Princess Knight Part 1

By Osamu Tezuka, translated by Maya Rosewood (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1934287-27-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: a fairytale for all ages and types of romantic… 8/10

Osamu Tezuka utterly revolutionised the Japanese comics industry during the 1950s and 1960s. Being a devoted fan of the films of Walt Disney he also performed similar sterling service in the country’s fledgling animation industry.

Many of his earliest works were aimed at children but right from the start his expansive fairytale stylisations – so perfectly seen in this splendid romp – harboured more mature themes and held hidden treasures for older readers…

Ribon no Kishi or “Knight of the Ribbon” is a series which Tezuka returned to repeatedly during his life and one that is being continued even in the 21st century by his disciples. The simple tale has been turned into TV anime seen all over the world (generally known as some variation of “Choppy and the Princess” in places as far-flung as Canada, France and Brazil) and in 2006 a stage musical was launched.

The serial was first published in Kodansha’s Shoujo Korabu (Shōjo Club), running from January 1954 to January 1956, with a generational sequel appearing in Nakayoshi magazine between January 1958 and June 1959. The original tale was updated and revised in 1963-1966 and forms the basis of the version featured in this magnificent tome, translated from the Tezuka Osamu Manga Zenshu Edition 1977.

In 1967-1968, to tie-in with a television adaptation, Tezuka reconfigured the tale with science fiction overtones and, illustrated by Kitano Hideaki, it ran for a year in Shōjo Friend.

The series is a perennial favourite and classic of the medium and this volume forms part of a two-volume softcover English-language edition, containing the first 16 episodes.

‘Once Upon a Time’ opens in Heaven where junior angels are busy with soon to be born souls, installing either blue boy hearts or pink girl hearts to the ante-natal cherubs in their care. Unfortunately easily distractible Tink (AKA “Choppy” in many foreign iterations) cocks up and one proto-baby gets both…

Tink is dispatched to Earth to retrieve the superfluous metaphysical organ and lands in the feudal kingdom of Silverland, where a most important child is about to be born. The King and Queen desperately desire that their imminent first-born be a boy, for no female can rule the country. Should the child be a princess then vile Duke Duralumin’s idiot and nastily maladjusted boy Plastic will become heir-apparent.

Thus, due to a concatenation of circumstances, a baby girl with a dual nature spends her formative years pretending to be a prince…

Fifteen years pass before ‘Flowers and Parades’ resumes the saga. Tink has been lax in his mission and Prince Sapphire has become the darling boy of the kingdom. Duralumin and his crafty henchman Sir Nylon have spent the intervening years certain that the gallant boy is actually a useless girl but have been unable to prove it, whilst Sapphire has grown into a dutiful, beautiful – if androgynous – specimen skilled in riding, sports and all arts martial, but passionately yearns to be allowed to openly wear the dresses and make-up which are her family’s most intimate secret. When Tink finally reveals himself and exposes the heir’s hidden nature, Nylon overhears…

‘The Carnival’ sees gorgeous Prince Franz Charming pay a royal visit from neighbouring Goldland and Sapphire, aided by her mother and nurse, dons a blonde wig and party frock and clandestinely give vent to her true nature, turning all heads and captivating her regal guest. When she returns to her public identity all Franz can talk about is the mysterious girl with flaxen hair, blind to the fact that she is sitting beside him…

In ‘The Tournament’ the evil Duke turns a fencing exhibition to his advantage, killing the King and framing Franz for the deed, after which the ‘Prisoner Prince’ is helped to escape by his Flaxen maid. Heir Sapphire accedes to the throne in ‘Coronation’ only to have it all snatched away as the Duke’s latest scheme succeeds beyond all his wildest dreams and Sapphire is publicly exposed as a girl, and her recently widowed mother is accused of betraying the nation by concealing the fact since her birth…

Reviled and shunned, mother and daughter are imprisoned with ghastly hunchback jailer Gammer in ‘Sapphire in Coffin Tower’ wherein the distraught girl befriends the vermin of the keep just as Gammer gets his orders to dispose of his charges. Meanwhile Tink has been searching high and low for Sapphire…

Narrowly escaping being murdered the princess becomes a masculine masked avenger of wrongs in ‘Phantom Knight’s Debut’, punishing the wicked men who have ruined her nation since Plastic was enthroned by his corrupt father Duralumin.

Meanwhile in the Palace the villains look for ways to control the increasingly off-kilter Plastic in ‘The Idiot King’s Bride’. Little do they know that Briar Rose, the fetching companion they’ve acquired, is Sapphire on an infiltration mission…

When she is inevitably caught Sapphire’s life takes an even more dramatic turn in ‘Devil’s Whisper’ when terrifying witch Madame Hell materialises, offering her untold wealth and power if she will sell her female heart and nature. Luckily Tink’s angelic power drives her off, but is unable to prevent the princess being sentenced to a life of penal servitude in ‘Two By the Quarry’.

Here she again meets Franz, who has long believed Sapphire responsible for his frame-up and imprisonment in Silverland’s dungeons. Nevertheless the Prince helps Sapphire escape, almost dying in the effort. Soon after the girl is transported to ‘The Witch’s Lair’ and meet’s Hell’s daughter Hecate, who is violently opposed to her mother’s scheme to marry her off to Franz.

That young worthy however, has meanwhile recovered from his wounds and is still searching for the Flaxen-haired girl, oblivious to her true identity and nature…

Hecate does not want Sapphire’s girlish heart and frees the Princess Knight by turning her into a ‘Grieving Swan’ who is captured by Franz and added to the Royal Flock. The Prince too is being pressured to marry and beget an heir, so when Madame Hell arrives with a huge bribe and a now compliant Hecate the boy’s uncle is keen to cement the nuptial alliance until the ensorcelled swan Sapphire exposes their true natures with Tink’s angelic assistance…

Just as Franz begins to finally notice the similarity of his flaxen dream girl to the freshly restored Sapphire in ‘Two Hearts’ she and Tink are fleeing – right into the clutches of Nylon who is keen to wipe out any loose ends. At the worst possible moment the angel completes his long mission and reclaims the boy-heart, leaving her helpless, but cannot betray his friend and returns it, consequently losing his place in Heaven…

Together again the pair attempt to rescue Sapphire’s mother from Coffin Tower but are too late. The Queen and Gammer have been taken to Sea Snake Island where vengeful Madame Hell’s dark magic has transformed her into a petrified ‘Stone Queen’.

