth the effort.
Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash ™ & © Dave McKean. All rights reserved.

The Broons and Oor Wullie 1939-1945: The Lighter Side of World War II


By R.D. Low & Dudley D. Watkins & various (DC Thomson)
ISBN: 978-0-85116-651-3

The Broons and Oor Wullie are, singly or in eternal conjunction, one of the longest running newspaper cartoon features in British history, having appeared continuously in Scotland’s The Sunday Post since their debut in the March 8th 1936 edition.

Both boisterous wee boy and eccentrically engaging working class clan were co-created by journalist, writer and Editor Robert Duncan Low and DC Thomson’s greatest artist Dudley D. Watkins. Once their addictively engaging strips began to be collected in reprint editions as Seasonal Annuals – with solo books or each star-feature appearing in alternate years, right up to the present day – the Broons and Oor Wullie became an international milestone, beloved by Scots far from home and all devotees of cartooning mastery.

Low (1895-1980) began at DC Thomson as a journalist, rising to the post of Managing Editor of Children’s Publication and launching, between 1921 and 1933, the company’s “Big Five” story papers for boys: Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur.

In 1936 his next brilliant notion was the Fun Section: an 8-page comic-strip supplement to the publishing giant’s most popular national newspaper. This illustrated accessory launched on 8th March and from the outset The Broons and Oor Wullie were its standout stars…

Low’s shrewdest notion was devising both strips as domestic comedies played out in the charismatic Scottish idiom and vernacular. Supported by features such as Auchentogle by Chic Gordon, Allan Morley’s Nero and Zero, Nosey Parker amongst others, they laid the groundwork for the company’s next great leap. In December 1937 Low launched the very first DC Thomson weekly comic. The Dandy was cautiously followed by The Beano in 1938 and an early-reading title entitled The Magic Comic a year later.

War-time paper shortages and post-war rationing strictures curtailed this budding strip periodical revolution, and it was 1953 before the next wave of groundbreaking picture paper releases. The Topper started the ball rolling again (with Oor Wullie in the logo and masthead but not part of the magazine’s regular roster) and in that same year Low and Ken Reid created Roger the Dodger for The Beano

Low’s greatest weapon in those early days was his prolific illustrator Dudley Dexter Watkins, whose style shaped the look of DC Thompson’s comics output until the bombastic arrival of Leo Baxendale shook things up in the mid-1950s.

Watkins (1907-1969) had started life in Manchester and Nottingham as a genuine artistic prodigy before entering Glasgow College of Art in 1924. It wasn’t long before he was advised to get a job at burgeoning, Dundee-based DCT, where a 6-month trial illustrating boys’ stories led to comic strip specials and some original cartoon creations.

Percy Vere and His Trying Tricks and Wandering Willie, The Wily Explorer made him a the only choice for both lead strips in the new Fun Section and, without missing a beat, in 1937 Watkins added Dandy’s Desperate Dan to his weekly workload and Beano’s placidly outrageous Lord Snooty seven months later.

Watkins soldiered on in unassailable magnificence for decades, drawing some of the most lavishly lifelike and winningly hilarious strips in comics history. He died at his drawing board on August 20th 1969.

For all that time he had unflaggingly crafted a full captivating page each for Oor Wullie and The Broons every week as well as his many comics pages. His loss was a colossal blow to the company. DC Thomson reprinted old episodes of both strips in the newspaper and Annuals for seven years before a replacement was settled upon, whilst The Dandy reran Watkins’ Desperate Dan stories for twice that length of time.

A rock-solid facet of Scottish popular culture from the start, the first Broons Annual (technically Bi-Annual) had appeared in 1939, re-presenting the best of the Sunday strips; followed and replaced with Oor Wullie the next Christmas. However, as wartime paper restrictions increasingly began to bite, no annuals were published between 1943 and 1946.

Here you have a chance to scrutinise the rare strips of the war years in a sublime collection of pages tracking the cartoon icons’ experiences as typical folk getting by in the worst of all possible times…

Need a Mission Briefing?

Most of the multigenerational Brown family inhabit a tenement flat at 10 Glebe Street, in the timelessly metafictional Scottish industrial everytown of Auchentogle (sometimes alternatively dubbed Auchenshoogle and based on working-class Glasgow district of Auchenshuggle). It was and still is an ideal setting in which to tell gags, comment on events, spoof trends and fossilise the deepest and most reassuring cultural archetypes for sentimental Scots, wherever in the world they might actually be residing.

As is always the case, the adamant, unswerving keystone of any family feature is long-suffering, understanding Maw, who puts up with cantankerous, cheap, know-it-all Paw, and their battalion of stay-at-home kids – comprising in descending order of age and military preparedness – hunky, husky Joe, freakishly tall and thin Hen (Henry), sturdy Daphne, pretty Maggie, brainy Horace, mischievous twins Eck and the unnamed “ither ane” and a wee toddler referred to only as “The Bairn”.

Not officially billeted there but always hanging around is gruff patriarchal buffoon Granpaw – a comedic gadfly who spends more time at Glebe Street than his own cottage, constantly striving to impart decades of hard-earned if outdated experience to the kids…

Offering regular breaks from inner city turmoil and another chance to simultaneously sentimentalise, spoof and memorialise more traditional times, the family often repair to their But ‘n’ Ben (a dilapidated rustic cottage in the Highlands), always falling afoul of the weather, the countryside and all its denizens: fish, fowl, farm-grown and farm-folk…

In these wartime strips that formula was naturally disrupted as the entire family found different ways to contribute to the war-effort.

As able-bodied patriots, Joe and Hen instantly joined up but frequently found time to pop back to share tantalising tastes of the army game. Paw became an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Warden – as did Granpaw – revealing exhausting nights on fire watch and days working at the ship yards, Maw worked with the Red Cross whilst the older girls joined the V.A.D. (Volunteer Aid Detachment). Was it merely joshing when their siblings reckoned it was just to meet more men in uniform…?

