Heroic Tales: The Bill Everett Archives volume 2


By Bill Everett and others, edited and complied by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-600-3

Thanks to modern technology there is a superabundance of collections featuring the works of too-long ignored founding fathers and lost masters of American comic books. A magnificent case in point is this second superb chronicle revisiting the incredible gifts of one of the greatest draughtsmen and yarn-spinners the industry has ever seen.

You could save some time and trouble by simply buying the book now rather than waste your valuable off-hours reading my blather, but since I’m keen to carp on anyway feel free to accompany me as I delineate just why this tome needs to join the books on your “favourites” shelf.

He was a direct descendent and namesake of iconoclastic poet and artist William Blake. His tragic life and awe-inspiring body of work – Bill was possibly the most technically accomplished artist in US comicbook industry – reveals how a man of privilege and astonishing pedigree was wracked by illness, an addictive personality (especially alcoholism) and sheer bad luck, nevertheless shaped an art-form and left twin legacies: an incredible body of superlative stories and art, and, more importantly, saved many broken lives saved by becoming a dedicated mentor for Alcoholics Anonymous in his later years.

William Blake Everett was born in 1917 into a wealthy and prestigious New England family. Bright and precocious, he contracted Tuberculosis when he was twelve and was dispatched to arid Arizona to recuperate.

Thus began a life-long affair with the cowboy lifestyle: a hard-drinking, smoking, tall-tale telling breed locked in a war against self-destruction, described in the fact-filled, picture-packed Introduction by Blake Bell which covers ‘The Early Years of Comics: 1938-1942’, ‘The Birth of Marvel Comics’ and ‘The Comic Book Production System’, before ‘The Heroes’ precedes a full-colour selection of incredible prototypical adventure champions with a brief essay on the set-up of Centaur Comics, Novelty Press, Eastern Color Printing, Hillman and Lev Gleason Publications…

Accompanied by the covers for Amazing Mystery Funnies volume 2 #3, 5 and 6 (March, May & June 1939, Centaur) are three outer space exploits of futuristic trouble shooter Skyrocket Steele, whilst Tibetan-trained superhero Amazing-Man offers a transformative triptych of titanic tales spanning war-torn Europe, augmented by the covers to Amazing-Man Comics #9-11 February-April 1940.

Everett’s deeply held western dreams are covered next with a brace of rootin’ tootin’ yarns starring Bull’s-Eye Bill from Novelty Press’ Target Comics #3-4 (April & May 1940) whilst from #7-9 (August-October 1940), the author smoothly switched to sophisticated suspense with master of disguise The Chameleon crushing contemporary criminals in scintillating escapades from Target Comics’ answer to The Saint, the Falcon and the Lone Wolf.

Thanks to his breakthrough Sub-Mariner sagas Everett was inextricably linked to water-based action, and Eastern Comics hired him to create human waterspout Bob Blake, Hydroman for the bimonthly Reg’lar Fellers Heroic Comics. Here, spanning issues # 6-9 (May-November 1941, with the covers for #6 and 7), are four spectacular, eerie, offbeat exploits, covering an extended battle against foreign spies and American Fifth Columnists, after which Red Reed in the Americas! (created by Bob Davis & Fitz) offers the first two chapters in a political thriller wherein a college student and his pals head South of the Border to fight Nazi-backed sedition and tyranny in a stunning tour de force first seen in Lev Gleason’s Silver Streak Comics #20 & 21 (April & May 1942).

A section of Miscellaneous and text illustrations follows, blending Western spot drawings with the eye-catching covers from Amazing Mystery Funnies volume 2 #18, Target Comics #5 and 6, Blue Bolt (vol. 1 #11, vol. 2 #1, 2 and 3) and Famous Funnies #85.

The Humorous and More describes Everett’s forays into other markets: niche sectors such as licensed comics, comedy and romance, and even returns to pulp and magazine illustration as he strove to stay one step ahead of a constantly shifting market and his own growing reputation for binges and unreliability.

‘What’s With the Crosbys?’ is a superbly rendered gossip strip from Famous Stars #2 (1950, Ziff-Davis) whilst a stunning monochrome girly-pin-up of ‘Snafu’s Lovely Ladies’ (from Snafu #3 Marvel, March 1956), and the cover of Adventures of the Big Boy #1 (also Marvel, from the same month) lead into the Back Cover of Cracked #6 (December 1958, Major Magazines) and other visual features from the Mad imitator as well as the colour cover to less successful rip-off Zany (#3, from March 1959).

Everett’s staggering ability to draw beautiful women plays well in the complete romance strip ‘Love Knows No Rules’ (Personal Love #24, November 1953 Eastern Color), and this section concludes with a gritty black and white title page piece from combat pulp War Stories #1, courtesy of Marvel’s parent company Magazine Management, September 1952.

The Horror concentrates on the post-superhero passion for scary stories: an arena where Bill Everett absolutely shone like a diamond. For over a decade he brought a sheen of irresistible quality to the generally second-rate chillers Timely/Atlas/Marvel generated in competition with genre front-runners EC Comics. It’s easy to see how they could compete and even outlive their gritty, gore-soaked competitor, with such lush and lurid examples of covers and chillingly beautiful interior pages…

Following a third informative background essay detailing his life until its cruelly early end in 1973, a choice selection of his least known and celebrated efforts opens with tale of terror ‘Hangman’s House’ (Suspense #5, November, 1950): a grim confrontation with Satanic evil, followed by futuristic Cold War shocker ‘I Deal With Murder!’ and a visit to a dark carnival of purely human wickedness in ‘Felix the Great’ (both culled from Suspense #6, January 1951).

Adventures into Weird Worlds #4 (Spring 1952) offered a laconic, sardonic glimpse into ‘The Face of Death’, whilst from the next issue (April 1952) ‘Don’t Bury Me Deep’ tapped untold depths of tension in a moodily mordant exploration of fear and premature burial. Hard on the heels of the cover to Journey Into Unknown Worlds #14 (December 1952) comes one of its interior shockers as ‘The Scarecrow’ helped an aged couple solve their mortgage problems in a most unusual manner.

The Marvel madness then concludes with a cautionary tale of ‘That Crazy Car’ from Journey into Mystery #20, December 1954, concluding a far too brief sojourn amidst arguably Everest’s most accomplished works and most professionally adept period.

This magnificent collection ends with a gallery of pages and one complete tale from the end of his career; selected from an even more uninhibited publisher attempting to cash in on the adult horror market opened by Warren Publishing with Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella.

Skywald was formed by industry veteran Israel Waldman and Everett’s old friend Sol Brodsky, tapping into the burgeoning black and white market with mature-reader and supernatural magazines Hell-Rider, Crime Machine, Nightmare, Psycho and Scream. Offered an “in” Everett produced incredible pin-ups (included here are three from Nightmare (#1, 2 & 4, December 1970-June 1971), ‘A Psycho Scene’ (Psycho #5, November, 1971) a stunning werewolf pin-up from Psycho #6 and one of revived Golden Age monstrosity ‘The Heap’ from Psycho #4.

Most welcome, however, is a magnificent 10-page monochrome masterpiece of gothic mystery ‘The Man Who Stole Eternity’ from Psycho #3, May, 1971.

Although telling, even revelatory and concluding in a happy ending of sorts, what this book really celebrates is not the life but the astounding versatility of Bill Everett. A gifted, driven man, he was a born storyteller with the unparalleled ability to make all his imaginary worlds hyper-real; and for nearly five decades his incredible art and wondrous stories enthralled and enchanted everybody lucky enough to read them.