This premier chronicle concludes with Sapphire and Tink adrift on the ocean where they encounter the brilliant, dashing and gloriously charismatic ‘Captain Blood, Pirate’ who instantly penetrates the princess’ manly disguise and sees a woman he wants to marry at all costs…

Princess Knight is a spectacular, riotous, rollicking adventuresome fairytale about desire, destiny and determination which practically invented the Shoujo (“Little Female” or young girl’s manga) genre in Japan and can still deliver a powerful punch and wide eyed wonder on a variety of intellectual levels. Still one of the best and most challenging kid’s comics tales ever, it’s a work that all fans and – especially parents – should know.

This black and white book is printed in the traditional ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format.

© 2011 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2011 by Mari Morimoto and Vertical, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Book of Human Insects

By Osamu Tezuka translated by Mari Morimoto (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-20-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: an ideal chiller for those dark nights… 8/10

There aren’t many Names in comics. Lots of creators; multi-disciplined or single focussed, who have contributed to the body of the art form, but we don’t have many Global Presences whose contributions have affected generations of readers and aspirants all over the World, like a Mozart or Michelangelo or Shakespeare. There’s just Hergé and Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka was born in Osaka Prefecture on 3rd November 1928 and as a child suffered from a severe illness which made his arms swell. The doctor who cured him inspired him to study medicine, and although Osamu began his professional drawing career while at university, he persevered with his studies and qualified as a doctor too. Facing a career crossroads, his mother advised him to do the thing that made him happiest. He never practiced as a healer but the world was gifted with such classic cartoon masterpieces as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro-boy), Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Adolf and literally hundreds of other graphic narratives. Along the way Tezuka incidentally pioneered, if not created, the Japanese anime industry.

Able to speak to the hearts and minds of children and adults equally, Tezuka’s works range from the childishly charming to the disturbing – and even terrifying. In 1970-1971 he produced the stark and moody psycho-thriller Ningen Konchuuki for Akita Shonen’s Play Comic, detailing the inexorable rise of a truly different kind of monster for the burgeoning audiences who were growing up and demanding more mature manga fare.

This superb black and white 364 page hardback opens with ‘Spring Cicada’ as failed and broken designer Ryotaro Mizuno ponders the incredible success of golden girl Toshiko Tomura; a bright young thing who has just scooped a major literary prize for her first novel.

Across town a broken-down derelict also toasts her success whilst in a lonely garret a girl hangs from the end of a noose…

Mizuno confronts Toshiko in her moment of triumph, telling her failed author Kageri Usuba has committed suicide. Their tense exchange is observed by muck-raking journalist Aokusa…

Convinced he’s on to something the reporter perseveres and discovers that Toshiko is a modern renaissance woman: emerging from obscurity to become a celebrated actress while still in her teens, she graduated to directing before becoming an award-winning designer. Abruptly she metamorphosed again, writing the stunning novel The Book of Human Insects. Still in her twenties, there seems to be nothing the angelic girl cannot do…

Further enquiry leads the newsman to her desolate rural home where the uncanny genius presents an entirely different, almost wanton aspect. Moreover she keeps there a very creepy waxwork of her dead mother…

Toshiko catches the professional voyeur and agrees to an interview, but before that meeting Aokusa is accosted by shambling drop-out Hyoroku Hachisuka, a once-prominent stage-director who imparts the true story of Toshiko’s resplendent rise to fame and fortune.

Once, the universally approved-of, wholesome girl was a small, timid creature who inveigled her way into his theatre company. Once there she attached herself like a leech to the star, learning her ways and mannerisms. A perfect mimic, Toshiko not only acquired the actress’s skills but also seemed to suck out her talent and inspiration. When the former star quit Toshiko replaced her…

She performed that same slow consumption of the entire company and then turned her attentions to the director…

Moreover, the seemingly helpless waif was utterly amoral, using sex, slander and perhaps even murder to achieve her ends, which were always short-term: she had no goals or life ambitions, but merely flitted from victim to victim like a wasp seeking its next meal…

Ignoring the warning Aosuka persists and discovers that promising writer Usuba once had a room-mate named Toshiko whom she accused of plagiarising her novel…

Intriguingly, the lonely writer’s recent suicide occurred in extremely suspicious circumstances…

During a TV interview Toshiko accidentally meets Mizuno again. Revealed as one of her earliest victims, can he possibly be the only man she ever loved?

In ‘Leafhopper’ Aosuka uncovers another of Toshiko’s secrets when he meets for the first and last time her shady associate Arikawa – a murderous anarchist who cleans ups the lovely mimic’s potential embarrassments – just as she tries to renew her relationship with the bitter and far wiser Mizuno.

Toshiko also meets war criminal and right-wing “businessman” Sesson Kabuto who immediately discerns her true nature and keeps a fascinated but wary professional distance from her…

Toshiko operates almost instinctively and according to immediate desire, but she has a terrifying capacity to clean up any potentially damaging loose-ends. After seducing Arikawa she spectacularly removes him during a political assassination and uses the affair to promote her next book…

Meanwhile Mizuno spirals further into despondency until he meets a prostitute who looks like Toshiko and finally finds redeeming true love – of a sort…

Toshiko almost overreaches her abilities when she is arrested by South Korean security forces in ‘Longhorn Beetle’ but is rescued and forced into marriage by a man every inch her ruthless, remorseless equal, compelling her to even more inspired acts of perversion and survival – which consequentially endangers the wellbeing of everybody in Japan – before ‘Katydid’ brings the unique drama to a shocking, bloody, poignant and utterly unexpected conclusion…

Murder-mystery, Greek Tragedy, trenchant melodrama, serial-killer horror story and much more, this supremely adult tale has hardly dated at all since its release and offers a chilling image of those hidden invisible predators who have supplanted vampires, witches and werewolves in the dark corners of our communal consciousness.

