Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: Great Responsibility

By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9581-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because With Great Goodness Comes Great Presents… 10/10

Outcast, geeky high school kid Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and, after attempting to cash-in on the astonishing abilities he’d developed, suffered an irreconcilable personal tragedy. Due to the teenager’s arrogant neglect, his beloved guardian Uncle Ben was murdered and the traumatised boy determined henceforward to always use his powers to help those in dire need.

For years the brilliant young hero suffered privation and travail in his domestic situation, whilst his heroic alter ego endured public condemnation and mistrust as he valiantly battled all manner of threat and foe…

Spanning November 1964 to July 1966, this second full-colour Epic Collection devoted to the astounding early years as described by plotter and illustrator Steve Ditko and scripter/Editor Stan Lee reprints Amazing Spider-Man #18-38 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2, and kicks off with the middle chapter of an ambitious 3-part saga (which began in Amazing Spider-Man #17); depicting a rapidly-maturing hero touching emotional bottom before rising to triumphant victory over all manner of enemies.

In the previous volume the wallcrawler endured renewed print assaults from the Daily Bugle and its rabid publisher J. Jonah Jameson just as enigmatic archfoe Green Goblin began a war of nerves and attrition, using the Enforcers, Sandman and an army of thugs to publicly humiliate the Amazing Arachnid. To exacerbate matters Peter’s beloved Aunt May’s health took a drastic downward turn…

Resuming with ‘The End of Spider-Man!’ and explosively concluding in the triumphal ‘Spidey Strikes Back!’ – featuring a turbulent team-up with friendly rival Johnny Storm, the Human Torch – this extended tale proved the fans were ready for every kind of narrative experiment (single issue or even two stories per issue were still the norm in 1964) and Stan & Steve were more than happy to try anything.

With ‘The Coming of the Scorpion!’ Jameson let his obsessive hatred for the cocky kid crusader get the better of him; hiring scientist Farley Stillwell to endow a private detective with insectoid-based superpowers. Unfortunately, the process drove mercenary Mac Gargan completely mad before he could capture Spidey, leaving the webspinner with yet another lethally dangerous meta-nutcase to deal with…

‘Where Flies the Beetle’ features a hilarious love triangle as the Torch’s girlfriend used Peter Parker to make the flaming hero jealous. Unfortunately, the Beetle – a villain with high-tech insect-themed armour – was simultaneously stalking her to use as bait for a trap. As ever, Spider-Man was simply in the wrong place at the right time, resulting in a spectacular fight-fest…

‘The Clown, and his Masters of Menace’ offered a return engagement for the Circus of Crime with splendidly outré action and a lot of hearty laughs provided by increasingly irreplaceable supporting stars Aunt May, Betty Brant and J. Jonah Jameson whilst #23 presented a superb thriller blending the mundane mobster and thugs that Ditko loved to depict with the more outlandish threat of a supervillain attempting to take over all the city’s gangs.

‘The Goblin and the Gangsters’ is both moody and explosive, a perfect contrast to ‘Spider-Man Goes Mad!’ in #24. This psychological stunner finds a clearly delusional hero seeking psychiatric help, but there is more to the matter than simple insanity, as an insidious old foe made an unexpected return…

Issue #25 once again sees the Bugle’s obsessed publisher take matters into his own hands. ‘Captured by J. Jonah Jameson!’ introduces Professor Smythe – whose dynasty of robotic Spider-Slayers would bedevil the wallcrawler for years to come – hired by the bellicose newsman to remove Spider-Man for good.

Issues #26 and 27 comprised a captivating 2-part mystery exposing a deadly duel between the Green Goblin and an enigmatic new masked criminal. ‘The Man in the Crime-Master’s Mask!’ and ‘Bring Back my Goblin to Me!’ together form a perfect arachnid epic, with soap-opera melodrama and screwball comedy leavening tense crime-busting thrills and all-out action.

‘The Menace of the Molten Man!’ from #28 is a tale of science gone bad and remains remarkable today not only for the spectacular action sequences – and possibly the most striking Spider-Man cover ever produced – but also as the story in which Peter Parker finally graduates from High School.

Ditko was on peak form and fast enough to handle two monthly strips. At this time he was also blowing away audiences with another oddly tangential superhero. Those disparate crusaders met in ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’: lead story in the second super-sized Spider-Man Annual (October of that year and filled out with vintage Spidey classics).

The entrancing fable unforgettably introduced the Amazing Arachnid to arcane other realities as he teamed up with the Master of the Mystic Arts to battle power-crazed mage Xandu in a phantasmagorical, dimension-hopping masterpiece involving ensorcelled zombie thugs and the stolen Wand of Watoomb. After this, it was clear that Spider-Man could work in any milieu and nothing could hold him back…

Also included here from that immensely impressive landmark are more Ditko pin-ups in ‘A Gallery of Spider-Man’s Most Famous Foes’ – highlighting such nefarious ne’er-do-wells as The Scorpion, Circus of Crime and the Beetle.

Back in the ever-more popular monthly mag ASM #29 warned ‘Never Step on a Scorpion!’ as the lab-made larcenous lunatic returned, craving vengeance against not just the webspinner but also Jameson for turning a disreputable private eye into a super-powered monster…

Issue #30’s off-beat crime-caper then cannily sowed the seeds for future masterpieces as ‘The Claws of the Cat!’ features a city-wide hunt for an extremely capable burglar (way more exciting than it sounds, trust me!), plus the introduction of an organised mob of thieves working for mysterious new menace the Master Planner.

Sadly by this time of their greatest comics successes, Lee and Ditko were increasingly unable to work together on their greatest creations.

Ditko’s off-beat plots and quirky art had reached an accommodation with the slickly potent superhero house-style Jack Kirby had developed (at least as much as such a unique talent ever could). The illustration featured a marked reduction of signature line-feathering and moody backgrounds plus a lessening of concentration on totemic villains, but, although still very much a Ditko baby, Amazing Spider-Man’s sleek pictorial gloss warred with Lee’s scripts. These were comfortably in tune with the times if not his collaborator. Lee’s assessment of the audience was probably the correct one, and disagreements with the artist over the strip’s editorial direction were still confined to the office and not the pages themselves. However, an indication of growing tensions could be seen once Ditko began being credited as plotter of the stories…

After a period where old-fashioned crime and gangsterism predominated, science fiction themes and costumed crazies started to return full force. As the world went gaga for masked mystery-men, the creators experimented with longer storylines and protracted subplots…

When Ditko abruptly left, the company feared a drastic loss in quality and sales but it didn’t happen. John Romita (senior) considered himself a mere “safe pair of hands” keeping the momentum going until a better artist could be found, but instead blossomed into a major talent in his own right, and the wallcrawler continued his unstoppable rise at an accelerated pace…

Change was in the air everywhere. Included amongst the milestones for the ever-anxious Peter Parker collected here are graduating High School, starting college, meeting true love Gwen Stacy and tragic friend/enemy Harry Osborn plus the introduction of arch nemesis Norman Osborn. Old friends Flash Thompson and Betty Brant subsequently begin to drift out of his life…

‘If This Be My Destiny…!’ from issue #31 details a spate of high-tech robberies by the Master Planner culminating in a spectacular confrontation with Spider-Man. Also on show is that aforementioned college debut, first sight of Harry and Gwen and Aunt May on the edge of death due to an innocent blood transfusion from her mildly radioactive darling Peter…

This led to indisputably Ditko’s finest and most iconic moments on the series – and perhaps of his entire career. ‘Man on a Rampage!’ shows Parker pushed to the edge of desperation as the Planner’s men make off with the serums that might save her, resulting in an utterly driven, berserk wallcrawler ripping the town apart whilst trying to find them.

Trapped in an underwater fortress, pinned under tons of machinery, the hero faces his greatest failure as the clock ticks down the seconds of May’s life…

This in turn results the most memorable visual sequence in Spidey history as the opening of ‘The Final Chapter!’ luxuriates in five full, glorious pages to depict the ultimate triumph of will over circumstance. Freeing himself from tons of fallen debris, Spider-Man gives his absolute all to deliver the medicine May needs, and is rewarded with a rare happy ending…

Russian exile Kraven the Hunter then returns in ‘The Thrill of the Hunt!’ seeking vengeance for past humiliations by impersonating the webspinner, after which #35 confirms that ‘The Molten Man Regrets…!’: a plot-light yet inimitably action-packed combat classic wherein the gleaming golden bandit foolishly resumes his career of pinching other people’s valuables…

Amazing Spider-Man #36 features a deliciously off-beat, quasi-comedic turn in ‘When Falls the Meteor!’ as deranged, would-be scientist Norton G. Fester starts stealing extraterrestrial museum exhibits whilst calling himself the Looter

In retrospect these brief, fight-oriented tales, coming after such an intricate, passionate epic as the Master Planner sage should have indicated that something was amiss. However fans had no idea that ‘Once Upon a Time, There was a Robot…!’ – featuring a beleaguered Norman Osborn targeted by his disgraced ex-partner Mendel Strom and some eccentrically bizarre murder-machines in #37 and the tragic tale of ‘Just a Guy Named Joe!’ – wherein a hapless sad-sack stumblebum boxer gains super-strength and a bad-temper – were to be Steve Ditko’s last arachnid adventures…

As added enticements – and alone worth the price of this collection of much-reprinted material – is a big gallery of extras including reproductions of 20 ultra-rare Steve Ditko Spider-Man pencil pages plus an unused cover…

Although other artists have inked his narratives, Ditko handled all the art on Spider-Man and these lost gems demonstrate his fluid mastery and just how much of the mesmerising magic came from his pens and brushes…

Also included are rare Ditko T-shirt designs, posters and ad art, plus a range of Marvel Masterworks covers with Kirby and Ditko’s original images enhanced by painter Dean White.

