OZ: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


By L. Frank Baum, adapted by Eric Shanower & Skottie Young (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2921-9 (hb)          978-0-7851-2922-7 (tpb)

We all know the story of The Wizard of Oz – or at least the bare bones of it harvested to make the admittedly stunning 1939 film – but the truth is there’s a vast amount from that legendary 1900 novel by jobbing journalist and prolific author Lyman Frank Baum that remained unfilmed, and this superb and faithful adaptation by rabid fan Eric Shanower and artist Skottie Young rectifies and redresses those glaring tinseltown omissions and alterations with stunning skill and mesmerising charm.

As superb an illustrator as author, Shanower himself produced five original graphic novels set in Baum’s magic kingdom (The Enchanted Apples of Oz, The Secret Island of Oz, The Ice King of Oz, The Forgotten Forest of Oz, and The Blue Witch of Oz between 1986 and 1992, recently compiled into one scintillating chronicle as Adventures in Oz) as well as a new prose work, short stories and contributions to various academic and critical volumes on Baum and his creations.

In 2009 Marvel began producing a sequence of miniseries by Shanower and Skottie Young faithfully adapting Baum’s original texts, and the first 8-part classic has been collected as both a premier hardcover and trade paperback edition that will delight and astound both veteran and completely fresh readers.

Much of the familiar skeleton is there. Dorothy and her little dog Toto are spirited away from dreary, flat Kansas by a cataclysmic cyclone in the family house which, after many hours in the air, dumps the pair in a fantastic land of rolling hills and glorious vistas.

Under the fallen domicile is a dead witch and the blue-clad Munchkins who populate the place couldn’t be happier.

When the Good Witch of the North appeared, she explains that Dorothy has done a great thing, but she cannot help the little girl return home to her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. Nobody has ever heard of Kansas, but perhaps the great and terrible Wizard of Oz could help. Dorothy and Toto are advised to follow the Yellow Brick Road to his City of Emeralds in the centre of Oz, and since the girl’s cheap boots were hardly up to the journey, it’s pretty lucky she was awarded the Silver Shoes of the deceased Hag…

She walked for a long time, feted everywhere by happy, witch-free folks and eventually encountered a scarecrow in a field of corn. He wasn’t much different from the ones at home except that he winked at her and struck up a conversation…

The straw man was uncomfortable and Dorothy extricated him from his uncomfortable position stranded on high with a pole up his back, after which they discussed her plight and the Wizard’s ability to do anything. After relating how he was made the Scarecrow, hoping the green sage could provide him with brains, asked the little lass if he could accompany her to the City of Emeralds…

Their route took them through a darkly wooded area overgrown with trees and as night was falling, Dorothy wanted to stop. The Scarecrow saw a cottage deep in the trees and although it was scary and abandoned they planned to rest there. However, whilst looking for water they heard eerie screams and followed them to a tin woodman immobile and rusting…

Once the little girl had used a handy oilcan to liberate him the Woodsman related a tragic – and gruesome – tale of cursed love and an enchanted axe which that turned an enamoured young man, piece by piece, into an unfeeling kettle without a heart.

Perhaps the Wizard could provide one if he joined them on their quest…?

As they journeyed onwards together through the seemingly endless forest Dorothy’s provisions began to run out and they were attacked by a fearsome and magnificent lion. As Toto bravely defended his mistress, the King of Beasts made to devour the dog and angry Dorothy slapped the savage beast’s face.

The predator crumbled into tears and shared his own tale of woe: a life built on bluff and the permanent terror that all the forest creatures currently afraid of him might discover that the Lion was far more scared of them. He too joined the party for Oz…

As they proceeded on their way they encountered and conquered many perils together: huge gorges cutting across the road, savage sabre-toothed Kalidahs, a huge river and a field of toxic poppies.

It was here that the Lion, Toto and Dorothy fell into an unshakable sleep, but luckily the Tin Woodman saved the life of a Field-mouse who happened to be the Queen of the mice. and in gratitude she bade all her millions of subjects to carry the slumberers to safety after which she gave Dorothy a whistle that could summon aid from the mice should she ever again need it.

Eventually they reached pleasant countryside where all the houses were painted green and at long last saw the high green wall of the City of Emerald…

After much shilly-shallying each postulant was granted an audience with the Wizard, who looked alarmingly different to each one of them and said they could only achieve their heart’s desires if they performed one little task – killing the deadly Wicked Witch of the West…

With no other choice the questors set off for the Land of the Winkies, defeating talking wolves, savage crow armies and killer bees before succumbing to an attack by flying monkeys which dismembered the Scarecrow and the Woodman and saw the Lion and Dorothy dragged off as slaves.

The feisty child’s life was one of terrible drudgery until the Witch stole one of the magic silver shoes and Dorothy threw a bucket of scrub-water over her…

With the Witch dead, the jubilant and liberated Winkies rebuilt the Woodman and reassembled the Scarecrow so that the triumphant adventurers could begin an epic Pilgrimage back to Oz and their promised rewards.

But their trials and tribulations were far from over…

And that’s barely past the half-way point in this astoundingly captivating book which is incontrovertibly the very best adaptation yet of one of the world’s greatest tales.

Shanower’s adaptation provides a far darker, more naturalistically vivid and far edgier atmosphere – after all, this was a story originally written at a time when it was still okay to frighten children or make them feel sad, and the grim facts of harsh life weren’t covered up unnecessarily – whilst Skottie Young’s gloriously stylised and vibrant interpretation is a wonder to behold, capturing idyllic fields of pastoral wonder, strange peoples, fantastic magic, scary beasts and spectacular events with supreme aplomb, all perfectly enhanced by the sensitive colour palette of Jean-Francois Beaulieu and Jeff Eckleberry’s deft calligraphy.

Also included are Shanower’s impassioned introduction ‘Blame it on Toto’, Baum’s original dedication from 1900 accompanied by a superb illustration of Dorothy and Toto by Young, a complete cover gallery of the miniseries, including variants by Shanower himself and J. Scott Campbell, an overview of the novels, theatrical productions and films and a stunning sketchbook section featuring working drawings and designs for Dorothy, The Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, The Good Witch of the North, Toto, Winged Monkeys, The Wizard of Oz and The Wicked Witch of the West. All capped off by a behind-the-scenes feature on how the covers and colour pages were processed and assembled

If you’ve seen the films and cartoons you only think you know Oz. Start reading these magnificently lush and luxurious comics adaptations and learn the truth – and while you’re at it, don’t forget to read Baums’s (unabridged) prose masterpieces too; you can even read them for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

Win, the Wise and Powerful, has Spoken…
© 2008, 2009 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Arzach


By Moebius (Les Humanoides Associes)
No ISBN:

I’m breaking my own self-imposed rules today to present something just a little bit different and celebrate the talents of France’s most famous master of the comic arts.

Jean Henri Gaston Giraud was born in the suburbs of Paris on May 8th 1938 and raised by his grandparents after his mother and father divorced in 1941.

In 1955 he attended the Institut des Arts Appliqués where he became friends with Jean-Claude Mézières who, at 17 was already selling strips and illustrations to magazines such as Coeurs Valliants, Fripounet et Marisette and Spirou. Giraud apparently spent most of his time drawing cowboy comics and left after a year.

In 1956 he travelled to Mexico, staying with his mother for eight months, before returning to France and a full-time career drawing comics, mostly westerns such as Frank et Jeremie for Far West and King of the Buffalo, A Giant with the Hurons and others for Coeurs Valliants in a style based on French comics legend Joseph “Jijé” Gillain.

Giraud spent his National Service in Algeria in 1959-1960, where he worked on military service magazine 5/5 Forces Françaises and on returning to civilian life became Jijé’s assistant in 1961, working on the master’s long-running (1954-1977) Western epic Jerry Spring.

A year later, Giraud and Belgian writer Jean-Michel Charlier launched the serial ‘Fort Navajo’ in Pilote #210, and soon its disreputable, anti-hero lead character Lieutenant Blueberry became one of the most popular European strips of modern times. In 1963-1964, Giraud produced a number of strips for satire periodical Hara-Kiri and, keen to distinguish and separate the material from his serious day job, first coined his pen-name “Moebius”.

