Moomin: the Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip volume 2

By Tove Jansson (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-897299-19-7

Tove Jansson was one of the greatest literary innovators and narrative pioneers of the 20th century: equally adept at shaping words and images to create worlds of wonder. She was especially expressive in pen and ink, manipulating slim economical lines and patterns to realise sublime realms of fascination, whilst her dexterity made simple forms into incredibly expressive and potent symbols.

Tove Marika Jansson was born into an artistic, intellectual and practically bohemian Swedish family in Helsinki, Finland on August 9th 1914. Her father Viktor was a sculptor, her mother Signe Hammarsten-Jansson a successful illustrator, graphic designer and commercial artist. Tove’s brothers Lars and Per Olov became a cartoonist/writer and photographer respectively. The family and its close intellectual, eccentric circle of friends seems to have been cast rather than born, with a witty play or challenging sitcom as the piece they were all destined to act in.

After intensive study from 1930-1938 (University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, Stockholm, the Graphic School of the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts and L’Ecole d’Adrien Holy and L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris) Tove became a successful exhibiting artist through the troubled period of the Second World War.

Intensely creative in many fields, she published the first fantastic Moomins adventure in 1945: Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (The Little Trolls and the Great Flood or latterly and more euphoniously The Moomins and the Great Flood), a whimsical epic of gentle, inclusive, accepting, understanding, bohemian, misfit trolls and their strange friends…

A young over-achiever, from 1930-1953 Tove worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for the Swedish satirical magazine Garm, and achieved some measure of notoriety with an infamous political sketch of Hitler in nappies that lampooned the Appeasement policies of Chamberlain and other European leaders in the build-up to World War II. She was also an in-demand illustrator for many magazines and children’s books. She had also started selling comic strips as early as 1929.

Moomintroll was her signature character. Literally.

The lumpy, gently adventurous big-eyed romantic goof began life as a spindly sigil next to her name in her political works. She called him “Snork” and claimed she had designed him in a fit of pique as a child – the ugliest thing a precocious little girl could imagine – as a response to losing an argument about Immanuel Kant with her brother.

The term “Moomin” came from her maternal uncle Einar Hammarsten who attempted to stop her pilfering food when she visited by warning her that a Moomintroll guarded the kitchen, creeping up on trespassers and breathing cold air down their necks. Snork/Moomin filled out, became timidly nicer – if a little clingy and insecure – acting as a placid therapy-tool to counteract the grimness of the post-war world.

The Moomins and the Great Flood was relatively unsuccessful but Jansson persisted, probably as much for her own edification as any other reason, and in 1946 the second book Kometjakten (Comet in Moominland) was published. Many commentators have reckoned the terrifying tale a skilfully compelling allegory of Nuclear destruction.

When it and her third illustrated novel Trollkarlens hatt (1948, Finn Family Moomintroll or occasionally The Happy Moomins) were translated into English in 1952 to great acclaim, it prompted British publishing giant Associated Press to commission a newspaper strip about her seductively sweet and sensibly surreal creations.

Jansson had no misgivings or prejudices about strip cartoons and had already adapted Comet in Moominland for Swedish/Finnish paper Ny Tid.

Mumintrollet och jordens undergängMoomintrolls and the End of the World – was a popular feature so Jansson readily accepted the chance to extend her eclectic family across the world.

In 1953 The London Evening News began the first of 21 Moomin strip sagas which promptly captivated readers of all ages. Tove’s involvement in the cartoon feature ended in 1959, a casualty of its own success and a punishing publication schedule. So great was the strain that towards the end she had recruited her brother Lars to help. He took over, continuing the feature until its end in 1975.

Free of the strip Tove returned to painting, writing and her other creative pursuits, generating plays, murals, public art, stage designs, costumes for dramas and ballets, a Moomin opera and another nine Moomin-related picture-books and novels, as well as thirteen books and short-story collections strictly for grown-ups.

Her awards are too numerous to mention but consider this: how many modern artists – let alone comics creators – get their faces on the national currency? She died on June 27th 2001.

Her Moomin comic strip has been collected in seven Scandinavian volumes and the discerning folk at Drawn & Quarterly have translated these into English for your – and especially my – sheer delight and delectation.

This second oversized (312 x 222mm) monochrome hardback compilation commences with ‘Moomin’s Winter Follies’ as the rotund, gracious and deeply considerate young troll has an accident on ice which prompts the family to begin their preparations for the winter’s hibernation.

However after those efforts lead to nothing but petty disaster, boldly unconventional Moomin Pappa decides that tradition isn’t everything and decrees that they shall all stay awake for the icy months ahead…

The family and their many friends however are soon bedevilled by the obnoxiously enthusiastic Mr. Brisk who cajoles the easygoing Moomins to indulge in his abiding passion for winter sports. The results are painful and far from impressive, but the ruggedly athletic Brisk does turn the head of the overly romantic and lonely Mymble

As usual, the object of her affections is blithely oblivious, caring only for the upcoming Winter Games, but when the beauteous Snorkmaiden also begins to succumb to Brisk’s physical charms Moomin is compelled to take up ski-jumping to win back her attention.

When that goes poorly he is tempted into contemplating murder until cooler heads, his own gentle nature and the onset of spring produces a gentler solution…

Moomins are easygoing free spirits, bohemians untroubled by hidebound domestic mores and societal pressures. Mamma is warm and capable but overly concerned with propriety and appearances whilst Pappa spends most of his time trying to rekindle his adventurous youth or dreaming of fantastic journeys.

However when prideful snobbish Mrs. Fillyjonk moves in next door, her snooty attitudes unfavourably affect the entire family, resulting in the hiring of ‘Moomin Mamma’s Maid’.

The search for a suitable servant results in disruption and discontent before the dour, distressed and doom-obsessed Misabel – along with her direly depressed dog Pimple - begin to further blight the formerly happy household.

Misabel suffers from secrets and a persecution complex and when Fillyjonk goes missing a detective starts hanging around, adding to the general aura of anxiety until Moomin Mamma shakes herself out of her status-induced funk and starts a campaign to cheer up and change the latest additions to her wildly imaginative, but oddly welcoming home…

‘Moomin Builds a House’ sees Mymble’s eccentrically forgetful but fruitful mother come to visit, inflicting her latest batch of wild and wilful youngsters – seventeen, or thereabouts – on the normally compassionate and understanding trolls.

The children are, to put it mildly, little monsters: destructive, practical joking arsonistic hellions who would put the Belles of St. Trinians to shame and to rout…

Soon, impressionable Moomin is driven out of his home and, egged on by the worst of the brood Little My, attempts to build his own house in the woods.

Possessing none of Moomin Pappa’s artisan or craft skills, the lad’s efforts are far from satisfactory but nonetheless his flighty paramour Snorkmaiden soon joins him, intent on making the shaky edifice their romantic hideaway. Sadly, with Little My still around, their best laid plans soon come unstuck…

This utterly incomparable and heartwarming box of graphic delights concludes with a brilliantly satitical salutary romp as ‘Moomin Begins a New Life’, wherein an itinerant thinker enters the valley sharing his secret recipe for “How to be Happy”.

The Prophet is remarkably convincing and, seeing how his pronouncements and suggestions have changed the lives of all their friends and neighbours, the graciously impressionable Moomins try to adjust their behaviour to maximise their joy, unaware that they are already as happy and content as anyone can be…

With the entire community blissed out, the well-intentioned Prophet then convinces the constable to release all the folk in jail, allowing mischievous trickster and scofflaw Stinky to resume his prankish shenanigans…

After convincing Moomin Pappa to set up an illicit still producing hard liquor – which incites Snorkmaiden to run off with another young man – Stinky then convinces heartbroken, abandoned Moomin to turn to the dark side by becoming a glamorous highwayman and jewel thief to win her back.

Having spread malice and disorder Stinky’s next stunt is badly misjudged as he invites a puritan, fire-and-brimstone rival philosopher dubbed the Black Prophet to come and save all the sinners…

Thankfully, as the rival Prophets’ war of words escalates Moomin Mamma at last reaches the end of her patience and intervenes…

Wrapping up the Wild Things wonderment is the short essay ‘Tove Jansson: To Live in Peace, Plant Potatoes, and Dream’: a comprehensive biography and commentary by Alisia Grace Chase PhD which celebrates the incredible achievements of this genteel giant of literature.

These are truly magical tales for the young laced with the devastating observation and razor sharp mature wit which enhances and elevates only the greatest kid’s stories into classics of literature. These volumes are an international treasure and no fan of the medium – or biped with even a hint of heart and soul – can afford to be without them.

© 2007 Solo/Bulls. All other material © its creators. All rights reserved.

Superman Chronicles volume 9

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, John Sikela, Leo Nowak, Ed Dobrotka & Fred Ray (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3122-4

I sometimes think – like many others I know – that superhero comics were never more apt or effective than when they were whole-heartedly combating global fascism with explosive, improbable excitement courtesy of a myriad of mysterious, masked marvel men.

All the most evocatively visceral moments of the genre seem to come when gaudy gladiators soundly thrashed – and I hope you’ll please forgive the offensive contemporary colloquialism – “Nips and Nazis”.  However, even in those long-ago dark days, comics creators were wise enough to offset their tales of espionage and imminent invasion with a barrage of home-grown threats and gentler or even more whimsical four-colour fare…

This ninth astounding Superman compendium – collecting #16-17 of his solo title, his adventures from flagship anthology Action Comics #48-52 and an episode from World’s Finest Comics #6 (encompassing May to September 1942) – sees the World’s Premier Superhero predominant at the height of those war years: an indomitable Man of Tomorrow who was always a thrilling, vibrant, vital role-model and whose sensational exploits spawned a host of imitators, a genre and an industry.

Behind the stunning covers by Fred Ray – depicting Superman trouncing scurrilous Axis War-mongers and reminding readers what we were all fighting for – scripter Jerry Siegel was producing some of the best stories of his career, showing the Action Ace in all his morale-boosting glory; thrashing thugs, spies and masters of bad science whilst America kicked the Axis fascists in the pants…

Co-creator Joe Shuster, although plagued by punishing deadlines for the Superman newspaper strip and his rapidly failing eyesight, was still fully involved in the process, overseeing the stories and drawing character faces whenever possible, but as the months passed the talent pool of the “Superman Studio” increasingly took the lead in the comicbooks as the demands of the media superstar grew and grew.