Full of energy, verve, pathos and laughs, gloriously short of post-modern angst and breast-beating, these fun classics – available in numerous formats including eBook editions – are quintessential comicbook magic which constitute the very foundation of everything Marvel became. This classy compendium is an unmissable opportunity for readers of all ages to celebrate the magic and myths of the modern heroic ideal…
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Complete Peanuts volume 2: 1953-1954

By Charles Schulz (Canongate Books/Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84767-032-8 (Canongate):        978-1-56097-614-1 (Fantagraphics)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The ultimate Family Treat… 9/10

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal.

Cartoonist Charles M Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for half a century. He published 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000, dying from the complications of cancer the day before his last strip was published…

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Book collections, a merchandising mountain and television spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire.

None of that is really the point. Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived, and showed that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punch lines.

Following a moving reminiscence from legendary newsman Walter Cronkite, this second gargantuan (218 x 33x 172 mm) landscape hardback compendium (also available in digital formats) offers in potent monochrome the third and fourth years in the life of Charlie Brown and Co: an ever-evolving procession of insight and hilarity in still-fresh episodes seldom seen or reprinted once the strip had achieved its global domination.

Here a still rather outgoing and jolly Charlie Brown and high-maintenance – but essentially dog-like – mutt Snoopy interacted with bombastic Shermy and mercurial Patty all out doing kid things. Now, however, the supporting cast had expanded to include Violet, Beethoven-obsessed musical prodigy Schroeder, obnoxious “fussbudget” Lucy, and infant addition Linus – an actual architectural idiot savant.

They are memorably joined in this volume by human dust storm Pig-pen as well as the invention of a certain mystic tranquiliser dubbed the Security Blanket…

By the end of 1952 the daily diet of rapid-fire gags had evolved from raucous slapstick to surreal, edgy, psychologically barbed introspection, crushing peer-judgements and deep rumination in a world where kids – and certain animals – were the only actors, and even inanimate objects occasionally got into the action with malice aforethought

The relationships, however, were increasingly evolving: deep, complex and absorbing even though “Sparky” Schulz never deviated from his core message to entertain…

The first Sunday page had debuted on January 6th 1952: a standard half-page slot offering more measured fare than the daily. Both thwarted ambition and explosive frustration became part of the strip’s signature denouements and continued to develop. There are some pure gem examples of running gag mastery in here too, such as Snoopy’s extended cold war with baby Linus over treats, or Lucy’s hidden talents for golf and skipping…

Perennial touchstones on display herein include playing, playing pranks, playing sports, playing in mud, playing in snow, playing musical instruments, learning to read, the new domestic sensation of television, coping with kites, teasing each other, making baffled observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups.

The soft-soap ostracization of Charlie Brown begins and his feelings of alienation are well explored but in truth Lucy is the star here, with episodes seeing her expelled from Kindergarten as her insufferable know-it-allness grows. There’s also repeated evidence of what passes for her softer side too, as her fascination with Schroeder develops into a true crush, but, oh!, what she does to her little brother when nobody’s watching…

The first hints of Snoopy’s incredible inner mindscape can be seen here and, as previously mentioned, the uncleanable kid Pig-pen arrives and shakes up everybody’s world…

And best of all, auteur Schulz is in brilliant imaginative form crafting a myriad of purely graphic visual gags any surrealist would give their nose-teeth to have come up with…

By the end of this book Charlie Brown – although still a benign dreamer with his eyes affably affixed on the stars – is solidly locked on the path to his eternal loser, singled-out-by-fate persona and the sheer diabolical wilfulness of Lucy starts sharpening itself on everyone around her…

Adding to the enjoyment and elucidation, a copious ‘Index’ offers instant access to favourite scenes you’d like to see again, after which Gary Groth reviews the life of ‘Charles M. Schulz: 1922-2000’ rounding out our glimpse of the dolorous graphic genius with intimate revelations and reminiscences…

Still readily available, this volume offers the perfect example of a masterpiece in motion: comedy gold and social glue gradually metamorphosing in an epic of spellbinding graphic mastery which became part of the fabric of billions of lives, and which continues to do so long after its maker’s passing.

How can you possibly resist?
The Complete Peanuts: 1953-1954 (Volume Two) © 2004 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. Foreword © 2004 Walter Cronkite. “Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000” © 2004 Gary Groth. All rights reserved.

Asterix Omnibus volume 1: Asterix the Gaul, Asterix and the Golden Sickle and Asterix and the Goths

By René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Orion/Hodder-Darguad/Brockhampton)

Omnibus ISBN: 978-1-44400-423-6

Individual Orion ISBNs: 978-0-75286-605-5: 978-0-75286-613-0 & 978-0-75286-615-4

Sorry, Baudelaire, Balzac Proust, Sartre, Voltaire, Zola and all you other worthy contenders; Asterix the Gaul is probably France’s greatest literary export.

The feisty, wily little warrior who fought the iniquities and viewed the myriad wonders of Julius Caesar’s Roman Empire with brains, bravery and – whenever necessary – a magical potion imbuing the imbiber with incredible strength, speed and vitality, is the go-to reference all us non-Gallic gallants when we think of France…

In eager anticipation of the publication of the 37th Asterix volume next month, here a little refresher course for the classicist cognoscenti and a gentle but urgent plea to the uninitiated to get their collective fingers out and get au fait with one of Earth’s genuine comics phenomenons…

The diminutive, doughty hero was created at the very end of the 1950s by two of the art-forms greatest masters, René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo, and even though the perfect partnership ended in 1977, and Uderzo no longer crafts the comedic chaos, the creative wonderment still continues – albeit at a slightly reduced rate of rapidity.

René Goscinny is arguably the most prolific and remains one of the most-read writers of comic strips the world has ever known. Born in Paris in 1926, he grew up in Argentina where his father taught mathematics. From an early age René showed artistic promise, and studied fine arts, graduating in 1942.

In 1945 while working as junior illustrator in an ad agency his uncle invited him to stay in America, where he found work as a translator. After National Service in France he returned to the States and settled in Brooklyn, pursuing an artistic career and becoming in 1948 an assistant for a little studio which included Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jack Davis and John Severin as well as European giants-in-waiting Maurice de Bévère (Morris, with whom from 1955-1977 Goscinny produced Lucky Luke) and Joseph Gillain (Jijé).

He also met Georges Troisfontaines, head of the World Press Agency, the company that provided comics for the French magazine Spirou.

After contributing scripts to Belles Histoires de l’Oncle Paul and Jerry Spring Goscinny was promoted to head of World Press’ Paris office where he met his ultimate creative collaborator Albert Uderzo. In his spare time Rene created Sylvie and Alain et Christine with Martial Durand (Martial) and Fanfan et Polo, drawn by Dino Attanasio.

In 1955 Goscinny, Uderzo, Charlier and Jean Hébrard formed the independent syndicate Édipress/Édifrance, creating magazines for business and general industry (Clairon for the factory union and Pistolin for a chocolate factory). With Uderzo René generated Bill Blanchart, Pistolet and Benjamin et Benjamine, and even illustrated his own scripts for Le Capitaine Bibobu.

Goscinny clearly patented the 40-hour day. Using the nom-de-plume Agostini he wrote Le Petit Nicholas (drawn by Jean-Jacques Sempé) and in 1956 began an association with the revolutionary magazine Tintin, writing for various illustrators including Attanasio (Signor Spagetti), Bob De Moor (Monsieur Tric), Maréchal (Prudence Petitpas), Berck (Strapontin), Globule le Martien and Alphonse for Tibet, Modeste et Pompon for André Franquin, as well as the fabulous and funny adventures of the inimitable Indian brave Oumpah-Pah with Uderzo. He also wrote for the magazines Paris-Flirt and Vaillant.

