Adventures in the Rifle Brigade

By Garth Ennis, Carlos Ezquerra & various (Image Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-63215-802-4

Garth Ennis is a huge fan of the English and Scottish war comics he grew up reading. Films avidly consumed during a typical British childhood of my generation have also clearly left their mark. He grew up to become a writer with a distinct voice and two discrete senses of humour.

The black sardonic ironies of Preacher and True Faith are not present in this compilation of the two Rifle Brigade miniseries he produced with veteran combat illustrator Carlos Ezquerra for Vertigo way back in 2001 and 2002.

What you get here in this new-&-improved compilation collecting Adventures in the Rifle Brigade #1-3 and Adventures in the Rifle Brigade: Operation Bollock #1-3 (also available as eBook editions) is the cruel, ultra-violent gross-out stuff that made Hitman, The Boys and A Train Called Love such guilty pleasures.

If you were wondering, (Regimental) colours come courtesy of Patricia Mulvihill & Kevin Somers, Clem Robbins stencils in all them words and the book is aptly augmented by a spiffing cover gallery from Brian Bolland and Glenn Fabry…

It’s the height of World War II. The Rifle Brigade are Blighty’s top special ops combat unit, dealing death and destruction to the Hun wherever they can find them – and that’s pretty much everywhere. They’re also the worst congregation of deviants and psychopaths ever gathered under one roof, giving the creators the opportunity to lampoon every cliché you’ve ever seen in a war movie.

The balloon goes up in ‘Once More Unto the Breach’ as the bombastic chaps parachute into Berlin during a shattering air raid, bluffing their way through the battered hordes of Boche only to be captured by the infamous SS…

Left to the tender mercies (Hah! It iss to Larff, Tommy!) of chief torturer Gerta Gasch and SS overlord Hauptman Venkshaft, the lads soon realise things are ‘Definitely Not Cricket’. As yet unaware that there is division in the enemy ranks thanks to publicity-hungry Golden-boy of the Wehrmacht Oberst Otto Flasschmann who claims the notorious Rifle Brigade are his prisoners, the embattled boys make plans…

Their captors’ dissent soon leads to an unmissable opportunity, outrageous chaos, confusion and carnage and the triumphant victory cry ‘Up Yours Fritz’

The excessive violence and vulgarity resumes in sordid sequel ‘Operation Bollock’ with the team sent ‘Back to Blighty’ before being promptly despatched to locate a missing artefact the Germans believe will regain lost initiative and finally win them the war.

Said arcane item is Hitler’s long-missing testicle and the fanatical foe are closing in on it in the desolate desert kingdom of Semmen

The hunt intensifies once British Empire boots are back on the ground in opulent Sidi Boomboom where the local Sultan proves rather duplicitous and the hidden Hun devilishly keen on machine-gunning everyone. Also complicating the affair is a new rival for the baleful ball: treasure seeker Maryland Smith is apparently after the thaumaturgical thingummy for the specific benefit of good ol’ Uncle Sam…

The excursions all converge and hit a bad spot when an old enemy resurfaces with the testicle in hand. Amidst the confrontations and consequent slaughter that follows, the only choices are ‘Spit or Swallow’

A potent pastiche and superb send-up of the sub-genre (American war cinema has its own deliciously lampoonable idiosyncrasies!), the scripts, one-liners, and action sequences here are not simply hangers to drape an avalanche of bad taste jokes on. The spoof comes from a place of guilty love and is well up to Ennis & Ezquerra’s usual high standards, resulting in a marvellous marriage of our beloved saucy Carry On films and post-empire Battle of Britain movies, but whether it’s an enjoyable experience depends on what kind of humour you prefer.

Definitely Not one for the easily offendable, politically po-faced or retired Colonels currently residing in the Home Counties…
© 2016 Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra. All rights reserved.

Sgt. Rock: Between Hell & a Hard Place

By Joe Kubert & Brian Azzarello (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0053-4 (HC)                   978-1-4012-0054-1 (PB)

Sgt Rock and Easy Company rank amongst the greatest and most influential – if not enduring – creations of the American comic-book industry. The gritty meta-realism of Robert Kanigher’s ordinary guys in life-or-death situations captured the imaginations of generations of readers, young and old.

