Krazy & Ignatz volume 2 1919-1921: A Kind, Benevolent and Amiable Brick


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-364-4

The cartoon strip starring Krazy Kat is unquestionably a pinnacle of graphic innovation, a hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry and became an undisputed treasure of world literature.

Krazy and Ignatz, as it is dubbed in these glorious commemorative collected tomes from Fantagraphics, is a creation which can only be appreciated on its own terms. It developed its own unique language – at once both visual and verbal – and dealt with the immeasurable variety of human experience, foible and peccadilloes with unfaltering warmth and understanding without every offending anybody.

Sadly however it baffled far more than a few…

It was never a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex multilayered verbal and pictorial whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is the closest thing to pure poesy that narrative art has ever produced.

Some brief background then: Herriman was already a successful cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse that had been cropping up in his outrageous domestic comedy strip The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs graduated to their own feature. Krazy Kat debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on Oct 28th 1913 and mainly by dint of the publishing magnate’s overpowering direct influence spread throughout his vast stable of papers.

Although Hearst and a host of the period’s artistic and literary intelligentsia (notably but not exclusively e.e. Cummings, Frank Capra, John Alden Carpenter, Gilbert Seldes, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and Jack Kerouac) adored the strip, many local and regional editors did not; taking every potentially career-ending opportunity to drop it from the comics section.

Eventually the feature found a home in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s papers. Protected there by the publisher’s heavy-handed patronage the Kat flourished unharmed by editorial interference and fashion, running generally unmolested until Herriman’s death in April 1944.

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

Ignatz is muy macho; drinking, stealing, neglecting his wife and children and always responding to Krazy’s genteel advances by smiting the Kat with a well-aimed brick (obtained singly or in bulk from noted local brickmaker Kolin Kelly). A third element completing an animalistic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp, utterly besotted with Krazy, well aware of the Mouse’s true nature, yet bound by his own amorous timidity and sense of honour from removing his rival for the foolish feline’s affections. Krazy is blithely oblivious of Pupp’s dilemma…

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

The strips are a masterful mélange of unique experimental art, strongly referencing Navajo art forms and utilising sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully expressive language: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous with a compelling musical force (“He’s simpfilly wondafil”, “A fowl konspirissy – is it pussible?” or “I nevva seen such a great power to kookoo”).

Yet for all that, the adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerie, idiosyncratic astonishingly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous slapstick.

There have been an absolute wealth of Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the fondly remembered strip was generally rediscovered by a far more accepting audience and this particular compendium continues a complete year-by-year series begun by Eclipse and picked up by Fantagraphics when the former ceased trading in 1992. This specific and fabulous monochrome volume – A Kind, Benevolent and Amiable Brick – re-presents the years 1919-1921 in a reassuringly big and hefty (231 x 15 x 305 mm) softcover edition.

Within this magical atlas of another land and time the unending drama plays out as usual, but with some intriguing diversions, such as recurring tribute’s to Kipling’s “Just So Stories” as we discover how the Kookoo Klock works, why bananas hang around in bunches and why Lightning Bugs light up.

Joe’s natal missions go increasingly awry, disease, despair and dearth of alcoholic imbibements take their toll in the years of Prohibition, the weather thinks it’s a comedian and the value of the common brick rollercoasters from low to high and back again.

We also meet a few trans-species alternates of our triangular stars and even peer into the misty past to see Kwin Kleopatra Kat and Marcatonni Maus whilst exploring the ever-changing seasons in a constant display of visual virtuosity and verbal verve…

Frontloading Added Value to the romantic tribulations are fascinating articles and background features such as ‘A Mouse by any Other Name: Krazy and Ignatz’s Early Life Under the Stairs’ by Bill Blackbeard, intimate photo portraits and the mesmerisingly informative ‘Geo. Herriman’s Los Angeles’ by Bob Callahan.

