Buck Danny volume 1: Night of the Serpent

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

Buck Danny premiered in Le Journal de 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 Balkans to Iran. With the current bellicose undercurrent informing or perhaps tainting America’s influence around the world, it’s interesting to imagine what tales might be told during the current administration…

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

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

With fellow master-storytellers Albert Uderzo & René Goscinny, Charlier formed Édifrance Agency, which promoted and specialised in communication arts and comics strips. Charlier and Goscinny were editors of the magazine Pistolin (1955 to 1958) and went on to create Pilote in 1959 but Charlier (whose greatest narrative triumph is iconic Western Blueberry, created in 1963 with Jean Giraud/Moebius) continued to script Buck Danny and did so until his death.

On his passing artistic collaborator Francis Bergése (who first 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 aviation storytelling, 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.

At age 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 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 won the coveted job of illustrating globally syndicated Buck Danny with 41st yarn Apocalypse Mission’.

He even found time in the 1990s to produce a few episodes of the European interpretation of British icon Biggles before finally retiring in 2008, passing on the reins to illustrators Fabrice Lamy & Francis Winis and scripter Frédéric Zumbiehl.

Thus far – with Zumbiehl & Gil Formosa now at the helm – the franchise has notched up 55 albums…

Like all the Danny tales this premier edition is astonishingly authentic and still worrisomely topical: a breezily compelling action thriller originally published in 2000 as Buck Danny #49: La nuit du serpent – with colouring by Frédéric Bergése (I’m assuming that’s his son, but I’m not certain) blending mind-boggling detail and technical veracity with good old-fashioned blockbuster adventure.

At Kunsan Airbase, South Korea, a veteran American pilot goes on dawn border patrol only to be hit by an uncanny light which blinds him and seems to negate all his F-16’s guidance systems. Despite his best efforts, the jet crashes in the De-Militarized Zone and the North Koreans claim a flagrant breaking of the truce and a huge publicity coup.

Strangely though, the downed Colonel Maxwell is still missing. The Communists don’t have him and the pilot’s tracking devices indicate he’s still out there somewhere: lost in the No Man’s Land between North and South.

The mighty US military swings into action, determined to rescue their pilot, clean up the mess and deny the Reds either a tangible or political victory. Buck, Tumbler and Tuckson are at a Paris air show when they get the call and are soon en route to Korea for a last-ditch, face-saving mission.

However, as the trio prepare to join the covert rescue mission, evidence emerges which casts doubt on the authenticity of the alleged super-weapon. Meanwhile Maxwell has stumbled into a fantastic secret beneath the DMZ…

Fast-paced, brimming with tension and spectacular action, this is a classically designed thriller which effortlessly plunges the reader into a delightfully dizzying riot of intrigue, mystery and suspense before its captivating conclusion.

Suitable for older kids and the adventurous of all ages, the Adventures of Buck Danny comprise one endlessly enthralling tour of duty no comics fan or armchair adrenaline-junkie can afford to miss.

Bon chance, mes braves…
© Dupuis, 2000 by Bergése. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Comics at War

By Denis Gifford (Hawk Books)
ISBN: 978-0-96824-885-6

Very often the books we write about our comics are better than the stories and pictures themselves: memorable, intensely evocative and infused with the debilitating nostalgic joy that only passing years and selective memory bestows.

That’s not meant in any way to denigrate or decry the superb works of the countless -generally unrecognised and generally unlauded – creators who brightened the days of generations of children with fantastic adventures and side-splitting gags in those so flimsy, so easily lost and damaged cheap pamphlets, but rather because of an added factor inherent in these commemorative tomes: by their very existence they add the inestimable value and mystery of Lost, Forgotten or Buried Treasures into the mix.

A perfect example is this copious chronicle released as an anniversary item in 1988 to celebrate the wartime delights rationed out to beleaguered British lads and lasses, compiled by possibly the nation’s greatest devotee and celebrant of childish pastimes and halcyon days.

Denis Gifford was a cartoonist, writer, TV show deviser and historian who loved comics. As both collector and creator he gave his life to strips and movies, acquiring items and memorabilia voraciously, consequently channelling his fascinations into more than fifty books on Film, Television, Radio and Comics; imparting his overwhelming devotion to a veritable legion of fans.

If his works were occasionally short on depth or perhaps guilty of getting the odd fact wrong, he was nevertheless the consummate master of enthusiastic remembrance. He deeply loved the medium in concept and in all its execution, from slipshod and rushed to pure masterpieces with the same degree of passion and was capable of sharing – infecting almost – a casual reader with some of that fierce wistful fire.

With hundreds of illustrative examples culled from his own collection, this volume was released to commemorate the outbreak of World War II and revels in the magnificent contributions to morale generated by a battalion of artists and (usually anonymous) writers, covering the output – in breadth if not depth – of an industry that endured and persevered under appalling restrictions (paper was a vital war resource and stringently rationed), inciting patriotic fervour and providing crucial relief from the stresses and privation of the times.

Abandoning academic rigour in favour of inculcating a taste of the times, this book reprints complete sample strips of the period beginning with the affable tramps and Jester cover stars Basil and Bert (by George Parlett), covering the start of the war in four strips from January to November 1939, before dividing the collection into themed sections such as Be Prepared: with examples of Norman Ward’s Home Guard heroes Sandy and Muddy from Knock-Out and John Jukes’ Marmaduke, the Merry Militiaman from Radio Fun.