Most closely associated with those characters is legendary creator Joe Kubert, who worked as artist, writer, editor and educator since the earliest days of the medium. So, after a hiatus of many years, when a new Rock edition was announced in the early days of the 21st century, the artist was never in doubt.

Brian Azzarello was one of a vanishingly small pool of potential scripters for the proposed venture and the results of their collaboration was a powerful, if simplistic, morality play about the nature of killing. And, most importantly, it’s a damn’ fine read.

War is hell, but the killings are somehow justifiable if your country tells you so. How then does a moral man, a soldier, react when the life-taking moves beyond the acceptable parameters laid down by his superiors?

When Rock and his men capture four enemy officers after a frantic battle, the Nazis are taken prisoner and treated according to the Articles of War. The next morning three are dead and the fourth is missing. The Germans have all been executed at close range whilst confined…

Immediately a cloud of suspicion descends on the previously close-knit unit of G.I.s. Was it the missing prisoner, or is one of their own capable of the kind of atrocity they’re all fighting to end?

…And even so, don’t these monsters possibly deserve it? Rock must find all the answers. Not simply to restore his faith and trust, but because it’s the right thing to do.

As much detective mystery as war story, this is a searching and haunting re-examination of the most telling quandary of conflict. Why is dealing death right sometimes and not others? I can’t promise you answers, but the questions have seldom been asked in as striking or beautiful a manner.

Miraculously still available in both hardcover and paperback editions – but you’re plain out of luck if you like to revel in the delights of an electronic reader – challenging combat tales such as this one seem set to make a comeback considering the parlous state of world affairs, so why not get ahead of the curve now?
© 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Take That, Adolf! – The Fighting Comic Books of the Second World War

By Mark Fertig and many & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-987-5

Long the bastion of the arcane, historic, esoteric and the just plain interesting arenas of the comics experience, Fantagraphics Books here celebrates the dawn age of Fights ‘n’ Tights funnybooks with a magnificent collection of (mostly) superhero covers culled from the fraught period which most truly defined the comics industry.

Comicbook covers are a potent and evocative way of assessing the timbre of an era and a captivating shortcut into worlds far removed from our own. They are also half the sum total of fun generated by narrative art and arguably an art form all their own.

In this tome, educator, scholar and writer Mark Fertig (Chair of Art and Art History at Susquehanna University, Pennsylvania and revered film noir expert – check out his Where Danger Lives for more populist fun) offers an erudite and wide-reaching essay comprehensively addressing every aspect of the four-colour Home Front’s graphic endeavours in support of America’s WWII war effort.

Detailing how Jewish émigré artists’ and writers’ creative influences advocated America surrender its isolationist stance in ‘Four Color Fantasies’ and ‘Building Towards War’, Fertig then traces the development of ‘Red, White, and Blue Heroes’ such as The Shield and Uncle Sam before ‘The Coming of Captain America’ sparks the invention of ‘An Army of Captains’.

After the USA finally enters the war ‘All-Out Assault: August & September 1941’ is followed by an examination of female masked fighters in ‘She Can Do It!’ and reveals how Wonder Woman became ‘An Amazon for the Ages’.

‘Kids Can Fight Too!’ reveals the impact of junior and under-age crusaders as well as the sub-genre of Kid Gangs whilst ‘Attaboy, Steamboat!’ confronts head-on the depiction of ethnic characters – “evil” and Pro-democracy. From here in the distant future, some of the appalling jingoism and racism is even more disturbing than the tortures, torments and buckets of gore liberally scattered through the images of Evil Nazis and Japs…

Next ‘Into the Breach’ addresses the reasons omnipotent heroes such as Superman and Captain Marvel left the actual fighting in Europe and the Pacific to ordinary mortals before ‘Pulling Together’ details and the promotion of Home Front solidarity munitions manufacture and the arming of the armies of Freedom after which Hitler repeatedly gets his just deserts (in effigy at least) ‘In Der Führer’s Face!’