In 1959 Édipress/Édifrance launched Pilote, and Goscinny went into overdrive. The first issue featured re-launched versions of Le Petit Nicolas, Jehan Pistolet/Jehan Soupolet, new serials Jacquot le Mousse and Tromblon et Bottaclou (drawn by Godard) plus a little something called Asterix the Gaul, inarguably the greatest achievement of his partnership with Uderzo.

When Georges Dargaud bought Pilote in 1960, Goscinny became Editor-in-Chief, but still found time to add new series Les Divagations de Monsieur Sait-Tout (Martial), La Potachologie Illustrée (Cabu), Les Dingodossiers (Gotlib) and La Forêt de Chênebeau (Mic Delinx).

He also wrote frequently for television but never stopped creating strips such Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah for Record illustrated by Swedish artist Jean Tabary. A minor success, it was re-tooled as Iznogoud when it transferred to Pilote.

Goscinny died – probably of well-deserved pride and severe exhaustion – in November 1977.

Alberto Aleandro Uderzo was born on April 25th 1927, in Fismes, on the Marne, a child of Italian immigrants. As a boy reading Mickey Mouse in Le Pétit Parisien Alberto dreamed of becoming an aircraft mechanic. He showed artistic flair from an early age and became a French citizen when he was seven. At 13 years old he became an apprentice of the Paris Publishing Society, learning design, typography, calligraphy and photo retouching.

When WWII broke out he spent time with farming relatives in Brittany, joining his father’s furniture-making business. Brittany beguiled Uderzo: when a location for Asterix’s idyllic village was being decided upon the region was the only choice.

In the post-war rebuilding of France Uderzo returned to Paris and became a successful artist in the country’s burgeoning comics industry. His first published work, a pastiche of Aesop’s Fables, appeared in Junior and in 1945 he was introduced to industry giant Edmond-François Calvo (whose masterpiece The Beast is Dead is long overdue for the world’s closer attention…).

Young Uderzo’s subsequent creations included the indomitable eccentric Clopinard, Belloy, l’Invulnérable, Prince Rollin and Arys Buck. He illustrated Em-Ré-Vil’s novel Flamberge, worked in animation, as a journalist, as an illustrator for France Dimanche, and created the vertical comic strip ‘Le Crime ne Paie pas’ for France-Soir. In 1950 he illustrated a few episodes of the franchised European version of Captain Marvel Jr. for Bravo!

Another inveterate traveller, the young artist met Goscinny in 1951. Soon fast friends, they decided to work together at the new Paris office of Belgian Publishing giant World Press. Their first collaboration was in November of that year; a feature piece on savoir vivre (how to live right or gracious living) for women’s weekly Bonnes Soirée, after which an avalanche of splendid strips and serials poured forth.

Jehan Pistolet and Luc Junior were created for La Libre Junior and they produced a Western starring a very Red (but not so American) Indian who evolved into the delightful and (eventually) popular Oumpah-Pah. In 1955 with the formation of Édifrance/Édipresse, Uderzo drew Bill Blanchart for La Libre Junior, replacing Christian Godard on Benjamin et Benjamine and in 1957 added Charlier’s Clairette to his portfolio.

The following year later, he made his Tintin debut, as Oumpah-Pah finally found a home and a rapturous audience. Uderzo also illuminated Poussin et Poussif, La Famille Moutonet and La Famille Cokalane

When Pilote launched in 1959 Uderzo was the major creative force for the new magazine, limning Charlier’s Tanguy et Laverdure and a little something called Asterix

Although Asterix was a massive hit from the start, Uderzo continued working with Charlier on Michel Tanguy, (subsequently Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure), but soon after the first ancient world adventure was collected as Astérix le gaulois in 1961 it became clear that the series would demand most of his time – especially as the incredible Goscinny never seemed to require rest or run out of ideas (after the writer’s death, the publication rate dropped from two per year to one volume every three to five).

By 1967 Asterix occupied all Uderzo’s time and attention. In 1974 the perfect partners formed Idéfix Studios to fully exploit their inimitable creation and when Goscinny passed away three years later, Uderzo had to be convinced to continue the adventures as writer and artist, producing a further ten volumes.

According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, Uderzo is the tenth most-often translated French-language author in the world and the third most-translated French language comics author – after his old mate René Goscinny and the grand master Hergé.

So what’s it all about?

Like all entertainments the premise works on two levels: as an action-packed comedic romp of sneaky and bullying baddies coming a-cropper for younger readers and as a pun-filled, sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads, transformed here by the brilliantly light touch of master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (who played no small part in making the indomitable little Gaul so very palatable to the English tongue).

Originally published in Pilote #1-38 (29th October 1959-4th July 1960, with the first page appearing a week earlier in a promotional issue #0, distributed on June 1st 1959), the story was set on the tip of Uderzo’s beloved Brittany coast in the year 50BC. Here a small village of redoubtable warriors and their families resisted every effort of the world-beating Roman Empire to complete their conquest of Gaul. Unable to defeat these Horatian hold-outs, the Empire resorts to a policy of containment and the little seaside hamlet is hemmed in by the heavily fortified permanent garrisons of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.

The Gauls don’t care: they daily defy the world’s greatest military machine by just going about their everyday affairs, protected by a magic potion provided by the resident druid and the shrewd wits of a rather diminutive dynamo and his simplistic best friend…

In Asterix the Gaul this immaculate comedy-drama scenario is hilariously demonstrated when Centurion Crismus Bonus, fed up with his soldiers being casually beaten up by the fiercely free Frenchmen, sends reluctant spy Caligula Minus to ferret out the secret of their incredible strength.

The affable resistors take the infiltrator in and, dosed up with potion, the perfidious Roman escapes with the answer – if not the formula itself…

Soon after, the Druid Getafix is captured by the invaders and the village seems doomed, but wily Asterix is on the case and breaks into Compendium determined to teach the Romans a lesson. After driving them crazy for ages by resisting all efforts at bribery and coercion, wizard and warrior seemingly capitulate and make the Romans a magic potion – but not the one the rapacious oppressors were hoping for…

Although comparatively raw and unpolished, the good-natured, adventurous humour and sheer energy of the yarn barrels along, delivering barrages of puns, oodles of insane situations and loads of low-trauma slapstick action, all marvellously rendered in Uderzo’s seductively stylish art-style.

From the second saga on the unique and expanding cast would encroach on events, especially the unique and expanded, show-stealing sidekick Obelix who had fallen into a vat of potion as a baby and was a genial, permanently superhuman, eternally hungry foil to the smart little hero…

These albums are available in a wealth of differing formats, and earlier translated editions going all the way back to the first Brockhampton editions in 1969 are still readily available from a variety of retail and internet vendors – or even your local charity shop and jumble sale.

Be warned, however, that if pure continuity matters to you, only most recent British publisher Orion has released 36 albums in chronological order – and in Omnibus editions; three tales per tome.

Also, on a purely artistic note, some of the Hodder-Dargaud editions have a rather unconventional approach to colour that might require you to wear sunglasses and put blinkers on your pets and staff…

Asterix and the Golden Sickle originated in Pilote #42-74 and recounts the disastrous consequences of Getafix losing his ceremonial gold sickle just before the grand Annual Conference of Gaulish Druids. Since time is passing and no ordinary replacement will suffice to cut ingredients for magic potion, Asterix offers to go all the way to Lutetia (you can call it Paris if you want to) to find another.

As Obelix has a cousin there, Metallurgix the Smith, he also volunteers for the trip and the punning pair are swiftly off, barely stopping to teach assorted bandits the errors of their pilfering ways but still finding a little time to visit many roadside inns and tavern serving roast boar…

There is a crisis in Lutetia: a mysterious gang is stealing all the Golden Sickles and forcing prices up. The druid community is deeply distressed and, more worrying still, master sickle-maker Metallurgix has gone missing…

Asterix and Obelix investigate the dastardly doings in their own bombastic manner and discover a nefarious plot that seems to go all the way to the office of the local Roman Prefect…

The early creative experiment was quickly crystallizing into a supremely winning format and the next epic cemented the strip’s status as a popular icon of Gallic excellence.

Asterix and the Goths ran from 1962-1963 and followed the plot-thread of the Druid Conference as Getafix, brand new sickle in hand, sets off for the Forest of the Carnutes to compete. However on the Gaul’s Eastern border savage Goths – barbarians who remained unconquered by the might of Rome – crossed into pacified Roman territory. The barbarians are intent on capturing the mightiest Druid and turning his magic against the rule of Julius Caesar.

Although non-Druids aren’t allowed into the forest, Asterix and Obelix had accompanied Getafix to its edge and as the competition round of the Conference ends in victory for him and his power-potion, the Goths strike, abducting him in his moment of triumph…

Alerted by fellow Druid Prefix, the heroic duo track the kidnappers but are mistaken for Visigoths by Roman patrols, allowing the Goths to cross the border into Germania.

