Baltimore, or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier & the Vampire


By Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-803-1

As well as being involved with some of the very best superhero yarns of the late 20th century, Legendary fantasist and comics-creator Mike Mignola has carved himself a splendid and memorable niche in the industry’s history by revitalising the sub-genre of horror-heroes via such macabre mayhem-mavens as Hellboy, B.P.R.D. and Lobster Johnson, creating his own very special dark place where thrill-starved fans can wallow in all things dire and dreadful…

Clearly he has far more ideas than he can successfully manage in one lifetime. As well all those sequential art endeavours he has expressed a deep and abiding love for the classical supernatural-thriller medium through illustrated prose novels such as Joe Golem and the Drowning City (co-crafted with long-time writing associate Christopher Golden) and this potent tribute to the writings of pioneers of the dread and uncanny H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith, with perhaps just a touch of Jack London…

Baltimore, or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier & the Vampire was first released as a luxurious Random House hardback 2007 and the captivatingly dark, doom-drenched blend of martial steampunk and classic vampire horror-yarn subsequently led to Mignola & Golden sporadically concocting further exploits of the titular hero in comics form from 2010 onwards, beginning with 5-issue miniseries Baltimore: The Plague Ships, illustrated by Ben Stenbeck.

This sturdy oversized paperback edition from Dark Horse re-presents that initial textual sortie into the outer reaches of imagination whilst also offering a brace of chilling comicstrip shockers by Mignola, Golden and Stenbeck culled from the 2013 one-shot Baltimore: The Widow and the Tank.

With constant and effective allusion to Hans Christian Andersen’s heartbreaking fairytale The Steadfast Tin Soldier, the eerie epic relates the transformative tale of dutiful if unimaginative Scion of Albion Lord Henry Baltimore who answered England’s call to arms in 1914 only to be severely wounded during the battles in Ardennes.

When he fell history took a horrific turn which began when the terrified officer awoke amongst a crater full of dead men being fed on by ghastly bat-like vampires who had for centuries abandoned their predator roles for the safer niche of clandestine carrion-feeders. When the appalled aristocrat lashed out, taking an eye from the leech prematurely consuming his life’s blood, it roused the creature and its disgusting brethren to a fury of vengeance-taking which cost Baltimore his entire family, unleashed a plague which decimated all humanity and roused a demonic force intent on reclaiming the Earth after contentedly quiescent millennia…

The one thing the obsessed Nosferatu’s sustained campaign of cruelty did not do was break Baltimore. Instead it honed the once-effete and ineffectual product of civilisation into an unstoppable hammer to smash the reawakened vampiric forces wherever they could be found – although not before the world was reduced to a pitiful, disjointed and primitive killing field on the edge of utter obliteration…

For most of the novel Baltimore is an enigmatic, unknown force far from the spotlight, given shape and form by three strangers who meet in a befouled hostelry in broken city at the behest of a man they have all benefited from knowing…

As the day passes, former Army Surgeon Dr. Lemuel Rose, merchant seaman Demetrius Aischros and Baltimore’s childhood companion Thomas Childress Jr. compare notes on the currently missing monster-hunter and share their own horrendous intimate brushes with various agencies of diabolism that have left all three maimed, wary but resolutely prepared for the worst the magical realms can throw at them. Or so they think…

Constructed like a portmanteau novel as a series of linked short stories and told in the manner of Victorian after-dinner raconteurs, the drama and tension build slowly but inexorably towards the inevitable appearance of the transformed and unwavering vampire-killer and a confrontation years in the making and steeped in the blood of millions…

Ponderous, inexorable, moodily despondent and completely captivating, this aggregation of singular horrors experienced alone and perpetual perils shared is complemented by two short comics vignettes illustrated with cool understatement by Ben Stenbeck.

‘The Widow’ harks back to the days after the plague brought The Great War to a unofficial halt when Baltimore returned to England in search of a new breed of gore-drinker hiding amidst the mortal populace, whilst the second episode sees the implacable hunter ally temporarily with a bloodsucker to escape even worse paranormal predators lurking around ‘The Tank’.

Moreover the scintillating saga contained within this supremely satisfyingly tome is graced with 146 grittily monochrome full, half, third and quarter-page illustrations by Mignola to complete a joyous homage to the necromantic good old days.

Miss it at your peril, fright fans…
© 2007, 2015 Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents the Unknown Soldier volume 2


By David Michelinie, Bob Haney, Robert Kanigher Gerry Conway, Gerry Talaoc, Dick Ayers, Joe Kubert, Romeo Tanghal & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4081-3

In America after the demise of EC Comics in the mid-1950’s and prior to the game-changing Blazing Combat, the only certain place to find controversial, challenging and entertaining American war comics was DC.

In fact, even whilst Archie Goodwin’s stunning but tragically mis-marketed quartet of classics were waking up a generation, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman was a veritable cornucopia of gritty, intriguing and beautifully illustrated battle tales presenting combat on a variety of fronts and from many differing points of view.

Whilst the Vietnam War escalated, 1960s America increasingly endured a homefront death-struggle pitting deeply-ingrained Establishment social attitudes against a youth-oriented generation with a radical new sensibility. In response DC’s (or rather National Periodical Publishing, as it then was) military-themed comicbooks became even more bold and innovative…

That stellar and challenging creative period came to an end as all strip trends do, but a few of the more impressive and popular features (Sgt. Rock, Haunted Tank, The Losers) survived well into the second superhero revival. One of the most engaging wartime wonders was a notional espionage thriller starring a faceless, nameless hero perpetually in the right place at the right time, ready, willing and so very able to turn the tide one battle at a time…

This second moody monochrome compendium collects the lead feature from issues #189-204 (July 1975-March 1977) of the truly venerable Star-Spangled War Stories anthology and thereafter #205-226 (May 1977-April 1979) of the abruptly re-titled Unknown Soldier from when the “Immortal G.I.” finally took over the book in name as well as fact.

One of the very best concepts ever devised for a war comic, The Unknown Soldier was actually a spin-off – having first appeared as a walk-on in a Sgt Rock story from Our Army at War #168 (June 1966, by Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert).

By 1970 the illustrator had become editor of DC’s war titles and was looking for a new cover/lead character to follow the critically acclaimed Enemy Ace who had been summarily bounced to the back of the book after issue #150.

The series featured a faceless super-spy and master-of-disguise whose forebears had proudly fought and died in every American conflict since the birth of the nation…

The strip grew to be one of DC’s most popular and long-lived: Star-Spangled became Unknown Soldier in 1977 with #205 and the comic only folded in 1982 with issue #268 when sales of traditional comicbooks were in harsh decline.

Since then the character has resurfaced a number of times (12 issue miniseries in 1988-9, a 4-part Vertigo tale in 1997 followed by a rebooted ongoing series in 2009), each iteration moving further and further way from the originating concept.

One intriguing factor of the original tales is that there is very little internal chronology: for most of the run individual adventures take place anytime and anywhere between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the surrenders of Germany and later Japan. This picaresque approach adds a powerful sense of both timelessness and infallible, unflinching continuity. The Unknown Soldier has always and will always be where he is needed most…

As seen in the previous Showcase volume, his full origin was revealed in Star-Spangled War Stories #154’s ‘I’ll Never Die!’ recounting how two inseparable brothers joined up in the days before America was attacked and were posted together to the Philippines just as the Japanese began their seemingly unstoppable Pacific Campaign.

Overwhelmed by a tidal wave of enemy soldiers one night the brothers held their jungle posts to the last and when relief came only one had survived, his face a tattered mess of raw flesh and bone…

As US forces retreated from the islands the indomitable survivor was evacuated to a state-side hospital. Refusing medals, honours or retirement, the recuperating warrior dedicated his remaining years to his lost brother Harry and determinedly retrained as a one man-army intelligence unit.

His unsalvageable face swathed in bandages, the nameless fighter learned the arts of make-up, disguise and mimicry, perfected a broad arsenal of fighting skills and offered himself to the State Department as an expendable resource who could go anywhere and do anything…

After a long run of spectacular stories by numerous stellar creators, shifting fashions eventually provoked a shift in emphasis. Relative neophytes David Michelinie & Gerry Talaoc came aboard with Star-Spangled War Stories #183, resulting in an evocative change of direction.

The horror boom in comics was at its peak in 1974 and new editor Joe Orlando capitalised on that fascination with a few startling modifications – the most controversial being to reveal the Soldier’s grotesque, scar-ravaged face – presumably to draw in monster-hungry fear fans…

The military/macabre mood resumes here with Michelinie & Talaoc on fine form and well dug-in as the Unknown Soldier is despatched to discover the secret of the ‘The Cadaver Gap Massacres’ (SSWS #189).

What he finds as Nazi officer Major Wollheim is a death camp where prisoners are mere guinea pigs for making monsters and experimental atrocity weapons, and before long he falls foul of a repentant, guilt-riddled scientist whose loyalties ultimately are only to money. The ghastly discoveries of ‘Project: Omega’ lead to a cataclysmic clash with uncontrollable beast-men and the salvation of the only true innocent in the entire death-camp…

Issue #191 offered a ‘Decision at Volstadt’ as the fleeing superspy encounters rabid resistance fighters, merciless Hitler Youth zealots and fanatical Lt. Strada, who has already lost far too much to the Immortal G.I. Captured by his Italian nemesis, the rival soldiers’ ‘Vendetta’ ends the only way it could in SSWS #192…

Gerry Conway scripted ‘Save the Children!’ in #193, detailing how a mission to blow up a train carrying generals directing the war on the Eastern Front goes horribly wrong after the phantom fighter finds his targets’ families have come along for the ride, after which Michelinie returns to explore ‘The Survival Syndrome’ wherein the penetration of a high-tech Nazi communications complex hidden in a French village shows the wary warrior the true cost of a having a quisling in the family…

Star-Spangled War Stories #195 introduced ‘The Deathmasters’ as the Unknown Soldier infiltrates a Nazi assassination school and find himself assigned to murder one of the Allies’ greatest assets in war-torn Odessa in #196’s ‘Target Red’.

Conning everyone into thinking he’s succeeded, he then returns to Germany to scotch a scheme to replace key Allied personnel with Nazi doppelgangers: all it costs to quash the project is the life of an innocent girl and a little bit more of his soul…

The war in North Africa is almost over in #197 but the master of disguise is nevertheless dispatched to destroy German anti-tank airplane prototypes in ‘The Henschel Gambit’. Typically however he is intercepted by Arab raiders led by a US Senator’s maverick daughter and again forced to choose between his mission and innocent lives…

Thereafter, thanks to Nazi counter-intelligence manoeuvrings, the Immortal G.I. is tricked into killing the Allies’ top strategist in ‘Traitor!’ Court Martialled and sentenced to death, he is forced to escape and retrace his steps, seeking a witness to his innocence in #199’s ‘The Crime of Sgt. Schepke’.