The beautiful maiden as lure and amoral predator possibly began with this truly disturbing tale and the story is one which will stay with readers long after the final page is turned…

“God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka died in 1989 but with ever more of his copious canon at last being released in English there’s plenty of brilliant material for all ages, intellects and inclinations to admire and adore, so why not start right here, right now.

Accept no imitations…

© 2011 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2011 by Mari Morimoto and Vertical, Inc. All rights reserved.

Pogo: the Complete Syndicated Comic Strips volume 1

By Walt Kelly (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-869-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for anybody with a brain or heart…  10/10

This is one of those once in lifetime books which reduce honest critics to nigh speechlessness so I’m offering two different reviews: the first and most fearsomely honest is freely adapted from President’s Clinton’s election catchphrase “It’s the Economy, Stupid!”


Just buy it, Stupid!


If you need more though, and aren’t driven off by my unbridled brusqueness, I’ll elucidate at tedious, pointless length…

Walter Crawford Kelly Jr. was born in 1913 and started his cartooning career whilst still in High School, as both artist and reporter for the Bridgeport Post. In 1935, he moved to California and joined the Disney Studio, working on shorts and such features as Dumbo, Fantasia and Pinocchio until the infamous animator’s strike in 1941.

Refusing to take a side, Kelly moved back East and began drawing comicbooks – primarily for Dell Comics, who had the Disney funnybook license.

Despite his glorious work on such humanistic classics as the Our Gang movie spin-off, Kelly preferred anthropomorphic animal and children’s fantasy (see Walt Kelly’s Santa Claus Adventures) and created Albert the Alligator and Pogo Possum for Animal Comics #1 (December 1942) sagaciously retaining the copyrights in the ongoing tale of two Bayou critters and their young African-American pal Bumbazine. Although the black kid soon disappeared, the animal pals stayed on as stars until 1948 when Kelly became art editor and cartoonist for the hard hitting, left-leaning liberal newspaper The New York Star.

On October 4th 1948, Pogo, Albert and an ever-expanding cast began their careers in the funny pages, appearing six days a week until the periodical folded in January 1949.

Although a gently humorous kids feature, by the end of its run – reprinted in full at the back of this magnificent tome – the first glimmers of the increasingly barbed, boldly satirical masterpiece of velvet-pawed social commentary began to be seen…

This much delayed – but absolutely worth it – first of twelve volumes follows the ascent of this scintillating and vastly influential strip; don’t believe me, just listen to Gary Trudeau, Berke Breathed, Bill Watterson, Jeff McNally, Bill Holbrook, Mark O’Hare, Alan Moore, Jeff Smith and even Goscinny & Uderzo and our own Maurice Dodd & Dennis Collins, whose wonderful strip The Perishers owes more than a little to the sublime antics of the Okefenokee Swamp citizenry…

After the Star closed Pogo was picked up for mass distribution by the Post-Hall Syndicate and launched on May 16th 1949. A colour Sunday page debuted January 29th 1950 and both were produced simultaneously by Kelly until his death in 1973 (and beyond, courtesy of his talented wife and family…).

At its peak the strip appeared in 500 papers in 14 countries and the book collections which began in 1951 numbered nearly 50, collectively selling 30 million copies.

This volume includes all the Star strips, the Dailies from inception to December 30th 1950, and the Sundays – in a full colour section – from January 29th – December 31st 1950, plus a wealth of supplementary features including a Foreword from columnist Jimmy Breslin, an introduction by biographer Steve Thompson, a week-by-week highly detailed contents section, a useful guide ‘About the Sundays’ by Mark Evanier, and an invaluable context and historical notes feature ‘Swanp Talk’ by the amazing R.C. Harvey.

Kelly’s genius was the ability to beautifully, vivaciously draw comedic, tragic, pompous, sympathetic characters of any shape or breed and make them inescapably human and he used that gift to blend hard-hitting observation of our crimes, foibles and peccadilloes with rampaging whimsy, poesy and sheer exuberant joie de vivre.

The hairy, scaly, feathered slimy folk here are inescapably us, elevated by burlesque, slapstick, absurdism and all the glorious joys of wordplay from puns to malapropisms to raucous accent humour into a multi-layered hodge-podge of all-ages accessible delight.

In volumes to come Kelly will set his bestial cast loose on such timid, defenceless victims as Senator Joe McCarthy, J.Edgar Hoover, the John Birch Society, Richard Nixon and the Ku Klux Clan, but he starts off small here, introducing the gently bemused Pogo, boisterous, happily ignorant Albert, dolorous Porkypine, obnoxious turtle Churchy La Femme, lugubrious hound Beauregard Bugleboy, carpet-bagging Seminole Sam Fox, pompous (not) know-it-all Howland Owl and a host of others in gags and extended epics ranging from assorted fishing trips, building an Adam Bomb, losing and finding other people’s children, electioneering, education, kidnapping, the evil influence of comicbooks, Baseball season, why folks shouldn’t eat each other, Western cow punchers, cows punching back, New Years Resolutions, public holidays and so much more…

The Sundays also began with one-off gags but soon evolved into convoluted and mesmeric continued sagas such as the search for the Fountain of Youth, building a school and keeping it filled, Albert being elected Queen of the Woodland by the elf-like forest fauns – and why that was ultimately a very bad thing indeed…

Timeless and magical, Pogo is a giant of world literature, not simply comics, and this magnificent edition should be the pride of every home’s bookshelf.