Although Romans are no threat, they can be a time-wasting hindrance so Asterix and Obelix disguise themselves as Romans to invade the Barbarian lands…

Well-used to being held prisoner by now, Getafix is making himself a nuisance to his bellicose captors and a genuine threat to the wellbeing of his long-suffering translator. When Asterix and Obelix are captured dressed as Goths, the wily Gauls conceive a cunning plan to end the permanent and imposing threat of Gothic invasion – a scheme that continues successfully for almost two thousand years…

If, like me, you’re particularly interested (my wife calls it “obsessive”) in absolutely all the iterations you might also want to seek out back issues of British comic weekly Ranger (1965-1966 and every one a gem!) plus early issues of Look and Learn immediately after the two titles merged (beginning with #232: 25th June 1966).

Among the many splendid strips in the glossy, oversized photogravure weekly was a quirky comedy feature entitled ‘Britons Never, Never, Never, Shall Be Slaves!’ which featured the first appearance of Goscinny & Uderzo’s masterpiece – albeit in a rather radically altered state.

In these translations Asterix was “Beric”, Getafix the Druid “Doric” and Obelix was dubbed “Son of Boadicea”. More jingoistically, the entire village was editorially transported to England where a valiant population of True Brits never ever surrendered to the Roman Occupation!

Similar intellectual travesties occurred during two abortive early attempts to introduce the gutsy Gauls to America as a heavily re-edited family newspaper strip…

Asterix is one of the most popular comics in the world, translated into more than 100 languages; with a host of animated and live-action movies, assorted games and even his own theme park (Parc Astérix, near Paris). More than 325 million copies of 34 Asterix books have been sold worldwide, making Goscinny & Uderzo France’s bestselling international authors.

This is sublime comics storytelling and you’d be as Crazy as the Romans not to increase that statistic by finally getting around to acquiring your own copies of this fabulous, frolicsome French Folly.
© 1961-1963 Goscinny/Uderzo. Revised English translation © 2004 Hachette. All rights reserved.

George McManus’s Bringing Up Father: Forever Nuts – Classic Screwball Strips

By George McManus, edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt (NBM)
ISBN 13: 978-1-56163-556-6

One of the best and most influential comic strips of all time gets a wonderfully lavish deluxe outing thanks to the perspicacious folk at NBM as part of their series collecting the earliest triumphs of sequential cartooning. Look out for Happy Hooligan and hunt down Forever Nuts: Mutt and Jeff to see the other strips that formed the basis and foundation of our entire industry and art-form.

George McManus was born on January 23rd 1882 (or maybe 1883) and drew from a very young age. His father, realising his talent, secured him work in the art department of the St. Louis Republic newspaper. The lad was thirteen, and swept floors, ran errands, drawing when ordered to.

In an era before cheap and reliable photography, artists illustrated news stories; usually disasters, civic events and executions: McManus claimed that he had attended 120 hangings – a national record! The young man spent his off-hours producing cartoons and honing his mordant wit. His first sale was Elmer and Oliver. He hated it.

The jobbing cartoonist had a legendary stroke of luck in 1903. Acting on a bootblack’s tip, he placed a $100 bet on a 30-1 outsider and used his winnings to fund a trip to New York City. He splurged his windfall wager and on his last day in the big city got two job offers: one from the McClure Syndicate and a lesser bid from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

He took the smaller offer, went to work for Pulitzer and created a host of features for the paper including Snoozer, The Merry Marceline, Ready Money Ladies, Cheerful Charlie, Panhandle Pete, Let George Do It, Nibsy the Newsboy in Funny Fairyland (one of the earliest Little Nemo knock-offs) and eventually, his first big hit (1904) The Newlyweds.

This last brought him to the attention of Pulitzer’s arch rival William Randolph Hearst who, acting in tried and true manner, lured the cartoonist away with big money in 1912. In Hearst’s stable of papers The Newlyweds became Sunday page feature Their Only Child, and was soon supplemented by Outside the Asylum, The Whole Blooming Family, Spare Ribs and Gravy and Bringing Up Father.

At first it alternated with other McManus domestic comedies in the same slot, but eventually the artist dropped Oh, It’s Great to be Married!, Oh, It’s Great to Have a Home and Ah Yes! Our Happy Home! as well as his second Sunday strip Love Affairs of a Muttonhead to fully concentrate on the story of Irish hod-carrier Jiggs whose vast newfound wealth brought him no joy, whilst his parvenu wife Maggie and their inexplicably beautiful, cultured daughter Nora sought acceptance in “Polite Society”.

The strip turned on the simplest of premises: whilst Maggie and Nora feted wealth and aristocracy, Jiggs, who only wanted to booze, schmooze and eat his beloved corned beef and cabbage, would somehow shoot down their plans – usually with severe personal consequences. Maggie might have risen in society, but she never lost her devastating accuracy with crockery and household appliances…

Bringing Up Father debuted on January 12th 1913, originally appearing thrice-weekly, then four and eventually every day. It made McManus two fortunes (the first he lost in the 1929 Stock Market crash), spawned a radio show, a movie in 1928, and five more between 1946-1950 (as well as an original Finnish film in 1939) and 9 silent animated short features.

…And that’s not counting all the assorted marketing paraphernalia that fetches such high prices in today’s antique markets. The artist died in 1954, and other creators continued the strip until May 28th 2000, its unbroken 87 years making it the second longest running newspaper strip of all time.

McManus said that he got the basic idea from The Rising Generation: a musical comedy he’d seen as a boy: but the premise of wealth not bringing happiness was only the barest foundation of the strip’s explosive success. Jigg’s discomfort at his elevated position, his yearnings for the nostalgic days and simple joys of youth are afflictions everybody is prey to, but the true magic at play here is the canny blend of slapstick, satire, sexual politics and fashion, all delivered by a man who could draw like an angel. The incredibly clean, simple lines and superb use – and implicit understanding – of art nouveau and art deco imagery and design make this series a stunning treat for the eye.

This magical monochrome hardback – collecting the first two years of Bringing Up Father – covers the earliest inklings of the formation of that perfect formula, and includes a fascinating insight into the American head-set as the fictional and fabulously fractious family go on an extended (eight month) grand tour of the Continent in the months leading up to the Great War.

Then, as 1914 closed, the feature highlights how ambivalent the New World still was to the far-distant “European War”…

An added surprise for a strip of this vintage is the great egalitarianism of it. Although there is an occasional visual stereotype to swallow and excuse, what we today regard as racism is practically absent. The only thing to watch out for is the genteel sexism and dramatically entrenched class (un)consciousness, although McManus clearly pitched his tent on the side of the dirty, disenfranchised and downtrodden – as long as he could get a laugh out of it…

This is a wonderful, evocative celebration of the world’s greatest domestic comedy strip, skilfully annotated for those too young to remember those days and still uproariously funny. Get it for grandma and swipe it while she’s sleeping off the sherry and nostalgia…
No © invoked.

Lone Wolf and Cub volume 3: The Flute of the Fallen Tiger

By Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, translated by Dana Lewis (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-504-8

Best known in the West as Lone Wolf and Cub, the epic Samurai saga created by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima is without doubt a global classic of comics literature.

An example of the popular “Chanbara” or “sword-fighting” genre of print and screen, Kozure Okami was serialised in Weekly Manga Action from September 1970 until April 1976 and was an immense hit.

Those tales soon prompted a thematic companion series, Kubikiri Asa (Samurai Executioner) which ran from 1972 to 1976, but the major draw – at home and soon, increasingly abroad – was always the nomadic wanderings of doomed noble Ōgami Ittō and his solemn child.

Revered and influential, Kozure Okami was followed after years of supplication by fans and editors by sequel Shin Lone Wolf & Cub (illustrated by Hideki Mori) and even spawned – through Koike’s indirect participation – science fiction homage Lone Wolf 2100 by Mike Kennedy & Francisco Ruiz Velasco with.

The original saga has been successfully adapted to many other media, spawning six movies, four plays, two TV series, games and merchandise. The property is notoriously still in pre-production as a big Hollywood blockbuster.

The several thousand pages of enthralling, exotic, intoxicating narrative art produced by these legendary creators eventually filled 28 collected volumes, beguiling generations of readers in Japan and, inevitably, the world. More importantly, their philosophically nihilistic odyssey with its timeless themes and iconic visuals has influenced hordes of other creators.

The many manga, comics and movies these stories have inspired are impossible to count. Frank Miller, who illustrated the cover of this edition, referenced the series in Daredevil, his dystopian opus Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City. Max Allan Collin’s Road to Perdition is a proudly unashamed tribute to this masterpiece of vengeance-fiction. Stan Sakai has superbly spoofed, pastiched and celebrated the wanderer’s path in his own epic Usagi Yojimbo, and even children’s cartoon shows such as Samurai Jack can be seen as direct descendants of this astounding achievement of graphic narrative.

