Batman: The Golden Age Volume 3


By Bill Finger, Joseph Greene, Edmond Hamilton, Jack Schiff, Bob Kane, Jack Burnley, Fred Ray, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-7130-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Thrilling and Totally Traditional… 10/10

The history of the American comicbook industry in most ways stems from the raw, vital and still compelling tales of two iconic creations published by DC/National Comics: Superman and Batman. It’s only fair and fitting that both those characters are still going strong and that their earliest adventures can be relived in chronological order in relatively cheap, and gloriously cheerful, compilations.

Debuting a year after Superman, “The Bat-Man” (and latterly Robin, the Boy Wonder) cemented DC/National Comics as the market frontrunner and conceptual leader of the burgeoning comicbook industry.

Having established the parameters of the metahuman in their Man of Tomorrow, the physical mortal perfection and dashing derring-do of the strictly-human Dynamic Duo rapidly became the swashbuckling benchmark by which all other four-colour crime-busters were judged.

Batman: The Golden Age is a series of paperback feasts (there’s also weightier, pricier, more capacious hardback Omnibus editions available, and digital iterations too) re-presenting the Dark Knight’s earliest exploits.

Set out in original publishing release order, the tomes trace the character’s growth into the major player who would inspire so many and develop the resilience to survive the stifling cultural vicissitudes the coming decades would inflict upon him and his partner, Robin.

Re-presenting astounding cape-&-cowl classics and iconic covers from Detective Comics #57-65, Batman #8-11 and pertinent stories from World’s Finest Comics #4-6, this book covers groundbreaking escapades from November 1941 to July 1942: as the Dynamic Duo continually develop and storm ahead of all competition.

As the heroes’ influence expanded, new talent joined the stable of creators. Jerry Robinson had already worked with writer Bill Finger and penciller Bob Kane, and during this period two further scripters joined the team. Detective Comics #57 featured ‘Twenty-Four Hours to Live’, a tale of poisonings and Crimes of Passion whilst the perfidious Penguin returned in the next issue to make our heroes the victims of ‘One of the Most Perfect Frame-Ups’

A few weeks later Batman #8 (now Bi-Monthly!) came out, cover-dated December 1941-January 1942. Such a meteoric rise and expansion during a time of extreme paper shortages gives evidence to the burgeoning popularity of the characters. Behind a superbly evocative “Infinity” cover by Fred Ray & Robinson lurked four striking tales of bravura adventure.

‘Stone Walls Do Not a Prison Make’ is a brooding prison drama, followed by a rare foray into science fiction as a scientist abused by money-grubbing financial backers turns himself into a deadly radioactive marauder in ‘The Strange Case of Professor Radium.’ This tale was later radically revised and recycled by Finger & Kane as a sequence of the Batman daily newspaper strip from September 23rd – November 2nd

‘The Superstition Murders’ is an enthralling example of the “ABC Murders” – style plot and the issue wraps up on a high as ‘The Cross Country Crimes’ sees the Joker rampage across America in a classic blend of larceny and lunacy.

The Batman tale from Detective Comics #59 was written by Joseph Greene and details how the Penguin turns his formidable talents to bounty-hunting his fellow criminals in ‘The King of the Jungle’, and is followed here by rip-roaring modern cowboy yarn ‘The Ghost Gang Goes West’ which first appeared in the winter issue of World’s Finest Comics (#4).

Jack Schiff, who had a long and auspicious career as an editor at DC, scripted ‘The Case of the Costume-Clad Killers’ (Detective #60): another excursion into mania starring the Joker, leaving Bill Finger free to concentrate on the four fabulous tales comprising Batman #9 (February-March 1942) – one of the greatest single issues of the Golden Age and still a cracking parcel of joy today.

Behind possibly the most reproduced cover ever crafted by the brilliant Jack Burnley are ‘The Four Fates’: a dark and moving human interest drama featuring a quartet of fore-doomed mobsters; a maritime saga based on Moby Dick entitled ‘The White Whale’; another unforgettable Joker yarn ‘The Case of the Lucky Law-Breakers’, and the birth of a venerable tradition in an untitled story called here for expediency’s sake ‘Christmas’.