POGO Through the Wild Blue Wonder and all POGO images, including Walt Kelly’s signature © 2011 Okefenokee Glee & Perloo Inc. All other material © 2011 the respective creator and owner. All rights reserved.

Asterix and the Cauldron, Asterix in Spain & Asterix and the Roman Agent

By Goscinny & Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Orion Books)
ISBNs: 978-075286-628-4, 978-0-75286-630-7 and 978-0-75286-632-1

One of the most-read comics series in the world, the collected chronicles of Asterix the Gaul have been translated into more than 100 languages since his debut in 1959, with animated and live-action movies, TV series, assorted games, toys and even a theme park outside Paris (Parc Astérix, if you’re planning a trip…) spinning off from his hilarious exploits.

More than 325 million copies of 34 Asterix books have sold worldwide, making his joint creators France’s bestselling international authors.

The diminutive, doughty potion-powered champion of Gallic Pride was created by two of the art-form’s greatest proponents, writer René Goscinny & illustrator Albert Uderzo and although their inspirational collaborations ended in 1977 with the death of the prolific scripter, the creative wonderment still continued until relatively recently from Uderzo and assistants – albeit at a slightly reduced rate.

The wonderment works on multiple levels: ostensibly, younger readers revel in the action-packed, lavishly illustrated comedic romps where sneaky, bullying baddies get their just deserts whilst we more worldly readers enthuse over the dry, pun-filled, sly satire, especially as enhanced for English speakers by the brilliantly light touch of translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge, who played no small part in making the indomitable Gaul and his gallant companions so palatable to the Anglo-Saxon world. (Me, I still admire a divinely delivered “Paff!” as much as any painfully potent pun or dry cutting jibe…)

The stories were set on Uderzo’s beloved Brittany coast, where a small village of warriors and their families resisted every effort of the Roman Empire to complete the conquest of Gaul, or alternately, anywhere in the Ancient World, circa 50BC, as the Gallic Gentlemen wandered the fantastic lands of the Empire and beyond…

When the heroes were playing at home, the Romans, unable to defeat this last bastion of Gallic insouciance, resorted to a policy of containment. Thus the little seaside hamlet is permanently hemmed in by the heavily fortified garrisons of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.

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

Firmly established as a global brand and premium French export by the mid-1960s, Asterix the Gaul continued to grow in quality as Goscinny & Uderzo toiled ever onward, crafting further fabulous sagas; building a stunning legacy of graphic excellence and storytelling gold.

Asterix and the Cauldron was the thirteenth saga, originally running in Pilote #469-491, throughout 1968 and first translated into English in 1976.

The tale is one of treachery, felony and dishonour as fellow Gaulish chieftain Whosemoralsarelastix – a cunning and conniving Roman collaborator – convinces the reluctant but big-hearted Vitalstatistix to guard the occupied cliff-top community’s treasury from Imperial tax collectors.

Despite knowing how untrustworthy the scoundrel is, Gaul must help Gaul and the rogue’s huge onion-soup cauldron, stuffed with his people’s golden Sestertii, is placed under the stewardship of the village’s greatest hero and most trustworthy warrior: Asterix.

However, that night, as a great inter-village feast is consumed, somebody cuts their way into the guard hut and steals the glittering contents of that mighty tureen. Naturally Whosemoralsarelastix wants his money back and the noble Vitalstatistix is honour bound to replace the stolen horde, Disgraced, Asterix is banished until he can refill the empty cauldron with gold…

Trusty Obelix refuses to turn away from his friend and joins the quest, which first takes them to the garrison of Compendium, where the wily warrior intends to refill the empty churn with some of the gold the occupiers have been regularly collecting from Gauls.

Unfortunately, Caesar has been experiencing some cash-flow problems and not only has he been rushing the takings to Rome, he hasn’t even paid his soldiers for months.

With disharmony, mutiny and strike action imminent among the legions Asterix and Obelix realise they must look elsewhere for their loot.

Even their old acquaintances the pirates are cash-strapped – and soon traditionally thrashed – so the doughty duo must seek their fortune at the grand market in Condatum, briefly and disastrously becoming Boar merchants, paid street boxers, actors and charioteers, before turning to crime and planning a bank robbery…

Even here our two just men fare badly. In desperation, they decide to rob Caesar’s tax collector, but Asterix discovers a strange thing. Not only has the destitute Whosemoralsarelastix somehow paid his taxes, but the coins smell of onion soup…

With realisation dawning Asterix visits the cliff-dwelling villagers for a little chat and a mighty reckoning…

Rich with slapstick action and cutting commercial satire (for example the tax collector was a caricature of France’s then Finance Minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing), this hilarious crime caper is a glorious example of dry yet riotous adventure comedy.

Asterix in Spain promptly followed during 1969 (Pilote #498-519) in France and Astérix en Hispanie was translated into English two years later, recounting how a valiant group of Iberian warriors were similarly holding-out against Caesar’s total conquest of that proud nation.

Chief Huevos Y Bacon was the noble warrior leading the resistance but when his haughty son Pepe was captured all seemed lost. Fearing reprisal or rescue the Romans hastily despatched the hostage lad to the garrison at Totorum, under the command of brutish Spurius Brontosaurus, who has no idea what the “pacified” Gauls of the area are like and has his hands more than full contending with the appallingly behaved and inspirationally vicious young prince.

When his guards encounter Gauls in the great forest they are easily overwhelmed by playful Obelix. Asterix takes Pepe back to the village where, after an ill-advised and painful attempt by Brontosaurus and the legion to reclaim him, the heroes decide to return him to his father. Most pertinent in this decision is the spoiled brat’s obnoxious behaviour…

Brontosaurus has pragmatically decided the kid is perfectly safe with the Gauls and unaware of their planned jaunt to Hispania, smugly returns to his post. Meanwhile, after their mandatory encounter with pirates, Asterix, Obelix and faithful mutt Dogmatix make their leisurely way through the scenic countryside (offering many trenchant asides regarding the modern French passion for Spanish touring holidays) until a chance encounter in an inn reveals to the General how close they are to undoing all his plans.