We in the West first saw the translated tales as 45 Prestige Format editions from First Comics beginning in 1987. That innovative trailblazer foundered before getting even a third of the way through the vast canon, after which Dark Horse Comics assumed the rights, systematically reprinting and translating the entire epic into 28 tankobon-style editions (petite 153 x 109 mm monochrome trade paperbacks, of about 300 pages each) between September 2000 and December 2002.

Once the entire translated epic had run its course it was all placed online through the Dark Horse Digital project.

A certain formula informs the early episodes: the acceptance of a commission to kill an impossible target, a cunning plan and inevitable success, all underscored with bleak philosophical musings alternately informed by Buddhist teachings in conjunction with or in opposition to the unflinching personal honour code of Bushido.

Protagonist Ōgami Ittō is also – probably – the most dangerous swordsman in creation…

Following a cautionary ‘Note to Readers’ on stylistic interpretation this third moodily magnificent monochrome collection truly gets underway with another grimly compelling fable as The Flute of the Fallen Tiger’ finds Ōgami and Daigoro aboard a ship where they encounter three bounty hunting brothers on a mission of their own. Seemingly favoured by the gods of fortune the BenTenRai siblings are lethal, unbeatable ninja warriors who instinctively comprehend the mettle of their taciturn travelling companion. Suspecting his true identity and fearing his task is opposing their current assignment – escorting a crucial witness to the Shogun’s Court – the brothers constantly test the father and son, without ever violating the strict formality of the traveller’s codes of conduct.

They even become tenuous allies when a third faction attacks with oil and flame, setting the waters ablaze. Tragically for the brothers, their fortunate reputation is not equal to their so-accurate assessment of the Lone Wolf assassin, and when the final clash comes only Ōgami walks away…

‘Half Mat, One Mat, A Fistful of Rice’ then pits the wanderers against Headless Sakon, an aging warrior master who apparently whiles his days away testing his skills against punters all paying for a sporting chance to decapitate him. When one such joust almost injures Daigoro, the veteran tries to strike up a friendship with the boy’s father, but he has ulterior motives.

After intense philosophical debate fails to sway the assassin from his sworn course on the road to hell, the elderly Ronin is forced to resort to his martial prowess and one final performance…

‘The White Path Between the Rivers’ then delves back to the beginning and reveals the details of Ōgami Ittō’s downfall. The vengeance-driven killer-nomad was once the prestigious Kōgi Kaishakunin: the Shogun’s official executioner, capable of cleaving a man in half with one stroke.

An eminent individual of esteemed imperial standing, elevated social position and impeccable honour, Ōgami loses everything when, soon after the birth of his son, his wife is murdered and his family eternally dishonoured due to the machinations of the politically ambitious Yagyu Clan.

Framed for plotting against the Shogun, Ōgami is ordered to commit suicide. Instead he rebels, choosing to become a despicable Ronin (masterless samurai) and assassin, pledging to revenge himself on the Yagyus until they are all dead or Hell has claimed him.

Now, despite the machinations of enemies at court he roams Japan pushing his toddler son in a tricked-out weaponised pram; two doomed souls hell-bent for the dire, demon-haunted underworld of Meifumado.

Although little more than a baby, his son Daigoro also chooses the way of the sword, and together they tread the grim and evocative landscapes of feudal Japan, one step ahead of destruction with death behind and before them…

When a freshly purchased girl accidentally kills the procurer who is delivering her to a brothel, she stumbles into little Daigoro and falls under the protection of the Lone Wolf. A valuable property, the local Yakuza Madam tries every possible tactic to regain her but is unable to shift Ōgami from his sworn intent to liberate ‘The Virgin and the Whore’

The martial arts mayhem concludes at ‘Close Quarters’ when Wolf and Cub become embroiled in a localised political war between generations.

The authorities in a rich lumber-producing region are divided between cutting down their forests for a quick sale and preserving the mountain woodlands that stave off calamitous flooding. After one faction occupies the arboreal tracts and threatens to burn them, the jōdai (Castle Warden and official in charge) hires Ōgami to kill the rebel leader and safeguard the precious trees.

A feat of monumental audacity and determination follows, but when the greedy jōdai attempts to cheat the assassin, all hell is unleashed…

These stories are deeply metaphorical and work on a number of levels most of us Westerners just can’t grasp on first reading – even with the help provided by bonus features such as the copious Glossary, providing detailed clarification and context on the terms used in the stories. That only makes them more exotic and fascinating…

Also included in this edition are profiles of author Koike Kazuo and illustrator Kojima Goseki and the next instalment of ‘The Ronin Report’ – an occasional series of articles offering potted history essays on the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate – this time discussing the decline of the Samurai and transformation of Bushido principles.

A breathtaking tour de force, these are comics classics you simply must read.
© 1995, 2000 Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima. Cover art © 2000 Frank Miller. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nine Lives to Live – A Classic Felix Celebration

By Otto Messmer, edited by David Gerstein (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-308-9

It might surprise you to know, but funny kitties actually pre-date the internet.

Felix is a hilarious, antic-enjoying talking cat of ancient vintage. He was created by Otto Messmer for the Pat Sullivan animation studio in 1915 and was an overnight global hit. Those moving picture cartoons led to a long supplementary career as a newspaper strip, as well as a plethora of merchandisable products in many other media.

Messmer wrote and drew the Sunday strip – which first premiered in London papers – before the feature finally launched in the USA on August 19th 1923. As Messmer’s employer and boss, Sullivan re-inked those initial strips, signed them, and then took all the credit for both strips and even the cartoons, which Messmer carried on directing until 1931.

Otto quietly toiled on, producing Sunday pages and daily strips for decades. In 1955, his assistant Joe Oriolo took over the creative duties and simultaneously began a campaign to return the credit for Felix’s invention and exploits to the true originator. It wasn’t until the 1960s that shy, loyal, brilliant Otto Messmer finally admitted what most of the industry had known for years…

As the cat evolved through successive movie shorts – and eventually numerous TV appearances – an additional and ever-expanding paraphernalia of mad professors, clunky robots and the cat’s legendary magic Bag of Tricks gradually became icons of Felix’s magical world, but most of that is the stuff of a later time and – hopefully – another volume.

The early work collected here comes from the halcyon 1920’s and displays a profoundly different kind of whimsy.

Fast-paced slapstick, fantastic invention and, yes, a few images and gags that might arch the collective metaphorical eyebrow of our more enlightened times; these are the strips that caught the world’s imagination nearly a century ago.

This was a time when even the modern citizens of America and Great Britain were social primitives compared to us – or at least so I’d like to think.

The imagination and wonderment of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and her Pals – both so similar to Felix in style, tone and execution – got the same responses from their contemporary readership and with the same sole intent: To make the customer laugh.

Our modern tendency to casually label as racist or sexist any such historical incidence in popular art-forms, whilst ignoring the same “sins” in High Art, is the worst kind of aesthetic bigotry, is usually prompted by an opportunistic bias and really truly ticks me off.

Why not use those incensed sensibilities and attendant publicity squalls to confront the still-present injustices and inequalities so many people are still enduring rather than take a cheap shot at a bygone, less enlightened world when most creators had no conception of the potential ramifications of their efforts?

Sorry about that, but the point remains that the history of our artform is always going to be curtailed and covert if we are not allowed the same “conditional discharge” afforded to film, ballet, opera, painting or novels. When was the last time anybody demanded that Oliver Twist was banned or shunned because of its depiction of one Jew?

These days the rush to label things racist, sexist or any other “ist” actually shuts down debate before anything can be achieved to fix or even address the problem…

None of which alter the fact that Felix the Cat is a brilliant and important comic strip by an unsung genius. The wonderful work collected here – which includes hundreds of rowdily phantasmagorical Daily and Sunday strips plus comprehensive biography, filmography and TV videography sections – perfectly encapsulate the wonder, universal charm and rapid-fire, surreal gags that enchanted generations and will still delight and enthrall youngsters of all ages.
© 1996 O.G. Publishing Corp.

Superman: The Golden Age volume 3

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Wayne Boring, Jack Burnley, Paul Cassidy, Ed Dobrotka, Don Komisarow, Leo Nowak, Fred Ray, John Sikela & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7089-6

As his latest record-breaking anniversary rapidly approaches, the popularity of Superman is on the climb again. The American comicbook industry – if it existed at all by now – would have been an utterly unrecognisable thing without The Man of Steel. His unprecedented invention and adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation gave birth to an entire genre if not an actual art form.

Moreover, with moviegoers anticipating fresh cinematic revelations in the upcoming Justice League blockbuster, expect a wealth of book releases celebrating the serried past of the heroic universe’s ultimate immigrant.