Over the decades, many of the Caped Crusaders’ best and finest adventures have had a Seasonal theme (and why there’s never been a Greatest Christmas Batman Stories is a mystery I’ve pondered for years!) and this touching – even heart-warming – story of petty skulduggery and little miracles is where it all really began.

There’s not a comic fan alive who won’t dab away a tear…

Next is another much-reprinted classic (aren’t they all?) from Detective Comics #61. ‘The Three Racketeers’ is the perfect example of a vintage Batman novella as a trio of criminal big-shots swap stories of the Gotham Guardians over a quiet game of cards, and the ripping yarn even conceals a sting-in-the-tail that still hits home 75 years later.

America had entered World War II by this period and the stories – especially the patriotic covers – went all-out to capture the imagination, comfort the down-hearted and bolster the nation’s morale.

One of the very best (and don’t just take my word for it – type “World’s Finest covers” into your preferred search engine and see for yourselves – go on, I’ll wait) designed and executed by the astounding Jerry Robinson precedes ‘Crime takes a Holiday’, (WFC #5, Spring 1942, by Finger, Kane & Robinson), a canny mystery yarn revealing how and why the criminal element of Gotham City suddenly “downs tools”. Naturally it’s all part of a devious master-plan and just as naturally our heroes soon get to the bottom of it…

The same creative team also produced ‘Laugh, Town Laugh!’ (Detective #62, April 1942) wherein the diabolical Joker goes on a murder-spree to prove to the nation’s comedians and entertainers who actually is the “King of Jesters”.

Cover-dated April-May 1942, Batman #10 follows with another four mini-masterpieces. Scripted by Greene ‘The Isle That Time Forgot’ sees the Dynamic Duo trapped in a land of dinosaurs and cavemen, whilst ‘Report Card Blues’ (also Greene) scripting, has the heroes inspire a wayward kid to return to his studies by crushing the mobsters he’s ditched school for.

Robinson soloed as illustrator and Jack Schiff typed the words for the classy jewel caper (oh, for those heady days when Bats wasn’t too grim and important to stop the odd robbery or two!) ‘The Princess of Plunder’ starring everyone’s favourite Feline Femme Fatale Catwoman, before the boys headed way out west to meet ‘The Sheriff of Ghost Town!’

This extremely impressive slice of contemporary Americana came courtesy of Finger, Kane & Robinson, who then went on to produce ‘A Gentleman in Gotham’ for Detective Comics #63.

Here the Caped Crusader has to confront tuxedoed International Man of Mystery Mr Baffle, before the Crime Clown again causes malignant mirthful mayhem in ‘The Joker Walks the Last Mile’ (Detective #64. June 1942).

Obviously, he didn’t since he was cover-featured and lead story in Batman #11 (June-July 1942). Finger is writer for ‘The Joker’s Advertising Campaign’ and ‘Payment in Full’ – a touching melodrama about the District Attorney and the vicious criminal to whom he owes his life, before ‘Bandits in Toyland’ features the scripting debut of pulp Sci Fi author Edmond Hamilton who details why a gang of thugs are stealing dolls and train-sets.

Finger then returns for ‘Four Birds of a Feather!’ which finds Batman in Miami to scotch the Penguin’s dreams of a crooked gambling empire…

There’s another cracking War cover and brilliant Bat-yarn from World’s Finest Comics #6 (Summer 1942) in ‘The Secret of Bruce Wayne!’ as Greene and Robinson provide a clandestine identity exposé tale that would become a standard plot of later years, before the volume closes with one more superb patriotic cover (this one by Jack Kirby & Joe Simon for Detective Comics #65) and a gripping crime-romp as Jack Burnley & George Roussos render Greene’s poignant and powerful North Woods thriller ‘The Cop who Hated Batman!’

These are the stories that cemented the popularity of Batman and Robin and brought temporary relief to millions during a time of tremendous hardship and crisis. Even if these days aren’t nearly as perilous or desperate – and there ain’t many who thinks otherwise! – the power of such work to rouse and charm is still potent and just as necessary. You owe it to yourself and your family and even your hamster to Buy This Book…
© 1941, 1942, 2017 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Popeye Classics volume 2


By Bud Sagendorf, edited and designed by Craig Yoe (Yoe Books/IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-61377-652-0                  eISBN: 978-1-62302-415-4

There are few comic characters that have entered communal world consciousness, but a grizzled, bluff, uneducated, visually impaired old sailor with a speech impediment is possibly the most well-known of that select bunch.