Venal but no coward the Roman joins their excursion party, captures Asterix and steals the Gaul’s magic potion and plans to destroy Huevos Y Bacon’s resistance forever. However Obelix, Pepe – and Dogmatix – have a plan to spectacularly save the day…

Full of good-natured nationalistic pokes and trans-national teasing, liberally served up with raucous hi-jinks and fast-paced action, this is another magical titbit of all-ages entertainment.

Asterix and the Roman Agent was first seen 1970 in Pilote #531-552, making the jump to English in 1972, and once more featured homeland insecurity as Caesar, under attack by the Roman Senate over the indomitable, unconquerable Gauls, deploys his greatest weapon: a double-edged sword named Tortuous Convolvulus, whose every word and gesture seems to stir ill-feeling and conflict in all who meet him.

Where Force of Arms has failed perhaps this living agent of dissent might forever fracture the Gauls’ unshakable comradeship and solidarity with dose of Roman entente dis-cordiale

On the crossing, just two minutes with the conniving Convolvulus has the brotherhood of pirates at each other’s throats, and even while discussing the plan with Aquarium’s commander Felix Platypus, the agent’s unique gift sows discord and violence, so when he finally enters the village it’s not long before the high-spirited and fractious Gauls are at war with each other…

The women are cattily sniping at each other, the traders are trading blows and even Asterix and Obelix are on the outs. But that’s not the worst of it: somehow the idea has gotten around that their sharp little champion has sold out to the Romans…

With discord rife the Romans soon have the secret of the magic potion too – or do they? -but the ingenious Convolvulus hasn’t reckoned on two things: the sheer dimness of Imperial troops and the invaluable power of true friendship, leaving Asterix and Obelix a way to overcome their differences, turn the tables and once more save the day.

At last, the agent provocateur is forced to realise that sometimes one can be too smart for one’s own good…

Brittle, barbed and devilishly sharp, this yarn was reputedly based on lingering ill-feeling following an internal power-struggle at Pilote which almost cost editor Goscinny his job. The original title for the tale was La Zizanie – “The Ill-feeling” or “The Dissension”. Seen through the lens of forty years of distance, however, all that can be seen now is stinging, clever, witty observational comedy and magnificently engaging adventure, and surely that’s what matters most?

Asterix sagas are always stuffed with captivating historical titbits, soupcons of healthy cynicism, singularly surreal situations and amazingly addictive action, illustrated in a magically enticing manner. These are perfect comics that everyone should read over and over again.

© 1968-1970 Goscinny/Uderzo. Revised English translation © 2004 Hachette. All rights reserved.

Zorro in Old California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three Musketeers – a Golden Picture Classic

By Alexandre Dumas, edited and abridged by Marjorie Mattern and illustrated by Hamilton Greene (Purnell & Sons)

Never one to avoid cashing in, I’m using all the foofaraw about the new movie as an excuse to dig out this beloved old interpretation of the evergreen adventure classic and give it a fresh once-over.

As always, the prime directive here is “Read The Original Prose Novel Too” – if not first – but since Les Trois Mousquetaires first appeared in 1844, serialised from March to July in the French newspaper Le Siècle, I suppose a decent English translation will suffice. For kids I suggest the William Barrow version, one of the three translations available by 1846 but cleaned up for modest British tastes – still in print and available in the Oxford World’s Classics 1999 edition – or if you’re not shy, the rather more racy and fully restored 2006 edition by Richard Pevear.

The story has been adapted so very many times, with varying degrees of fidelity, and since the tome under review here is both a bit old and abridged for American children, I’ll keep the précis brief.

Impoverished Gascon youth d’Artagnan leaves the farm to join the personal guard of the French King, just as his father once had. A bit of a country bumpkin, the lad is nonetheless a devastatingly deft swordsman. Soon after reaching Paris he manages to annoy and impress the veteran musketeers Athos, Porthos and Aramis before becoming embroiled in a Machiavellian intrigue between State and Church, as despicably represented by the nefarious and ambitious Cardinal Richelieu

And thus begins an unshakable comradeship between four great and noble fighters in a rollercoaster ride of swashbuckling adventure stretching from the backstreets of Paris to the deadly wilds of England and Queen’s bedchambers to the bloody battlefields of Rochelle… If you get the novel and want more, the team returned in two sequels in Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later. Collectively they known as known as the d’Artagnan Romances.

This fabulous primer edition was released in the USA as part of a sublime series of hardback, illustrated literary classics edited for children (and not to be confused with the legendary comicbook series Classics Illustrated), with a skilful rewrite by Marjorie Mattern, although the real lure for young and old alike must be the beautiful and copious colour illustrations by celebrated artist and war correspondent Hamilton Greene (who also applied his prodigious talents to companion volume The Count of Monte Cristo).

This particular nostalgic nugget was published in a UK edition by Purnell and Sons although the US Simon and Shuster edition is more readily available should I have sufficiently piqued your interest…

An absolute template for today’s comicbook teams (just check out that aforementioned new movie…) this spectacular romp – or any sufficiently diligent adaptation – is an absolute must for all action aficionados and drama divas…
© 1957 Golden Press, Inc, and Artists and Writers Guild Inc. Published by arrangement with Western Printing and Lithographing Company, Racine, Wisconsin.

Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 4: 1943-1944

By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-455-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Ideal for anybody who ever strived or dreamed or wished… 9/10

Almost certainly the most successful comic strip fantasy ever conceived, the Sunday page Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched on February 13th 1937, a luscious full-colour weekly window onto a perfect realm of perfect adventure and romance. The strip followed the life and exploits of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his ancestral homeland in Scandinavian Thule who grew up to roam the world and rose to a paramount position amongst the mightiest heroes of fabled Camelot.