He didn’t use it again until 1975 when he joined Bernard Farkas, Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Philippe Druillet – all inspired science fiction fans – to become the founders of a revolution in narrative graphic arts as “Les Humanoides Associes”. Their groundbreaking adult fantasy magazine Métal Hurlant utterly enraptured the comics-buying public and Giraud again wanted to utilise a discreet creative persona for the lyrical, experimental, soul-searching material he was increasingly driven to produce: series such as The Airtight Garage, The Incal and the mystical, dreamy flights of sheer fantasy contained in Arzach

To further separate his creative twins, Giraud worked inks with a brush whilst the futurist Moebius rendered with pens…

Generally I review material produced or translated into English and indeed Arzach did make it into the language of Shakespeare, Keats, Byron and Alan Moore in the 1987 Epic Comics/Titan Books Moebius volume 2 – Arzach & Other Fantasy Stories, but to really appreciate the magics and majesty you should try and get hold of the 1976 hardback album or any other early iteration where the tales can be appreciated and enjoyed in splendid isolation and consideration.

Produced utterly without words, the four episodes depict the lonely contemplative flights of a solitary explorer – some say warrior – observing an incredible world and its inhabitants from the lofty perch of a flying lizard.

The first strip ‘Arzach’ finds the silent skyglider passing between the spires of an incredible city, peeking into enticing windows until an angry citizen confronts him. Dealing summarily with his enraged antagonist, the voyeur returns for his seductive reward and gets a big surprise…

In ‘Harzak’ the explorer mysteriously gains and swiftly loses a pack-pterodactyl to carnivorous plants. Woefully short on rations, he then encounters a colossal ape-like monster which reluctantly provides diversion, entertainment and eventually distraction for the cloud-voyager whilst in ‘Arzak’ a fusty old world technician motors across a blistering desert to a fantastic temple. Inside listless creatures mope dejectedly. Enduring physical assault, the sparks enters a bunker and sets about fixing things as, on a screen, the wind-rider paces in frustration, with his ungainly, featherless steed prone and unmoving. With the twist of a wrist a handy screwdriver sets the world to rights…

‘Harzakc’ opens with the lizard rider again spying on a beautiful undraped woman before flying off into a succession of increasingly bewildering and astoundingly spectacular alien scenes of…

Well, that’s for you to decide.

This work more than any other led to an outpouring of fanciful, lavish and enchanting fantasy creations from all over the world, inspiring movie, makers, writers and even comics creators as disparate and far-ranging as Stan Lee and Hayao Miyazaki. These apparently simplistic peregrinations are magnificent visual panoplies open to many interpretations, tapping into oneiric realms of the subconscious and woven with wry humour, but they are not stories in any traditional sense.

Think of them perhaps as staggeringly detailed goads to the imagination of the reader…

Moebius famously created these strips in reaction to his perceived predominance of American superhero comics and consciously stove to reinvigorate the genres and scenarios of the entire comics industry – with terrific results.

A sheer unadulterated dose of primal imaginary power and superlative skill and craft, Arzach is a tome that belongs on the bookshelf of every fan of the art of comics.

Jean Giraud and Moebius passed away on March 10th 2012.
Edition © Les Humanoides Associes 1976. Arzach © 2012 the estate of Jean Giraud. All rights reserved.

Joe’s Bar


By José Muñoz & Carlos Sampayo, translated by Jeff Lisle (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-85286035-6

Argentinian José Antonio Muñoz was born on July 10th 1942 in Buenos Aires and studied at the prestigious Escuela Panamericana de Arte de Buenos Aires under comics geniuses Hugo Pratt and Alberto Breccia before joining the prolific Francisco Solano Lopez studio at the age of 18. Soon his work was appearing in Hora Cero and Frontera Extra and he was ghosting episodes of the legendary serial Ernie Pike for his old tutor Pratt.

Through the Argentine-based Solano Lopez outfit, he began working on material for British publishing giant Amalgamated Press/IPC, but had no real feeling for the material he was producing. Moreover, like so many others, he was increasingly uncomfortable in his homeland and was compelled to leave Argentina in December 1972 as the military junta tightened its totalitarian grip on the country and increasingly clamped down on free expression and the arts, as well as all forms of overt or covert dissent.

Moving to England, Spain and later Italy, Muñoz met again fellow émigré and creative soul-mate Carlos Sampayo in Barcelona in 1974 and convinced the poet, music critic, copywriter and author to try his hand at comics. The result was the stunning noir Private Eye expressionistic masterpiece of loss and regret Alack Sinner

The poet Sampayo, born in 1943, grew up with all the same formative experiences as his artistic comrade and, after a similar dispiriting start (he had tried writing and being a literary editor before resigning himself to work in advertising), had moved to Spain in 1972.

The pair had first briefly met in 1971 when mutual friend Oscar Zarate (who wrote one of the two introductions in this collection) left Argentina in the forefront of the creative exodus sparked by the rise of “the Colonels”…

Urged by old mentor Hugo Pratt to “do something of your own” the pair began producing the adventures of an ex-New York cop turned Shamus, haunting the shadows of the world’s greatest, darkest city, encountering the bleak underbelly of the metropolis and all the outcasts, exiles and scum thrown together at its margins. The series debuted in experimental Italian anthology Alter Linus, then was picked up by Belgian giant Casterman for (A Suivre) and compiled in a number of albums.

Inexplicably there have been no English-language collections of the stunningly superb saga since a proposed 12-issue series from Fantagraphics was curtailed and cancelled after 5 volumes in the late 1980s, although a couple of short stories also appeared in anthology magazines Prime Cuts and Raw.

All that necessary preamble at last leads us to Joe’s Bar – which appeared as a dingy watering hole in the very first Alack Sinner story ‘The Webster Case’ – and soon began running as a parallel, occasional series featuring and indeed often debuting characters who would spring into stories and series of their own. In 1988 Titan Books released a British edition of Catalan Communications’ single volume of short stories from the place where nobody wants to know your name, and it remains one of the very best noir graphic novels ever released in English… and is similarly absent from modern publishing schedules.

The bar is situated in a multi-ethnic melting pot that covers the worst part of the city and acts as a crossroads and crucible for a vast cast of lost, lonely and desperate characters just trying to get by one night at a time and, following that aforementioned ‘Muñoz & Sampayo: a Profile’ by Zarate and an introduction from British comics historian Paul Gravett, the horror and heartache begins with a taciturn young man who earns his living cooking and cleaning in the greasy dive.

‘Pepe, the Architect’ is an illegal immigrant caught in the Green Card trap – no work without the card, no card without a job. Only Joe knows his secret, even the desperate lad’s girlfriend has no idea of his shameful status, but when the assassination of a foreign ambassador uptown sends hordes of cops into the teeming Diaspora district, Pepe sees himself inevitably exposed, captured and deported to the land where torturers eagerly await him…

Imagining hunters at every corner, the lad is picked up by a woman hungry for any kind of warmth but Pepe’s paranoia overwhelms his lust and he attacks her, leaving her for dead before heading back to the Bar. Unable to work, swiftly getting far too drunk, the fugitive architect shares his story with an old black man who’s seen far too much misery, unaware that the night holds more grief in store…

‘Rusty Stories’ opens as broken-down, punch-drunk old fighter Moses Man shambles through the grimy the streets, until he’s recognised by current wrestling champ Tigran Pacha. The latest hotshot offers the shattered legend a big purse for an “exhibition match” – grappler versus boxer – simultaneously wondering how such a legend could fall so low. With Man cleaning up for his big comeback, the memories return and, with visions of gamblers and gangsters, mad hubris and the wrong kind of woman boiling in his battered brain, when he finally gets back in the ring he ignores the fix and things get far too serious…

Muñoz & Sampayo brilliantly rewrote the rules that make comics work with their stark, vivid, ugly pictures describing deep, often elliptical personal journeys of complex characters with no beginning and often no appreciable end. Moreover individual tales frequently intersected and overlapped, as with the meat of the next piece.

‘Ella’ is a photographer. She’s often taken candid shots of that P.I. Sinner, Pepe the dishwasher, the bum Moses Man and all the other hopeless characters at the Bar, but now she’s the one in the depths. Convinced she is dying, she constantly re-examines her brief passionate affair with that mysterious black guy and wonders if race really does matter. Why did he leave her that way? What was going on? And then, on the bustling street she sees him and everything becomes clear…

The drama ends with the tragic ‘Fifth Story’ wherein a guy in prison shares his story with a cellmate…

Everything was going okay for young Mike Weiss. The store was doing fine and he’d finally blundered into asking that Feldman girl out – over ice cream and in the bar, yet. Of course she eventually had to take the initiative but that was fine too. Then his beloved old man got the cancer and started wasting way. As his father shrivelled Mike retreated into food, gorging himself into a stupor as his father dwindled into a dry husk filled with pain.