© 2013 Fantagraphics Books. Text © 2013 Blake Bell. All art © its respective owners and holders. All rights reserved.
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for art lovers, Marvel Zombies and addicts of pure comics magic… 9/10

The Wild West Show


By Joe R. Lansdale, Lewis Shiner, Neal Barrett Jr., Sam Glanzman, Doug Potter & many and various. Edited by Richard Klaw (Mojo Press)
ISBN: 1-885418-04-3

Once upon a time, not that very long ago, nearly all of fiction was engorged with tales of Cowboys and Indians.

As always happens with such periodic popular phenomena – such as the Swinging Sixties’ Super-Spy Boom and the recent Vampire/Werewolf Boyfriend trend – there was a tremendous amount of momentary merit, lots of utter dross and a few spectacular gems.

Most importantly once such surges have petered out there’s also generally a small cadre of frustrated devotees who mourn its passing and, on growing up, resolve to do something to venerate or even revive their lost and faded favourite fad…

After World War II the American 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; already a firmly established favourite of 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 the cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that’s a thought for another time and different review.

Even though comic books had encompassed Western heroes from the very start – there were cowboy strips in the premier issues of both Action Comics and Marvel Comics – the post-war years saw a vast outpouring of anthology titles with new gun-toting heroes to replace the rapidly dwindling supply of costumed Mystery Men, and true to formula, most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling.

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

Despite minor re-flowerings in the early 1970s and mid-1990s, Cowboy comics have largely vanished from our funnybook pages: seemingly unable to command enough mainstream commercial support to survive the crushing competition of garish wonder-men and the furiously seductive future.

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist and produced some pretty impressive work, with France and Italy eventually making the genre their own by the end of the 1960s. They still make the best straight Western strips in the world.

Happily however an American revolution in comics retailing and print technologies at the end of the 20th century allowed fans to create and disseminate relatively inexpensive comicbooks of their own and, happier still, many of those fans are incredibly talented creators in other genres. A particularly impressive case in point is this captivating lost treasure from independent creator-led outfit Mojo Press, which published some amazing and groundbreaking horror, fantasy, Western and science fiction graphic novels and books between 1994 and their much-lamented demise in 1999.

Released in 1996, The Wild West Show was Mojo’s sixth release, a black and white anthology which celebrated the classical iconography of the genre whilst gleefully playing fast and loose with the content and running roughshod over the traditional mythology of the medium.

After the informative and educational ‘Two Fists, Four Colors and Six Guns’ – a history of Western comics by Scott A. Cupp – the wide-screen wonderment begins with Joe R. Lansdale’s beguiling short story ‘Trains Not Taken’ (adapted by Neal Barrett Jr. & John Garcia) as American Ambassador-to-Japan Bill Cody strikes up a casual conversation with businessman James Hickock on a Iron Horse trip to the Dakotas.

Among the many topics are the captivating single woman both find impossible to ignore, the Japanese/American union and recent massacre of a combined US Cavalry/Samurai force by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull,

The tragic loss of both Custer and Yoshii and other matters of great import pass the time, but the weary Hickock is too distracted to concentrate fully. His mind is filled with the troubles of his aging alcoholic wife and the disturbing dreams of another life: one where he was a buffalo hunting scout and deadly gunslinger. But those are just frustrating fancies of trains not taken. It’s all too late now – or is it…?

Lewis Shiner’s ‘Steam Engine Time’, illustrated by Doug Potter, is another glorious genre-bending snippet set in Austin, Texas in 1898, where an anonymous lad with a dream and a guitar tried to get the white folk interested in his new kind of music. Even though the far-more-welcoming Negroes in the Colored Quarter hadn’t heard of “The Blues” they accepted his unique squalling and bizarre pelvis-led dancing and understood his impatience. The kid wished that somehow he could get electricity into his guitar. Someday, maybe…

Veteran comics craftsman Sam Glanzman then turned in a silent masterpiece of action and bleak, black humour in ‘I Could Eat a Horse!’ after which Paul O. Miles and artists Newt Manwich & Michael Washburn adapted Donn Webb’s hilarious saga of a far from ordinary sidekick in ‘Cowboy Dharma’, whilst Norman Partridge & Marc Erickson revealed the West’s affinity for grotesque horror in the terrifying tale of The Head – but not much else – of murdering bandito Joaquin Murrieta in ‘For Neck or Nothin’

Short and bittersweet, ‘Custer’s Last Love’ is a smart parable of the battle of the sexes from Steve Utley & Kevin Hendryx, and the whole shooting match ends on a lyrical high with the fact-based historical drama of settler Maggie Gosher whose ‘Letters from Arizona’ in 1889 are here transformed into a powerful and memorable strip by Joe Preston, John Lucas & Martin Thomas.

The Western tale has long been a part of world culture and perhaps that fact has relegated the genre in too many minds to the status of a passé fascination of a bygone generation. However these fresh looks at an overexposed idiom prove there’s still meat to found on those old bones, and cow-punching aficionados, fans of nostalgia-tainted comics and seekers of the wild and new alike can all be assured that there’s a selection of range-riding rollercoaster thrills and moody mysteries still lurking in those hills and on that horizon…

Black hats, white hats, alternate worlds, great pictures and macabre twists – what more could you possibly ask for?
The Wild West Show © 1996 Richard Klaw. All material contained herein © its respective creators. All rights reserved.

Casey Ruggles: The Pearl Galleon


By Warren Tufts (Western Winds Productions)
No ISBN

Warren Tufts was a phenomenally talented illustrator and storyteller born too late. He is best remembered now – if at all – for creating two of the most beautiful western comics strips of all time: this one and the elegiac, iconic Lance.

Sadly the artist began his career at a time when the glory days of newspaper syndicated strips were gradually giving way to the television age and an era of ostensibly free family home entertainment. Had he been working scant years earlier in adventure’s Golden Age he would undoubtedly be a household name – at least in the dusty, book- stacked shacks and basements of comics fans…

Born in Fresno, California on Christmas Day 1925, Tufts was a superb, meticulous draughtsman with an uncanny grasp of character, a wicked sense of storytelling and a great ear for dialogue whose art was effective and grandiose in the representational manner, favourably compared to both Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and the best of Alex Raymond. On May 22nd 1949 he began Casey Ruggles – a Saga of the West as a full-colour Sunday page, supplementing it with a black and white daily strip on September 19th of that year.

Tufts worked for United Features Syndicate, owners of such popular strips as Fritzi Ritz and L’il Abner, and his lavish, expansive tales were crisply told and highly engaging, but – since he was a compulsive perfectionist – he regularly worked 80-hour weeks at the drawing board and often missed deadlines. This led him to often use assistants such as Al Plastino, Rueben Moreira and Edmund Good. Established veterans Nick Cardy and Alex Toth also spent time working as “ghosts” on the series.

Due to a falling-out over rights and property exploitation, Tufts left United Features and his first wonderful Western creation in 1954. Thereafter Al Carreño continued the feature until its inevitable demise in October 1955. The departure came because TV producers wanted to turn the strip into a weekly television show but the syndicate demurred, suggesting the “free” show would harm the popularity of the strip.

At that time most cartoonists and syndicates feared the new medium (correctly as it turned out), convinced it would cause the destruction of their particular form of mass entertainment…

During a year spent creating the political satire feature ‘Lone Spaceman’, Tufts formed his own syndicate for his next and greatest project, Lance (probably the last great full page Sunday strip in American newspapers, and another series crying out for a high-quality collection) before moving peripherally into comic-books, working extensively for West Coast outfit Dell/Gold Key, where he drew various westerns and cowboy TV show tie-ins like Wagon Train, Korak son of Tarzan, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan and a long run on the Pink Panther comic. Eventually he quit drawing completely, working instead as an actor, voice-actor and eventually moved into animation on such shows as Challenge of the Super Friends.