En route he encounters Maquis legend Mlle Marie but events spiral completely out of control and he has no choice but to sacrifice her entire resistance unit to destroy a new super-weapon in the concluding ‘Deathride’

Although Marie honours her promise and clears his name, she also swears to kill him for expending her comrades like pawns…

The scene switches to New York City in SSWS #201 as the Soldier engages in ‘The Back-Alley War’ by infiltrating a gang of German-American anti-war isolationists in search of saboteurs and spies and to Italy in #202 where an outbreak of typhus is holding up the war.

His task is to find a downed US plane carrying an experimental counter serum but his penetration of a Nazi hospital seems to indicate that neither side has found ‘The Cure’

Issue #203 finds the master-spy reduced to teaching arrogant, unstable English aristocrat (with royal connections) Richard Ebbington all the tricks of his deadly craft, only to be subsequently ordered by the top brass to stop him fulfilling his first murder mission.

Somebody up top forgot to tell somebody in the middle that Ebbington’s target is a German general planning to assassinate Hitler, so the Unknown Soldier is forced to stop his protégé’s ‘Curtain Call’

After 36 years of varied publication Star-Spangled War Stories ended with #204 as prior scripter Bob Haney and veteran war artist Dick Ayers joined Talaoc for ‘The Unknown Soldier Must Die!’ wherein old ally Chat Noir (an African-American sergeant who got fed up of institutionalised racism and deserted the US Army to join the French Resistance) is captured by the Nazis and brainwashed into becoming their secret weapon to kill the Immortal G.I.…

Cover-dated May 1977 the first Unknown Soldier (#205) places history’s lynchpin at the Battle of the Bulge in winter 1944. Whilst expanding on his origins ‘Legends Never Die!’ also proves once more that the right man in the right place at the right time can change the course of destiny…

‘Glory Gambit!’ begins an extended campaign as Adolf Hitler himself unleashes the Wehrmacht’s answer to the Unknown Soldier. Black Knight is Count Klaus von Stauffen, the chess-obsessed SS officer who captured and conditioned Chat Noir and is now making his way into the heart of England with but one mission…

The hunt for the merciless master of disguise and doom continues throughout London in #207’s ‘Kill the King!’, before the scene again shifts, dumping the Soldier in North Africa in 1942 to rehabilitate a trio of deserters in ‘Coward, Take my Hand!’

US #209 takes us to the Pacific in 1945 and a personal duel with a Japanese prison camp torturer whose attempts to break the scarred superspy result in defeat, death and ‘Tattered Glory!’ on blood-drenched rock called Iwo Jima…

In #210 the Man of Many Faces invades a Nazi fortress impersonating a specialist interrogator to rescue or kill America’s most important agent in ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing!’ after which issue #211 reprints a classic Haney & Kubert tale from Star-Spangled War Stories #159 where George S. Patton became the thinly-veiled basis for ‘Man of War’ with the Unknown Soldier dispatched to investigate a charismatic general who had pushed his own troops to the brink of mutiny…

An experimental surgical operation traps the G.I. behind the wrong face on the wrong side of the German lines in #212, where he encounters Hitler’s fanatical schoolboy “Werewolf” killer-elite and becomes in turn ‘The Traitor in Wolf’s Clothing!’

The shocking theme was further explored in #213 as Unknown Soldier has to extract from the Fatherland the son of a scientist vital to the war effort. Sadly ‘The Ten-Year-Old Secret Weapon!’ has embraced every facet of life in the Hitler Youth and fights his would-be rescuer every step of the way…

Kanigher wrote and Romeo Tanghal inked the Ayers illustrated ‘Deadly Reunion!’ in #214 as of the Soldier – in the guise of an elderly Jew – allows himself to be taken to a death camp to spring Mlle. Marie. She isn’t at all grateful…

Haney, Ayers &Talaoc reunited in #215 as the faceless fury replaced a sailor in the merchant marine to expose a traitor selling out convoy freighters to U-boats haunting ‘The Savage Sea!’ after which ‘Taps at Arlington!’ (art by Ayers & Tanghal) sees Chat Noir confront American racism whilst the Soldier exposes a spy painting a bullseye on the backs of troops in Italy…

In #217 the Man Without a Face becomes Hermann Goering’s chief supplier of stolen paintings in ‘Dictators Never Sleep!’ The plan is to give the infamous art lover a Rembrandt primed to explode when Hitler is in front of it… and it would have worked if Klaus von Stauffen hadn’t been present…

With the Black Knight hot on his heels the frustrated phantom is harried across Europe in ‘The Unknown Soldier Must Die!’, only stopping briefly to destroy a V2 base and have another shot at the Fuehrer before experiencing ‘Slaughter in Hell!’ (inked by Tanghal) when von Stauffen turns the tables by impersonating his arch enemy in a bid to murder Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower.

He would have succeeded if not for the Immortal G.I.’s strategic cunning…

Issue #220 by Haney, Ayers &Talaoc saw the Soldier organise a band of maverick warriors from many Nazi-conquered countries into a daring-but-doomed foreign legion dubbed ‘The Rubber Band Heroes’ after which ‘Sunset for a Samurai!’ finds him on a suicide mission to the heart of Japan to save an undercover agent crucial to the American forces…

Unknown Soldier #222 promised ‘No Exit from Stalag 19!’ when the unsung hero was ordered to rescue a military boffin from the heart of Fortress Europa (in a wry and trenchant riff on the plot of The Bridge on the River Kwai) whilst in #223, ‘Mission: Incredible!’ (Ayers &Tanghal) details the convoluted course of a plan to destroy a Heavy Water plant in the snow-capped mountains of Norway.

The Soldier and Chat Noir reunited in #224 to investigate a dead zone where Allied bombers simply vanish without trace, only to find barbaric military madness running wild in ‘Welcome to Valhalla!’ after which the Immortal G.I. is forced to arrest a charismatic general for treason in ‘Four Stars to Armageddon!’ (Ayers &Talaoc) before uncovering the astounding truth behind his supposed betrayals.

The military madness lurches to a bloody halt with #226 as Chat Noir and his faceless comrade do what entire flotillas of Navy vessels could not: using guile and subterfuge to board the Nazi’s unbeatable dreadnaught and ‘Sink the Kronhorst!’

Dark, powerful, moving and overwhelmingly ingenious, The Unknown Soldier is a magnificent addition to the ranks of extraordinary mortal warriors in an industry far too heavy with implausible and incredible heroes. These tales will appeal to not just comics readers but all fans of adventure fiction.
© 1975-1979, 2014 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

The Light and Darkness War


By Tom Veitch & Cam Kennedy (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-180-8

During the 1980s the American comics scene enjoyed an astounding proliferation of new titles and companies in the wake of the creation of the Direct Sales Market. With publishers able to firm-sale straight to retail outlets rather than overprint and accept returned copies from non-specialised vendors, the industry was able to support less generic titles and creators could experiment without losing their shirts.

In response Marvel Comics developed a line of creator-owned properties at the height of the subsequent publishing explosion, launching a number of idiosyncratic, impressive series in a variety of formats under the watchful, canny eye of Editor Archie Goodwin. The delightfully disparate line was dubbed Epic Comics and the results reshaped the industry.

One of the most evocative releases was a darkly compelling war/fantasy/science fiction serial with a beautifully simple core concept: Valhalla is real and forever…

Conceived and created by author, poet and comics scribe Tom Veitch (Legion of Charlies, Antlers in the Treetops, Animal Man, Star Wars: Dark Empire) and Cam Kennedy (Fighting Mann, Judge Dredd, Batman, Star Wars: Dark Empire) The Light and Darkness War originally ran from October 1988 to September 1989, just as that period of exuberant creative freedom was giving way to a marketplace dominated by reductive exploitation led by speculators.

Because of that downturn, this fantastic saga of martial pride and redemption through valiant service in the Great Beyond never really got the popular acclaim it deserved, hopefully something this glorious hardback retrospective compilation from Titan Comics will belatedly address…

Following heartfelt reminiscences and an appreciation in the ‘Foreword by Commander Mike Beidler, USN, Retired’ the astounding fable introduces paraplegic Vietnam war veteran Lazarus Jones, a broken, troubled warrior for whom the fighting never ended.

Home when he should have died with his inseparable friends, plagued with red-hot memories of beloved comrades lost when their Huey went down, by 1978 the wheelchair-bound wreck of a man is in a most parlous state.

Shattered by what will one day be designated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Laz cannot help making life hell for his devoted wife Chris. His miserable existence takes an even darker turn when Jones begins seeing visions of long-gone Huff, Slaw and Engle all calling him to join them.

A little later when Chris’ car crashes, Laz is severely hurt and left in a coma he might never awake from…

Elsewhere on the other side of Eternity, a shadowy shape speaks to Lazarus offering a choice: he can go back or he can join his long-departed brothers …

And thus begins a fantastic adventure as the half-man is restored to perfect health and reunited with those who know him best. The catch is that this afterlife is like nothing any holy book ever promised. It’s a vast cosmos of painful, unrelenting physicality where strange alien species commingle and Earth’s dead continue much as they had before.

Pilots steer gunships – albeit flying ones made of stone and levitated by little blue aliens called “menteps” – Leonardo da Vinci carries on inventing weapons for powerful lords and soldiers from every era have one more chance to serve and die…

Miraculously and joyously restored, Laz eagerly rejoins Engle, Slaw and Huff in the only thing he was ever good at. Manning a flying boat armed with light-powered weapons he becomes part of a vast force perpetually defying an unimaginable wave of invading evil from the Outer Darkness.

It’s a war with no overall plan or envisaged endgame, just eternal conflict, but recently a dark lord named Na has risen to the foremost rank of the “Deadsiders” and the legions of night seem to be gaining an advantage in the never-ending conflict fought on a million planets and a billion fronts…

For five hundred years however the genius da Vinci has created weapons that have checked the rapid advance and held the invaders to a tenuous stalemate, but Deadsiders are tirelessly patient and resort to inexorably taking worlds one at a time.

But now a novel event has taken place. Although Lazarus has happily enlisted in the army of Light comprised of those who died in battle on Earth, on the other side of the sky his body is still alive…

Stationed on besieged world Black Gate, Laz and the “Light Gang” are unable to prevent libidinous Lord Na from infiltrating and overcoming the planetary defences, but at least they save Governor Nethon’s daughter Lasha from becoming the conqueror’s latest power-supplying plaything.

Although gradually winning the war for the dark, Na is impatient for a faster outcome. To achieve that end he had his necromancers rediscover an ancient, long-forgotten way to contact the Earth realm and dupes millionaire arms-dealer and devout Satanist Niles Odom into creating a device to physically bridge the dimensions.

Na’s wishes are simple; he wants earthly particle weapons, rail guns, atom bombs…

The unwitting dupe building Odom’s bridge is Nicky Tesla, a brilliant physicist whose intellect rivals that of his dead uncle Nikola, the wizard of electricity who once astounded the world.

