Wonder Woman Archives volume 4

WW arc 4 front
By Charles Moulton (William Moulton Marston & Harry G. Peter) (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-4012-0145-8

Wonder Woman was conceived by polygraph pioneer William Moulton Marston and illustrated by Harry G. Peter in a calculated attempt to offer girls a positive and forceful role model and, on Editor M.C. Gaines’ part, sell funnybooks.

The Princess of Paradise debuted as a special feature in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941), before springing into her own series and the cover-spot of new anthology title Sensation Comics a month later. An astonishing instant hit, the Amazing Amazon quickly won her own eponymous supplemental title in late Spring of that year (cover-dated Summer 1942).

Once upon a time on a hidden island of immortal super-women, American aviator Steve Trevor of US Army Intelligence crashed to Earth. Near death, he was nursed back to health by young and impressionable Princess Diana.

Fearing her growing obsession with the creature from a long-forgotten and madly violent world, her mother Queen Hippolyte revealed the hidden history of the Amazons: how they were seduced and betrayed by men but rescued by the goddess Aphrodite on condition that they isolated themselves from the rest of the world and devoted their eternal lives to becoming ideal, perfect creatures.

However when goddesses Athena and Aphrodite subsequently instructed Hippolyte to send an Amazon back with the American to fight for global freedom and liberty, Diana overcame all other candidates and became their emissary – Wonder Woman.

On arriving in America she bought the identity and credentials of lovelorn Army nurse Diana Prince, elegantly allowing the Amazon to be close to Steve whilst enabling the heartsick medic to join her own fiancé in South America. Soon Diana also gained a position with Army Intelligence as secretary to General Darnell, ensuring she would always be able to watch over her beloved. She little suspected that, although the painfully shallow Steve only had eyes for the dazzling Amazon superwoman, the General had fallen for the mousy but superbly competent Lieutenant Prince…

Using the nom de plume Charles Moulton, Marston (with some help in later years from assistant Joye Murchison) scripted almost all of the Amazing Amazon’s many and fabulous adventures until his death in 1947, whereupon Robert Kanigher took over the writer’s role. Venerable veteran illustrator and co-creator H.G. Peter performed the same feat, limning practically every titanic tale until his own death in 1958.

This fourth lavishly deluxe full-colour hardback edition collects the increasingly fanciful and intoxicating adventures from Wonder Woman #8-9 and Sensation Comics #25-32 spanning cover-dates January to August 1944. After an appreciative Foreword from comics journalist and historian Maggie Thompson who outlines the landmarks and catalogues the achievements of the Amazing Amazon, the war-woven epics and imaginatively inspirational dramas begin with Sensation #25 and the ‘Adventure of the Kidnapers of Astral Spirits’ as Diana Prince witnesses a murder. However the killer was asleep at home in bed at the time and soon more impossible killings occur, drawing Wonder Woman into an incredible adventure beyond the Walls of Sleep into uncanny realms where even her gifts are useless and only determination and rational deduction can save the day…

Far less outré but no less deadly was the menace of ‘The Masquerader’ who replaced the Amazing Amazon in #26, following an unshakeable prophecy which saw the champion of Love and Freedom murdered by merciless racketeer Duke Dalgan. It took the covert intervention of Aphrodite and a Girl’s Best Friend to thwart that dire fate, but Diana never knew just who took her place…

When the Amazon, Etta Candy, her sorority Holliday Girls and former convict Gay Frollik resolved to raise a billion dollars for ‘The Fun Foundation’, they never expected their most trusted advisor to turn against them, but his greed led to his downfall and the clearing of a framed woman’s name in Sensation #27, after which Wonder Woman #8 offered another novel-length triumph of groundbreaking adventure.

The drama opened with ‘Queen Clea’s Tournament of Death’ as Steve, on an undercover mission, was snatched by a giant barbarian woman. Hot on his trail, Diana discovered her beau a captive of undersea Amazons from lost Atlantis, living in colossal caverns below the oceans.

Diana soon found herself embroiled in a brutal civil war battling the forces of usurping conqueror Clea of belligerent state Venturia and trying to restore the rightful ruler Eeras to peaceful, beleaguered Aurania. Should she fail, Clea intended to invade the upper world, looking for husky men like Steve to replace the depleted, worn-out puny males of her own realm…

After restoring order in Atlantis, the Amazon returned to her military job and civilian identity until a little girl begged for aid in finding her missing father. Closer investigation revealed that Clea’s forces had been capturing sailors and airmen but with the rebel queen imprisoned as ‘The Girl with the Iron Mask’, who could the leader of the raids possibly be?

After another fearsome subterranean clash the status quo was re-established, but when Diana later met a huge a powerful student at Holliday College she realised that the adventure was still not over as ‘The Captive Queen’ infiltrates Paradise Island and captures both Wonder Woman and Eeras’ wayward daughter Octavia.

Even after defeating her ponderous perpetual foe the action doesn’t end for the Princess of Power as her return to the land beneath the sea is interrupted by another revolution.

This time the ineffectual Atlantean men had used the constant distractions and American modern weapons to enslave the women, making the sub-sea empire a brutal, domineering patriarchy…

But not for long, as Diana and Steve led a brilliant counter-offensive…

In Sensation Comics #28 ‘The Malice of the Green Imps’ offered a welcome dose of metaphysical suspense as jealous thought and impulses were made manifest and drove gangsters and even good folks to attack the recently opened Fun Foundation Clinics sponsored by Diana and Gay Frollik, after which #29 saw another Amazon in Man’s World in the ‘Adventure of the Escaped Prisoner’. After imprisoning gambling racketeer and blackmailer Mimi on the Amazon’s prison island, Wonder Woman was unaware that the harridan’s subsequent escape also brought confused and naively curious fellow warrior Mala to New York where she quickly fell in with the wrong crowd…

Marston’s psychiatric background provided yet another weirdly eccentric psychic scenario in #30’s ‘The Blue Spirit Mystery’ as Steve, Etta Candy and Diana investigated Anton Unreal, a mystic and mentalist who offered to send his client to the heavenly Fourth Dimension – for a large fee, of course…

Unfortunately – although a crook – Unreal was no charlatan and the “ascended ones” certainly found themselves in a realm utterly unearthly, but definitely no paradise until Steve and Diana followed and took matters into their own immaterial hands…

Wonder Woman #9 saw the origins of one of the Amazon’s most radical foes and bizarre adventures. ‘Evolution Goes Haywire’ began with zoo gorilla Giganta stealing Steve’s little niece before the Amazon effected a rescue, after which crazy scientist Professor Zool used his experimental Hyper-Atomic Evolutionizer to transform the hirsute simian into an gorgeous 8-foot tall Junoesque human beauty. Sadly the artificial Amazon retained her bestial instincts and, battling Wonder Woman, managed to damage Zool’s machine, resulting in the entire region being devolved back to the days of cavemen and dinosaurs…

With even Diana converted to barbarism it was an uphill struggle to rerun the rise to culture and civilisation sufficiently to achieve a primitive Golden Age in ‘The Freed Captive’, but eventually the twisted time-travel tale took them back to where they had started, even if only after ‘Wonder Woman vs. Achilles’ – a deranged diversion to save her own mother and people from male oppression by the legendary warrior king…

Sensation Comics #31, by contrast, offered delicious whimsy and biting social commentary when the Princess of Power visited ‘Grown-Down Land’. When a wealthy socialite mother neglected her children the tykes ran away and almost died. Rescued by Wonder Woman, they told her of a dream world far better and happier than reality and next morning, when the kids can’t be awoken from a deep sleep, Diana realises they have chosen to stay in their topsy-turvy imaginary country. However when she enters their dream she finds genuine peril of a most unexpected kind…

This glorious tome of treasures then concludes with #32’s ‘The Crime Combine’ as Wonder Woman finds herself at the top of the American underworld’s hit-list. To scotch the scheme Diana asks fully reformed ex-Nazi and trainee Amazon Baroness Paula von Gunther to leave ParadiseIsland and infiltrate the hierarchy of hate, but it quickly seems that the temptations of Man’s World and allure of evil have seduced the villainess back to her wicked ways…

Seen through modern eyes there’s a lot that might be disturbing in theses old comics classics, such as the plentiful examples of apparent bondage, or racial stereotypes from bull-headed Germans to caricatured African Americans, but there’s also a vast amount of truly groundbreaking comics innovation.

The skilfully concocted dramas and incredibly imaginative story-elements are drawn from hugely disparate and often gratifyingly sophisticated sources, but the creators never forget they’re in the business of entertaining as well as edifying the young. There’s huge amounts of action, suspense, contemporary reflection and loads of laughs to be found here, and always the message is: girls are as good as boys and can even be better if they want to…

Wonder Woman influenced the entire nascent superhero genre as much as Superman or Batman and we’re all the richer for it. Even better, this exemplary book of past delights is a triumph of exotic, baroque, beguiling and uniquely exciting adventure, and these Golden Age exploits of the World’s Most Marvellous Warrior Maiden are timeless, pivotal classics in the development of the medium and still offer astounding amounts of fun and thrills for anyone interested in a grand nostalgic read.
© 1944, 2003 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Plastic Man Archives volume 3


By Jack Cole (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-847-0

As recounted by Playboy’s Cartoon Editor Michelle Urry in her Foreword to this third beguiling Deluxe Archive collection, Jack Cole was one of the most uniquely gifted talents of America’s Golden Age of Comics.

Before moving into the magazine and gag markets he originated landmark tales in horror, true crime, war, adventure and especially superhero comicbooks, and his incredible humour-hero Plastic Man remains an unsurpassed benchmark of screwball costumed hi-jinks: frequently copied but never equalled.

In 1954 Cole quit comics for mature cartooning, becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour gags and stunningly saucy pictures began running in Playboy from the fifth edition. Cole eventually moved into the lofty realms of newspaper strips and, in May 1958, achieved his life-long ambition by launching a syndicated newspaper strip, the domestic comedy Betsy and Me.

On August 13th 1958, at the moment of his greatest success he took his own life. The reasons remain unknown.

Without doubt – and despite other triumphal comicbook innovations such as Silver Streak, Daredevil, The Claw, Death Patrol, Midnight, Quicksilver, The Barker, The Comet and a uniquely twisted take on the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest creation and contribution was the zany Malleable Marvel who quickly grew from a minor back-up character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the era. “Plas” was the wondrously perfect fantastic embodiment of the sheer energy, verve and creativity of an era when anything went and comics-makers were prepared to try out every outlandish idea…

Eel O’Brian was a brilliant career criminal wounded during a factory robbery, soaked by a vat of spilled acid and callously abandoned by his thieving buddies. Left for dead, he was saved by a monk who nursed him back to health and proved to the hardened thug that the world was not just filled with brutes and vicious chisellers after a fast buck.