Imitation is the most honest compliment and can be profitable too. Superman triggered an inconceivable army of imitators and variations and, within three years of his Summer 1938 debut, the intoxicating blend of action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early Action Ace had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, socially reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy, whimsical comedy and, once the war in Europe and the East finally involved America, patriotic relevance for a host of gods, heroes and monsters, all dedicated to profit through exuberant, eye-popping excess and vigorous dashing derring-do.

In comicbook terms at least, Superman was master of the world. He had already utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry by the time of these tales. There was a successful newspaper strip, foreign and overseas syndication and the Fleischer studio was producing some of the most expensive – and best – animated cartoons ever conceived.

Thankfully the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release, and the energy and enthusiasm of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had infected the burgeoning studio that grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

This latest addition to the splendid Golden Age/Silver Age strand of DC reprint compendia presents more of an epochal run of raw, unpolished but viscerally vibrant stories by Siegel, Shuster and the sterling crew of their ever-expanding “Superman Studio” who were setting the funnybook world on fire: crude, rough, uncontrollable wish-fulfilling, cathartically exuberant exploits of a righteous and superior man dealing out summary justice equally to social malcontents, exploitative capitalists, thugs and ne’er-do-wells that initially captured the imagination of a generation.

This third remastered paperback collection (also available digitally) of the Man of Tomorrow’s earliest exploits – reprinted in the order they first appeared – covers the still largely innocent, carefree period between January and September 1941: encompassing Action Comics #32-40, Superman #8-11 and solo-adventures from World’s Best Comics #1 and World’s Finest Comics #2 (an oversized anthology title where he shared cover-stardom with Batman and Robin). As always, every comic appearance is preceded by the original cover illustration, another fine bunch of graphic masterpieces from Paul Cassidy, Wayne Boring and Fred Ray.

Although Siegel & Shuster had very much settled into the character by now, the latter was increasingly involved with the Superman newspaper strip. Even so, the buzz of success still fired them both and innovation still sparkled amidst the exuberance.

Written entirely by Seigel this incredible panorama of torrid tales opens with ‘The Gambling Rackets of Metropolis’ from Action Comics #32.

Like many stories of the time there was no original title and it’s been designated as such simply to make my job a little easier, as Superman crushes an illicit High Society gambling operation that has wormed its nefarious ay into the loftiest echelons of Government, a typical Jerry Siegel social drama magnificently illustrated by the great Jack Burnley.

Superman #8 (January/February 1941) was another spectacular and varied compendium containing four big adventures ranging from fantastic fantasy in ‘The Giants of Professor Zee’ (illustrated by Paul Cassidy); topical suspense in spotlighting ‘The Fifth Column’ (Wayne Boring & Don Komisarow); common criminality in ‘The Carnival Crooks’ (Cassidy) and concluding with an increasingly rare comic-book outing for Joe Shuster – inked by Boring – in the cover-featured ‘Perrone and the Drug Gang’, wherein the Metropolis Marvel battled doped-up thugs and the corrupt lawyers who controlled them.

Action Comics#33 and 34 are both Burnley extravaganzas wherein Superman goes north to discover ‘Something Amiss at the Lumber Camp’, before heading to coal country to save ‘The Beautiful Young Heiress’; both superbly enticing character-plays with plenty of scope for super-stunts to thrill the gasping fans.

Superman #9 (March/April 1941) was another four-star thriller with all the art credited to Cassidy. ‘The Phony Pacifists’ is an espionage thriller capitalising on increasing US tensions over “the European War”, ‘Joe Gatson, Racketeer’ recounts the sorry end of a hot-shot blackmailer and kidnapper, ‘Mystery in Swasey Swamp’ combines eerie rural events with ruthless spies whilst the self-explanatory ‘Jackson’s Murder Ring’ pits the Caped Kryptonian against an ingenious gang of commercial assassins.

The success of the annual World’s Fair premium comic-books had convinced National/DC editors that an over-sized anthology of their characters, with Superman and Batman prominently featured, would be a worthwhile proposition even at the exorbitant price of 15¢ (most 64-page titles retailed for 10¢ and would do so until the 1960s).

At 96 pages, World’s Best Comics #1 debuted with a Spring 1941 cover-date, before transforming into the venerable World’s Finest Comics from issue #2 onwards. From that landmark one-and-only edition comes gripping disaster thriller ‘Superman vs. the Rainmaker’, illustrated by Cassidy, after which Action Comics#35 headlines a human-interest tale with startling repercussions in ‘The Guybart Gold Mine’, and Superman is mightily stretched to cope with the awesome threat of ‘The Enemy Invasion’: a canny and foreboding taste of things to come if – or rather, when – America entered World War II.

Superman #10 (May/June 1941) opens with ‘The Invisible Luthor’ (illustrated by Leo Nowak), ‘The Talent Agency Fraud’ (ditto), ‘The Spy Ring of Righab Bey’ and ‘The Dukalia Spy Ring’ (both by Boring & Shuster), topical and exotic themes of suspense as America was still at this time still officially neutral in the “European War.”

Action Comics #37 (June 1941) returned to tales of graft, crime and social injustice in ‘Commissioner Kent’ (Cassidy art) as the Man of Steel’s timid alter-ego is forced to run for the job of top cop in Metropolis, before World’s Finest Comics #2 (Summer 1941) unleashes Nowak & Cassidy’s ‘The Unknown X’; a fast-paced mystery of sinister murder-masterminds, whilst Action #38 provides a spectacular battle against a sinister hypnotist committing crimes through ‘Radio Control’ (Nowak & Ed Dobrotka)…

Superman #11 (July/August 1941) was an all Nowak affair, beginning with ‘Zimba’s Gold Badge Terrorists’, wherein thinly disguised Nazis “Blitzkrieg” America, after which “giant animals” go on a rampage in ‘The Corinthville Caper’. Seeking a cure for ‘The Yellow Plague’ takes Superman to the ends of the Earth whilst ‘The Plot of Count Bergac’ takes him back home to crush a band of High Society gangsters.

Horrific mad science creates ‘The Radioactive Man’ (Action #39, by Nowak & Shuster) whilst the concluding episode here from issue #40 featured ‘The Billionaire’s Daughter’ (John Sikela) wherein the mighty Man of Tomorrow needs all his wits to set straight a spoiled debutante…

Stories of corruption and social injustice gradually gave way to more spectacular fare, and with war in the news and clearly on the horizon, the tone and content of Superman’s adventures changed too: the scale and scope of the stunts became more important than the motive. The raw passion and sly wit still shone through in Siegel’s stories but as the world grew more dangerous the Man of Tomorrow simply had to become stronger and more flamboyant to deal with it all, with Shuster and his team consequently stretching and expanding the iconography for all imitators and successors to follow.

These Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment at an absurdly affordable price. How can you possibly resist them?
© 1941, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Krazy & Ignatz 1931-1932: “A Kat a’Lilt with Song”

By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard & Derya Ataker (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-594-6

The cartoon strip starring Krazy Kat is arguably the pinnacle of graphic narrative innovation; a singular and hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry and became an undisputed treasure of world literature.

Krazy and Ignatz, as it is now dubbed for these glorious commemorative tomes from Fantagraphics, is a creation which must be appreciated on its own terms. The strip developed a unique language – at once both visual and verbal – and dealt with the immeasurable variety of human experience, foibles and peccadilloes with unfaltering warmth and understanding without ever offending anybody.

Sadly, however, it baffled far more than a few…

It was never a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex multi-layered verbal and pictorial whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is still the closest thing to pure poesy that narrative art has ever produced.

Herriman was already a successful cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse who had been cropping up in his outrageous domestic comedy strip The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs graduated to their own feature. Krazy Kat debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on Oct 28th 1913 and – largely by dint of the publishing magnate’s overpowering direct influence and interference – gradually spread throughout his vast stable of papers.

Although Hearst and a host of the period’s artistic and literary intelligentsia (notably – but not exclusively – e.e. Cummings, Frank Capra, John Alden Carpenter, Gilbert Seldes, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and – latterly – Jack Kerouac) all adored the strip, many local and regional editors did not; taking every potentially career-ending opportunity to drop it from the comics section.

Eventually the feature found a home and safe haven in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s papers. Protected there by the publisher’s heavy-handed patronage, the Kat flourished unharmed by editorial interference and fashion, running generally unmolested until Herriman’s death in April 1944.

The basic premise is simple: Krazy is an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive and romantic feline of indeterminate gender hopelessly in love with Ignatz Mouse: rude crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous.

Ignatz is a true unreconstructed male; drinking, stealing, fighting, conniving, constantly neglecting his wife and children and always responding to Krazy’s genteel advances by clobbering the Kat with a well-aimed brick (obtained singly or in bulk from noted local brick-maker Kolin Kelly) which the smitten kitten invariably misidentifies as tokens of equally recondite affection.