Elzie Segar had been producing Thimble Theatre since December 19th 1919, but when he introduced a coarse, brusque “sailor man” into the everyday ongoing saga of Ham Gravy and Castor Oyl on January 29th 1929, nobody suspected the giddy heights that walk-on would reach…

In 1924 Segar created a second daily strip The 5:15: a surreal domestic comedy featuring weedy commuter and would-be inventor John Sappo and his formidable wife Myrtle which endured – in one form or another – as a topper/footer-feature accompanying the main Sunday page throughout the author’s career. The feature even survived his untimely death, eventually becoming the trainee-playground of Popeye’s second great stylist: Bud Sagendorf.

After Segar’s far-too-premature death in 1938, Doc Winner, Tom Sims, Ralph Stein and Bela Zambouly all worked on the strip, even as the animated features brought Popeye to the entire world. Sadly, none of them had the eccentric flair and raw inventiveness that had put Thimble Theatre at the forefront of cartoon entertainments…

Born in 1915, Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf was barely 17 when his sister – who worked in the Santa Monica art store where Segar bought his supplies – introduced the kid to the master who became his teacher and employer as well as a father-figure. In 1958, Sagendorf took over the strip and all the merchandise design, becoming Popeye’s prime originator…

When Sagendorf became the Go-To Guy, his loose, rangy style and breezy scripts brought the strip itself back to the forefront of popularity and made reading it cool and fun all over again. He wrote and drew Popeye in every graphic arena for 24 years.

He died in 1994 and was succeeded by “Underground” cartoonist Bobby London.

Bud had been Segar’s assistant and apprentice, and – from 1948 onwards – exclusive writer and illustrator of Popeye’s comicbook adventures in a regular monthly title published by America’s king of licensed periodicals, Dell Comics.

When Popeye first appeared, he was a rude, crude brawler: a gambling, cheating, uncivilised ne’er-do-well. He was soon exposed as the ultimate working-class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, but with an innate, unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not; a joker who wanted kids to be themselves – but not necessarily “good” – and someone who took no guff from anyone…

Naturally, as his popularity grew Popeye mellowed somewhat. He was still ready to defend the weak and had absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows but the shocking sense of dangerous unpredictability and comedic anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed… but not in Sagendorf’s comicbook yarns…

Collected in their entirety in this beguiling full-colour hardback (also available in a digital edition) are issues #5-9 of the Popeye comicbooks produced by the irrepressible Bud, collectively spanning February/March to October/November 1949.

The stunning, seemingly stream-of-consciousness stories are preceded by an effusively appreciative Foreword‘Society of Sagendorks’ – by inspired aficionado, historian and publisher Craig Yoe and a fabulous collation of candid photos, strip proofs, original art and designs, foreign edition covers and greetings cards in another ‘Bud Sagendorf Scrapbook’.

Popeye’s fantastic first issue launched in February 1948, with no ads and duo-coloured (black & red) single-page strips on the inside front and back covers – which were always dynamic, surreal, silent sight gags of incredible whimsy and ingenuity.

We rejoin the parade of laughs and thrills one year later with #5 and a single-page duel of wits between Popeye and master moocher Wellington J. Wimpy over the price of water before main event ‘Moon Goon! or Goon on the Moon! or The Man in the Moon is a Goon!’ espies the scrappy sailor-man hired in dishonest circumstances to pilot a ship to our nearest celestial neighbour.