Thus most of the stories in this volume were drawn by John Sikela with occasional support from others…

The magic begins with ‘The Merchant of Murder!’ from Action Comics #48 which saw the hero toppling an insidious gang of killers led by The Top who used wartime restrictions to sell used cars with deadly faults and defects until reporter Lois Lane – and her titanic leg-man – got involved…

Sikela also flew solo on all of Superman #16, beginning with ‘The World’s Meanest Man’ as the Caped Kryptonian crushed a mobster attempting to plunder a social program to give deprived slum-kids a holiday in the countryside, before moving on to battle an astrologer prepared to murder his clients to prove his predictions in ‘Terror from the Stars’.

‘The Case of the Runaway Skyscrapers’ pitted the Metropolis Marvel against Mister Sinister, a trans-dimensional tyrant who could make buildings vanish, after which the power-packed perilous periodical concluded with a deeply satisfying and classic campaign against organised crime as Superman crushed the ‘Racket on Delivery’.

Action Comics #49 then introduced The Puzzler;a despicable, deadly and obsessive criminal maniac who was hated losing and never played fair in ‘The Wizard of Chance’ (inked by Ed Dobrotka).

The debut of Superman had propelled National Comics to the forefront of their fledgling industry and in 1939 the company collaborated with the organisers of the New York World’s Fair: producing a commemorative comicbook celebrating the opening. The Man of Tomorrow prominently featured on the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics beside such four-colour stars as Zatara, Gingersnap and The Sandman.

He starred again a year later in the second issue with the newly launched Batman and Robin team in another epochal mass-market premium – Worlds Fair 1940. The spectacular card-cover 96 page anthologies were a huge hit and convinced National’s owner and editors that such an over-sized package of their pantheon of characters, with Superman and Batman prominently featured, would be a worthwhile proposition.

The bountiful format was retained for a wholly company-owned quarterly which retailed for the then-hefty price of 15¢. Launching as World’s Best Comics #1 (Spring 1941), the book transformed into World’s Finest Comics from #2, beginning a stellar 45 year run which only ended as part of the massive decluttering exercise that was Crisis on Infinite Earths.

From issue #6 (Summer 1942) ‘The Man of Steel vs. the Man of Metal’ by Siegel, Leo Nowak & Sikela pits our hero and newsboy Jimmy Olsen against Metalo, a mad scientist whose discoveries made him every inch Superman’s physical match…

Back in Action Comics #50, Clark Kent and Lois were despatched to Florida to scope out sporting skulduggery in ‘Play Ball!’ a light-hearted baseball tale illustrated by Nowak & Ed Dobrotka.

Superman #17 asked ‘Man or Superman?’ (illustrated by Shuster & Sikela), wherein Loisfirst began to put snippets of evidence together, at last sensing that klutzy Clark Kent might be hiding a Super-secret even as the subject of her researches tangled with sinister saboteur The Talon. Following that, ‘The Human Bomb’ (art by Nowak) saw a criminal hypnotist turn innocent citizens into walking landmines until the tireless Action Ace scotched his wicked racket.

Sikela handled the last two tales in the issue beginning with ‘Muscles for Sale!’ in which Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and Trophy Room debuted and the Man of Steel battled another mad mesmerist who turned ordinary men into dangerously overconfident louts, bullies and thieves, whilst ‘When Titans Clash!’ offered a frantic and spectacular duel of wits and incredible super-strength when Luthor regained the mystic Power Stone and became Superman’s physical – but never intellectual – master …

Action Comics #51 then introduced the canny faux-madness of practical-joking homicidal bandit The Prankster in the rollercoaster romp ‘The Case of the Crimeless Crimes’ and this cavalcade of comics creativity and glorious indulgence concludes with the ‘The Emperor of America!’ from Action Comics #52, wherein an invading army were welcomed with open arms by all Americans except the indignantly suspicious Man of Steel who single-handedly liberated the nation in a blistering, rousing call-to-arms classic…

As the war progressed the raw passion and sly wit of Siegel’s stories and the rip-roaring energy of Shuster and his team were galvanised by the parlous state of the planet and Superman simply became better and more flamboyant to deal with it all.

His startling abilities and take-charge, can-do attitude won the hearts of the public at home and he was embraced as a patriotic tonic for the troops across the war-torn world.

The rise was meteoric, inexorable and unprecedented. He was the indisputable star of Action, World’s Finest Comics and his own dedicated title whilst a daily newspaper strip (begun on 16th January 1939, with a separate Sunday strip following from 5th November of that year) garnered millions of new fans.

A thrice-weekly radio serial had been running since February 12th 1940 and, with a movie cartoon series, games, toys, apparel and a growing international media presence, Superman was swiftly becoming the entire Earth’s hero…

Although the gaudy burlesque of evil aliens, marauding monsters and slick super-villains still lay years ahead of our hero, these captivating tales of villainy, criminality, corruption and disaster are just as engrossing and speak powerfully of the tenor of the times, and are all dealt with in a direct and captivating manner by our relentlessly entertaining champion in summarily swift and decisive fashion.

No “To Be Continueds” here!

As fresh, thrilling and compelling now as they ever were, these endlessly re-readable epics are perfectly presented in these glorious paperback collections where the graphic magic defined what being a Super Hero means and concocted the basic iconography of the genre for all others to follow.

Such Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment at an absurdly affordable price and in a durable, comfortingly approachable format. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
© 1942, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Asterix and the Magic Carpet

By Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Orion Books)
ISBN: 978-0-75284-776-4

The son of Italian immigrants, Alberto Aleandro Uderzo was born on April 25th 1927, in Fismes, on the Marne. As a child reading Mickey Mouse in Le Pétit Parisien he showed artistic flair from an early age but dreamed of becoming an aircraft mechanic. Albert became a French citizen when he was seven and found employment at 13, apprenticed to the Paris Publishing Society, where he learned design, typography, calligraphy and photo retouching.

When World War II broke out he spent time with farming relatives in Brittany and joined his father’s furniture-making business. Brittany beguiled and fascinated Uderzo: when a location for Asterix’s idyllic village was being mooted, the region was the only choice.

In the post-war rebuilding of France, Uderzo returned to Paris and became a successful artist in the recovering nation’s burgeoning comics industry.

His first published work, a pastiche of Aesop’s Fables, appeared in Junior and in 1945 he was introduced to industry giant Edmond-François Calvo (whose own masterpiece The Beast is Dead is far too long overdue for a commemorative reissue…).

The tireless Uderzo’s subsequent creations included the indomitable eccentric Clopinard, Belloy, l’Invulnérable, Prince Rollin and Arys Buck. He illustrated Em-Ré-Vil’s novel Flamberge, worked in animation, as a journalist and illustrator for France Dimanche, and created the vertical comicstrip ‘Le Crime ne Paie pas’ for France-Soir.

In 1950 he illustrated a few episodes of the franchised European version of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel Jr. for Bravo!

An inveterate traveller, the artistic prodigy met Rene Goscinny in 1951. Soon becoming fast friends, they decided to work together at the new Paris office of Belgian Publishing giant World Press. Their first collaboration was in November of that year; a feature piece on savoir vivre (how to live right or gracious living) for women’s weekly Bonnes Soirée, following which an avalanche of splendid strips and serials poured forth.

Jehan Pistolet and Luc Junior were created for La Libre Junior and they produced a western starring a “Red Indian” who eventually evolved into the delightfully infamous Oumpah-Pah. In 1955, with the formation of Édifrance/Édipresse, Uderzo drew Bill Blanchart for La Libre Junior, replaced Christian Godard on Benjamin et Benjamine and in 1957 added Charlier’s Clairette to his portfolio.

The following year, he made his debut in Tintin, as Oumpah-Pah finally found a home and a rapturous audience. Uderzo also drew Poussin et Poussif, La Famille Moutonet and La Famille Cokalane.

When Pilote launched in 1959 Uderzo was a major creative force for the new magazine collaborating with Charlier on Tanguy et Laverdure and launching – with Goscinny – a little something called Asterix

Although the gallant Gaul was a massive hit from the start, Uderzo continued working on Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure, but once the first hilarious historical romp was collected in an album as Astérix le gaulois in 1961 it became clear that the series would demand most of his time – especially since the incredible Goscinny never seemed to require rest or run out of ideas.

By 1967 Asterix occupied all Uderzo’s time and attention, so in 1974 the partners formed Idéfix Studios to fully exploit their inimitable creation. When Goscinny passed away three years later, Uderzo had to be convinced to continue the adventures as writer and artist, producing a further ten volumes until 2010 when he retired.

After nearly 15 years as a weekly comic serial subsequently collected into book-length compilations, in 1974 the 21st (Asterix and Caesar’s Gift) was the first published as a complete original album before serialisation.

Thereafter each new release was a long anticipated, eagerly awaited treat for the strip’s millions of fans…

According to UNESCO’s Index Translationum, Uderzo is the tenth most-often translated French-language author in the world and the third most-translated French language comics author – right after his old mate René Goscinny and the medium’s grand master Hergé.

More than 325 million copies of 35 Asterix books have sold worldwide, making his joint creators France’s best-selling international authors. Now the torch has been passed and new sagas of the indomitable are being created by Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad…

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

Like all the best stories the narrative premise works on more than one level: read it as an action-packed comedic romp of sneaky and bullying baddies coming a cropper if you want or as a punfully sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads. We Brits are further blessed by the brilliantly light touch of master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge who played no small part in making the indomitable little Gaul so very palatable to English tongues.