Even Rosa couldn’t reach him then. All he wanted was bad food and release from his father’s ghastly, continual pleas. Anyway, what kind of parent begs a loving son to kill him?

When life couldn’t get any worse, Mike was jumped by thugs in the street who dealt him another shattering blow which galvanised the poor schmuck into finally ending his dad’s pain. But even in jail poor Mike’s woes hadn’t quite ended…

Whilst the plots are deliberately generic, pimping starting points from a hundred pulp stories and noirish B-movies, the choice, fresh meat of the stories comes from the spotlight shining on those grotesque, useless inconsequential strangers and bystanders left behind once the flawed, noble heroes and glittering sultry sirens have moved on, especially once Muñoz casts his highly stylised, excoriatingly expressionistic vision upon them and their harsh, uncompromising, inescapable world.

Concentrating on the peripheral shadows and unturned corners of that grim shared universe where Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, James M. Cain and the rest ply their trade, Muñoz & Sampayo have created a fierce and unforgettable environment that is truly and uniquely pure comics.

Dark, bleak, sordid and tawdry, the lives coinciding and congealing at Joe’s Bar offer a truly astonishing view of the other side of the world, one that no lover of truly mature fiction could bear to tear appalled yet fascinated eyes away from.
© 1987 Carlos Sampayo & José Muñoz. Introductions © Oscar Zarate, Paul Gravett & Art Spiegelman.

Plastic Man Archives volume 1


By Jack Cole (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-468-8

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. As the Golden Age faded, Cole could see the writing on the wall and famously jumped into 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. Ever-restless, 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 biggest break he took his own life.

The unexplained reasons for his death are not as important as the triumphs of Cole’s artistic life and this captivating paperback (reprinting a rare hardback compilation from 2004) provides a fascinating insight into a transitional moment in his artistic development.

Without doubt – and despite great successes with other heroic characters as well as in the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest creation was the zany, malleable Plastic Man who quickly grew from a minor B-character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the Golden Age and seemed to be the perfect fantastic embodiment of the sheer energy, verve and creativity of that era when anything went and comics-makers were prepared to try out every outlandish idea…

This premier deluxe hardback collection reprints the first twenty episodes of the Stretchable Sleuth’s astounding exploits from anthology title Police Comics covering the period August 1941- June 1943, culled from a time when nobody really knew the rules, creators, publishers and readers were prepared to try literally anything and by sheer Darwinian processes the cream of the crop always rose to the top…

After a fulsome Foreword by legendary comics genius Will Eisner and the appreciative Introduction ‘Plastic Man and Jack Cole’, the magic begins with the first of twenty stories, most of which originally appeared without individual titles.

The debut and origin of Plastic Man happened in the middle of Police Comics #1, a brief but beguiling six-pager which introduced mobster Eel O’Brian, shot during a factory robbery, soaked by a vat of acid and instantly, callously, abandoned by his partners in crime. Crawling away, Eel 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 all after a fast buck.

His entire outlook altered and somehow gifted with incredible malleability (he surmises it was the chemical bath mingling with his bullet wounds), Eel decides to put his new powers to use cleaning up the scum he used to run with. Creating the identity of Plastic Man he thrashes his own gang and begins his stormy association with the New York City cops…

Police #2 saw Plas apply for a job with the cops and only to be told he could join up if he accomplished the impossible task of capturing the notorious and slippery Eel O’Brian, currently the Most Wanted crook in eight states… Ever wily, the Rubber-Band Man bided his time and won the position anyway by cracking an international dope racket (that’s illegal narcotics, kids) reaching from Canada to Chinatown, whilst in #3 he fully capitalised on his underworld reputation and connections to bust up a Pinball Racket led by a cunning crook with ears inside the Police Department itself.

‘Madame Brawn’s Crime School for Delinquent Girls’ pitted the Silly Putty Paladin against a brutal babe intent on taking over the City’s mobs, and despite getting a thorough trouncing she and her gang of gal gorillas returned in the next issue, having turned her burly hand to a spot of piracy.

Police Comics #5 (December 1942) also marked a major turning point for Plastic Man as with that issue he took the cover-spot away from fellow adventurer and failed superstar Firebrand, a position he would hold until costumed heroes faded from popularity at the end of the 1940s.

In issue #6 Plas’ burgeoning popularity was graphically reflected in a spooky mystery involving murderous disembodied hands, in #7 – as Eel – he infiltrated and dismantled the massed forces of the ‘United Crooks of America!’ whilst #8 found the hero seriously outmatched but still triumphant when he battled a colossal, city-crushing giant ‘Eight Ball!’ and its decidedly deranged inventor, and #9 reached an early peak of macabre malevolence as Plastic Man foiled a traitorous little mutant dubbed Hairy Arms in ‘Satan’s Son Sells Out to the Japs!’, a darkly bizarre thriller which saw the regular story-length jump from six to nine pages.

The carnival of cartoon grotesques continued in #10 as hayseed wannabe-cop Omar McGootch accidentally involved the Malleable Mystery-man in a Nazi plot to steal a new secret weapon, whilst #11 found Plastic Man in mortal combat with the spirit of a 17th century London alchemist whose brain was unearthed and accidentally transplanted into a wounded spitfire pilot, suddenly gaining incredible mystic powers in the process…

In Police #11 a desperate blackmailer joined forces with a criminal astrologer who predicted perpetual failure unless Plastic Man was killed, before Cole introduced his second most memorable character in #13’s ‘The Man Who Can’t be Harmed’

Woozy Winks was an indolent slob 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. Flipping a coin the oaf decided to get rich quick with his power. Unable to stop him Plas was forced to appeal to his sentimentality and better nature and, once Woozy repented, was compelled to keep him around in case he strayed again…

Unlike Omar, Woozy Winks – equal parts Artful Dodger and Mr. Micawber, with the verbal skills and intellect of Lou Costello’s screen persona – would prove to be a perfect foil for Plastic Man: the lazy, venal, ethically fluid reprobate with 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…

As the page count jumped to 13, they were soon on the trail of Eel O’Brian himself in issue #14, but during the chase Woozy stumbled onto a slavery racket which soon foundered against his insane luck and Plastic Man’s ingenuity. In a hilarious twist Plas then let Woozy arrest him, but then escaped from under the smug cops’ very noses…

When war scientists investigated Plastic Man and Woozy’s uncanny abilities in #15 it led to murder, a hot pursuit to Mexico City and almost a new Ice Age, whilst in #16 disgruntled Native Americans organised a ‘Revolt against the USA’ and a movie cast succumbed one by one to a murderous madman in #17 before the hilarious #18 revealed what happened after ‘Plastic Man is Drafted’

The blockbusting dilemma of all branches of the Armed Services fighting to recruit him was only solved when the President seconded Plas to the FBI, and his first case – with Woozy in tow – found the Stretchable Sleuth investigating ‘The Forest of Fear!’ in a 15 page terror-tale involving a cabal of killers and an army of animated oaks.

This initial deluxe outing ends with #20 and the ‘Woozy Winks Detective Agency’ as, with Plastic Man temporarily laid up wounded, the rotund rascal took centre stage to solve a robbery in a frantic, madcap and surreal extravaganza reminiscent of the screwball antics of the movie Hellzapoppin’ and the anarchic shtick of the Marx Brothers…

Exciting, innovative, thrilling, funny, scary and still visually intoxicating over seven decades later, Jack Cole’s Plastic Man is a truly unique creation that has only grown in stature and appeal. This is a pure comics experience that no fans should deny themselves.
© 1941, 1942, 1943, 1998 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Good-Bye


By Yoshihiro Tatsumi, translated by Yuji Oniki (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-77046-078-2

Since the 1950s, compulsive storyteller and inventor of the mature and socially relevant Gekiga comics-form Yoshihiro Tatsumi worked at the fringes of the Japanese manga industry as it grew from a despised sub-art form to an unstoppable global colossus of the entertainment media.

Freelancing for whoever would take a chance on him, whilst producing bargain-basement Manga lending shop Kashihon (story-books purpose-made for comics lending libraries), and even self-publishing – as Dōjinshi or “Vanity projects” – his uniquely personal graphic explorations of the world as he saw it, Tatsumi slowly gained prominence amongst other artists and a small dedicated cognoscente.