At the far end of the tome you can enjoy some full-colour archival illustration and another batch of erudite and instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Pages’, providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed…

Herriman’s epochal classic is a remarkable one-off: in all the arenas of Art and Literature there has never been anything like these comic strips which have shaped our industry and creators, inspired auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, dance, animation and music whilst delivering delight and delectation to generations of wonder-starved fans.

If however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this glorious compendium is the most accessible way to do so. Don’t waste the opportunity…
© 2011 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Lone Wolf and Cub volume 1: The Assassins Road


By Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, translated by Dana Lewis (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-502-4

Whichever English transliteration you prefer – Wolf and Baby Carriage is what I was first introduced to – the grandiose, thought-provoking hell-bent Samurai tragedy created by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima is without doubt one of those all too rare breakthrough global classics of comics literature.

The epic Kozure Okami began as a serial in Weekly Manga Action, running from September 1970 to April 1976, and was immediately followed by a direct sequel (Shin Lone Wolf & Cub) as well as science fiction offshoot Lone Wolf 2100. The story has broken out into other media, spawning six movies, four plays, two TV series, games and merchandise. The property is notoriously still in pre-production as a big Hollywood blockbuster.

The 7000 thousand pages of staggeringly beautiful black and white narrative art produced by these gifted creators eventually filled 28 tankobon volumes, gripping and captivating generations of readers around the world. More importantly, the sensitively nihilistic saga, with its timeless themes and iconic visuals, has influenced hordes of other creators.

The many manga, comics and movies the stories have inspired are impossible to count. Frank Miller, who illustrated the cover of this particular edition, has referenced the series in his science fiction saga Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns, and Sin City. Max Allan Collin’s Road to Perdition is an unashamed tribute to this Japanese masterpiece. Even children’s cartoons such as Samurai Jack can be seen as direct descendants of this astounding achievement in graphic literature.

We in the West first saw the series as 45 Prestige Format editions from First Comics beginning in 1987. The company foundered before getting even a third of the way through the canon. Then, from September 2000 to December 2002, Dark Horse Comics assumed the rights, systematically reprinting and translating the entire epic into 28 tankobon-style editions (petite 153 x 109 mm monochrome trade paperbacks, about 300-ish pages per), before recently putting the entire sequence online through its Dark Horse Digital project.

This initial lean, mean, martial edition offers a Glossary providing detailed context on the term used in the stories, plus profiles of author Koike Kazuo and illustrator Kojima Goseki and the first instalment of ‘The Ronin Report’: an occasional series of articles offering potted history essays on the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Of course the true meat is the captivating, grimly compelling combination of revenge fable and action-adventure which opens here with intriguing episodes of stripped-down mystery, gripping intensity and galvanic bloodletting as the first tale introduces a scruffy indigent pushing a homemade bamboo pram with a 3-year-old boy in it.

A banner on the contraption proclaims ‘Son for Hire, Sword for Hire’ and as the man stoically ignores mockery and derision from louts on the road, his advert soon attracts the attention of four deadly men who have been warned of an assassin carrying his baby boy with him…

A certain formula informs all the early episodes: the acceptance of a commission to kill an impossible target, a cunning plan and inevitable success, all underscored with bleak philosophical musings alternately informed by Buddhist teachings in conjunction with or in opposition to the unflinching personal honour code of Bushido. The protagonist is also possibly the most dangerous swordsman in the world…

You won’t learn it until the end of this tome, but the fore-doomed killer-wanderer was once the Shogun’s official executioner, capable of cleaving a man in half with one stroke. An eminent individual of esteemed imperial standing, elevated social position and impeccable honour, Ōgami Ittō lost it all and now roams feudal Japan as a doomed soul hellbent for the dire, demon-haunted underworld of Meifumado.

When the nomad’s wife was murdered and his clan dishonoured due to the machinations of the treacherous and politically ambitious Yagyu Clan, the Emperor ordered Ōgami to commit suicide. Instead, he rebelled, choosing to become a despised Ronin (masterless samurai) and assassin, pledging to revenge himself on the Yagyus until they were all dead or Hell claimed him. His son, the toddler Daigoro, also chose the way of the sword and together they roamed the grim and evocative landscapes of feudal Japan, one step ahead of doom and with death behind and before them.