At War With the Army displays the ordinary Englishman’s perennial problem with Authority – with episodes of Koko the Pup and Desperate Dan (respectively by Bob MacGillivray and Dudley Watkins from D.C. Thomsons’ Magic and The Dandy); Weary Willie and Tired Tim (from Chips and superbly rendered by Percy Cocking), as well as stunning two-tone and full colour examples from Tip-Top, The Wonder and others.

Tanks a Million! offers selections from the height of the fighting, and brings us head-on into the controversial arena of ethnic stereotyping. All I can say is what I always do: the times were different. Mercifully we’ve moved beyond the obvious institutionalised iniquities of casual racism and sexism (maybe not so much on that last one though?) and are much more tolerant today (unless you’re obese, gay, a smoker, or childless and happy about it), but if antiquated attitudes and caricaturing might offend you, don’t read old comics, or watch vintage films or cartoons – it’s your choice and your loss.

The strip that sparked this tirade is an example of Stymie and his Magic Wishbone from Radio Fun (a long-running strip with a black boy-tramp in the tradition of minstrel shows) from a chapter highlighting the comic strip love-affair with armoured vehicles and including many less controversial examples from Tiger Tim’s Weekly, Knock-Out, Chips and The Dandy, featuring stars such as Our Ernie, Our Gang, Stonehenge, Kit the Ancient Brit and Deed-A-Day Danny.

…And if you think we were hard on innocent and usually allied non-white people just wait till you see the treatment dealt to Germans, Italians and Japanese by our patriotic cartoonists…

At Sea with the Navy! highlights nautical manoeuvres from Casey Court (Chips, and by Albert Pease); Rip Van Wink (Beano, James Crichton); Lt. Daring and Jolly Roger (from Golden by Roy Wilson; Billy Bunter (Knock-Out by Frank Minnitt); Hairy Dan (Beano, Basil Blackaller) and Pitch and Toss (Funny Wonder, Roy Wilson again) whilst Sinking the Subs takes us below the surface with Our Ernie, Desperate Dan, Koko, Pansy Potter, Alfie the Air Tramp and Billy Bunter.

Britain’s fledgling flying squad takes centre-stage with In the Air with the R.A.F. featuring Freddie Crompton’s Tiny Tots, Korky the Cat from Dandy, The Gremlins (Knock-Out, by Fred Robinson) and yet more Koko the Pup.

Awful Adolf and his Nasty Nazis! demonstrates and deftly depicts just what we all thought about the Axis nations and even indulges in some highly personal attacks against prominent personages on the other side, beginning with Sam Fair’s riotously ridiculing Addie and Hermy, (Beano’s utterly unauthorised adventures of misters Hitler and Goering), whilst Our Ernie, Lord Snooty, Pitch and Toss, Big Eggo (Beano, by Reg Carter), Plum and Duff (Comic Cuts, Albert Pease) and the staggeringly offensive Musso the WopHe’s a Big-a-Da-Flop (Beano, Artie Jackson and others) all cheered up the home-front with macerating mockery.

Doing Their Bit then gathers wartime exploits of the nation’s stars and celebrities (turning Britain’s long love affair with entertainment industry figures into another True Brit bullet at the Boche. Strips featuring Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Warner, Flanagan and Allen, Haver and Lee, The Western Brothers, Sandy Powell, Old Mother Riley (featuring Lucan & McShane), Claude Hulbert, Duggie Wakefield, Joe E. Brown, Harold Lloyd, Lupino Lane and Laurel and Hardy included here were collectively illustrated by Reg and George Parlett, Tom Radford, John Jukes, Bertie Brown, Alex Akerbladh, George Heath, Norman Ward and Billy Wakefield.

The kids themselves are the stars of Evacuation Saves the Nation! as our collective banishment of city-bred children produced a wealth of intriguing possibilities for comics creators.

Vicky the Vacky (Magic, George Drysdale), Our Happy Vaccies (Knock-Out, by Hugh McNeill) and Annie Vakkie (Knock-Out, by Frank Lazenby) showed readers the best way to keep their displaced chins up before Blackout Blues! finds the famous and commonplace alike suffering from night terrors…

Examples here include Grandma Jolly and her Brolly, Will Hay, the Master of Mirth, Ben and Bert, Barney Boko, Crusoe Kids, Grandfather Clock, Constable Cuddlecock and Big Ben and Little Len after which Gas Mask Drill finds the funny side of potential asphyxiation with choice strips such as Stan Deezy, Hungry Horace, Deed-A-Day Danny, Big Eggo, Good King Coke and Cinderella all encountering difficulties with Britain’s most essential useless fashion accessory…

Barrage Balloons! lampoons the giant sky sausages that made life tricky for the Luftwaffe with examples from Luke and Len the Odd-Job Men (Larks and by Wally Robertson), It’s the Gremlins, Alfie the Air Tramp, and In Town this Week from Radio Fun whilst Tuning Up the A.R.P.! deals out the same treatment to the valiant volunteers who patrolled our bombed-out streets after dark. Those Air Raid Precautions patrols get a right (albeit roundly good natured) sending up in strips starring Deed-A-Day Danny, Big Eggo, P.C. Penny, Ben and Bert, Marmy and His Ma, Lord Snooty and his Pals, The Tickler Twins in Wonderland, Our Ernie, Tootsy McTurk, Boy Biffo the Brave and Pa Perkins and his Son Percy.

