Loveless volume 1: A Kin of Homecoming


By Brian Azzarello & Marcelo Frusin & various(Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1061-8 (Vertigo)             978-1845763374 (Titan Books UK edition)

As an entertainment genre, the Western is a rather odd duck which can be sub-divided into two discrete halves: a sparkly, shiny version which dominated kids’ books, comics and television for decades and best personified by heroes such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry – and the other stuff: typified by and popularised through the celluloid efforts of Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef or latterly in TV shows such as Deadwood

In comics, that latter kind of yarn – grimy, gritty, excessively dark and overwhelmingly nihilistic – was done best for years by Europeans in such strips as Charlier & Giraud’s Lieutenant Blueberry or Bonelli and Galleppini’s Tex Willer: iconic sagas which have only recently made their mark on US culture…

This book – available in UK and US paperback editions, but still as yet not in digital form – is that sort: recounting bleak, brutal incidents utterly unsanitised and unsuitable for kiddie consumption, but which in the end are probably far closer to historical truth than any six-gun shootout on Main Street or rhinestone spectacle…

The inspirationally iconic trappings of the Western make the milieu well-nigh irresistible to creative folk. We all want a crack at a cowboy story. When the horror-smudged eyes of Brian Azzarello and Marcelo Frusin, who did so much to revive and revitalise crime comics genre 100 Bullets and returned a razor-sharp hard edge to urban supernatural horror in Hellblazer, took a good hard look at the Western the result was sheer dynamite…

This initial volume from Vertigo gathers the first five issues (from December 2005-April 2006) and steadfastly sticks to the sound maxim that “Hell is Other People”…

Down in the battered, deprived South, Blackwater was a nasty little town even before the Secession Conflict. Now that it’s occupied by gloatingly victorious Union soldiers the place is rapidly dissolving into a cesspool and an open sore, with hate and resentment bubbling everywhere.

Moreover, for many in town and throughout the surrounding countryside, the war isn’t over until they say so…

…And then former resident and voluntary stranger Wes Cutter rides back into town with a silent brooding companion nobody recognises…

A defeated Confederate soldier, outlaw and extremely dangerous man, Cutter quickly sets about making all-new enemies to complement those he’s always had in his unwholesome home town.

Is it only coincidence that his return coincides with a growing wave of murder and destruction? And just what did happen to the wife he left behind…?

Blackly violent and relentlessly oppressive; sporting a large cast of broken and intriguing characters and patiently unfolding a dire and deadly mystery, Loveless is an adult tale of revenge powerfully reminiscent of films such as High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven, but this shockingly visceral saga has many more shades and crannies than either.

The compelling enigma of Cutter and his equally deadly companion is as engrossing as the violence is compelling. Here is a very modern Western which will enthral readers whether they like cowboys or not.
© 2005, 2006 Brian Azzarello & Marcelo Frusin. All Rights Reserved.

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck Adventures: Sheriff of Bullet Valley (Gladstone Comic Album #5)


By Carl Barks (Gladstone)
ISBN: 978-0-944599-04-4

From the 1940’s until the mid-1960s Carl Barks worked in productive seclusion, writing and drawing a brilliantly timeless treasure trove of comedic adventure yarns for kids, building a splendidly accessible Duck Universe filled with memorable – and highly bankable – stars such as Uncle Scrooge McDuck, Gladstone Gander, the Beagle Boys, Gyro Gearloose and Magica De Spell to augment the stable of cartoon properties from the Disney Studio. His most exciting works inevitably involved the rowdy, know-it-all nephews of Donald Duck: Huey, Dewey and Louie.

Although catalysts of comedic chaos in other situations when the mallard miser was around, the devilishly downy ducklings’ usual assigned roles were as smartly sensible, precocious and a just a little bit snotty kid-counterfoils to their “unca”, whose irascible nature caused him to act like an overgrown brat most of the time.

Nevertheless, all too often the kids reverted to type and fell prey to a perpetual temptation to raise a ruckus…

Gladstone Publishing began re-releasing Barks material and a selection of other Disney comics strips in the late 1980s and this – still readily available – paperback album is another of the very best.

Whilst producing all that landmark comics material Barks was just a working guy, drawing unforgettable covers, illustrating other people’s scripts when necessary and infallibly contributing perfectly formed tales to the burgeoning canon of Donald Duck and other Big Screen characters. Barks’ output was incredible both in terms of quantity and especially in its unfailingly high quality.

Printed in the large European oversized format (278 x 223mm), this terrific tome reprints the lead tale from Dell Four Color Comics Series II #199 (October 1948) and draws much of its unflagging energy and trenchant whimsy from Barks’ own love of cowboy fiction – albeit seductively tempered with his self-deprecatory sense of absurdist humour. For example, a wanted poster on the jailhouse wall portrays the artist himself and offers the princely sum of $1000 and 50¢ for his inevitable capture…

Titular lead Donald Duck is also an expert on the Wild West – after all, he’s seen all the movies – so when he and the boys drive through scenic Bullet Valley, a wanted poster catches his eye and his imagination.

Soon he’s signed up and sworn in as a doughty deputy, determined to catch the rustlers who have been plaguing the locals. Unfortunately for him, the good old days never really existed and today’s bandits use radios, trucks and tommy-guns to achieve their nefarious ends. Can Donald’s impetuous boldness and the nephews’ collective brains and Junior Woodchuck training defeat the ruthless high-tech raiders?

Of course they can…

Also included here is a delightful comedy of farmyard errors from Daisy Duck’s Diary (Dell Four Color Comics Series II, #1150 December 1960), pitting the well-meaning old fussbudget against luck-drenched Gladstone Gander and consequently suffering from ‘Too Much Help’.

