Zorro in Old California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three Musketeers – a Golden Picture Classic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued…

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

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

Zorro – the Masters Edition volume 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forewarned, The Fox took action as only he could…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaristo: Deep City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 1

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I do have one wistful caveat…

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

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

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

Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface

Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface

By Shirow Masamune (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 1-84023-767-8

The long awaited sequel sees Motoko Aramaki (neé Kusanagi) as a bodiless presence capable of possessing both meat and robotic bodies in her ongoing struggle to stabilise an increasingly insane and out-of-kilter planet and society. The plot however is broad and meandering, lacking a clear narrative drive, and there is an overwhelming dependence on increasingly more detailed footnotes and authorial asides which hinders the flow. Also, on a personal note, I quickly tired of the preponderance on “anatomically coy” nude and crotch ‘n’ gusset shots.

I’ve heard all the blather about cultural differences but I refuse to believe that cyber-space combat can only be rendered with authenticity if all the combatants are young, leggy, nude, lavishly and luxuriously painted girls with prominently displayed pudenda and nipple-less breasts in every shot. It’s just cheesy, prurient and not a little bit sad.

Ultimately it also detracts from the storytelling. It’s like Hamlet in the nude. Nobody goes home pondering on the deathless poesy, and it’s just not necessary to get your attention.

The advances in computer imaging techniques have enabled the creator to produce a truly mind-boggling display of visuals for what is sadly a rather confusing and slow story that ultimately feels rather shallow to this reviewer. Perhaps however many readers will like it for the very reasons I can’t.

© 2002, 2003, 2005 by Shirow Masamune. All rights reserved.
English version © 2002, 2003, 2005 by Dark Horse Comics All rights reserved.

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell

By Shirow Masamune (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 1-84576-018-2

Reformatted and released to complement the publication of the long awaited sequel, Ghost in the Shell is ostensibly the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi, an agent for a covert security department dedicated to protecting a country in political and economic decline from outside threat and internal depredations by hackers and organizations capable of supplanting human consciousness and turning people into robots and vehicles.

Her dedicated fight to preserve some kind of status quo in a world spiraling out of technological/spiritual balance and her inevitable evolution to another state struck a metaphorical chord world-wide, spawning a TV series, two movies and a computer-game. Shirow Masmune’s complex prognostications and spectacularly detailed illustration astonished and captivated audiences, although previous English language publications were drastically censored. This new edition restores and translates these omissions for the first time.

Complex and intriguing with much to recommend it, it nevertheless remains a difficult book to read if all you want is a quick thrill, but the visual panorama is an art fan’s dream. I suppose we should try to concentrate on what’s going on, not just how well it’s drawn.

© 1991, 1995, 2004 by Shirow Masamune. All rights reserved.
English version © 1991, 1995, 2004 by Dark Horse Comics All rights reserved.

Flash Gordon Volume 2

Flash Gordon Volume 2 

By Alex Raymond (Checker BPG)
ISBN: 0-9741-6646-4

The second irresistible collection of the immortal Flash Gordon’s adventures sees Alex Raymond and co-writer Don Moore introduce a host of new races and places for their perfect hero to win over. In Sunday Comics pages that ran in newspapers from April 21st 1935 until October 11th 1936 (generously sub-divided into ‘Witch Queen of Mongo’, ‘At War with Ming’ and ‘Undersea Kingdom of Mongo’ for your ease and delectation) we can experience the sheer beauty and drama that captivated the world, producing not only some of the world’s most glorious comic art, but also novels, three movie serials, a radio and later TV show, a daily strip (by Raymond’s former assistant Austin Briggs), comic books and more.

The Ruritanian flavour of the series is enhanced continuously, as Raymond’s futurism endlessly accesses and refines the picture perfect Romanticism of idyllic Kingdoms, populated by idealised heroes, stylised villains and women of staggering beauty.

Azura, Witch Queen of Mongo, wages a brutal and bloody war with Flash and his friends for control of the underworld, which eventually leads to all out war with Ming the Merciless – a sequence of such memorable power that artists and movie-men would be swiping from it for decades to come – and the volume ends as the heroes are forced to flee, only to become refugees and captives of the seductive Queen Undina in her undersea Coral City.

I never fail to be impressed by the quality of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. True, there is the merest hint of formula in the plots, but what commercial narrative medium is free of that? What is never dull or repetitive is the artistry and bravura staging of the tales. Every episode is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, but the next episode still tops it. You are a fool to yourself if you don’t try this wonderful strip out, and all the more so in such inexpensive yet lavish volumes. It’s not too soon to start dropping hints for Christmas, you know…

© 2003 King Features Syndicate Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc.

Havoc in Heaven

Havoc in Heaven 

By Tang Cheng & various

(Foreign Languages Press)  No ISBN

Although not strictly Graphic Novels, and certainly hard to find in many parts of the country, the picture books portraying Chinese tales and legends are always a rewarding read. If you have a local Chinatown it’s certainly worth a scout around, or perhaps you might try Googling.

This time out is a double oddity, in that Havoc in Heaven, another tale of Monkey, taken from Wu Cheng’en’s classic Journey to the West features full colour stills from an animated film of the same name, embedded with small blocks of English text in the manner of Rupert the Bear, rather than those wonderful black line drawings that drive western artists to tears of jealousy.

The irrepressible and wayward Monkey is the bane of the pious and stiff denizens of Heaven, whom he offends with his carousing and fighting and mischief. In an effort to control him, The Jade Emperor invites Monkey to join the Celestials and even gives him a job in the palace, but Monkey’s wayward nature cannot be tamed and the resultant chaos and combat shakes the heavens and rattles the gods themselves.

Spectacular, bright and irresistibly engaging, this colourful interpretation is an absolute delight, thanks to the beautiful illustrations of Yan Dingxian, Pu Jiaxiang, Lin Wenxiao, Lu Qing, Gao Yang and Fang Pengnian. Although these books are seldom out of print for long, it would be nice if some entrepreneur could pick up a British license for both the books and the film too.

© Foreign Languages Press BEIJING 1979