The girls finally get a go in the vanguard with Wow! Women of War! starring Dandy’s Keyhole Kate and Meddlesome Matty (by Allan Morley and Sam Fair respectively); Dolly Dimple (Magic, Morley again), Tell Tale Tilly, Peggy the Pride of the Force, Pansy Potter the Strongman’s Daughter, Big Hearted Martha Our A.R.P. Nut and Kitty Clare’s Schooldays whilst the Home Guard stumble to the fore once more in a section entitled Doing Their Best with examples from Tootsy McTurk (Magic, John Mason), Casey Court, Lord Snooty, Deed-A-Day Danny and Big Eggo.

The peril of imminent invasion was always in the air and the embattled cartoonists sensibly responded with measured insolence. Hop It, Hitler! displays our pen-pushers’ fighting spirit with examples such as Bamboo Town (Dandy, Chick Gordon), Sandy and Muddy, Pansy Potter, the astonishingly un-PC Sooty Snowball, Hair-Oil Hal Your Barber Pal and Stonehenge Kit, before espionage antics are exposed in I Spy Mit Mein Little Eye! in Laurie and Trailer the Secret Service Men plus even more Sandy and Muddy, Herr Paul Pry, Big Eggo and Lord Snooty.

Wireless War! celebrates both radio stars and enemy broadcasts with a selection from Tommy Handley, Troddles and his Pet Tortoise Tonky-Tonk, Happy Harry and Sister Sue, Crackers the Perky Pup, Our Gang and a couple of examples of John Jukes’ sublimely wicked Radio Fun strip Lord Haw-Haw – The Broadcasting Humbug from Hamburg.

To Blazes With the Firemen! is a rather affectionate and jolly examination of one of the toughest of home front duties with a selection of strips including Podge (whose dad was a fire-fighter, drawn by Eric Roberts for Dandy), Casey Court, Pansy Potter and In Town This Week.

Rationing was never far from people’s minds and an art-form where the ultimate reward was usually “a slap-up feed” perfectly lambasted the necessary measures in many strips. Examples here include The Bruin Boy from Tiny Tim’s Weekly; Freddy the Fearless Fly (Dandy, Allan Morley), Cyril Price’s vast ensemble cast from Casey Court (courtesy of Chips), Our Ernie and Dudley Watkins’ Peter Piper from Magic, all in need of Luvly Grub!

Under the miscellaneous sub-headings of Salvage!, Comical Camouflage!, Workers Playtime! and Allies, strips featuring Ronnie Roy the India-rubber Boy, Ding Dong Dally, Desperate Dan, Tin-Can Tommy the Clockwork Boy, Big Hearted Arthur and Dicky Murdoch and other stalwarts all gather hopeful momentum as the Big Push looms and this gloriously inventive and immensely satisfying compilation heads triumphantly towards its conclusion.

V for Victory! sees a telling gallery of strips celebrating the war’s end and better tomorrows; featuring final sallies from Casey Court, Weary Willie and Tired Tim, a stunning Mickey Mouse Weekly cover by Victor Ibbotson, It’s That Man Again – Tommy Handley, Laurel and Hardy and – from Jingles – Albert Pease has the last word with ‘Charlie Chucklechops Speaking… About New Uses for Old War materials’

Some modern fans find a steady diet of these veteran classics a little samey and formulaic – indeed even I too have trouble with some of the scripts – but the astonishing talents of the assembled artists here just cannot be understated. These are great works by brilliant comic stylists which truly stand the test of time. Moreover, in these carefully selected, measured doses these tales salvaged from a desperate but somehow more pleasant and even enviable time are utterly enchanting. This book is long overdue for a new edition and luckily for you is still available through many internet retailers.
Text and compilation © 1988 Denis Gifford. © 1988 Hawk Books. All rights reserved.

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 1

By Roy Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-161-9

Amongst the many cartoon and comics anniversaries this year there are household names still with us (albeit in exceedingly altered forms) and tragically masterpieces of the form that have faded from popular memory, even though their influence remains in every panel we might peruse…

Modern comics evolved from newspaper gag and comic strips. These pictorial features were, until relatively recently, utterly ubiquitous and hugely popular with the public and highly prized by publishers who used them as an irresistible sales weapon to guarantee and increase circulation and profits.

It’s virtually impossible for us to today to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America (and the wider world) from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no television, broadcast radio far from universal, and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the strip sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were the most common recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality of adventures and exploits.

From the very start humour was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics”, and from these gag and stunt beginnings – a blend of silent movie slapstick, outrageous fantasy and the vaudeville shows – evolved a thoroughly entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting on April 21st 1924, Washington Tubbs II was a comedic gag-a-day vehicle not much different from family favourite Harold Teen (by Crane’s friend and contemporary Carl Ed).

When it premiered in 1924, Tubbs was a diminutive and ambitious young shop-clerk, but gradually the strip moved into mock-heroics, then through cosy, non-confrontational action, only to become a full-blown, light-hearted, rip-roaring adventure series with the introduction of ancestral he-man and prototype moody swashbuckler Captain Easy in the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

As the tales became evermore exotic and thrill-packed, the globe-trotting little dynamo clearly needed a sidekick who could believably handle the strenuous combat side of things, and thus – in the middle of a European-set war yarn – Wash liberated a mysterious fellow American from a jail cell and history was made.

Before long the mismatched pair were travelling companions, hunting treasure, fighting thugs and rescuing a bevy of startlingly comely maidens in distress…

The bluff, two-fisted, surly, comprehensively capable, utterly dependable, down-on-his-luck “Southern Gen’leman” was something not seen before in comics: a raw, square-jawed hunk played completely straight rather than as the buffoon or music hall foil of such classic serials as Hairsbreadth Harry or Desperate Desmond.