More than half of the canon takes place in Uderzo’s beloved Brittany, where, circa 50 B.C., a little hamlet of cantankerous, proudly defiant warriors and their families resisted every effort of the mighty Roman Empire to complete the conquest of Gaul. The land is divided by the notional conquerors into provinces of Celtica, Aquitania and Amorica, but the very tip of the last just refuses to be pacified…

The remaining epics occur in various locales throughout the Ancient World, with the Garrulous Gallic Gentlemen often quizzical tourists and bemused commentators in every fantastic land and corner of the civilisations that proliferated in that fabled era…

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

The Gauls couldn’t care less, daily defying and frustrating the world’s greatest military machine simply by going about their everyday affairs, protected by the miraculous magic potion of resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits of the diminutive dynamo and his simplistic, supercharged best friend Obelix

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

By the time this edition was released Goscinny had been gone for a decade and Uderzo was slowly but surely finding his own authorial voice…

Asterix and the Magic Carpet (originally and quite ponderously entitled Astérix chez Rahàzade ou Le compte des mille et une heures – which translates as Asterix meets Orinjade or the 1001 Hours Countdown) was released in 1987 and once again saw Asterix and Obelix undertake a long voyage into the unknown: one packed with exotic climes, odd people and bold adventure, all deliciously underpinned by topical lampooning and timeless swingeing satire.

Before the Arabian adventure begins, a delightful in-character portrait of Goscinny and Uderzo as their greatest creations Asterix and Obelix whets the appetite for the fun to come, after which the 28th saga begins with a friendly feast, suddenly ruined twice over by the singing of the Bard Cacofonix.

Firstly there’s the plain fact that he is singing at all, but the real problem is that his newly discovered vocal style summons up storms and creates violent downpours.

The thunderous deluge also brings a surprised visitor to the village. Watziznehm the Fakir was passing by far above on his flying carpet when the tempest tossed him to earth. It was a painful but happy accident since the Indian wise man was on a mission to find some miraculous Gauls and a certified rainmaker…

Soon Asterix, Obelix and canine wonder Dogmatix are heading Due East to save beautiful princess Orinjade from the machinations of Guru Hoodunnit, who wants to sacrifice her to end a terrible drought and seize the reins of power from her father Rajah Watzit. When the flying wizard left it was with a countdown of 1001 hours to doom…

Our heroes are only accompanying the real star of the Fakir’s quest: with a deadline looming to execute the princess, Watziznehm needs to get Cacofonix there in time to sing up a storm – or rather a monsoon…

Travel aboard the flying carpet is swift and comfortable but ever-hungry Obelix is continually holding up proceedings with many pit-stops to refuel his cavernous stomach, whilst the Bard’s practising frequently leads to stormy weather and unnecessary diversions…

After the usual dalliance with pirates, a bird’s eye tour of Rome and a brief voyage on a Greek trading ship, the tourists soar over Athens and get shot at above Tyre before a natural storm sets the carpet alight and they crash-land in Persia.

Despite being in the land of carpets, the travellers are unable to secure a replacement until a band of Scythian raiders attack the village and Asterix and Obelix negotiate a trade deal: hundreds of pummelled plunderers for a freshly unbeatable new rug…

As the heroes plunge ever eastward, in the Valley of the Ganges Hoodunnit and his creepy mystic crony Owzat gloat at their impending takeover, even as poor Orinjade’s stout defiance begins to weaken.

When the Gauls and their Fakir chauffeur arrive with only a day to spare, it all seems over for the ghastly guru, but as the Bard begins his song he discovers that the arduous journey has given him laryngitis.

For the first time ever somebody wants him to sing and he has lost his voice…

With time running out the Rajah’s doctors’ diagnosis seems crazy: immersion in various unwholesome by-products of sacred elephants. Rather than settle for half-measures the Gauls decide to take Cacofonix to the jungle abode of Howdoo the Elephant Trainer and bury him in the curative well away from civilised senses…

This only gives the villains the opportunity they have been waiting for. When Watziznehm and the Gauls go to collect the Bard in the morning, Owzat engages the Fakir in a magical duel. Leaving them to their tricks Asterix and Obelix press on and find that the storm-singer has been kidnapped…

Happily, dashing Dogmatix is on hand to track down the Bard, an especially easy task as he now smells like he sings…

Hoodunnit is mirthfully preparing the stage for Orinjade’s sacrifice when, after the usual Gallic fisticuffs from our heroes, Cacofonix makes his Asian debut and sets everything – including the skies – to rights in the very nick of time…

Stuffed with light-hearted action, good-natured joshing, raucous, bombastic, bellicose hi-jinks and a torrent of punishing puns to astound and bemuse youngsters of all ages, this tale again celebrates the spectacular illustrative ability of Uderzo and proves that the potion-powered paragon of Gallic Pride is in safe and steady hands.

Full of Eastern Promise, this sublime slice of French polish and graphic élan is all you need to make any holiday excursion or comfy staycation unforgettable.

© 1987 Les Editions Albert René, Goscinny/Uderzo. Revised English translations © 1988, 2003 Hachette. All rights reserved.

Superman Chronicles volume 8

By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Leo Nowak, Paul Cassidy, Ed Dobrotka, John Sikela & Fred Ray (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2647-3

The American comicbook industry – if it existed at all today – would be an utterly unrecognisable thing without Superman. His unprecedented invention and adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation gave birth to an entire genre if not an actual art form.

The ebullient, effervescent, spectacular Man of Tomorrow spawned an inconceivable army of imitators and, within three years of his 1938 debut, his intoxicating blend of action and social wish-fulfilment had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, socially reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy, whimsical comedy and, once the war in Europe and the East finally involved America, patriotic relevance for a host of gods, heroes and monsters, all dedicated to profit through exuberant excess and explosively dashing derring-do.

Re-presented in this eighth pulp-revering Superman Chronicles edition, collecting the breathtaking yarns from Action Comics #44-47 and Superman #14-15 (January-April 1942) in chronological publishing order – and in as near-as-dammit recapturing the texture, smell and colour of the original newsprint – are the crude, rough, cathartically exuberant exploits of a righteous and superior man dealing out summary justice equally to social malcontents, exploitative capitalists, thugs and ne’er-do-wells that initially won the imagination of a generation.

Superman’s rise was meteoric and inexorable. He was the indisputable star of Action, World’s Finest Comics and his own dedicated title whilst a daily newspaper strip had begun on 16th January 1939, with a separate Sunday strip following from November 5th that year, which garnered millions of new fans.

A thrice-weekly radio serial launched on February 12th 1940 and, with a movie cartoon series, games, toys, apparel and a growing international media presence, Superman was swiftly becoming everybody’s hero…

Although the gaudy burlesque of monsters and super-villains still lay years ahead of our hero, these captivating tales of villainy, criminality, corruption and disaster are just as engrossing and speak powerfully of the tenor of the times. The perilous parade of rip-roaring action, hoods, masterminds, plagues, disasters, lost kids and distressed damsels are all dealt with in a direct and captivating manner by our relentlessly entertaining champion in summarily swift and decisive fashion.

No “to be continueds” here!

This epochal run of raw, unpolished but viscerally vibrant stories by Jerry Siegel and the burgeoning Superman Studio (Joe Shuster spending most of his time and declining eyesight on the newspaper strip) continued to set the funnybook world on fire, and are accompanied throughout by the eye-popping covers of Fred Ray, whose creative genius was responsible for some of the most unforgettable iconic images and patriotic graphics on the genre…

As most of these early tales were untitled, for everyone’s convenience – especially your reviewer’s – the tales here have been given descriptive appellations by the editors and we begin here with ‘The Caveman Criminal’ from Action #44, illustrated by Leo Nowak & Ed Dobrotka, wherein crooks capitalised on a frozen “Dawn Man” who thawed out and went wild in the crime-ridden Metropolis, after which Superman #14 (January/February 1942 and again primarily a Nowak art affair) opened with ‘Concerts of Doom!’

Here a master pianist discovered just how mesmerising his recitals were and joined forces with unpatriotic thieves and dastardly saboteurs, after which the tireless Man of Tomorrow was hard-pressed to cope with the reign of diabolical destruction caused by ‘The Invention Thief’.

John Sikela inked Nowak’s pencils in a frantic high fantasy romp resulting from the Man of Steel’s discovery of a friendly mermaid and malevolent fishmen living in ‘The Undersea City’ before more high-tension and catastrophic graphic destruction signalled Superman’s epic clash with sinister electrical savant ‘The Lightning Master’.

Action Comics #45 by Nowak & Ed Dobrotka saw ‘Superman’s Ark’ girdle the globe to repopulate a decrepit and nigh-derelict city zoo, whilst Action #46 featured ‘The Devil’s Playground’ (credited here to Paul Cassidy) wherein masked murderer The Domino stalked an amusement park wreaking havoc and instilling terror.

In the bimonthly Superman #15 ‘The Cop Who was Ruined’ (Nowak) found the Metropolis Marvel clearing the name of framed detective Bob Branigan – a man who even believed himself guilty – whilst scurvy Orientals menaced the nation’s Pacific fleet in ‘Saboteurs from Napkan’ with Sikela again lending his pens and brushes to Nowak’s pencil art.

Thinly veiled fascist oppression and expansion was spectacularly nipped in the bud in ‘Superman in Oxnalia’ – an all-Sikela art job, but Nowak was back on pencils for a concluding science fiction thriller ‘The Evolution King’ wherein a malignant mastermind artificially aged his wealthy, prominent victims until the invulnerable Man of Steel stormed in…

This splendid compilation concludes with a blockbusting, no-holds-barred battle which was only the opening skirmish in a bigger campaign. Action #47 (Sikela) revealed how Lex Luthor gained incredible abilities after acquiring the incredible ‘Powerstone’, making the mad scientist temporarily Superman’s physical equal – if not mental – match…

As fresh and thrilling now as they ever were, the endlessly re-readable epics are perfectly housed in these glorious paperback collections where the savage intensity and sly wit still shine through in Siegel’s stories – which literally defined what being a Super Hero means – whilst Shuster’s shadows continued to create the basic iconography of superhero comics for all others to follow.

Such Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment at an absurdly affordable price and in a durable, comfortingly approachable format. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?

As well as cheap price and no-nonsense design and presentation, and notwithstanding the historical significance of the material presented within, the most important bonus for any one who hasn’t read some or all of these tales before is that they are all astonishingly well-told and engrossing mini-epics that cannot fail to grip the reader.