Written and drawn by sublime master draftsman Harold “Hal” Foster, the little princeling matured to clean-limbed manhood in a heady sea of wonderment, visiting far-flung lands and siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts.

There have been films, animated series and all manner of toys, games and collections based on the strip – one of the few to have lasted from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (over 3800 episodes and counting) – and even in these declining days of the newspaper narrative strip as a viable medium it still claims over 300 American papers as its home. It has even made it into the very ether with an online edition.

Foster produced the strip, one spectacular page a week until 1971, when, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt artist John Cullen Murphy was selected to draw the feature. Foster carried on as writer and designer until 1980, after which he fully retired and Murphy’s son assumed the writer’s role.

In 2004 the senior Cullen Murphy also retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip has soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of artist Gary Gianni and writer Mark Schultz.

This fourth luxurious oversized full-colour hardback volume reprints – spectacularly restored from Foster’s original Printer’s Proofs – the strips from January 3rd 1943 to 31st December 1944 and sees the beginning of his celebrated but rarely seen “Footer strip” The Mediaeval Castle.

As comprehensively explained in Brian M. Kaine’s introductory essay ‘Hal Foster’s The Mediaeval Castle in the Days of President Roosevelt’ wartime paper rationing forced newspapers to dictate format-changes to their syndicated strip purchases and properties like Prince Valiant began to appear with an unrelated (and therefore optional) second feature, which individual client papers could choose to omit according to their local space considerations.

Apparently the three-panel-per week saga starring the 11th century family of Lord and Lady Harwood, their young sons Arn and Guy and teenaged daughter Alice – a feudal pot-boiler so popular that it spawned a couple of book collections – wasn’t dropped by a single paper throughout its 18-month run from April 23, 1944 to the dog-days of 1945, but Foster was happy to return to one epic per full page once the newsprint restrictions were lifted. This volume also includes a candid glimpse of a painting by the artist lost since his death and only recently discovered at auction.

This comic chronicle opens with Valiant leading King Arthur’s forces in a cunning war of attrition against united Scottish Picts and invading Vikings – but only until the wily young paladin starts sowing deadly discord amongst their assembled ranks, breaking the invasion force by turning it upon itself.

After the clash of arms subsides, restless Val is haunted by visions of Queen Aleta of The Misty Isles, whom he believes has bewitched him, utterly unaware that she saved his life not once but twice.

Determined to lose his dolorous mood, he revisits the fenland swamps of his youth and spends a tempestuous time with the wizard Merlin, before moving on to Camelot and a joyous reunion with his dashing and outrageous comrade Gawain. Even in such company Val’s mood is poor and he determines to visit his father King Aguar in distant Thule, stopping only to eradicate two bands of bandits and cut-purses lurking in the great forest, ably assisted by his devoted squire Beric.

Taking passage to Scandia, the heroes stumble into a turbulent shipboard romance and extended drama which ends tragically as the great vessel Poseidon, carrying them all to Uppsala, founders in a mighty storm.

Enemies become comrades and even friends as they all struggle for survival, with Val, Beric and a few others, including Jewish merchant Ahab and a rowdy Saxon yclept Eric, finally continuing their voyage in small skiff, encountering Viking raiders and deep sea monsters before safely beaching in Trondheim.

Eric joins Val and Beric for the final leg of the journey to Thule, but as they near King Aguar’s palace they become fortuitously embroiled in a plot to oust the aged monarch, leading to insidious intrigue and a spectacular confrontation. As the heroes of the day bask in deserved glory, the boastful and flirtatious Eric is easily and permanently tamed by the delightfully capable maid Ingrid, but the idyllic days don’t last long as the other elements of the proposed coup become known.

For a change, Val uses diplomacy to end the crisis but danger still cloaks him like a shroud. When a hunting accident almost kills him, he accidentally plays Cupid for a crippled artist and a Viking’s daughter and, barely recovered, repulses an invasion by barbarian Finns.

After a collapsing glacier nearly ends his life he is captured by rebellious nobles determined to be rid of his sire. Tortured and used as bait, Valiant escapes, turns the tables on his captors and presides over a grim and merciless siege which sees them all destroyed like vermin.

Midway through that action The Mediaeval Castle debuted, beginning with details of daily life for the noble Harwoods before launching into an epic feud between rival lords that lasted until the end of this collection whilst depriving the lead feature of fully a third of its usual story-space each Sunday.

Undeterred Foster then launched his longest yarn to date: a twenty-month extravaganza which saw Prince Valiant set out for the Misty Isles to free himself of the “spell” of grey-eyed siren Aleta. Returning to Camelot the tormented Prince enlists the aid of Gawain and they promptly set off across the kingdoms of Europe. In Germany they are attacked by barbaric Goths, before taking ship in Rome and being shipwrecked. Beric and the now amnesiac Val are marooned whilst Gawain, who is held hostage by an ambitious Sicilian noble, takes the spotlight for a few weeks.

The sheer bravura of Foster’s storytelling ability comes to the fore now: in modern times an author of a periodical tale would blanch at the spending of a great and well-established character, but as Valiant finally recovers and lands on the extremely hostile Misty Isles one of the most loved players dies nobly to save the Prince’s life…

Aleta, the spellbinder of Val’s nightmares, has been ill-used by fate and is not the monster the bold voyager believes. She is however, in dire straits with a flock of suitors and her own courtiers pressing her to marry immediately and produce an heir. So it’s with mixed emotions that she sees the boy she once rescued burst in, snatch her up and flee the Isles with her as his uncomplaining prisoner.