‘Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines!’ follows the development of more human fictional soldiers and heroes whilst and ‘More Thrilling Than Fiction’ sees the begins of fact-based accounts of true champions such as President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower before ‘Pitch Men’ follows the numerous examples of masked warriors and kiddie-characters inciting readers to help pay for the war through selling war bonds and liberty stamps and ‘On to Victory’ celebrates the end of hostilities and the aftermath.

The fact-packed lecture is also supplemented at the back of the book by creator biographies of industry giants and iconic cover crafters Charles Clarence Beck, Jack Binder, Charles Biro, Hardin “Jack” Burnley, Reed Crandall, Will Eisner, Lou Fine, Irv Novick, Manuel “Mac” Raboy and Alex Schomburg (regarded as the most prolific cover illustrator of the period) but the true merit of this enchanting tome is the covers gathered for your perusal.

Designed to incite patriotic fervour and build morale, the awesome majority of this tome features a potent avalanche of stunning covers from almost every company, displaying not only how mystery men and superheroes dealt with the Axis of Evil in those tense times but also the valiant efforts of “ordinary fighting men” and even cartoon fantasy stars such as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Walt Disney stars such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck

Shopping List Alert: skip if you must…

This book celebrates an absolute cascade of spectacular, galvanising scenes of heroes legendary and obscure, costumed and uniformed, crushing tanks, swatting planes, sinking U-Boats and decimating enemy ranks, unleashed before your assuredly goggled eyes by artists long forgotten, and never known as well as more familiar names such as Joe Shuster, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Eisner, Harry G. Peter, Jack Burnley, Frank Harry, Irwin Hasen, Al Avison, Bob Powell, Edd Ashe, Harry Lucey, Paul Gustavson, Bill Everett, Jerry Robinson, Gus Ricca, Al Gabriele, Charles Sultan, Gene Fawcette, Louis & Arturo Cazeneuve, Gill Fox, Sam Cooper, Jim Mooney, Elmer Wexler, Fred Ray, Dan Zolnerowich, Don Rico, Max Plaisted, Howard Sherman, Everett E. Hibbard, Ramona Patenaude, Pierce Rice, Harry Anderson, Lin Streeter, Dan Gormley, Bernard Klein, Stephen Douglas, Martin Nodell, Charles Quinlan, Dan Noonan, Sheldon Moldoff, Henry Keifer, Marc Swayze, Carl Buettner, Charles A. Winter, Maurice, del Bourgo, Jack Warren, Bob Montana, Bob, Fujimori, Vernon Greene, George Papp, John Jordan, Syd Shores, John Sikela, Alex Blum, Ray Ramsey, R. Webster, Harry Sahle, Mort Leav, Alex Kotzky, Dan Barry, Al Camy, Stan Kaye, George Gregg, Art Saaf, George Tuska, alexander Kostuk, Al Carreno, Fred Kida, Ruben Moreira, Sidney Hamburg, Rudy Palais, Joe Doolin, Al Plastino, Harvey K. Fuller, Louis Ferstadt, Matt Bailey, Ham Fisher, Walt Kelly, Wayne Boring, John Giunta, Creig Flessel, Harold Delay, Lee Elias, Henry Boltinoff, L.B. Cole and George Marcoux plus many more who did their bit by providing safe thrills, captivating joy and astounding excitement for millions.

These powerful, evocative, charming, funny, thrilling, occasionally daft and often horrific images are controversial these days. Many people consider them Art with a capital ‘A’ whereas close-minded, reactionary, unimaginative, bigoted die-hard poltroons don’t.

Why not Dig back in time (For Victory!) and make your own decision?
© 2017 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. Main text© 2017 Mark Fertig. All comics covers and illustrations herein © 2017 the respective copyright holders All rights reserved.