Tufts also had a lifelong passion for flying, even to the point of designing and building his own planes. In 1982 whilst piloting one, he crashed and was killed.

The Pacific Comics Club collected many “lost strip classics” during the 1980s, including six volumes (to my knowledge) of Casey Ruggles adventures. This fifth stupendous black and white compilation (approximately 15 inches x 10 inches), edited as ever by Dr. Henry Yeo, contains stories that highlighted Tufts’ splendid grip on taut plots, passion for bold adventure, grasp of irony and love of comedy; showing the author at the height of his creativity from early 1953 to January 1954. Although nobody knew it, the wonderful series’ days were numbered…

Casey Ruggles – a Saga of the West used authentic Western motifs and scenarios to tell a broad range of stories stretching from shoot-‘em-up dramas to comedy yarns and even the occasional horror story. It debuted as a centenary tribute to the California Gold Rush and its ever-capable hero was a dynamic ex-cavalry sergeant and sometime US Marshal making his way to that promised land to find his fortune (this was the narrative engine of both features until 1950 where daily and Sunday strips divided into separate tales), meeting historical personages like Millard Fillmore, William Fargo, Jean Lafitte and Kit Carson in realistically gripping two-fisted action-adventures and devastatingly wry and sharp light comedy episodes.

Here, however, the drama opens with an enthralling and timely conspiracy thriller as our hero, freshly sacked as a US Marshal, takes a job ferrying hides from Mexico for slick businessman Cal Naglee. Although deeply suspicious, the hero can’t find anything amiss in the scheme until he is arrested for causing the deaths of a dozen miners.

Whilst in jail he discovers that an unknown mastermind has been selling the packing material protecting the worthless animal skins – something called “coca leaves” – as a health supplement labelled “Ruggles Patented Leaves of Strength”…

The wonder herb, when chewed, enables workers to endure arduous 18-hour shifts and many unscrupulous mine owners have been forcing their underpaid wage-slaves to consume the stuff in their greedy efforts to increase productivity.

However when men and women started dying all the blame somehow settled on Casey’s broad shoulders. Nobody but the sheriff believes the hero when he uncovers the true villain behind the plot, somebody with a deep and abiding grudge against the former Marshal, and as damning “evidence” continues to pile up around him, Ruggles is indicted and held for trial.

With due process utterly thwarted and his hidden nemesis trying to stir up a lynch mob, Casey has no choice but to break jail and take matters into his own capable hands before justice is done and the true villains exposed…

‘Leaves of Strength’ originally ran from May 25th to August 22nd 1953, and was promptly followed by a delightful high-adventure romp as Tufts seamlessly switched tone and timbre to craft a yarn as imaginatively fanciful as any conceived by H. Rider Haggard or Rudyard Kipling.

‘The Spanish Pearl Galleon’ ran from August 24th to December 5th and introduced a new twist on the concept of romantic interest as the still-itinerant and unemployed Casey hauls food to a ship moored at the San Francisco pier and discovers the good ship Dolphin conceals a woman held captive.

The gallant soon frees desperate aristocrat Julalee from her perilous situation and is promptly embroiled in her impossible quest for a fabled treasure ship which somehow foundered in the Colorado Desert. The wreck was carrying a huge consignment of pearls and men have hunted it for centuries, but she and her brother had a map – at least until the scurvy Captain Angel killed her sibling and took it…

With the ruthlessly persistent rogue hard on their heels, the new partners resume her mission and head into the deep desert, encountering and overcoming incredible threats as they continually clash with the pursuing Angel and the worst the elements can offer before, in true adventurers’ fashion, they win less than what they wanted whilst the villains get all that they deserve…

With the epic trek over, however, Julalee is reluctant to head home…

The final tale in this stupendous monochrome collection, originally running from December 7th 1953 to January 2nd 1954, is a marvellously sentimental and devilishly funny crime-caper with a gloriously rough-and-ready seasonal twist as ‘Santy Claus’ came to town and robbed the brand new bank where Julalee had stored the few pearls she had salvaged from her recent quest. He also took all the ready cash his big sack could hold.

As Julie and Casey trail the old reprobate and his ill-gotten gains to the Indian orphanage he tirelessly struggled to keep open, the Sheriff didn’t fret much. After all, that sweetly cantankerous old coot did it every year and no one ever got hurt…

Human intrigue and fallibility, bombastic action and a taste for the ludicrous reminiscent of John Ford or Raoul Walsh movies made Casey Ruggles the ideal western strip for the discerning post-war audience and all of its brilliance and charm remains, happily undiminished by time or today’s post-modern sensibilities.

Westerns are a uniquely perfect vehicle for action, drama and humour and Casey Ruggles is one of the very best produced in America: easily a match for the generally superior European material like Tex or Lieutenant Blueberry.

Surely the beautiful clean-cut lines, chiaroscuric flourishes, sheer artistic ingenuity and easy veracity of Warren Tufts can never be truly out of vogue? These great tales are desperately deserving of a wider following, and at a time when so many great strips are finally being revisited, I’m praying some canny publisher knows another good thing when he sees it…
© 1949, 1950, 1953 United Features Syndicate, Inc. Collection © 1981 Western Winds Productions. All Rights Reserved.

Golden Age Western Comics


By various, compiled and edited by Steven Brower (PowerHouse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-57687-594-0

There was a time, not that very long ago, when all of popular fiction was engorged with tales of Cowboys and Indians.

As always happens with such periodic phenomena – such as the Swinging Sixties Super-Spy Boom and perhaps the more recent Vampire/Werewolf Boyfriend trend (too soon to tell, but I’m sharpening stakes, stocking silverware and having some cola and Perrier blessed, just in case…) – there’s a tremendous amount of dross and a few spectacular gems.

On such occasions there’s also generally a small amount of wonderful but not-quite-life-changing material that gets lost in the shuffle: carried along with the overwhelming surge of material pumped out by TV, film, comics and book producers and even the toy, game and record industries.

After World War II the American 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; already a firmly established favourite of 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 the cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that’s a thought for another time and different graphic novel review.

Even though comic books had encompassed western heroes from the very start – there were cowboy strips in the premier issues of both Action Comics and Marvel Comics – the post-war years saw a vast outpouring of anthology titles with new gun-toting heroes to replace the rapidly dwindling supply of costumed Mystery Men, and true to formula, most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling.

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

Europe and Britain also embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist and produced 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 tales, and as always, the crucial difference was due to the artists and writers involved…

With all the top-line characters and properties such as Tomahawk, Rawhide Kid, or the Lone Ranger still fully owned by big concerns, this delightful and impressive hardback compilation gathers a broad selection of the second-string (call ‘em Sunday matinee or B-movie comics if you want) material and, although there’s no Kinstler or Kubert or Kirby classics, what editor Steven Brower has re-presented here in lavish, scanned full-colour is a magnificent meat-and-potatoes snapshot of what kids of the time would have been avidly absorbing.

Sadly records are awfully spotty for this period and genre but I’m cocky enough to offer a few guesses whenever the creator credits aren’t available and I’m relatively sure of my footing…

After an informative introduction from Christopher Irving and an introductory essay by Brower, the rip-roaring yet wholesome fun and thrills begin with Texas Tim, Ranger (from an undesignated issue of Blazing West in 1948), part of writer/Editor Richard Hughes’ superb American Comics Group line, and a veritable one-man band of creative trend following. In this sadly uncredited yarn (perhaps drawn by Edmond Good).

Hughes is an unsung hero of the industry, competing with the Big Boys in spy, humour, western, horror and superhero titles well into the 1960s and writing the bulk of the stories himself.