Eventually his dedication to tales of deeply personal, agonisingly intimate and slyly accusatory cartoon reportage filtered into and became the mainstream and in recent years Tatsumi has received the accolades and acclaim he long deserved as, at last, society caught up with him…

After decades at the periphery of comics consciousness, Tatsumi was “discovered” by the West at the dawn of the new millennium (despite a bootlegged English-language edition in 1987 and occasional European reprints) and in 2005 Drawn & Quarterly began releasing collections of his vast output in hardback editions which re-presented a taste of material culled from specific years.

Now the fruits of that on-going annual project are at last available in deluxe monochrome softcover editions, their appeal greatly benefited by the fact that in 2009 Tatsumi’s monolithic cartoon autobiography A Drifting Life turned him into a domestic and world superstar, garnering a brace of Eisner Awards, Japan’s Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize as well as the regards sur le monde Award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival.

Following an introduction from author, historian, translator and pundit Frederik L. Schodt, this third volume presents works from the period 1971-1972 when Tatsumi settled into an unqualified burst of inspired creativity and produced some of his most memorable pieces: dissections, queries and tributes to the Human Condition as experienced by the lowest of the low in a beaten but re-emergent nation-culture which was ferociously and ruthlessly re-inventing itself all around him

The panoply of disturbing, beguiling, sordid, intimate, heartbreaking, trenchantly wry and utterly uncompromising strips dealing with uncomfortable realities, inescapable situations, punishing alienations, excoriating self-loathing and the bleakest, emptiest corners and crannies of human experience begins in ‘Hell’ – a tale which recalls the bombing of Hiroshima and the headiest days of the passionately anti-H-Bomb movement in 1967. A former Japanese Army photographer recalls a shot he took in the aftermath: a silhouette burned into a wall of a loving son massaging his weary mother’s shoulders. In 1951 he had sold the photo to a news agency and the shot became a potent symbol of the “No More Hisoshimas” movement, rocketing the photographer to world-wide prominence.

Now in the shadow of a newly dedicated monument a stunning revelation threatens to undo all the good that photo has done…

At the end of his working life Saburo Hanayama was sidelined by all the younger workers: all except kind Ms. Okawa whose kindly solicitousness rekindled crude urgings in the former soldier and elderly executive. With his wife and daughter already planning how to spend his retirement pension, Saburo rebels and blows it all on wine, women and song, but even when he achieves the impossible hidden dream with the ineffable Ms. Okawa, he is plagued by impotence and guilt and is still ‘Just a Man’

In ‘Sky Burial’ disaffected slacker Nogawa isn’t even shaken up when the mummified body of his neighbour is discovered, a victim of neglect, undiscovered for months until the smell became too overpowering.

After all, his life is a mess too and he keeps seeing vultures in the sky above the bustling streets… As his surviving neighbours all move out following the death, Nogawa stays, abandoning himself to the birds and vermin eager to colonise the vacant building…

When he retired, a nondescript businessman deeded all his possessions to his family and went to live in the woods, obsessed with a bizarre ‘Rash’ that afflicted his body. However, when a young girl attempts suicide he saves her and gains new interest in the world. How tragic that his notions and hers are so different…

Businessman Kazuya returns to the old neighbourhood and recalls a bizarre friendship with a ‘Woman in the Mirror’. Once he and Ikeuchi were great friends, but when he accidentally discovered his pal’s need to dress as a girl, a great fire changed both their lives forever…

When ‘Night Falls Again’ a desperately lonely man haunts the strip joints and bars of Osaka, despising himself, missing his rural home and bombarded by images of sex for sale. Driven to the edge he at long last buys a ticket…

Two bar girls clean up after the night’s toil, but Akemi is preoccupied. It’s time to visit her husband in prison, even if he is a changed, brutalised man and doesn’t believe she has kept herself for him all these years. When he threatens to become her pimp once released, she takes extreme action in ‘Life is so Sad’

Tatsumi experimented with wash tones rather than the usual line, brush and mechanical tone screens for his tale of a foot fetishist driven to outlandish steps just so he could keep hearing heels go ‘Click Click Click’, and this compelling collection concludes with the eponymous minor masterpiece which was until recently the artist’s most (in)famous tale.

The semi-autobiographical ‘Good-Bye’ describes the declining relationship between prostitute Mariko or “Mary” – who courts social ignominy by going with the American GI Joe’s – and her dissolute father; once a proud soldier of Japan’s beaten army, reduced to cadging cash and favours from her.

Her dreams of escape to America are shattered one day and in her turmoil she pushes her father too far and he commits an act there’s no coming back from…

Tatsumi uses art as a symbolic weapon, using an instantly recognisable repertory company of characters pressed into service over and again as archetypes and human abstracts of certain unchanging societal aspects and responses. Moreover he has an astounding ability to present situations with no clean and clear-cut resolution: the tension and sublime efficacy revolves around carrying the reader to the moment of ultimate emotional crisis and leaving you suspended there…

Tatsumi, like Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar, largely set his own agenda, producing work which first and foremost interested himself, toiling for decades in relative isolation producing compelling, explicit, groundbreaking stories which were the foundation of today’s “literary” or alternative field of graphic narrative: a form which whilst mostly sidelined and marginalised for most of their working lives has at last emerged as the most important and widely accepted avenue of the comics medium.

These are stories no true lover of comics can afford to miss and this series of collections is a must-have for every adult reader’s bookshelf.

Art and stories © 19771, 1972, 2012 Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Introduction © 2008, 2012 Frederik L. Schodt. This edition © 2012 Drawn & Quarterly. All rights reserved.

Abandon the Old in Tokyo


By Yoshihiro Tatsumi, translated by Yuji Oniki (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-77046-077-5

Yoshihiro Tatsumi was born in Osaka in 1935 and grew up in the Tennōji Ku district. By the time World War II began Osaka was the undisputed industrial, commercial and almost-evangelically capitalist trading-centre of the nation: a place of great wealth, fervent modernisation and nigh-universal literacy as well as vast slums, massive unemployment and crushing poverty. Osaka was the first Japanese city to introduce a welfare program for relief for the poor, modelled after the British system that began in the early 20th century…

One of 24 political wards, Tennōji Ku was named for the ancient Buddhist shrine Shitennō-ji (Temple of the Four Heavenly Kings) and growing up there, Tatsumi must have been constantly exposed to the glorious past, tantalising future and ever-present frustrated desperation of the poor suffering the daily iniquities of the class system.

Growing up during the nightly American bombing raids Tatsumi was obsessed by books and cartooning and devoted his life to the budding comics industry in all its forms.

His earliest successes were all-new, large graphic novels for the uniquely Japanese Kashihon or Manga lending shops (story-books purpose-made to be borrowed and returned for a pittance, rather than bought outright: cost and remuneration were necessarily low and turnover quite high) before moving into the fringes of manga magazine sales.

By 1969 Tatsumi ran a small publishing house for these tomes but the lending shops were dying out…

Since the mid fifties the author had been struggling with a new kind of manga, one that was more than simply childish entertainment, and in 1957 coined the term Gekiga or “Dramatic Pictures” to describe the adult, mature-themed, downbeat and decidedly bleak material he was crafting.

His restless pictorial questioning of affairs of the state and the state of affairs in the furiously reconstructing modern nation, as well as humanity’s breakdown in a disillusioned new Japan subjected to incessant and unceasingly building internal pressures didn’t find much popular success, but fellow manga artists slowing began to create their own serious narratives as the drive towards post-war modernism began to founder and more and more citizens began to question not just the methods but the goal itself…

After decades of virtual obscurity both at home and abroad Tatsumi was “discovered” by the West and in 2005 Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly began compiling collections of his vast output in hardback editions which re-presented a selection of material on a year-by-year basis.

Now the on-going annual project is at last available in deluxe monochrome softcover editions, their appeal greatly enhanced by the fact that Tatsumi’s monolithic cartoon autobiography A Drifting Life turned him into a domestic and global comics superstar, winning a brace of Eisner Awards, Japan’s Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize as well as the regards sur le monde Award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival between 2009-2012.

After an introduction from modern manga superstar Koji Suzuki (creator of The Ring, Dark Water, Birthday and other shocking blockbusters) this second collection gathers longer works from the year 1970 and begins with the deeply disturbing ‘Occupied’ as a lonely and unsuccessful creator of children’s comics experiences digestive troubles. Forced to use public toilets he discovers a different sort of drawing and is inexorably drawn into a world where the cubicles offer an utterly different kind of relief…

‘Abandon the Old in Tokyo’ finds diligent Kenichi slowly crumbling under the pressure of his ailing intolerant mother’s constant carping demands. It’s no help that his girlfriend wants to see “his” place and eventually the weary prevaricator does something about the situation…

‘The Washer’ spends his life cleaning windows and watching powerful businessmen force themselves on young office secretaries. Things turn decidedly difficult however when the girl behind the gleaming glass is his own daughter, whilst a down-trodden factory worker’s grim, grey life only comes alive when he returns home to his hovel and his ‘Beloved Monkey’. Tragically it’s all spoiled when he lets a girl into his heart…

When old Mr. Yamanuki’s company goes under, he cannot accept his life’s work is done and some debts have to remain ‘Unpaid’. Why and how then, does he derive such comfort and solace from that thing he does with the Collie at the Dog Appreciation Club?