Donald and the nephews then return, finding themselves at odds with the self-same fowl of fabulous good-fortune in an untitled yarn from Walt Disney Comics & Stories #212 (May 1958), wherein our hard-luck hero and Gladstone race around the world in rocket-ships, cheerfully provided courtesy of that feathered modern Edison Gyro Gearloose. The diminutive ducky lads can only watch in nervous anticipation of inescapable disaster catching up to the feuding “adults”…

Even if you can’t find this specific volume (and trust me, you’ll be glad if you do) Barks’ work is now readily accessible through a number of publications and outlets and every one of his works is well worth reading. No matter what your age or temperament, if you’ve never experienced his captivating magic, you can discover “the Hans Christian Andersen of Comics” simply by applying yourself and your credit cards to any search engine.

Always remember, a fan’s got to do what a fan’s got to do…
© 1988, 1960, 1958, 1948 The Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

Jesse James: Classic Western Collection


By Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino & various (Vanguard Productions)
ISBN: 978-1887591515(HB)             978- 1-887591-44-3(TPB)

There was a time, not that very long ago, when all arenas of popular fiction was engorged with cowboy stories…

As always happens with such periodic phenomena – such as the Swinging Sixties Super-Spy Boom and the relatively recent Vampire/Werewolf Boyfriend trend – there’s a tremendous amount of dross and a few spectacular gems. On such occasions, there’s also generally a small amount of superb yet not-quite-transformational, essentially magnificent concoctions that get lost in the shuffle: carried along with the overwhelming surge of insubstantial material pumped out by television, film, comics and book producers and even the toy, game and record industries.

After World War II the American mass family entertainment market – for which read comics, radio and the burgeoning television industry – became comprehensively enamoured of the clear-cut, simplistic sensibilities and easy, escapist solutions offered by Tales of the Old West as already firmly established through paperback fiction, movie serials and feature films.

I’ve often pondered on how almost simultaneously a dark, bleak, nigh-nihilistic and oddly left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome revolution, seemingly for a cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that’s definitely a thought for another time and review.

Comicbooks reacted with a huge outpouring of anthology titles and new six-gun heroes to replace the rapidly dwindling pantheon of costumed Mystery Men and – true to formula – most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling.

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist, producing some pretty impressive work, with France and Italy eventually making the genre their own by the end of the 1960s. Still and all, there was the rare gleam of gold and also a fair share of highly acceptable silver in the American comics tales, and as always, the crucial difference was due to the artists and writers involved…

With every comic-book publisher turning hopeful eyes westward, it was natural that most historical figures would quickly find a home and of course, facts counted for little, as indeed they never had with cowboy stories…

Avon Books started in 1941, created when the American News Corporation bought out pulp magazine publishers J.S. Ogilvie, and their output was famously described by Time Magazine as “westerns, whodunits and the kind of boy-meets-girl story that can be illustrated by a ripe cheesecake jacket.”

By 1945 the company had launched a comicbook division as fiercely populist as the parent company with over 100 short-lived titles such as Atomic Spy Cases, Batchelor’s Diary, Behind Prison Bars, Campus Romance, Gangsters and Gun Molls, Slave Girl Comics, War Dogs of the U.S. Army, White Princess of the Jungle and many others, all aimed – even the funny animal titles like Space Mouse and Spotty the Pup! – at a slightly older and more discerning audience, and all drawn by some of the best artists working at the time.

Many if not most sported lush painted covers that were both eye-catching and beautiful.

Six titles in their admittedly eclectic stable had respectable runs: Peter Rabbit, Eerie, Wild Bill Hickock, outrageous “Commie-busting” war comic Captain Steve Savage, Fighting Indians of the Wild West and the adequately scripted but magnificently illustrated fictionalised adventures of Jesse James.

Within this beguiling hardback compilation cow-punching aficionados (no, it’s neither a recreational peccadillo nor an extreme sport) and all fans of fabulous sequential narrative artwork can (re)discover a selection of range-riding rollercoaster rides about a troubled and misunderstood fast-gun, constantly forced to defend his name and life from an assorted passel of low-down no-goods and scurvy owlhoots: a wandering warrior having far more in common with Robin Hood’s brand of outlawry than the actual Frank and Jesse James.

Nonetheless these anodyne but enjoyable tall tales still have plenty to recommend them. In stories such as ‘The Liberty Bank Robbery’, ‘Disaster at Savannah’, ‘Texas Killer’, ‘Devil’s Desperadoes’, ‘Jesse James… Sheriff’, ‘Helltown Holdups’, ‘Gunplay at Gallatin’, ‘The Great Prison Break!’, ‘Six-Gun Slaughter at San Romano’, ‘The Russelville Gunfights’ and ‘The Apache Kid Treasure’ our put-upon hero tries to live a blameless life until pushed to action by reputation-hungry fools, greedy bankers, psychotic killers and all the other myriad traditional touchstones of cinematic Western mythology.

This monochrome collection reprints material from issues #5, 6 and 7 of Jesse James (1950-1951), primarily featuring the stunning early illustration of comics legends Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino – who would a few years later usher in the Silver Age of comics – as well as stylish frontispieces by the masterful Wally Wood and world-famous portraitist Everett Raymond Kinstler.

The latter’s elegant illustrative art graced many Avon comics, as well as text features, biographies and even some pre-production pencil sketches.

Bill Black reprinted a few Avon Jesse James tales as part of his AC Comics line, but with 24 issues plus an annual released between 1950-1956 and artists like Leonard Starr, Al Williamson, Fred Kida and Frank Frazetta also contributing sterling work to these admittedly above-average shoot-‘em-up scripts, surely there’s still enough potential fans around to support a complete reprinting of this title – perhaps in the cheap-n-cheerful DC giant phonebook format as seen with DC Showcase or Marvel Essentials – or at least in a comprehensive digital download?

Black hats, white hats, great pictures and timeless action – what more could you possibly ask for?
© 2001 Vanguard Productions 2003P. All other trademarks and copyrights in this book are acknowledged to their respective owners.

Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse in The Lair of Wolf Barker – Gladstone Comic Album #3


By Floyd Gottfredson & various(Gladstone)
ISBN: 978-0-94459-903-7

Some of the most potent, effective and long-lived comics strip material in world history is not self-originated but actually comes from spinning-off existing properties. This is never more evident than with animated characters such as Betty Boop, Felix the Cat or assorted Walt Disney silver screen stars.

Cartoons starring cartoon stars became a huge circulation-booster in the decades following the First World War. Translated into newspaper strips – and later comicbooks – gags and continuity adventures of celluloid sensations reached and affected untold millions of readers around the globe, making household names of many characters and, occasionally, the writers and draughtsmen who crafted them.

Usually though, recognition was for the property owner and the unsung, pencil-pushing maestros who turned silver-screen gems into polished gold remained largely anonymous.

One of the most talented was Floyd Gottfredson; a cartooning pathfinder who started out as just another warm body in the Walt Disney animation factory before being diverted to become a narrative groundbreaker as influential as Herriman, McCay, Segar or his old work associate Carl Barks.

Gottfredson took company icon Mickey Mouse from his wild and anarchic animated rodent roots and slap-stick beginnings, through to the gently suburbanised sitcom gags of a newly middle-class America that syndicate policy eventually forced upon him. The gradual daily and weekly metamorphosis was accomplished via some of the earliest adventure continuities in comics history, with the Mouse playing detective, explorer, aviator and cowboy. Along the way he produced some of the most engrossing amusing and unforgettable comics the industry has ever seen.

In 1905 Arthur Floyd Gottfredson first greeted the world in Kaysville, Utah: one of eight siblings born to a Mormon family of Danish extraction. Injured in a youthful hunting accident, the lad whiled away a long recuperation drawing and studying cartoon correspondence courses, and by the 1920s had turned professional, selling cartoons and commercial art to local trade magazines and Big City news periodical the Salt Lake City Telegram.

In 1928 he and his wife moved to California, and after a shaky start found work in April 1929 as an In-Betweener at the burgeoning Walt Disney Studios. As the Great Depression hit, he was personally asked by Disney to take over the newborn and ailing Mickey Mouse newspaper strip. Gottfredson would plot, draw and often script the strip for the next forty-five-and-a-half years.

Veteran animator Ub Iwerks had initiated the feature but was swiftly replaced by Win Smith. The strip was plagued with problems and young Gottfredson was only supposed to pitch in until a regular creator could be found.

His first effort saw print on May 5th 1930 (Floyd’s 25th birthday) and just kept going; an uninterrupted run over the next five decades. On January 17th 1932, Gottfredson created the first colour Sunday page, which he contiguously handled until 1938, and then almost continually until his retirement.

At first he did everything, but in 1934 relinquished the scripting role, preferring plotting and illustrating the adventures to playing with dialogue. Collaborating scripters included Ted Osborne, Merrill De Maris, Dick Shaw, Bill Walsh, Roy Williams and Del Connell. Gottfredson briefly used inkers such as Al Taliaferro, but re-assumed full art chores in 1943.

Partially scripted by Ted Osborne and inked by Al Taliaferro & Ted Thwaites, the main story in this superb – and still readily available – compendium collects the very first extended Mickey Sunday colour epic which originally ran from January 29th to June 18th 1933.

Lurking behind a cover by Daan Jippes, ‘The Lair of Wolf Barker’ is a rip-roaring comedy western featuring the full wide-screen repertory cast: Mickey, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, and the prototype Goofy, who used to answer to the moniker Dippy Dog.

The gang head west to look after Uncle Mortimer’s sprawling ranch and stumble into a baffling crisis since the cattle are progressively vanishing, with the unsavoury eponymous villain riding roughshod over the assorted characters and stock figures, before his ultimate and well-deserved come-uppance. This is action comics on the fly, with plenty of rough and tumble action, twists turns and surprises always alloyed to snappy, fast-packed gags.

Rounding out this full-colour, album-sized paperback book is an early Mickey gag – ‘Spring S’prise’ from 1932 and tragically uncredited – plus another landmark Sunday strip tale. ‘Mickey’s Nephews’ introduced rascally prank-plying Morty and Ferdie Fieldmouse in a short romp (September 18th to November 6th 1932) full of waggish behaviour and wicked japery.

This sequence was inked by Al Taliaferro, who recalled the story five years later when he and scripter Ted Osborne needed a quick plot for their latest assignment. That job was the new Donald Duck strip and their response was the infamous ‘Donald’s Nephews’ which introduced Huey, Louie and Dewey to the world…

Gottfredson’s influence on not just the Disney Canon but graphic narrative itself is inestimable: he was one of the first to produce long continuities and (relatively) straight adventure stories; he pioneered team-ups and invented some of the first “super-villains” in the business. When Disney killed the continuities in 1955, dictating that henceforth strips would only contain one-off gags, Gottfredson adapted easily, working on until retirement in 1975. His last daily appeared on November 15th and the final Sunday strip on September 19th 1976.

Like all Disney creators Gottfredson worked in utter anonymity, but in the 1960s his identity was revealed and the voluble appreciation of his previously unsuspected horde of devotees led to interviews, overviews and public appearances, with effect that subsequent reprinting in books, comics and albums carried a credit for the quiet, reserved master. Floyd Gottfredson died on July 22nd 1986.

This huge untapped well of work is only available in tiny snippets like these old Gladstone albums, but hopefully now that Disney own a major comics company some bright spark will realise the potential of the artistic treasures they’ve been sitting on and we’ll soon seen a Gottfredson Mickey Mouse Epic Collection even if only as digital editions.