Here the Texan lawman tracks down rustlers and foils a plot to frame an innocent man in a rollicking 8-page romp after which movie star Lash LaRue solves the case of ‘The King’s Ransom’ in an adventure stuffed with chases, kidnapping, fights, framed Indians and prodigal sons, originally from #56 (July 1955 and perhaps drawn by John Belfi or Tony Sgroi) of his own licensed title. Fawcett had a huge stable (I said it and I ain’t sorry, neither) of Western screen stars, and when they quit comics in 1953 the gems that didn’t go to DC – such as Hopalong Cassidy – went to Capitol/Charlton Comics who purchased the bulk of retired comics publishers inventory during the 1950’s…

Charlton was always a minor player in the comics leagues, paying less, selling less, and generally caring less about cultivating a fan base than the major players. But they managed to discover and train more big names in the 1960s than either Marvel or DC, and created a vast and solid canon of memorable characters, concepts and genre material. Almost all their stuff was written by Joe Gill or Pat Masulli, although in the 1960s young tyros like Roy Thomas, Steve Skeates, Dave Kaler and Denny O’Neil all got a healthy first bite of the cherry there, and I’m fairly certain “King of Comics” Paul S. Newman was the regular Larue scripter…

‘Magic Arrow Rides the Pony Express’ hails from Youthful Publications’ Indian Fighter (1950) illustrated by S. B. Rosen and detailing how the young Seneca chief and all-around “Good Injun” saves the famed postal service from unscrupulous badmen armed only with his quiver of enchanted shafts.

Fawcett also published screen star Tom Mix Western and from #15, 1949 comes ‘Tom Mix and the Desert Maelstrom’ probably drawn by Carl Pfeufer and John Jordan – as most of the strips were – wherein the legendary lawman braved a stupendous sandstorm to capture bank-robbers and save a wounded rodeo rider from destitution.

Lots of publishers had Jesse James series and the one sampled here comes from Charlton’s Cowboy Western Comics #39, (June 1955, probably written by Gill & illustrated by William M. Allison). In it the always misunderstood gunslinger was framed for a stage hold-up…

Magazine Enterprises produced some the very best comics of the 1950s and from Dan’l Boone #4, December 1955 comes the stirring saga of pioneer America ‘Peril Shadows the Forest Trail’, wherein the mythical scout and woodsman ferrets out a murderous white turncoat in a timeless thriller illustrated by the hugely undervalued Joe Certa.

‘Buffalo Belle’ also comes from the 1948 Blazing West and again displays Hughes’ mastery of the short story strip as a miniskirt-wearing agent of  justice deals with a dragged-up bandit in a terrific yarn possibly limned by Max Elkan or even Charles Sultan…

Also from that ACG title are the lovely ‘Little Lobo the Bantam Buckeroo’ – illustrated by Leonard Starr in his transitional Milton Caniff drawing style – depicting the tempestuous boy’s battle against fur thieves, and the charming ‘Tenderfoot’ (by a frustratingly familiar artist I can’t identify, but who might be Paul Cooper) with the sissy-looking Eastern Dude dispensing western vengeance to bullies and bandits alike…

‘Little Eagle: Soldier in the Making’ also comes from Indian Fighter – illustrated with near-abstract verve by Manny Stallman – and heads firmly into fantasy as a youthful brave equipped with magic wings tackles renegade brave Black Dog before he sets the entire frontier ablaze with war…

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 comic-book division as fiercely populist as the parent company with over 100 short-lived genre titles such as Atomic Spy Cases, Bachelor’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 of their titles had respectable runs: Peter Rabbit, Eerie, Wild Bill Hickock, outrageous “Commie-busting” war comic Captain Steve Savage, Fighting Indians of the Wild West and their own magnificently illustrated fictionalised adventures of Jesse James.

‘Terror at Taos’ comes from Avon’s Kit Carson #6 (March 1955, but reprinted here from Fighting Indians of the Wild West) and pits the famed scout against corrupt officials and traitorous wagon masters in the Commancheria territory, all lavishly rendered by the superb Jerry McCann.

Next is ‘Young Falcon and the Swindlers’ from Fawcett’s Gabby Hayes Western #17 (April 1950) by an artist doing a very creditable impression of Norman Maurer, wherein the lost prince of the Truefeather Tribe tracked down crooked assayers who bilked him of his rightful pay, after which ‘Annie Oakley’ (Cowboy Western Stories # 38, April/May 1952) finds the famed sharpshooter hunting bandits in a canny 4-page quickie illustrated by Jerry Iger under the pen-name Jerry Maxwell.

Charlton’s back catalogue also provided ‘Flying Eagle in Golden Treachery’ from Death Valley #9 October 1955, as the noble brave foils white claim-jumpers togged up like Indians, and ‘Cry for Revenge’ (Cowboy Western #49 May/June 1954) saw old Fawcett star Golden Arrow hunt down more murderous whites posing as Red Men to drive settlers off their land in a gripping (Gill?) yarn illustrated by Dick Giordano & Vince Alascia.

‘Chief Black Hawk and his Dogs of War’ was a historical puff-piece also from the aforementioned Kit Carson #6 with artist Harry Larsen delineating the rise and fall of the legendary Sauk war chief after which Giordano & Alascia’s ‘Triple Test’ (Cowboy Western #49 May/June 1954) laconically describes the dangers of marrying in a rare, wry light-hearted tale from an age of shoot-and-swipe sagas…

Gabby Hayes Western #17 also provided an adventure of the World’s Most Successful Sidekick himself (seriously: Hayes was the comedy stooge to almost every cowboy in Tinsel Town, from Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy to Randolph Scott and John Wayne).

‘The Big Game Hunt’ is a fun-filled riot as the garrulous old coot takes the wind out of snobby globe-trotting safari addict and saves the life of a cantankerous moose in a charming rib-tickler probably written by Rod Reed or Irwin Schoffman and illustrated by Leonard Frank.

The last tales in this tome are from Charlton; starting with the Giordano & Alascia ‘Breakout in Rondo Prison’ (Range Busters #10 September 1955) wherein hard-riding trio Scott, Chip and Doodle were framed for robbery in a pokey cow-town and forced to fight their way to freedom after which the action ends with a superb costumed cowboy thriller ‘For Talon’s Nest’ from Masked Raider #2 (August 1955) wherein the mystery gunslinger is forced to defend his pet Eagle’s honour in a classy classic drawn by Mike Sekowsky (and possibly inked by Standard Comics comrade Mike Peppe?)

Sadly there’s no inclusion of Charlton’s superb and long-running Billy the Kid, Gunmaster or Cheyenne Kid features but hopefully there’s the possibility of a follow-up volume dedicated to them…?

Within these pages cow-punching aficionados (no, it’s neither a sexual proclivity nor an Olympic sport) and all fans of charming and nostalgia-stuffed comics can (re)discover a selection of range-riding rollercoaster rides about misunderstood fast-guns or noble savages compelled to take up arms against an assorted passel of low-down no-goods and scurvy owlhoots, and all the other myriad tropes and touchstones of Western mythology. Black hats, white hats, great pictures and traditional action values – what more could you possibly ask for?

Text, compilation and editing © 2012 Steven Brower. Foreword © 2012 Christopher Irving. All rights reserved.

Casey Ruggles: The Marchioness of Grofnek


By Warren Tufts (Western Winds Productions)
No ISBN

The newspaper strip Casey Ruggles – a Saga of the West used Western motifs and scenarios to tell a broad range of stories stretching from shoot-‘em-up dramas to comedy yarns and even the occasional horror story.

