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.

Lat’s Lot- the Second Collection


By Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid AKA “Lat” (Berita Publishing)
No ISBN:

Mohammad Nor Khalid is probably Malaysia’s most beloved and prolific cartoonist, having begun his professional career aged 13 and working continuously in comics, strip illustration and journalism as well as the editorial and political works that have made him a household name in Asia.

Born in 1951 the son of a government clerk in the Malaysian military, the artist spent his early life in a rural village (superbly captured and eulogised in his graphic recollection Kampung Boy) before moving to the city in 1962 – with those later autobiographical reminiscences and observations recalled in cartoon sequel Town Boy. As early as 1960 the precocious nine-year old was selling his drawings – or trading them for cinema tickets.

Exposed to a steady diet of music, films and imported comics such as Beano and Dandy, as well as home-grown material such as the bombastic adventure strips of Raja Hamzah, within two years Khalid was supplementing the family income with his edgy, exuberant and sublimely inclusive drawings.

Mentored by senior cartoonist Rejab bin Had (known nationally as “Rejabhad”) the boy sold his first comicbook series Tiga Sekawan (Three Friends Catch a Thief) to Sinaran Brothers Publishers who believed the postal submissions came from an adult professional. Khalid, saddled with his baby nickname “bulat” – which means “round” – from an early age, turned the moniker into the diminutive and distinctive pen-name Lat by which a goodly portion of the world now knows him…

In 1968, he began the weekly strip Keluarga Si Mamat (Mamat’s Family) for Berita Minggu, the Sunday edition of national newspaper Berita Harian. The series ran for 26 years.

On leaving school, Lat became a crime reporter for Berita Harian in the capital Kuala Lumpur, but in 1974 switched to drawing full-time after a cartoon feature in Hong Kong paper Asia Magazine (on the Malaysian circumcision ceremony Bersunat) brought him to the attention of editor-in-chief Tan Sri Lee Siew Yee of the New Straits Times. Unaware that the artist was already an employee, the big boss promptly commissioned a series of cartoons entitled Scenes of Malaysian Life. The paper thereafter also dispatched Lat on a four-month sabbatical toEngland where he studied atSt. Martin’sCollege ofArt inLondon. Whilst there, Lat was exposed to such varied and iconoclastic draughtsmen as Gerald Scarfe, Frank Dickens and Ralph Steadman…

On his return, the inspired young craftsman totally transformed Scenes of Malaysian Life and in 1975 was made chief editorial cartoonist with absolute carte blanche to draw whatever he liked…

Working for such prominent national newspapers Lat blended astute observation, palpable honesty, utter neutrality and a superbly self-deprecating ironic gentility with a keen sense of what ordinary Malaysians knew, felt and were interested about.  In 1978 his first compilation book was released and, ever-bolshie, I’ve decided to review the second one, which was rushed out a few months later to cope with the frantic demand for more, more, more…

Ceaselessly working, Lat has published more than 20 books and cartoon collections and branched out into animation, design, merchandising and even theme-park creation. He’s also produced an animated feature (‘Mina Smiles’) promoting literacy for Unesco.

This glorious over-sized 144 page monochrome masterpiece features 74 of his very best strips and panels, covering all aspects of the Malaysian experience both at home and abroad – even the experiences and emotions of Lat’s ‘Trip Across U.S.A.’ so eerily echo my own ( or indeed anyone’s) first trip to the Big Country…

The full page cartoon statements on ‘Going to Work’, ‘The Long Wait’, ‘Married Life’ and longer pieces dedicated to such diverse topics as Elvis impersonators, ‘Penang Revisited’, ‘Police Force: the Way We Were’ and the Tamil/Bollywood romance of ‘Velappan and Minachi’ display the author’s wickedly sly sense of the absurd, and there’s a stinging selection of political scoops such as ‘Hussein and the Pay Rise’, ‘Pay Claims’, ‘Endau – Rompin Summit’, ‘Asri’s Story’ and ‘Visitor from Japan’ to smirk over.

Poignant childhood memories such as ‘Football in the Kampung’, ‘Life with Dad’, ‘Football Fever’, ‘Exam Time’, ‘Hostel Life’, ‘Metrication Woes’, ‘Our First Woman Soccer Referee’ and ‘Down Negri Way’, the hidden depths of sardonic surreality in ‘My Ardent Fan’, ‘Let’s Do the Bump’ or ‘My Fair Body’ sit happily beside razor-sharp commentaries about ordinary folk in ‘The Male Look’, ‘The Short Cut’, ‘Panorama’ and many more to tickle the fancy.

Moreover the bustling multi-national, multi-faith, complicated but wonderfully functional melting pot is superbly celebrated in such strips as ‘In an Indian Restaurant’, ‘The Hawkers’, ‘At the Tea Stall’, ‘Fasting Time Again’, ‘A Hakka Wedding’, ‘The Orang Putehs’ and so many others which make this book above everything else a perfect advert for an exotic land and welcoming society we should all have on our “must see” list…

In 1994 Lat was awarded the honorific “Datuk” (equivalent to our own Knighthood) by the Sultan of Perak, recognising the cartoonist’s contribution to promoting social harmony and understanding through his years of artistic endeavour.

Referencing recognisable dashes of Searle’s unsavoury oik Nigel Molesworth with an amazing aura of madcap cartoonist Sergio Aragonés, these superb specimens display the vibrant life of a completely different culture – so comfortingly like to our own – but are, most impressively, a brilliant and uniquely personal peek into the mind and heart of a perfect artistic ambassador: one we should all be far more aware of.
© 1978 Berita Publishing Sdn. Bhd. All rights reserved.

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.