Even the fractious and boisterous young ‘uns found ways to “contribute”…

Oor Wullie also soldiered on, giving a splendidly childlike boost to morale with his own version of “chin up and carry on, regardless”. His basic set-up has always been sublimely simply and eternally evergreen: the lad is just an overly-imaginative, good-hearted scamp with a talent for finding trouble and no hope of ever avoiding parental retribution when it becomes appropriate…

Wullie – AKA William MacCallum – is an archetypal rascal with time on his hands. He can usually be found ruminatively sitting on an upturned tin bucket at the start and finish of his page-a-week exploits.

His regular cast includes Ma and Pa, local copper P.C. Murdoch, assorted embattled teachers, relatives and other interfering adults who lavish gifts or inflict opprobrium upon the little pest and his pals Fat Bob, Soapy Joe Soutar, Wee Eck et al.

During this period Wullie’s world was heavily populated with adults always ready to apply some corporal punishment and thuggish bullies equally eager to prove their physical superiority – a fact repeatedly explained away and apologised for by the embarrassed and more-evolved editors of our more civilised age…

The Lighter Side of World War II was released in 1997: part of a concerted drive to keep the earlier material available to fans. This lavish and sturdy hardback compilation (still readily available through internet vendors) offers a captivating selection of strips from April 30th 1939, with the conflict still brewing far away, and includes the entire war era before concluding in December 1945 as servicemen all over the Empire – including Hen and Joe – readied themselves for demobilisation and life on Civvie Street.

These mostly monochrome memos of mirth-under-fire begin with – and are periodically punctuated by – full-colour cover adaptations of early Annual frontispieces. In attendance are atmospheric and informative year-by-year photo-features, period editorial cartoons, fact pages and excerpted headlines from The Sunday Post and other newspapers of the time, all combining to create a chronological chronicle of the Second World War through warm, funny and indomitably defiant eyes…

The endless escapades begin in 1939 with a few pre-Hostilities traditional teasers starring Oor Wullie before The Broons kick off the “Big Show” with a strip from October 1st reflecting everyone’s sudden concern over food supplies and the draconian discipline of The Blackout. The situation soon becomes a new normal and the cartoon stars slip back into familiar gag territory enlivened by recurring themes such as Hen and Joe coming a cropper after getting the lasses to launder their uniforms…

Bonus feature ‘Oor Wullie’s War Effort’ offers a colourful perspective on the wee lad’s morale-boosting capers (with plenty of superbly cruel caricaturing of Axis leaders Hitler and Mussolini) and is followed by fact-filled asides revealing how a major publishing house accommodated the public drive to cut paper use and recycle whilst still plugging sales for Dandy, Beano and the rest…

Many Wullie strips dealt with the boisterous boy’s attempts to dodge school and join any branch of the Services who would take him, whilst, not to be outdone, Paw Broon became obsessed with spies, suspiciously bulging bags and foreign accents…

The New Year dawned with a comedy poem from the Oor Wullie 1940 Annual plus a photo-feature explaining how the conflict had progressed, after which the usual subject-matter – gleeful goofs, family frolics and slapstick tomfoolery – are augmented by gas-mask gags, bomb shelter shenanigans and childish war-games involving young and old alike, as well as strips addressing the perennial problem of how to throw parties under government restrictions. Moreover, you can’t spit (or polish) without hitting some posh officer in need of taking down a peg and all involved are constantly collecting scrap to Hurt the Hun…

A similar eccentric ode – ‘The Broons’ Hoose’ – culled from their 1941 Annual with attendant news-based picture-feature leads into that tumultuous year as an aura of artistic anarchy returned, with tales of good-natured poaching, calamitous make-do-and-mend moments, brief encounters with spivs, conmen and black marketeers as well as increased emphasis on making your own entertainment and growing your own food.

Every so often, however, the strips became a vehicle for public information as when Maw Broon uses her Co-Op “Divvy” to buy Government Savings Certificates. Every war brings out blowhards and know-it-alls, but the ones here always regret their windy pontificating whether the unwilling audiences contain Wullie or the Broon clan…

A selection of headlines, full-colour reproductions of the painted covers for 1941’s Broons and 1942’s Oor Wullie Annuals (the last ones until 1946) and the by-now traditional photo-piece precede a range of strips from the key year of the conflict, with rationing and privation now an accepted part of daily life.

It only made the strips more imaginative and funny as Watkins’s style matured into a mesmerising melding of smooth caricature with slickly realistic slapstick as morale-boosting sporting fixtures and brief forays into the countryside countered the grim or gloomy news in the rest of The Sunday Post. The year concludes with ‘At the Barber’s’: a Wullie strip from 1944 deconstructing the artist’s skill with line and form…

The 1943 photo-feature deals with good news from North Africa and Southern Italy and leads directly into yet more graphic goonery; but although specific events are never mentioned it’s clear that growing optimism is infecting all the cartoon characters. Many Wullie strips in particular could be happening before or after the conflict and no one would be any the wiser.

Men in uniform are far more common in the Broons segments, but here too they’re having fun, playing pranks and chasing lassies again…

‘Domestic Bliss’ is another deconstructed exploration of Dudley Watkins’ astounding facility with comedy staging and characterisation and precedes the 1944 photo-feature which concentrates naturally enough on D-Day.

What follows is a splendid succession of classic gag outings, with sweets back in stock, eggs aplenty, holiday outings, hospital visits and parties taking the attention away from the real world. Proper Toffs are regularly embarrassed again, officious policemen outraged and teachers are once more hard-pressed to keep control as Wullie returns to japes, misguided helpfulness and get rich-quick schemes, whilst the Glebe Street irregulars go back to teasing Daphne and Maggie over thwarted romances, finding new definitions for Paw’s cussedness, embarrassing Maw in front of guests and indulging in all sorts of uproarious bad behaviour…

After a selection of Sunday Post headlines from 1943-1945, the accompanying history photo concentrates on V.E. Day 1945 showing renewed exuberance, focusing on servicemen and loved ones coming home and funny business very much back getting back to normal.