Once read you’ll understand why today’s creators keep returning to this material every time they need to revamp the big guy. They are simply timeless, enthralling, and great.
© 1942, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Tarzan in the City of Gold (The Complete Burne Hogarth Comic Strip Library volume 1)

By Burne Hogarth and Don Garden (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-317-7

Modern comics and graphic novels evolved from newspaper comic strips.

These daily pictorial features were – until very recently – extremely popular with the public and highly valued by publishers who used them as a powerful weapon to guarantee and even increase circulation and profits. From the earliest days humour was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” and of course, “Comics”.

Despite the odd ancestor or precedent like Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs (comedic when it began in 1924, but gradually moving through mock-heroics to light-action and becoming a full-blown adventure serial with the introduction of Captain Easy in 1929, the vast bulk of strips produced were generally feel-good humour strips with the occasional child-oriented fantasy.

The full blown adventure serial started with Buck Rogers – which began on January 7th 1929 – and Tarzan (which debuted the same day). Both were adaptations of pre-existing prose properties and their influence changed the shape of the medium forever.

The 1930s saw an explosion of action and drama strips launched with astounding rapidity and success. Not just strips but actual genres were created in that decade which still impact on not just today’s comic-books but all our popular fiction.

In terms of sheer quality of art, the adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels starring jungle-bred John Clayton, Lord Greystoke by Canadian commercial artist Harold “Hal” Foster were unsurpassed, and the strip soon became a firm favourite of the reading masses, supplementing movies, books, a radio show and ubiquitous advertising appearances.

As fully detailed in Tarzan historian and author Scott Tracy Griffin’s informative overview ‘Burne & Burroughs: The Story of Burne Hogarth and Edgar Rice Burroughs’, Foster initially quit the strip at the end of the10-week adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes. He was replaced by Rex Maxon, but returned (at the insistent urging of Edgar Rice Burroughs) when the black-&-white daily was expanded to include a lush, full colour Sunday page of new tales.

Leaving Maxon to capably handle the Monday through Saturday series of novel adaptations, Foster produced the Sunday page until 1936 (233 weeks) after which he momentously moved to King Features Syndicate to create his own landmark weekend masterpiece Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur – which debuted on February 13th 1937.

Once the four month backlog of material he had built up was gone, Foster was succeeded by a precociously brilliant 25-year old artist named Burne Hogarth: a young graphic visionary whose superb anatomical skill, cinematic design flair and compelling page composition revolutionised the entire field of action/adventure narrative illustration.

The galvanic modern dynamism of the idealised human figure in comicbooks can be directly attributed to Hogarth’s pioneering drawing and, in later years, educational largesse.

When he in turn finally left the strip Hogarth eventually found his way into teaching (he was the co-founder – with Silas H. Rhodes – of the Cartoonist and Illustrators School for returning veterans which evolved into the New York School of Visual Arts) and produced an invaluable and inspirational series of art textbooks such as Dynamic Anatomy and Dynamic Figure Drawing, which influenced a generation of aspiring and wannabe pencillers. I can see my own well-worn copies from where I sit typing this.

In the early 1970s Hogarth was lured back to the leafy domain of the legendary Lord Greystoke, producing two magnificent volumes of graphic narrative in the dazzling style that had captivated audiences more than thirty years previously. The large bold panels, vibrantly coloured, with blocks of Burroughs’ original text, leapt out at the reader in a riot of hue and motion as they retold the triumphant, tragic tale of the orphaned scion of the British nobility raised to puissant manhood by the Great Apes of Africa in Tarzan of the Apes and The Jungle Tales of Tarzan.

Burroughs cannily used the increasingly popular strip feature to cross-market his own prose efforts with great effect. Tarzan and the City of Gold was first serialised in the pulp magazine Argosy in 1932 and released as book the following year. So by May 17th 1936, Hal Foster’s new and unconnected Tarzan in the City of Gold could be described as a brand new adventure on one hand, whilst boosting the already impressively constant book sales by acting as a subtle weekly ad for the fantastic fantasy novel.

As discussed and précised in ‘Hal Foster’s Tarzan in the City of Gold – the Story So Far’, the illustrator and regular scripter Don Garden’s final yarn began with the 271st weekly page and revealed how the incessantly wandering Ape-Man had stumbled upon a lost outpost built by ancient refugees from Asia Minor in a desolate region of the Dark Continent.

The city of Taanor was so rich in gold that the material was only useful for weather-proofing the roofs and domes of houses, but when white ne’er-do-wells Jim Gorrey and Rufus Flint discovered the fantastic horde they had marshalled a mercenary army, complete with tanks and aircraft, to conquer and plunder the lost kingdom.

Tarzan meanwhile had become the war-chief of noble King Dalkon and his beautiful daughter Princess Nakonia and was determined to use every trick and stratagem to smash the invaders…

After 51 weekly episodes of the epic, Foster was gone and we pick up the story of ‘Tarzan in the City of Gold’ (episodes #322-343, 9th May to October 3rd 1937) when the drama took a bold new direction as the embattled Jungle Lord led a slow war of attrition against would-be conquerors whilst simultaneously recruiting a bizarre battalion of beasts comprising apes, lions and elephants to convincingly crush the greedily amassed armaments of 20th century warfare with fang and claw, sinew and muscle…

In those halcyon days the adventure was non-stop and, rather than cleanly defined breaks, storylines flowed one into another. Thus, Tarzan allowed the victorious Taanorians to believe he had perished in battle and journeyed to familiar territory, revisiting the cabin where he had been born and the region where he was raised by the she-ape Kala – stopping to punish a tribe of natives hunting and tormenting his old family/band of apes before Hogarth’s first full epic really began.

‘Tarzan and the Boers Part I’ (pages #344-377; 10th October 1937 – 29th May 1938) found the erstwhile Greystoke lured to the assistance of the duplicitous chieftain Ishtak who craved the Ape-Man’s assistance in repulsing an “invasion” by white pioneers from South Africa.

It wasn’t too long however before Tarzan discovered that Ishtak was playing a double game: having sold the land in question to the families led by aged Jan Van Buren, the avaricious king intended to wipe them out and keep his tribal territories intact…

When Tarzan discovered the plot he naturally sided with the Boers and, over many bloody, torturous weeks, helped the refugees survive Ishtak’s murderous campaign of terror and eventually establish a sound, solid community of honest farmers…

When Hogarth first took over the strip he had used an affected drawing style which mimicked Foster’s static realism, but by the time of ‘Tarzan and the Chinese’ (#378-402, 5 June – 20th November 1938) he had completed a slow transition to his own tautly hyper-kinetic visual methodology which perfectly suited the electric vitality of the ever-onrushing feature’s exotic wonder.

Here, after leaving the new Boer nation Tarzan founded a vast, double-walled enclosure and ever curious, climbed into a fabulous hidden kingdom populated by the descendents of imperial Chinese colonists.

Once again he was happily in time to prevent the overthrow of the rightful ruler: firstly by rebels and bandits, then a treacherous usurper and latterly by invading African tribesmen, before slipping away to befriend another tribe of Great Apes and be mistaken for an evolutionary missing link by Professor John Farr in ‘Tarzan and the Pygmies’ (#403-427, 27th November 1938 – 14th May 1939).

However, the scientist’s nefarious guide Marsada knew exactly who and what the Ape-Man was and spent a great deal of time and efforts trying to kill Tarzan, who had destroyed his profitable poaching racket years before and, most infuriatingly, had caught the passionate fancy of Farr’s lovely daughter Linda

Following an extended clash with actual missing links – a mountain tribe of primitive, bestial half-men – Tarzan and Linda fell into the brawny hands of magnificent (white) tree-dwelling viragos who all wanted to mate with a man who was their physical equal. The trials and tribulations of ‘Tarzan and the Amazons’ (#428-437, 21st May-23rd July 1939) only ended when the jungle Adonis faked his own death…

All these relatively aimless perambulations took the hero again to the young homeland of his Afrikaans friends and ‘Tarzan and the Boers Part II’ (#438-477, 30th July 1939-28th April 1940) found him perfectly matched against a cunning and truly monstrous villain named Klaas Vanger.

This wandering diamond hunter had discovered a mother-lode of gems on Jan Van Buren’s farm and, after seducing his way into the family’s good graces by romancing impressionable daughter Matea, he tried to murder them all. When this didn’t work Vanger instigated another war between the settlers and the natives; meanwhile absconding with a cache of diamonds and massacring a tribe of baboons befriended by Tarzan…

These vile shenanigans led to a horrific boom town of greedy killers springing up on the Boers’ lands, leading Tarzan, baby baboon Bo-Dan and hulking tongue-tied lovelorn farmhand Groot Carlus to take a terrible and well-deserved vengeance on the money-crazed monster and his minions whilst rescuing the crestfallen Matea from the seducer’s vile clutches…

Edgar Rice Burroughs was a master of populist writing and always his prose crackled with energy and imagination. Hogarth was an inspired intellectual and, as well as gradually instilling his pages with ferocious, unceasing action, layered the panels with subtle symbolism. Even the vegetation looked spiky, edgy and liable to attack at a moment’s notice…

His pictorial narratives are all coiled-spring tension or vital, violent explosive motion, stretching, running, fighting: a surging rush of power and glory. It’s wonderful that these majestic exploits are back in print – especially in such a lavish and luxurious oversized (330 x 254mm) hardback format – even if only to give us comic lovers and other couch potatoes a thorough cardio-vascular work-out…

Beautifully rendered and reassuringly formulaic these masterful interpretations of the utterly authentic Ape-Man are a welcome addition to any comics’ connoisseurs’ cupboard and you would be crazy not to take advantage of this beautiful collection; the first in a proposed Complete Burne Hogarth Comic Strip Library.
Tarzan ® &© 2014 ERB, Inc. All Rights Reserved. All images copyright of ERB, Inc 2014. All text copyright of ERB, Inc 2014.