Once there, he and Wimpy meet a number of incredible races, discover the origins of their unsightly associate Alice the Goon and enjoy an astounding and perilous new means of locomotion to get them back down to Earth…

Short prose stories were a staple of these comics and ‘Swee’ Pea’s Dip in the Dark!’ details a frantic scramble for survival after the mighty muscled, irrepressible “infink” falls overboard during a sudden squall at sea, after which cartoon hilarity ensues as Wimpy tests the patience and resolve of diner chef Rough House in ‘Another Day, Another Breakfast!’ before deciding to grow his own burgers by raising cattle…

The interior end page then sees Olive Oyl fall foul of Swee’ Pea’s boisterous playtime whilst the full-colour back cover gag sees the little lad get down and dirty defending his pocket money…

Sporting a shark-themed cover #6 (April/May 1949) opens with a monochrome Popeye short involving bad dreams before lengthy sea-borne saga ‘Raft! or It’s a Long Drift Home! or Rafts are Boats, But Not So Comfortable!’ depicts Swee’ Pea and playmate Hink jerry-build a dubious wooden vessel and disappear down the river and out into the ocean…

When piratical rogue Captain Zato picks up the soggy waifs he thinks he has the secret of controlling Popeye and gaining vast wealth, but he’s made a terrible mistake…

‘Pappy Doesn’t Tell a Story!’ offers a prose poser as Popeye’s salty sire Poopdeck adamantly refuses to lull Swee’ Pea with a bedtime tale, after which that ravenous finagler J. W. Wimpy stars in ‘A Story of Hunger and Desert Madness entitled Food! Food! or May I Borrow Your Duck, Mister?’ dumped in a desert for his usual parsimonious behaviour (fare-dodging on a locomotive). As starvation looms, the chiseller encounters owlhoot bandit Terrific Tension and a grim battle begins for possession of the cowboy’s most treasured possession – a ham sandwich…

A Popeye and Olive end-page reveals how to keep the picnic dry before #7 (June/July) opens with a similar jape starring Wimpy bamboozling the overconfident Sailor-man. Then, in dazzling full-colour, ‘Help! or Sailor, Save My Baby!’ finds our grizzled hero acting as bodyguard to a millionaire’s little girl. Sadly, Olive is not happy since the precious Miss Pat Goldhold is old enough to pose a matrimonial threat, and is almost glad when thieves and a hulking man-monster turn up to rob her…

After getting the notion that people only like him because he’s tougher than them, Popeye feigns weakness and hosts a ‘Surprize Party!’ to test his theory. The result is quite an eye-opener and segues into text tale ‘Swee’ Pea and the Hungry Lady!’ with Wimpy resorting to drag to steal provender from a baby…

The master moocher exhibits even greater guile in ‘A Tale of Brains vs. Work entitled Who Won? or The Fleeter of Foot Emerges Victorious!’, again fooling Rough House and his customers with the old raffle dodge, before a Popeye closing gag finds Olive learning the finer points of manners from her brawling beau…

Issue #8 (August/September) sees the opener-strip back in black & red as Popeye decides Swee’ Pea’s new kite might a bit big for him, after which ‘On the House’ finds the sailor and the skiver go into business together as hamburger vendors. Happily, Swee’ Pea is on hand and on guard to ensure Wimpy’s carnivorous instincts are kept under control…

Sagendorf took his japery with alternate appellations to extreme limits with ‘I Am the Mayor!’) but I’m not playing anymore so just buy the book if you want to see the tale’s other titles) but the comedy is even sharper than usual as Swee’ Pea races across America to substitute for Popeye and save the town of Boghill from bullying entrepreneur and arms dealer Bull Branco…

‘Quiet Please’ offers prose diversions as the bombastic baby attempts to fix Poopdeck’s hammock and ensure a good night’s sleep for the veteran mariner after which Sagendorf’s old strip charges ‘Sappo and Wotasnozzle’ unexpectedly resurface. Here henpecked oaf John Sappo once more allows his mad scientist lodger Professor Wotasnozzle to make him a pasty after sampling the bonkers boffin’s food stretching breakfast additive. Of course, it’s not just the meal that elongates exponentially…

Black and white and red all over the Popeye and Olive Oyl end-page reveals the sailor’s breaking point when being asked to constantly rearrange furniture before the last issue in this outrageous compendium (#9, October/November) opens with the first half of the prose tale as opener. ‘Black Jack’ reveals the sheer stupidity of telling a kid like Swee’ Pea pirate stories at bedtime before main cartoon feature ‘Misermites! or I’d Rather Have Termites!’ details how the peaceful coastal town of Seawet is plagued by an invasion plundering dwarves. When the petty pilferers vanish back to their island with Swee’ Pea as part of their spoils, Popeye and Wimpy give chase and end up battling a really, really big secret weapon…

Then ‘Presenting John Sappo and the Experiment of the Sound Pills!’ finds the goony-eye genius and his long-suffering stooge enduring the gibes of Sappo’s little nephew and respond in typical over-the-top fashion after which the concluding part of ‘Black Jack’ wraps up this particular nautical compendium.