His entire outlook altered and now blessed with incredible malleability, Eel resolved to put his new powers to use: cleaning up the scum he used to run with.

Creating a costumed alter ego he began a stormy association with the New York City cops before being recruited as a most special agent of the FBI…

He soon picked up the most unforgettable comedy sidekick in comics history. Woozy Winks was a dopey indolent slob and utterly amoral pickpocket who accidentally saved a wizard’s life and was gifted in return with a gift of invulnerability: all the forces of nature would henceforth protect him from injury or death – if said forces felt like it.

After failing to halt the unlikely superman’s impossible crime spree, Plas appealed to his sentimentality and better nature and, once Woozy tearfully repented, was compelled to keep him around in case he strayed again. The oaf was slavishly loyal but perpetually sliding back into his old habits…

Equal parts Artful Dodger and Mr. Micawber, with the verbal skills and intellect of Lou Costello’s screen persona or the over-filled potato sack he resembled, Winks was the perfect foil for Plastic Man: a lazy, greedy, ethically challenged reprobate with perennially sticky fingers who got all the best lines, possessed an inexplicable charm and had a habit of finding trouble. It was the ideal marriage of inconvenience…

This lavish, full-colour hardback barely contains the exuberant exploits of the premier polymorph from Police Comics #31-39 and Plastic Man #2 stretching from June 1944 to February 1945, and opens with an outrageous examination of current affairs as the chameleonic cop investigated ‘The Mangler’s Slaughter Clinic’ wherein fit and healthy draft-dodgers could go to get brutalised, broken and guaranteed unfit for active duty. The biggest mistake these canny crooks made was kidnapping Woozy and trying their limb-busting procedures on a man(ish) protected by the forces of nature …

Police Comics #32 then detailed ‘The La Cucaracha Caper’ wherein ultra-efficient Plas was forcibly sent on vacation to give the cops and FBI a break and some time to process all the crooks the Ductile Detective had corralled. What no-one expected was that the last gangsters left un-nabbed would also head south of the border to escape their nemesis and Plas and Woozy found far more than Sun, Senoritas and Bullfights in the sleepy Mexican resort…

In #33’s ‘Deathtrap for Plastic Man’ a crazed saboteur stretched our hero’s resources and reason in his mad mission destroy a vital prototype plane for the most implausible of reasons before Plastic Man #2 (August 1944) offered a quartet of brilliant yarns, beginning with ‘The Gay Nineties Nightmare’, wherein Plas and Woozy trailed the worst rats in the underworld to a hidden corner of America where they couldn’t be touched.

No Place, USA, due to clerical errors, had been left off all official maps and withdrawn from the Union in a huff in the 1890s. The FBI couldn’t enforce justice there but maybe two good men – or one and Woozy – could…

Satire was replaced by outrageous slapstick as mild-mannered Elmer Body became ‘The Man Who Could Switch Bodies’, using his newfound gift to experience all the joys and thrills his dull life had denied him. When Plas realised he couldn’t catch or hold the identity thief, all he could do was offer better candidates for possession…

In hot pursuit of Fargo Freddie the stretchable sleuth accidentally chased the killer into a Mexican volcano. Thinking the case closed the hero headed home but was unaware that a miraculous circumstance had transformed his target into The Lava Man’, whose resultant revenge rampage set the nation ablaze until Plas resorted to brains and not bouncy brawn. The issue closed with tale of urban horror as Plas and Woozy were dispatched to a quiet little town where everybody had been driven crazy – even the medics and FBI agents sent in to investigate ‘Coroner’s Corners’

Police Comics #34 introduce a well-meaning if screwball campaigner determined to end Plas’ maltreatment of malefactors by organising ‘Serena Sloop’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Criminals’, although the old biddy’s philanthropy took a big hit after she actually met some of the crooks she championed, whilst ‘The Confession of Froggy Fink’ in #35 threatened to tear the entire underworld apart, if Plas got hold of it before the many concerned members of the mastermind’s gang did. Cue frantic chases, and lots of double-dealing back-stabbing violence…

In #36 a gang of brutal thieves hid out in the isolated, idyllic paradise of ‘Dr. Brann’s Health Clinic’ turning the unprofitable resort into a citadel of crime until Plas and Woozy decided to take a rest cure themselves, after which ‘Love Comes to Woozy’ offered the unlikely sight of a sultry seductive siren falling for the wildly unappealing Mr. Winks just as the corpulent crime-crusher and his boss were closing in on a gang stealing widows’ and veterans’ welfare cheques…

The big bosses of criminality had finally had enough by #38, offering ‘One Million Dollars for Plastic Man’s Death’. They also included top criminologist Professor Zwerling on their shopping list but even he was too much for the horde of would-be assassins and even diminutive murder mastermind Rocky Goober soon found his reach far exceeded his grasp…

This classic collection then concludes with a riotous rollercoaster romp as ‘His Lordship Woozy Winks’ is improbably tapped as the lost heir to a fancy British estate. Of course Bladau Castle boasts a murderous ghost and rather more prosaic elements determined to ensure the owlish oaf doesn’t inherit…

Always exciting, breathtakingly original, thrilling, funny, scary and still visually intoxicating over seventy years later, Jack Cole’s Plastic Man is a truly unique creation that has only grown in stature and appeal. This is a magical comics experience fans would be crazy to deny themselves.
© 1944, 1945, 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar – New Revised Review


By Harvey Pekar, R. Crumb, Gregory Budgett, Gary Dumm, Gerry Shamray,
Kevin Brown, Susan Cavey & Val Mayerik
(Ballantine Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-787-0

Before finding relative fame in the 21st century, Harvey Pekar occupied that ghastly niche so good at trapping the truly creative individual: Lots and lots of critical acclaim, and an occasional heart-breakingly close brush with super-stardom, without ever actually getting enough ahead to feel secure or appreciated.

One of those aforementioned brushes came in 1980s with the release of a couple of compilations of selected strips by mainstream publisher Doubleday that even to this day are some of his most powerful, honest and rewarding “literary comics” ever seen. By mercilessly haranguing, begging and even paying (out of his meagre civil service wages and occasional wheeler-deal) any artists who met his exacting intellectual standards, Pekar all but created the comics genre of autobiographical, existentially questing, slice-of-life graphic narratives whilst eking out a mostly lonely, hand-to-mouth existence in Cleveland, Ohio.

How the irascible, opinionated, objectionable, self-educated music-mad working stiff came to use the admittedly (then) impoverished comicbook medium to make a fiercely vital social commentary on American life of the ordinary Joe is a magical journey in the plebeian far better read than read about, but I’m going to have a crack at convincing any holdouts anyway.

Moreover, by the time you’ve seen this I’m already on to my next crusade…

This compendium combines and re-releases those seminal tomes in one big, bold edition and was released to tie-in with the award-winning 2003 indie film biography American Splendor, and opens with the superb contents of the 1985 release American Splendor: the Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, beginning by reproducing the introduction by early collaborator and modern Media Darling Robert Crumb before proceeding with a seductive welter of elegiac, confrontational, compulsive, challenging, painfully frank and distressingly honest observations that collectively changed the way English language comics were perceived, received and even created.

Rendered by Crumb, the excoriating graphic self-analysis begins with ‘The Harvey Pekar Name Story’ as the obsessive yet passive hunt for other people with the same name briefly gripped the self-confessed compulsive personality, whilst ‘The Young Crumb Story’ gave us Pekar’s take on the cartooning career of his collaborator, after which ‘A Fantasy’ again revisited the artist’s relationship with the writer: Pekar uncomfortably bragging over how he had browbeaten and gulled Crumb into drawing his scripts – and still was…

Gary Dumm illustrated the bizarre ‘Ozzie Nelson’s Open Letter to Crumb’ (written in 1972) describing the faded TV celebrity’s snotty pep talk to the cartooning degenerate, after which Crumb returned to deliver self-abusive insight as Pekar revealed ‘How I Quit Collecting Records – and Put Out a Comic Book with the Money I Saved’.

Greg Budgett & Dumm handled many of the most searingly honest introspectives such as ‘The Day Before the Be In’, the equally forthright and painful personal history sequels ‘Awakening to the Terror of the New Day’ and ‘Awakening to the Terror of the Same Old Day’ or the nigh-spiritual rationalisations of ‘Short Weekend – a Short Story About the Cosmic and the Ordinary’

One of the most impressive facets of Pekar’s tales is the uncompromising depiction of the people he encountered in work or socially (if such a term can apply to such a self-admitted “judgemental jerk”) and the frankly brutal way he attempts to keep narrative polish out of his graphic reportage.

Incidents such as ‘A Compliment’ or ‘Jivin’ With Jack the Bellboy as he Goes About… Hustlin’ Sides’ and ‘Jack the Bellboy and Mr. Boats’ – all illustrated by Crumb – recount episodes with co-workers undistinguished, unremarkable and free of all dramatic embellishment or grace-saving charisma… but they are intoxicatingly real and appealing.

‘Read This’ (Budgett & Dumm) tells how even cynics can be surprised by people, whilst the Crumb-illustrated ‘Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines’ is as gently hilarious as their ‘Ridin’ the Dog’ vignette of cross-country bus travel is contemplatively reassuring.

Innovative Gerry Shamray tackled the wordy self-examination of life’s pointless frustrations in ‘An Argument at Work’ and the cathartic ‘Working Man’s Nightmare’ with aplomb and smart sensitivity, before Crumb resurfaced to draw an incredible familiar and unwelcome situation as the obnoxious ‘Freddy Visits for the Week End’. Regrettably we all have friends like him…

Pekar’s disastrous history with women was a frequent theme and ‘Ripoff Chick’ (by Budgett & Dumm again) showed why and how. The only difference between the author and most men was that he admitted up front that he wanted sex without complications or commitment…

‘One Good Turn Deserves Another’ (Shamray) invites us to share a typically penny-pinching secret, before Dumm tackled a quirky friendship and the perils of well-intentioned matchmaking in ‘Leonard & Marie’, and ordinary folk got tied up discussing theology and politics in Shamray’s wryly related ‘Noah’s Ark’. The artist then effectively encapsulated ‘Class Antagonism’ before Jewish intellectual Pekar again examined his ethnic and cultural roots by revisiting his relationship with Old World Hebrew ‘Emil’ (Dumm & Budgett) and the danger of first-hand accounts in the Crumb-illustrated ‘The Maggies (Oral History)’ and Shamray’s death-camp memoir ‘Kaparra’

Crumb then turned in his most claustrophobic and impassioned drawing for the vibrant manifesto ‘American Splendor Assaults the Media’ after which the immensely stylish Kevin Brown limned a tale of frustrated selling out as Harvey attempted to schmooze up-and-coming movie star Wallace Shawn ‘Grubstreet, USA’, after which the first volume ended on a high of sorts with Pekar via Crumb temporarily resolving a ‘Hypothetical Quandary’.