566 Frames

By Dennis Wojda (Borderline Press)
ISBN: 978-0-99269-720-4

Every now and then – but typically, not nearly often enough – the global comics scene throws out a project with the potential to redefine the industry.

Tintin, A Contract with God, Ghost World, Fun Home, Watchmen, Love and Rockets, Lone Wolf and Cub, From Hell, Fax from Sarajevo, Persepolis, Maus and some few others reached vast non comics-reading audiences in their time, serving to justify and legitimise a narrative discipline that had claimed since its creation to be an actual Art Form.

By all accounts author Dennis Wojda – already an established star of the Polish comics establishment – one day decided to do something to creatively stretch himself and opted to turn snippets of his family history into a daily cartoon on his web-page, scheduled to run for the classically significant “a year and a day”.

It proved immensely popular, so much so that publishers expressed interest in a book, but 366 panels weren’t really enough.

No problem: families always have plenty more history…

As you’ll see when you read the book, Wojda was actually born in Stockholm on March 13th 1973, before returning to Poland to become a writer, designer and graphic artist.

He’s appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza, Aktiviście, Exklusiv, Bravo, Skate, Ha! Arcie, Arena Comics and Jabber, winning plenty of praise and a few awards for such series as Mikropolis (with artist Krzysztof Gawronkiewicz: collected in two volumes as The Tourist Guide and Mohair Dreams), Chair in Hell, The Supernaturals: Miss Hofmokl’s Shoe (with Krzysztof Ostrowski), A European on the Road (written by J. Sanecka) and Ghost Kids: the Ribbon (illustrated by Sebastian Skrobol) amongst others.

At the end of 2013 British publisher Borderline Press sagely added the now expanded 566 Frames to its burgeoning stable of titles, giving English readers the opportunity to see one of the most beguiling and lyrical examples of comics autobiography ever produced…

Mixing time frames and viewpoints – including many wise pronouncements and predictions from his own time as a foetus in the womb – the tale begins and ends with the birth of the author.

In between then Dennis smoothly skips up and down the family tree, describing his pregnant mother’s drive to Sweden so that he could be born with his absent-and-working-abroad father (who was hedonistically trapped being a wandering, semi- failed pop star in Swinging Scandinavia), and the sort-of psychic grandmother who knew how, when and where to meet her…

There are memories – his and his ancestors’ – of little moments and huge crises, parties and pogroms and many, many conquests – both romantic and geopolitical – as an odd assortment of branches and buds thrive and survive under a variety of invaders and overlords from Tsarist Russians to Hitler’s Nazis to Soviet Russians: always finding that whatever may happen, the music of life plays on…

Don’t be fooled, however. This is no idle panegyric about the good old days. There’s a formidable amount of sex, death, struggle, fear, privation, terror, envy and heartbreak to season the surreal whimsy, diverted daydreams, folksy philosophy and chatty monologue…

And music: everything from Polkas to Jazz to Jimi Hendrix…

With only 566 Frames Wojda has worked his own brand of visual Magic Realism (as previously best expressed in English language comics by Gilbert Hernandez) and this wondrous, mesmerising, intoxicating invitation to share a slice of other lives and times is a book no lover of the medium or citizen of the world should miss.
© Dennis Wojda. All rights reserved.

Sock Monkey Treasury – A Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey Collection

By Tony Millionaire (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-696-6

It’s a fact sad but true that we can’t always be in the right place at the right time. No matter how scrupulous or diligent one might in the pursuit of a passion or hobby, things get missed. I, for example, missed the first comicbook releases of Dark Horse’s Sock Monkey by Tony Millionaire in 1998.

Sure, thanks to the miracles of back issue comic-shops I wasn’t deprived for long, but still, it was a close thing…

You, happily, don’t have any such worries, especially as Fantagraphics have just released a huge (286 x 203mm) and sumptuous 336 page hardback – 80 in full colour – collecting and commemorating all twelve uniquely dark and fanciful monochrome, multiple award-winning, all-ages adventures originally published as occasional miniseries between 1998 and 2007. Also included are the two colour hardcover storybooks Millionaire created in 2002 and 2004.

Tony Millionaire clearly loves to draw and does it very, very well; referencing classical art, timeless children’s book illustration and an eclectic mix of pioneering comic strip draughtsmen like George McManus, Rudolph Dirks, Cliff Sterrett, Frank Willard, Harold Gray, Elzie Segar and George Herriman: seamlessly blending their styles and sensibilities with European engravings masters from the “legitimate” side of the pictorial storytelling racket.

Born Scott Richardson, he especially cites Johnny (Raggedy Ann and Andy) Gruelle and English illustrator Ernest H. Shepard (The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh) as definitive formative influences.

With a variety of graphical strings to his bow such as his own coterie of books for children (particularly the superbly stirring Billy Hazelnuts series), animation and the brilliant if disturbing weekly strip Maakies – which describes the riotously vulgar and absurdly surreal adventures of an Irish monkey called Uncle Gabby and his fellow über-alcoholic and nautical adventurer Drinky Crow. They are abetted but never aided by a peculiarly twisted, off-kilter cast of reprobates, antagonists and confrontational well-wishers.

Those guys are the mirror universe equivalents of the stars of these sublime confections…

In a Victorian House – of variable shape and size – by the sea, an old Sock Monkey named Uncle Gabby has great adventures and ponders the working of a wonderful yet often scary world. His constant companion is a small cuddly-toy bird with button eyes called Mr. Crow, who doesn’t understand why he cannot fly and sometimes eases his sorrow with strong spirits.

Their guardian is a small girl named Ann-Louise, and many other creatures living and artificial share the imposing edifice…

The gloriously imaginative forays into the fantastic begin as the material monkey is chased through the house by marauding toy pirates in their brigantine. In his flight he espies a gleaming, glittering glass concoction hanging from the ceiling. Convinced something so beautiful must be the Promised Land he enlists his artificial avian pal to help him enter ‘Heaven’. However the pirates have not given up and the chaos soon escalates…

‘Borneo’ describes the pair’s discovery of a shrunken human head and subsequent heroic oceanic odyssey to return the decapitated talisman home. Of course, if they had thought to unseal the sewn-shut lips he could have told them they were going in the wrong direction…

The next tale is a macabre all-action thriller which begins when a lost bat gets stuck in the attic ‘Dollhouse’. Mr. Crow meanwhile is attempting to console the freshly widowed Mrs. Smalls in the cellar. Things go even more savagely awry when the faux crow and well-meaning matchmaker Uncle Gabby try to introduce the grieving mouse to the strapping, winged stranger, utterly unaware of his pedigree as a South American Rodent-Eating Bat…

Knick-knacks, trinkets and ornaments have been going missing in the next tale and Ann-Louise attributes the thefts to ‘The Trumbernick’ who lives in the Grandfather clock. Having mislaid his hipflask, Mr. Crow investigates and finds the horde of goodies, in truth purloined by a capricious Blue Jay.

Disillusioned by the death of a beloved myth and disheartened by the antics of a venal – and extremely violent – bird, they are subsequently stunned to see an actual Trumbernick return, righteously enraged at the blow to his spotless reputation…

In ‘The Hunters’, stuffed bird and Sock Monkey, inspired by a room full of trophies and stuffed beasts, decide to take up the sport of slaughter, only to find that their size, relative ineffectuality and squeamishness – not to mention the loquacity and affability of their intended prey – prove a great impediment to their ambitions…

Millionaire proves the immense power of his storytelling in ‘A Baby Bird’, as Uncle Gabby’s foolish meddling with a nest – after being specifically told not to – results in tragedy, and brutal self-immolating repercussions that would make King Lear quail…

The author abandoned his masterful pen-&-ink etching style for soft mutable charcoal rendering in ‘The Oceanic Society’, wherein excitable doll Inches unknowingly performs an act of accidental cruelty at the shore and invites the vengeance of many outraged sea creatures against the tot inhabitants of Ann-Louise’s house…

An innocent attempt by the little girl and Mr. Crow to find Uncle Gabby a romantic companion goes hideous wrong and results in monstrous ‘Heartbreak’ when they throw away his actual true love and replace her with a ghastly mechanical monkey horror. The bereft puppet can then only find surcease in escalating acts of hideous destruction…

In 2002 Millionaire took his characters into a whimsical watercolour wonderland with “a Populare Pictonovelette” hardback entitled ‘The Glass Doorknob’. The beguiling tale is included here a series of full-colour plates supplanted by blocks of text, describing how the house dwellers once saw an indoor rainbow beneath a doorknob and spent all summer trying to recreate the glorious spectacle by acquiring and aligning every other item of glass, crystal or pellucid material they could find or steal…

The return to stark, inky monochrome augurs the onset of the terrifying 4-part epic ‘The Inches Incident’ which begins off the coast of Cape Ann when grizzled mariner Oyster Joe discovers thieving stowaways plundering his sailing ship.

Amidst spectacular hunts for sea monsters the villains Uncle Gabby and Mr. Crow explain how their former friend Inches mysteriously shanghaied and dumped them at sea…

Their new ally returns them home, but upon arrival they discover that the doll has become Evil! Boldly braving the house they discover the poor creature has been possessed by an inconceivable horror which drives them off and provokes a fantastic sea voyage to find the devil’s only nemesis…

This staggering, bleakly charming compendium closes with an existential treat from 2004. ‘Uncle Gabby’, coloured by Jim Campbell, was another one-shot hardback – albeit in standard comics format – which offered a few revelatory indulgences on the puppet heroes’ poignant origins, all wrapped up in a baroque bestiary and imaginative travelogue as the Sock Monkey discloses his shocking ability to un-name things and thereby end their existences…

Visually intoxicating, astoundingly innovative and stunningly surreal, Sock Monkey yarns judiciously leaven wonder with heartbreak and gleeful innocence with sheer terror. Millionaire describes them as for “adults who love children’s stories” and these tall tales all offer enchanting pictorial vistas and skewed views of the art of storytelling that no fan of comics or fantasy could ever resist.
Sock Monkey Treasury © 2014 Tony Millionaire. This edition © 2014 Fantagraphics Books.

The Simon & Kirby Library: Horror!

By Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Mort Meskin and various (Titan Books)
ISBN13: 978-1-84856-959-1

After too many years left languishing, there’s some magnificent vintage Jack Kirby material around these days, and the latest in Titan Books’ splendidly sumptuous Simon & Kirby Library gathers that iconic coupling’s groundbreaking contributions to the genre of mystery, suspense and the supernatural.

His collaborations with fellow industry pioneer Joe Simon always produced dynamite concepts, unforgettable characters, astounding stories and huge sales no matter what genre avenues they pursued (they actually invented the Romance comicbook), blazing trails for so many others to follow and always reshaping the very nature of American comics with their innovations and sheer quality.

Comicbooks started slowly in 1933, until the creation of superheroes like Superman unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and invented a new genre. Implacably vested in the Second World War, the masked mystery man swept all before him (very occasionally her or it) until the troops came home and older genres supplanted the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Although new kids kept up the buying, much of the previous generation also retained their four-colour habit but increasingly sought more mature themes in the reading matter. The war years altered the psychology of society and a more world-weary, cynical reading public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything. Their chosen forms of entertainment – film and prose as well as comics – increasingly reflected this.

Western, War and Crime comics, madcap teen comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features were immediately resurgent, the aforementioned love comics appeared in 1947 and pulp-style Science Fiction began to spread, but gradually another global revival of spiritualism and interest in the supernatural (possibly provoked by the monstrous losses of the recent conflict, just as had happened in the 1920s following WWI) led to a wave of increasingly impressive, evocative and even shocking horror comics.

There were grisly, gory and supernatural stars before, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in costumed hero trappings (the Spectre, Mr. Justice, The Heap, Frankenstein, Sargon the Sorcerer, Zatara, Dr. Fate and dozens of others), but these had been victims of circumstance: the Unknown as power source for super-heroics.

Now the focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering, the reader.

Almost every publisher jumped on the monumentally popular juggernaut, but B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launched the first regularly published horror comic in the Autumn of 1948, although Adventures Into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon whose impressive single issue release Eerie debuted and closed in January 1947. They wised up late and launched a regular series in 1951.

By this time Classics Illustrated had already long milked the literary end of the medium with adaptations of the Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

It was at this time that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap for the line of magazines they autonomously packaged for publishers Crestwood-Prize-Essenkay to supplement Headline Comics, Justice Traps the Guilty, Police Trap, Young Romance and their other anthologies. They too saw the sales potential for spooky material, resulting in the superb and eerily seminal Black Magic (launched with an October-November 1950 cover-date) and the boldly obscure psychological drama anthology Strange World of Your Dreams in1952.

Marvel had jumped on the bloody bandwagon early but National/DC Comics only reluctantly bowed to the inevitable, launching a comparatively straight-laced short story title that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

Soon after, however, a hysterical censorship scandal led to witch-hunt Hearings (feel free to type Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, April-June 1954 into your search engine at any time) which panicked most comics publishers into adopting a castrating straitjacket of self regulatory rules…

Just like today, America back then cast about wildly looking for external contaminants rather than internal causes for a perceived shift in social attitudes and youthful rebellion, happily settling on bloodthirsty comics about crime or horror, drenched in unwholesome salacious sex, as the reason their children were talking back, acting up and staying out.

S&K didn’t do those kinds of comicbooks but they got tarred – and metaphorically feathered too – in the media-fuelled frenzy…

This striking full-colour hardback begins with the essay ‘That Old Black Magic’ by series editor Steve Saffel, delineating the history of the title and tone of the times whilst ‘Simon and Kirby’s Little Shop of Horror’ describes the working of the small but prolific studio of rotating artists who augmented the output of the named stars: creators such as Mort Meskin, Bill Draut, Martin Stein, Ben Oda, George Roussos, Vic Donahue, Bill Walton, Jim Infantino, Bruno Premiani, John Prentice, Jerry Grandenetti and more…

With a vast output across many titles, S&K simply couldn’t produce every story and many yarns here are ghosted by other hands, although each and every one does begin with a stunning Kirby splash panel.

As with all their titles, Simon & Kirby offered genre material tweaked by their own special sensibilities. Black Magic – and the Mort Meskin-inspired The Strange World of Your Dreams - eschewed cheap shocks, mindless gore and goofy pun-inspired twist-ending yarns in favour of dark, oppressive suspense soaked in psychological unease and inexplicable unease: tension over teasing…

The stories presented fantastic situations and too frequently for comfort there were no happy endings, pat cosmic justice or calming explanations: sometimes the Unknown just blew up in your face and you survived or didn’t… and never whole or unchanged.

The compendium of black cartoon cavortings commences with ‘Last Second of Life!’ (from volume 1 #1, October-November 1950) wherein a rich man obsessed over what the dying see at the final breath, but learned to regret the unsavoury lengths he went to finding out, after which ‘The Scorn of the Faceless People!’ (#2 December 1950-January 1951) relates the meaning behind a chilling nightmare. It’s not hard to believe this one must have prompted the creation of the spin-off Strange World of Your Dreams. Issue #2 also provided a chilling report on a satanic vestment dubbed ‘The Cloak!’ whilst an impossible love in the icy wastes of Canada ended with ‘A Silver Bullet for Your Heart!’ in #3 (February-March 1951).

Issue #4 provided ‘Voodoo on Tenth Avenue’ as a disgruntled wife went too far in her quest to get rid of her man, whilst in #5 ‘The World of Spirits’ recounted the uncanny predictions of Emanuel Swedenborg in a brief fact feature before #6 described psychic connection and a ‘Union with the Dead!’ and a ravaged mariner survived meeting ‘The Thing in the Fog!’ (#7) – an encounter with the legendary Flying Dutchman…

Black Magic #8 (December 1951-January 1952) detailed the sacrifice a woman made to save her man from ‘Donovan’s Demon!’ (mostly illustrated by Bob McCarty) whilst ‘Dead Man’s Lode!’ (#10 March 1952 – the series now being monthly) related a ghostly experience in an old mine and ‘The Girl Who Walked on Water!’ in #11 showed the immense but fragile power of self-belief…

Meskin & Roussos illustrated #12’s ‘A Giant Walks the Earth!’ as a downed pilot lost his best friend to a roving colossus in India, after which the utterly chilling and unforgettable ‘Up There!’ kicks off three stories from the landmark 13th issue…

That saga of a beguiling siren of the upper stratosphere is followed by ‘A Rag – a Bone and a Hank of Hair!’ (Meskin) and a pile of trash that learned to love, whilst ‘Visions of Nostradamus!’ (by Al Eadeh) tracked and interpreted the prognosticator’s predictions.

‘The Angel of Death!’ in #15 detailed a horrific medical mystery and ‘Freak!’ (#17, possibly by Bill Draut) exposed a country doctor’s deepest shame.

Black Magic #18 (November 1952) is another multi-threat issue. ‘Nasty Little Man!’ gets my vote for scariest horror art job of all time and saw three hobos discover to their everlasting regret why you shouldn’t pick on short old men with Irish accents.

Then ‘Come Claim My Corpse’ (Martin Stein?) offers a short, sharp, shocker wherein a convict discovers too late the flaw in his infallible escape plan, before an investigator tracing truck-wreckers learns of ‘Detour Lorelei on Highway 52’ (McCarty)…

‘Sammy’s Wonderful Glass!’ in #19 (December 1952) outlined the tragic outcome of a retarded lummox whose favourite toy could expose men’s souls, after which two shorts from #20 (January 1953) follow.

‘Birth After Death’ retold the true story of how Sir Walter Scott’s mother survived premature burial, whilst ‘Oddities in Miniature: The Strangest Stories Ever Told!’ offered half a dozen uncanny tales on one page.

Issue #21 provided ‘The Feathered Serpent’ in which an American archaeologist uncovers the truth about an ancient god, #22 (March 1953) slipped into sci-fi morality play mode with the UFO yarn ‘The Monsters on the Lake!’, and ‘Those Who Are About to Die!’ from #23 sketched out the tale of a painter who could predict imminent doom…

A brace of tales from #24 – May 1953 – begin with a scholar who attempts to contact the living ‘After I’m Gone!’, complemented by the half page fact feature ‘Strange Predictions’ (Harry Lazarus) after which ‘Strange Old Bird!’ is the first of three stories from the (again bimonthly) Black Magic #25 (June-July 1953).

In this gently eerie thriller a little old lady gets the gift of life from her tatty old feathered friend, whilst ‘The Human Cork!’ precis’ the life of the literally unsinkable Angelo Faticoni , before a man without a soul escapes the morgue to become ‘A Beast in the Streets!’

There’s a similar surfeit of sinister riches from #26, beginning with ‘Fool’s Paradise!’ wherein a cheap bag-snatcher makes a deal with the devil, after which ‘The Sting of Scorpio!’ sees a rude sceptic wish she’d never taunted a fortune teller, whilst ‘The Strange Antics of the Mystic Mirror!’ terrified nurses in a major metropolitan hospital and ‘Demon Wind!’ (Kirby inked by Premiani) finds a brash Yankee learn not to mock the justice system of primitive native peoples…

‘The Cat People’ (#27) mesmerised and forever marked an unwary tourist in rural Spain, and the same issue exposed a seductive Scottish supernatural shindig hosted by ‘The Merry Ghosts of Campbell Castle’, whilst #28 saw an unwilling organ donor return to take back his property in ‘An Eye For an Eye!’ after which the same issue revealed with mordant wit how a mummy returned to make his truly beloved ‘Alive After Five Thousand Years!’

From an issue actually cited during the anti-comicbook Senate Hearings, ‘The Greatest Horror of Them All!’ (#29 March-April 1954) told a tragic tale of a freak hidden amongst freaks, before Black Magic #30 revealed the appalling secret of ‘The Head of the Family!’ (Kirby & Premiani) whilst #31 provided both alien invasion horror ‘Slaughter-House!’ and the cautionary tale of a child raised by beasts in ‘Hungry as a Wolf!’ (Ernie Schroeder).