‘The Hole’ sees a hiker taken prisoner by a woman hideously deformed during botched cosmetic surgery, but when the man’s divorced wife comes to his rescue, his smug arrogance seals his own fate, after which ‘Forked Road’ examines two childhood friends and the different paths their first experiences of sex made for them…

The eerily intimate episodes end with ‘Eel’ as a young sewer-cleaner sees too many parallels between the fish caught in the rake and bucket and his own existence. Some days having a disgusting, dead-end job and a callous bar-girl wife who’s delighted when she miscarries your baby doesn’t seem that different to swimming the wrong way in rubbish and excrement until you die…

Stories of sexual frustration, human obsolescence, dislocation, impotence, loneliness, poverty or the futile and vainglorious acts of rekindled pride are again depicted through rat-run mazes populated by a succession of hookers, powerless men, disaffected women, ineffectual lovers and grasping dependents and via recurring motifs of illness, retirement, injury and inadequacy in ramshackle dwellings, grimy streets, tawdry bars and sewers obstructed by things of no further value: pots, pans, people…

Concluding with another extensive ‘Q & A with Yoshihiro Tatsumi’ this second breathtaking compendium further illustrates why no serious devotee of graphic narratives can afford to miss the masterful literary skill of one of the world’s great masters of the comic arts.

Art and stories © 1970, 2012 Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Introduction © 2009, 2012 Koji Suzuki. This edition © 2012 Drawn & Quarterly. All rights reserved.

The Push Man and Other Stories


By Yoshihiro Tatsumi, translated by Yuji Oniki (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-77046-074-4

Since the 1950s, compulsive manga storyteller Yoshihiro Tatsumi has worked at the edges of the colossal Japanese comics industry, toiling for whoever would hire him, whilst producing an absolutely vast canon of deeply personal, agonisingly honest and blisteringly incisive cartoon critiques, dissections, queries and homages to the Human Condition as endured by the lowest of the low in a beaten nation and culture which utterly and ferociously and ruthlessly re-invented itself during his lifetime.

Tatsumi was born in 1935 and after surviving the war and reconstruction of Japan devoted most of his life to mastering – most would say inventing – a new form of comics storytelling, now known universally as Gekiga or “Dramatic Pictures” – as opposed to the flashy and fanciful escapist entertainment of Manga – which translates as “Irresponsible or Foolish Pictures” and was targeted specifically at children in the years immediately following the cessation of hostilities.

If he couldn’t find a sympathetic Editor, Tatsumi often self-published his darkly beguiling wares in Dōjinshi or “Vanity projects” where his often open-ended, morally ambiguous, subtly subversive underground comics literature gradually grew to prominence as those funnybook-consuming kids grew up in a socially-repressed, culturally-occupied country and began to rebel. Topmost amongst their key concerns were Cold War politics, the Vietnam war, ubiquitous inequality and iniquitous distribution of wealth and opportunity, so the teen upstarts sought out material that addressed their maturing sensibilities and found it in the works of Tatsumi and a growing band of serious cartoonists…

Since reading comics beyond childhood was seen as an act of rebellion – like digging Rock ‘n’ Roll a decade earlier in the USA and Britain – these kids became known as the “Manga Generation” and their growing influence allowed comics creators to grow beyond the commercial limits of their industry and tackle adult stories and themes in what rapidly became a bone fide art form. Even the “God of Comics” Osamu Tezuka eventually found his mature author’s voice in Gekiga…

Tatsumi uses his art as a symbolic tool, with an instantly recognisable repertory company of characters pressed into service over and again as archetypes and human abstracts of certain unchanging societal aspects and responses. Moreover he has a mesmerising ability to portray situations with no clean and clear-cut resolution: the tension and sublime efficacy revolves around carrying the reader to the moment of ultimate emotional crisis and leaving you suspended there…

Narrative themes of sexual frustration, falls from grace and security, loss of heritage and pride, human obsolescence, claustrophobia and dislocation, obsession, provincialism, impotence, loneliness, poverty and desperate acts of protest are perpetually explored by a succession of anonymous bar girls, powerless men, ineffectual loners and grasping spouses, wheedling, ungrateful family dependents and ethically intransigent protagonists through recurring motifs such as illness, forced retirement, crippled labourers, sexual inadequacy in ramshackle dwellings, endless dirty alleyways, tawdry bars and sewers too often obstructed by discarded foetuses and even dead babies…

After decades of virtual obscurity both at home and abroad, Tatsumi was “discovered” by the West (despite a bootlegged English-language edition in 1987 and occasional reprints in France and Spain) and in 2005 Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly began compiling collections of his vast output in hardback editions which re-presented a selection of material on a year-by-year basis.

Now the on-going annual project is at last available in deluxe monochrome softcover editions, their appeal greatly enhanced by the fact that Tatsumi’s monolithic cartoon autobiography A Drifting Life turned him into a domestic and global comics superstar, winning a brace of Eisner Awards, Japan’s Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize as well as the regards sur le monde Award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival between 2009-2012.

This initial outing gathers seminal pieces created in the turbulent year 1969 and also includes an introduction by series editor/designer Tomine and a concluding ‘Q & A with Yoshihiro Tatsumi’.

The trawl through the hearts of darkness begins with ‘Piranha’ as an apathetic factory worker, sick and tired of his wife’s brazen philandering, deliberately maims himself at work for the workman’s compensation pay-out. Even relatively well-off and with his wife now attentive and loving he is not content, so he starts collecting Piranha fish. When she returns to her old habits, he looks at his fish and has an idea…

‘Projectionist’ tells of a another disillusioned labourer whose job is to travel the country screening blue films for executives keen to get secretaries “in the mood” and provide cinematic bonuses for company clients, whilst ‘Black Smoke’ details the existence of an incinerator operator who can’t satisfy his wife, or father children. Meanwhile his days are filled with chucking dead newborns from the local Women’s hospital into those fierce cleansing flames…

‘The Burden’ relates the inevitable fate of a placard carrier advertising a massage parlour. Why can he get on with prostitutes of the street but not his wife, constantly carping about her unwanted pregnancy? Why is murder the only rational option?

In ‘Test Tube’ an over-worked sperm donor allows his latest “inspiration” to get too close with catastrophic results, whilst the ‘Pimp’ who permits his wife to continue her profession so that they can buy a bar together finds the situation increasingly intolerable and ‘The Push Man’ who crams commuters onto the city’s hyper-crowded trains finally experiences a little too much enforced and unwelcome closeness of his own…

Whilst daily unclogging the city’s mains, a harassed young man no longer reacts to the horror of what the people above discard: baskets, boxes, babies… even when the deceased detritus in the ‘Sewer’ is his own, but the ‘Telescope’, which brings a crippled man too close to an aging exhibitionist who needs to be seen conquering young women, leads only to recrimination and self-destruction…

In a place where every one is trying to survive and make a little progress, one couple have reached a necessary accommodation that allows the wife to prosper just so long as her trouble husband remains ‘The Killer’, whilst for the strait-laced mechanic who discovers his TV ideal has loose knickers and a whorish heart after a ‘Traffic Accident’, life is no longer worth living.

‘Make-Up’ is the only solace of a poor salary-man living with a cheap cocktail waitress. In her clothes and with her face he can truly be himself, even if the lonely and lovelorn telephone sanitizer of ‘Disinfection’ cannot bring himself to connect with the many women of easy affection he meets in his job, and well-meaning nondescript auto-parts worker Matsuda who struggles long and hard, seeking the best way to get rid of his wife and help the young girl resisting their nasty boss’s urgings to abort the embarrassing baby he’s fathered in ‘Who Are You?’