And since we’re wishing I’d still like World Peace, total parity and equality between all ages, races, genders and outlying pigeon holes but especially that Red Ryder 200 Shot BB Gun I didn’t get when I was eight…
© 1987, 1933, 1932 The Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

Eagle Classics: Riders of the Range


By Charles Chilton, Jack Daniel & Frank Humphris (Hawk Books)
ISBN: 978-0-94824-827-6

In the 1950s Cowboys and Indians ruled the hearts and minds of the First World public. Westerns were the most popular subject of books, films and comics in Britain, America and most of Europe. The new medium of television screened both recycled cowboy B-movies and eventually serials and series especially created for the stay-at-home aficionado.

Some examples were pretty good and became acknowledged as art – as is always the way with popular culture once it gains a few decades and the polished veneer of fond nostalgia – whilst most others faded from memory, cherished only by the hopelessly past-imprisoned and fannishly-driven.

One entertainment arena I didn’t list was radio: a medium ideal for creating spectacular scenarios and dreamscapes on a low budget. However, the BBC (the sole British radio broadcaster of the post-war period) even managed a halfway decent Western/musical show called Riders of the Range. It was written by producer/director Charles Chilton and ran from 1949 until 1953, six series in total.

At the height of its popularity Riders was adapted as a comic strip in Eagle, which already featured the strip exploits of the immensely successful radio star P.C. 49. The hugely successful weekly anthology magazine had already trialled one cowboy strip – Seth and Shorty – but promptly dropped it. With a popular show to bolster it the pictorial Riders of the Range began as a full-colour page in the first Eagle Christmas edition (December 22nd 1950; volume 1, No. 37) and ran continuously until 1962, surviving the demise of its radio parent and becoming the longest-running western strip in British comics history. In all that time it only ever had three artists.

The first was Jack Daniel, an almost abstract stylist in his designs who worked in bold (almost primitive) lines, but whose colour-palette was years ahead of his time. Crude and scratchy-seeming, his western scenarios were subversive and subliminal in impact. He had previously worked on the newspaper strip Kit Conquest. His “European” style of illustration was notoriously unpopular with Editor Marcus Morris and apparently led to the illustrator’s replacement…

Author Chilton had a deep and abiding fascination with the West and often wrote adventures that interwove with actual historical events, such as ‘The Cochise Affair’ included in this splendid oversized paperback collection. It was the second adventure and had heroic Jeff Arnold and sidekick Luke branding cattle for their “6T6” ranch near the Arizona border when they find a raided homestead.

A distraught, wounded mother begs for help and reveals that Indians have stolen her little boy. Taking her to Fort Buchanan, Arnold becomes embroiled in a bitter battle of wills between Chief Cochise and Acting Cavalry Commander Lieutenant George N. Bascom. The lean sparse scripts are subtly engaging and Daniel’s unique design and colour sense – although perhaps at odds with the more naturalistic realism of the rest of Eagle’s drama strips – make this a hugely enjoyable lost gem.

Angus Scott took over from Daniel with ‘Border Bandits’ (September 7th 1951), but was not a popular or comfortable fit and departed after less than a year. With only a single page of his art reprinted here, it’s perhaps fairest to move on to the artist most closely associated with the strip.

Frank Humphris was a godsend. His artwork was lush, vibrant and full-bodied. He was also as fascinated with the West as Chilton himself and brought every inch of that passion to the tales. From July 1952 and for the next decade Chilton and Humphris (with a few one-off and Christmas Annual contributions from Jesús Blasco, Giorgio Bellavitis and Roland Davies) crafted a thrilling and even educational western saga that is fondly remembered to this day. His tenure is represented here by ‘The War with the Sioux’

In 1875 gold was discovered in the Black Hills of Dakota and the resultant rush of prospectors resulted in the Cavalry being dispatched to protect them from the incensed Indians. Hired as intermediaries and scouts, Jeff and Luke are increasingly helpless as the situation worsens, resulting in the massacre at Little Big Horn. There have many tales woven into this epochal event, but the patriotically dispassionate creativity of two Britons have united here to craft one of the most beautiful and memorable…

The day of the cowboys’ dominance has faded now but the power of great stories well told has not. Although still relatively easy to find in second hand shops or online, this is a series and a book worthy of a more extensive revival, and well worthy of being resurrected at least as a digital edition. Let’s hope someone with the power to do something about it agrees with me. We’d all be winners then…
Riders of the Range © 1990 Fleetway Publications. Compilation © 1990 Hawk Books.

Jonah Hex volume 8: The Six Gun War


By Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Cristiano Cucina, Rob Schwager & Rob Leigh (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2587-2

When Justin Grey & Jimmy Palmiotti resurrected DC’s western wild-man Jonah Hex, they cunningly incorporated an even more mordant, blackly ironic streak of wit than originators John Albano and Tony DeZuñiga to amplify the already sanguine view of morality and justice that permeates the feature. The gritty – often macabre – narratives thus result in some of the most accessible and enjoyable comics fiction ever.

The writers also had the services of extremely talented people like colourist Rob Schwager and letterer Rob Leigh plus their pick of top artists such as Italian maestro Cristiano Cucina (Dragonero) who illustrates this entire uncompromising eighth trade paperback (or digital edition, should you be so inclined) compilation from 2010.

The contents comprise issues #44-49 of this much-missed iteration of the greatest gunman of all time: this go-round generally down-playing sly wit and slick satire in favour of a brutal, wide-ranging saga of death and vengeance…

The Six Gun War begins in the middle of a Texas tornado as Hex blithely stumbles into a cunning trap set by long-term nemeses Quentin Turnbull and El Papagayo.

The plutocratic southern millionaire has bedevilled Hex for more than a decade, mistakenly blaming the former Confederate soldier for the betrayal of his battalion to Union troops and consequent death of Turnbull’s son and heir Jeb.

Alternatively, the flamboyant Mexican bandit, border raider and rabid parrot-fancier is simply a psychotic madman who has had many murderous schemes frustrated by the bounty hunter and yearns to teach the goddam freak a painful final lesson…

Revelling in holding the upper hand, the human monsters do their worst and depart. Left for dead, Hex is miraculously saved by a most unlikely duo and sets off upon the trail of his unsuccessful murderers as they gleefully head back to Mexico.