‘Maniac!’ from #32 is another artistic tour de force and a tale much “homaged” in later years, detailing how a loving brother stops villagers taking his simple-minded sibling away, and the Black Magic section concludes with a terrifying fable of atomic radiation and mutated sea creatures in ‘Lone Shark’ from #33 November-December 1954.

With the sagacious, industry-hip, quality-conscious Simon & Kirby undoubtedly seeing the writing on the wall, their uniquely macabre title was wisely cancelled in 1954, not long before the Comics Code came into effect. A bowdlerised version was relaunched in 1957, long after they had dissolved their partnership and moved into different areas of the industry.

However the eerie treats don’t end as a short but sublime sampling from their other mystery title is appended here.

We Will Buy Your Dreams’ discusses the features and stories from abortive and revolutionary title The Strange World of Your Dreams, a title inspired by studio-mate Mort Meskin’s vivid night terrors. The premise involved parapsychologist Richard Temple explaining and analysing storied nightmares and pictorially dramatising dreams sent in by readers.

The too short comics section then begins with ‘Send Us Your Dreams’ from #1 (August 1952), a “typical” insecurity nightmare and the chilling ‘I Talked with my Dead Wife!’, whilst #2 (September-October) provided a trio of traumen tales: ‘The Girl in the Grave!’ a scary wedding scenario in ‘You Sent Us This Dream!’ and ‘Send Us Your Dreams’ in which Dr. Tempe describes the extent of self preservation imagery…

‘The Woman in the Tower!’ came from #3 (November-December) and detailed typical symbolism whilst ‘You Sent Us this Dream’ from the same issue explains away a nightmare climb up an unending tower…

Capping off everything is a spectacular Cover Gallery reprinting Black Magic #1 through #33 plus a stunning unpublished cover, and performs the same service for The Strange World of Your Dreams #1-4, and includes the unpublished #5 just to make our lives utterly complete.

The Simon & Kirby Library: Horror! is a gigantic compendium of classic dark delights that perfectly illustrates the depth and scope of their influence and innovation and readily displays the sheer bombastic panache and artistic virtuosity they brought to everything they did.

This tremendous hardcover is a worthy, welcome introduction to their unique comics contributions, but there’s loads left still to see so let’s have some more please…

© 2014 Joseph H. Simon and the Estate of Jack Kirby. All Rights Reserved.

Perfect Nonsense: the Chaotic Comics and Goofy Games of George Carlson

By George Carlson, edited by Daniel F. Yezbick & Rick Marschall (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-508-2

The art and calling of mesmerising children is a rare one, but the masters of such an imaginative discipline – whether through words or pictures – have generally become household names.

Lewis Carroll (although that’s really two people, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson & Sir John Tenniel), Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, L. Frank Baum, Enid Blyton, Maurice Sendak, Kenneth Graham, Arthur Rackham and their ilk, or cartoon-oriented craftsmen such as Winsor McCay, Sheldon Mayer, Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, George Herriman, Elzie Segar, S.J. Perelman, Alfred Bestall, Crockett Tubbs, Milt Gross, Carl Barks, Bill Holman and others have all garnered some measure of undying fame for their sublime cannons of entertainment, but apparently these days, nobody knows George Carlson.

Carlson was both a unique and prolific, surreally absurdist, sublimely stylised magician of children’s entertainments and a diligent commercial artist, tireless, dedicated educator and print illustrator and designer.

He absolutely loved games and puzzles and was besotted with all aspects of print media.

A son of Swedish immigrants, he plied his trade(s) from New York and Connecticut between 1903 to 1962, producing everything from editorial cartoons, book jackets (including famously the iconic first edition of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind), magazine illustration, typographical design, games, sheet-music, utterly unique advertising materials, books, pamphlets and so much more.

And comics: some of the most original, eccentric and captivating comics for youngsters America or the world has ever seen…

This superb and colossal compendium, the brainchild and magnum opus of extreme fan Daniel Yezbick, is the result of 15 years toil and superbly details every aspect of the lost master’s life, stuffed to overflowing with intimate photos, wonderful anecdotes and page after page of glorious, enchanting stories, poems, puzzles and pictures that still have the power to take your breath away, no matter how old you are.

This calculated resurrection of a lost giant begins with ‘Preface: Great Gran’pa Gookel’ by Carlson’s descendent Allison Currie, and an effulgent Introduction’ by author, critic, historian and cartoonist R.C. Harvey who kindles the lost days in ‘A Very Admiring and Well-Plumbed Apostrophe to George Carlson, Cartooning Genius’, whilst Yezbick’s fulsome Foreword declares ‘At Long Last, the Carnival’s Come Back’

Firstly Yezbick takes us through the great man’s multi-faceted career, beginning with ‘The Jolly Books of the Puzzling Private’ describing early works and the artist’s two decades writing, illustrating, designing and creating engaging and educational games and puzzles for iconic and influential children’s pulp magazine John Martin’s Book. Also heavily featured is Carlson’s first great creation Peter Puzzlemaker, whose visual and verbal conundrums fascinated and expanded the minds of generations of kids.

The tireless scribbler also ghosted Gene Ahern’s classic newspaper strip Reg’lar Fellers for years and was engaged during WWI as an army cartographer.

‘The Whimsical Wizard of Fairfield, Connecticut: Family Life and Commercial Art in the 1920s and 1930s’ details his most productive period, not just as a consummate long-distance entertainer of kids, but in local and publishing national arenas.

Whilst addressing Carlson’s lifelong fascination with transport – especially his astounding illustrations of ships and trains – ‘Gone With the Wiggily: Flirting with Fame in the 1930s and 1940s’ covers the Mitchell cover creation and other book jackets as well as Carlson’s far more lasting and influential contributions to children’s literature.

Most important of these are his superb illustrations for Howard R. Garis’ ubiquitous and bucolic tales of venerable rabbit grandfather figure Uncle Wiggily and the artist’s wholly originated series of Puzzles, Fun Things to Do, Play and Colouring books, as well as a succession of “How to” books  revealing the secrets of drawing and creating your own cartoons.

The origin of his short but incredible funnybook career is covered in ‘The Road to Pretzleburg: George Carlson and Self-Destructing Comic Book Narrative’ and the latter disappointing years of changing public tastes in ‘Slouching Towards Fumbleland: The Restoration of the Whifflesnort’ which prompted his just-too-soon abortive creation of graphic novels (in 1962) with the never published Alec in Fumbleland and the artist’s immortalisation as the creator of a series of images locked in a time capsule that won’t be opened until 8113AD…

The major portion of this sturdy compendium is taken up with hundreds of astounding reproductions of Carlson’s vast and varied output, beginning with ‘Early Works and Illustrations’ including scenes from many classical stories such as Icarus, Neptune and Amphitrite, Aesop’s Fables, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Tom Sawyer and full colour cover and plates for such books as The Magic Stone, Uncle Wiggily, The Prince Without a Country and more…

Also included are examples of ‘Adult and Genre Works’ such as Broncho Apache, Death on the Prairie and Scouting on the Mystery Trail

‘Pulps, Poems and Pixies: John Martin’s Books’ offers a wealth of images and designs from Carlson’s 20 year tenure as contributing editor on America’s premiere pulp publication for children.

A master of what we now call paper and print technologies with the budget and freedom to go wild, he concocted covers, frontispieces, book plates, Holiday editions, graphically integrated poem pages, astounding layouts, games pages, riddles, nonsense word glossaries, animal alphabets and so many other ways to educationally enthral, engage and stretch growing minds…

The artist was also a brilliant composer of clever, witty limericks, odes, riddles, gags and brainteasers: a advocate and devotee of whacky word play in the manner of Lear and Carroll, and ‘Carlson’s School of Nonsense’ catalogues many of his most impressive cartoon-garnished confections whilst ‘Jolly Books’ displays his creations and tales for premium pamphlets (a forerunner of comicbooks) commissioned as give-aways by department stores, cxall dutifully crafted and packaged by the John Martin team.

As the magazine refused to carry straight advertising – feeling it was an abuse and betrayal of their young readers’ trust – Carlson and brilliant co-editor Helen Waldo devised a sponsorship method which name-checked at one remove selected backers and commercial interests through ingenious story puzzle pages, rebuses, acronyms and acrostics…

Once upon a time paper and printing were the internet: a nigh-inexhaustible, readily available resource which could provide stories, games and puzzles, information and diversions which only required a creator’s imagination and ingenuity.

There was nobody more skilled, adept or inspired than Carlson, whose life-long fascination with language, crosswords, puns, riddles, rebuses, maths, wordplay and graphic invention seemingly occupied every non-working, waking moment.

He also knew music (his wife Gertrude was a professional pianist and gave lessons from their home) and here ‘Songs, Games and Other Pastimes’ displays his charming amalgamations of graphics and terpsichorean instruction as well as his science-based features, articles and books, whilst ‘Tutorial Cartooning and Art Instruction’ offers concrete examples of the artist’s many years of publishing tracts and tomes intended to teach young and old alike the fundamentals of narrative art.

‘Trains and Transportation’ reveals in spectacular detail Carlson’s fascination with engineering, locomotives and all aspects of shipping – including the revolutionary and mindboggling book Queen Mary Comparisons – after which ‘Portraits, Presidents and Personalities’ displays a selection of his superb commemorative images, whilst ‘Adventures in Advertising’ reveals his unbelievable versatility in putting across ideas and selling, including many examples of the aforementioned John Martin stealth ads plus a plethora of delightful make-them-yourself Premiums he designed for youngsters.

‘Original Art, Lost Works, and Forgotten Frolics’ explore tantalising might-have-beens and unearthed treasures before the groundbreaking kids comics are highlighted in ‘Laughter, Puns, and Speed’.

Subtitled ‘The Whifflesnorting Thrills of George Carlson’s Eastern Color Comics’, a brief essay reveals the history of the illustrator’s short foray into comicbooks and the creation of anthology Jingle-Jangle Comics, which launched in February 1942 (running until 1949) and which headlined two features exclusively written and drawn by Carlson.