When Mr. Fukuda is badly injured in ‘Bedridden’ he entrusts young Tanno with his greatest secret: locked in his house is a sex slave, trained and shaped from birth to please men. He will pay the apprentice anything and everything to keep her fit and fed until he can get out of hospital. Big mistake…

This initial outing ends with a superbly outré examination of life wherein Shoji returns to his rat-infested apartment and frumpy, horny woman. As she cleans herself up the pensive post-coital drifter ponders all those wasted sperm – each one a potential Napoleon or ‘My Hitler’, until a scream alerts him to the fact that one determined rodent has taken up residence.

Despite all his efforts the rat, pregnant and determined stay put, avoids every attempt to remove or kill it. With his strident companion moved out and back in the bar where she works, the contemplative Shoji discovers a new appreciation of the valiant mother and her progeny…

Like Adrian Tomine, Editor of the English-language series, I first discovered Mr. Tatsumi’s astounding works in the aforementioned album sized – and it transpires, wholly unauthorised – Catalan Communications edition at the end of the 1980s, and was blown away by the seductive and wholly entrancing simplicity of his storytelling and bleak, humanist subject matter.

Now that I know just when these stark, wry, bittersweet vignettes, episodes and stories of cultural and social realism were first drawn, it seems as if a lone voice in Japanese comics had independently and synchronistically joined the revolution of Cinéma vérité and the Kitchen Sink Dramas of playwrights and directors like John Osborne, Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson – not to mention Ken Loach and Joe Orton – which gripped the West in the 1960s and which have shaped the critical and creative faculties of so many artists and creators ever since.

Tatsumi, like Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar, worked for decades in relative isolation producing compelling, bold, beguiling, sordid, intimate, wryly humorous, heartbreaking and utterly uncompromising strips dealing with uncomfortable realities, social alienation, excoriating self-examination and the nastiest and most honest arenas of human experience. They can in fact be seen as brother auteurs and indeed inventors of the “literary” or alternative field of graphic narrative which, whilst largely sidelined for most of their working lives, has finally emerged as the most important and widely accepted avenue of the comics medium.

These are stories no serious exponent or fan of comics can afford to miss and this series of collections is the best way yet to enjoy a hidden master’s dedication and brilliance.

Art and stories © 1969, 2012 Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Introduction © 2005, 2012 Adrian Tomine. This edition © 2012 Drawn & Quarterly. All rights reserved.

Asterix and the Soothsayer, Asterix in Corsica & Asterix and Caesar’s Gift


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

One of the most popular comics features on Earth, the collected chronicles of Asterix the Gaul have been translated into more than 100 languages since his debut in 1959, with animated and live-action movies, TV series, assorted games, toys and even a theme park outside Paris (Parc Astérix, unsurprisingly…) all stemming from his glorious exploits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firmly established as a global brand and premium French export by the mid-1960s, Asterix the Gaul continued to grow in quality as Goscinny & Uderzo toiled ever onward, crafting further fabulous sagas; building a stunning legacy of graphic excellence and storytelling gold. Moreover, following the civil unrest and nigh-revolution in French society following the Paris riots of 1968, the tales began to increasingly show signs of trenchant satire and more directed social commentary…

Asterix and the Soothsayer was the 19th serialised epic, originally running in Pilote #652-673 throughout 1972, first translated into an English album in 1975, and begins ominously whilst the village’s venerable mystic protector Getafix is away at his annual Druiding conference. During a torrential storm nefarious Soothsayer named Prolix turns up seeking shelter. His dark predictions instantly spread disharmony amongst the hospitable, hot-headed, painfully superstitious and credulous Gaulish stalwarts… except for level headed and canny little Asterix.

As Prolix leaves the Chief’s wife Impedimenta sneaks after him, keen on a personal prediction and the crafty charlatan soon discovers he’s on to a good thing and profitably cushy number…

Before long the entire village is under the soothsayer’s grimy thumb, but when he vanishes the ladies of the village accuse Asterix of driving him off.

In actuality the unsavoury sage has been arrested by the Romans who have standing orders to deal harshly with all non-Roman prognosticators and troublemakers. The wily Prolix barters for his life with Centurion Arteriosclerosus, who sees a way to end his Indomitable Gaul problems by using the obviously fraudulent fortune-teller as a wedge to drive out the obstreperous resistors…

Prolix returns to the village and utters a doom-laden pronouncement: the place has been cursed by the Gods and a pestilential stench will precede plague. Inevitable death will be their fate if they remain…

Panicked, the gullible Gauls head for the beach and take refuge on an off-shore island – all that is, except for Asterix, Obelix and chivalrous canine companion Dogmatix…

With the Romans at last in possession of the village – and all Gaul finally conquered – the bold last rebels make their plans until Getafix returns. On his arrival the three men and a dog embark on an elaborate scheme to take back their home and teach their foolish fellows a much needed lesson.

Concocting a stunningly malodorous vapour which drives the occupiers from the village, the druid convinces the Romans that Prolix is a real soothsayer and ambitious Arteriosclerosus sees a chance to become the next Caesar. Even baffled conman Prolix begins to believe his predictions are real…

After dressing down the refugee Gauls, Getafix leads them back to their beloved homes where the incensed and wiser villagers top up on magic potion and rush off to teach the invaders – and Prolix – a much needed lesson. On this occasion, Impedimenta and the village women accompany their men, determined to expiate their embarrassing gullibility with a little cathartic violence of their own…

This delightfully arch and acerbic attack on gullibility and superstition is a splendid chance to see the minor characters play to their strengths and weaknesses with Asterix and Obelix almost relegated to walk-on parts…

First translated two years earlier in England but chronologically following on from The Soothsayer in the original French serialisations Asterix in Corsica (Pilote #687-708, in 1973) was the 20th adventure and the best-selling French language album of the series.

Another globe-trotting yarn, it begins with the Romans of the four occupying garrisons “deploying for manoeuvres” to avoid having to deal with Gauls’ painfully exuberant celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of Gergovia. Unfortunately for Centurion Hippotamus and his men they are delayed by the arrival of a party from Praetor Perfidius, Governor of Corsica, escorting a dangerous prisoner into exile. They are still in Totorum when the high-spirited villagers (and many guest-star friends from previous adventures) arrive keen for a punch-up and a little annoyed that all the other Roman camps are deserted…

When the dust settles and the groans of pain subside, Asterix discovers the prisoner Boneywasawarriorwayayix and invites him back to the village for a slap-up feed. Over boar and beer the Gauls hear how Perfidius had the popular Corsican leader exiled to prevent him revealing how the Praetor has been over-taxing the people and embezzling the gold for himself instead of sending to Caesar in Rome. Corsica is officially the most troublesome spot in the Empire and the exile is determined to return and expose the hated Governor, so the proud and haughty Boneywasawarriorwayayix is delighted when Asterix and Obelix – with the faithful Dogmatix – determine to help him sneak back to his fiercely over-fortified and contained island (most volumes of this album have a map of Corsica instead of the traditional Gaulish village, and the tiny nation contains four towns and forty-six Roman camps)…

Hilariously obtaining passage on the pirate ship of Redbeard the voyagers soon find themselves on the island – but not unnoticed…

Soon the dissolute and lazy soldiery are hunting the heroes as they make their way inland to the exile’s home village to rally the populace whilst in the city of Aleria Perfidius suspects the jig is up and prepares to flee with his ill-gotten gains…

Trying to rally the natives Boneywasawarriorwayayix comes up against the age-old dilemma: most Corsicans are involved in centuries long vendettas and would much rather fight each other – at least when they’re not taking a siesta – than unite to attack the invaders. However at last, a determined band of warriors marches on Aleria but almost too late. Perfidius has been secretly loading his loot onto a ship but when his soldiers discover it they realise their leader is planning to abandon then to the fierce and furious Corsicans – at least if diplomatic Asterix can manage to stop the natives killing each other first…

Asterix travel epics are always packed with captivating historical titbits, soupcons of healthy cynicism, singularly surreal situations and amazingly addictive but generally consequence-free action, always illustrated in a magically enticing manner.

Stuffed with sly pokes and good-natured trans-national teasing of perceived nationalist characteristics and celebrating the terrifying power of Corsican cheeses and liberally served up with raucous hi-jinks and fast-paced action, this is another magical titbit of all-ages entertainment.

In 1974 Asterix and Caesar’s Gift was the first tale to be published as a complete album before being serialised, with a British translation appearing in 1977. It begins in Rome where two 20-year veteran legionaries drunkenly celebrate being honourably discharged. Tremensdelirious and Egganlettus eagerly look forward to being given their service reward: a parcel of land each.