With his clairvoyant girlfriend Delpha little Nicky has used his uncle’s old researches to complete an inter-realm gate for crazy-rich Odom, but when an army of zombies come through it and abduct him and Delpha nobody is prepared for what follows.

As the scientists are dragged across into an impossible world where Uncle Nikola is alive again, Laz and the Light Gang – following in Na’s wake – explosively head the other way…

They soon find themselves trapped on their birth-world, just as whole and hale as the day they died… and where Jones still languishes somewhere in a hospital bed.

With all the Afterworlds at stake they have no choice but to fight their way back to the War again…

Also included in this gloriously fulsome chronicle is a sketch-&-developmental art ‘Background Briefing’ by Veitch & Kennedy, discussing the Underground Comic origins and antecedents of the story as well as the history, physics and metaphysics of the Light and Darkness War and a potent overview and personal recollection from Stephen R. Bissette, ‘Endless War: The Life, Loss and Afterlife of Lazarus Jones’.

Fast paced, suspenseful, astonishingly imaginative and utterly beautiful to behold, the complex tale of Laz’s team and their struggle, how two generations of Tesla reshape a war that has been waged forever, and how in the end only love and devotion can battle overwhelming evil is a masterpiece of graphic endeavour and one no lover of fantasy fiction should miss.
The Light and Darkness War is ™ and © 2015 Tom Veitch & Cam Kennedy. All rights reserved.

Civil War Adventure


By Chuck Dixon & Gary Kwapisz, with Esteve Polls, Enrique Villagran, Silvestre & Erik Burnham (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-79509-6

From its earliest inception, cartooning and graphic narrative has been used to inform. In newspapers, magazines and especially comicbooks the sheer power of pictorial storytelling – with its ability to distil technical recreations of time, place and personage whilst creating deep emotional affinities to past or imagined events – has been used to forge unforgettable images and characters within us. When those stories affect the lives of generations of readers, the force that they can apply in a commercial, social, political or especially educational arena is almost irresistible…

Thus the compelling power of graphic narrative to efficiently, potently and evocatively disseminate vast amounts of information and seductively advocate complex issues with great conviction through layered levels has always been most effectively used in works with a political, social or historical component.

Comics have brought the past to life since they began. Superb examples of a broad view include such triumphs as Jack Jaxon’s Los Tejanos and Comanche Moon or more recently The Loxleys and the War of 1812 and Fight The Power – a Visual History of Protest Among the English Speaking Peoples, but the medium is equally adept in crafting more personal biographs such as Terry Eisele & Jonathon Riddle’s With Only Five Plums or Wilfred Santiago’s “21”: the Story of Roberto Clemente.

And that brings us to another superb and welcome re-release from Dover Comics & Graphic Novels intended to bring “The War Between the States” to life for younger readers.

Originally published by History Graphics Press in 2009 as Civil War Adventure 1: Real History Stories of the War that Divided America, this marvellous monochrome tome – crafted primarily by gritty fantasy comics veterans Chuck Dixon and Gary Kwapisz – alternates actual historical events, maps, diagrams and found writings with a fictionalised thread of tales depicting how the conflict affected one poor Southern family.

The graphic re-enactments are preceded by a ‘Map of the United States’ detailing the division of the States in 1860 and a ‘Civil War Timeline’ which marks key moments and battles (sensibly linking them directly to the stories which follow) after which ‘Choice of Targets’ by Dixon and Esteve Polls features a text vignette explaining the development of snipers and sharpshooters before offering a pithy moment during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 when opposing marksmen found themselves in a life-or-death duel…

‘Berdan’s Sharpshooters’ is a short cartoon lesson on the innovative Union soldier who invented the concept of snipers, promptly followed by a chilling and heartrending incident of battlefield misfortune in Dixon & Kwapisz’s ‘Home Again’ after which an illustrated info and glossary page reproduces an actual letter from a Confederate lad the night before he fell…

‘Mosby Bags a General’ – an all Kwapisz affair – combines a potted history of the South’s most successful raider with a compelling strip revealing how bold Lieutenant John Mosby infiltrated far behind Union lines to capture 58 horses , thirty prisoners and their captain plus sleeping General Stoughton, all in one night…

‘Tempered in Blood’ (Dixon & Kwapisz) then introduces the narrative strand as the simple Campbell clan are torn apart when, after heated family discussion, both father and first son Tybalt sneak off from the farm to enlist in the Spring of 1861.

Each confidently assures themselves that all the shooting will all be over long before harvest and they unknowingly individually abandon Mrs. Campbell and the little sisters to link up with the overconfident volunteers massing for what everybody believes will be one fast knockout blow…

After barely surviving the brutal training that turns hunters, croppers and ploughmen into real soldiers, the Southern heroes finally learn what warfare means at Bull Run…

More contemporary terms, factual data and historical insight is offered in ‘The War is Joined!’ before ‘The Devil’s Due’ (Kwapisz) delves into the atrocity of total warfare as a Bluecoat patrol diligently follows its bald orders to “turn the South into a wasteland”…

A fact-feature page on ‘John Singleton Mosby’ leads to a feature on rising star and flamboyant self-aggrandiser George Armstrong Custer whose rash adventuring leads ‘The Boy General’ (Dixon & Enrique Villagran) into desperate straits against overwhelming rebel opposition… resulting in Custer’s First Stand…

Information pages on the devastating ‘Sharps Rifle’ and the double-pronged naval blockade of the Mississippi River spins off into an account of the duel between ironclad vessels and the brilliant countermeasure devised by Colonel Charles Ellet in ‘Ram Squadron’ (Dixon & Silvestre), capped off with a Kwapisz segment detailing ‘Hell on the Mississippi’ as a Union flotilla horrifically fails to sneak past the naval guns established above Vicksburg…

‘Tempered in Blood II’ returns to the troubled Campbell Clan as Ty wakes in the bloody aftermath of battle to discover his best friend Seth has had enough and absconded. By the time he has found and brought back Seth, however, he discovers his own father has similarly fled.

The elder is not running from bloody death but heading home to save his farm from ruin and family from fever, but that won’t make any difference if he’s picked up by ruthless and remorseless Confederate Picquets…

The tragic true tale of ‘Colonel Cocke’ and his unseemly death gives way to the ribald eccentricity of ‘Darnel Dingus is a…’ which reveals the insane and impecunious ends to which some States descended to ensure their manpower obligations were met. The tale is couched in the story of famous war artist Winslow Homer and a practical joking jackass who learned the hard way that war isn’t funny, and is appended by an grim examination of ‘The Ultimate Punishment’ for desertion under fire and other – even worse – infringements…

The strip section then closes with a sobering and ironic tale of comeuppance in ‘The Letter’ by Erik Burnham & Kwapisz wherein a burned-out sawbones steals a missive from one of his less lucky patients and chases a dream to a woman he has fallen for based solely on her handwriting and prose…

Following one last Kwapisz-illustrated info page – on ‘Battle Field Surgery’ – this stunning introduction to the birth of modern warfare ends with a comparative list of

‘Further Reading’ and a moving notification of how to learn more in ‘If the Valley Was Lost’.

Similar in tone and style to the best of Harvey Kurtzman’s triumphant anti-war classics from Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, this is a rousing, evocative and potently instructive collection which melds history and horrific entertainment – and not a little grim wit and actual belly-laughs – to bring a pivotal time to vivid life.

© 2009 Chuck Dixon &Gary Kwapisz. All other material © 2015 its respective creators.

Civil War Adventure will be in stores from May 20th 2015 and is available for pre-order now. Check out www.doverpublications.com or your internet retailer or comic shop of choice.

The Adventures of Buck Danny volume 3: Ghost Squadron


By Francis Bergése, colours by Frédéric Bergése translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebooks)
ISBN: 987-1-905460-85-4

Buck Danny premiered in Spirou in January 1947 and continues soaring across the Wild Blue Yonder to this day. The strip describes the improbably long yet historically significant career of the eponymous Navy pilot and his wing-men Sonny Tuckson and Jerry Tumbler. It is one of the world’s last aviation strips and a series which has always closely wedded itself to current affairs, from the Korean War to Afghanistan.

The US Naval Aviator was created by Georges Troisfontaines whilst he was director of Belgian publisher World Press Agency and initially depicted by Victor Hubinon before being handed to the multi-talented Jean-Michel Charlier, who was then working as a junior artist.

Charlier’s fascination with human-scale drama and rugged realism had been seen in such “true-war” strips as L’Agonie du Bismark (‘The Agony of the Bismark’– published in Spirou in 1946).

Charlier and René Goscinny were co-editors of Pistolin magazine from 1955 to 1958 and created Pilote in 1959. When they, with fellow creative legend Albert Uderzo, formed the Édifrance Agency to promote the specialised communication benefits of comic strips, he continued to script Buck Danny and did so until his death.

Thereafter his artistic collaborator Francis Bergése (who had replaced Hubinon in 1978) took complete charge of the adventures of the All-American Air Ace, on occasion working with other creators such as Jacques de Douhet.

Like so many artists involved in stories about flight, Bergése (born in 1941) started young with both drawing and flying. He qualified as a pilot whilst still a teenager, enlisted in the French Army and was a reconnaissance flyer by his twenties. Aged 23 he began selling strips to L’Étoile and JT Jeunes (1963-1966), after which he produced his first aviation strip Jacques Renne for Zorro. This was soon followed by Amigo, Ajax, Cap 7, Les 3 Cascadeurs, Les 3 A, Michel dans la Course and many more.

Bergése worked as a jobbing artist on comedies, pastiches and WWII strips until 1983 when he took the coveted job of illustrating the globally syndicated Buck Danny beginning with the 41st yarn ‘Apocalypse Mission’. He even found time in the 1990s to produce a few tales for the European interpretation of British icon Biggles before finally retiring in 2008, passing on the reins to illustrators Fabrice Lamy and Francis Winis and scripter Frédéric Zumbiehl.

Thus far the franchise has notched up 53 albums…

This third Cinebook volume is another astonishingly authentic yarn: a tense, rip-roaring and politically-charged contemporary war story originally published in 1996 as Buck Danny #46 (L’escadrille fantôme and coloured as ever by Frédéric Bergése), blending mind-boggling detail and technical veracity with good old fashioned blistering blockbuster derring-do.

It’s 1995 and, above Sarajevo, Tuckson and pioneer female fighter pilot Cindy McPherson are patrolling as part of the UN Protection Force. “UnProFor” is the West’s broad and criminally ineffectual coalition to stop the various factions in the region slaughtering each other.

The flight takes a dark turn when Cindy’s plane is hit by Serb rockets in contravention of the truce rules and incensed Tuckson peels off to open up with machine gun fire without obtaining the proper permissions.

