Stories of the West Book 1: Three Women at the Frontier

By Paulo Eleuteri-Serpieri & Raffaele Ambrosio, translated by Alfred Blomgren & Tony Raiola (Blackthorne Publishing)
ISBN: 978-0-932629-03-6

Paulo Eleuteri-Serpieri was born in Venice on February 29th 1944, and grew up to study painting and architecture at the Fine Art Academy in Rome. After graduating in 1966 he became an acclaimed painter and artist before turning to comics in 1975, producing mainly glorious historical dramas of the American West.

Scripted by Raffaele Ambrosio, these were published in Lancio Story and Skorpio whilst the artist further broadened his horizons by illustrating biblical tales in Découvrir la Bible.

From 1980 onwards he embraced science fictional themes and material for L’Eternauta, Il Fumetto and Orient-Express, before creating his landmark signature character Druuna.

Her Junoesque proportions and fantastic adventures have captivated generations of readers all over the world in such classics of pulchritudinous fantasy as Morbus Gravis, Creatura, Carnivora, Mandragora, Aphrodisia, Obsession, Druuna X and Croquis.

In Europe – where such superlatives are cherished – Serpieri’s astonishing ability to capture the female form in line and in colour has won him the title (although who else would want it is moot) of “Master of the Ass”.

Many if not most of the far-out fetishistic adventures have subsequently found their way into English-language translations. As far as I can discover, almost none of his sublime western tales have been similarly embraced. This rare American translation monochrome collection featuring some of those early Western sagas certainly has a few beautiful nudes within its pages, but these two stories are worth looking at for more than that.

The eponymous ‘Three Women at the Frontier’ opens proceedings, detailing the arduous journey of a group of women literally exported to edge of American Civilisation at the close of the 19th century and how they wrested control of their lives and destinies from the callous, patronising men who thought they knew best.

It’s followed by ‘John and Mary, Mary and John’ which recounts the unique meeting and budding relationship of a grizzled old mountain man and a wild woman hermit. The slow thawing and re-civilising of the traumatised and troubled former squaw and slave is certainly one of the most intriguing and refreshing romances I’ve ever read…

Quirky, compelling and superbly underplayed, with some of the best drawing you’ll ever see, this is a fabulous lost treasure, only slightly marred by its appalling reproduction, slipshod translation and too-casual proofreading. These wonderful tales of the west (and all those others untranslated as yet) are desperately in need of a high-quality English language edition, but until then, this will have to suffice…
© 1985 Paulo Eleuteri-Serpieri. All rights reserved.

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.