There is more than one Popeye. Most of them are pretty good, and some are truly excellent. This book is definitely top tier and if you love lunacy, laughter, frantic fantasy and rollicking adventure you must add this treasure trove of wonder to your collection.
Popeye Classics volume 2 © 2013 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Popeye © 2013 King Features Syndicate. ™ Heart Holdings Inc.

Asterix and the Chariot Race


By Jean-Yves Ferri & Didier Conrad, colored by Thierry Mébarki and translated by Adriana Hunter (Orion Books)
ISBN: 978-1-5101-0401-3 (HB)                    eISBN: 978-1-5101-0402-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Celebrate the Season in Classical Style… 9/10

Asterix debuted in 1959 and has since become part of the fabric of French life. His exploits have touched billions of people all around the world for five and a half decades and for almost all of that time his astounding adventures were the sole preserve of originators Rene Goscinny and/or Albert Uderzo.

After nearly 15 years dissemination as weekly serials (subsequently collected into book-length compilations), in 1974 the 21st saga – Asterix and Caesar’s Gift – was the first to be released as a complete, original album prior to serialisation.

Thereafter each new tome became an eagerly anticipated, impatiently awaited treat for legions of devotees. The eager anxiety hasn’t diminished any even now that Uderzo’s handpicked replacements – scripter Jean-Yves Ferri (Fables Autonomes, La Retour à la terre) and illustrator Didier Conrad (Les Innomables, Le Piège Malais, Tatum) have taken up the creative role since his retirement in 2009.

Whether as an action-packed comedic romp with sneaky, bullying baddies getting their just deserts or as a sly and wicked satire for older-if-no-wiser heads, these new yarns are just as engrossing as the established canon.

As you already know, half of the intoxicating epics take place in various exotic locales throughout the Ancient World, whilst the alternating rest are set in and around Uderzo’s adored Brittany where, circa 50 BC, a little hamlet of cantankerous, proudly defiant warriors and their families resist every effort of the mighty Roman Empire to complete the conquest of Gaul.

Although the country is divided by the notional conquerors into provinces Celtica, Aquitania and Armorica, the very tip of the last named stubbornly refuses to be properly pacified. The otherwise dominant overlords, utterly unable to overrun this last bastion of Gallic insouciance, are reduced to a pointless policy of absolute containment – and yet the irksome Gauls come and go as they please.

Thus, a tiny seaside hamlet is permanently hemmed in by heavily fortified garrisons Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium, filled with veteran fighters who would rather be anywhere else on earth than there…

Their “prisoners” couldn’t care less; daily defying and frustrating the world’s greatest military machine by uncaringly going about their everyday affairs, bolstered by magic potion brewed by resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits and strategic aplomb of diminutive dynamo Asterix and his simplistic, supercharged best friend Obelix

Astérix et la Transitalique was released on October 17th 2017, and simultaneously or soon after hurtled off the shelves of many nations as Asterix and the Chariot Race – or whatever the local language equivalent of the many nations addicted to these epics might be…

This time the narrative horsepower comes from sport, and as always there is a healthy helping of satirical lampooning of current affairs, administrative, political and regional and nationalistic…

Before this away game eventually takes in all of Italy it opens bombastically in the Roman Senate where shifty political chancer Lactus Bifidus is fiercely challenged about the appalling state of the Empire’s roads. Yes, they all still lead to Rome, but their maintenance is a major issue riddled with potholes that are a public disgrace and hazard to safe navigation…

Roused from a sneaky slumber and thinking too fast, the overly-defensive corrupt bureaucrat instantly declares a grand chariot race to span all of Italy and thereby prove the perfection of the byways under his management.