Unfortunately Tremensdelirious is overheard disparaging Caesar but the sardonically cruel leader does not punish the old soldier or even withhold his pension. In fact he gives Tremensdelirious a lovely portion of the Gaulish coast in Armorica: all he has to do is shift a few recalcitrant Gauls from their village on his new small holding…

A drunk but not a fool the old soldier knows his fate is sealed and soon trades his dispensation to Lutetian inn-keeper Orthopaedix to settle his bar-bill…

The first that the Indomitable Gauls know of this is when Orthopaedix, his wife Angina and daughter Influenza roll up in their cart and try to take possession. After some hilarity the villagers go back about their business and the inn-keeper is left to suffer the fury of his wife at the uprooting of the family to a barbaric hovel where nobody acknowledges their claim.

No stranger to such a tongue-lashing, Chief Vitalstatistix takes pity on Orthopaedix and offers to let them stay and open an inn in the hamlet, but the standoffish villagers are angered by Angina’s superior airs and a riot breaks out on opening night…

The world-weary publican is ready to quit but now the humiliated Angina is in a status duel with Impedimenta and, determined to stay, makes Orthopaedix challenge Vitalstatistix for the post of village Chief. As the campaign to win the support of the always argumentative villagers intensifies, all manner of shoddy tactics, dubious lobbying and outright bribery takes place with each party frantically trying to curry political favour from the fickle but extremely astute potential voters who know the value of their own support…

Simple, gentle oafish Obelix has fallen under the spell of the lovely Influenza, who leads him on cruelly to help out her mother’s naked ambition, leading to fight with his best friend. Only Asterix seems aware that the discord could well be the death of the village and lead to Caesar’s ultimate triumph and soon the waters are further muddied when elderly Lothario Geriatrix declares himself a third party and splits the potential vote even further.

The political crisis reaches boiling point when Tremensdelirious turns up and demands his land-grant back: after all it’s illegal to sell them to Gauls, and Orthopaedix has no say in the matter…

When the ex-legionary turns violent Asterix steps in to save the day and the old sot is driven off at sword-point. He doesn’t go far – only to the garrison of Laudanum where old comrade Egganlettus has re-enlisted – and together they blackmail Centurion Tonsillitus into attacking the Gauls to uphold Roman law and get back that “official” pension land which is every soldier’s right…

That kind of military intervention usually ends disastrously, but this time the village is hopelessly divided by political intrigue and backstabbing and even Asterix cannot unite them against their real and common foe. It seems that the Gauls must lose everything until Orthopaedix makes a supreme sacrifice to save the day…

Brittle, barbed and devilishly sharp, this outrageous political thriller and satire on modern electioneering is as pertinent and punchy as it ever was, proving once again that these Gallic graphic masterpieces are perfect comics which everyone should read over and over again.
© 1972-1974 Goscinny/Uderzo. Revised English translation © 2004 Hachette. All rights reserved.

Krazy + Ignatz: The Komplete Kat Komics volume 1, 1916 and volume 2: 1917 The Other-Side to the Shore of Here


By George Herriman (Eclipse Books/Turtle island)
ISBNs: 0-913035-48-3 and 0-913035-75-0

I must admit to feeling like a fool and a fraud reviewing George Herriman’s winningly surreal masterpiece of eternal unrequited love. Although Krazy Kat is unquestionably a pinnacle of graphic innovation, a hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry and an undisputed treasure of world literature, some readers – from the strip’s earliest antecedents in 1913 right up to five minutes ago – just cannot “get it”.

All those with the right sequence of genes (K, T, Z and A, I suspect) are instantly fans within seconds of exposure whilst those sorry few who are oblivious to the strip’s inimitable charms are beyond anybody’s meagre capacity to help.

Still, since everyday there’s newcomers to the wonderful world of comics I’ll assume my inelegant missionary position once more and hope to catch and convert some fresh soul – or, as I like to think of it, save some more “lil Ainjils”…

The Krazy & Ignatz softcover series of collected Sunday pages was contrived by Eclipse Comics and the Turtle Island Foundation and taken over by Fantagraphics when the publisher succumbed to the predatory market conditions of the 1990s. It is not and never has been a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex multilayered verbal and pictorial whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is the closest thing to pure poesy that narrative art has ever produced.

Think of it as Dylan Thomas and Edward Lear playing “I Spy” with James Joyce amongst beautifully harsh and barren cactus fields whilst Gabriel García Márquez types up the shorthand notes and keeps score…

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

Although Hearst and a host of the period’s artistic and literary intelligentsia (which included e.e. Cummings, Frank Capra, John Alden Carpenter, Gilbert Seldes, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and Jack Kerouac) utterly adored the strip, many local editors -ever cautious of the opinions of the hoi-polloi who actually bought the papers – did not and took every career-risking opportunity to drop it from the comics section.

Eventually the feature found a home in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s vast empire of papers. Protected by the publisher’s patronage the strip flourished unharmed by editorial interference and fashion and ran until Herriman’s death in April 1944.

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

Ignatz is a real Man’s Muridae; drinking, stealing, cheating, carousing, neglectful of his spouse and children. He revels in spurning Krazy’s genteel advances by regularly and repeatedly belting the cat with a well-aimed and mightily thrown brick (obtained singly or in bulk and generally legitimately from noted local brickmaker Kolin Kelly).

The third member of the classic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp, hopelessly in love with Krazy, well aware of the Mouse’s true nature, but bound by his own timidity and sense of honour from removing his rival for the cat’s affections. Krazy is, of course, blithely oblivious of Pupp’s true feelings and dilemma…

Also populated with a stunning supporting cast of inspired anthropomorphic bit players such as Joe Stork, (deliverer of babies), the hobo Bum Bill Bee, Don Kiyoti, busybody Pauline Parrot, Walter Cephus Austridge, the Chinese mallard Mock Duck, Joe Turtil and a host of other audacious characters – all capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features – the episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Coconino (based of the artist’s vacation retreat Coconino County, Arizona) and the surreal playfulness and fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscape are perhaps the most important member of the cast.

The strips are a masterful mélange of wickedly barbed contemporary social satire, folksy yarn-telling, unique experimental art, strongly referencing Navajo art forms and sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully expressive language: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous and compellingly musical (“He’s simpfilly wondafil”, “A fowl konspirissy – is it pussible?” or “I nevva seen such a great power to kookoo”), yet for all that the adventures are timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerie, idiosyncratic and utterly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous slapstick.

The eponymous first monochrome volume opens with ‘The Kat’s Kreation’ by Bill Blackbeard; a fulsome, fascinating and heavily illustrated history of the development of the frankly freakish feline as briefly outlined above, after which this slim, tall tome shuffles into the first cautious but full-bodied escapades from 1916 delivered every seven days from April 23rd to December 31st.

Within that first year, as war raged in Europe and with America edging inexorably closer to the Global Armageddon, the residents of Coconino sported and wiled away their days in careless abandon but totally embroiled within their own – and their neighbours’ – personal dramas.

Big hearted Krazy adopts orphan kitties, accidentally goes boating and ballooning, saves baby birds from predatory mice and rats, survives pirate attacks, constantly endures assault and affectionate attempted murder and does lots of nothing in an utterly addictive, idyllic and eccentric way…

The volume ends with ‘The Kat Maker’ a copiously illustrated biography of Herriman.

 

Volume 2: 1917 The Other-Side to the Shore of Here begins with ‘Kat in Nine Bags – a Twenty Year Quest for a Phantom’ a trenchant introductory article by Bill Blackbeard which describes Publisher Hearst’s unceasing battle with his own editors to keep the strip in print and on the Comics pages – everything short of kidnap and assassination apparently – before the artistic tour de force (covering January 7th to 30th December) commences in perfect harmony with its eclectic and embattled environment.

Within this second magical atlas of another land and time the formative tone and textures of the eternal game play out as usual, but with some intriguing diversions such as recurring explorations of terrifying trees, grim ghosts and obnoxious Ouija Boards, tributes to Kipling as we discover why the snake rattles, meet Ignatz’s aquatic cousin, observe the invasion of Mexican Jumping Beans and a plague of measles, discover the maritime value of “glowerms”, discover who was behind a brilliant brick-stealing campaign of crime and at last see Krazy become the Bricker and not Brickee…

To complete the illustrious experience and explore the ever-shifting sense of reality amidst the constant display of visual virtuosity and verbal verve this big, big book (305x230mm) ends with ‘The Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Pages’ providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed…

There has been a wealth of Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the strip was generally rediscovered by a far more accepting audience and these particular compendiums were picked up by Fantagraphics when Eclipse ceased trading in 1992. The current publisher’s avowed intent is to complete the collection and then keep the works in print and more power to them for that.