Frequently the infallible assassin’s best ploy is to allow himself to be captured, endure unimaginable torture and then fight his way out having slaughtered his target…

The tactic is again employed in ‘A Father Knows His Child’s Heart, as Only a Child Can Know His Father’s’ as the wolf sends willing Daigoro to penetrate the unyielding defences of Takai Han so that Papa can kill a dishonourable usurper…

Another aspect of Ōgami’s methodology emerges in ‘From North to South, From West to East’. The assassin insists on a personal interview with all his clients and demands not only who is to die, but why. Perhaps the cautious killer only wants to know the extent of what he’s getting into, but we know he’s judging: seeing whether the target deserves death… or if the client does…

The legend of the Lone Wolf and Cub quickly spreads and when faithful guards briefly hire Daigoro to help their beloved mistress, it is with full knowledge of what the boy’s father is. In ‘Baby Cart on the River Styx’ that knowledge is crucial to Ōgami’s plan for quashing a gang turf-war before it begins even whilst bringing down a corrupt yet untouchable lord…

Shocking to us is the accepted conceit that the father is fully prepared to sacrifice his son to achieve his mission and fulfil his promises. In ‘Suio School Zanbato’ little Daigoro willingly becomes a hostage to fortune so that his dad can lure a swords-master – and all his honourless students – into an officially sanctioned duel, and kill with no legal ramifications or repercussions…

A lyrical twist on the theme of star-crossed lovers, ‘Waiting for the Rains’ then sees the little boy befriending a dying woman even as his father waits to carry out his next commission – expunging the man she so patiently awaits…

These stories are deeply metaphorical and work on a number of levels most of us westerners just won’t grasp on first reading – even with the contextual help provided by the bonus features. That only makes them more exotic and fascinating. Also, a little unsettling is the even-handed treatment of women in the tales. Within the confines of the incredibly stratified culture being depicted, females – from servants to courtesans, prostitutes to highborn ladies – are all fully-rounded characters, with their own motivations and drives. His female allies are valiant and dependable, and his foes, whether ultimate targets or mere enemy combatants in his path, are treated with professional respect by Ōgami. He kills them just as if they were men…

In ‘Eight Gates of Deceit’ the indomitable killer is ambushed by an octet of female assassins hired by the wolf’s latest client who foolishly chooses to discount the professional honour of his hireling in favour of clearing up loose ends. That’s his last mistake…

‘Wings to the Birds, Fangs to the Beast’ finds the tireless wanderer stumbling into a hot-spa village recently taken over by bandits. To their eternal cost, and despite the newcomer’s every forbearing effort, the human animals refuse to believe the man with the baby-carriage wants no trouble…

This first stunning collection ends with some of the answers the reader has been looking for as the scene shifts to the recent past and Shogun’s palace in Edo for an origin. There, thanks to the political manoeuvrings of ambitious Lord Yagyu, the Shogun’s Executioner Ōgami Ittō has been ousted and his clan disgraced. With wife Asami dead, the austere warrior outfoxes his opponent – who thought an honourable suicide the only option he’d left his enemy – by opting to travel ‘The Assassin’s Road’ with his baby son momentously choosing to follow him to Meifumado or victory…

A breathtaking tour de force, these are comics classics you must not miss.
© 1995, 2000 Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. Cover art © 2000 Frank Miller. All rights reserved.

Krazy & Ignatz volume 1 1916-1918: Love in a Kestle or Love in a Hut


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBNs: 978-1-60699-316-3

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

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

Still, since every day there’s newcomers to the wonderful world of comics I’ll assume my inelegant missionary position once more and hope to catch and convert some fresh souls – or, as today’s indisputable pictorial immortal might put it, save some more “lil Ainjils”…

Krazy Kat is not and never has been a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex multilayered verbal and pictorial whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is the closest thing to pure poesy that narrative art has ever produced.