Nursing Cindy’s burning plane back to their carrier in the Baltic, Sonny doesn’t care how much trouble he’s in, but rather than a Court Martial the impetuous lad’s punishment is rather unique…

Called to interview with the Admiral, the pilot expects at the very least to be thrown as food to the skipper’s vile dog O’Connor but instead meets the enigmatic Mr. Tenderman and is seconded to a top secret “Air Force/Navy Coordination” mission.

Buck meanwhile is part of an op to track down a strange radar echo in an area supposed to be neutral and empty…

After wishing Cindy a fond farewell and hinting at his big CIA secret posting, Sonny ships out by helicopter to land at Prevesa Airbase in Greece. Bewilderment is replaced with terror and rage once he unpacks and discovers O’Connor has stowed away in his kit…

Now stuck with the infernal, nastily nipping mutt, Sonny’s screams draw an old friend into his room: maverick test pilot and old partner in peril Slim Holden. The inveterate rule-breaker also has no idea what they’ve been roped into…

The next day the conundrum continues as they and a small group of other pilots with no idea of why they’re here or where they’re going are shipped to a secret base in the mountains. After the military’s usual “hurry up and wait” the wary fliers are greeted by a familiar face…

Buck is introduced as Colonel Y by the grimly competent General X who assigns each of the pilots a number from 1 to 16. All they know is that they have all committed serious breaches of military discipline which will be wiped from their records once the mission is over. Moreover, as long as they’re here they will only refer to each other by their code numbers…

Awaiting them are anonymous, unmarked F-16s without radios. They are to train in the jets in preparation for an unspecified single task under the strictest security conditions, until finally apprised of their specified purpose.

Days of exhausting preparation and pointless speculation are almost disrupted when an unidentified MiG-29 buzzes the base at extremely low altitude. Although Buck rapidly pursues, the quarry eludes him but the chase does reveal that their so-secret base is being covertly observed by a radar station on the Albanian border…

With no viable options Buck returns and the training continues at full pace. Inevitably the regimen results in a fatality. With the warning of more to come before the strafing and low-level bombing runs end, the practicing goes on and rumours mount over what the actual targets of their illicit ground-attack squadron might be…

Back at the official war zone, tensions mount when two US Navy F-18s are shot down over Bosnia – apparently by a flight of unidentified jets – whilst at the hidden base Buck’s security overflights still register radar tracks from an unknown source.

Buck and General X have no idea which of the many warring factions might be operating the MiGs or the mobile radar unit but have no choice except to proceed with their original plan. They might be far more concerned if they realised that one of the downed – official – combatants was Cindy McPherson…

With the situation worsening the word is given to go and the unofficial spectre squadron finally learn what they’re expected to do: take out the armoured concentrations and artillery emplacements relentlessly bombarding Sarajevo.

In the face of increasingly obvious NATO and UN impotence, it has been decided that the Pan-Serbian aggressors need to be taught a hard lesson about keeping their word regarding cease-fires…

The mission is unofficial, with no radio contact and disabled ejector seats. Moreover, they all have permission to respond in kind to any attack – even by American forces…

As the doomed Ghost Squadron roars across the Adriatic to their targets, the Navy mission to rescue or recover their downed reconnaissance pilots proceeds and an ever-vigilant AWACS plane picks up the inexplicable bogeys heading for Sarajevo.

Of course they reach the only conclusion possible…

When Major Tumbler and his Flight are despatched after the mystery jets an inconclusive dogfight leads him to suspect the nature and identities of some of his targets, but after breaking off hostilities the officially sanctioned Navy planes are ambushed by MiGs from a third faction…

Things look grim until NATO support arrives in the form of French Mirages and British Tornados. As the ghosts fly on to complete their punishment run, in the mad scramble behind them Tumbler tracks a MiG that has had enough and exposes a hidden Bosnian hangar housing a phantom flight of their own. Unfortunately they see him too and he is shot down…

The CIA covert mission has been a success and a massive catalyst. In the aftermath, planes from many of the surrounding nations are tearing up the skies and in the confusion Tumbler makes his way from his landing point into the MiG base to discover old enemy and maniac mercenary Lady X running the show. He also learns that a beloved comrade may well be a traitor in her pay but resolves to save his friend and let the chips fall where they may…

This is a stunning slice of old-fashioned razzle-dazzle that enthrals from the first page to the last panel and shows just why this brilliant series has lasted for so long. Complex politics, personal honour and dastardly schemes all seamlessly blend into a breakneck thriller suitable for older kids and “lads” of all ages.
© Dupuis, 1996 by Bergése. English translation © 2012 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

A Sailor’s Story


By Sam Glanzman (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-79812-7

Inexplicably, many superb creators who dedicate a lifetime to producing a volume of work are never properly rewarded for their efforts. Probably the most shamefully neglected of these hidden stars – at least in the American comicbook industry – is Sam Glanzman.

With a solid, uniquely informative and engagingly rough-hewn style, “SJG” has worked since the 1940s on a variety of titles for a host of publishers, mostly on material in war, mystery, fantasy and adventure anthologies, but also occasionally on serial characters such as Willy Schulz, Hercules and Tarzan for Charlton, the astoundingly cool (and shamefully still uncollected) Kona, King of Monster Island for Dell and for DC The Haunted Tank and most significantly for us here U.S.S. Stevens (DD 479).

It is this last series of guardedly-autobiographical tales, derived from his tour of duty on that self-same American navy Destroyer during World War II, which formed the precedent for the superb compilation at last collected here – and if anybody from DC is reading this, those U.S.S. Stevens strips are so-very-long overdue for a trade paperback treatment, too…

This criminally neglected talent had been quietly and resolutely generating comics magic for decades in his underplayed, effective and matter-of-fact manner and was still improving – crafting superb narrative art without flash or dazzle, winning fans among the cognoscenti yet largely unnoticed or at least unlauded by mainstream fans – when in 1987 he produced a quasi-autobiographical graphic novel that made quite a few waves.

Marvel editor Larry Hama made the bold decision to publish Glanzman’s understated, unadorned, wryly elegiac account of his days as a young man aboard a Pacific Fleet Destroyer as part of the company’s Original Graphic Novel imprint.

A Sailor’s Story captivatingly related his experiences as a young man aboard the U.S.S. Stevens in a no-nonsense, highly entertaining manner and broke new ground in the progress of the graphic novel as a medium for artistic expression. It also reached a lot of buyers who wouldn’t be caught dead with a copy of Spider-Man or Conan

It was a high point in American sequential narrative and even spawned a sequel volume – an unprecedented feat for the line at a time when superheroes and licensed properties monopolised the marketplace.

Glanzman is a natural storyteller, with the ability to make dry fact entrancing and everyday events compelling. With his raw, gritty drawing style and powerful sense of colour he weaves memory into magic. His depiction of ship-board life is informative and authentic, and his decision to down-play action and concentrate on character is brave and tremendously effective. He also knows how to make a reader laugh and cry, and when.

A Sailor’s Story is a moving and obviously heartfelt paean to lost days: an impassioned tribute to lost friends and comrades; a war story that glorifies life, not death, by a creator who loved the experience and loves his art-form. When you read this superb book you will too.

Utterly devoid of unnecessary melodrama and conniving faux-angst, the history lesson starts as young Sam J. Glanzman enlists one year after Pearl Harbor – as soon as he turns 18. All the orphan leaves behind him in frigid upstate New York is one friendly farmer who promises to look after his devoted dog Beauty

What follows is a mesmerising succession of snippets and memories and observations pieced together into a mosaic of life afloat during wartime: learning to speak what amounts to a new language, playing pranks and growing up in a pressure cooker. Along the way you make a few friends, some enemies but mostly just acquaintances: people doing the same things as you at the same time in the same place, but not necessarily for the same reasons and certainly with no dreams except having it all end…

Sam sees the world, the best and worst of life and survives the sailor’s greatest enemies: unseen, distant strangers trying to kill you, mindless tedium and dire, soul-destroying repetitive routine, eventually finding his niche – if never a decent place to sleep…

Through brief and terrifying clashes with the enemy, intimate associations and alliances aboard ship, intimate assignations ashore or on the frequent and increasingly bizarre and hilarious “Liberties” (those breaks from active duty us TV-reared landlubbers all mistakenly think of as “shore leave”), the author debunks the myth of the magic of the seas, only to recreate it recast in terms any modern reader will instantly understand…

Eventually the war ends and long after that so does the sailor’s service, with only the merest few of his unforgettable memories shared…

The sheer overwhelming veracity of the episodes is utterly overwhelming. Raucously funny, ineffably sad – “Beauty’s fate” will break your heart or you’re not and never have been human – devoutly forgiving, patiently understanding and stunningly authentic…

This long longed-for complete edition (thank you, Dover Books!) also includes that sequel from 1989. Wind, Dreams and Dragons returns to the Pacific at the height of the war with a specific theme in mind and, by clever use of narrative devices such as Ship’s Travel Logs incorporated into the beguiling page designs, diagrams and cutaways as part of the text plus astoundingly affecting intimate details – most trenchantly humorous – fondly recalled and seamlessly staged, manages to instil an even more documentary atmosphere into this wonderfully human-scaled drama.

This is used to create a foreboding sense of dread as the crew encounters and learns to live with the then-unknown terror weapon of suicide-pilots who would become a household name to us: Kamikaze

Combining the folksy, informative charm of the first volume with the “hurry-up-and-wait” tension of modern warfare, all delivered in an increasingly bold and innovative graphic style, Wind, Dreams and Dragons is one of the best explorations ever produced of sea-combat as seen through the eyes of the ordinary seaman and compellingly communicates the terror, resolve and sheer disbelief that men on both sides could sacrifice so much…

This is a fitting and evocative tribute from one who was there to all those who are no longer here…

As if those back-to-back blockbusters were not enough, this oversized (279x210mm), fully colour-remastered paperback tome comes with a flotilla of extras beginning with a Foreword by Max (World War Z) Brooks and Introduction from original editor Larry Hama.

Following the colourful comics there is also a star-studded ‘Tributes’ section by Glanzman’s contemporaries: moving and frequently awe-struck commemorations, appreciations, shared memories and even many art contributions from Alan Barnard, George Pratt, Beau Smith (who shares a personal sketch SJG created for him), Stephen R. Bissette, Carl Potts, Chris Claremont, Denny O’Neil, Kurt Busiek, Stan Lee, Paul Levitz, Joe R. Lansdale, Walt Simonson, Russ Heath, Joe Kubert, Steve Fears, Thomas Yeates, Timothy Truman, Will Franz and Mark Wheatley.

There’s even a splendid photo parade entitled ‘Sam’s Scrapbook’ and warmly impassioned ‘Afterword’ by Chuck Dixon.

Topping everything is a new 10-page black-&-white hauntingly powerful USS Stevens tale entitled ‘Even Dead Birds Have Wings’. Now all we have to do is get those 50 or so USS Stevens micro classics tales into a book too… as soon as possible…

Shockingly raw, painfully authentic, staggeringly beautiful, A Sailor’s Story is a magnificent work by one of the very best of “The Greatest Generation”, 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.