The strip debuted in 1949, a centenary tribute to the California Gold Rush, and it’s ever-capable hero was a dynamic ex-cavalry sergeant and sometime US Marshal making his way to that promised land to find his fortune (this was the narrative engine of both features until 1950 where daily and Sunday strips divided into separate tales), meeting historical personages like Millard Fillmore, William Fargo, Jean Lafitte and Kit Carson in gripping two-fisted action-adventures.

Warren Tufts was a phenomenally talented illustrator and storyteller born too late. He is best remembered now – if at all – for creating two of the most beautiful western comics strips of all time: Ruggles and the elegiac, iconic Lance.

Sadly he began his career at a time when the glory days of newspaper syndicated strips were gradually giving way to the television age and ostensibly free family home entertainment. Had he been working scant years earlier in adventure’s Golden Age he would undoubtedly be a household name – at least in comics fans’ homes.

Born in Fresno, California on Christmas Day, 1925 Tufts was a superb, meticulous draughtsman with an uncanny grasp of character, a wicked sense of storytelling and a great ear for dialogue whose art was effective and grandiose in the representational manner, favourably compared to both Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and the best of Alex Raymond.

On May 22nd 1949 he began Ruggles as a full-colour Sunday page and supplemented it with a black and white daily strip on September 19th of that year.

Tufts worked for the United Features Syndicate, owners of such popular strips as Fritzi Ritz and L’il Abner, and his lavish, expansive tales were crisply told and highly engaging, but – a compulsive perfectionist – he regularly worked 80-hour weeks at the drawing board and often missed deadlines. This led him to use many assistants such as Al Plastino, Rueben Moreira and Edmund Good. Established veterans Nick Cardy and Alex Toth also spent time working as “ghosts” on the series.

Due to a falling-out with his syndicate Tufts left his first wonderful western creation in 1954 and Al Carreño continued the feature until its demise in October 1955. The departure came when TV producers wanted to turn the strip into a weekly television show but apparently United Features baulked, suggesting the show would harm the popularity of the strip.

During a year spent creating the political satire feature ‘Lone Spaceman’ Tufts formed his own syndicate for his next and greatest project, Lance (probably the last great full page Sunday strip and another series crying out for a high-quality collection) before moving peripherally into comic-books, working extensively for West Coast outfit Dell/Gold Key, where he drew various westerns and cowboy TV show tie-ins like Wagon Train, Korak son of Tarzan, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan and a long run on the Pink Panther comic.

Eventually he quit drawing completely, working as an actor, voice-actor and eventually in animation on such shows as Challenge of the Super Friends.

Tufts had a lifelong passion for flying, even designing and building his own planes. In 1982 whilst piloting one, he crashed and was killed.

The Pacific Comics Club collected many “lost strip classics” at the start of the 1980s, including six volumes (to my knowledge) of Casey Ruggles adventures. This fourth stupendous black and white volume (approximately 15 inches x 10 inches) contains stories that highlighted Tufts’ splendid grasp or irony and love of comedy…

The first, however, is a stirring and chilling cowboy thriller featuring a legendary Western figure return of an old foe. ‘A Real Nice Guy’ originally ran from 5th January to 23rd February 1953, and found Ruggles and old scout Christopher “Kit” Carson heading towards Shasta City in a deadly snowstorm just as a devoted and loving wife murders the sheriff to free her murderous husband from the brand new Jail. As the blizzard hits hard the fugitives take refuge in a line-shack also sheltering Carson and Ruggles…

When the storm subsides the killers steal the heroes’ guns, horses, boots and even Carson’s trousers to combat the cold, leaving them to die as they flee. However the determined lawmen break free and track the pair through horrific polar conditions in a tense and deadly race to survive before the next lethal ice storm strikes…

The second adventure jumps from fraught life and dearth to something far more serious as ‘The Marchioness of Grofnek’ arrives in Shasta in all her resplendent, Eastern European glory, with an army of nobles, pots of cash and jewels and a burning desire to marry again…

This surreal and hilariously wry yarn ran from February 24th to 11th April and brilliantly depicted the true nature of friendship as Carson tried to get Ruggles hitched and the canny Marshall countered every ploy with one oh his own…

The final tale in this stupendous monochrome collection is a marvellous slapstick wheeze which completely ignores the titular hero to feature the further exploits of a returning “villain”.

Running from 13th April – 23rd May 1953, ‘The Highwaymen’ marked the reappearance of Old Ancient (a grizzled dime-store owlhoot and wicked parody of silver screen cowboy William Boyd whose super-sanitized Hopalong Cassidy wowed generations of movie and TV viewers who might perhaps have been better served by picking up a history book instead) who offered to help out destitute blacksmith Cyril by teaching him the finer points of hold-ups, stage robbing and banditry. Of course the mouthy old coot had no chance of making a success of his criminal crash-course but did provide some of the most side-splitting cock-ups ever seen on a comics page.

Equal parts Keystone Cops, Destry Rides Again, Buster Keaton’s Go West and Carry on Cowboy, this delightfully fast-paced and razor-barbed spoof perfectly closes this charming, twice-lost comicstrip treasure-trove…

Human intrigue and fallibility, bombastic action and a taste for the ludicrous reminiscent of John Ford or Raoul Walsh movies make Casey Ruggles the ideal western strip for the discerning modern audience. Westerns are a uniquely perfect vehicle for drama and comedy, and Casey Ruggles is one of the very best produced in America: easily a match for the generally superior European material like Tex or Lieutenant Blueberry.

Surely the beautiful clean-cut lines, chiaroscuric flourishes and sheer artistic imagination and veracity of Warren Tufts can never be truly out of vogue? These great tales are desperately deserving of a wider following, and at a time when so many great strips are finally being revisited, I’m praying some canny publisher knows another good thing when he sees it…
© 1949, 1950, 1953 United Features Syndicate, Inc. Collection © 1981 Western Winds Productions. All Rights Reserved.

Lucky Luke volume 2: Ghost Town


By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Luke Spear (CineBook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-12-0

It’s hard to think of one of Europe’s most beloved and long-running comics characters being in any way controversial, but when the changing times caught up with the fastest gun in the West (“so fast he can outdraw his own shadow”) and the planet’s most laconic cowboy moved with them, the news made headlines all over the world.

Lucky Luke is a rangy, good-natured, lightning fast cowboy who roams the fabulously mythic Old West, having light-hearted adventures with his horse Jolly Jumper and Rantanplan (“dumbest dog in the West” and a charming spoof of cinema canine Rin-Tin-Tin), interacting with a host of historical and legendary figures of the genre.

His continued exploits over more than 66 years have made him one of the best-selling comic characters in Europe, (78 collected books and more than 300 million albums in 30 languages thus far), with spin-off games, computer games, animated cartoon and even a plethora of TV shows and live-action movies.

He was created in 1946 by Belgian animator, illustrator and cartoonist Maurice de Bévère – AKA Morris – for the 1947 Annual (L’Almanach Spirou 1947) of Le Journal de Spirou, launching into his first weekly adventure ‘Arizona 1880′ on December 7th 1946.

Before then, while working at the CBA (Compagnie Belge d’Actualitiés) cartoon studio Morris met future comics super-stars Franquin and Peyo, and worked for weekly magazine Le Moustique as a caricaturist (to my eyes Lucky Luke looks uncannily like the young Robert Mitchum who graced so many mid-1940s B-movie Westerns).

He quickly became one of “la Bande des quatre”, or Gang of Four, which comprised the creators Jijé, Will and his old comrade Franquin, and who were the leading proponents of the loose and free-wheeling artistic style known as the “Marcinelle School” which dominated Spirou in aesthetic contention with the “Ligne Claire” style used by Hergé, EP

Jacobs and other artists in Tintin Magazine.