Most individual years are especially celebrated with their specific memorable and joy-inducing Christmas/Hogmanay strips and the collection concludes with Wullie’s May 13th celebration of the European war’s ending whilst The Broons episode for December 2nd 1945 shows Joe and Hen still in uniform but unable to tell the difference between home chores when On Leave and Jankers when back in Camp…

Crammed with all-ages fun, rambunctious hilarity and comfortably domestic warmth, these inspirational examples of enviable disgrace and wit under fire celebrate a mythic lost life and time are a sure cure for post-modern glums… and you can’t say fairer than that, can you?
© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. 1997.

Garth Ennis’ Complete Battlefields volume 2


By Garth Ennis, P. J. Holden, Russ Braun, Carlos Ezquerra, Hector Ezquerra & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-60690-222-6

Garth Ennis is a devout aficionado of the British combat comics he grew up reading. He’s also a writer with a distinct voice and two discrete senses of humour.

In Battlefields the cruel, surreal ultra-violent gross-out stuff that made Hitman and The Boys such guilty pleasures are generally sidelined to make room for the far more blackly sardonic ironies of Preacher and True Faith.

Ennis practically resurrected the combat genre in US comics through a sequence of superb War Stories co-created with the industry’s top illustrative talent for DC’s mature reader Vertigo imprint, and later crafted more of the same for Dynamite Entertainment through the themed-anthology series Battlefields, beginning in November 2008. Here he continued blending a unique viewpoint (pro-warrior but savagely anti-war) with his love of those British comics strips, and this second Complete Edition gathers three more triptychs set in World War II, all digging deep beyond big-screen glamour glitz to expose the grimy guts of life during wartime in self-contained arenas most of us never gave a second thought to…

Illustrated by P. J. Holden, the horrific madness resumes in 1942 as ‘Happy Valley’, highlights the outrageous behaviour and doomed camaraderie of airmen ‘From a Land Down Under’.

When not pulling stupid pranks or rowdily carousing, the Australians of 444 Squadron spend their nights pounding the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr Valley in their Vickers Wellington bombers…affectionately known as “Wimpys”.

However, one particular crew is more than a bit upset when their top-notch pilot is replaced by fresh-faced Ken Harding; a kid straight out of flight school. However, after the first mission the frequent fliers have cause to reassess the weird little sprog and his raw skill or incredible luck.

The magic happens again after dull times and enforced grounding ‘In Pomgolia’ leads to more nights of sheer terror and exhilaration before the inevitable finally happen in the breathtaking conclusion ‘Who’ll Come on Ops in a Wimpy With Me?’

In volume one Ennis and his venerable old collaborator Carlos Ezquerra (artistically aided, abetted and inked by his son Hector) introduced a work-shy, callow crew of Londoners manning a Churchill Tank who had to adapt to a new commander in the short squat shape of a foul-mouthed Geordie, who babbled orders in his bizarre northern jibber-jabber no normal bloke could understand…

Now Sergeant Stiles returns in ‘The Firefly and His Majesty’. It’s February 1945, and, riding a brand new Sherman Firefly, he’s part of a push deep into enemy territory. Sadly, a fanatical old adversary piloting Germany’s last super-weapon is ready to offer the invaders a lethal ‘Welcome to the Fatherland’

Stiles is now part of the Fourth Royal Tank Regiment, having fought his way from Africa all the way up into Italy and fully intends on killing a few more smug “Jormans” before he’s done.

Soon he and his new squad come upon the remains of an American tank column that has been obliterated by two King Panzers. As Stiles tracks one of them he thanks his lucky stars the monster tanks weren’t around until the war was almost won. Still, his Firefly isn’t exactly standard issue either…

As they cautiously hunt for the enemy, the crew share the story of why Stiles hates Tigers so much and why he’s looking for one German tank commander in particular. ‘Soldiers of the Reich’ then sees the over-eager sergeant finally make a mistake which – he judges – makes him no better than the scum he’s hunting…

Filled with righteous fury, Stiles at last confronts his hated enemy in the ruins of a bombed-out cathedral, but after all modern innovations of butchery are exhausted the final terrible battle in the ‘Kingdom of Dust’ is fought and won with the most primitive of weapons…

The final tale in this turbulent tome also features a returning character.

‘Motherland’ is drawn by Russ Braun and returns to the Soviet theatre of war to chart the further exploits of female flyer Anna Borisnova Kharkova. She began defending her country as a night bomber harassing the German invaders as one of the all-woman squadrons dubbed Nachthexen or Night Witches…

Now a Captain, she is part of a vast Flight of fighter pilots harassing the enemy as they retreat from Stalingrad, pushed back by the sheer volume if not quality of the massed Russian war machine. The Soviets are now building up to a mass attack to liberate Kursk, but female pilots still struggle to earn the respect of their arrogant male comrades.

Although she has an ally in Commander Colonel Golovyachev and a friend in her timid mechanic Private Meriutsa (AKA “Mouse”) she has also picked up a ruthless enemy in Political Officer Major Merkulov of the NKVD, whom she caught in a moment  of arrant cowardice under fire…

Anna contents herself with killing Germans whenever she can and is astounded after a spectacularly disastrous sortie to be made a Hero of the Soviet Union for her efforts. The award results in her being removed from combat missions and ordered to school more hopelessly ineffective girls in the intricacies of aerial warfare, but her attempts to protect them are wasted once new Political Officer Captain Bobrov orders the untrained novices into combat…

Rushing after her defenceless charges Anna suddenly finds herself in the greatest and most important battle of her life…

Packed with blistering action, horrific human experiences and breathtaking gallows humour, these amazing tales of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances come with a fascinating and informative Afterword from the author, script excerpts, recommended further reading, covers by Garry Leach, plus extensive sketchbook sections featuring character designs, layouts, pencils and finished art from Braun, Holden and the Ezquerras.