‘The Pie-Faced Prince of Old Pretzleburg’ was a manic, pun-filled procession of insane and wholesome nonsense which related the fast and frantic screwball adventures of royal mooncalf Prince Dimwitri and his inamorata Princess Panetella Murphy, and the too short collection of complete capers commences here with the fast, frenetic debut from #1, in which he saved the King’s breakfast pretzel from the insidious Green Witch.

Also included are escapades from issues #11, #15, #16, #20, #35, #36 and #41, absurdist adventures in rumbling tumbling happily tumultuous word and picture tales involving jet-powered kites, assorted bandits, scurrilous scarecrows, stolen violins, fabulous beasts, living jet-mobiles, talking animals, baking, belligerent unicorns and more.

Carlson brought a deliciously skewed viewpoint to the still-evolving syllabary of comics: there are hilariously punny labels and signs everywhere and in some shots weary birds rest on free-floating word balloons…

Without doubt, however, Carlson reserved his greatest flights of fancy for the inventive fractured fairy stories that comprised the eponymous ‘Jingle Jangle Tales’ – one-off fables starring peculiarly reinvented standbys like princesses and knights, interacting with astonishing animals and far-from-inanimate objects all imbued with a bravura lust for life and laughs.

Included here are ‘The Moon-Struck Unicorn and the Worn-Out Shadow’ from #13, ‘The Straight-Shooting Princess and the Filigree Pond-Lily’ (#22), ‘The Musical Whifflesnort and the Red-Hot Music Roll’ (#23), ‘The Rocketeering Doodlebug and the Self-Winding Horsefly’ (#25), extraordinarily mirthful mystical melanges augmented by a brace of outrageously wry spoofs of American classics ‘Skip van Wrinkle, the High-Hatted Hunter’ from #28 and the impossibly raucous and breathtaking lunacy of ‘Sleepy Yollow, the Bedless Norseman’ (#31).

Harlan Ellison correctly dubbed Carlson’s sublimely inviting whimsy for the very young as “Comics of the Absurd” and these cartoon capers are urgently in need of their own complete and comprehensive collection – preferably in a lush and lavish full colour hardback archive edition…’

If you have an abiding love of creative fantasy and access to beginning reading-age children (boy, that came out creepier than I imagined!), you simply must get this terrific tome and open their eyes to wonderment, enlightenment, entertainment and education in this timelessly addictively accessible chronicle.

Buy it now, and it will be this year’s best Christmas present ever…
Perfect Nonsense © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. All images and articles © their respective creators or owners. All rights reserved.

Sucker Bait and Other Stories

By illustrated by Graham Ingels, written by Al Feldstein with Ray Bradbury & Bill Gaines (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-689-8

For most people who have heard of them, EC Comics mean one thing only: shocking, appalling, stomach-turning horror. Moreover, the artist they’re probably picturing – even if they can’t name him – is Graham Ingels, who wryly sighed his work “Ghastly”…

The company began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines – presumably seeing the writing on the wall – sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company 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 augmented his flagship title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History but the worthy projects were all struggling when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

As detailed in the comprehensive closing essay of this superb graphic compilation (‘Crime, Horror, Terror, Gore, Depravity, Disrespect for Established Authority – and Science Fiction Too: the Ups and Downs of EC Comics’ by author, editor, critic and comics fan Ted White) his son William was dragged into the company by unsung hero and Business Manager Sol Cohen who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of being a chemistry teacher and transformed the ailing Educational enterprise into Entertaining Comics…

After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments copying industry fashions, Gaines took advantage of his multi-talented associate Al Feldstein, who promptly graduated from creating teen comedies and westerns into becoming Gaines’ editorial supervisor and co-conspirator.

As they began co-plotting the bulk of EC’s stories together, they changed tack, moving in a boldly impressive new direction. Their publishing strategy, utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field, was to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at older and more discerning readers, not the mythical semi-literate 8-year-old all comicbooks ostensibly targeted.

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 originating an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…

Feldstein had started life as a comedy cartoonist and, after creator/editor Harvey Kurtzman departed in 1956, Al became Mad’s Editor for the next three decades…

This seventh volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library gathers a mind-boggling selection of Feldstein’s most baroque and grotesquely hilarious horror stories – mostly co-plotted by companion-in-crime Gaines – and all illuminated by the company’s enigmatic yet unsurpassed master of macabre mood, in a lavish monochrome hardcover edition packed with supplementary interviews, features and dissertations.

It begins with historian and lecturer Bill Mason’s touching and revelatory commentary ‘Mr. Horror Builds his Scream House’ before dipping into the diary of disgust and dread with ‘Hook, Line, and Stinker!’ (Vault of Horror #26, August/September 1952): the tale of a spinster’s vengeance after she finds the man she’s been engaged to for fifteen years spends his weekends in the arms of a young floozy rather than on his precious – and fictitious – fishing trips…

The most memorable assets of EC’s horror titles were the uniquely memorable hosts whose execrable wisecracks bracketed each fantastic yarn. The Vault-Keeper, Crypt-Keeper and Old Witch were the only returning characters in the company during the New Trend era, becoming beloved favourites of the “Fan Addict” readership. Haunt of Fear #14 (July/August 1952) revealed the shocking and hilarious origins of the scurvy sorceress herself in a sublime pastiche of the Christian Nativity dubbed ‘A Little Stranger!’

A murderous circus elephant trainer’s infidelities came back to haunt him in ‘Squash… Anyone?’ (Tales From the Crypt #32, October/November 1952), whilst in that same month, in Vault of Horror #27, a rat-infested kingdom where starving peasants were tormented by their over-stuffed queen provided grisly meat for ‘A Grim Fairy Tale!’

‘Chatter-Boxed!’ (Haunt of Fear #15, September/October 1952) is a superb blend of maguffins as a man terrified of premature burial takes special steps to insure he’s never buried alive, but even after factoring in that his wife is always gabbing on the phone, there’s one element he could never have foreseen…

Next follows a wealth of material published in titles cover-dated December 1952/January 1953, beginning with ‘Private Performance’ from Crime SuspenStories #14, wherein a burglar witnesses a murder in an old Vaudevillian’s home before hiding in exactly the wrong place, whilst ‘None but the Lonely Heart!’ (Tales From the Crypt #33) reveals the ultimate downfall of a serial bigamist and black widower.

‘We Ain’t Got No Body’ (Vault of Horror #28), ghoulishly revels in the vengeance of a man murdered by his fellow train commuters before ‘Sugar ‘n Spice ‘n…’ (Shock SuspenStories #6) toys wickedly with the fable of Hansel and Gretel, proving that some kids get what they deserve…

A pioneering surgeon is blackmailed for decades by his greatest triumph in ‘Nobody There!’ (Haunt of Fear #16, November/December 1952), whilst in ‘Hail and Heart-y!’ (Crime SuspenStories #15 February/March 1953) a lazy husband drives his enduring wife to exhaustion and over the edge by feigning disability, before Ingels superbly captures the macabre eccentricity of Ray Bradbury’s story of a crusty dowager too mean to stay decently dead in ‘There Was an Old Woman!’ from Tales From the Crypt #34 (February/March).

That same month Vault of Horror #29 featured ‘Pickled Pints!’, as unscrupulous rogues buying cut-rate blood from winos push their plastered pumps a little too far, after which Haunt of Fear #17 (January/February) produced the acme of sinister swamp scare stories in ‘Horror We? How’s Bayou?’ a tale of rural madness and supernatural revenge long acclaimed as the greatest EC horror story ever crafted.

An irritated and merciless mummy stalks an Egyptian dig in ‘This Wraps it Up!’ (Tales From the Crypt #35, April/May 1953; the same month Vault of Horror #30 told a far more chilling tale of human retribution when the good citizens of a small town finally find the writer of cruel poison-pen letters in ‘Notes to You!’, whilst ‘Pipe Down!’ (Haunt of Fear #18, March/April) goes completely round the bend to describe how a young wife and handsome plumber got rid of her rich old man… and what the victim did about it…

Bradbury’s disturbing yarn ‘The Handler’ was adroitly adapted in Tales From the Crypt #36 (June/July) depicting how an undertaker’s secret liberties – inflicted upon the cadavers in his care – came back to haunt him, whilst over in Vault of Horror #31 that month ‘One Good Turn…’ revealed one little old lady’s gruesome interpretation of the old adage, and Haunt of Fear #19 (May/June 1953) disclosed the incredible lengths some men will go to in order to kill vampires in ‘Sucker Bait!’

From August/September ‘The Rover Boys’ in Tales From the Crypt #37 is a purely bonkers tale of brain transplantation gone wild, whilst Vault of Horror #32 offered up more traditional fare in ‘Funereal Disease!’ which described how a murdered miser got back what he loved most, and ‘Thump Fun!’ (Haunt of Fear #20, July/August) knowingly revisited Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart whilst adding a little twist…

‘Mournin’ Mess’ (Tales From the Crypt #38, October/November) is a stylish and clever mystery about rich men funding a paupers graveyard – and why – whilst over in Vault of Horror (#32) ‘Strung Along’ depicted the revenge marionettes inflicted on the greedy woman who murdered their elderly puppeteer before the artistic arcana all ends with ‘An Off-Color Heir’ (Haunt of Fear #21, September/October 1953) and the salutary tale of an artist’s wife who discovered just too late her man’s habits and horrific heritage …

Adding final weight to the proceedings is S.C. Ringgenberg’s biography of the tragic genius ‘Graham Ingels’, the aforementioned history of EC and a comprehensively illuminating ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ feature by Mason, Spurgeon and Janice Lee.

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 not only changed 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, the most influential stories are somehow the ones least known these days. Although Ingels turned his back on his comics career, ashamed of the furore and frenzy generated by closed-minded bigots in the 1950s, his incredible artistic talent and narrative legacy are finally gaining him the celebrity he should have had in life.

Sucker Bait is a scarily lovely tribute to the sheer ability of an unsung master of comics art and offers a fabulously engaging introduction for every lucky fear fan encountering the material for the very first time.

Whether you are an aging fear aficionado or callow contemporary convert, this is a book you must not miss…
Sucker Bait and Other Stories © 2014 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All comics stories © 2014 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., reprinted with permission. All other material © 2014 the respective creators and owners.