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

George Herriman was already a successful cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse who had been cropping up in the corners and backgrounds of his outrageous domestic comedy strip The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs finally graduated to their own feature.

Krazy Kat the strip debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on October 28th 1913 and, mainly by dint of the publishing magnate’s overpowering direct influence, spread throughout his vast stable of papers.

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

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

The basic premise of the eccentric enterprise is simple: in an arid, anthropomorphic region of America bordering the mighty Rio Grande dwells Krazy; an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive and romantic feline of indeterminate gender, in uncompromising total love with rude, crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous, married-with-children (so very many children) bad boy Ignatz Mouse.

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

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

Also populating the dusty environs are a stunning supporting cast of inspired anthropomorphic bit players such as Joe Stork, (deliverer of babies), the hobo Bum Bill Bee, larcenous Don Kiyoti, busybody Pauline Parrot, Walter Cephus Austridge, Chinese mallard Mock Duck, Joe Turtil and a host of other audacious characters – all capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features.

The episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Coconino (based of the artist’s vacation retreat Coconino County, Arizona) and the surreal playfulness and fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscapes are perhaps the most important members of the cast.

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

The Krazy & Ignatz series of collected Sunday pages was originally contrived by Eclipse Comics and the Turtle Island Foundation and taken over by Fantagraphics when the first publisher succumbed to predatory market conditions in the 1990s. Through diligence and sheer bloody determination matching Hearst’s own, the series was finally completed in 2015.

After years of scarily hand-to-mouth publishing, the entire Katty canon of magnificent Sunday pages has been collected in fabulous compilations and this first colour and monochrome volume opens with ‘And the First Shall Be the Last: A History of Kat Reprints’ and A Word from the Publisher by Kim Thompson delineating at length the eccentric orbit which finally resulted in Herriman’s masterpiece being collected in a complete, uniform, visually stunning 13 volume edition.

That’s followed by ‘The Kat’s Kreation’ from series Editor Bill Blackbeard; a fulsome, fascinating and heavily illustrated history tracing the development of the frankly freakish feline as briefly outlined above, and ‘Before He Went “Krazy”: George Herriman’s Aughts’, offering a liberal sampling of examples of the cartoonists many pre-Coconino strips and features such as ‘Lariat Pete’, ‘Bud Smith, the Boy Who Does Stunts’, ‘Rosy’s Mama’, ‘Zoo Zoo… (Goes Shopping, Entertains, And the Christmas Pie)’, ‘Alexander’ and ‘Daniel and Pansy’, spanning 1903 to 1909, with many sporting a certain prototype mad moggy in the corners…

From there it’s a short hop to the first cautious yet full-bodied escapades from 1916, delivered every seven days from April 23rd to December 31st.

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

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

…And gets hit with bricks. Many, heavy and always evoking joyous, grateful raptures and transports of delight from the heart-sore hard-headed recipient…

In 1917 (specifically January 7th to December 30th), the eternal game played out as usual and with an infinite variety of twists, quirks and reversals. However there were also increasingly intriguing diversions to flesh out the picayune proceedings, such as recurring explorations of terrifying trees, grim ghosts and obnoxious Ouija Boards, tributes to Kipling as we discover why the snake rattles, meet Ignatz’s aquatic cousin, observe an invasion of Mexican Jumping Beans and a plague of measles, discover the maritime value of “glowerms”, learn who was behind a brilliant brick-stealing campaign of crime and at last see Krazy become the Bricker and not Brickee…

Fully in control of his medium, Herriman switched into poetic high gear as America finally entered the Great War in 1918.