The philosophising, reminiscing, ruminating, observing, eulogizing, questioning and fictively projecting promptly continues in From the Streets of Cleveland Comes… American Splendor: the Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, resuming the painfully honest – and to us here and now perhaps often unsettling and disquieting – accounts of normal lives with the Crumb-crafted classics ‘Pickled Okra (Okry)’, ‘Lunch with Carmella’, ‘Rollins on Time’ and ‘Visualize, Actualize, Realize’ – all containing commonplace friendly interactions with Pekar’s African-American co-workers that would make many genteel folk wince today…

A prospective hot date turned into a gruelling and pointless exercise in furniture moving in the Budgett & Dumm saga ‘Guerrilla Theatre: July ‘74 – on the Corner’ with a punch-line not apparent until their ‘On the Corner… a Sequel: June 1976’, after which inker turned illustrator to relate the nostalgic revelations of young lust in the 1950s on the ‘Roller Coaster to Nowhere’, but some measure of cosmic karma was achieved decades later when Pekar finally achieve his  childhood goal of owning ultra-hip and so, so cool ‘Stetson Shoes’

‘Mrs. Roosevelt and the Young Queen of Greece’ and ‘Busman’s Holiday’ by Dumm & Budgett celebrate the simple joy of guys simply sitting around shooting the breeze, whilst Crumb’s delicious treatment of Pekar’s love for old fashioned Jewish kvetching makes ‘Miracle Rabbis – a Dr. Gesundheit Story’ a minor masterpiece of comics.

‘An Everyday Horror Story’ (Shamray) then recaptures the tension and terror of Pekar’s first brush with serious illness – or so the author thought.

Always a healthy, vigorous but exceptionally excitable shouty man, Pekar got properly sick for the first time in his life and faced the very real prospect of never being able to speak again. This exceedingly gripping account perfectly presents all the fear, frustration, metaphysical pleading and moving emotional and practical support Harvey’s friends and then wife provided – and what happened next…

‘Alice Quinn’ drawn by S. (Susan) Cavey then detailed a portentous meeting with the girl who got away before Shamray’s powerfully captivating ‘I’ll be Forty Three on Friday (How I’m Living Now)’ offers a rare moment of optimistic clarity, and Cavey’s ‘Jury Duty’ shows how even the most earnest hopes and honest ambitions can worry the bejeezus out of “normal” folks…

For most of his life Pekar was that rarest of creatures – an un-typical American who chose not to drive (for good, sound and to my mind admirable reasons). Thus he often spent time cadging lifts and fretting about the etiquette of returning favours to his civilian chauffeurs. In ‘A Ride Home’ (Cavey) the impatience and anxiety grew momentarily too much, whilst in Dumm’s ‘Free Ride’ a long-standing arrangement with a previously admired old Jewish guy escalated into something ferociously passive-aggressive, quite strange and impossibly worrisome…

The same traumas afflicted Pekar when he foolishly bought his ex- wife’s automobile only to find it a cursed Jonah, which plagued him for many snowbound months in ‘Old Cars and Winter’ by Cavey. The superb and vastly underrated Val Mayerik joined the select band of artistic collaborators with the gloriously uplifting ‘A Marriage Album’, depicting life with beloved third wife with Joyce Brabner, and explored Pekar’s wild street-fighting juvenile days and later proclivities in ‘Violence’, whilst ‘History Repeats Itself’ offered a moment of resigned contemplation over teen spirits courtesy of Seán Carroll.

Mayerik contributed a final brace of gently contemplative pieces beginning with ‘A Matter of Life and…’ which saw an older, calmer author recap his life with a little more kindness than ever before, whilst an uneventful bus ride found Pekar gleaning a wealth of down-home ‘Common Sense’ from a voluble instructor driver before this masterful meander through a truly unique mind concludes with Crumb and the perfect solution to life’s ills with ‘Mr. Boats’ Miracle Cure’

With art by individualistic collaborators who were never content to stay in their Comfort Zones but always endeavoured to make their contributions unique unto the story, and selected from a most adventurous and historically creative decade, these tales of working life, self-esteem, achievement, failure, religion, the media, Nazi atrocity, guilt, acceptable bigotry, proudly defended ignorance, friendship, aloofness and the art of understanding women are timeless slices of life’s dreary brilliance.

As a man who constantly assessed and re-examined his own creative worth and self, Harvey Pekar opened up his life to the world and changed it by being ordinary and average.

…Except he never was, as this superb insight into the mind and heart of a truly original comics creator will attest. This splendid, engrossing book offers readers a chance to see the humour, confusion and frustration of being an American thinker in a world that simply doesn’t value brains and spirit anymore – and I fear that’s going to be one of humanity’s eternal verities…

© 1976-1986, 2004 Harvey Pekar, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Plastic Man Archives volume 2


By Jack Cole (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-621-4

Jack Cole was one of the most uniquely gifted talents of American Comics’ Golden Age, crafting landmark tales in horror, true crime, war, adventure and especially superhero genres. His incredible humour-hero Plastic Man remains an unsurpassed benchmark of screwball costumed hi-jinks: frequently copied but never equalled. In 1954 Cole quit comics for gag and glamour cartooning, becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour gags and stunningly saucy pictures began running in Playboy with the fifth issue. Cole eventually moved into the lofty realms of newspaper strips and, in May 1958, achieved his life-long ambition by launching a syndicated newspaper strip, the domestic comedy Betsy and Me.

OnAugust 13th 1958, at the moment of his greatest success he took his own life. The reasons remain unknown.

Without doubt – and despite his other comicbook innovations and triumphs such as Silver Streak, Daredevil, The Claw, Death Patrol, Midnight, Quicksilver, The Barker and The Comet as well as through a uniquely twisted take on the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest creation was the zany, malleable Plastic Man who quickly grew from a minor back-up character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the Golden Age. “Plas” was the wondrously perfect fantastic embodiment of the sheer energy, verve and creativity of an era when anything went and comics-makers were prepared to try out every outlandish idea…

This second superbly lavish full-colour deluxe hardback reprints Plastic Man #1 and the cover-featured lead tales from Police Comics #21-30, covering August 1943 to May 1944 and sees, after a convivial commentary in the Foreword by author, strip writer and historian Ron Goulart, the Stretchable Sleuth’s meteoric rise, fully converting from hilariously edgy benevolent rogue to malleable super straight man as his comedy relief sidekick increasingly stole the show in a series of explosive exploits which shaped the early industry every inch as much as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman or the “Shazam” shouting Captain Marvel

Eel O’Brian was a career criminal wounded during a factory robbery, soaked by a vat of spilled acid and callously abandoned by his thieving buddies. Crawling away to die, O’Brian was found by a monk who nursed him back to health and proved to the hardened thug that the world was not just filled with brutes and vicious chisellers after a fast buck.

His entire outlook altered and, gifted with incredible malleability (he surmises it was the chemical bath mingling with his bullet wounds), Eel resolved to put his new powers to use in cleaning up the scum he used to run with.

Creating a costumed alter ego he began a stormy association with theNew York Citycops before being recruited as a most special agent of the FBI…

Shortages and government rationing were gripping the country at this time. For publishers it was lack of paper that particularly plagued and Plastic Man #1 was released (a Summer 1943 cover-date) through a subsidiary company Vital Books, rather than as a straight addition to Quality Comics’ prestigious line of stars.

Irrespective of the name on the masthead, the mammoth 64 page tome offered a quartet of stunning tales of humour, heroic hi-jinks and horror, beginning with cover-featured ‘The Game of Death’ in which Plas and his inimitable, often unwanted assistant set upon the trail of an engrossing mystery and incredible threat posed by a rich man’s gambling club which concealed a sadistic death cult using games of chance to recruit victims …and new disciples…

Said assistant Woozy Winks was an indolent slob, paltry pickpocket, utterly venal yet slavishly loyal oaf who accidentally saved a wizard’s life and was gifted in return with a gift of invulnerability: all the forces of nature would henceforth protect him from injury or death – if said forces felt like it.

After failing to halt the thief’s impossible crime spree, Plas appealed to his sentimentality and better nature and, once Woozy tearfully repented, was compelled to keep him around in case he strayed again…

Winks – equal parts Artful Dodger and Mr. Micawber, with the verbal skills and intellect of Lou Costello’s screen persona or the over-filled potato sack he resembled – was the perfect foil for Plastic Man: a lazy, greedy, ethically challenged reprobate with perennially sticky fingers who got all the best lines, possessed an inexplicable charm and had a habit of finding trouble. It was the perfect marriage of inconvenience…

In ‘Now You See it, Now You Don’t’ the rotund rogue got involved with a goofy Professor and became the greedy owner of an invisibility spray. He wanted to sell it to the Army but Japanese spies captured both the formula and Plastic Man, and dispatched them toTokyo for disposal.

Of course this simply allowed the Man of a Thousand Shapes to deliver such a sound and vicariously joyful thrashing to the Dishonourable Sons of Nippon that it must have had every American kid who saw it jumping for joy.

Cole then touched the heartstrings with the tragic tale of ‘Willie McGoon, Dope’ as a hulking yet gentle simpleton disfigured by neighbourhood kids became the embittered pawn of a career criminal. The duo’s terrifying crime-wave paralysed the city until Plas and Woozy stepped in.

The stunning solo package closed with ‘Go West Young Plastic Man, Go West’ after Woozy bought a gold mine from a guy in a bar and greedily galloped to Tecos Gulch to make his fortune. By the time Plas arrived to save him from his folly the corpulent clown had been framed for rustling and murder…

Police Comics #21 featured conspiracy by a financial cabal attempting to corner the travel and shipping routes of the nation. Only one man could counter the impending monopoly but he was missing, seduced by the prognostications of a circus fortune teller. If Plas couldn’t rescue Sylvester Smirk from ‘The Menace of Serpina’ the entire country would grind to a standstill…

In #22, ‘The Eyes Have It!’ pitted Plas and Woozy against a child-trafficking human horror dubbed The Sphinx who was exercising all his resources to regain possession of a little mute boy who had seen too much, whilst #23’s purportedly supernatural thriller saw the Stretchable Sleuth prove ‘The Ghost Train’ to be no such thing, but only a scam by a shareholder trying to buy up a rail line the Government needed to acquire for vital war work.

A rash of tire thefts (also severely rationed during war time) in Police #24 had a sinister purpose as gangsters and a mad scientist joined forces to synthesise evil knock-offs of their greatest enemy in ‘The Hundred Plastic Men’ after which Woozy again stole the show – and sundry other items – when his addiction to mystery stories led him and Plastic Man on a deadly chase to discover the culprit and cause of ‘The Rare Edition Murders’ in #25.