Moreover, Crane’s seductively simple blend of cartoon exuberance and design was a far more accessible and powerful medium for action story-telling than the somewhat static illustrative style favoured by artists like Hal Foster: just beginning to make waves on the groundbreaking new Tarzan Sunday page.

Tubbs and Easy were as exotic and thrilling as the Ape-Man, but rattled along like the surreal and tempestuous Popeye, full of vim, vigour and vinegar, as attested to by a close look at the early work of the would-be cartoonists who followed the strip with avid intensity: Floyd Gottfredson, Milton Caniff, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and especially young Joe Shuster…

After a couple of abortive attempts starring his little hero, Crane bowed to the inevitable and created instead a full-colour Sunday page dedicated to his increasingly popular hero-for-hire.

Captain Easy debuted on 30th July 1933 (happy 85th Cap!), in wild and woolly escapades set before his first fateful rendezvous with Tubbs.

This first sublime archival volume begins with the soldier of fortune undertaking a mercenary mission for the Chinese government to spy on the city of ‘Gungshi.’ In the heyday of popular exploration and aviator exploits, the bold solo flight over the Himalayas to Chinese Turkestan was stirring enough but when Easy then infiltrates a hidden citadel it heralded the beginning of a rollercoaster romp with sword-wielding Mongols, sultry houris, helpless dancing girls, fabulous beasts and wicked bandits. The heady, intoxicating dramatic brew captivated entire families across the planet, week after addictive week…

With an entire page and vibrant colours to play with, Crane’s imagination ran wild and his fabulous visual concoctions achieved a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art.

The effect and influence of Crane’s pages can be seen in so many strips since; especially the works of near-contemporaries such as Hergé and giants-in-waiting like Charles Schulz.

These pages were a clearly as much of joy to create as to read. In fact, the cited reason for Crane surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les Turner in 1937 was the controlling NEA Syndicate abruptly demanding that all its strips be henceforward produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate them being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated.

Crane just walked away, concentrating on the daily feature. In 1943 he left the Syndicate to create the aviation adventure strip Buz Sawyer.

At the end of the initial blockbuster epic Easy is a hero to the people of Gungshi, if not the aristocracy, who plot to oust him via the subtlest of means. The second adventure ‘The Slave Girl’ opened on 21st January 1934, depicting the occidental hero bankrupted in saving the beautiful Rose Petal from the auction block: a chivalrous gesture leading to war with the rival city of Kashno, and a brutally hilarious encounter with South Sea pirates…

In an era where ethnic stereotyping and casual racism were commonplace and acceptable – if not actually mandatory – the introduction of a vile and unscrupulous Yank as the exploitative villain was and remains a surprising delight.

Rambling Jack is every inch the greedy “ugly American” of later, more informed decades, and by contrasting Easy’s wholesome quest to make his fortune with the venal explorer’s rapacious ruthlessness, Crane makes a telling point for the folks back home. It also makes for great reading as Chinese bandits also enter the fray, determined to plunder both cities and everybody in their path…

With the help of a lost British aviator Easy is finally victorious, but on returning to his Chinese employers he spots something whilst flying over the Himalayas that radically alters his plans…

‘The Sunken City’ is an early masterpiece of comics fiction, with Easy recruiting comedy stooge ’Arry Pippy, a demobbed cockney British Army cook, to help him explore a drowned city lost for centuries in a hidden inland sea, and one he had he had spotted from the air only through sheer chance.

However, simply to get there the pair must trek through wild jungles, survive blowpipe-wielding cannibals and the greatest threat our valiant rogue has ever faced…

If I’ve given the impression that this has all been grim-‘n’-gritty turmoil and tension thus far, please forgive me: Roy Crane was an utterly irrepressible gag-man and his enchanting chapter-play serial abounds with breezy light-hearted banter, hilarious situations and outright farce – a sure-fire formula modern cinema directors plunder to this day.

Easy is the Indiana Jones, Flynn (the Librarian) Carsen and Jack (Romancing the Stone) Cotton of his day and inarguably blazed the trail for all of them.

Using a deep-sea diver’s suit, Easy and ‘Arry explore the piscine wonders and submerged grandeur of the lost city, encountering some of the most magical and fanciful sea beasts ever recorded in comics before literally striking gold. Typically, when the cannibals attack those dredged up treasures are lost and Easy finds himself captive and betrothed to the most hideous witch-hag imaginable…

Risking everything the desperate treasure-seekers make a break for it only to re-encounter ‘The Pirates’ (April 14th – July 7th 1935), but before they get too far the husband-hungry sorceress and her faithful cannibals come after him, leading to a brutal, murderous conclusion…

After years in the Orient Easy and Pippy then succumb to a hankering for less dangerous company and make their way to Constantinople and Europe, but trouble is never far from the mercenary and in ‘The Princess’ (14th July – December 1st 1935), the Captain’s gentlemanly instincts compel him to rescue a beautiful woman from the unwelcome attentions of munitions magnate Count Heyloff, a gesture that embroils our hero in a manufactured war between two minor nations.

This tale addressed the contemporary American sentiment that another world conflict was brewing and it’s obvious that Crane’s opinion was the deeply held common conviction that the whole international unrest was the result of rich men’s greedy manipulations…

Dark, bittersweet and painfully foreboding, this yarn sees Easy become the focus of Heyloff’s vengeance, and the sum total air force for the tiny underdog nation of Nikkateena in their bitter struggle for survival against the equally-duped country of Woopsydasia.