In 1948 the Gang (all but Will) visited America, meeting US creators and sightseeing, and Morris stayed for six years, meeting René Goscinny, scoring some work from the newly-formed EC sensation Mad and making copious notes and sketches of the swiftly vanishing Old West. That research would resonate on every page of his life’s work.

Working alone until 1955 when he reunited with Goscinny, Morris produced another nine albums worth of affectionate sagebrush parody before, working in perfect unison, Luke attained the dizzying heights of superstardom, commencing with ‘Des rails sur la Prairie’ (Rails on the Prairie), which began in Spirou on August 25th 1955.

In 1967 the straight-shooter switched teams, transferring to Goscinny’s own magazine Pilote with ‘La Diligence’ (The Stagecoach). Goscinny produced 45 albums with Morris before his death, from when Morris continued both alone and with fresh collaborators.

Morris died in 2001 having drawn fully 70 adventures, plus the spin-off adventures of Rantanplan, with Achdé, Laurent Gerra, Benacquista & Pennac taking over the franchise, producing another five tales to date.

Moreover, apart from that very first adventure Lucky, to appropriate a quote applied to the thematically simpatico Alias Smith and Jones “in all that time he never shot or killed anyone”…

Lucky Luke first appeared in Britain syndicated in the weekly comic Film Fun and again in 1967 in Giggle where he was renamed Buck Bingo. In all these venues as well as the numerous attempts to follow the English-language successes of Tintin and Asterix albums from Brockhampton and Knight Books, Luke had a trademark cigarette hanging insouciantly from his lip, but in 1983 Morris – no doubt amidst both pained howls and muted mutterings of “political correctness gone mad” – substituted a piece of straw for the much-travelled dog-end, which garnered him an official tip of the hat from the World Health Organization.

The most recent attempt to bring Lucky Luke to our shores and shelves comes from Cinebook, with Ghost Town the second of the 28 (and counting) available albums, originally collected in 1965 as La Ville fantôme, the 25th adventure and Goscinny’s 16th collaboration with the artist.

As Luke rides the range he encounters two tarred-and-feathered gamblers Denver Miles and Colorado Bill. Despite instantly assessing their scurrilous natures – and of course they do try to rob him – he gives them assistance and a ride to the nearest outpost of civilisation.

That happens to be the deserted mining town of Gold Hill where they encounter an embittered old miner dubbed Old Powell who chases them off at gunpoint.

A little further on they reach Bingo Creek where they discover the mad old coot was once the victim of a gold-salting scheme (hiding gold on worthless land and getting a sucker to buy it) but stubbornly refused to quit, convinced that somewhere in his mountain the motherlode still lay hidden…

Denver and Colorado are incorrigible crooks and after Lucky exposes their fleecing of the townsfolk the bent gamblers try to backshoot him, only to fall foul of Powell’s skill with a rifle…

Eternally grateful Lucky determines to befriend and assist the irascible old coot, despite his surly protests, whilst Denver and Colorado plan the perfect revenge by attempting to steal his mine and then re-salt it before selling it to some other sucker…

To this end they try buy up the claim, have Old Powell hanged for witchcraft, frame him for cattle-rustling and even plant the stolen cash-register from the saloon in his mine.

But they haven’t reckoned on the ingenuity of Lucky Luke; a man so swift and sharp that he can outdraw his own shadow… Against the masterful wits and wicked wits of our indomitable hero the gamblers are ultimately helpless in this splendidly intoxicating blend of all-ages action, slapstick and wry cynical humour.

Although the dialogue is still a bit dry in places, this is a grand old hoot in the tradition of Destry Rides again and Support Your Local Sheriff (or perhaps Paint Your Wagon, Evil Roy Slade or Cat Ballou are more your style?) superbly executed by master storytellers and a wonderful introduction to a unique genre for modern kids who might well have missed the romantic allure of the mythical Wild West.

And in case you’re worried, even though the interior art still has our hero chawin’ on that ol’ nicotine stick, trust me, there’s very little chance of anyone craving a quick snout, but quite a high probability that they’ll want more Lucky Luke Albums…
© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1971 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics. English translation © 2006 Cinebook Ltd.

Zorro in Old California


By Nedaud & Carlo Marcello (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-89172-920-1 hardcover,   978-0-91303-512-2 paperback

One the earliest masked heroes and still phenomenally popular throughout the world is perennial film favourite “El Zorro, The Fox”, originally created by jobbing writer Johnston McCulley in 1919 in a five part serial entitled ‘The Curse of Capistrano’ and debuting in All-Story Weekly from August 6th to 6th September. The tale was subsequently published by Grossett & Dunlap in 1924 as The Mark of Zorro and further reissued in 1959 and 1998 by MacDonald & Co. and Tor respectively.

Famously Hollywood royalty Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford read the ‘The Curse of Capistrano’ in All-Story Weekly on their honeymoon and immediately optioned the adventure to be the first film release from their new production company/studio United Artists.

The Mark of Zorro was a global movie sensation in 1920 and for years after, and New York based McCulley re-tailored his creation to match the extremely different filmic incarnation. The Caped Crusader aptly fitted the burgeoning genre that would soon be people by the likes of The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Spider.

Rouben Mamoulian’s filmic remake of The Mark of Zorro further ingrained the Fox into the World’s psyche, and as the prose exploits continued in a variety of publications Dell began a comicbook version in 1949. When Walt Disney began a hugely popular Zorro TV show in 1957 the comics series was redesigned to capitalise on it and the entertainment corporation began a decades-long strip incarnation of “their” version of the character in various areas of the world. This classy tome collects half of the dozen stories produced for a French iteration which originally ran in Le Journal de Mickey, by veteran Italian artist Raphaël Carlo Marcello and relative enigma Nedaud, of whom I sadly know very little.

The celebrated and supremely stylish Marcello (1929-2007) moved to Paris in 1948 and began his long and prestigious career drawing Loana et le Masque Chinois in Aventures de Paris-Jeunes and Nick Silver for Collection Victoire before switching to newspaper strips for Opera Mundi in 1950, illustrating La Découverte du Monde and L’Histoire de Paris before adapting Ben Hur, Jane Eyre and the Bible.

In 1952, he joined Héroic, working on Oliver Twist, Gil Blas and Bug Jargal, then began a 15-year run on Le Cavalier Inconnu (1955-1970) in Pépito. His maintained ties to newspapers throughout and continued general interest literary adaptations for Mondial-Presse.

In 1956, he contributed Bob Franck to Bugs Bunny magazine and numerous strips to Lisette, Monty, Mireille, L’Intrépide/Hurrah and Rintintin. He moved to Pif Gadget in 1970, collaborating on his signature series Docteur Justice with prolific scenarist/writer Jean Ollivier as well as Amicalement Vôtre (a TV adaptation scripted Spanish by the legendary Victor Mora), Taranis (scripts by Ollivier & Mora), Tarao (by Roger Lécureux) and La Guerre du Feu.

Never stopping for breath Marcello illustrated John Parade, Patrouilleur de l’Espace, in Le Journal des Pieds Nickelés, the Larousse series L’Histoire de France en Bandes Dessinées, La Découverte du Mond and L’Histoire du Far West until 1985 when he joined Le Journal de Mickey to create Le Regard du Tigre, Le Club des Cinq and the subject of this collection.

Solidly based on the 1950s TV series Zorro ran for a year (1985-1986): 12 stirring fast-paced, swashbuckling romps, the first half of which are collected in this slim, full colour European-format album. After these thundering epics Marcello carried on improving, drawing sci fi extravaganza Cristal, epigrammatic short stories Voulez-vous de Nos Nouvelles?, Michael Jackson, Wayne Thunder, L’Épopée du Paris Saint-Germain and mature-reader series Nuit Barbare and Amok. In 1991 he returned to his hometown of Vintimille where he ended his days drawing episodes of iconic Italian series’ Tex and Zagor for Il Giornalino and Bonelli publishing.