Over and above his artistic virtuosity, Jack Cole was an astonishing adept writer. His regular 15-page adventures were always packed with clever, innovative notions, sophisticated character shtick and far more complex plots than any of his competitors. In #26’s ‘Body, Mind and Soul’ he starts with Plas’ FBI boss discovering his shady past, and builds on it as the exposed O’Brian agrees to a take on three impossible cases to prove he really has reformed. From there it’s all rollercoaster action as the Pliable Paladin rounds up brutish Slugger Crott, ferrets out the true identity of the city’s smartest mob boss and ends the depredations of a tragically cursed werewolf…

The rotund rascal again took centre stage – and even the cover – in #27 as ‘Woozy Winks, Juror’ hilariously endangered the very nature and sacred process of jurisprudence after being excluded from jury duty. After all, he only had a small criminal record and the impish imbecile was determined to serve so when a sharp operator gave him a few tips Woozy was so grateful that he…

The star-struck schmuck dominated again in #28 as Hollywoodcalled and the Flexible Fed agreed to star in a film. However with Mr. Winks as his manager it was inevitable that ‘Plastic Man – the Movie’ would start with intrigue, sex and murder but as usual end as a furious fun-filled fiasco.

The trail of America’s biggest tax-evader drew Plastic Man to ‘Death in Derlin’s Castle’ as the FBI’s Odd Couple followed the absence of money to an historic pile and a nefarious scheme with moody movie echoes of Citizen Kane and The Cat and the Canary, before this sublime Archive selection ceases with the outrageously odd and supremely surreal ‘Blinky Winks and Gooie Louie’ from Police Comics #30.

Plas and Woozy are drawn into incredible peril when ruthless butter-leggers begin supplying illicit spreads to the city’s dairy-deprived (rationing again) denizens. Even dedicated crime-busters like Woozy found it hard to resist the lure of the lard and when the creamy trail unfortunately led to Woozy’s uncle Blinky justice had to be done. Of course there was always lots of hard-to-find food to be found on a farm but that was just a happy coincidence…

Always exciting, breathtakingly original, thrilling, funny, scary and still visually intoxicating seventy years later, Jack Cole’s Plastic Man is a truly unique creation that has only grown in stature and appeal. This is a magical, unique comics experience fans would be crazy to deny themselves.
© 1943, 1944, 2000 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Pogo: the Complete Syndicated Comic Strips volume 2: Bona Fide Balderdash


By Walt Kelly, edited by Carolyn Kelly (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-584-6

Tragically this review copy didn’t reach me in time for a Christmas recommendation, but that’s okay as books of this calibre are worth buying and reading at every moment of every day, and rather than waste your valuable time with my purely extraneous blather, you should just hit the shops or the online emporia of your choice and grab this terrific tome now…

If you still need more though, and aren’t put off by me yet, I’m happy to elucidate at some length…

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

Refusing to take sides, Kelly moved back East and into comicbooks – primarily for Dell who held the Disney funnybook license amongst others at that time.

Despite his glorious work on such popular people-based classics as the Our Gang movie spin-off, Kelly preferred and particularly excelled with anthropomorphic animal and children’s fantasy material. For the December 1942-released Animal Comics #1 he created Albert the Alligator and Pogo Possum, wisely retaining the copyrights in the ongoing saga of two affable Bayou critters and their young African-American pal Bumbazine. Although the black kid soon disappeared, the animal actors stayed on as stars until 1948 when Kelly moved into journalism, becoming art editor and cartoonist for hard hitting, left-leaning liberal newspaper The New York Star.

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

Although ostensibly a gently humorous kids feature, by the end of its run (reprinted in full at the back of Pogo: the Complete Syndicated Comic Strips volume 1) the first glimmers of the increasingly barbed, boldly satirical masterpiece of velvet-pawed social commentary began to emerge…

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

At its height the strip appeared in 500 papers throughout 14 countries and the book collections – which began in 1951 – eventually numbered nearly 50, collectively selling over 30 million copies, and all that before this Fantagraphics series began…

In this second of a proposed full dozen volumes reprinting the entire canon of the Okefenokee Swamp citizenry, possibly the main aspect of interest is the personable Possum’s first innocently adorable attempts to run for Public Office – a ritual which inevitably and coincidentally reoccurred every four years whenever the merely human inhabitants of America got together for raucous caucuses and exuberant electioneering – but it’s also remarkable to note that by the close of this two-year period Kelly had increased his count of uniquely Vaudevillian returning characters to over one hundred. The likes of Solid MacHogany, Tammanany Tiger, Willow McWisper, Goldie Lox, Sarcophagus MacAbre, the sloganeering P.T. Bridgeport, bull moose Uncle Antler and a trio of brilliantly scene-stealing bats named Bewitched, Bothered and Bemildred, amongst so many others would pop up with varying frequency and impact over the next twenty years…

This colossal and comfortingly sturdy landscape compilation (three-hundred-and fifty-six 184x267mm pages) includes the monochrome Dailies from January 1st 1951 to December 31st 1952, and the Sundays – in their own full-colour section – from January 7th 1951 to December 28th 1952 – all faithfully annotated and listed in a copious, expansive and informative Table of Contents. Supplemental features comprise a Foreword from pioneering comedy legend Stan Freberg, delightful unpublished illustrations and working drawings by Kelly, more invaluable context and historical notes in the amazing R.C. Harvey’s ‘Swamp Talk’ by and a biographical feature ‘About Walt Kelly’ by Mark Evanier.

In his time the satirical mastermind unleashed his bestial spokes-cast on such innocent, innocuous sweethearts as Senator Joe McCarthy, J.Edgar Hoover, the John Birch Society, Richard Nixon and the Ku Klux Clan, as well as the likes of Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson and – with eerie perspicacity – George W. Romney, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Governor of Michigan and Pa of some guy named Mitt…

This particular monument to madcap mirth and sublime drollery of course includes the usual cast: gently bemused Pogo, boisterous, happily ignorant alligator Albert, dolorous Porkypine, obnoxious turtle Churchy La Femme, lugubrious hound Beauregard Bugleboy, carpet-bagging Seminole Sam Fox, pompous (doesn’t) know-it-all Howland Owl and all the rest, covering not only day to day topics and travails like love, marriage, weather, fishing, the problem with kids, the innocent joys of sport, making a living and why neighbours shouldn’t eat each other, but also includes epic sagas: the stress of Poetry Contests, hunting – from a variety of  points of view – Christmas and other Public Holidays, incipient invasion, war and even cross-dressing to name but a few…

As Kelly spent a good deal of 1952 spoofing the electoral race, this tome offers a magical, magnificent treatment of all the problems associated with grass (and moss) roots politics: dubious campaign tactics, loony lobbying, fun with photo ops, impractical tactical alliances, glad-handing, a proliferation of political promos and ephemera, how to build clockwork voters – and candidates – and of course, life after a failed run for the Presidency…

As the delicious Miz Ma’m’selle Hepzibah would no doubt say: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Kelly’s uncontested genius lay in his seemingly effortless ability to lyrically, vivaciously portray through anthropomorphic affectation comedic, tragic, pompous, infinitely sympathetic characters of any shape or breed, all whilst making them undeniably 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 of the surreal swamp lands are, of course, 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 hodgepodge of all-ages delight – and we’ve never looked or behaved better…

This stuff will certainly make you laugh; it will probably provoke a sentimental tear or ten and will certainly satisfy your every entertainment requirement. Timeless and magical, Pogo is a giant not simply of comics, but of world literature and this magnificent second edition should be the pride of every home’s bookshelf, right beside the first one.

…Or, in the popular campaign parlance of the critters involved: “I Go Pogo!” and so should you.

POGO Bona Fide Balderdash and all POGO images, including Walt Kelly’s signature © 2012 Okefenokee Glee & Perloo Inc. All other material © 2012 the respective creator and owner. All rights reserved.

Johnny Hazard – The Gold of Thal


By Frank Robbins (Pacific Comics Publications)
No ISBN

Johnny Hazard was a newspaper strip created in the style and manner of Terry and the Pirates, but in many ways the steely-eyed hero most resembles – and indeed presages – Milton Caniff’s second magnum opus Steve Canyon.

Unbelievably, until 2011 this stunningly impressive and enthralling adventure strip was never comprehensively collected in graphic novels – at least in English – although selected highlights had appeared in nostalgia magazines such as Pioneer Comics and Dragon Lady Press Presents.

However, sporadic compendiums of full-colour Sunday pages have popped up over the years, such as this gloriously huge (340 x 245mm) landscape tabloid produced by re-translating a collected Italian edition back into English, courtesy of the Pacific Comic Club.

Frank Robbins was a brilliant all-around cartoonist whose unique artistic and lettering style lent itself equally to adventure, comedy and superhero tales, whilst his expansive raconteur’s gifts made him one of the best writers of three generations of comics.

He first came to fame in 1939 when he took over newspaper strip Scorchy Smith (from the astounding Noel Sickles), creating a Sunday page for the feature in 1940. Robbins was then offered the high-profile Secret Agent X-9 but instead created his own lantern jawed, steely-eyed man of action.

A tireless and prolific worker, even whilst producing a daily and Sunday Hazard (usually a separate storyline for each), Robbins freelanced as an illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post, Look, Life and a host of other mainstream magazines.

In the 1960s and 1970s he moved into comicbooks, becoming a key contributor to Batman, Batgirl, Detective Comics (where he created Man-Bat with Neal Adams) and The Flash, followed Michael Kaluta on The Shadow and contributed to humour mag Plop! as well as DC’s mystery anthologies. Moving to Marvel in the early 1970s, Robbins concentrated on drawing a variety of titles including Captain America, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Morbius, Human Fly, Man from Atlantis, Power Man and The Invaders, which he co-created with Roy Thomas.

When Johnny Hazard launched on Monday June 5th 1944, its star was an aviator in the United States Army Air Corps who, when hostilities ceased, became for a while a freelance charter pilot and secret agent before settling into the bombastic life of a globe-girdling trouble-shooter, mystery-solver and modern day Knight Errant babe-magnet.

The strip ended in 1977: another victim of diminishing panel-sizes and the move towards simplified, thrill-free, family-friendly gag-a-day graphic fodder to wrap around small-ads.

With the release at long last of a dedicated collection of the black and white Daily strips, I thought I’d spotlight a few of those fabulous landscape tomes which kept the Amazing Aviator alive in fans’ hearts in the years since it ceased publication.