Crane kept the combat chronicle light but on occasion his true feelings showed through in some of the most trenchant anti-war art ever seen.

This superb hardback and colossal initial collection is the perfect means of discovering or rediscovering Crane’s rip-snorting, pulse-pounding, exotically racy adventure trailblazer. The huge pages in this volume (almost 14½ by 10½ inches, or 210 x 140 mm for the younger, metric crowd) also contain a fascinating and informative introductory biography of Crane by historian Jeet Heer; a glowing testimonial from Charles “Peanuts” Schulz; contemporary promotional material, extra drawings and sketches plus a fascinating feature explaining how pages were coloured in those long-ago days before computers…

This is primal comics storytelling of the very highest quality: unforgettable, spectacular and utterly irresistible. These tales rank alongside the best of Hergé, Tezuka and Kirby, and led inexorably to the greatest creations of all of them. Now that you have the chance to experience the strips that inspired the giants of our art form, how can you possibly resist?
Captain Easy Strips © 2010 United Features Syndicate, Inc. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

Willie and Joe: the WWII Years

By Bill Mauldin, edited by Todd DePastino (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-838-1 (HB)                                978-1-60699-439-9 (PB)

During World War II a talented, ambitious young man named William Henry “Bill” Mauldin (29/10/1921 – 22/01/2003) fought “Over There” with the 45th Division of the United States Infantry as well as many other fine units of the army. He learned to hate war and love his brother soldiers – and the American fighting man loved him back.

During his time in the service he produced civilian cartoons for the Oklahoma City Times and The Oklahoman, and intimately effective and authentic material for his Company periodical, 45th Division News, as well as Yank and Stars and Stripes: the US Armed Forces newspapers. Soon after, his cartoons were being reproduced in newspapers across Europe and America.

They mostly featured two slovenly “dogfaces” (a term he popularised) giving their trenchant and laconic view of the war from the muddied tip of the pointiest of Sharp Ends. Willie and Joe, much to the dismay of the brassbound, spit-and-polish military martinets and diplomatic doctrinaires, became the unshakable, everlasting image of the American soldier: continually revealed in all ways and manners the upper echelons of the army would prefer remained top secret.

Willie and Joe even became the subject of two films (Up Front – 1951 and Back at the Front – 1952) whilst Willie made the cover of Time Magazine in 1945, when 23-year old Mauldin won his first Pulitzer Prize.

In 1945 a collection of his drawings, accompanied by a powerfully understated and heartfelt documentary essay, was published by Henry Holt and Co. Up Front was a sensation, telling the American public about the experiences of their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands in a way no historian would or did. A biography, Back Home, followed in 1947.

Mauldin’s anti-war, anti-Idiots-in-Charge-of-War views became increasingly unpopular during the Cold War and despite being a War Hero his increasingly political cartoon work fell out of favour and those efforts are the subject of companion volume Willie & Joe: Back Home. Mauldin left the business to become a journalist and illustrator.

He was a film actor for a while (appearing in Red Badge of Courage with Audie Murphy, among other movies); a war correspondent during the Korean War and – after an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1956 – finally returned to newspaper cartooning in 1958.

He retired in 1991 after a long, glittering and award-studded career. Mauldin only drew Willie and Joe four times in that entire period (for an article on the “New Army” in Life magazine; for the funerals of “Soldier’s Generals” Omar Bradley and George C. Marshall; and to eulogize Milton Caniff). His fondest wish had been to kill the iconic dogfaces off on the final day of World War II, but Stars and Stripes vetoed it.

The Willie and Joe cartoons and characters are some of the most enduring and honest symbols of all military history. Every Veterans Day in Peanuts, from1969 to 1999, fellow veteran Charles Schulz had Snoopy turn up at Mauldin’s house to drink Root Beers and tell war stories with an old pal.

When you read Sgt. Rock you’re looking at Mauldin’s legacy, and Archie Goodwin even drafted the shabby professionals for a couple of classy guest-shots in Star-Spangled War Stories (see Showcase Presents the Unknown Soldier).

This immense mostly monochrome compendium (with some very rare colour and sepia items) comes in hardback, softcover and even as an eBook: collecting all Mauldin’s known wartime cartoons and featuring not only the iconic dog-face duo, but also the drawings, illustrations, sketches and gags that led, over 8 years of army life, to their creation.

Mauldin produced most of his work for Regimental and Company newspapers whilst under fire: perfectly capturing the life and context of fellow soldiers – also under battlefield conditions – and gave a glimpse of that unique and bizarre existence to their families and civilians at large, despite constant military censorship and even face-to-face confrontations with Generals such as George Patton, who was perennially incensed at the image the cartoonist presented to the world.

Fortunately, Supreme Commander Eisenhower, if not an actual fan, at least recognised the strategic and morale value of Mauldin’s Star Spangled Banter and Up Front features with indomitable everymen Willie and Joe

This far removed in time, many of the pieces here might need historical context for modern readers and such is comprehensively provided by the notes section to the rear of the volume. Also included are unpublished pieces and pages, early cartoon works, and rare notes, drafts and sketches.