Don Diego de la Vega is the foppish son of a noble house in old California when it was a Spanish Possession, who used the masked persona of Zorro the Fox to right wrongs, defend the weak and oppressed – particularly the pitifully maltreated natives and Indians – and thwart the schemes of Capitan Monastario, his bumbling sergeant Garcia and the despicable Governor determined to milk the populace for all they had. In his crusade Diego was aided by Bernardo (the deaf-mute manservant retained for the assorted TV and movies) and the good-will of the oppressed and overtaxed people of Los Angeles.

Whenever Zorro appeared he left his mark – a bold letter “Z” – carved into walls, doors, curtains, but never, ever faces…

Written for an all-ages audience these stories, each around ten pages long, play out an exotic eternal, riotous game of tag, beginning with ‘Wanted!’ as a huge reward galvanises the town to hunt the Fox, until Zorro turns the tables by capturing the Capitan and ransoming him back, thereby emptying the military coffers…

Next, in ‘The Assassins’ bandits posing as patriotic rebels capture the masked hero as part of their plan to murder the Governor and loot the ever-growing township, whilst ‘Double Agent’ sees Monastario blackmail a girl into betraying the wily avenger, but again misjudges Zorro’s ability to connect with the downtrodden Californians…

‘The Scarecrow’ finds the hero thwart a plot to discredit the reputation of Zorro when the unscrupulous Capitan employs a murderous masked impostor, after which ‘Tight as a Noose’ sees Monastario arrest Diego’s father Don Alejandro for treason to entrap the mysterious vigilante, and this rip-roaring rollercoaster ride concludes with ‘The Winds of Rebellion’ as the latest illegal tax rouses the town council against the Capitan and Zorro gets involved to prevent bloodshed…

Full-bodied, all-action and beautifully realised these classy adventures of a global icon are long overdue for a comprehensive and complete re-release, but until then at least this terrific tome is still readily available in both hardback and softcover through many online retailers.
® and © 1986 Zorro Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Zorro – the Masters Edition volume 1


By Johnston McCulley (Pulp Adventures Inc.)
ISBN: 978-1-89172-920-1

One the earliest masked heroes and still phenomenally popular throughout the world is perennial film favourite “El Zorro, The Fox”, originally created by jobbing writer Johnston McCulley in 1919 in a five part serial entitled ‘The Curse of Capistrano’ and launched in prose magazine All-Story Weekly beginning in with the August 6th edition and concluding with 6th September).

The tale was subsequently collected as a novella and published by Grossett & Dunlap in 1924 as The Mark of Zorro and further reissued in 1959 and 1998 by MacDonald & Co. and Tor respectively.

Famously Hollywood royalty Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford read the ‘The Curse of Capistrano’ in All-Story Weekly whilst on their honeymoon and immediately optioned the rights for the first film release from their new production company/studio United Artists.

The Mark of Zorro movie was a global sensation in 1920 and for years after, so a second prose serial was understandably commissioned from McCulley. ‘The Further Adventures of Zorro’ ran in All-Story Weekly from May 6th to June 10th 1922, but the magic thunderbolt didn’t strike twice and the Swashbuckling Señor wasn’t seen again until revived in the 1930’s pulps as part of a boom in extraordinary, more-than-merely-mortal adventures.

New York based McCulley was clearly no fool and had re-tailored his creation to match the extremely different filmic incarnation, making Zorro more a prototypical superhero than the broad Scarlet Pimpernel knock-off he had begun as (although many fictive historians prefer the idea that the character was based on real-life bandit Joaquin Murrieta, the “Mexican/Chilean Robin Hood”, whose life was fictionalized by John Rollin Ridge in 1854), so the Caped Crusader aptly fitted the burgeoning genre that would soon be peopled by the likes of The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Spider.

Weekly Argosy Magazine featured the four-chapter serial ‘Zorro Rides Again’ from October 3rd – 24th 1931 and a year later began a succession of complete novellas which ran between 1932 and 1935 and these are all reprinted in this glorious, album-sized volume.

McCulley produced a further chapter-novel ‘The Sign of Zorro’ for Argosy in 1941 (following the 1940 Rouben Mamoulian movie The Mark of Zorro) before switching to the monthly West Magazine in 1944. The first two of the 52 short stories produced between then and 1951 are also included, closing out this initial collection.

The author wrote two further stories ‘Zorro Rides the Trail’ for the May 1954 Max Brand Western Magazine and another, different version of ‘The Mark of Zorro’ which was published in Short Story Magazine in April 1959, the year after McCulley’s death and just as Disney’s epochal Zorro TV show was ending its three year run..

This wonderful monochrome celebration opens with an introduction from Don McGregor, who scripted comicbooks and a newspaper strip about the character, after which the stirring prose exploits begin…

For the uninitiated: Don Diego de la Vega was the foppish son of a grand house in old California when it was a Spanish Possession, who used the masked persona of Señor Zorro (the Fox) to right wrongs, defend the weak and oppressed – particularly the pitifully maltreated natives and Indians – and thwart the schemes of a succession of military leaders and the colonial Governor determined to milk the populace for all they had.

Whenever Zorro struck he left his mark – a letter “Z” carved into walls, doors, faces…

By the time of ‘Zorro Saves a Friend’ (Argosy November 12th 1932) he had become simply Don Diego Vega, and had a whole support structure in place. His stiff-necked Hildalgo father knew his secret, as did his two assistants Bernardo (the deaf-mute manservant retained for the assorted TV and movies) and Jose of the Cocopahs – a native chief who often acted as stableman, decoy and body-double for the Masked Avenger. Diego also employed a retired, reformed one-eyed pirate named Bardoso to act as his spy amongst townsfolk and outlaws…

It is the pirate who warns the seemingly effete nobleman that his young comrade Don Carlos Cassara, amongst others, has been especially targeted by military overseer Capitán Torello. That cunning strategist had hired a professional gambler and card-sharp to ruin the wealthy grandees who constantly resist the Governor’s political schemes, intending to humiliate or even cause the suicide of a generation of rich men…

Forewarned, The Fox took action as only he could…

‘Zorro Hunts a Jackal’ first appeared in April 1933, and detailed in stirring fashion how Torello hires a horse-breaker to abuse and cheat the natives in a plot to draw out Zorro and expose him as Don Diego. However, the mercenary has a darker secret of his own, but all his machinations are as nothing against the wiles of The Fox…

New Army chief Marcos Lopez was an even more cunning opponent. In ‘Zorro Deals With Treason’ (August 1934) the Capitán employed an impostor Zorro to foment rebellion among the Indians, but was soon made painfully aware of the regard and trust they placed in the genuine masked marvel…

The lengthy novelette which follows was first published in two parts in the Argosy issues for September 21st and 28th 1935, and is here presented as an interrupted saga of grand romance and spectacular action as Don Diego and Bernardo travelled to distant San Diego de Alcála to escort his father’s greatest friend, his entire wealth and his beautiful daughter Carmelita to a new life in Reina de Los Angeles.