His big mistake is publicly declaring his magnificent trans-Italian rally open to “all the peoples of the known world”…

As a seething Julius Caesar is quick to point out in private, a competition spanning the entire Italic Peninsula is liable to stir up subject races and even other Italian cities if it’s won by anyone but a purebred Roman Citizen.

The Emperors then advises Lactus that it’s now the Senator’s sole responsibility to guarantee no barbarian crosses the finish line first…

In Gaul, the residents of a certain indomitable village are rowdily enjoying themselves at a huge market festival. Amidst the tooth pullers, weapons-sellers, fortune tellers and other vendors, one canny salesman spies an easy mark and lumbers gullible giant Obelix with a flashy racing chariot.

The superhuman simpleton’s friends soon cease their good-natured teasing at his foolish purchase after the announcement of the great Trans-Italic Race is read out and Chief Vitalstatistix agrees that it would be nice to bother the Romans on their own turf for a change…

Soon Asterix, Obelix and canine companion Dogmatix are off on those bumpy deplorable roads and heading for the border. From Modica they will pit themselves against a horde of teams hungry for victory as they chase down to the “boot of Italy” to the finish line at Neapolis under the grumbling fire mountain Vesuvius…

Most of their competitors seem decent enough folk, but amongst the racers from Breton, Lusitania, Kush, Liguria, Calabria and other desolate points of the Empire, Asterix notes a few teams to watch closely: the devious Cimbri, the rowdy Normans and Sarmatians but most especially the Roman squad and their always-masked, unbeaten charioteer Coronavirus…

There’s something not quite right about him…

And then, with wealthy sponsors Lupus Garum (the Fermented Fish-gut Sauce of Champions!) adjudicating every stage of the contest the valiant Aurigae (you know that means charioteers, right?) are off!

Spoofing sporting corruption, the ephemeral venalities of corporate sponsorship and the sordid power of petty nationalism, this rocket-paced rollercoaster ride is awash with sneaky plots, dirty tricks and rapid switches of allegiance; providing plenty of thrills and spills to garnish the madcap chase to the finish line, and even incorporates spacious room for plenty of twists, turns and deliciously doled-out just deserts.

With Asterix and Obelix at their most disingenuously heroic and charming, this unbeatable Race of the Century is furiously funny and hilariously jam-packed with and timeless jibes and cracking contemporary swipes, plus an enchanting double-surprise ending. Asterix and the Chariot Race is a sure win and another triumphant addition to the mythic canon for laugh-seekers in general and all devotees of comics.
© 2017 Les Éditions Albert René. English translation: © 2017 Les Éditions Albert René. All rights reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: The Goblin’s Last Stand


By Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, John Romita, Gil Kane, Jim Starlin, Paul Reinman, Frank Giacoia, Tony Mortellaro & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-3029-0407-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Sheer Blockbuster Entertainment… 9/10

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…

The isolated High School nerd had grown up and gone to college but despite having more friends now, due to his guilt-fuelled double-life he struggled there too. His one glimmer of hope and joy came from finding true love with policeman’s daughter Gwen Stacy

Spanning February 1972 to August 1973, this fulsome, tragedy-tinged full-colour Epic Collection kicks off with the middle chapter of an enthralling 3-part saga depicting our rapidly-maturing hero facing a city seemingly gone mad…

Capitalising on an era rife with social unrest and political protest, Stan Lee, Gil Kane & Frank Giacoia set the ball rolling with ‘The Spider Slayer!’ as the New York City police install spy cameras on every rooftop and discredited technologist Spencer Smythe resurfaces with a far more formidable anti-Spider-Man robot for obsessed Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson to set against the wallcrawler.

The story also features the release of Harry Osborn from drug rehab and former school bully and gadfly Flash Thompson returning from Vietnam, but the big shock is discovering the once-benign Smythe has gone totally bonkers…

Also responsible for and secretly controlling the police spy-eyes, Smythe observes Spidey without his mask and in ‘Squash! Goes the Spider!’ (triumphantly pencilled by the returning John Romita Sr.) the potty professor betrays old employer Jameson, allies with criminal gangs and attempts to plunder the entire city. When the Amazing Arachnid attempts to block the banditry, he finds himself facing the ultimate Spider-Slayer before valiantly battling his way to victory in ‘Spidey Smashes Thru!’