These are not stories for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill the carefully constructed moments of tension, terror and relief strike home and strike hard; whether he is aiming for stress-releasing belly laughs,, lambasting the Powers That Be always ready to send fodder to slaughter or, as seen most frequently here, examining in excoriating detail how the acts of war makes mortals into monsters.

These hyper-authentic yarns reek of grim veracity and are a tribute to the spirit of people at their very best and worst. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.
© 2010, 2011 Spitfire Productions, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

GI Zombie volume 1: A Star Spangled War Story


By Justin Grey, Jimmy Palmiotti, Scott Hampton & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5487-2

When DC controversially rebooted their entire continuity with the New 52 in 2011, most reader and critical attention was focussed on big-name costumed stars, but the move also allowed creators to revisit older genre titles from those eras when superheroes were not the only fruit.

A number of venerable war titles and stars were revisited and re-imagined – even the iconic and presumed sacrosanct Sgt. Rock – and some novel ideas and treatments were realised… although largely ignored by the audiences they were intended for.

One of the most appealing and well-realised appeared in a revitalised Star Spangled War Stories, outrageously blending the global war on terror, current socio-political disaffection and Earth’s ongoing fascination with the walking dead to produce a spectacular, tongue-in-cheek blockbuster romp tailor-made for TV or movies.

Perhaps that was the point all along…

Written by Justin Grey & Jimmy Palmiotti with art from Scott Hampton, the serialised saga from SSWS volume 2 #1-8 (spanning September 2014-May 2015) has been collected in one riotous read, augmented by a smart little epilogue that graced Star Spangled War Stories: Future’s End #1.

The premise is deliciously simple and sublimely subversive. Soldier Jared Kabe has been the Republic’s most secret weapon for decades: an unkillable agent infallibly serving the nation in secret through most of its wars and so many of its unpublicised black-ops counter-strikes against America’s implacable enemies.

And just so we’re on the same page here, he’s unkillable because he’s already dead…

When not battling on numerous officially sanctioned war fronts, this perfect operative has tackled pervasive social ills such as drug cartels and human traffickers, and it’s just this kind of simple mission which leads to an unlife-changing moment as his commanding officer – Codename: Gravedigger – pairs him with maverick – but still breathing – agent Carmen King.

They were only supposed to infiltrate a biker gang militia, but the case takes on a life of its own when the smelly redneck nut-jobs buy medium-range missiles and a deadly bio-agent to use on Washington DC.

After an astounding amount of cathartic bloodshed, Carmen is soon deep undercover, playing house with a slick madman running a clandestine organisation of would-be world conquerors whilst Jared strives to prevent the strike on the government. He succeeds by bringing the missile down in unlucky Sutterville, Tennessee, only to discover to his horror that he has a personal connection to the payload and must face a horrific ‘Small Town Welcome’

As Jared and Special Forces struggle to contain a spreading contagion, Carmen is deep underground in a sybaritic paradise housing an enclave of wealthy fanatics in Utah, all eager to remake the world to their specifications. Even whilst playing along with the head loon she has one eye on the citadel’s labs and armoury and the other on her ‘Exit Strategy’

Southern crisis largely contained, Kabe rushes to rendezvous with King and selects a uniquely undead methodology to enter the subterranean fortress; one that offers ‘Door-to-Door Delivery’, but the head paranoid panics and chooses to abandon his base and acolytes in the ‘The Living Desert’. Taking Carmen and a few select, trusted individuals, he flees to San Francisco after first employing his private nuclear option…

‘Two the Hard Way’ sees Jared survive the detonation and another bio-bomb outbreak before heading for the coast where Carmen’s cover has been blown and she is attempting to blast her way out.

With the disclosure of Kabe’s past connections to the madmen in charge, ‘The Final Countdown’ begins with the GI Zombie, Carmen and a dedicated cadre of special agents invading a locked-down fortress determined to prevent the “City by the Bay” becoming another glowing toxic crater…

The main event magnificently completed, there’s a little extra treat for readers: ‘United States of the Dead’ appeared in Star Spangled War Stories: Future’s End #1, set “five years from now” and reveals how a zombie bio-agent has been used to infect Gotham City and how Kabe and Co. must stop the rot to save the world…

With cover and variants by Dave Johnson, Howard Porter and the late, great and already much-missed Darwyn Cooke, this is a fabulous high-velocity action adventure: fast paced, devastatingly action packed and simply dripping with sharp and mordant black comedy moments. This is the kind of graphic extravaganza you use to convert folks who hate comics…
© 2014, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

U.S.S. Stevens – The Collected Stories


By Sam Glanzman (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-80158-2

To the shame and detriment of the entire comics industry, for most of his career Sam Glanzman was one of the least-regarded creators in American comicbooks. Despite having one of the longest careers, most unique illustration styles and the respect of his creative peers, he just never got the public acclaim his work deserved.

Thankfully that’s all changed in recent years and more happily still, unlike many unsung cartooning geniuses, he’s still alive to enjoy the belated spotlight.

Glanzman has been drawing and writing comics since the Golden Age, most commonly in classic genres ranging from war to mystery to fantasy, where his work is – as always – raw, powerful, subtly engaging and irresistibly compelling.

On titles such as Kona, Monarch of Monster Island, Voyage to the Deep, Combat, Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Hercules, Haunted Tank, The Green Berets, cult classic The Private War of Willie Schultz, and especially his 1980s graphic novels (A Sailor’s Story and Wind, Dreams and Dragons – which you should buy in the recent single volume edition from Dover), Glanzman produced magnificent action-adventure tales which fired the imagination and stirred the blood. His stuff always sold and at least won him a legion of fans amongst fellow artists, if not from the small, insular and over-vocal fan-press.