A Sailor’s Story will be released on May 29th 2015 and is available for pre-order now. Check out www.doverpublications.com or your internet retailer or comic shop of choice.

Showcase Presents Enemy Ace


By Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert, Dennis O’Neil, John Severin, Howard Chaykin, Frank Thorne, Ed Davis, Russ Heath, Neal Adams & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1721-1

The first recorded aerial dogfight between powered aircraft occurred sometime during the Battle of Cer sometime between August 15th and 24th 1914 in the skies over Serbia.

Enemy Ace first appeared as a back-up in DC’s flagship war comic Our Army at War: home of the instantly legendary Sergeant Rock. The tales, loosely based on “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen, were a magnificent and thought-provoking examination of and tribute to the profession of soldiering whilst simultaneously condemning the madness of war, produced by the dream team of Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert during a period when the ongoing Vietnam conflict was beginning to tear American society apart.

An immediate if seminal hit, the series told bitter tales of valour and honour from the point of view of German WWI fighter pilot Hans Von Hammer: a hidebound but noble warrior fighting for his country in a conflict that was swiftly excising all trace of such outmoded concepts from the business of government sanctioned mass-killing.

Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) was one of the most distinctive authorial voices in American comics, blending rugged realism with fantastic fantasy in his signature war comics, as well as in horror stories, westerns and superhero titles such as Wonder Woman, Teen Titans, Hawkman, Metal Men, Batman plus other genres too numerous to cover here. A restlessly creative writer, he frequently used his uncanny but formulaic adventure arenas as a testing ground for future series concepts.

Among the many epochal war features he created were Sgt. Rock, The War that Time Forgot, The Haunted Tank, The Losers and the controversial star of this stupendously compelling war-journal.

He sold his first stories and poetry in 1932, wrote for the theatre, film and radio, and joined the Fox Features shop where he created The Bouncer, Steel Sterling and The Web, whilst providing scripts for Blue Beetle and the original Captain Marvel.

In 1945 he settled at All-American Comics as both writer and editor, staying on when the company amalgamated with National Comics to become the forerunner of today’s DC. He wrote Flash and Hawkman, created Black Canary and many sexily memorable villainesses such as Harlequin and Rose and the Thorn. This last turbulent temptress he redesigned during the relevancy era of the early 1970s into a schizophrenic crime-busting vigilante who haunted the back of Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane, which Kanigher also scripted.

When the taste for mystery-men had faded at the end of the 1940s, Kanigher moved seamlessly into adventure yarns, westerns and war: becoming in 1952 writer/editor of the company’s combat titles.

As well as scripting for All-American War Stories, Star Spangled War Stories and Our Army at War, he created Our Fighting Forces in 1954 before adding G.I. Combat to his burgeoning portfolio when Quality Comics sold their line of titles to DC in 1956. This was whilst still working on Wonder Woman, Johnny Thunder, Rex the Wonder Dog, Silent Knight, Viking Prince and a host of others.

In 1956 he scripted ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ – the first story of the Silver Age which introduced Barry Allen as the new Flash to the hero-hungry kids of the world. Drawn by Carmine Infantino, the risky experiment included multi-talented veteran Joe Kubert as inker for the crucially important debut issue…

Kubert was born in 1926 in rural Southeast Poland (which became Ukraine and might be Outer Russia by the time you read this). At age two his parents took him to America and he grew up in Brooklyn.

His folks encouraged Joe to draw from an early age and the precocious kid began a glittering career at the start of the Golden Age, before he was even a teenager. Working and learning at the Chesler comics packaging “Shop”, MLJ, Holyoke and assorted other outfits, he began his close association with National/DC in 1943, whilst still dividing his time and energies between Fiction House, Avon, Harvey and All-American Comics, where he particularly distinguished himself on The Flash and Hawkman.

In the early 1950s he and old school chum Norman Maurer were the creative force behind publishers St. Johns: creating evergreen caveman Tor and launching the 3D comics craze with Three Dimension Comics.

Joe never stopped freelancing, appearing in EC’s Two-Fisted Tales, Avon’s Strange Worlds, Lev Gleason Publications & Atlas Comics until in 1955 when, with the industry imploding, he took a permanent position at DC, only slightly diluted whilst he illustrated the contentious and controversial newspaper strip Tales of the Green Beretsfrom 1965 to 1968.

This terrific monochrome tome re-presents the blockbusting exploits of Von Hammer from Our Army at War #151, 153, 155, Showcase #57-58, Star Spangled War Stories #138 -145, 147-150, 152, 158, 181-183, 200, Men of War #1-3, 8-10, 12-14, 19-20, The Unknown Soldier #251-253, 260-261, 265-267 plus an intriguing tribute from Detective Comics #404: a period spanning February 1965 to August 1982.

The canon encompasses a period during which superheroes were supplanted by horror stories before bouncing right back again, whereas the genre of combat chronicles soldiered on regardless and largely unbothered by vagaries of reader fashion.

To be brutally frank, the stories are infinite variations on the same theme and, despite being illustrated by many of the greatest artists of two generations, might feel a little samey. If so, just stop every now and then to cogitate a little. This isn’t a book to blaze through; its one to savour in sensible portions…

It all kicked off in the back of Our Army at War #151 ((cover-dated February 1965), which introduced the ‘Enemy Ace’ in a short, sharp shocker set in 1918 wherein celebrated aerial warrior Rittmeister Von Hammer was hospitalised after downing a succession of Allied aircraft.

The coldly stoic hero was simultaneously admired by comrades and nurses whilst being shunned and feared by them: they all inevitably came to characterise Germany’s greatest hero as cold and a “human killing machine”…

Von Hammer took recuperative solace in hunting the wilds of the Schwartzwald, where he met a solitary black wolf who seemed to understand and share his lonely life of death and honour…

When his wounds were fully healed the dark knight returned to prowl once more “the Killer Skies”…

That fifteen page yarn perfectly defined everything that could be said about the character but the public could not get enough, so Von Hammer returned in #153 as ‘Flaming Bait!’ Dialled back to 1917 now (scripter Kanigher was never slavishly tied to tight or formal continuity), the cautionary tale featured the superstitious Rittmeister’s attempts to offset a wave of deaths which occurred each time a photographer took a pilot’s picture…

Our Army at War #155 (June 1965) featured ‘Fokker Fury!’, which saw the fanatically fair and scrupulous air ace accidentally shoot down an unarmed British fighter. After some excoriating self-castigation, Von Hammer was compelled to reclaim his honour in a valiant display of mad bravado…

Mere months later, he was the star of a brace of full-length thrillers in prestigious tryout vehicle Showcase.Issue #57 (July/August 1965) offered ‘Killer of the Skies!’ which recapitulated all that had gone before whilst introducing  a potential equal in the form of Canadian ace “The Hunter”.

A new wrinkle had also been added to the mix as Von Hammer now perpetually agonised and bemoaned his inability to save the human conveyor belt of naive, foolish replacement pilots to his Jagdstaffel from killing themselves through enthusiasm, bravado and youthful stupidity…

The following issue (#58, September/October) explored ‘The Hunters – and the Hunted!’, detailing how, after a blazing succession of kills, Von Hammer took a recreational trip to his beloved Black Forest and renewed acquaintances with his lupine companion. Here he had a brief encounter with a beautiful lady whose passion for the celebrity hero died as she soon as apprehended his cold, apparently emotionless executioner’s nature…

With all forms of human warmth clearly denied him, the Hammer of Hell reluctantly returned to the aerial killing fields…

Things went quiet after that as Enemy Ace clearly didn’t sell highly enough to garner its own continuing feature. Time passed and anti-war sentiment increasingly gripped the nation. In 1968 bimonthly war-mag Star Spangled War Stories – a title with a reputation for and history of offbeat material (Mlle. Marie, The War that Time Forgot) – revived Von Hammer for a spectacular run of mesmerising tales which conclusively proved, time after time, that any War was Hell…

It began in #138 (April/May) with the visually intoxicating epic ‘The Slayers and the Slain!’, which introduced a French counterpart to the Teutonic Terror in the forbidding form of the masked and hooded, eerily anonymous Hangman.

This sombre sky-warrior flew a sinister coal-black Spad and threw the German pilots into a paralysing psychological funk, but a conclusive duel with Von Hammer was postponed until the German could recover from yet another bout of wounds won in the Killer Skies…

With room to explore their timeless theme of a good man forced into wicked actions, SSWS #139 flashed back to the boyhood of the Air Ace in ‘Death Whispers… Death Screams!’ Here the austere life of a noble Junker was revealed; the manly pursuits of a Junker in training drummed into young Hans by his severe but loving father.

That grizzled old warrior, from a proud family of patriotic heroes, inculcated in the last of his line an overarching dedication to duty and honour above all other considerations, beliefs which carried him in his present endeavours though the shock of being humiliatingly shot down by the Hangman.

When they met again in the skies it was the Frenchman who crashed to earth, but he too survived to fly another day…

Also included here is a superb Kubert pictorial fact feature Battle Album: Fokker DR-1 and Spad S.13 to add to the already technically overwhelming ambiance…

In #140 the next clash of equals hideously exposed ‘The Face of the Hangman’, resulting in both men crashing on the French side of the lines and becoming respectful intimates as Hammer recuperated in his rival’s chateau before the call of country and duty resulted in one final, fateful airborne showdown…

Star Spangled War Stories #141 was inked by Frank Giacoia & Joe Giella, taking a hard look at the men who flew with Von Hammer. ‘The Bull’ was an ambitious new flier in the Jagdstaffel who endangered and even killed his own comrades in a pitiless quest for fame and glory. Eventually the Rittmeister had to take decisive and fatalistic action…

‘Vengeance is a Harpy!’ then saw the impossible return of the Hangman to sow death and terror amongst the German pilots, forcing Von Hammer into a battle he did not want with a person he had come to admire, if not love…

In ‘The Devil’s General’, after more time spent with the wolf in the woods, the brooding Rittmeister returned to duty, harrying ground troops and spectacularly eradicating opposing fliers. His composure was soon blighted by elderly General Von Kleit, who forced his son Werner into the Squadron, expecting Von Hammer to keep the boy safe in the pitiless skies.

When the callow youth was shot down and captured, The Hammer of Hell moved Heaven and Earth to bring him back alive…

For #144 Kubert inked hot new penciller Neal Adams on ‘Death Takes No Holiday!’ wherein another death-dealing macabre French Ace – dressed as a skeleton – terrorised and slaughtered the Jagdstaffel’s pilots, forcing the German Ace into insane action to inspire his men and cure a young flier of fear-induced madness…

With Kubert back on solo art duties, SSWS #145 saw Von Hammer plagued by nightmares of his greatest opponent, as he attempted to school a trio of veteran pilots for the inevitable day when one would replace him. However the actual ‘Return of the Hangman’ shattered those plans forever…

Another baroque opponent surfaced in #147 as an obsessive English lunatic who believed himself St. George put on a suit of armour and shot down far too many of the Rittmeister’s pilots as part of his scheme to give the infallible Hammer of Hell ‘A Grave in the Sky!’ However that particular vendetta concluded on the ground with ancient swords drawn…

Kanigher was never above using wrenching melodrama and sheer sentimentality to his advantage. The moving saga in #148 describes how a little puppy becomes a mascot for solitary, isolated Von Hammer, but the cute little tyke’s inescapable horrific ending is just another hammer-blow of heartbreak in ‘Luck is a Puppy named Schatzi!’