Most strips, composites and full-page gags, however, are sublimely transparent in their message and meaning: lampooning entrenched stupidity and cupidity, administrative inefficiency and sheer military bloody-mindedness whilst highlighting the miraculous perseverance and unquenchable determination of the ordinary guys to get the job done while defending their only inalienable right – to gripe and goof off whenever the brass weren’t around…

Moreover, Mauldin never patronises the civilians or demonises the enemy: the German and Italians are usually in the same dismal boat as “Our Boys” and only the war and its brass-bound conductors are worthy of his inky ire…

Let’s just hope that in these tense, “ten-seconds-to-doomsday” times the latest batch of brass-hats and political ass-hats keep that in mind and remember what’s always at stake here…

Alternating trenchant cynicism, moral outrage, gallows humour, absurdist observation, shared miseries, staggering sentimentality and the total shock and awe of still being alive every morning, this cartoon catalogue of the Last Just War is a truly breathtaking collection no fan, art-lover, historian or humanitarian can afford to miss.

…And it will make you cry and laugh out loud too.

With a fascinating biography of Mauldin that is as compelling as his art, the mordant wit and desperate camaraderie of his work is more important than ever in an age where increasingly cold and distanced leaders send ever-more innocent lambs to further foreign fields for slaughter. With this volume (and the aforementioned Willie & Joe: Back Home) we should finally be able to restore Mauldin and his works to the forefront of graphic consciousness, because tragically, his message is never going to be out of date…
© 2011 the Estate of William Mauldin. All right reserved.

Battle Picture Weekly Annual (1976)

By various (Fleetway)
ISBN: 85037-266-6

For most of the medium’s history British comics have been renowned for the ability to tell a big story in satisfying little instalments which nevertheless left the reader hungry for more. This, coupled with superior creators and the anthological nature of our publications, has ensured hundreds of memorable characters and series have seared themselves into that dim corner inside most British adult males that houses the all-important Little Boys’ Psyche.

One of the last great weekly anthology comics was actually dedicated to a single theme: the all-combat Battle, which launched as Battle Picture Weekly on 8th March 1975, and through the traditional forge of absorption, merger and re-branding (becoming Battle Picture Weekly & Valiant, Battle Action, Battle, Battle Action Force and Battle Storm Force) carved itself a place in British comics history.

It was itself combined with Eagle on January 23rd 1988, after 673 blood-soaked, testosterone-drenched issues, having carved its way into the savage hearts of a generation, consequently producing some of the best and most influential war stories ever.

Annuals began immediately and this forward-dated first volume was released in the autumn of 1975: an action-packed compendium featuring opening salvos of some of the very best creators in Fleetway’s international stable and offering a bonanza of war-tinged fact and fiction features: (presumably) a winning blend of such writers as Pat Mills, John Wagner, Gerry Finley-Day, Tom Tully, Eric and Alan Hebden and artists such as Colin Page, Pat Wright, Giralt, Carlos Ezquerra, Geoff Campion and others I’m not savvy enough to recognise…

The literary and graphic conflict diamonds open with a full-colour text-&-picture spread explaining ‘Crete – The Airborne Invasion’ after which vivid strip vignette ‘Two Pints for the Panzers’ (perhaps painted by Carlos Pino?) details a brief Dunkirk skirmish between a deadly Nazi battlewagon and a few infernally devious Tommies…

A brace of prose recollections entitled ‘This Amazing War – Sailing Home!’ and ‘The Invisible Eye… is Shut!’ neatly proceed into monochrome adventure ‘Petty Officer Perkins’ with a bureaucratic quartermaster accidentally saving a British patrol from Japanese ambush through his small-minded penny-pinching whilst ‘The Escapers: Jail Break’ recounts an amazing true tale of a Mosquito raid to liberate Gestapo prisoners…

Legendary, Dirty Dozen-inspired misfit antiheroes Rat Pack (by Finley-Day and perhaps Fred T. Holmes?) muster next, sinking a docked Italian battleship with their usual gritty overkill, after which ‘Boys At War: A Medal for Badgie – Trumpeter Stanley Waldron, DCM, RFA’ honours in prose the achievements of a remarkable young warrior whilst ‘The Experts: The Sniper’ recounts a forgotten tale of the Anzacs in WWI…

Switching to red and black duo-hues, ‘Brothers in Arms’ reveals how two eternally squabbling heirs to an English Baronial Seat bury their animosity in the forge of combat before ‘This Amazing War – Underwater Strike’ regales the avid readership with an exploit of submarine combat.

Looking like early Eric Bradbury ‘Battle Honour: Sixty Minutes of Glory’ was probably culled from Fleetway’s long-running War Picture Library and detailed the valiant holding action of doomed Merchant cruiser Jervis Bay and is followed by text feature ‘The Escapers: Only One Got Away’ which details the astounding true story of German POW Franz von Werra whom no British, Canadian or American prison could hold…

‘Private War’ then details a clash of wills between supposed allies as a commando and British naval officer put personal animosities ahead of the life and mission of a Coast-Watcher stuck behind Japanese lines before ‘Boys At War: The Youngest Rifleman – Rifleman Ronald Bassett, KRRC’ details the accomplishments of a wilful 15-year-old youngster who enlisted three years too early to fight in WWII…

‘Fun Parade’ offers a wealth of cartoon military mirth whilst ‘Lofty’s One-Man Luftwaffe’ (by Kev O’Neill?) finds the undercover cockney still sabotaging the German Fighter Group he’s flying with as Nazi Air Ace Major Ranke after which ‘The First Great War’ is reviewed in an informative text-&-painted illustration feature.