As for the exhausted but exultant Val, he now has the cause of all his woes chained and at his mercy…

To Be Continued…

Rendered in a simply stunning panorama of glowing visual passion and precision, Prince Valiant is a non-stop rollercoaster of stirring action, exotic adventure and grand romance; blending human-scaled fantasy with dry wit and broad humour with shatteringly dark violence. Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring the strip is a World Classic of fiction and something no fan can afford to miss. If you have never experienced the intoxicating grandeur of Foster’s magnum opus these magnificent, lavishly substantial deluxe editions are the best way possible to do so and will be your gateway to an eye-opening world of wonder and imagination…

Prince Valiant © 2011 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2011 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.

Zorro – the Masters Edition volume 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forewarned, The Fox took action as only he could…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaristo: Deep City

By F. Solano Lopez & Carlos Sampayo (Catalan Communications)
ISBN: 978-0874160345

For British and Commonwealth comics readers of a certain age, the unmistakable artistic style of Francisco Solano Lopez always conjures up dark moods and atmospheric tension because he drew such ubiquitous boyhood classics as Janus Stark, Adam Eterno, Tri-Man, Galaxus: The Thing from Outer Space, Pete’s Pocket Army, Nipper, The Drowned World, Kelly’s Eye, Raven on the Wing, Master of the Marsh and a host of other stunning tales of mystery, imagination and adventure in the years he worked for Britain’s Fleetway Publications.

However the master of blackest brushwork was not merely a creator of children’s fiction. In his home country of Argentina he was considered a radical political cartoonist whose work eventually forced him to flee to more hospitable climes.

Francisco Solano López was born on October 26th 1928 in Buenos Aires and began illustrating comics in 1953 with Perico y Guillerma for the publisher Columba. With journalist Héctor Germán Oesterheld (a prolific comics scripter “disappeared” by the Junta in 1976 and presumed killed the following year) Solano López produced Bull Rocket for Editorial Abril’s magazine Misterix.

After working on such landmark series as Pablo Maran, Uma-Uma, Rolo el marciano adoptivo and El Héroe, López joined Oesterheld’s publishing house Editorial Frontera and became a member of the influential Venice Group which included including Mario Faustinelli, Hugo Pratt, Ivo Pavone and Dino Battaglia.

López alternated with Pratt, Jorge Moliterni and José Muñoz on Oesterheld’s legendary Ernie Pike serial but their most significant collaboration was the explosively political and hugely popular allegorical science fiction thriller El Eternauta which began in 1957. By 1959 the series had come to the unwelcome attention of the authorities in Argentina and Chile, forcing López to flee to Spain. Whilst an exile there he began working for UK publishing giant Fleetway from Madrid and London.

In 1968 he returned to Argentina and with Oesterheld started El Eternauta II for new publisher Editorial Records, produced sci-fi series Slot-Barr (written by Ricardo Barreiro) and period cop drama Evaristo with kindred spirit Carlos Sampayo. In the mid-1970s López was once again compelled to flee his homeland, returning to Madrid where he organised the publication of El Eternauta and Slot-Barr with Italian magazines LancioStory & Skorpio.

He never stopped working, producing a stunning variety of assorted genre tales and mature-reader material and erotica such as El Instituto (printed by Eros as Young Witches), El Prostíbulo del Terror (story by Barreiro) and Sexy Symphonies: the bleak thrillers Ana and Historias Tristes with his son Gabriel, illustrated Jim Woodring’s adaptation of the cult movie Freaks. In recent times, safely home in Argentina he continued to work on El Eternauta with new writer Pablo “Pol” Maiztegui.

López even found time for more British comics with strips such as ‘Jimmy’, ‘The Louts of Liberty Hall’, ‘Ozzie the Loan Arranger’ and ‘Dark Angels’ in Roy of the Rovers, Hot-Shot and Eagle.

Francisco Solano López passed away in Buenos Aires on August 12th 2011.

Poet, critic and author Carlos Sampayo is most well-known for his grimly powerful comics collaborations with José Muñoz on Joe’s Bar and Alack Sinner (both long overdue for a review here) as well as other contemporary classics like ‘Jeu de Lumières’, ‘Sophie’, ‘Billie Holiday’ and ‘Sudor Sudaca’.

Born in 1943 Sampayo was another outspoken creative Argentinean forced to flee the Junta in the early 1970s. Travelling to Europe he found a home for his desolate, gritty and passionately evocative stories in France and Italy, working with Julio Schiaffino, Jorge Zentner and Oscar Zarate before settling in Spain where he and fellow expatriate Solano López produced the compelling anti-hero Evaristo in 1985.

The long-running serial featured a seemingly brutish ex-boxer who had risen to the rank of Police Commissioner in late 1950s Buenos Aires – a debased and corrupt city of wealth and prestige cheek-by-jowl with appalling poverty and desperate degradation, and after a compelling introduction by Xavier Coma the graphic odyssey begins with ‘Breaking the Ties’ as a bank hostage crisis devolves into a long-postponed grudge match as Commissioner Evaristo is confronted by old Boxing ring-rival Fournier who has returned to finally settle an old score. As is so often the case in such long-lived hatreds, there’s a woman at the heart of it…

‘The Famous Lubitsch Case’ finds the grizzled morally ambivalent veteran pushed by his bosses to locate a missing heiress who has either been abducted or eloped with a notorious gangster and womaniser. Unfortunately, for reasons even he can’t fathom, Evaristo seems determined to discover the truth rather than follow the “clues” his bosses have directed him to find…

In ‘The Herman Operation’ secretive guys with German accents and connections to the Argentinean military keep disappearing and the Commissioner is no use at all. It’s like he isn’t even trying…

The hunt for a cop-killing bandit takes a long look at the Commissioner’s sordid past and some dubious child-care practises by the local clergy in ‘The Crazy Grandson’ whilst ‘Shanty Town’ sees the cops looking for a serial killer whilst a corrupt minister causes a devastating water-shortage – and riots – in the slums. As usual Evaristo ignores his bosses and keeps looking for the “wrong” people…

As a hit-squad tasked with assassinating the troublesome cop uses what seems to be perfect leverage by kidnapping a kid claiming to be his son, Evaristo seems more concerned with an escaped lion causing ‘Terror in the Streets’ and this superb noir mini-masterpiece concludes with ‘Legend of a Wounded Gunman’ as a case from the Commissioner’s early days eerily replays itself – but this time the ending will be different…

Released in America as Deep City this first oversized (277 x 206mm), 112 page monochrome collection depicts the compelling solutions found by a cop who bends all the rules just to win a modicum of justice in an utterly corrupt society: a powerfully cynical and shockingly effective series of vignettes examining freedom and equality in a totally repressive time and place devoid of hope. However at no time does the ideology overwhelm the artistry of the narrative or distract from the sheer power of the art.