Despite immense critical acclaim, the series was dwindling in popularity. Star Spangled War Stories 149 (February/March 1970) saw Viking Prince join the eclectic comic’s line up with Enemy Ace reduced to fifteen pages. ‘Reach for the Heavens’ – inked by Sid Greene – found Von Hammer meeting again with hated flying school rival Heinrich Müller, a complex sadistic killer who redeemed himself after committing war crimes in a tale tinged with supernatural overtones…

The run truly ended with #150 and ‘3 Graves to Home!’, as the Enemy Ace was shot down over rural France and had to fight his way back to his own lines. He encountered a succession of civilians all putting a human face on the war he usually fought so far above them, but his time in the sun was almost over…

With Star Spangled War Stories #151(June/July 1970), a new feature replaced Enemy Ace as star feature, running until the magazine changed its name with the 204th (February 1977) issue to reflect the newcomer’s popularity. As The Unknown Soldier, it continued for a further 64 episodes until it too died with #268 (October 1982).

Star Spangled War Stories #152 however offered one more uncompromising mission from which only the Hammer of Hell returned. ‘Rain Above… Mud Below!’, illustrated by Russ Heath, was supplemented by another informative Kubert Battle Album starring the Lafayette Escadrille

Although gone, the iconic German warrior was far from forgotten. SSWS #158 featured a stunning Kubert ‘Special Pin-up: Enemy Ace – the Hammer of Hell’ whilst issue #181-183 held a compelling 3 part back-up serial by Kanigher & Frank Thorne which pitted the noble intellectual against maverick American Ace Steve Savage – “The Balloon Buster” in ‘Hell’s Angels Part One: The Hammer of Hell!’, ‘Hell’s Angels Part Two: The Maverick Ace!’ and the savage but inconclusive finale ‘Hell’s Angels Part Three: To End in Flames!’(June/July to November/December 1974)…

Von Hammer resurfaced in the anniversary Star Spangled War Stories #200 (June/July 1976) in ‘Shooting Star’ written and drawn by Joe Kubert, as a German innovation in rocket-propelled aircraft catastrophically proved to be an invention whose time had not yet come…

A new anthology comicbook debuted inAugust 1977. Men of War starred Gravedigger, a black American GI in WWII, but had alternating back-ups. Enemy Ace copped the first slot in issues #1-3 (by Kanigher, Ed Davis & Juan Ortiz) as ‘Death is a Wild Beast!’ saw Von Hammer down a devil-themed British pilot who accomplished a miraculous ‘Return from Hell!’ before exhibiting ‘The Three Faces of Death’ in the final instalment.

As ever, the real meat of the macabre missions was the toll on the minds and bodies of the merely mortal fliers that died whilst Von Hammer lived on…

Another triptych featured in #8-10. ‘Silent Sky… Screaming Death!!’ – illustrated by Larry Hama & Bob Smith – began a trenchant tale of a family at war before Howard Chaykin took over the art as a duel in the sky resulted in attack by vengeful siblings and the return of Von Hammer’s father in ‘Brother Killers!’

It all ended badly in a fateful ‘Duel at Dawn!’

Men of War #12-14 offered more of the same as ‘Banner of Blood!’ saw the troubled Rittmeister strive to retrieve the Von Hammer family flag from a cunning French air ace who was an ancestral foe of ‘The Last Baron!’ The centuries-long vendetta with the Comtes de Burgundy finally ended in one last honourable ‘Duel!’

Issues #19-20 (August and September 1979) finished another run with one more tale of idiotic honour and wasted young lives as Von Hammer made ‘A Promise to the Dying’ and sought to return a contentious souvenir to its rightful owner in ‘Death Must Wait!’

In the May 1981 Unknown Soldier – #251 – Enemy Ace began an occasional series of adventures illustrated by the phenomenal John Severin.

First was ‘Hell in the Heavens Part One: I, the Executioner’ wherein Von Hammer’s whirlwind romance with Fraulein Ingrid Thiesse hit a bump after he told of the British boy pilot who died in his arms. Having sworn to find his valiant foe’s sister and return an heirloom, Hans soon found himself under attack in #252’s ‘Hell in the Heavens Part Two: the Midnight Spy’,before shocking answers were forthcoming in the concluding ‘Hell in the Heavens Part Three: Midnight and Murder’…

A far more imaginative yarn unfolded in #260 (February 1982) with ‘I Am My Own Executioner Part One: Stolen Face – Stolen Ace!’ when the German High Command brought in a doppelganger to replace the national hero Von Hammer as he recovered from wounds.

Unfortunately the impostor was not only a sadistic butcher but crazy as a loon and the real deal had to defy his doctors and military superiors before shooting the maniac out of the skies – for the sake of the country and his own besmirched good name – in #261’s ‘I Am My Own Executioner Part Two: Death of a Double!’

The last flight of the war-weary warrior came in Unknown Soldier #265-267 (July to September 1982) as the British Government put a huge price on Von Hammer’s head in ‘A Very Private Hell Part One: the Bounty Hunters!’

The resultant furore led to a return engagement for Yankee white trash Steve Savage in ‘A Very Private Hell Part Two: the Substitute Ace’ and the death of a brave but foolhardy fake ace before the drama ended – again inconclusively – in ‘A Very Private Hell Part Three: Debt of Blood’

Although the grim conflicts of the chivalrous cavalry of the clouds conclude here, this epic tome holds one last treat in reserve: a rather outré but definitively classy tribute to the Hammer of Hell which originally appeared Detective Comics #404 (October 1970).

‘Ghost of the Killer Skies!’ by Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams & Dick Giordano found the Masked Manhunter attempting to solve a series of impossible murders on the set of a film about German WWI fighter ace Hans von Hammer.

All evidence seemed to prove that the killer could only be a vengeful phantom, but in the killer skies over Central Spain the mighty Batman uncovered almost incontrovertible evidence of a malign human intelligence behind the deaths.

…Almost incontrovertible…

These often bizarre but always moving and utterly unforgettable stories reveal a true high point in the annals of combat comics: crafted by masters of the art form and who never failed to ram home the point that war is not a profession for anybody who enjoys it, and that only the lucky, the mad and the already-doomed have any chance of getting out at all…
© 1965, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 2008 DC Comics All Rights Reserved.

Charley’s War – A Boy Soldier in the Great War


By Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-914-8

When Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun began their tale of an impressionable lad who joins up just in time to fight in the disastrous Somme campaign, I suspect they had, as usual, the best of authorial intentions but no real idea that this time they were creating sheer comicstrip magic.

As affirmed in Neil Emery’s splendid appreciation ‘Into Battle: a Chronology of Charley’s War’, the landmark feature was originally published in British war anthology Battle (AKA Battle Picture Weekly, Battle Action etc.). A surprise hit, the serial launched in issue #200, running from 6th January 1979 until October of 1986.

It recounted, usually in heartrending and harrowing detail and with astounding passion for a Boys’ Periodical, the life of an East-End kid who lied about his age to enlist with the British Army reinforcements setting out to fight the Hun in 1916.

The stunning strip contingent contained within this superb Omnibus edition – 86 weekly episodes in all – form one of the most powerful and influential characterisations of the oh-so-ironic “war to end all wars”, touching upon many diverse aspects of the conflict and even the effects on the Home Front, all delivered with a devastatingly understated dry sense of horror and injustice and frequently leavened with gallows humour as trenchant as that legendarily “enjoyed” by the poor trench-bound “Tommies” of the time.

Before the tale commences however there are also a brace of educational and informative features to enhance the experience ‘Landships: the Evolution of the Tank’ by Steve White and a wonderful glimpse into the mind of that sublime and much-missed illustrator courtesy of  ‘Joe Colquhoun in Conversation’ by Stephen Oldman.

This magnificent monochrome mega-compilation opens with a 4-page instalment (for much of the middle run the series came in 3-page episodes) ‘Charley’s War – the Story of a Soldier in World War One’ which followed 16-year-old London Bus Company worker Charley Bourne as he eagerly enlisted and so-quickly graduated to the unending, enduring horrors of the muddy, blood-soaked battlefield of The Somme.

Military life was notoriously hard and unremittingly dull… except for those brief bursts of manic aggression and strategic stupidity which ended so many lives. Closely following the recorded course of the war, Mills & Colquhoun put young Charley in the Westshire Regiment and showed a rapidly changing cast being constantly whittled away by various modes of combat attrition.

The weekly hell showed lesser-known, far from glorious sides of the conflict that readers in the 1970s and 1980s had never seen in any other war comic. Each strip was cunningly punctuated and elucidated by the telling narrative device of the simple lad’s letters to his family in “Blighty” and also cleverly utilised reproductions of cartoons and postcards from the period.

With Boer War veteran Ole Bill Tozer as his mentor Charley narrowly survives shelling, mudslides, digging details, gas attacks, the trench cat, snipers, the callous stupidity of his own commanding officers – although there are examples of good officers too – and the far too often insane absurdity of a modern soldier’s life.

Slowly but irrevocably the callow, naïve boy became a solid, dependable warrior – albeit one with a nose for trouble and a blessed gift for lucky escapes.

When Tozer leads a party across No-Man’s Land to capture prisoners for interrogation new pal Ginger sustains a frankly hilarious wound in his nether regions. But as a result, and despite the sortie establishing the inadvisability of an attack, the Allied Commanders continue their plans for a Big Push. Thus Charlie is confronted with an agonising moral dilemma when he catches a comrade trying to wound himself and get sent home before the balloon goes up.

This time, grim fate intervenes before the boy soldier can make a terrible choice…

The unit’s troubles increase exponentially when arrogant, ruthless aristocrat Lieutenant Snell arrives; constantly undermining and sabotaging every effort by sympathetic officer Lieutenant Thomas to make the riffraff cannon fodder’s lives tolerable. The self-serving toff takes a personal dislike to Charley after the lad drops his huge picnic hamper in the trench mud…

On July 1st 1916 The Battle of the Somme began and, like so many others, Charley and his comrades are ordered “over the top” and expected to walk steadily into the mortars and machine gun fire of the entrenched German defenders. Thomas, unable to stand the stupidity, cracks and commands them to charge at a run. It saves his squad but lands his men in a fully-manned German dug-out…

After ferocious fighting the lads gain a brief respite but the retreating Huns have left insidious booby-traps to entice them. Many beloved characters die before Charley, Ginger and poor shell-shocked Lonely are finally captured by “the Boche”.