‘Rogues Gallery’ offers visual insight into enemy aircraft ‘Mitsubishi A6M Type 0 Zero’, ‘Junkers 87 Stuka’, ‘Junkers 88’ and ‘Bachem 349 Viper’ and precedes a fictionalised account of the North African campaign via ‘The Experts: The Long Range Desert Group’ whilst ‘The Seventh Earl’ reveals how members of a group of the Canadian Parachute Battalion on a mission in occupied Holland become entangled in a transatlantic succession battle in England…

Geoff Campion’s classic ‘Private Bolt – a Bad Soldier’ details the grim life, controversial service career and glorious end of a true fighting man and leads off a section of short combat strips, followed in close order by ‘Dutchy’s Battlewagon’ which sees a driver in the Western Sahara teach the Afrika Korps a few lessons about desert warfare and how a D-Day soldier offsets one sensible anxiety against a silly but crippling phobia in ‘One Man’s Fear’

Text feature ‘The Escapers: The Trojan Horse’ re-examines the mythic tale of POW ingenuity before ‘Tiger Cubb’ (Mike Western) pits Tibetan-trained British boy martial artist Johnny Cubb against sadistic Japanese invaders in China and ‘The Red Knight: Baron Manfred von Richthofen’ blends fact and legend in a biographical strip before the military annals conclude in spectacular fashion with ‘A Game of Bluff’ as British agent and French Resistance fighters unite to uncover a traitor and expedite the D-Day landings…

This bombastic blend of action, tension and drama hasn’t paled in the intervening years and these gripping gems are as powerful and engrossing now as they’ve ever been…
© IPC Magazines Ltd. 1975.

Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, George Roussos & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6792-1

Inspired by the James Bond films and pioneering TV shows like Danger Man, ultimate super-spy Nick Fury debuted in Fantastic Four #21 (December 1963): a grizzled and cunning CIA Colonel at the periphery of big adventures. In typical spook style, he craftily manipulated the First Family of Marvel superheroes into invading a sovereign nation, just as the 1960s espionage vogue was taking off.

What’s weird about that? Well, the gruffly capable everyman was already the star of the little company’s only war comic, set twenty years earlier in – depending on whether you were American or European – the middle or beginning of World War II.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, an improbable, decidedly over-the-top and raucous combat comics series (similar in tone to later ensemble action movies such as The Magnificent Seven, Wild Bunch or The Dirty Dozen) had launched in May of that year. Fury’s post-war self became a big-name star when espionage shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. became global sensations and the elder iteration was given a second series beginning in Strange Tales#135 (August 1965).

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions with sinister schemes of World Domination by subversive all-encompassing hidden, enemy-organisation Hydra: all with captivating Jack Kirby-designed super-science gadgetry and, later, iconic imagineering from Jim Steranko whose visually groundbreaking graphic narratives took the art form to a whole new level.

For all that time, however, the original wartime version soldiered on (sorry: puns are my weapon of choice), blending a uniquely flamboyant house-bravado style and often ludicrous, implausible, historically inaccurate, all-action bombast with moments of genuine heartbreak, unbridled passion and seething emotion.

Sgt. Fury seems to be a pure Jack Kirby creation. As with all his various combat comics, The King made everything look harsh and real and appalling: the people and places all grimy, tired, battered yet indomitable.

The artist had served in some of the worst battles of the war and never forgot the horrific and heroic things he saw – and more graphically expressed in his efforts during the 1950s genre boom at a number of different companies. However, even at kid-friendly, Comics Code-sanitised Marvel, those experiences perpetually leaked through onto his powerfully gripping pages.

Following another typically exuberant Stan Lee Introduction this first Trade Paperback (and eBook) memorial compendium re-presents the contents of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1-13 (spanning May 1963 to December 1964) opening – just as you’d expect – with blistering premier ‘Sgt. Fury, and his Howling Commandoes’ (that’s how they speled it in the storree-title – altho knot ennyware else).

Crafted by Lee, Kirby and inker Dick Ayers the rip-snorting yarn is bursting with full page panels interrupted by ‘Meet the Howling Commandos’ – a double-page starring the seven members of First Attack Squad; Able Company. This comprised Fury himself, former circus strongman/Corporal “Dum-Dum” Dugan and Privates Robert “Rebel” Ralston (a jockey), former student Jonathan “Junior” Juniper, jazz trumpeter Gabriel Jones, mechanic Izzy Cohen and glamorous movie star Dino Manelli.

Controversially – even in the 1960s – this combat Rat Pack was an integrated unit with Jewish and black members as well as Catholics, Southern Baptists and New York white guys all merrily serving together. The Howling Commandos pushed envelopes and busted taboos from the very start…

The first mission was a non-stop action romp pitting ‘Seven Against the Nazis!’ and putting the squad through their various paces as the ragged band of indomitable warriors tackled hordes of square-necked Nazis and saving D-Day by rescuing a French resistance fighter carrying vital plans of the invasion. They even brought back a high-ranking “kraut” prisoner. There was even room for a Kirby fact-page comparing and contrasting six different side-arms of the period in ancillary feature ‘Weapons of War’

Issue #2 found the ‘7 Doomed Men!’ up to their ripped shirts in Germans as they first infiltrated a French coastal town to blow up a U-Boat base and got back to England just in time to be sent on another suicide mission. This time it was to destroy a secret facility at Heinemund in the heart of the Fatherland where Nazi scientists were doing something sinister and nefarious with “hard water”…