In a previous review remarkably similar to this one, we saw the Rangoon-based World-Wide Airline head-honcho handle a madly muddled movie crew in Mammoth Marches On, battle a Japanese war-criminal with atomic aspirations in ‘The Hunted’ and bring to book a gang of highly sophisticated plane-wrecking ‘Scavengers’ in the jungles between Vietnam and Cambodia, before heading off on his next incredible adventure which barely began before that particular collection concluded. This particular tome re-presents sequences which first appeared in American Sunday Supplements between April 19th 1953 and July 4th 1954, and depict a time of wild globetrotting exploits and increasingly exhilarating fantasy frolics…

Ceiling Zero-Minus’ found Johnny and trusty pals Don and Cutout hired to take a new type of helicopter down into the deepest, widest hole on Earth in search of missing miners, and this sensational storyline continues with an astounding discovery as their vertical vehicle is trapped in a net nine thousand feet below the surface…

The unbelievable follow-up is even more amazing as the trio are taken prisoner by a Herculean giant and introduced to a fantastic subterranean civilisation built over eons by cavemen fleeing Earth’s last Ice Age.

Moreover the ambitious super-scientific overlords of the sub-city state of Namron are in the final stages of a complex and long-planned invasion of the surface world. They already have spies and fifth columnists placed in the most unsuspected places…

With the upper lands exhausted by recent wars and divided by ideology the crucial day is fast approaching, especially as wicked dictator Nallor has captured the beautiful Princess Alba

It transpires that the rival city of Justus has long held the subterranean tyrant’s insane ambitions in check, but with their ruler’s daughter now a hostage Nallor feels confidant enough to start his campaign, but hasn’t reckoned on the capable Hazard’s ability to make trouble. Soon the escaped surface-men are dashing the rescued Alba back to Justus through the underworld with all the unimaginably resources of the invaders at their heels, but they have not reckoned on the fact that one of them is a Namronian double-agent…

Fantastic and eerily spectacular, the fantasy epic ends with the heroes triumphant and Upper Earth saved, so seven days later it was back to rip-roaring adventure in a traditional vein with ‘Deadly Game!’ (August 30th 1953-January 24th 1954) as Johnny is chartered to ferry a chess master to a bizarre competition in the heart of the Burmese jungle. Little do the plucky pilot or Señor Professor Eduardo Estaban realise just how seriously enigmatic plantation owner Mr. Basil takes his games…

The first hint comes when the tea-farmer’s lovely young wife starts passing terrified notes, but the clincher is when Johnny discovers the bodies of previous players in the Room of Death…

Things come to a head when the pilot then finds out what Basil is really cultivating in his vast, isolated fields and leads to a deadly duel of wits …and bombs and bullets…

The furious finale finds Hazard, Estaban and Valerie Basil fleeing a scene of deadly devastation on the packet boat of corpulent rogue Captain Shark as ‘Monkey See…Monkey Do!’ (running from January 31st to May 9th 1954) draws the stunned survivors into an ancient feud. Whilst torturously returning to civilisation along the sluggishIrrawaddy, Hazard finds a stuffed monkey in the captain’s cabin – one bedecked with thousands of dollars worth of ancient jewellery…

Years ago Shark and his thieving colleague PeterThree-EyesLynch had fought over a treasure map which led to a lost city deep in the jungle. Ever since Three-Eyes went overboard with half the map and a bullet-hole in him, Shark has travelled the river as an itinerant courier searching in vain for his prize, but now the battle at Basil’s plantation has uncovered a hidden tributary and the unlucky passengers have no choice but to go along with the obsessed Captain…

Things take a terrifying turn when the boat is invaded by gun-toting monkeys who take them all captive and bring the vessel to that much-sought lost city…

Three-Eyes didn’t die that night. Instead he drifted to the ancient ruin and spent long months training the anthropoids to do his bidding. All this time he’s been waiting for somebody to find the desolated ruins and provide him with a means of transporting back to civilisation the tons of gold and gems he’s been impatiently sitting on…

Things are tense enough with the wanderers as simple captives of the crazy monkey- man, but when Three-Eyes realises just how long it’s been since he touched a human woman, the situation escalates…

Although the chivalrous pilot successfully defends Valerie, they and Estaban can only watch in horror as Shark and Lynch finally take their long-deferred dispute to its ultimate, foregone conclusion…

This volume – like its predecessor – then carries on into the next saga and ends on a tantalising cliffhanger as, after dragging his charges back to Rangoon and safety, Hazard is then hired by a climber who claims to have been the first person to actually scale Mount Everest. Surprisingly, Virgil Dale isn’t too fussed about not getting the credit for such an incredible achievement: he’s since hooked up with returning villainess/entrepreneur Baroness Flame who wants to fund an expedition to the High Himalayas and capture the beast he discovered there – ‘The Abominable Snowman!’

To be continued…

These exotic action-romances perfectly captured the mood and magic of a distant but so incredibly familiar time; with cool heroes, hot dames and exceedingly intemperate bad-guys encountering exotic locales and stunning scenarios, all peppered with blistering tension, slyly mature humour and vivid, visceral excitement.

Johnny Hazard is a brilliant two-fisted thriller-strip and even if you can’t easily locate these fantastic full-colour chronicles, at least the prospect of an eventual new Sunday strip collection is a little closer at last…
© 1953-1954 King Features Syndicate. © 1980 Pacific C.C.

Came the Dawn and Other Stories illustrated by Wallace Wood


By Wallace Wood, Al Feldstein, Harry Harrison, Gardner Fox & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-546-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Sheer, seductive dark pictorial poetry in emotion… 10/10

EC began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines sold the successful superhero properties of his All-American Comics company – including Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman – to half-sister National/DC, retaining only Picture Stories from the Bible. His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups as the major target market. He then augmented his core title with three more in similar vein: Picture Stories from American History, Science and World History. The worthwhile but unsustainable project was already struggling when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

His son William was eventually convinced to assume control of the family business and, with much support and encouragement from unsung hero Sol Cohen and multi-talented associate Al Feldstein, transformed the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics, consequently triggering the greatest qualitative leap forward in comicbook history…

After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments, Gaines settled into a bold and impressive publishing strategy, utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at an older, more discriminating audience.

From 1950 to 1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of science fiction, war, horror and crime. The company even added a new type of title and another genre with the creation of parody magazine Mad

This second volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library compiles a magical and groundbreaking omnibus of horrific tales and human dramas featuring the astounding artistic expertise of Wallace Allan Wood: one of the greatest draughtsmen our art form has ever produced.

Wood was actually a master of every aspect of the business. He began his career lettering Will Eisner’s Spirit strip, quickly moved into pencilling and inking and, latterly, publishing. After years working all over the comics and syndicated strip industries, as well as in legitimate illustration, package-design and other areas of commercial art, he devised the legendary T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents franchise and even created one of the first adult independent comics with Witzend in the late 1960s.

The troubled genius carried the seeds of his own destruction, however. Woody’s life was one of addiction (booze and cigarettes), traumatic relationships, tantalisingly close but always frustrated financial security, illness and eventually suicide. It was as if all the joy and beauty in his existence stayed on the pages and there was none left for real life.

Although during his time with EC Wood became the acknowledged and undisputed Master of Science Fiction art in America, he was equally adept, driven and accomplished in the production of all genres.

This powerfully effective collection concentrates on some of his best early horror, crime and suspense tales and includes all the evocative, emotionally-charged, controversial “Preachies” which Feldstein and Bill Gaines had devised to address hot-button issues and challenge the smugly hierarchical social status quo of post-war, triumphalist America.

These strident and still truly shocking morality plays viciously jabbed at the nation’s dark underbelly; attacking prejudice, police corruption, drug abuse, sexual attitudes, racism, institutionalised intolerance and all manners of hypocrisy. It’s no stretch to consider that these tales, more than any other childhood influence, probably shaped the resurgent liberal attitudes which blossomed as the future “Flower Power” generation reached their majority a decade later…

As with the previous Kurtzman volume, the stories are re-presented here in a lavish monochrome hardcover edition, with supplementary interviews, features and dissertations, beginning with ‘Come the Stories’ by Bill Mason, which appraises the yarns included with forensic discipline. Then the pictorial parade kicks off with a rather pedestrian scam caper which sees an innocent man convinced that he’s a ravening monster in ‘The Werewolf Legend’ scripted by the prolific and ubiquitous Gardner Fox, one of Gaines senior’s greatest assets and discovery.

The illustration is by Harry Harrison & inked by Wood from Vault of Horror #12 (April/May 1950). Although Harrison found his greatest fame as a prose author in later years, he was a major player in the comics biz during the 1950s and had worked with Wood as a jobbing production team since they’d met at the Cartoonists and Illustrators school in 1948.

For Haunt of Fear #15 the trio concocted a tale of lethal legerdemain in ‘The Mad Magician’, whilst the anonymously-authored enigma of ‘The Living Corpse’ (Crypt of Terror #18) moved closer to truly supernatural shenanigans as another illusionist took things too far in pursuit of his craft.

Harrison probably scripted and certainly inked ‘The Curse of Harkley Heath’ from Vault of Horror #13, wherein a gothic triangle of greedy heirs came to unpleasant, untimely ends after a will was read, after which Wood began handling all the art chores with ‘Horror-Ahead!’ (Haunt of Fear #16, July/August 1950) when rival curio collectors’ jungle jaunt in search of shrunken skulls ended in the only way it possibly could…

The Noir-ish new era began when Al Feldstein began scripting for Woody. ‘Death’s Double-Cross’ from the sublimely mature Crime SuspenStories #1 (October/November 1951) offers the twisted tale of a woman cheating on her husband with his twin brother in a moody masterpiece reminiscent of James M. Cain. Naturally it quickly turned into a nightmare that couldn’t end pretty…

Fox offered one last hurrah in ‘The Man from the Grave’ from Haunt of Fear #4, which saw a dissolute artist commit gruesome murder for his art and lived to regret it in desperate luxury and a relentless, compulsive paroxysm of over-work, whilst Feldstein’s

‘Terror Ride!’ (Tales From the Crypt #21) found two young lovers who soon regretted being the last couple to ride the decrepit Amusement Park’s Old Mill boat attraction… Feldstein’s epic run of stories fill most of this tome and next appeared in Haunt of Fear #5, where Wood’s dark imagination and ability to render grotesques was expertly exploited in ‘Horror in the Freak Tent!’ wherein a cruel carnival owner who mercilessly mistreated his exotic employees eventually received a macabre measure of justice…

Crime SuspenStories #3 then provided a fearsome farrago of betrayal and vengeance when two fugitive bandits were ‘Faced With Horror!’ after picking the wrong plastic surgeon to sort out their public notoriety problems, whilst ‘So They Finally Pinned You Down!’ from Haunt of Fear #6 followed a troubled soul who couldn’t understand why he was always stumbling over dead women…

The macabre mayhem concluded with two tales from Tales From the Crypt #24 and 25, beginning with a classic philandering-murderer-gets-his-come-uppance tale in ‘Scared to Death!’ after which a baroque body-switching melodrama featuring a cunning crone and a lovely young thing forced a bewildered husband to conclude ‘Judy, You’re Not Yourself Today!’