As they await their fate the traumatised veteran reveals to Ginger and Charley the horrific events of the previous Christmas and why he so wants to die. Moreover the sole cause of that appalling atrocity was the same Snell who now commands their own unit…

Through Charley’s dumb luck they escape, only to blunder into a gas attack and British Cavalry. The mounted men then gallop off to meet stern German resistance (resulting in some of the most baroque and disturbing scenes ever depicted in kids comics) whilst Bourne and Co. are miraculously reunited with their comrades.

The combat carnage has not ceased however. Waiting for the order to attack, Lt. Thomas and his hard-pressed men are suddenly subjected to a terrific barrage. With horror the officer realises they are being shelled by their own big guns and dispatches a runner to Snell who has a functioning line to Allied HQ.

The role of messenger was the most dangerous in the army but, with no other means of communication except written orders and requests, failure to get through was never acceptable. By the time Charley volunteers a dozen men have failed. With British shells still slaughtering British troops Bourne is determined to pushing his luck as the “thirteenth runner”…

As previously stated Charley’s War closely followed key events of the war, using them as a road map or skeleton to hang specific incidents upon, but this was not the strip’s only innovation. The highly detailed research concentrated more on the characters than the fighting – although there was still plenty of heartrending action – and declared to the readership (which at the time of original publication were categorically assumed to be boys between ages 9-13) that “our side” could be as monstrous as the “bad guys”.

Mills also fully exercised his own political and creative agendas on the series and was always amazed at what he got away with and what seeming trivialities his editors pulled him up on (more fully expanded upon in the author’s informative ‘Strip Commentary’ which concludes this Omnibus edition)…

With the Thirteenth Runner storyline, likable everyman Charley Bourne slowly began his descent from fresh-faced innocent to weary, battle-scarred veteran as the war reached beyond the cataclysmic opening moves of the Somme Campaign and into the conflict’s most bloody events.

Frantically making his way to the rear positions Charley successfully passes the fallen twelve runners but only encounters more officer arrogance and Professional Soldier stupidity before the battle ends. Snell refuses to even read the message until he has finished his tea…

Helpless before the aristocrat’s indifference Charley angrily returns to the Front. Finding everybody apparently dead, he snaps: reduced to a killing rage he is only dragged back to normal when Ginger, Smith Seventy and the Sarge emerge from a shattered support trench.

The lad’s joy is short-lived. Thomas is arrested for showing cowardice in the face of the enemy, and with him gone Snell now commands the unit of despicable disposable commoners…

Removed to the Rear to have their wounds treated, Charley and his pals meet Weeper Watkins. The former ventriloquist cries permanently. His eyes have been ruined by exposure to poison gas but he is still considered fit for duty…

Soon however they all fall foul of sadistic military policeman Sergeant Bacon who has earned his nickname as “the Beast” over and over again…

With a chance to blow off steam – such as a hilarious volunteer Concert Party show – Charley and Weeper are soon in the Beast’s bad books. However his first attempt to beat and break Bourne goes badly awry when a couple of rowdy Australian soldiers join the fray and utterly humiliate the Red Cap.

Bullies are notoriously patient and Bacon’s turn comes at last when Lt. Thomas is found guilty. Charley and Weeper refuse to be part of the firing squad which executes him and are punished by a military tribunal, leaving them at the Beast’s non-existent mercy. Enduring savage battlefield punishments which include a uniquely cruel form of crucifixion, their suffering only ends when the base is strafed by German aircraft…

With sentence served and Bacon gone, Charley is soon back in the trenches, just in time for the introduction of Tank Warfare to change the world forever.

A fascinating aspect of the battle is highlighted here as the strip concentrates heavily upon the German reaction to this military innovation. The Central Powers considered the tank to be an atrocity weapon in just the same way that modern soldiers do chemical and biological weapons.

In the build-up to the Big Push Charley is singled out by a new replacement. Unctuous Oliver Crawleigh is a cowardly spiv and petty criminal, but he’s also married to Charley’s sister Dolly. The chancer ignobly attaches himself to the young veteran like a leech, offering to pay Charley to either protect him or wound him some minor way which will get “Oiley” safely back to Britain…

The next day the Empire’s new landships make their terrifying debut with army infantry in close support and the effect on the Germans is astounding. In a ferociously gripping extended sequence Mills & Colquhoun take the readers inside the hellish iron leviathans as the outraged Huns devote their manic utmost efforts into eradicating the titanic terrors.

The carnage is unspeakable but before long Charley, Oiley and Smith Seventy are inside one of the lumbering behemoths, reluctantly replacing the dead crew of clearly deranged tank man Wild Eyes as the modern-day Captain Ahab drags them along for the ride: seeking a madman’s redemption for the loss of his comrades, the slaughter of a town and destruction of a church…

In the quiet of the weary aftermath Oiley deliberately puts his foot under a tank to “get a Blighty” (a wound sufficiently serous to be sent home to England) and attempts to bribe Charley into silence. The disgusted, exhausted teenager makes him eat his filthy money…

During this lull in the fighting, events on the German side saw despised commoner and Eastern Front veteran Colonel Zeiss spurn his aristocratic Junker colleagues’ outdated notions and devise a new kind of Total Warfare to punish the British for their use of mechanised murder machines…

Charley meanwhile is wounded and his comrades celebrate the fact that he will soon be home safely. Naturally, things are never that simple and the callous indifference of the army medical contingent – especially the notorious “Doctor No”, who never lets a man escape his duty – means that any soldier still able to pull a trigger is sent back into battle.

Bourne returns to the trenches just in time to meet the first wave of Zeiss’ merciless “Judgement Troops”, who stormed the British lines, slaughtering everyone – including German soldiers who got in the way – in a savage, no-holds-barred assault, whose “Blitzkreig tactics” overwhelm everything in the path.

Charley and his mates experience fresh horrors: battlefield executions, new and experimental forms of poison gas, flamethrowers, strafing by steel javelins and brutal, uncompromising hand-to-hand combat in their own overrun trenches before the bloody battle peters out indecisively…

Zeiss is subsequently cashiered by his own appalled superiors, but knows that one day his concepts of Blitzkrieg and Total War will become the norm…

Exhausted, battle-weary Charley is again injured, losing his identification in the process and returned eventually to England as a shell-shocked temporary amnesiac. His mother undergoes slow torture as she receives telegrams declaring her son, missing, dead, found wounded and lost again…

Mills & Colquhoun now begin a masterful sequence that breaks all the rules of war comic fiction; switching the emphasis to the Home Front where Charley’s family are mourning his apparent death and working in the war industries, just as the German Zeppelin raids on British cities are beginning.

Mills’ acerbic social criticism makes powerful use of history as the recovering hero experiences the trials of submarine warfare, when the troop ship carrying him and Bill Tozer back to Blighty is torpedoed…

When their perilous North Sea odyssey at last brings Charley back to Silvertown in London’s West Ham, it is in the wake of a catastrophic disaster in which fifty tons of TNT exploded at a munitions factory, killing more than seventy workers and injuring a further four hundred…

No longer comfortable around civilians and with no stomach for the jingoistic nonsense of the stay-at-homes or the covert criminal endeavours of boastful “war-hero” (and secret looter) Oiley, Charley hangs out in pubs with the Sarge and thereby reconnects with old soak and Crimean War survivor Blind Bob

London is a city under constant threat, not just from greedy munitions magnates who care more for profit than the safety of their workers or even the victory of their homeland, but also increasingly common aerial bombing raids which provoke mindless panic and destruction at the very heart of the British Empire.

Focus here divides as Charley’s days are contrasted with the zealous mission of devoted family man Kapitan Heinrich von Bergmann who leads his squadron of Zeppelins in a carefully calculated night sortie against the hated English…

When Blind Bill is evicted from his rooms Charley invites him to stay with the Bournes and the beggar’s incredible hearing (coupled with the area’s quaint air-raid listening devices) provides enough warning to seal Bergmann’s doom, but not before the airman has rained tons of explosive death on the capital…

During the bombing Charley discovers his mum is still toiling in the local munitions works. The exploitative owner has decided not to sound his air raid evacuation alarm as he has his profits and contracts to consider. Charley is not happy and dashes to get her out…

This stunning collection ends with a sharp jab at the dubious practices of British recruitment officers (who got bonuses for very volunteer they signed up) as Charley stops his extremely little brother Wilf from making the same mistake he did, and teaches the unscrupulous recruiter a much deserved lesson

To Be Continued…

Charley’s War is a highpoint in the narrative examination of the Great War through any artistic medium and exists as shining example of how good “Children’s Comics” can be. It is also one of the most powerful pieces of fiction ever produced for readers of any age.

I know of no anti-war story that is as gripping, as engaging and as engrossing, no strip that so successfully transcends its mass-market, popular culture roots to become a landmark of fictive brilliance. We can only thank our lucky stars that no Hollywood hack has made it a blockbuster which would inescapably undercut the tangibility of the “heroes” whilst debasing the message.

There is nothing quite like it and you are diminished by not reading it.

© 2004 Egmont Magazines Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Charley’s War: A Boy Soldier in the Great War is published on August 8th 2014.

World War One: 1914-1918


By Alan Cowsill, Lalit Kumar Sharma, Jagdish Kumar & various (Campfire)
ISBN: 978-93-80741-86-4

In 1914 following thirty years of empire building and politicking by wealthy nations, Europe was a tinderbox sitting atop a powder-keg. On June 28th in the city of Sarajevo a bomb was thrown, shots were fired and a spark set everything off…

There have been many graphic novels set in and about the Great War, but very few that have been brave enough to offer a comprehensive overview of the entire conflict. This compelling primer by writer Alan Cowsill and illustrators Lalit Kumar Sharma & Jagdish Kumar pulls off the neat trick of bullet-pointing the key events whilst simultaneously personalising the conflict through the unfolding fortunes of a number of ordinary “Tommies” who enlisted at the very start…

The account begins on The Somme in 1916 where George Smith and his brother Joe prepare to go “Over the Top”. As the attack commences he recalls how they all got there, beginning with a review of the initially botched assassination by a dying Serbian Nationalist in an inconspicuous little town in Bosnia-Herzegovina – and how German military ambition and Austro-Hungarian indignation slowly, inexorably kindled the flames of conflict on a continent enmeshed in a convoluted web of complex alliances…

The tale then switches to idyllic England where anti-German sentiment was the backdrop to the introduction of the Smith boys. Older brother Joe was part of the first wave – the British Expeditionary Force – dispatched to France in August 1914 for the hellish wake-up call that was the Battle of Mons

Back home underage George and his pal Fred Cowsill had little problem enlisting and were soon coping with basic training as focus shifts to the Central Powers where German plans were explored and the appalling rate of attrition meant younger and younger soldiers were being ferried to the front…