The third crucial element completing an anthropomorphic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp, who is completely besotted with Krazy, professionally aware of the Mouse’s true nature, yet hamstrung – by his own amorous timidity and sense of honour – from removing his devilish rival for the foolish feline’s affections.

Krazy is, of course, blithely oblivious to Pupp’s dilemma…

Also populating the ever-mutable stage are a stunning supporting cast of inspired bit players such as dreaded deliverer of unplanned, and generally unwanted, babies Joe Stork; hobo Bum Bill Bee, unsavoury conman and trickster Don Kiyoti, busybody Pauline Parrot, self-aggrandizing Walter Cephus Austridge, inscrutable, barely intelligible Chinese mallard Mock Duck, dozy Joe Turtil and a host of other audacious characters all equally capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features.

The exotic, quixotic episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Coconino (based on the artist’s vacation retreat in Coconino County, Arizona) where surreal playfulness and the fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscape are perhaps the most important member of the cast.

The strips themselves are a masterful mélange of unique experimental art, wildly expressionistic and strongly referencing Navajo art forms whilst graphically utilising sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully evocative lettering and language: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous with a compelling musical force (“Soff, soff brizz”, “l’il dahlink” or “Ignatz, ware four is thou at Ignatz??”).

Yet for all that, the adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerily idiosyncratic, astonishingly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous, violent slapstick.

Sometimes Herriman even eschewed his mystical mumblings and arcane argots for the simply sublime grace of a supremely entertaining silent gag in the manner of his beloved Keystone Cops

There’s been a wealth of Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the strip was first rediscovered by a better-educated, open-minded and far more accepting generation. This delirious tome, covering all the new Sunday Page material from 1931-1932 in a comfortably hefty (231 x 15 x 305 mm) softcover edition – and also available as a merely magical digital edition – is another monochrome masterpiece expansively offers a beguiling extra treat by reprinting a selection of Herriman’s Krazy Kat Daily strips too.

Informative context, background and possible explanations are, as always, delivered by the much-missed Bill Blackbeard in another effusive exploration of Herriman’s earlier cartoon characters via his picture-packed Introductory essay ‘The Baron and the Duke: Other Great Stuff Before the Bricks Zipped’ with examples of prototypical charming social parasite Baron Mooch and anthropomorphic avian aristocrat and sporting good egg Gooseberry Sprig, the Duck Duke.

On to the strips then: within this compelling compendium of incessant passions thwarted in another land and time, the torrid triangular drama plays out as winningly as ever, but with a few new faces popping up to contribute to the insular insanity and well-cloaked social satire…

We open in the depths of February following a spate of (not-included) re-runs, with Krazy konsulting palm reader and “mystic of Mysore” Moul Azziz Khandi who advocates the spreading of a wild oat or two before it’s too late. Sadly, with someone as simplistic and literal-minded as the Kat, that’s a recipe for disaster when Offisa Pupp and Ignatz spot the shenanigans…

As always the mouse’s continual search for his ammunition of choice leads to many brick-based gags and his occasional fleecing by Coconino’s (occasionally “Kokonino”) copious coterie of confidence tricksters – a scurrilous sub-population which seems to grow weekly…

Of course, the mouse is a man who enjoys revenge served hot, cold or late…

Amongst the new arrivals is an extremely bellicose elephant who never forgets the slightest slight and harbours no love for the Law or its agents, and greater use of ideal comedy maguffin Joe Stork, whose delivery of (generally unwanted) babies still brings dread responsibility and smug schadenfreude in equal amounts to all denizens of the county.

As ever there is a solid dependence on the strange landscapes and eccentric flora for humorous inspiration and bizarre weather plays a greater part in inducing anxiety and bewilderment.

One happy circumstance is the growing use of the county lock-up as the escalating slapstick silliness more often concludes with Ignatz incarcerated. Naturally that just means the mean Mus Musculus (look it up if you must) magnifying his malevolent efforts; even regularly taking to the air in a series of aeronautical escapades…

A war of civic status breaks out between Coconino communities Shonto and Oljeto as both hamlets race to increase their populations by inviting immigrant rabbits and “Ginny Piggs” to settle there. It all gets very crowded after prankish Ignatz gets Joe Stork involved too…

Krazy has not surrendered that dream of a singing career, much to everybody’s dismay, and an (initially) welcome chaotic distraction arrives in the temporarily frozen form of Mr. Eale Ektrik Eel of Red Lake, before the Kacophonous Kitty becomes bemused by a flurry of unseasonal, geographically-challenged Coconut incursions…

The year 1932 started cold and wet but still offered more of the same before providing a new fascination for Krazy when commercial radio broadcasting began in Coconino. This talking point was quickly eclipsed by the introduction of a tumultuous cast addition: a distant relative and his lonely domicile: Uncle Tomm Katt and his ramshackle Cabin.

The venerable gent was no fool, hated cops and mice equally and dealt harshly with any fool dumb enough to heft bricks in his vicinity. He was to be only an occasional player on the Sunday pages but found his true home in the knockabout rowdiness of the Krazy Kat Dailies…

Herriman was a master of the comic strip and fully grasped the fundamental differences between the demands of short sharp bursts of fun needed for the Monday to Saturday strip and the vastly magnified scope afforded him by a whole page every sabbath. Here to close this volume is incorporated a run of Dailies which perfectly highlight the contrasts and similarities in ‘The Daily Krazy Kat Strip, 1931’ culled from the twenty or so papers which willingly ran the controversial periodical feature.

The 4 panel episodes span January 26th through April 4th; displaying less high-blown whimsy but a solid eye for a great visual gags and incorporating Herriman’s love of wild wordplay and slapstick cinema, with a smaller core cast playing fast and loose with sense and sensibilities…

Supplementing the cartoon gold is another erudite and instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page’, providing ‘Komments on Mysteries of the Master’s Drawing Mesa’ through pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed.

Herriman’s epochal classic is a phenomenal achievement: in all the arenas of Art and Literature there has never been anything like these comic strips which have shaped our industry and creators, and inspired auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, dance, animation and music, whilst delivering delight and delectation to generations of wonder-starved fans.

If, however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this astounding compendium is a most accessible way to do so.
© 2004, 2015 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

The Complete Dickie Dare

By Milton Caniff (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 0-93019-322-9 (HB)                ISBN: 978-0-93019-321-8 (PB)

Despite being one of the greatest and most influential cartoonists in world history, Milton Caniff wasn’t an overnight sensation. He worked long and hard before he achieved his stellar status in the comic strip firmament, before Terry and the Pirates brought him fame, and Steve Canyon secured his fortune. The strip which brought him to the attention of legendary Press Baron “Captain Joseph Patterson” – in many ways the co-creator of Terry – was an unassuming daily feature about a little boy who was hungry for adventure…

Caniff was working for The Associated Press as a jobbing cartoonist when a gap opened in their strips department. AP was an organisation which devised and syndicated features for the thousands of regional and small-town newspapers which could not afford to produce the cartoons, puzzles, recipes and other fillers that ran between the local headlines and the regional sports.

Over a weekend Caniff came up with Dickie, a studious lad who would read a book and then fantasize himself into the story, taking his faithful little white dog Wags with him. The editors went for it and Dickie Dare premiered on July 31st, 1933.

Caniff would write and draw the adventures for less than eighteen months before moving on, although his excellent but unappreciated replacement Coulton Waugh steered the series until its conclusion two decades later.

The first day-dream was with Robin Hood, followed by a frantic, action-packed visit with Robinson Crusoe and Friday, battling hordes of yelling savages and scurvy pirates. Rugged combat gave way to fantastic mystery when the scholarly tyke studied Aladdin, resulting in a lavish and exotic trip to the fabled Far East. This adventure closed near Christmas, and when his father read Dickie the story of the Nativity, Caniff began his long tradition of creating seasonally topical strips.

The visit to Bethlehem ended on Christmas morning, and one of Dickie’s Christmas presents then triggers his next excursion, when he starts reading of General George Armstrong Custer

King Arthur is next, followed by Captain Kidd the Pirate, but by then Caniff was chafing under the self-imposed limitations of his creation. He believed the strip had become formulaic and there was no real tension or drama in mere dreams. In a creative masterstroke, he revised the strip’s parameters, and by so doing produced the prototype for a masterpiece.

On 11th May, 1934, Dickie met a new uncle: a globe-trotting author and two-fisted man-of-action dubbed Dan Flynn, and one week later the pair embarked on a Round-the-World trip. Caniff had moved swiftly, crafting a template that would become Terry and the Pirates.