The rest of this volume is comprised of those controversial polemical passion-plays and conscience-rending human dilemmas that Gaines dubbed Preachies, opening with ‘The Guilty!’ (from Shock SuspenStories #3, June/July 1952), which saw a typical small town enflamed by the murder of a young white girl. The Sheriff knew the black kid in his jail was guilty and was as keen as the mob to spare the state the cost of a trial. He took steps to ensure it too.

…And that’s when the girl’s white boyfriend confessed…

Although stridently moralising and perhaps heavy handed by contemporary standards, these stories are the very bedrock of EC’s well-deserved reputation as the crusading creators of America’s very first adult comics for mature readers. Moreover these ugly truths were gloriously draped in so very beautiful clothes, as Wood’s incredible illustration, inspired by the fiercely impassioned scripts, soared to unparallelled heights of sensitivity and gut-wrenching impact.

Shock SuspenStories #4 took the cultural campaign further in a sordid tale of the innocent witness relentlessly beaten into a ‘Confession’ by cops determined to capture a hit-and-run driver who’d killed their Lieutenant’s wife. So why then, was the grieving officer’s car all banged up and covered in blood…?

Old-fashioned anti-Semitism fuelled the ‘Hate!’ of a quiet little town and led to the death of a family too stubborn to be warned. Imagine instigator John Smith’s surprise when his appalled mother told the entire town that he was adopted… and what his true origins were…

‘Under Cover!’ in Shock SuspenStories #6 combined a campaign of punishment-floggings for miscegenation by the local Klan chapter with the end of a crusading reporter who tried to expose the scandal but tragically forgot that there might be almost anybody under those pointy hoods, whilst ‘The Bribe’ in #7 revealed how even the most honest and dedicated of civil servants could be pushed into abandoning his principles – especially with a loving daughter, her upcoming wedding and crushing society pressure hitting him so hard…

By today’s standards ‘The Assault!’ is potentially the most contentious tale here, revealing how a small town girl with salacious appetites callously protected her reputation by framing an old man for her “rape”. In typical tone for those times, her lie ultimately caused two deaths…

‘Came the Dawn!’ from Shock SuspenStories #9 is a marvellous example of Greek tragedy in modern dress, as a lonely backwoods hermit finds a beautiful naked woman in his cabin and, after a night of mutual passion with the girl of his dreams, discovers that an inmate has escaped from the nearby asylum. Only after he’s locked her out does he discover that she’s not the only mysterious blonde lost in the forest…

Far less emotionally loaded but equally devastating is the darkly introspective ‘…So Shall Ye Reap!’ (Shock SuspenStories #10) which finds a penitent, angry young man contemplating every hypocritical act of his pompously pious parents before reaching his own moment of judgement after which ‘In Gratitude’ launches a simply breathtaking attack on the nation’s double standards when a wounded soldier comes home to a hero’s welcome and turns on his friends and family when he finds out what they’ve done to the coloured man who saved his life…

More quirky crime-caper than social commentary, ‘Fall Guy’ (Shock SuspenStories #12) follows the doomed decade that saw decent guy Danny Jansen steal a fortune to please a greedy girl far out of his league and spend ten years in jail paying for it. Surprisingly she waited all that time for him, but wasn’t best pleased when he couldn’t remember how to retrieve his ill-gotten gains…

A campaign of hate to drive out a man who foolishly admitted to being part-Negro ended in suicide and a sense of smug satisfaction when the bigot-in-charge boasted of his success to the local doctor in ‘Blood-Brothers’ (Shock SuspenStories #13). Imagine the vile cross-burner’s surprise when the aged medic revealed the source of the transfusion which had long-ago saved the happy hate-monger’s life…

‘The Whipping’ (scripted by Feldstein or Jack Oleck from Shock SuspenStories #14) returned to scandal-mongering territory, when a dutiful daughter defied her racist father and started “dating” an Hispanic boy. The dad certainly didn’t call it that, and the outrageous steps he and his pure-white buddies took to end the affair horrifically backfired…

The last tale reprinted here is ‘The Confidant’ (Feldstein or Oleck again from Shock SuspenStories #15, June/July 1954) from a time when the public outcry against comics was just reaching its fevered peak. The story deals with mob-justice and sees an entire town baying for the blood of a newcomer who had murdered a young girl.

Then, when a dark stranger arrives searching for one of his children, the unofficial posse immediately jump to the wrong conclusion with tragic and irreparably consequences…

Please forgive any deliberate vagueness on my part here: the point is to make you want to read these still poignant and shocking stories and I don’t want to devalue their impact or spoil your otherwise assured enjoyment…

A detailed history of the flawed genius is then provided by historian S.C. Ringgenberg in the prose piece ‘Wallace Wood’ after which this truly beautiful book is closed by another set of ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ by Arthur Lortie & and Bill Mason and Ted White’s ‘Crime, Horror, Terror, Gore, Depravity, Disrespect for Established Authority – and Science Fiction Too!: ‘The Ups and Downs of EC Comics: A Short History’ once more offers a comprehensive run-down of the entire EC phenomenon.

The short, sweet, cruelly limited EC back-catalogue has been revisited ad infinitum in the decades since its demise. Those amazing yarns changed not just comics but also infected the larger world through film and television to convert millions into dedicated devotees still addicted to New Trend tales.

Whether you are an aged EC Fan-Addict, just a nervous newbie, or simply a mere fan of brilliant stories and sublime art, Came the Dawn is a book no sane and sensible reader can afford to be without.

This edition © 2012 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All comics stories © 2012 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., reprinted with permission. All other material © 2012 the respective creators.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman


By Harvey Kurtzman & others (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-545-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: War is Hell – but never looked better or taught us more… 9/10

EC Comics began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company to half-sister National/DC, retaining only Pictures Stories from the Bible. His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups as the major target market.

He augmented his core title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History but the worthy project was already struggling when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

As detailed in the final comprehensive essay in this superb graphic collection, his son William was dragged into the family business and, with much support and encouragement from unsung hero Sol Cohen – who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of a career in chemistry – transformed the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics

After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments, Gaines and his multi-talented associate Al Feldstein settled into a bold and impressive publishing strategy, utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at an older and more discerning readership.

From 1950 to 1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction and, under the auspices of writer, artist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, the inventor of an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…

Kurtzman was hired to supplement the workforce on the horror titles but wasn’t keen on the genre and suggested a new action-adventure title. The result was Two-Fisted Tales which began with issue #18 at the end of 1959 as an anthology of rip-snorting, he-man suspense dramas. However, withAmerica embroiled in a military “police action” inKorea, the title soon became primarily a war comic and was soon augmented by another.

Frontline Combat was also written and edited by Kurtzman, who also assiduously laid-out and meticulously designed every story – which made for great entertainment but was frequently a cause of friction with many artists…

Moreover, in keeping with the New Trend spirit, these war stories were not bombastic, jingoistic fantasies for glory-hungry little boys, but rather subtly subversive examinations of the cost of conflict which highlighted the madness, futility and senseless, pointless waste of it all…

Kurtzman was a cartoon genius and probably the most important cartoonist of the last half of the 20th century. His early triumphs in the fledgling field of comicbooks (especially the groundbreaking Mad magazine) would be enough for most creators to lean back on but Kurtzman was a force in newspaper strips (See Flash Gordon Complete Daily Strips 1951-1953) and a restless innovator, a commentator and social explorer who kept on looking at folk and their doings: a man with exacting standards who just couldn’t stop creating.

He invented a whole new format and gave America Popular Satire when he converted his highly successful full-colour baby Mad into a black and white magazine, safely distancing the outrageously brilliant comedic publication from the fall-out caused by the 1950s socio-political witch-hunt which eventually killed all EC’s other titles.

He pursued his unique brand of thoughtfully outré comedy and social satire further with the magazines Trump, Humbug and Help!, all the while still conceiving challenging and powerfully effective funny strips such as Little Annie Fannie (for Playboy), The Jungle Book, Nutz, Goodman Beaver, Betsy and her Buddies and many more. He died far too early in 1993.

This first volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library gathers a stunning selection of Kurtzman stories in a lavish monochrome hardcover edition, packed with supplementary interviews, features and dissertations, beginning with ‘The Truth’ by cartoonist and historian R.C. Harvey, who describes in stark detail the history of Kurtzman’s EC days.

Then follows a raft of stirring sagas solely from the master’s hand, beginning with ‘Conquest’ from Two-Fisted Tales #18, which with acerbic aplomb relates the rise and fall of Spanish conquistador Juan Alvorado, whose rapacious hunger for Aztec gold led inexorably to the downfall and doom of his entire expedition. Jivaro Death’ (#19) deals with modern-day greed as two duplicitous Yankees search for diamonds in the heart of the Amazon jungle whilst T-FT #20 revealed the fate of an amnesiac buccaneer who returned from certain death to obsessively reclaim his ‘Pirate Gold’ from the men who betrayed him.

From issue #21 comes ‘Search!’ which ironically combined an Italian-American’s search for family with the devastating US assault on Anzio in 1943, after which the first selection from Frontline Combat produces an uncharacteristically patriotic clash with the North Korean aggressors in ‘Contact!’ (#2, September 1951).

‘Kill’ from T-FT #23 also takes place in Korea and details a squalid encounter between a blood-thirsty knife-wielding G.I. psycho and his soulless Commie antithesis, whilst ‘Prisoner of War!’ (FC #3) highlights the numbing, inhuman brutality of combat when American POWs attempt an escape…

‘Rubble!’ (T-FT #24) boldly stepped into the “enemy” shoes by highlighting the war’s casual cost to simple Korean civilians whilst ‘Air Burst!’ in FC #4 goes even further by featuring the Communist soldiers’ side of the conflict.

The eponymous ‘Corpse on the Imjin!’ (T-FT #25) is one of the most memorable, moving and respected tales of the genre: a genuine anti-war story which elegiacally traces a body’s motion down the river and exposes the ruminations of the doomed observers who see it. The sentiment is further explored in ‘Big ‘If’!’ (FC #5) as G.I. Paul Maynard sits in a shell hole and ponders what might have been…

Kurtzman’s unique display of cartooning and craftsmanship is followed by the essay ‘Combat Duty’ wherein Jared Gardner discusses the background and usage of the other artists who worked on the author’s Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat scripts, after which ‘Marines Retreat!’ drawn by John Severin (and inked by Kurtzman from FC #1, July/August 1951) describes in microcosm the shocking American forced withdrawal from the Changjin Reservoir in December 1950 – an event which stunned and terrified the folks at home and shook forever the cherished belief in the US Marines’ invincibility – all told through the eyes of a soldier who understood too late the values he was supposed to be fighting for…

Kurtzman’s relationship with his artists could be fraught. Alex Toth, a tempestuous individualist who only drew three tales from his editor’s incredibly detailed lay-outs, famously produced some of his very best work at EC under such creative duress. The first and least was ‘Dying City!’ (T-FT #22) which found an aged Korean grandfather berating his dying descendent for the death and destruction he had brought upon his family and nation,

‘O.P.!’ was drawn by hyper-realist Russ Heath (FC #1) and once more ladled on the bleak, black irony during an annihilating trench encounter during WWI. After which Toth’s astounding aerial imagination produced in ‘Thunderjet!’ (FC #8) one of the most thrilling and evocative dogfight dramas in comics history.