These overblown fustian thrillers always played fast and loose with history and logic, so if you crave veracity above all I’d steer clear, but if you can swallow a heaping helping of creative anachronism there’s always great fun to be had here – especially since nobody drew atomic explosions like Kirby…

This drama was topped off with more fact pages as ‘The Enemy That Was!’ explored the capabilities of ‘The German Infantryman’ whilst ‘Weapons of War: “Chatter Guns” of World War II’ details everything you need to know about submachine guns…

Rough and ready gallows humour and broad comedy became increasingly important to the series from #3 onwards, with home base rivalries and wry comradely sparring leavening the outrageous non-stop carnage of the missions. ‘Midnight on Massacre Mountain!’ finds the septet explosively invading Italy to rescue a US army division caught in a Nazi trap. Along the way they meet a brilliant OSS officer training partisan troops, and Fury thought that young Reed Richards would go far…

Supplementing this exploit is a fascinating feature revealing what ordnance and hardware cost in ‘America’s World War II Shopping List!’

‘Lord Ha-Ha’s Last Laugh!’ in #4 began an inking tour of duty for George Bell (AKA 1950s Kirby studio-mate George “Inky” Roussos) and introduced a love interest for the Sarge, when he meets Red Cross volunteer Lady Pamela Hawley during an air raid in London. How cruel and tragic was fate then, that the Howlers’ very next mission took them to Berlin to kidnap a young British nobleman with the same name, acting as a crucial propaganda mouthpiece for the Wehrmacht…

The mission was a double disaster. Not only did Pamela’s ignoble brother perish but the debacle also cost the life of a Howler…

‘Weapons of War: Combat Rifles of World War II’ then ended this shocking, surprisingly grim and low-key melodrama…

Fury’s appearance in FF#21 – not included here – was released between that issue and #5, but no mention was made of it when the dark and cunning yarn introduces one of Marvel’s vilest, greatest villains. ‘At the Mercy of Baron Strucker’ sees Fury humiliated and defeated in personal combat against an Aryan nobleman before candid filmed footage is used as a propaganda tool of the Nazis. Only too late did dashing Dino pointed out how the nonplussed noncom had fallen for the oldest trick in Hollywood’s playbook…

The riotous rematch went rather better after which ‘Weapons of War: Light Machine Guns of World War II’ ends matters in a graphically educational manner, whilst ‘The Fangs of the Desert Fox!’ in #6 dumped the Squad in the desert to tackle the hordes of General Erwin Rommel in a mission foredoomed to fail…

‘The Court-Martial of Sergeant Fury’ then provides a glimpse at the hard-bitten hero’s past and offers insights into his tempestuous relationship with immediate superior Captain Samuel “Happy Sam” Sawyer. Of course, to get that information we have to watch Fury endure a dramatic trial after seemingly sabotaging a mission and striking a commanding officer…

Although continuing to draw the magnificent, eye-catching covers, Kirby left the title with this issue. His astounding abilities were more profitably employed in the superhero titles, even as Lee began consolidating the ever-expanding Marvel Universe by utilising more WWII iterations of contemporary characters.

‘The Death Ray of Baron Zemo!’ in #8 pits the Howlers against a Captain America villain recently debuted in The Avengers. Ayers & Roussos capably depict the unit’s attempts to capture the Nazi scientist and a weapon which could shape the outcome of the entire war. The tale also introduced Junior Juniper’s replacement: a rather fruity caricature of a British soldier named Percival Pinkerton, resplendent in horn-rimmed specs, pencil moustache, fuchsia beret and impossibly utilitarian umbrella…

In #9 the implausibly audacious ‘Mission: Capture Adolf Hitler!’ goes awry after the latest Howlers’ invasion of Berlin again brings Fury face-to-face with Wolfgang von Strucker; leading to temporary capture and an astounding escape whilst ‘On to Okinawa!’ in #10 sees the squad achieve greater success when despatched to the Pacific to rescue a captured US colonel from the Japanese.

This tale also saw the debut of a bearded bombastic submarine commander who would become a series regular before eventually winning his own series (Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders) in 1967.

The pace had visibly slowed and melodramatic subplots increased by #11, with ‘The Crackdown of Capt. Flint!’ depicting Happy Sam briefly replaced by a spit-and-polish officer who soon learns the limitations of his ways, after which in #12, a raid on a V1 factory in the heart of Europe seemingly prompts Dino to join the Nazis ‘When a Howler Turns Traitor!’

It was just a pre-arranged ploy though, but sadly nobody told the American commander, who latterly stuck the star in front of a firing squad…

This issue also included a Marvel Masterwork Pin-up of Fury by Ayers.

Closing the show on a true high, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #13 is arguably the best issue of the entire 167 issue run. The title says it all…

‘Fighting Side-by-Side with… Captain America and Bucky!’ reunited Lee, Kirby & Ayers in a blistering battle yarn as the Howlers crossed paths with the masked Sentinels of Liberty after both teams stumble across a top secret Nazi operation to build an invasion tunnel under the channel to England. To resort to the terms of the times: “Wah-Hoo!”…

Gilding this gladiatorial lily, the book signs off with several contemporary house ads, and full creator biographies.

Whereas close rival DC increasingly abandoned the Death or Glory bombast at this time in favour of humanistic, almost anti-war explorations of war and soldiering, Marvel’s take always favoured action-entertainment and fantasy over soul-searching for ultimate truths. On that level if no other, these early epics are stunningly effective and galvanically powerful exhibitions of the genre. Just don’t use them for history homework.
© 1963, 1964, 2013, 2017 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

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.