The secret of Flash Thompson starts to unfold in issue #108’s ‘Vengeance from Vietnam!’ (with Romita inking his own pencils) as our troubled war hero reveals an American war atrocity. The event left a peaceful in-country village devastated and a benign wise man comatose and near-dead, consequently setting a vengeful cult upon the saddened soldier’s guilt-ridden heels, which all Spider-Man’s best efforts could not deflect or deter.

The campaign of terror culminates in #109 as ‘Enter: Dr. Strange!’ sees America’s Master of the Mystic Arts divine the truth and set things aright, but only after an extraordinary amount of unnecessary violence for all involved …

Amazing Spider-Man #110 featured ‘The Birth of… the Gibbon!’ (by Lee & Romita) which finds a despondent and world-weary wallcrawler battling another shunned and lonely outcast. Orphaned drifter Martin Blank possesses an anthropoid frame which makes him an outcast and brings out the cruel worst in humanity. When he reaches out in friendship and admiration to Spidey he is rebuffed again and savagely retaliates…

By the time of these tales Stan Lee was easing out of writing and here replaces himself with 19-year-old science fiction author Gerry Conway. The scripts – aided in no small part by the plotting input and mentoring of resident illustrator John Romita – achieved a greater contemporary tone more closely in tune with the times. Combined with the emphatic use of soap opera subplots to keep older readers glued to the series even when bombastic battle sequences didn’t, the series grew to ever greater heights of popularity.

Moreover, as a true sign of the times a hint of cynical surrealism also began creeping in…

The Gibbon returned a month later when psychopathic stalker Kraven the Hunter brainwashes the hapless outcast ‘To Stalk a Spider!’. Gerry Conway’s tenure then takes hold as #112 follows up with another periodic crisis of faith for Peter Parker quits adventuring or in the parlance of the period, ‘Spidey Cops Out!’

The harassed, exhausted hero is ready to chuck it all in until another nightmarish adversary resurfaces as part of a growing gang war…

‘They Call the Doctor… Octopus!’ (Conway & Romita with art assistance from Tony Mortellaro and Jim Starlin) sees the city plunged into chaos when the multi-limbed madman squares off against mysterious gang-boss Hammerhead with a rededicated but fearfully overmatched Spider-Man caught in the middle…

The next chapter in a brutal and comparatively long-running duel for control of New York’s underworld plays out in ‘Gang War, Schmang War! What I Want to Know is … Who the Heck is Hammerhead?’ by Conway, Romita Sr., Mortellaro & Jim Starlin, with our angst-ridden arachnid trapped between the duelling mobs of 1930s movie gangster pastiche Hammerhead and sworn nemesis Otto Octavius; each seeking to top the other’s callous, staggering ruthlessness.

In the melee Spidey is captured by the bizarre boastful braggart and learns how an ordinary amnesiac gunsel was rebuilt into an unstoppable cyborg by a rogue scientist named Jonas Harrow.

Seconds from death, Spider-Man risks everything on a wild escape bid after overhearing that Ock will be meeting up with an old lady. The agonised wallcrawler fears that his beloved, befuddled, missing-for-months Aunt May is once more sheltering the many-armed menace…

Dashing into the Westchester countryside, Spider-Man breaks in to Octavius’ HQ only to be brained with a vase by the terrified May Parker. Moments behind him are Hammerhead’s goons and, all too soon, ‘The Last Battle!’ is savagely underway…

As the mobsters decimate each other, Spider-Man barely escapes being shot by his closest relative and is more than happy to disappear when the police show up to arrest (almost) everybody…

In the aftermath the Widow Parker astounds everybody by revealing that she will be staying in Octopus’ mansion until he is released…

Amazing Spider-Man #116 began an extended political thriller with charismatic reformer Richard Raleigh opens a savvy campaign to become Mayor, only to be opposed and hunted by a brutish monster and hidden mastermind in ‘Suddenly… the Smasher!’

Older fans will recognise much of the story and art since it was a recycled Lee, Romita & Jim Mooney monochrome saga from 1968’s Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine (retrofitted with additional art by Romita & Mortellaro and bridging scenes scripted by Conway).