In later years Glanzman worked with Tim Truman’s 4Winds company on high-profile projects like The Lone Ranger, Jonah Hex and barbarian fantasy Attu. Moreover, as the sublime work gathered here attests, he was also one of the earliest pioneers of graphic autobiography; translating his WWII experiences as a sailor in the Pacific into one of the very best things to come out of DC’s 1970s war comics line…

U.S.S. Stevens, DD479 was a peripatetic filler-feature which bobbed about between Our Army at War, Our Fighting Forces, G.I. Combat, Star Spangled War Stories and other anthological battle books; backing-up the cover-hogging, star-attraction glory-boys. It provided wry, witty, shocking, informative and immensely human vignettes of shipboard life, starring the fictionalised crew of the destroyer Glanzman had served on. It was, in most ways, a love story and tribute to the vessel which had been their only home and refuge under fire.

In four- or sometimes five-page episodes, Glanzman recaptured and shared the life of comradeship we peace-timers can only imagine and, despite the pulse-pounding drama of the lead features, we fans all knew these little snippets were what really happened when the Boys went “over there”…

A maritime epic to rank with Melville or Forester – and with stunning pictures too – every episode of this astounding unsung masterpiece is now housed in one stunning hardback compilation and if you love the medium of comics, or history, or just a damn fine tale well-told you must have it…

That’s really all you need to know, but if you’re one of the regular crowd needful of more of my bombastic blather, a much fuller description now follows…

As I’ve already stated, Glanzman has recently been enjoying some much-deserved attention and this massive tome starts by sharing Presidential Letters from Barack Obama and George Herbert Walker Bush for his service and achievements. Then follows a Foreword from Ivan Brandon and a copious and informative Introduction by Jon B. Cooke detailing ‘A Sailor’s History: The Life and Art of Sam J. Glanzman’.

Next comes a brace of prototypical treats; the first comicbook appearance of U.S.S. Stevens from Dell Comics’ Combat #16 (April-June 1965) and the first cover featuring the valiant vessel from Combat #24, April 1967…

The first official U.S.S. Stevens, DD479 appeared after Glanzman approached Joe Kubert, who had recently become Group Editor for DC’s war titles. He commissioned ‘Frightened Boys… or Fighting Men’, which appeared in Our Army at War #218 (April 1970), depicting a moment in 1942 when boredom and tension were replaced by frantic action as a suicide plane targeted the ship…

A semi-regular cast was introduced slowly throughout 1970; fictionalised incarnations of old shipmates including skipper Commander T. A. Rakov, who ominously pondered his Task Force’s dispersal, moments before a pot-luck attack known as ‘The Browning Shot’ (Our Fighting Forces #125, May/June) proved his fears justified…

Glanzman’s pocket-sized tales always delivered a mountain of information, mood and impact and ‘The Idiot!’ (OAaW #220, June) is one of his most effective, detailing in four mesmerising pages not only the variety of suicidal flying bombs the Allies faced but also how appalled American sailors reacted to them.

Sudden death seemed to be everywhere. ‘1-2-3’ (OFF #126, July/August) detailed how quick action and intuitive thinking saved the ship from a hidden gun emplacement whilst ‘Black Smoke’ (Our Army at War #222, from the same month) revealed how a know-it-all engineer caused the sinking of the Stevens’ sister-ship by not believing an old salt’s frequent, frantic warnings…

All aboard ship were regularly shaken by the variety of Japanese aircraft and skill of the pilots. ‘Dragonfly’ (OFF #127, September/October) shows exactly why, whilst an insightful glimpse of the enemy’s psychological other-ness is graphically, tragically depicted in the tale of ‘The Kunkō Warrior’ (OAaW #223, September)…

A strange encounter with a WWI wooden vessel forced a ‘Double Rescue!’ (Star Spangled War Stories #153, October/November) after which ‘How Many Fathoms?’ (OFF #128, November/December) again counted the human cost of bravery with devastating, understated impact before ‘Buckethead’ (OAaW #225, November) related one swabbie’s unique reaction to constant bombardment.

‘Missing: 320 Men!’ (G.I. Combat #145, December 1970-January 1971) introduced Glanzman-analogue Jerry Boyle who whiled away helpless moments during a shattering battle by sketching cartoons of his astonished shipmates. ‘Death of a Ship!’ (OAaW #227, from January 1971) then dealt with classic war fodder as submarine and ship hunt each other in a deadly duel…

A military maritime mystery is solved by Commander Rakov in ‘Cause and Cure!’ (Our Army at War #230, March) whilst the next issue posed a different conundrum as the ship lost all power and landed ‘In the Frying Pan!’ (April 1971).

The vignettes were always less about warfare than its effects – immediate or cumulative – on ordinary guys. ‘Buck Taylor, You Can’t Fool Me!’ (OAaW #232) catalogued his increasingly aberrant behaviour but posited some less likely reasons, after which old school hero Bos’n Egloff saved the day during the worst typhoon of the war in ‘Cabbages and Kings’ (OFF #131, July/August) whilst ‘Kamikaze’ (OAaW #235 August) boldly and provocatively told a poignant life-story from the point of view of the pilot inside a flying bomb…

An informative peek at the crew of a torpedo launch station in ‘Hip Shot’ (G.I. Combat #150 October/November) segues seamlessly into the dangers of shore leave ‘In Tsingtao’ (OFF #134, November/December) whilst ‘XDD479’ (Our Army at War #238 November) reveals a lost landmark of military history.

The real DD479 was one of three destroyers test-trialling ship-mounted spotter planes and this little gem explains why that experiment was dropped…

Buck popped back in ‘Red Ribbon’ (G.I.C #151 December 1971-January 1972), sharing a personal coping mechanism to make shipboard chores less “exhilarating”, whilst ‘Vela Lavella’ (OAaW #240 January 1972) captures the closed-in horror of night time naval engagement and ‘Dreams’ (G.I.C #152 February/March) peeps inside various heads to see what the ship’s company would rather be doing, before ‘Batmen’ (OAaW #241 February) uses a lecture on radar to recount one of the most astounding exploits of the war…

Every U.S.S. Stevens episode was packed with fascinating fact and detail, culled from the artist’s letters home and service-time sketchbooks, but those invaluable memento belligeri also served double duty as the basis for a secondary feature.