Major headaches along the way include astute new military commander Capitán Carlos Gonzales, assorted bandits, murderous rogues Pedro Pico and Valentino Vargas and an enigmatic mastermind building a criminals’ army known only as the ‘Mysterious Don Miguel’

The last two tales come from West Magazine: a brace of short stories from July and September 1944. The first ‘Zorro Draws His Blade’ finds Don Diego contacted by the Friars of the local Mission – who also aware of his other identity – to clear the name and save the life of a peasant who has been framed for murdering a landowner. Of course the task is accomplished with cunning and devastating panache before the adventure concludes with ‘Zorro Upsets a Plot’ as the dashing Night-rider is forced to clear his name and confound another military frame-up when a masked and cloaked figure boldly and conspicuously abducts a beautiful maiden…

These are classic Blood-and-Thunder tales chock-full of fights and midnight chases, with scurvy blackguards maimed or slaughtered according to their crimes and station in life and dastardly plots unravelled with great style.

The more observant will note that as the years went by the rate of wounding decreased whilst the body-count steadily rose: a sure sign of the changing times and one which was repeated decades later in the superhero comics this series is such a clear template for…

The volume also contains a complete checklist of the prose canon and is liberally sprinkled with spot illustrations and full-page plates by Joel F. Naprestek, Franklyn E. Hamilton, Glen Ostrander, Mark Bloodworth and Randy Zimmerman as well as all the (sadly unattributed) illustrations which accompanied the original incarnations, as well as the painted magazine covers of those issues.

This edition and its successors apparently retail for staggering prices, but since there’s only one Rights owner and the character is so unbelievably popular, surely there’s a publisher out there willing and able to produce decent new collectors editions of these timeless tales along the sturdy, standard B-format paperback lines of Doc Savage, Sherlock Holmes or The Casebook of Sexton Blake?

I want more and surely there are hordes of others ready and eager to spend £s and $s for more “Z”s?
Zorro ® and © Zorro Productions. All Rights Reserved. This edition © 2000 Pulp Adventures, Inc. All rights reserved.

Jonah Hex: Luck Runs Out


By Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Jordi Bernet, Russ Heath, Giuseppe Camuncoli John Higgins, Rafa Garres & others (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-84576-985-7

The Western is a genre that can be sub-divided into two discrete halves: the sparkly, rhinestoned clean-and-shiny version that dominated kids’ books, comics and television for decades, as best typified by heroes such as the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry – and the other stuff.

In the US that alternative grimy, gritty, excessively brutal and dark sort of cowboy tale was solely the territory of select R-rated movies but was for years the successful and popular province of European strips such as Jean-Michel Charlier’s Blueberry or Bonelli and Galleppini’s Tex Willer. Eventually the aesthetic seeped into US culture via the films of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone.

Jonah Hex is the latter breed.

Arguably the most memorable American comicbook western character ever created, Hex is certainly the bleakest and most grippingly realised, as is the brutal and uncompromising world he inhabits. Remorseless and unstoppable with gun or knife, he hunts men for the price on their heads in the years following the War Between the States and the scars inside him are more shocking even than the ghastly ruin of his face.

Impressive, unique and controversial from his inception and early days in All-Star Western/Weird Western (see Showcase Presents Jonah Hex for those groundbreaking tales) the disreputable anti-hero’s various creative teams have always been confident enough to apply apparently incongruous fantasy concepts to this grittiest of protagonists.

Under the inspired guidance of current writers Justin Grey & Jimmy Palmiotti and the staggeringly talented assemblage of artists taking turns on the current incarnation of Jonah Hex the darkly ironic wit, sanguine view of morality and justice, breathtaking action and sheer Grand Guignol mayhem regularly generate some of the most accessible and enjoyable comics fiction available today.

In this collection, reprinting issues #25-30 of the latest comicbook series, six more stand alone tales display again how the ravaged, dissolute bounty hunter takes every idiocy and horror the world conceals and deals with it in his inimitable, surly and generally lethal manner.

Not confined to the usual chronological continuity this collection opens with ‘My Name is Nobody’ illustrated by that grandmaster of gritty realism, Russ Heath; jumping to the dying days of Hex’s life to recount an uncomfortable encounter with a capable young man also calling himself Hex before skipping back to the immediate post-Civil War era for the Giuseppe Camuncoli & Stefano Landini illustrated ‘Four Little Pigs: A Grindhouse Western’.

This brutal and disturbing tale of rural farming and serial killing is followed by the enchantingly mordant yet uplifting saga of ‘Starman’ by the magnificent Jordi Bernet, who depicts the uplifting account of how Hex saved a young immigrant boy who grew to be just as wily, deadly and infamous in his own unique profession: assassinating corrupt lawmen…

‘Townkiller’, illustrated by John Higgins with S. J. Hurst, sees the hired gun turn down a job too unspeakable even for him – and reveals the fate of the man who didn’t, before Rafa Garres moodily captures the horror of ‘Return to Devils Paw’ as Hex is forced by Pinkerton Agents to take them to stolen gold left behind after a clash between US Cavalry and nigh-supernatural Indian Braves (and don’t miss Jonah Hex: Only the Good Die Young for the original mini-masterpiece). Of course it all ends bloody…

Bernet returns to close this volume with the eponymous and blackly hilarious ‘Luck Runs Out’ as the West’s worst but most ruthless bandits foul up the perfect train-robbery. The unlucky part consists of waking up Hex after a week-long drunken binge…

Jonah Hex has always been billed as a “Western for people who don’t like Westerns” and, cliché aside, this has never been more true. One of the best strips currently coming out of America, this selection of compelling vignettes perfectly display the threads of black humour, tragic humanity and nihilistic cosmic indifference that runs through the extended epic history of DC’s Wild West.

Action-packed, gory, chilling, wickedly funny and cathartically satisfying, this really is a rare treat for those who despise the form: a perfect modern reinterpretation of a great storytelling tradition. No matter what your reading preference, this is an experience you can’t afford to miss.

© 2007-2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Jesse James: Classic Western Collection


By Joe Kubert & Carmine Infantino (Vanguard Productions)
ISBN 1-887591-44-3

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

As always happens with such periodic phenomena – such as the Swinging Sixties Super-Spy Boom and perhaps the modern Vampire Boyfriend trend (too soon to tell, but I’m sharpening stakes and having some cola and Perrier blessed, just in case…) – there’s a tremendous amount of dross and a few spectacular gems. On such occasions there’s also generally a small amount of superb but not-quite-transformationally magnificent concoctions that get lost in the shuffle: carried along with the overwhelming surge of material pumped out by television, film, comics and book producers and even the toy, game and record industries.

After World War II the American 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; already a firmly established favourite of 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 the cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that the returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that a thought for another time and graphic novel review.

Comic books saw a huge outpouring of anthology titles and new six-gun toting heroes to replace the rapidly dwindling supply 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, and produced 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 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 of the historical figures would quickly find a home and of course facts counted little, as indeed they never had with cowboy literature…

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 comic-book 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 of their titles 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 comfortingly scripted but magnificently illustrated fictionalised adventures of Jesse James.

Within these pages cow-punching aficionados (no, its neither a sexual proclivity nor an Olympic sport) and all fans of wonderful comic artwork can (re)discover a selection of range-riding rollercoaster rides about a troubled and misunderstood fast-gun forced to defend his name and life from an assorted passel of low-down no-goods and scurvy owlhoots, that have 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 a lot 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’ the 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 touchstones of Western mythology.

This black and white collection reprints material from issues #5, 6 and 7 of Jesse James (1950-1951) primarily featuring the art of comics legends Joe Kubert and Carmine Infantino, who would a few years later usher in the Silver Age of comics, but also includes the stylish frontispieces by acclaimed artist Wally Wood and world-famous portraitist Everett Raymond Kinstler, whose elegant illustrative art graced many Avon comics, as well as text features, biographies and even some pre-production pencil sketches.

Bill Black has also 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 and cheerful DC Showcase/Marvel Essentials giant phonebook format?

Black hats, white hats, great pictures and traditional action values – 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.