And so it continues: the Smith’s experience of mud, mayhem and crippling tedium interspersed with incisive examinations and overviews of the military and political forces at play,

Whilst the boys slogged through mud, dug trenches and dodged bullets and gas, the narrative explores the role of other advantage-seeking countries such Japan, naval engagements and the supremacy of submarine combat, the war in Africa, Germany’s role in the Russian Revolution and the foolish mistakes which led America to surrender its neutrality and join the Allied Powers…

Also touched upon are the achievements of T.E. Lawrence (“…of Arabia”), Wilfred Owen, the Christmas Day football match, the creation of Tanks and development of aerial combat, the disproportionate and astounding contributions of the Australian and New Zealand contingents, the bombing of Britain, the vile executions of deserters and psychologically scarred “shellshock” victims and how, but for political intransigence, the war might have ended in 1916…

Quite understandably for a book from an Indian publisher, some long-delayed attention is paid to the crucial contributions of the Empire’s Asian soldiery, such as Sepoy Khudadad Khan Minhas (first soldier of the Indian Army to win the Victoria Cross) whom Joe meets in a field hospital, and there are some damning views of the folks at home, smugly doling out white feathers to any men they consider shirkers or cowards…

Peppered with significant factual titbits and landmarks, the report continues, following the disastrous campaigns, the technological advancements, the battles, the global involvement and implications and how, even after the Armistice, the killing continued, whilst George and his comrades fall one by one by one…

Superbly précising the entire conflict, smartly mixing factual overview with eyewitness perspective at home and abroad and never straying far from action and bloodletting, this is a captivating introduction to the “War to End All Wars” (although I might quibble on the art side and wish for a little more diligent use of photo reference in certain places) and is ably augmented by fact-features such as ‘Was it Really a World War?’ and a truly heartbreaking illustrated essay on ‘Silent Soldiers’: the astounding animals who were awarded incredible honours for their incomprehensibly valiant deeds in the human Armageddon…

© 2014 Kalyani Navyug Media Pvt Ltd. All rights reserved.

Buz Sawyer volume 3: Typhoons and Honeymoons


By Roy Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-703-1

Once you start reading classic masterpieces of cartoon art you just can’t stop…

In these seen-it-all 21st century times where science is astounding and confounding us on a daily basis, it’s hard to remember a time when folk were impressed by things we now take for granted and merely human-scaled adventure was enough to set pulses racing and hearts pounding… until you read a book like this one.

This third stout and sturdy hardcover edition re-presents more magnificent newspaper strip exploits of dynamic all-American everyman Buz Sawyer: war hero, globetrotting troubleshooter and imminent groom-to-be, covering the epochal period from July 21st 1947 to October 9th 1949 wherein – after much procrastination, intrigue, bloodshed and sexy skulduggery – our boy finally married his extremely understanding sweetheart Christy Jameson.

Of course he then dragged her into his lethally adventurous world as prime problem-solver for Frontier Oil – a company with fingers in many international pies…

Before the two-fisted romance kicks off, however, the ever-erudite Rick Norwood uses a letter from Crane’s personal papers (donated to Syracuse University) to examine the creator’s history, influence and opinions in his own forthright words in ‘The Life of a Professional Artist’.

Crane and his creative team (see Buz Sawyer volume 2: Sultry’s Tiger for details) laboured long, hard, often acrimonious hours to produce each daily strip; all mesmerisingly rendered in monochrome through Crane’s masterly techniques employing line art and craftint (a mechanical monochrome patterning effect which added greys and halftones to produce miraculous depths and moods to the superb underlying drawing) but the toll was heavy on personnel and feelings.

The colour Sundays were usually the province of ghost artist Hank Schlensker and starred Buz’s grizzled old sidekick Roscoe Sweeny, and this volume concludes with a brief selection that primarily guest-starred the named lead and Roscoe in wartime reminiscences and occasional contemporary gag goof-offs…

The never-ending rollercoaster of thrills, spills and chills picks up as Frontier Oil’s Mr. Fixit reels at the realisation that he’s finally formally engaged to his girl…

Buz is only just coming to grips with the marriage in prospect, whereas avowed “Ladies Man” Chili Harrison is cynically unmoved that his former office-mate is on Cloud 9… at least until they get a desperate call from mutual Navy buddy Thirsty Collins. Their homely shipmate has a problem only Buz can solve…

The old salt had made good since hostilities ended and owns his own plantation on his own island. He has, however, been maimed in an accident whilst wooing a woman by post. Now she is coming to marry her Mr. Collins, based on his winning words and a single photo… of Buz.

With the jig up, Thirsty deeds Patricia Patterson all his worldly goods, sets up Sawyer to marry her and attempts his own wildly flamboyant suicide…

Reluctantly flying down to Puerto Rico, our hero is soon embroiled in a ludicrous imbroglio as, even after having everything explained, Pat professes to prefer the hunk at hand rather than her timid, missing matrimonial mystery man.

Thankfully a colossal hurricane and a conniving lecherous playboy cad do more to convince Collins to fight for and win his baffled bride than all Buz’s infuriated, exasperated arguments…

In Roy Crane’s world there are no tidy beginnings and endings. Each adventure follows seamlessly on from the last and even as Buz makes his way back to New York the next escapade was well underway.

Patient sweetheart Christy has had enough waiting around and goes looking for a job, landing up as Chili’s secretary, but only after the unrepentant, blithely unaware hound-dog clears the way by promoting his own highly efficient but unsightly amanuensis – at great personal financial cost – so that he can have unrestricted access to the pretty stranger joining Frontier Oil.

Naturally the sparks fly when Sawyer finds his fiancée toiling for his dissolute and probably degenerate former wingman, whilst Chili is horrified to find he had lost this particular hot babe to “old Buzzo” even before he had hired her…

As Buz lays his wedding plans and retirement, his crafty boss Mr. Wright convinces him to sideline all that mushy stuff for one last job, and soon Sawyer and Sweeney are in the Goat Islands off Portugal, hunting a devious gunrunning ring supplying rebels in Salvaduras.

Masquerading as itinerant writers on a yachting jaunt, our heroes don’t fool the bombastic Brobdingnagian bully Hammerhead Gool or his puny, effete but Machiavellian boss Harry Sparrow for a moment. It’s only the diminutive mastermind’s overwhelming squeamishness and sensitivity to the thought of blood that prevents their immediate destruction.

Moreover when deception, bribery and seduction fail to deter the undercover operatives, Sparrow resorts to abducting them whilst immediately despatching the cached ordnance and munitions to the revolutionaries wrecking Frontier’s Salvaduran oil fields.

That slow voyage of the damned only leads to the explosive loss of Sparrow’s ship and shipment as well as the end of the coup…

Back in America Buz has proved himself too valuable to lose, and Frontier’s most important executive J.J. Freeze finds herself – after all, a mere woman – compelled to employ him as a bodyguard on her secret mission to Java and all points East to secure lucrative mineral rights deals.

Sawyer is just as reluctant, but the promise of enough money to retire in style proves too tempting, and patient, understanding Christy is again left behind to fret and worry…

She has good reason: Sparrow is still alive and eagerly anticipating the prospect of a vast payoff and cruel vengeance…

Tracking Freeze and Sawyer from Ireland to Egypt to Singapore, the little weasel poisons Freeze, who orders Buz to go on to Surabaya, Java alone, carrying a cash payment of $1,000,000 for the nation’s capricious and over-educated Maharaja.

Harry even brazenly confronts Buz; putting our hero off guard as he instigates his latest master-plan: hiring a double to blacken Sawyer’s name and reputation in prim and proper Javanese High Society.

With the deal effectively scuppered, Sparrow maroons Buz on a desert island to force him to surrender the cash – unsuccessfully – before playing his final stroke: drugging the valiant troubleshooter with a solution that causes amnesia…

Back in America when word comes that the deal has flopped and both Buz and a million bucks are missing, Christy refuses to accept the slanderous stories and sells everything she owns to buy passage to Java. Soon she is an innocent abroad searching the dives and alleys of Surabaya for her man.

When she is targeted by bandits and worse, Christy’s frantic escape brings her into contact with a crazy old lady who collects stray cats – and did the same for a derelict American with no name or memory…

The action seamlessly shifts into romantic melodrama as Christy tries to win back Buz from the lonely and dangerous harridan he has come to love, but even after that struggle heart-wrenchingly succeeds, the greater fight to clear his mind and his name continues…

When that minor miracle is finally accomplished, the restored Buz at last begins the oft-postponed wedding plans, only to be kidnapped by his rich, crazy and somehow not dead stalker Sultry, the Maharani of Batu.

In no mood to be balked, however, the impatient two-fisted groom-to-be fights his way out of her palace and onto a Honolulu-bound plane…

Back in their rural hometown in time for Christmas, Buz and Christy finally tie the knot and prepare for the rest of their lives but the new Mrs. Sawyer is still terrified that domesticity might kill her over-active husband…

As the newlyweds enjoy a carefully sequestered and discreet honeymoon off-panel, Sweeney appropriates the daily strip for a few weeks in a hilarious comedy sequence as he attempts to find them the perfect wedding present and ends up hunting Longhorn Sheep off-season in the near-arctic conditions of the Rocky Mountains in December…

A turning point began in early 1948 as Wright and the Frontier Oil brass tracked down Buz to offer him a life-threateningly dull desk job or a perilous field assignment in Darkest Africa.

Perfect wife Christy, understanding Buz’s needs, bravely ignores her own feelings and talks him into the latter, offering to share his addiction to danger and the unknown…

Soon the couple are trekking across the Veldt: pioneers tasked with carving an airport and oil installation out of the jungle, but the natural wonders and threats of Africa are as nothing compared to the murderously conniving schemes of their nearest neighbour.

Dashing, debonair Kingston Diamond is solicitous in advice and unctuous in his welcome of the young Americans, but his patient game includes sabotage, terrorism, slaughtering Christy’s menagerie of pets and even murdering Buz to eventually win him the only white woman in 100 miles…

As previously mentioned, also included here are fourteen of the best Sundays – all notionally with appearances by Buz (spanning July 29th 1945 to 17th February 1963) – a cheerily tantalising bonus which will hopefully turn one day into an archival collection of their own. Whilst not as innovative or groundbreaking as Captain Easy, they’re still proficient works by one of the Grand masters of our art-form.

Buz Sawyer: Typhoons and Honeymoons is another sublime slice of compelling comics wonder: an ideal way to discover or reconnect with Crane’s second magnum opus – bold, daring, funny and enthralling adventures which influenced generations of modern cartoonists, illustrators, comics creators and storytellers. The seriesranks amongst the very greatest strip cartoon features ever created: always offering comics tale-telling that is unforgettable, unmissable and utterly irresistible.
Buz Sawyer: Typhoons and Honeymoons © 2014 Fantagraphics Books. All Buz Sawyer strips © 2014 King Features Syndicate, Inc. All other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.