The first ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ appeared in Our Army at War #242 (March 1972); a compendium of pictorial snapshots sharing quieter moments such as the first passage through the Panama Canal, sleeping arrangements or K.P. duties peeling spuds, and is followed here by an hilarious record of the freshmen sailors’ endurance of an ancient naval hazing tradition inflicted upon every “pollywog” crossing the equator for the first time in ‘Imperivm Neptivm Regis’ (OFF #136 (March/April 1972).

A second ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ (OAaW #244, April) reveals the mixed joys of “Liberty in the Philippines” after which a suitably foreboding ‘Prelude’ from Weird War Tales (#4 March/April 1972) captures the passive-panicked tension of daily routine whilst a potentially morale-shattering close shave is shared during an all-too-infrequent ‘Mail Call!’ (G.I. Combat #155, April/May)…

A thoughtful man of keen empathy and insight, Glanzman often offered readers a look at the real victims. ‘What Do They Know About War?’ (OAaW #244, April) sees peasant islanders trying to eke out a living, only to discover too many similarities between Occupiers and Liberators, whilst the next issue focussed on the sailors’ jangling nerves and stomachs. ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the War!’ (#245, May) revealed what happened when DD479 was mistakenly declared destroyed and, thanks to an administrative iron curtain, found it impossible to refuel or take on food stores…

Cartoonist Jerry Boyle resurfaced with a ‘Comic Strip’ in Our Fighting Forces #138 (July/August) after which Glanzman produced one of the most powerful social statements in an era of tumultuous change.

Our Army at War #247 (July 1972) featured a tale based on decorated Pearl Harbor hero Doner Miller who saved lives, killed the enemy and won medals, but was not allowed to progress beyond the rank of shipboard domestic because of his skin. ‘Color Me Brave!’ was an excoriating attack on the U.S. Navy’s segregation policies and is as breathtaking and rousing now as it was then…

‘Ride the Baka’ (OAaW #248 August) revisits those constant near-miss moments sparked by suicide pilots after which our author shares broken sleep in ‘A Nightmare from the Beginning’ (OFF #139 September/October) whilst ‘Another Kunkō Warrior’ (OFF #140 November/December) sees marines taking an island and encountering warfare beyond their comprehension.

1973 began with a death-dipped nursery rhyme detailing ‘This is the Ship that War Built!’ (G.I.C #157 December 1972-January 1973) before an impromptu lecture on maritime military history is delivered by ‘Buck Taylor’ (OFF #141 January/February) whilst Glanzman struck an impassioned note for war-brides and lonely ships passing in the night with ‘The Islands Were Meant for Love!’ (Star Spangled War Stories #167 February)…

Terror turns to wonder when sailors encounter the ‘Portuguese Man of War’ (OAaW #256 August), a shore leave mugging is thwarted thanks to ‘Tailor-Mades’ (OFF #143 June/July) and letters home are necessarily self-censored in ‘The Sea is Calm… The Sky is Bright…’ (OAaW #257 June), but shipboard relationships remain complex and bewildering, as proved in ‘Who to Believe!’ (SSWS #171, July).

The strife of constant struggle comes to the fore in ‘The Kiyi’ (OAaW #258 July) and is seen from both sides when souvenir hunters try to take ‘The Thousand-Stitch-Belt’ (SSWS #172 August), but, as always, it’s the non-combatants who truly pay the price, just like the native fishermen in ‘Accident…’ (OAaW #259, August).

Even the quietest, happiest moments can turn instantly fatal as the good-natured pilferers swiping fruit at a refuelling station discover in ‘King of the Hill’ (SSWS #174, October).

An unlikely tale of a kamikaze who survived his final flight but not his final fate, ‘Today is Tomorrow’ (OAaW #261, October) is followed by a strident, wordless plea for understanding in ‘Where…?’ (OAaW #262 November 1973) before the sombre mood is briefly lifted with a tale of selfishness and sacrifice in ‘Rocco’s Roost’ from Our Army at War #265, February 1974.

The following issue provide both a gentle ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ covering down-time in “The Islands” and a brutal tale of mentorship and torches passed in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, after which a truly disturbing tale of what we now call gender identity and post-traumatic stress disorder is recounted in the tragedy of ‘Toro’ from the April/May Our Fighting Forces #148…

‘Moonglow’ from OAaW #267 (April 1974) reveals how quickly placid contemplation can turn to blazing conflagration, whilst – after a chilling, evocative ‘Sam Glanzman’s War Diary’ (OAaW #269 June) – ‘Lucky… Save Me!’ (OAaW #275, December 1974) shows how memories of unconditional love can offset the cruellest of injuries…

‘Heads I Win, Tails You Lose!’ (OAaW #281, June 1975) explores how both friend and foe alike can be addicted to risk, after which ‘I Am Old Glory…’ (Our Army at War #282 July) sardonically transposes a thoughtful veneration with the actualities of combat before ‘A Glance into Glanzman’ by Allan Asherman (Our Army at War #284, September 1975) takes a look at the author’s creative process.

Then it’s back to those sketchbooks and another peep ‘Between the Pages’ (OAaW #293, June 1976) before ‘Not Granted!’ (OAaW #298, November 1976) discloses every seaman’s most fervent wish…

The stories were coming further and further apart at this time and it was clear that – editorially at least – the company was moving on to fresher fields. Glanzman however had saved his best till last as a stomach-churning visual essay displayed the force of tension sustained over months in ‘…And Fear Crippled Andy Payne’ (Sgt. Rock #304, May 1977) before an elegy to bravery and stupidity asked ‘Why?’ in Sgt. Rock #308 from September 1977.

And that was it for nearly a decade. Glanzman – a consummate professional – moved on to other ventures. He would, however, be asked about U.S.S. Stevens all the time and eventually, nearly a decade later, returned to his spiritual stomping grounds in expanded tales of DD479: both in his graphic novel memoirs and comic strips.