The wide-eyed, nervy All-American Kid with the capable adult pal and ultra-capable adventurer, whilst a subject of much controversy and even ill-advised and outright scurrilous modern disparagement, was a literary archetype since before Treasure Island and adapting the relationship to comic-strips was commercially sound: a decision that would hit a peak of popularity with the horde of sidekicks/partners that followed in the wake of Robin the Boy Wonder six years later.

No sooner have Dickie and Dan taken ship for Africa than the drama begins, as the restless kid uncovers a hidden cargo of smuggled guns. Aided by feisty Debutante Kim Sheridan and sailor Algy Sparrow, our heroes foil the scheme, but not before Dickie is captured by Kuvo, the Arab chieftain awaiting the guns.

Pursued by the French authorities, Kuvo retreats to a desert fortress where Kim, disguised as a native slave-girl, rescues the lad, only to be caught herself. The full-tilt action comes to a splendid conclusion before the boys, with Algy in tow as butler, head for Tunis where they stumble across a plot to use a World War I U-Boat for ocean-going piracy….

This long adventure (beginning September 13th) is a thoroughly gripping yarn which encompasses much of the Mediterranean and Atlantic, as the boys escape the pirates and aid the Navy in hunting down the villains. There’s loads of action and an astonishing amount of tension but the tale ends a tad abruptly when Caniff, lured away by Patterson, simply drops the feature and Coulton Waugh takes over the storyline from the next Monday (3rd December).

With no break in the tale Waugh rapidly (14 episodes) wraps up the saga, and even has Dickie home by Christmas.

From the New Year the strip would chart new waters with Waugh at the helm, aided (and briefly replaced) by assistant and spouse Odin Burvik, whilst he wrote his seminal book on Comics and also when he was producing the strip Hank for the New York magazine PM. Dickie Dare eventually ended its run in October 1957 with the now adult adventurer beginning a new career as a US Navy Cadet.

Although usually dismissed as a mere stage on the road to his later mastery, and certainly long before Milton Caniff – and sometime studio partner Noel Sickles – made the chiaroscurist breakthroughs in line-art that revolutionised the form, these tales of Dickie Dare delighted and enthralled readers and deserve to be appreciated on their own merits. Full of easy whimsy and charm, the strip evolved into a rip-roaring, all-ages thriller, full of wit and derring-do, in many ways an American answer to Hergé’s Tintin. It’s long overdue for rediscovery by the mass-market, and while we’re at it, let’s see some of the work that the criminally under-valued Waugh originated too.
Artwork originally © 1933-1934 The Associated Press. Other contents this edition © Richard Marschall All rights reserved.

The Phantom – The Complete Series: The Gold Key Years volume 1

By Bill Harris & Bill Lignante with George Wilson (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-61345-005-5

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates, and, washing ashore in Africa, swore on the skull of his murdered father to dedicate his life and that of all his descendants to destroying all pirates and criminals. The Phantom fights crime and injustice from a base deep in the jungles of Bengali, and throughout Africa is known as the “Ghost Who Walks”.

His unchanging appearance ad unswerving quest for justice have led to him being considered an immortal avenger by the credulous and the wicked. Down the decades one hero after another has fought and died in an unbroken line, and the latest wearer of the mask, indistinguishable from the first, continues the never-ending battle…

Lee Falk created the Jungle Avenger at the request of his syndicate employers who were already making history, public headway and loads of money with his first strip sensation Mandrake the Magician

Although technically not the first ever costumed hero in comics, The Phantom was the prototype paladin to wear a skin-tight body-stocking, and the first to have a mask with opaque eye-slits.

He debuted on February 17th 1936 in an extended sequence that pitted him against a global confederation of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood. Falk wrote and drew the daily strip for the first two weeks before handing artist Ray Moore the illustration side. The Sunday feature began in May 1939.

For such a successful, long-lived and influential series, in terms of compendia or graphic novel collections The Phantom has been very poorly served by the English language market. Various small companies have tried to collect the strips – one of the longest continually running adventure serials in publishing history – but in no systematic or chronological order and never with any sustained success.

But, even if it were only of historical value (or just printed for Australians, who have long been manic devotees of the implacable champion) surely “Kit Walker” is worthy of a definitive chronological compendium series?

Happily, his comic book adventures have fared slightly better – at least in recent times…

In the 1960’s King Features Syndicate dabbled with a comicbook line of their biggest stars – Flash Gordon, Mandrake and The Phantom – but immediately prior to that the Ghost Who Walks held a solo starring vehicle under the broad and effective aegis of veteran licensed properties publisher Gold Key Comics.

This superb full-cover hardcover (with equivalent eBook editions for the modern minded) gathers the first eight issues – encompassing November 1962 through August 1964 – and, as explained in fan and scholar Ed Rhoades’ Introduction ‘The Phantom and the Silver Age’, offers newspaper strip tales originally illustrated by Wilson McCoy that had been adapted by original scripter Bill Harris and drawn in comicbook format by Bill Lignante.

The Phantom was no stranger to funnybooks, having been featured since the Golden Age in titles such as Feature Book and Harvey Hits, but only as straight strip reprints. These Gold Key exploits were tailored to a big page and a young readership.

The fascinating history lesson is also augmented by pages of original artwork and ends much too soon for my elevated tastes, but if you’re a fan of pictorial adventure there’s plenty more to enjoy.

Each issue was fronted by a stunning painted cover by George Wilson and the excitement kicks off here with ‘The Game’ (Phantom #1, November 1962) as the international man of mystery encounters Prince Ragon Gil, whose idea of fun is to pit abducted or bribed strangers against ferocious beasts. When an interfering masked man closes down his warped games the eastern potentate swears vengeance and kidnaps the hero’s fiancé Diana Palmer. His plan is to force the interloper to play his savage game, but it’s his last mistake…

That premiere issue concludes with a single-page recap of the legend of The Phantom before #2 (February 1963) resumes the wonderment with ‘The Rattle’ as an exploit from The Phantom’s ancestral past flares up again after tiny bird-riding barbarians start stealing from the local tribes.

The current ghost must crack the casebooks of his forefathers and penetrate a most inhospitable region to get to the bottom of the mystery and bring peace back to the jungle…

A second story taps into contemporary Flying Saucer interest as our hero encounters aliens intent on conquest. Thankfully the purple-clad subject of ‘The Test’ proves sufficient to change their minds…

History’s greatest treasures are stored in The Phantom’s fabulous Skull Cave and the first tale in #3 (May 1963) relates how a rescued white man glimpses ‘The Diamond Cup’ of Alexander the Great and accidentally triggers a greed-fuelled crusade by eager criminals and ambitious chances before the Ghost Who Walks finally restores peace and order…

Rounding out the issue, ‘The Crybaby’ finds frail village boy Cecil given a crash course in confidence and exercise by the enigmatic masked man. The experience is literally life-changing…

In #4 (August) disgraced, fraud-perpetrating witchmen strike back against The Phantom through their manufactured deity ‘Oogooru’, only to be shown what real sleight of hand and prestidigitation can achieve, after which ocean voyager Kit Walker solves the enigma of vanishing villains the ‘Goggle-Eye Pirates’

Two centuries previously The Phantom established a police force dubbed The Jungle Patrol with himself as its anonymous titular head. In #5 (October) those worthy stalwarts are almost outfoxed by a devious gang of bandits known as ‘The Swamp Rats’ until the unseen “Commander” takes personal charge of the mission. The big innovation of the issue is the premiere of a new episodic feature detailing ‘The Phantom’s Boyhood’ as a baby is born in the Skull Cave. Tracing the formative experiences of the current Phantom, the initial yarn follows little Kit from toddler to the dawn of adolescence when his parents regretfully decide it’s time to pack him off to private school in America…

The Phantom #6 (February 1964) leads with ‘The Lady from Nowhere’ as heiress Lydia Land is thrown from a plane and rescued by the masked manhunter. Soon he’s dogging her steps to track down which trusted associate is trying to silence her and steal her fortune…

A life-changing meeting shapes the destiny of the hero-to-be in ‘The Phantom’s Boyhood Part II – Diana’ as Kit falls for the girl next door and makes his mark amongst the cads and bullies of the civilised world…

The peaceful villages of the jungle are thrown into turmoil by the thieving depredations of ‘The Super Apes’ (#7, May) until the Jungle Patrol and The Phantom expose their shocking secret whilst ‘The Phantom’s Boyhood Part III – School’ finds the African émigré making his mark in the classroom, on the playing fields and in the newspapers…

Phantom #8 (August) closes this initial outing with an epic extra-length tale of vengeance as the current Ghost Who Walks finally tracks down ‘The Belt’ and the villain who killed his father and stole it…

Straightforward, captivating rollicking action-adventure has always been the staple of The Phantom. If that sounds like a good time to you, this is a traditional nostalgia-fest you won’t want to miss…
The Phantom® © 1962-1964 and 2011 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ® Hearst Holdings, Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.