Turnbull and El Papagayo have a secret joint venture in play. Far from American oversight, the Virginian aristocrat has restored his faded fortunes by enslaving an entire Mexican region and forcing the populace to mine gold for him. The bandit chief’s men act as enforcers and get their cut, as do local government officials…

As the villains head ever southward, they encounter Hex’s sometime allies Tallulah Black and Bat Lash and savagely take them captive for later fun and games…

Hex still has one creepy colleague to call on. Aging bank teller Lazarus Lane is unwilling host to injustice-stalking demon-spirit El Diablo who eagerly joins the coldly furious bounty killer upon the promise of many evil souls to reprimand…

The growing army of retribution is further bolstered by a war-party of Comanche braves trailing a band of whites and Mexicans who lately butchered an encampment of women, children and old men…

The quest quickly results in the grim pursuers liberating Lash and Tallulah – and even taking El Papagayo out of the picture – but after these setbacks, the rich man switches to wealth as his weapon of choice: hiring the world’s seven greatest assassins to stop Hex and Co by any means necessary…

An angry Jonah Hex is more elemental than human, however, and they won’t be nearly enough…

Sharp, smart, fast-paced, deliciously convoluted and staggeringly violent, The Six Gun War is a spectacular explosive epic showing the darkest side of the West’s greatest antihero and the depths to which his enemies will stoop. This is another intoxicating and unmissable yarn no fan of the genre or first tier comicbook wonder will want to miss.
© 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Bluecoats volume 8: Auld Lang Blue


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-245-4

Les Tuniques Bleues began in 1968; an occasional comedy western strip created by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Colvin – who has solo-written every best-selling volume since. The feature was created to replace Western wonder man Lucky Luke when the laconic lone gunslinger defected from weekly anthology Spirou to comic rival Pilote.

His rapidly-rendered replacements swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée stars on the Continent…

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour style, and when he died suddenly in 1972, his replacement – Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte – gradually moved to a more edgy and realistic (although still broadly comedic) illustrative 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 Raoul Cauvin is also Belgian and studied Lithography before joining Dupuis’ animation department in 1960. He soon discovered his true calling as a comedy writer and began a glittering and prolific career at Spirou.

In addition to Bluecoats Cauvin has written dozens of other long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: amassing more than 240 separate albums in total. The Bluecoats alone have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.

The sorry protagonists of the show are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch, a pair of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel and Hardy: hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier and various key points of mythic America.

The original format was single-page gags about an Indian-plagued cavalry fort, but with second volume ‘Du Nord au Sud’ (North and South) the sad-sack soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War.

That origin was discarded and rewritten a decade later, finally and canonically describing how the chumps were drafted into the military during the war and appears here as Auld Lang Blue: Cinebook’s 8th astoundingly attractive Bluecoats album.

All subsequent adventures – despite ranging far beyond the traditional environs of America and taking in a lot of genuine and thoroughly researched history – are set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your average whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, feigning death and 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 man; an apparently ideal 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 pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers but simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

But as this witty yarn elaborates, such was not always the case…

Les Tuniques Bleues: Blue rétro was first seen on the continent in 1980, serialised in Spirou #2222-2232. It was the unlikely lads’ 29th adventure, and became the 18th best-selling collected album a year later (of 58 and counting, thus far).

It opens here as dutiful son Cornelius is awakened by his doting but domineering mother. She’s thoroughly excited by her boy’s upcoming nuptial merger with butcher’s daughter Charlotte Graham. Bewildered Cornelius still can’t work how, let alone why, he’s all-but-inescapably betrothed to his boss’ far from comely child…

The boy’s rowdy, wheelchair-bound dad Joshua Chesterfield is less cheery. He fondly remembers his military years and, as a proud survivor of the Alamo, wishes his son had more gumption and get-up-and-go…

There’s no winning against his mother though, so Cornelius heads for the butchers’ shop, arriving just in time to deftly avoid Charlotte by delivering a large order to the new Pacific Bar that has just opened on Main Street. The little guy behind the gleaming bar is a bit of an annoyance but young Chesterfield’s initial distaste is soon swallowed up by the chatter of the patrons discussing the Secession War.

The Northern States are taking a terrible beating on all fronts, but neither butcher’s boy or barman care all that much about a subject so far removed from their own lives…

That quickly changes after Army Recruiters proudly parade their latest crop of raw material down the thoroughfare. Diminutive, canny Blutch is bemused, but Cornelius sees glory, adventure and escape from matrimonial servitude in the gleaming column of callow blue boys…

All the same, mother and Mr. Graham have Cornelius’ life utterly mapped out, and despite his fervent desires, soon after Cornelius M. Chesterfield is all dandied-up and despatched to make a formal proposal to Charlotte. Unwilling, unhappy and contemplating years of being bossed around by women, Cornelius stops off at the Pacific Bar to intestinally fortify himself before the ordeal.

Being a comradely, consoling type, barman Blutch keeps him company in a tot or two and they are both extremely amenable when – some hours later – the Army Recruiters enter the bar. Joining the festivities, the soldiers soon realise that their still woefully-unfilled quotas might benefit from a bit of blather and a couple of hastily modified application forms…

And so it begins: by the time they are conscious again our two new warriors are well on the way to becoming infantrymen: each adapting to the appalling situation in their own unique manner as they reluctantly adjust to the daily madness of army life.

However, even before basic training is over, they both realise their lives are now governed by elitist idiots who don’t care if they live or die. Unable to avoid being cannon-fodder, they conspire to transfer into the far safer and more glamorous cavalry. All they need to do now is learn to ride before anyone finds out they don’t know one end of a horse from the other…

Historically authentic, always in good taste despite its 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.