The tale is also neatly reconfigured to encompass new subplots regarding May’s absence and Jameson’s involvement and obsession with squeaky clean Law-&-Order demagogue Raleigh…

The drama deepens with ‘The Deadly Designs of the Disruptor!’ as the monster’s masked master intensifies efforts to destroy the would-be Mayor – with only Spider-Man seemingly able to deter the maniac – until the affair finally culminates in a ‘Countdown to Chaos!’ wherein the true architect of the campaign of terror is exposed and destroyed…

Peter’s problems exponentially increased in #119 as a mysterious telegram for Aunt May calls him away to Canada to meet a lawyer named Rimbaud. Before he leaves, however, Peter’s best friend’s father has a disturbing episode.

Norman Osborn had been secretly terrorising New York and plaguing Peter as the maniacal Green Goblin until cured by hallucinogen-induced amnesia. Now as Parker readies himself for a trip to Montreal, Osborn seems to be recovering long obscured memories…

With no other option, our harried hero heads north, arriving in time to be caught in a city-wide panic as another verdant former sparring partner hits town. ‘The Gentleman’s Name is… Hulk!’ (an all-Conway & Romita collaboration) saw the wallcrawler utterly overmatched but still striving to stop the rampaging green juggernaut, spectacularly culminating in ‘The Fight and the Fury!’ (illustrated by Gil Kane with Paul Reinman and inked by Romita & Mortellaro).

With the immediate threat averted, Peter at last rendezvous with Rimbaud only to witness the secretive legal eagle murdered before he can share whatever he knows about May Parker…

Returning home, Parker endures the culmination of a decade of suspense and intrigue on ‘The Night Gwen Stacy Died’ (Conway, Kane, Romita & Mortellaro): the initial instalment of a 2-part tale which gobsmacked fans as the hero’s greatest efforts proved insufficient to save his intended from the insane rage of the resurgent Goblin.

The ultimate nemesis had recovered the lost memory of his evil alter ego after his son Harry fell back into drug abuse. Once restored to his malign potency, the maniac kidnapped Spider-Man’s girlfriend to force a final confrontation…

The tragic episode leads inexorably to ‘The Goblin’s Last Stand!’ one issue later and a grim and gritty new direction…

With Spider-Man accused of murdering Osborn and erroneously implicated in Gwen’s death, Jameson takes advantage of a new kind of metahuman champion in #123; engaging emergent Hero for Hire Luke Cage to bring the webspinner to justice in‘…Just a Man Called Cage!’

However, the clash only proves that the antagonists’ lives are more tragically similar than different and Marvel’s pre-eminent African American adventurer recuses from the case in a most distinctive manner…

To Be Continued…

As if added enticements were even necessary, this splendid collection also features House Ads, the Romita cover to all-reprint Amazing Spider-Man Annual #9 and rare material by Jim Steranko and others only previously seen in the third – all Spider-Man issue – of exclusive company fan-club newsletter F.O.O.M. (Friends of Ol’ Marvel). As well as covers and pin-ups there’s also ‘Bullpen Bios’, puzzles, ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Spider-Man (but were afraid to ask)’, a checklist of appearances and spoof strip ‘The Amusing Spider-Guy’ by Roy Thomas, Len Brown Kane & Wally Wood.

The candid treats don’t end there though. Also on view is original art by Lee & Romita taken from a Spider-Man strip created for Time Magazine with the wallcrawler assessing the chances of assorted Presidential candidates including Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey plus production art, original covers, Kane page layouts and pencils.

The biggest treat is some reproduction pages of Kane’s pencils for Amazing Spider-Man #123. The issue was infamously lost by the Post Office in 1973, compelling Romita to ink and embellish the entire story from preliminary photocopies…

Also included are a range of previous collections covers by John Van Fleet, J.G. Jones and Kane images enhanced by painter Richard Isanove.

Fast-paced, fabulously far-fetched and full of innovative thrills, these tales are quintessential comics magic which constitute the very foundation of everything Marvel is. This sturdy compendium (or ephemeral eBook edition) is an unmissable opportunity for readers of all ages to celebrate the magic and myths of the modern heroic ideal in delightfully decadent luxury and would make an ideal gift.
© 1972, 1973, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

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.