This magnificent book and all the other Evaristo tales are long overdue for another shot at the big time…
© 1986 F. Solano López, Carlos Sampayo & Xavier Coma. English language edition © 1986 Catalan Communications. All rights reserved.

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 1

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 1

By Hergé (Egmont UK)
ISBN 10: 1-4052-2894-6
ISBN 13: 978-1-4052-2894-7

This lavish new series of editions collects the Adventures of Tintin in chronological order beginning with Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, which was one of the last to be released in English.

Georges Prosper Remi, known all over the world as Hergé, created a genuine masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and the Hergé Studio, he created twenty three splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art. Like Charles Dickens with the Mystery of Edwin Drood, he died while working, and Tintin and Alph-Art remains a volume without a conclusion, but still a fascinating examination – and a pictorial memorial of how the artist worked.

It’s only fair though, to ascribe a substantial proportion of credit to the many translators whose diligent contributions have enabled the series to be understood and beloved in 38 languages. The subtle, canny, witty and slyly funny English versions are the work of Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner.

On leaving school in 1925 he worked for the Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he seems to have fallen under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A dedicated boy-scout himself, Remi produced his first strip series The Adventures of Totor for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine the following year, and by 1928 he was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécle’s children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme. He was unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette, written by the staff sports reporter when Abbot Wallez asked him to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate the innovation into his own work. He would produce a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning on January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments in Le Petit Vingtiéme running until May 8th 1930.

The boy – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul, a soldier in the Belgian Army – and his dog Milou (‘Snowy’ to us Brits) reported back from the Godless Russias. The strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was the foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme.

Arriving in Russia the dog and his boy are subjected to a series of attacks and tricks in a vain attempt by the Soviets to prevent the truth of their economic progress, popular feeling and world aspirations being revealed to the Free World. In a progression of fights, chases, slapstick accidents and vain attempts to bribe and corrupt him, a hint of the capable, decent and resourceful hero can be seen.

As Tintin “gets away clean” in all manner of fast machines, lovingly rendered in a stylised meta-realistic manner not yet used for the human characters (an obvious forerunner of Hergé’s Ligne Clairé drawing style) and makes his way back across Europe to his rapturous welcome in Belgium the personalities of the characters move beyond action-ciphers towards the more fully realised universal boy-hero we all know today.

The strip itself is very much a work-in-progress, primitive both in narrative and artistic execution. But amidst the simplified line, hairsbreadth chases and simplistic anti-communistic polemic there is something… an intriguing hint of things to come.

Where the first tale is simple black and white, Tintin in the Congo is much more stylistically familiar to modern readers. This tale, which originally ran in Le Petit Vingtiéme from June 1930 until June 1931, was radically restructured in 1946 for release as a collected album, and later, a page featuring a Rhino, a hand-drill and a stick of dynamite was replaced with a much funnier scene.

Still hampered by his weekly, episodic format Tintin and Snowy take ship for The Belgian Congo where they perforce have many little adventures, but also uncover a plot by Al Capone to take control of Africa’s diamond trade. This revised version features a Tintin retrofitted for both artistic and commercial reasons. By 1946 there had been thirteen full adventures and the characters were fully developed. It was both logical and preferable that new readers be presented with a consistent vision. And as Hergé had grown as both author and artist the album editions gave him an opportunity to rectify some earlier decisions that he regretted.

When producing work for a perpetual deadline not only are you trapped by the urgent need to finish and move on, but you are imprisoned in the context of your own times. When ‘The Congo’ ran in 1930-1931, representations of ethnicities and more importantly the attitudes of a Belgium that was still a Colonial Power informed the text and probably influenced the Catholic newspaper that paid for the strip. In later years Hergé admitted to deeply regretting much of his early work, and took every opportunity to repair it.

A scene in which natives are taught that they are happy Belgians was gladly replaced with a maths lesson and many images and scenes were subtly altered to enhance the standing and image of native Africans. The recent controversy regarding ethnic depictions in historical comics (and remember this tale is seventy-seven years old) seems doubly cynical and politically self-serving when one considers that Hergé was rectifying what he saw as racial slurs in the 1940s whilst modern society only acknowledged there might be a problem less than thirty years ago. For every black African waving a spear and shield in this story there’s another in a suit, a uniform or tee shirt.

These two adventures might be faux-controversial but they are also highly readable, joyous, thrilling, exuberant and deeply informative for any fan of the comic strip medium. And although they can be read singly, since Hergé was an early proponent of extended continuity, the early tales are actually necessary reading if you want a better understanding of the Tintin masterpieces to come.

But I do have one wistful caveat…

Many older readers were exposed to these stories in gorgeous, brilliantly coloured, oversized editions – myself included – and I wish these lovely little hardbacks weren’t quite so little, and were a bit less muted in the colour reproduction. Nothing blows a kid away quite as much as turning a big page and seeing a great big superbly rendered image.

Still, these new editions do fit in a jacket pocket…

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets: artwork © 1999Editions Casterman, Paris& Tournai.
Text ©1999, 2007Casterman/Moulinsart. All Rights Reserved.
Tintin in the Congo: artwork © 1946, 1974 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai.
Text © 2005 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.