This particular tome is heavy on comedy too: a fun, informative, beautifully realised and eminently readable yarn to appeal to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1981 by Lambil & Cauvin. English translation © 2015 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Bat Lash


By Sergio Aragonés, Denny O’Neil, Nick Cardy & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2295-6

By 1968 the glory-days of comicbooks as a cheap mass-market entertainment were over. Spiralling costs, “free” alternatives like television and an increasing inability to connect with the mainstream markets were leaving the industry at the mercy of dedicated fan-groups with specialised, even limited, interests and worse yet, gradually becoming dependent on genre-trends to maintain sales.

Editorial Director Carmine Infantino, a thirty-year veteran, looked for ways to bolster DC business (already suffering a concerted attack by the seemingly unstoppable rise of Marvel Comics) and clearly remembered the old publisher’s maxim “do something old, and make it look new”.

Although traditional cowboy yarns (which had dominated both TV and cinema screens since the 1950s) were also in decline, novel spins such as Wild, Wild West and Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” were popular, and would be a lot easier to transform into comics material than the burgeoning Supernatural craze that would soon come to dominate the next half-decade – but only after the repressive and self-inflicted Comics Code was finally re-written.

Thus Spanish/Mexican cartoonist (and occasional actor) Sergio Aragonés Domenech was asked by Infantino and Editor Joe Orlando to add some unique contemporary twists to a cowboy hero they had concocted with the aid of the legendary Sheldon Mayer. Although many hands had already stirred the plot, the irrepressible Aragonés – with dialogue-provider Denny O’Neil – rendered and remade the world-weary, lonely saddle-tramp archetype into a something completely fresh and original – at least in comicbook terms…

The result was a seemingly amoral wanderer with an aesthete’s sensibilities, a pacifist’s good intentions, and the hair-trigger capabilities of a top gun-for-hire. …and played for sardonic, tongue-in-cheek laughs…

Roguish, sexually promiscuous and always getting into trouble because his heart was bigger than his charlatan’s façade, Bat Lash caroused, cavorted and killed his way across the West – including Mexico – in one Showcase try-out (#76, August 1968) and seven bi-monthly issues spanning October/November 1968 through October/November 1969 before mediocre sales and a turbulent marketplace finally brought him low.

A lost masterpiece of the era and a splendid variation on the traditional western genre, Bat Lash’s exploits are criminally uncelebrated and – as far as I know – only available in this slim (a mere 240 pages) monochrome tome gathering all those ahead-of-their-times adventures plus later well-meaning revivals from DC Special Series #16 and a short run from the back of rival and fellow controversial cowboy Jonah Hex.

The greatest strength of Bat Lash stories was that they took well-worn plots and added a sardonic spin and breakneck pace to keep them rapidly rattling along. It also didn’t hurt that the majority of the art was produced by unsung genius Nick Cardy, whose light touch and unparalleled ability to draw beautiful women kept young male readers (those who bothered to try the comic) glued to the pages.

The drama begins with eponymous Showcase introduction ‘Bat Lash’ in which the flower-loving nomad wanders into the town of Welcome in search of a fancy feed only to find a gang of thugs and a mystery poisoner in the process of driving out the entire populace…

No “Suthun Gen’leman” – no matter how far he might have fallen – could allow such a situation to proceed…

Mere months later – which leads me to conclude that the Editorial Powers-That-Be were a mite overconfident with their western wonder – Bat Lash #1 hit the stands, carrying on the episodic hi-jinks in ‘Bat Lash… We’re A-comin’ Ta Get You’ as the laconic Lothario narrowly escapes a lynching only to stumble into the murder of a monk carrying part of a treasure map. Is it his finer instincts seeking retribution for the holy man, the monk’s stunning niece or the glittering temptation of Spanish gold that prompts the rootin’ tootin’ action that follows?

In #2 ‘Melinda’s Doll’ opens with a shotgun wedding, expands as the drifter becomes unwilling guardian to a little girl orphaned by gun-runners and brilliantly climaxes with unexpected poignancy and calamitous gunplay…

A radical departure – even for this offbeat series – occurs in ‘Samantha and the Judge’ when the easy Epicurean – whilst reluctantly trying out the temporary role of Deputy Sheriff – encounters a hanging judge who believes he is a Roman Emperor, after which ‘Bat Lash in Mexico!’ sees the mild-mannered wanderer cross the border and stumble into a revolutionary crisis in issue #4.

Soon embroiled in an assassination plot; Bat needs all his wits and a big bunch of luck and guile in a tale as much gritty as witty which truly displays the hidden emotional depths of the rambling man…

Still in Mexico for #5, the impish creative team pit the dashing rogue against his near-equal in raffish charm and gunplay when he meets a deadly bandito in ‘Wanted: Sergio Aragonés!’ Of course, they are both outmatched and overwhelmed by the delightfully deadly Senorita Maribel

Mike Sekowsky pencilled most of issue #6 for Cardy to ink: a dark, tragic origin tale of ‘Revenge!’ which reveals the anger and tears behind the laughter, before Bat Lash #7 and final foray ‘Brothers’ sets our far-from-heroic protagonist on the trail of a younger sibling he had believed dead for a decade…

And that’s where it was left until 1978 when giant sized anthology comic DC Special Series (#16) produced a Western-themed issue for which O’Neil and artist George Moliterni crafted a slick, sly murder-mystery set in San Francisco. Here an older Bat Lash is getting by as a professional gambler until the idyllic life disappears, enveloped in a deadly war between Irish gangs and Chinese immigrant workers.

This compelling, enjoyable yarn eventually led to a four-issue run as back-up in Jonah Hex #49-52 (encompassing June-September 1981) wherein the charming chancer wins a New Orleans bordello in a river-boat card game and, despite numerous attempts to kill him, eventually takes full possession of the Bourbon Street Social Club

Is he that hungry for lazy luxury and female companionship, or is it perhaps that he knows a million dollars in Confederate gold was hidden there in the dying days of the Civil War and never found…?