This tale was an alarm-call to complacentAmericaas aUSpilot was forced to concede that his winged weapon was inferior to the ever-present Communist MIGs…

‘Fire Mission!’ (T-FT #29) was drawn by Dave Berg – an artist far better regarded for his comedy work – and lent his facility with expressions to a rather standard tale of courage discovered under fire in Korea, after which Gene Colan delineated the rift between military and civilians in the hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor in ‘Wake!’ from T-FT #30.

From the same issue ‘Bunker!’ was the first strip illustrated by Ric Estrada and described rivalry and tension between American units during a Korean offensive. Oddly enough for the times, the fact that one was comprised of Negro soldiers was not mentioned at all…

The Cuban artist then drew a chillingly macabre tale of Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American war of 1898 in ‘Rough Riders!’ (FC #11) after which master of comics noir Johnny Craig detailed the fate of a ‘Lost Battalion!’ in WWI (T-FT #32, March/April 1953).

‘Tide!’ was an EC debut tale for the already-legendary Joe Kubert from the same issue, and detailed a D-Day debacle and its insignificance in the grand scheme of things after which Toth’s magnificent Kurtzman-scripted swansong ‘F-86 Sabre Jet!’ (FC #12) revisited and even surpassed his Thunderjet job with a potent and beguiling reductionist minimalism that perfectly captured the disorienting hell of war in the air.

Due to illness and the increasing workload caused by Mad, Kurtzman’s involvement with war titles was gradually diminishing. Frontline Combat #14, (October 1953) provides his last collaboration with Kubert in ‘Bonhomme Richard!’, a shocking personalised account of American nautical legend John Paul Jones’ devastating duel with the British warship Serapis – as told by one of the hundreds of ordinary sailors who didn’t survive…

This master-class in sequential excellence concludes with a salutary tale from the Civil War special Two-Fisted Tales #35 (October 1953), illustrated by Reed Crandall.  ‘Memphis!’ blends the destructive horror of the Union’s River Fleet of Ironclad’s as they inexorably took control of the Mississippi with the irrepressible excitement of Southern kids who simply couldn’t understand what was happening to their parents and families…

Even with the comics extravaganza ended, there’s still more to enjoy as underground cartooning legend Frank Stack discusses the techniques and impact of Kurtzman’s astonishing covers for Two-Fisted Tales and Two-Fisted Tales in ‘Respect for Simplicity – the War Covers of Harvey Kurtzman’ which is superbly supplemented by a full-colour section representing all of them, even the seldom-seen Two-Fisted Annual 1952.

Also adding to the value is‘A Conversation with Harvey Kurtzman’  by John Benson, E.B. Boatner & Jay Kinney which transcribes two interviews from 1979 and 1982, as well as a full appreciation of the great man’s career in ‘Harvey Kurtzman’ by S.C. Ringgenberg.

Rounding everything off is ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ a comprehensive run-down of all involved by Bill Mason and others, and a general heads-up on the entire EC phenomenon in ‘The Ups and Downs of EC Comics: A Short History’ by author, editor, critic and comics fan Ted White.

The short, sweet but severely limited output of EC has been reprinted ad infinitum in the decades since the company died. These astounding stories and art have changed not just comics but also infected the larger world through film and television and via the millions of dedicated devotees still addicted to New Trend tales. However, as far as I can recall nobody has produced collections faithfully focussing on the contributions of individual creators, and even though the likes of me know these timeless classics intimately, this simple innovation has somehow added a new dimension to the readers’ enjoyment.

I eagerly anticipate the advent of the other volumes in this superb series and strongly suggest that whether you are an aged EC Fan-Addict or nervous newbie, this is a book no comics aficionado can afford to miss…

This edition © 2012 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All comics stories © 2012 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., reprinted with permission. All other material © 2012 the respective creators and owners.

Marvels


By Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross (Graphitti Designs/Marvel)
ISBN: 0-936211-47-4

Every so often a series, miniseries or story-arc comes along in mainstream comics which irrevocably alters the landscape of the art-form, if not the business. After each such event the medium is never quite the same again…

One such work was the 4-issue Prestige Format miniseries Marvels by jobbing scripter Kurt Busiek and then just-breaking illustrative artist Alex Ross.

I’m usually quite reticent in suggesting people read stuff I know damn well they’ve probably already seen, but as I actually want to review the long, long, long-delayed sequel it’s probably best to start at square one, right?

…And just for clarity’s sake my copy is the 1994 Deluxe, Signed and Numbered Limited Hardcover edition produced under license by Graphitti Designs. It’s pretty spiffy and has, I gather, a few little extras not included in other editions, but is of course far from the only version available…

This tale is all about history and human perspective and follows the working life of photo-journalist Phil Sheldon, whose career closely paralleled the dawn of the modern heroic era; when science, magic, courage and overwhelming super-nature gave birth to an Age of Marvels…

After a lovely painted plate containing those aforementioned signatures and a heartfelt dedication to Jack Kirby, writer Kurt Busiek offers his light-hearted reminiscences and mis-rememberings on how the project came about, liberally illustrated with pictures, designs and sketches from the meticulous Alex Ross’ art files, after which the saga opens with ‘A Time of Marvels’

In 1939 a gaggle of ambitious young newspapermen are discussing the War in Europe. Brash J. Jonah Jameson is trying to dissuade his shutterbug pal Phil Sheldon from heading overseas, claiming there’s plenty of news still inNew York…

Unconvinced, Phil heads to his next assignment: a press conference with scientific crackpot Professor Phineas T. Horton. The photographer’s head is filled with thoughts of journalistic fame and glory on distant battlefields and he almost misses the moment Horton unveils his artificial man: a creature that bursts into flame like a Human Torch

From that moment Sheldon’s life changes forever. His love-hate fascination with the fantastic miracles which rapidly, unceasingly follow in the fiery wake of the inflammatory inhumanoid is used to trace the history of superhumanity and monstrous menace which comprises the entire canon of what we know as the Marvel Universe.

Soon the android is accepted as a bona fide hero, frequently battling with aquatic invader Sub-Mariner like elemental gods in the skies above the city whilst the seemingly-human vigilante supermen like The Angel constantly ignore the law and daily diminish Phil’s confidence and self-worth. It’s as if by their well-meaning actions these creatures are showing that mere men are obsolete and insignificant.

The photographer’s feelings of ineffectuality and inadequacy having crushed his spirit, Phil turns down the War correspondent assignment and descends into a fearful funk. He even splits up with his fiancée Doris Jaquet: after all, what kind of man brings children into a world with such inhuman horrors in it?

Nevertheless Sheldon cannot stop following the exploits of the phenomenons he’s dubbed “Marvels”…

It all changes with the arrival of patriotic icon Captain America. With theLand ofLiberty in the War at last, many once-terrifying titans have become the nation’s allies and secret weapons, turning their awesome power against the Axis foe and winning the fickle approval of a grateful public.

However, some were always less dutiful than others and when the tempestuous Sub-Mariner again battled the Torch, Prince Namor of Atlantis petulantly unleashed a tidal wave against New York and Phil was injured snapping the event.

Even after the loss of an eye, Phil’s newfound belief in the Marvels doesn’t waver and he rededicates himself to his job and Doris; happily going to Europe where his pictures of America’s superhuman Invaders crushing the Nazi threat become part of the fabric of history…

The second chapter skips to the 1960s where Sheldon, wife Doris and daughters Jenny and Beth are, like most New Yorkers, at the epicentre of another outbreak of meta-humanity – a second Age of Marvels…

Two new bands of costumed heroes are operating openly: a Fantastic Foursome comprising Reed Richards, Ben Grimm and Sue and Johnny Storm and another masked, anonymous team who hide their identities and call themselves Avengers. There are also numerous independent costumed characters streaking across the skies and hogging the headlines, which Jonah Jameson – now owner and publisher of the newspaper he once wrote for – is none too happy about. After all he has never trusted masks and is violently opposed to this new crop of masked mystery-men…

Phil is still an in-demand freelancer, but has had a novel idea and signs a deal for a book of his photos just as the first flush of popular fancy begins to wane and the increasing anxiety about humanoid mutants begins to choke and terrify the man in the street…

When the mysterious X-Men are spotted, Sheldon is caught up in a spontaneous anti-mutant race-riot and is appalled to find himself throwing bricks with the rest of the out-of control mob. He’s even close enough to hear their leader dismissively claim “They’re not worth it”…

Shocked and dazed, he goes home to his nice, normal family but the incident won’t leave him, even as he throws himself into his work and his book. He worries that his daughters seem to idolise the Marvels. “Normal” people seemed bizarrely conflicted, dazzled and besotted by the celebrity status of the likes of Reed Richards and Sue Storm as they prepared for their upcoming wedding, yet prowling the streets in vigilante packs lest some ghastly mutant show its disgusting face…

Events come to a head when Phil finds his own children harbouring a mutant in the cellar. During WWII Phil photographed the liberation of Auschwitzand looking into the huge deformed orbs of “Maggie” he sees what he saw in the eyes of those pitiful survivors. His basic humanity eventually wins out and Phil lets her stay, but he can’t help dreading what his friends and neighbours might do if they find such a creature mere yards from their own precious families…

The hysteria just keeps on growing and the showbiz glitz of the Richards/Storm wedding is almost immediately overshadowed by the catastrophic launch of anthropologist Bolivar Trask’s Sentinels. At first the mutant-hunting robots seem like humanity’s boon but when they usurp their programming and attempt to take over Earth it is the despised and dreaded Homo Superior who save all mankind.

Of course the man in the street knows nothing of this and all Phil sees is more panicked mobs rioting and destroying their own homes…

In fear for his family he rushes back to Doris and the girls, only to find that Maggie has vanished: the unlovely little child had realised how much her presence had endangered her benefactors. They never saw her again…

Chapter 3 focuses on the global trauma of ‘Judgement Day’ as the shine truly starts coming off the apple. Even though crises come thick and fast and are as quickly dealt with, vapid, venal humanity begins to become jaded with its burgeoning costumed community and once-revered heroes are plagued by scandal after scandal. Exhausted, disappointed and dejected, Phil shelves his book project, but fate takes a hand when the skies catch fire and an incredible shiny alien on a sky-borne surfboard announces the end of life on Earth…

The planet-devouring Galactus seems unstoppable and the valiant, rapidly-responding Fantastic Four are humiliatingly defeated. Phil, along with the rest of the world, embraces the end and wearily walks home to be with his loved ones, repeatedly encountering humanity at its best and nauseating, petty, defeated worst.