The latter appeared in anthological black-&-white Marvel magazine Savage Tales (#6-8, spanning August to December 1986) under the umbrella title ‘Of War and Peace – Tales by Mas’. First up was ‘The Trinity’ which blended present with past to detail a shocking incident of a good man’s breaking point whilst a lighter tone informed ‘In a Gentlemanly Way’ as Glanzman recalled the different means by which officers and swabbies showed their pride for their ships. ‘Rescued by Luck’ than concentrated on a saga of island survival for sailors whose ship had sunk…

Next comes the hauntingly powerful black-&-white tale of then and now entitled ‘Even Dead Birds Have Wings’ (created for the Dover Edition of A Sailor’s Story from 2015) after which a chronologically adrift yarn (from Sgt. Rock Special #1, October 1992) incites potently elegiac feelings as it describes an uncanny act of valiant gallantry under fire and the ultimate fate of old heroes in ‘Home of the Brave’

A few years ago, by popular – and editorial – demand Glanzman returned to the U.S.S. Stevens for an old friend’s swan song series; providing new tales for each issue of DC’s anthological 6-issue miniseries Joe Kubert Presents (December 2012- May 2013).

More scattershot reminiscences than structured stories, ‘I REMEMBER: Dreams’ and ‘I REMEMBER: Squish Squash’ recapitulate unforgettable moments seen through eyes at the sunset end of life; recalling giant storms and lost friends, imagining how distant families endured war and absence but, as always, balancing the funny memories with the tragic, like that time when the stiff-necked new commander…

‘Snapshots’ continues the reverie, blending old war stories with cherished times as a kid on the farm whilst ‘The Figurehead’ delves deeper into the character of Buck Taylor and his esoteric quest for seaborne nirvana…

Closing that last hurrah were ‘Back and Forth 1941-1944’ and ‘Back and Forth 1941-1945’: an encapsulating catalogue of war service as experienced by the creator, mixing facts, figures, memories and reactions to form a quiet tribute to all who served and all who never returned…

With the stories mostly told, the ‘Afterword’ by Allan Asherman details those heady days when he worked at DC Editorial and Glanzman would unfailing light up the offices by delivering his latest strips after which this monolithic milestone offers a vast and stunningly detailed appendix of ‘Story Annotations’ by Jon B. Cooke.

This book is a magnificent collection of comic stories based on real life and what is more fitting than to end it with ‘U.S.S. Stevens DD479’ (coloured by Frank M. Cuonzo & lettered by Thomas Mauer); one final, lyrical farewell from Glanzman to his comrades and the ship which still holds his heart after all these years…?

This is an extraordinary work. In unobtrusive little snippets, Glanzman challenged myths, prejudices and stereotypes – of morality, manhood, race, sexuality and gender – decades before anybody else in comics even tried.

He also brought an aura of authenticity to war stories which has never been equalled: eschewing melodrama, faux heroism, trumped-up angst and eye-catching glory-hounding but instead explaining how “brothers in arms” really felt and acted and suffered and died.

Shockingly funny, painfully realistic and visually captivating, U.S.S. Stevens is phenomenal and magnificent: a masterpiece by one of the very best of “The Greatest Generation”. I waited forty years for this and I couldn’t be happier: a sublimely insightful, affecting and rewarding graphic memoir every home, school and library should have.
Artwork and text © 2015 Sam Glanzman. All other material © 2015 its respective creators.

U.S.S. Stevens – The Collected Stories will be released on July 20th 2016 and is available for pre-order now. Check out Dover Publications and your internet retailer or comic shop of choice.

Garth Ennis’ Complete Battlefields volume 1


By Garth Ennis, Russ Braun, Peter Snejbjerg, Carlos Ezquerra, Hector Ezquerra & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-60690-255-4

Garth Ennis is the best writer of war comics in America today. In fact, if you disregard the marvellous Commando Picture Library series published by DC Thomson (which you shouldn’t – but no one admits to reading them in my circle), he may well be the only creator regularly contributing to the genre in the entire English language.

After crafting an occasional sequence of superb War Stories with the industry’s top illustrative talent for DC’s mature reader Vertigo imprint, he then moved on to craft more of the same for Dynamite Entertainment through themed-anthology series Battlefields, which began publication in November 2008.

Here he continued to blend his unique viewpoint with his love of the British comics combat strips he read as a lad. This first Complete Edition (available in both hardback and softcover editions as well as a digital release) gathers the first nine issues – comprising three separate triptychs set in World War II – which all delve below the standardised Hollywood glitz of a conflict we all think we have a passing familiarity with to reveal the grimy guts of combat in self-contained arenas most of us never knew existed…

Illustrated by Russell Braun, the first offering is a tale told from two opposing viewpoints, with both inexorably destined to ultimately and finally clash. Kurt Graf is a young German soldier on the Eastern Front; clinging to life and increasingly appalled by the behaviour of his comrades as they strive to crush the dogged resistance of the Soviets defending their homeland.

Elsewhere, the Russians are about to unleash their latest counter-weapon… women pilots…

Despite being despised by their male counterparts and generally saddled with the worst equipment, these dedicated warriors – especially the night-bomber squadron to which diminutive Lieutenant Anna Kharkova belongs – quickly begin to take a toll on the war-weary invaders, earning the name Nachthexen‘The Night Witches’

As the months pass we follow both narrators deeper into hell, where all passions are temporary but overwhelmingly ferocious. And then, as the continually mounting toll of atrocities seems more than any could possibly bear, the protagonists at last meet under the most inauspicious conditions and the inevitable happens…

The pulse-quickening pitched cinematic battles of the Russian Front are replaced with more sedate but no less sinister and horrifying scenes in ‘Dear Billy’ – limned by Peter Snejbjerg – which beguilingly examines other repercussions of love in wartime. Carrie Sutton is a British nurse who barely survived the wanton slaughter and worse which the Japanese inflicted following their conquering Singapore.

After a frankly miraculous escape Carrie is taken to hospital in Calcutta where, after her body has recuperated, she is pressed into service on the wards. Here, even if she cannot forget what was done to her, she can strike back by helping heal the soldiers, sailors and airmen who will eradicate the inhuman enemy.