Scripter Len Wein and the incomparable Dan Spiegle continued and concluded this utterly under-appreciated character’s solo exploits in fine style; which only leaves it to you to hunt down this brash and bedazzling book or – if you are a truly passionate fan/humanitarian – bombard DC’s editors with (polite) requests and enquiries until they are convinced to give the foppishly reluctant gunslinger the comprehensive compilation – even digitally – that he so deserves…

Enchanting, exciting, wry and wonderful, this is a book for all readers of fun fiction and a superb example of comics’ outreach potential.
© 1968, 1969, 1978, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Paper Man


By Milo Manara (Catalan Communications)
ISBN: 978-0-87416-022-2

The lush and sensuous art of Milo Manara has always outshone his scripting – at least to English speaking sensibilities – but on occasion his pared-down writing produces genuine comic gems. One such is the egregiously STILL OUT OF PRINT monochrome wonder The Paper Man.

A sparse and gritty epic of Love and Death on the American frontier, the lavishly rendered graphic spectacle ostensibly tells the tragic tale of a young man looking for his Truly Beloved in a relentless trek across Arizona, and his chance meetings with pop-culture mile-markers.

These include a weather-crazed Preacher, a demented veteran of the long-past War of Independence, and the erotic and sensual Sioux maiden White Rabbit, all depicted against a backdrop of the most hallowed tropes and clichés of the Western, exported as cultural icons from Hollywood to the rest of the world.

By following a rather inept and innocent everyman through increasingly harsh incidents with US cavalrymen, wagon-trains, drunken and malevolent cow-pokes – plus, of course, marauding “Injuns” – none of whom actually conform to their stereotypes, Manara looks at the commonplace in a fresh if somewhat reductionist manner, without losing sight of the fact that the reader always wants an enthralling story, beautifully rendered.

This untypical western with its starkly sumptuous art and crushingly tragic ‘final reel’ owes more to Brecht than to Ford or Huston, but nonetheless remains powerfully true to its roots, and is achingly easy on the eyes. Minimal but wonderful, lush and Spartan, this is a Wild West story for every adult to enjoy, regardless of when they last put on a cowboy hat.

…So, for Pete’s Sake can’t somebody puh-lease re-release an English-language version, even if only as an electronic edition?
© 1982 by Dargaud Editeur, Paris for Milo Manara. English language edition © 1986 Catalan Communications. All rights reserved.

American Vampire volume 1


By Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, Stephen King & various (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2830-9                  978-1-4012-2974-0 (SC)

In myth, literature and entertainment, there are many sorts of vampires. Here’s one species that’s a superbly grounded counterpoint to the scarlet deluge of lovey-dovey, kissey-poo tales of forbidden love between innocent modern maids and moody, tragic carriers of the Curse of the Night’s Children: one that uses for its themes Darwinian Survival of the Fittest, old-fashioned Revenge and the ultimate grisly example of Manifest Destiny; all played out against the chillingly familiar backdrop of the bloody birth of a modern nation…

In Scott Snyder & Rafael Albuquerque’s first narrative arc, augmented and supplemented here by a stunning sidebar storyline from the functionally mythical Stephen King (who also provides a trenchant Introduction with ‘Suck on This’) – the kind of vampires that you should rightly beware of are introduced and explained, but although there are love stories in this series they’re probably not the sort you want your impressionable kids to read…

The sinister suspense begins with ‘Big Break’ as, in the Hollywood of 1925, struggling but popular and ambitious would-be starlets Pearl Jones and Hattie Hargrove follow their dream of celluloid stardom, working days as bit-players in movie mogul D. B. Bloch’s latest silent epic.

The girls have only been best friends for a short while but shared hardship makes them closer than sisters even if, too often, Pearl is distracted by itinerant musician Henry Preston and the aggravatingly persistent and obnoxious drifter who hangs out near their Ladies-Only boarding house.

The actresses’ careers seem destined to blossom when leading man Chase Hamilton invites the fame-hungry gamins to one of Bloch’s legendary Producer’s Parties. Despite shaded warnings from their laconic stalker, Pearl and Hattie attend but when the unctuous Chase takes the Jones girl aside to meet D. B. it isn’t the kind of assignation she expects…

Reeling with horror, the feisty actress finds herself a morsel and kickback-offering for a pack of wealthy European money-men who are literally blood-sucking monsters…

King & Albuquerque then take us back to the hoary days of 1880 and Sidewinder, Colorado, as veteran wordsmith Will Bunting relates the true story behind his novel ‘Bad Blood’ to a group of eager fans and historians…

The ancient scribbler recounts the fantastic yet apparently non-fictional tale of outlaw Skinner Sweet, a remorseless thief frustrating progress, killing good folks and stealing funds from sun-shy, Euro-trash millionaire railroad speculator Mr. Percy. When the psychotic bandit is finally captured by Pinkerton agent Jim Book and deputy Felix Camillo, the triumphant banker lays on a special train for a gaggle of journalists to record the victory of civilisation over lawlessness…

As the killer’s gang subsequently derails the train and massacres everyone who survived the crash, Skinner cruelly and casually takes time out to reveal how he killed Book’s wife…

Sweet then guns down Book and overwhelms Camillo, but is utterly unprepared for the attack of effete-seeming Percy who shrugs off fusillades of bullets before slaughtering them all. Skinner won’t die easily though, and in close combat with the fanged, gore-guzzling horror blows the European monstrosity’s eye out, consequently taking its blood into his own body before at last expiring…

Unknown to all, Bunting has seen everything and, as fully-healed Percy tends to Book and Camillo, wisely decides to say nothing of the horror he’s witnessed…

The Hollywood story then resumes with ‘Morning Star’ as Hattie and Henry discover Pearl is missing. Driving to the isolated mansion they discover her; ravaged, chewed to ribbons as if by some animal, yet inexplicably clinging to life.