However, with the last-minute assistance of the Silver Surfer, who betrays his puissant master and endures an horrific fate, Reed Richards saves the world, but within days he is accused of faking the entire episode and Sheldon, disgusted with his fellow men, explodes in moral revulsion…

Some time later Phil’s photo-book is finally released in the concluding ‘The Day She Died’. Now an avowed and passionate proponent of masked heroes, humanity’s hair-trigger ambivalence and institutionalised rushes to judgement constantly aggravate him even as he meets the public and signs countless copies of “Marvels”.

The average American’s ungrateful and ingracious attitudes rankle particularly since the mighty Avengers are currently lost in another galaxy defending Earth from collateral destruction in a war between the rival galactic empires of the Kree and the Skrulls, but the most constant bugbear is old associate Jonah Jameson’s obsessive pillorying of the mysterious Spider-Man.

Phil particularly despises a grovelling, ethically-deprived young freelance photographer named Peter Parker who constantly curries favour with the Daily Bugle’s boss by selling pictures that deliberately make the Wall-crawler look bad…

Phil’s book has brought a measure of success, and when the aging photographer hires young Marcia Hardesty as a PA/assistant whilst he works on a follow-up, he finds a passionate kindred spirit. Still, everywhere Sheldon looks costumed champions are being harried, harassed and hunted by two-faced citizens and corrupt demagogues, although even he has to admit some of the newer heroes are hard to like…

Ex-Russian spy the Black Widow is being tried for murder, protesting students are wounded by a Stark Industries super-armoured thug and in Times Square a guy with a murky past is touting himself as a Hero for Hire

When respected Police Captain George Stacy is killed during a battle between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus, Jameson is frantic to pin the death on the Web-spinner but hero-worshipping Phil digs deeper. He interviews many witnesses, including the murderously malign, multi-limed loon himself, and consequently strikes up a friendship with Stacy’s lovely daughter Gwen, a truly sublime young lady who is inexplicably dating that unscrupulous weasel Parker…

One evening, hoping for another innocuous chat with the vivacious lass, Phil sees her being abducted by the Green Goblin and, desperately giving chase, watches as his vaunted hero Spider-Man utterly fails to save her from death. Her murder doesn’t even rate a headline; that’s saved for industrialist Norman Osborn who was found mysteriously slain that same night…

Gutted, worn out and somehow betrayed, Sheldon chucks it all in, but seeing that Marcia still has the fire in her belly and wonder in her eyes, leaves her his camera and his mission…

Immediately following is a fulsome Appendix section which reprints Ross’ preliminary origin of the Golden Age Human Torch as first seen in Marvels issue #0 and his laudatory Afterword and Acknowledgements, before a wealth of Images begins, consisting of promotional art pages and a stunning double-page pin-up of ‘X-Women’.

There are also model sheets and studies for Namor, Ben Grimm, Dr. Doom, Tony Stark and Iron Man, the Black Widow, Gwen Stacy, Black Panther and others.

Even more artistic treats include illos for a proposed Iron Man 2020 series, the Inhumans, Hobgoblin, more X-Women, the cover to Marvels #0 and a lavish painted recreation of Amazing Fantasy #15 which served as a cover for Heroes Illustrated.

Although this titanic tale traces the history of Marvel continuity, the sensitive and evocative journey of Phil Sheldon is crafted in such a way that no knowledge of the mythology is necessary to understand the plot; and would indeed be a hindrance to sharing the feelings of an ordinary man in extraordinary times.

One of Marvel’s and indeed the genre’s greatest.

But you probably already know that and if you don’t what are you waiting for…?
© 1994 Marvel Entertainment Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Steve Canyon


By Milton Caniff & Dick Rockwell (Tempo Books/Grosset & Dunlap)
ISBN: 0-448-17058-2-150

Here’s another early attempt to catapult comics off the spinner racks and onto proper bookshelves; this time from 1979, part of populist publisher Grosset and Dunlap’s attempt to carve themselves a slice of the burgeoning cartoon and comic strip mass market paperback boom. Other company sorties had included Krazy Kat, Broom Hilda and a host of DC character collections ranging from Superman to Swamp Thing and Wonder Woman to the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Steve Canyon began on 13th January 1947, after a canny campaign to boost public anticipation following Milton Caniff’s very conspicuous resignation from his previous masterpiece Terry and the Pirates.

Caniff, master of suspense and well versed in the art of shaping reader attention, didn’t show his new hero until four days into the first adventure – and then only in a ‘file photograph’. The primed-and-ready readership first met Stevenson Burton Canyon, bomber pilot, medal-winning war-hero, Air-Force flight instructor and latterly, independent airline charter operator in the first Sunday colour page, on 19th January 1947.

Almost instantly Caniff was working at the top of his game, producing material exotic, familiar and – as always – dead on the money in terms of the public zeitgeist and taste.

Dropping his hero into the exotic climes he had made his own on Terry, Caniff modified that world based on real-world events, but this time the brooding, unspoken menace was Communism not Fascism. Banditry and duplicity, of course, never changed, no matter who was nominally running the show…

Caniff was simply being contemporary, but he was savvy enough to realise that with the Cold War “hotting up” inKorea, Yankees were going to be seen as spies in many countries, so he made that a part of the narrative. When Canyon officially re-enlisted, the strip became to all intents and purposes a contemporary War feature…

Over the decades the Steve Canyon strip honestly embraced the philosophy of America as the World’s policeman, becoming a bastion of US militarism and remaining true to its ideals even as the years rolled by and national tastes and readership changed…

Steve foiled plots and chased his true love Summer Olsen around the globe for thirty years – continually frustrated that fate cruelly kept them unhappily apart – until they finally wed in 1970. Steve had stayed a far-ranging agent of Air Force Military Intelligence even though by this time the Vietnam War had made the Armed Forces an extremely contentious issue…

Even after Mr. and Mrs. Canyon finally tied the knot, their lives were never easy. At the time of the two rather severely abridged tales in this digest-sized monochrome collection (spanning 1978-1979), Summer was missing, having inexplicably vanished from the family home without a trace. The stunned and heartbroken Steve spent even more restless years searching for her…

The action begins as the aging agent spots Summer in a newspaper photo showing survivors of a volcanic eruption and earthquake in distant far-eastern country Langapora. Almost immediately Canyon’s accommodating superiors have him on a plane to the hostile Asian nation and Steve’s own network of grateful friends and associates are ready to pitch in. Dissolute reporter Johnny Mink is waiting when he lands in the anti-American state, having made a number of discreet inquiries and told a few necessarily fantastic lies…

The National Office of Information has denied any disaster has occurred and there were certainly no blonde American women in that part of the country. Mink is unsurprised and has a cunning plan, blinding the starstruck government flack in charge of the Bureau with tales of secretly researching locations for a majorHollywoodmovie. It is a ploy that instantly beguiles the glamour-starved official, who clearly envisions a major role for herself…

Carrying spare papers and a passport for Summer, “film director”SteveCanyonromances the junior minister and by sheer chance spots a blonde in the back of a heavily fortified car…

Tracking down the vehicle Steve and Johnny get tantalisingly close but are rebuffed by private security guards belonging to a local ganglord. The woman is American but belongs to the truly baroque and deadly Ah Nu Mero Uno – a movie-mad warlord especially obsessed by Yul Brynner in The King and I

After overcoming immense and utterly bizarre obstacles the determined Americans broach the walls and discover there is indeed a woman from Steve’s chequered past held captive therein, but it’s certainly not Mrs. Canyon…

Of course the gallant Steve has to quash his own desperate needs to rescue his old comrade in distress, countering staggering odds and deadly dilemmas before surrendering those fake papers to save the mystery miss, narrowly escaping in a fast commercial jetliner.

The rescued stray repays Steve generosity of spirit by leaving the plane – without those vital passport papers – at a stopover inSingapore, leaving Canyon free to continue searching for Summer. Disembarking atHong Kong, however, Canyon stumbles into a deadly comedy of errors when he is mistaken by Red Chinese agents for a Russian super-spy.

At that time tensions were high between the Soviets and their notional communist allies and Caniff, always up to the minute in terms of global geopolitics, saw a perfect opportunity to add a few funny thrills to the mix of tense soap-opera pathos as Steve searched for his missing mate…

Abducted, drugged and tortured, Canyon is only saved by the impressionable young female translator Comrade Jo, who sees the unconscious man as her ticket to a glamorous life as a Russian Spy-Queen. Of course the only reason he is unconscious is because Jo’s attempt to thwart the chemical interrogation and brutal torture have left a broken acupuncture needle in Steve’s brain, plunging the “Russian” spy into a deep coma…

On the run with the inert and hulking Steve, little Jo flees her masters only to be understandably rejected by the Soviet Trade Delegation who fear she might be a trap set by their own untrustworthy Party bosses. Soon everybody thinks it best if Jo and her mystery-man disappear quietly and forever, but luckily Steve has an enigmatic if mute guardian angel in the sinister shape of espionage legend Charlie Vanilla and his trusty band ofHong Kong gutter urchins and wharf rats…

Packed with wry action, pure belly laughs and terrific tension, this last tale proves again Caniff’s sheer bravura boldness and invention as the entire epic takes place with new and walk-on characters carrying the tale whilst the veteran lead spends the greater part of the as a mere prop and maguffin…

Steve Canyon is comic storytelling at its best. Beautifully illustrated, mesmerising black and white sagas of war, espionage, romance, terror, justice and cynical reality: a masterpiece of graphic narrative every serious fan and story-lover should experience. Most cartoonists – or workers in any field of artistic endeavour – go to their graves never attaining the giddy heights wherein they are universally associated with a signature piece of unequivocally supreme work. How incredible then when somebody achieves that perfect act of creation, not once but twice – and does so seven days a week for 64 years? …And that’s not to in any way disparage the astounding artistic contributions of Dick Rockwell who began assisting with the artwork in 1952 and, as Caniff’s health gradually failed over the years, invisibly assumed more and more of the strips visual aspect.

When Caniff passed away in 1988 Rockwell continued and concluded the final adventure ‘The Snow Princess’ before the series was finally retired with honour on Sunday, June 5th 1988.

Enticing, enthralling, exotic, action-packed and emotionally charged, Steve Canyon is a slice of the purest popular Americana and masterpiece of graphic narrative: a full-immersion thriller and a passport to the halcyon best bits of another age. Comics just don’t get better than this.

Moreover, I’ve always delighted in the particular buzz these paperback pioneers of the comics biz seem to instantly generate. If you’re in any way of similar mien, I can thoroughly recommend the sheer tactile and olfactory high that only comes from holding such a dinky digest item in your own two hands…
© 1978, 1979, Field Newspaper Syndicate.  All rights reserved.