Her dreary half-life changes after meeting pilot William Wedgewood. Despite the appalling injuries inflicted upon him by the oriental devils he remains upbeat, and upon recovery is eager to get back in the air and punish the enemy. Meanwhile, Carrie too has found an occasional yet deeply personal way to get back at the foe…

The torrid relationship lasts the length of the war; with each prosecuting the conflict in their own way, but when Hiroshima and Nagasaki end hostilities and it’s time to put away weapons and make friends again, one traumatised soul realises the vengeance-taking can never end…

Spectacularly uproarious and doused with Ennis’s signature coal-black humour, ‘The Tankies’ is drawn by venerable old collaborator Carlos Ezquerra and inked by his son Hector. Set in the days immediately after the Normandy Landings in June 1944, the saga follows the crew of a British Churchill Tank after their upper class commander is killed in a most grotesque manner.

The work-shy, callow Londoners are at a bit of an impasse until taken in hand by a battle-hardened tank-man Non-Com who has fought his way from Africa all the way up into Italy and now intends to kill a few more foes here.

If only he wasn’t a bloody Geordie, babbling his bizarre northern jibber-jabber wot no normal bloke could understand…

Still, with Corporal Stiles in charge, the unlikely lads are soon rumbling forward to support the rapidly-diminishing ranks of British and Canadian infantry. Everything will be fine just as long as they don’t meet any Panzers or Tiger Tanks…

Emphatically highlighting with gory attention to detail the idiocy of command and incredible bravery of the under-trained allied soldiers inexorably forcing back the entrenched German veterans, this is prime Ennis: ghastly, hilarious and unforgettable…

Also included are a fascinating and informative Afterword from the author, recommended further reading, covers and variants by John Cassaday & Garry Leach, plus extensive sketchbook sections featuring character designs, layouts, pencils and finished art from Braun, Snejbjerg and the Ezquerras.

These are not stories for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill as a scripter and his innate understanding of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, the carefully constructed moments of tension, terror and relief strike home and strike hard; whether he is aiming for gallows humour, lambasting the Powers That Be always ready to send fodder to slaughter or, as seen most frequently here, examining in excoriating detail how the acts of war makes mortals into monsters.

These hyper-authentic yarns reek of grim veracity and are a tribute to the spirit of people at their very best and worst. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.
© 2009, 2011 Spitfire Productions, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Red Baron volume 2: Rain of Blood


By Pierre Veys & Carlos Puerta, translated by Mark Bence (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-211-9

The sublimely illustrated, chillingly conceived fictionalised re-imagination of legendary German Air Ace Manfred von Richthofen continues in stunningly scary form with this second no-nonsense instalment from Pierre Veys & Carlos Puerta. Baron rouge: Pluie de sang debuted Continentally in 2013 and here resumes its fascinating, faux-autobiographic course as notionally described by the titular flier…

Scripted with great style and Spartan simplicity by prolific bande dessinée writer Pierre Veys (Achille Talon, Adamson, Baker Street, Boule et Bill, les Chevaliers du Fiel), the drama is stunningly illustrated by advertising artist and veteran comics painter Carlos Puerta (Los Archivos de Hazel Loch, Aeróstatas, Tierra de Nadie, Eustaquio, Les Contes de la Perdition) in a staggeringly potent photo-realistic style.

In the first volume we saw how young military student Manfred discovered he had an uncanny psychic gift: when endangered he could read his opponents intentions and counteract every attack. Immediate peril seemed to trigger his gift and he subsequently tested the theory by heading for the worst part of town to provoke the peasants and rabble. He never questioned how or why the savage exercise of brutal violence – especially killing – made him feel indescribably happy…

As a cavalry officer when the Great War began, Manfred found further proof of his talent when he casually acted on a vague impulse and avoided a lethal shelling from a threat he could neither see nor anticipate…

He could never convince his only friend Willy of this strange gift, even after he transferred to the Fliegertruppen (Imperial German Flying Corps) as gunner in a two-man reconnaissance craft …

The saga recommences here as Von Richthofen barely survives his first taste of sky-borne dogfighting and instantly resolves to learn how to fly. Never again will he trust his life to someone else’s piloting skills…

Sadly he is far from a natural pilot and only hard work and persistence allow him to qualify as a flier. Even after his first kill, he still can’t stop his elite comrades laughing at his pitiful landings…

Things begin to change after he modifies his two-man Albatross C.111 so that he can fire in the direction of his flight rather than just behind or to the sides. Now a self-propelled machine-gun, Von Richthofen takes to the skies and scores a delicious hit on a hapless British pilot…

Days later his joy increases when Willy is assigned to his squadron.

Sharing the spoils of occupation life, Von Richthofen relates his earliest war exploits as a cavalryman pushing east into Russia. A grisly escapade with a single Uhlan against a company of Cossacks is again greeted with tolerant disbelief and Willy is only mildly surprised by the callous indifference Manfred displays when recalling how he hanged some monks whilst moving through Belgium to the Western Front.

The affronted boaster is determined to prove his powers are real. The opportunity comes when they come across enlisted men indulging in a boxing match. Lieutenant Von Richthofen orders them to let him join in: facing down hulking brute Stoph, who was German national champion before hostilities started.

As Willy watches his slightly-built school chum easily avoid every lethal blow before slowly and methodically taking his opponent apart, he finally believes. He also begins to fear…

To Be Concluded…

A sharp mix of shocking beauty and distressingly visceral violence, Rain of Blood blends epic combat action with grimly beguiling suspense. The idea of the semi-mythical knight of the clouds as a psychic psycho-killer is not one many purists will be happy with, but the exercise is executed with mesmerising veracity and Puerta’s illustration is both astoundingly authentic and gloriously enthralling.

A decidedly different combat concoction: one jaded war lovers should definitely try.
Original edition © Zephyr Editions 2012 by Veys & Puerta. All rights reserved. English translation 2014 © Cinebook Ltd.