Pearl wakes in the Morgue, having been visited by her mysterious stalker. Skinner Sweet has shared his unique blood with her and now, as the once-deceased actress listens in astonishment, the smirking ghoul explains some facts of life – and death – to her.

Like himself she has been attacked by ancient, old-world vampires, and by sharing their blood – accidentally in his case but quite deliberately when Sweet bestowed his own kiss upon her – Pearl has become a new kind of hybrid-bloodsucker, perfectly evolved to inhabit the New World, with completely different weaknesses to the old guard and, hopefully, sharing Sweet’s lust for revenge, taste for chaos and hunger for life…

After giving her a quick lesson on the differences between the European nosferatu who have carved themselves an almost unassailable position of closeted wealth and power in the young nation and the new American Vampires (now numbering two), the morally bankrupt wanderer takes off, leaving his hungry offspring to sink, swim or stand on her own shape-shifting, taloned feet…

He does leave a present, however: locked in her closet, Chase Hamilton quickly realises he is about to pay for all his many sins…

‘Deep Water’ finds author Will Bunting also in 1925, talking about the re-issue of his fantastic novel to a store full of avid fans. The tale, describing the iconic life of heroic Jim Book and his battle against vampire outlaw Skinner Sweet, resumes at the point when the infected owlhoot wakes up in his own grave. Far above him the cabal of expatriate vampires secretly dominating America’s nascent financial system continue accruing wealth and power and insouciantly turn the entire town of Sidewinder into Colorado’s latest reservoir and boating lake…

For nearly thirty years Book continues with his peacekeeping profession and eventually Camillo is elected Mayor of new town Lakeview. More worryingly Bunting had turned the tale of Sweet and the vampires into a popular dime-novel so sensation-seekers and treasure-hunters regularly dredge the man-made mere for souvenirs of the infamous outlaw…

One day in 1909 a couple of them unearth the now legendary badman’s buried, sunken coffin and unleash a rabid horror unlike anything ever seen in the world before: a leech unaffected by running water, stakes or sunlight. Hungry for revenge and sustenance Skinner Sweet emerges into a new America and starts hunting old “friends” he owes a debt to…

In Tinsel Town meanwhile, Pearl returns to her lodgings and tells shell-shocked Hattie to flee before continuing her own quest for vengeance in ‘Rough Cut’. The immortal Euro-cabal are, as usual, discussing what to do about their personal nemesis Sweet and his protracted annoyance, unaware they have a far more pressing problem. That all changes after the unstoppable and infinitely superior Pearl butchers three of them. Without knowing what could kill this New World species of vampire, the clique resorts to age-old stratagems even as Miss Jones – resuming mortal form – turns to Henry for a little comfort and support…

Just then the phone rings and Bloch demands that she surrender herself or Hattie will die horribly…

Back in 1909 Sweet’s ‘Blood Vengeance’ eliminates every human in Lakeview and proclaims his intentions to a horrified coterie of haughty, privileged, old-world bloodsuckers who previously believed themselves the planet’s apex predators. Even so, the resurgent outlaw has more pressing business. Before the last man in town died, Sweet made him send a telegram to Jim Book…

‘Double Exposure’ sees Pearl desperately negotiating for Hattie’s life, knowing surrender only leads her to becoming the cabal’s eternal, experimental lab rat. She is utterly unaware she has already been betrayed by someone close to her: someone pitifully greedy and unable to resist the subtle pressures and obvious blandishments of the European ancients.

However, even bushwhacked, mysteriously weakened and brutally assaulted, Pearl, with the aid of her last true friend, turns the tables and even destroys Bloch’s fortress before escaping to prepare for one last showdown…

The writer’s tale is also approaching a climax as ‘One Drop of Blood’ finds Book, Felix, the young Bunting and Camillo’s daughter Abilena hunting Sweet through the hellish ruins of Lakeview just as the bloodthirsty travesty discovers that his powers and energies are unaccountably waning. Watching unsuspected from a distant position of seclusion, “Euro-Vamps” bide their time and witness the shocking finale as the valiant comrades use dynamite to bury the debilitated devil in a deep mine-shaft under tons of unyielding rock – but not before the sadistic Skinner deliberately infects Book with his own tainted, mutagenic blood…

Pearl’s story in this first stunning volume concludes in a sustained spray of scarlet gore as she climactically confronts Bloch and his surviving comrades only to face one final tragic betrayal in ‘Curtain Call’ whilst ‘If Thy Right Hand Offend Thee…’ discloses Book’s climactic battle with the cursed thirst Sweet had inflicted upon him, even as unstoppable Skinner enjoys one last chat with the Euro-leech who created him…

The time-distanced yet parallel tales then coincide and conclude with a hint of foreboding; presaging more horrors in the days and decades to come…

This initial creepy, compelling chronicle also includes a pithy Afterword from Snyder, a welter of variant covers by Albuquerque, Jim Lee, Bernie Wrightson, Andy Kubert, JH Williams III and Paul Pope, a feature on the script-to-art process and 6 pages of designs and sketches by the supremely skilled and multi-faceted Albuquerque to delight and impress all fans of truly mature supernatural thrills and chills.

Far more True Blood than Twilight and substantially closer to Sam Peckinpah than John Ford or Tod Browning, this lightning-paced, sardonically gory excursion into blood and sand and love and death is a spectacular, absorbing thrill-riot by two of the industry’s best talents, backed up and covered by an absolute master of tone and terror, combining to craft a splendid, sordid, sexy and utterly spellbinding saga, riddled with far deeper metaphors than “unrequited love sucks”.

American Vampire offers solid screams and enchantingly fresh ideas all fear-fiends will find irresistible, making this modern classic an absolute “must-have” and a certain reminder that there are such things as monsters and some beasts just should not be tamed…
© 2010, Scott Snyder and Stephen King. All Rights Reserved.