Herriman’s epochal classic is a genuine Treasure of World Art and Literature and these comic strips shaped our industry, galvanised comics creators, inspired auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, sculpture, dance, animation and jazz music whilst always delivering delight and delectation to generations of devoted wonder-starved fans.

If however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this glorious brace of cartoon masterpieces are among the most accessible…

Just remember: not everybody gets it and some of them aren’t even stupid or soulless – they’re just unfortunate… “There Is A Heppy Lend Furfur A-Waay”
© 1989/1990 Eclipse Books/Turtle Island Foundation. All rights reserved.

Maus volumes 1 & 2: My Father Bleeds History & And Here My Troubles Began


By Art Spiegelman (Pantheon/Penguin)
ISBN: 978-0-14017-315-4 & 978-0-14013-206-9

Also available as: Complete Maus: A Survivors Tale
ISBN: 978-0141014081

During the 1980s, English-language comics finally began to be accepted by the wider world and that’s in no small part due to the groundbreaking success of an independent funny-animal comic for adults which quite rightly took the world by storm.

Most of you will probably have read this incredible tale already – and if you have feel free to skip the following tirade – but on the rare chance that you haven’t but are still open to persuasion I offer these thoughts…

Art Spiegelman first began his exploration into his family’s history in 1972 when he created a short strip for the Underground anthology Short Order Comix, in which he first examined his own reactions and response to his mother’s suicide in 1968. That tale led to a desire to understand his extremely difficult father Vladek and a determination to turn his recollections and experiences as a Holocaust survivor into a series of strips.

The individual chapters of what would become Maus began appearing at the end of the decade as monochrome mini-comic inserts in Spiegelman’s experimental and increasingly prestigious art-house anthology Raw! with the first collected edition of the scratchy, primally evocative chapters released in 1986 and a concluding volume published in 1991.

This is a graphic masterwork everybody should read and I’m hesitant to give too much away in a review, but in the hope of enticing any new readers or late hold-outs here are the bare bones…

My Father Bleeds History introduces the young Spiegelman and his father Vladek in 1958, in the sparse and primitive anthropomorphic style that did so much to rightly shade this tale as “History” and “Autobiography” rather than “Fiction” on library and bookshop shelves.

‘The Sheik’ re-introduces them both decades later.

Vladek is a crusty old kvetch even his son finds hard to deal with. The old man’s second wife Mala suffers greatly with her husband’s odd, penny-pinching, bigoted and fiercely independent ways and manners. Over an uncomfortable dinner Art convinces his dad to speak about his life during wartime…

It all began with good times in Czestochowa, a Polish city close to the German border and relates how the youthful, stylish, even rakish entrepreneur found true love whilst pursuing and winning the wealthy Anja Zylberberg, whilst ‘The Honeymoon’ detailed the frail woman’s clandestine connection to the pre-war Communists, the birth of their first child Richieu – paralleled with some poignant modern day interjections regarding Art’s own birth – and presented the first inklings of what was to come when the happy couple visited Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938, culminating in Vladek’s being drafted into the Polish Army in August 1939…

With his contemporary home-life deteriorating and ill health overtaking him Vladek relates how he became a ‘Prisoner of War’ almost immediately after induction into the military and separated from the Christian Poles in the German POW camp. Suffering extreme hardship and particular abuse, the Jewish prisoners were offered the chance to volunteer for labour assignments in exchange for better conditions.

The job was literally moving mountains…

Whilst working for the invaders Vladek had a vision which carried him through all the horrors of the conflict, and in the short-term led to his repatriation when the German work project finished. Even with the Jewish workers dispatched back to Poland, Vladek knew the Nazis had not finished with the Jews…

By guile and sheer enterprise he made his way back to Anja and Richieu in Sosnowiec and began a brief career on the wrong side of the law as new rules and old prejudices made life increasingly difficult for Jewish citizens…

In 1941 ‘The Noose Tightens’ with his friends and acquaintances enduring increasing hardship but still refusing to see the way the winds were blowing. Vladek carried on ducking and diving to keep his family alive, but the occupiers were becoming ever bolder and entire enclaves of Jews were being transported on the flimsiest pretexts. The Spiegelman’s were compelled to give Richieu away to keep him safe. Now Vladek was a full-time trader of illegal and contraband goods, constantly risking his life. Even with the transportations gathering pace most Jews believed they were merely being deported or exiled, but Vladek began preparing a hiding place for the family: a bunker to live out the war. In August 1942 a mass “passport inspection” in Sosnowiec practically emptied the town of Jews – an event for which Spiegelman’s step-mother Mala offered her own participant survivor’s perspective…

‘Mouse Holes’ opens with Art having to referee Vladek and Mala’s latest confrontation and incorporates the 1972 prologue strip ‘Prisoner on the Hell Planet’ which depicted the events following Anja’s suicide in 1968. When Vladek reads the strip it prompts him to a new level of revelation…

In 1943 the final round-up of Polish Jews began and with daily atrocities mounting, the family fostering Richieu chose death rather than the camps. Vladek and Anja took to their bunker with their remaining friends but after torturous weeks they too were captured leaving the couple alone, desperate and hunted…

The first volume concludes with ‘Mouse Trap’ as in the present day Vladek and Mala’s relationship deteriorates even further with Art caught impossibly in the middle – leading the embittered and belligerent old man to finally disclose how he and Anja were caught masquerading as non-Jews and sold to the Nazis by gangsters…

In March 1944 they were sent to Auschwitz and separated…

The second volume And Here My Troubles Began (From Mauschwitz to the Catskills and Beyond) concentrates equally between Vladek’s memories and his catastrophic present-day (1979) relationship with second wife Mala, beginning with ‘Mauschwitz’ as Art was dragged to the Catskills after Vladek faked a heart attack. In truth the crisis was that Mala has left him and emptied one of his bank accounts…

After much acrimony and acting out Vladek buys his son’s attention and goodwill by revealing how life in Auschwitz worked and how even in the worst of all possible situations, a smart operator could soften the pain and even perhaps profit whilst surviving…

‘Auschwitz (Time Flies)’ creatively jumps to recount Vladek’s death in 1982 and the reaction to the public sensation which followed the release of the first volume, before returning to the death-camp where Vladek discovered that an adjoining camp – Auschwitz II/Birkenau – held women prisoners and that Anja was still alive…

Exerting all his wiles and scams Vladek manages to get himself assigned there as a repairman and is reunited – albeit through barbed wire – with his wife. Meanwhile all around them, the Nazis were frantically exercising their horrific “Final Solution”…

With Vladek quickly driving Art and his wife Françoise crazy ‘…And Here My Troubles Began…’ simultaneously explores the ongoing father-son relationship as the old man gradually describes the last days of the death-camp, with daily privation constantly punctuated by the rapidly approaching sound of Allied artillery getting ever closer.

The terrified guards moved the prisoners in ghastly forced marches into Germany and a new camp where the worst atrocities occurred after the survivors were forced onto packed cattle-trains as the Jew were moved towards their final fate in Dachau…

Enduring, brutality, betrayal and disease the prisoners waited for the inevitable end but inexplicably found themselves again herded onto trains and shuttled towards Switzerland…

‘Saved’ sees the bewildering old man at his anti-social worst whilst describing how they were released near the border, in an exchange for German POWs, only to suffer one final betrayal before being found by American soldiers…

Free and safe, Vladek shares with his son intimate details of the friends and family forever lost before the final chapter ‘The Second Honeymoon’ begins months later with a frantic call from Mala. She and Vladek had reconciled in Florida but now he was sick again and had discharged himself from hospital, determined to be treated in New York. Art reluctantly travels South to accompany his father and learns of the immediate post-war years when the last survivors travelled to Sweden and settled there, once again depending on his guile and ability to make deals to thrive.

Eventually Vladek and Anja obtained visas for America and emigrated…

From his sickbed the tired survivor at last reveals the magical events of the immediate post-war days. Of life in a Displaced Persons camp, relapsing into typhus, contracting diabetes and being assigned to work details rebuilding Germany, ending with his journey back to Sosnowiec where Anja, having consulted a Gypsy fortune teller, was waiting…

Maus is a fabulous, horrible, poignant and captivating examination of not just the most appalling moments of modern history and worst examples of human depravity but also how tribulation shapes and recasts survivors: not merely a brilliant comic story but a magnificent example of narrative as history. It a tale no one should be unfamiliar with.
© 1973, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 Art Spiegelman. All rights reserved.