Red Baron volume 3: Dungeons and Dragons

By Pierre Veys & Carlos Puerta, translated by Mark Bence (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-252-2

The sublimely illustrated, chillingly conceived fictionalised re-imagination of the latter days of legendary WWI German Air Ace Manfred von Richthofen apparently concludes in stunningly scary form with this latest uncompromising episode from Pierre Veys & Carlos Puerta.

Baron rouge: Donjons et Dragons premiered Continentally in 2015 and here resumes its fascinating, faux-autobiographic course as notionally described by the titular flier in a beguiling album-sized tome from Cinebook …

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

In the premiere volume we saw how young military student Manfred discovered he had an uncanny psychic gift: when endangered he could read his opponents’ intentions and counteract every attack. Immediate peril seemed to trigger his gift and after crushing and terrifying a brutal Junker Prince and his bullying cronies, Manfred subsequently tested the theory by heading for the worst part of town to provoke the peasants and rabble.

He never questioned how or why the savage exercise of savage violence – especially killing – made him feel indescribably happy…

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

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

The saga continued in a second volume wherein Von Richthofen barely survived his first taste of sky-borne dogfighting and resolved immediately thereafter to learn how to fly properly. Never again would he trust his life to someone else’s piloting skills…

A poor natural pilot, only persistent hard work allowed him to qualify as a flier and, even after his first kill, Manfred could not stop his elite comrades laughing at his pitiful landings…

Things changed after he modified his two-man Albatross C.111 so that he could fire in the direction of his flight rather than just behind or to the sides. Now a self-propelled gun, Von Richthofen took to the skies and scored a delicious hit on a hapless British pilot…

Days later his joy increased when Willy was assigned to his squadron.

Sharing the spoils of occupation life, Von Richthofen related his earlier war exploits and shared again the secret of his uncanny gift with his unconvinced comrade. An opportunity came to prove his boasts at an enlisted men’s boxing match where Lieutenant Von Richthofen systematically demolished a hulking brute who was German national champion before hostilities started.

As Willy watched his slightly-built school chum avoid every lethal blow and methodically take his opponent apart, he finally believed… and began to fear…

The story recommences here with Manfred revelling in the murderous and destructive excesses of his new killing proficiency. His successes bring him and wingman Willy to the attention of national hero and top air ace Oswald Boelcke who invites him to join his new fighter squadron…

Manfred’s gory glee is only barely dimmed by the discovery that among his new comrades is old school arch-enemy Prince Friedrich who – complete with new coterie of sycophantic hangers-on – promises vengeance for past indiscretions…

Manfred’s gift for killing continues to grow, especially after being assigned a string of increasingly more efficient flying machines. However, after a close call against a calmly methodical British pilot, von Richthofen realises a way to enhance his psychic advantage in the air and paints his ships blazing scarlet to unsettle and terrify his airborne opponents…

A less easily handled problem is Friedrich and his gang. Thanks to his gift Manfred knows they intend to murder him and takes swift, merciless action to end their threat. However, even after ruthlessly eliminating his supposed comrades, the Red Baron’s problems do not end despite his daring and bravado seeing him triumph over every burgeoning horror and mechanical innovation of the War To End All Wars: tanks, submarines and even naval destroyers…

A net of evidence is closing in around Manfred and despite his insouciance he feels something is coming on the sunny morning he joins the flight to escort a German Zeppelin safely home. His arrogant overconfident cockiness proves to be his ultimate downfall that day…

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

A decidedly different combat concoction: one jaded war lovers should definitely try.
Original edition © Zephyr Editions 2015 by Veys & Puerta. All rights reserved. English translation 2015 © Cinebook Ltd.

Captain Midnight Archives volume 1: Captain Midnight Battles the Nazis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bluecoats volume 5: Rumberley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas, Boys and Girls!

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

Lion Annual 1967

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman Annual 1967

By Bill Finger, Jack Miller, Sheldon Moldoff, Joe Certa, Dick Sprang, Henry Boltinoff & various (Atlas Publishing & Distributing Co. Ltd/K. G. Murray Publishing)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smash! Annual 1972

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Need a Mission Briefing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garth Ennis’ Complete Battlefields volume 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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