With strips running from January 6th to December 29th, uncanny brick apparitions scotched somebody’s New Year’s resolutions, cantankerous automobiles began to disrupt the desert days, fun of a sort was had with boomerangs and moving picture mavens began haunting the region. There were deeply strange interactions with weather events, whilst music was made and occasional extended storylines began with the saga of an aberrant Kookoo Klock…

Surreal voyages were undertaken but over and again it was seen that there is literally no place like Krazy and Ignatz’s home. There was only one acknowledgement of Kaiser Bill and it was left to the missile-chucking mouse to deliver it…

And then it was Christmas and a new year and volume lay ahead…

To complete the illustrious experience and explore the ever-shifting sense of reality amidst the constant display of visual virtuosity and verbal verve this big, big book (305 x 230 mm and superbly designed by Chris Ware) ends with rare and informative bonus material such as ‘A Genius of the Comic Page’: a contemporaneous appreciation and loving deconstruction of the strip – with new illustrations from Herriman – by the astoundingly perspicacious and erudite critic Summerfield Baldwin taken from Cartoons Magazine and an oddly enigmatic biography of the reclusive creator in ‘George Herriman 1880-1944’ by Bill Blackbeard.

‘The Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page’ then closes the show, providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed…

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

If however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this glorious parade of cartoon masterpieces are your last chance to become a human before you die…

That was harsh, I know: not everybody gets it and some of them aren’t even stupid or soulless – they’re just unfortunate…

Still, There Is A Heppy Lend Furfur A-Waay if only you try to see…
© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Little Adventures in Oz volume 1


By Eric Shanower (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-60010-589-0

We all know the story of The Wizard of Oz – or at least the bare bones of it as harvested to make the admittedly stunning 1939 movie classic – but the truth is that there is a vast surplus of fantastic wonders from that legendary 1900 novel by jobbing journalist and prolific author Lyman Frank Baum that remained unfilmed.

Happily this collection of superb and faithful extrapolations by rabid fan Eric Shanower draws heavily from the prose canon, restoring almost all of those glaring tinseltown omissions and alterations whilst keeping in play all those beloved stars the wider world knows. He does so with stunning skill, wondrous wit and mesmerising charm.

As superb an illustrator as author, Shanower (whose far too occasional “straight” comics work includes Prez: Smells Like Teen President, The Elsewhere Prince and the astoundingly ambitious Age of Bronze) produced five original albums set in Baum’s magic kingdom for independent publisher First Comics’ groundbreaking line of graphic novels, all codified as Adventures in Oz.

Between 1986 and 1992 he crafted The Enchanted Apples of Oz, The Secret Island of Oz, The Ice King of Oz, The Forgotten Forest of Oz, and The Blue Witch of Oz; since then going on to release a new prose work, numerous short stories and scholarly contributions to various academic and critical volumes on Baum and his creations.

In 2007 Shanower paired with Skottie Young at Marvel Comics to adapt the original Baum books in a stellar sequence which utterly reinvigorated the immortal franchise. That inspired the repackaging of his earlier one-man show and the comic tales were eventually compiled into a set of scintillating chronicles as Little Adventures in Oz. This initial volume reproduces the first and third so-very beautiful Shanower albums, repackaged and remastered in a splendid new edition, bundled up with a glittering hoard of visual treasures and behind-the-scenes gems to delight every devotee of the canon and lover of modern fairy tales.

The extraordinary excursion to miraculous lands and climes opens with a beautiful map of the incredible kingdom and its environs, before launching into 1986’s The Enchanted Apples of Oz.

Kansas expatriate Dorothy Gale is strolling along the Yellow Brick Road with Scarecrow and wise hen Billina when a magical castle materialises. Entering the sparkling keep, they meet stately Valynn who has in the courtyard ‘The Apple Tree’ which has sustained Oz since time began. Its enchanted fruits are what underpin the realm’s magic; allowing chickens to talk, imbuing inanimate objects with life and dangerously capable of breaking any enchantment…

Such a resource has made the place a target for evil-doers so for many lonely centuries solitary sentinel Valynn has defended the castle, most notably from sinister sorcerer Bortag

Touched by the guardian’s lonely plight, Dorothy takes her to see Queen Ozma, in hope of relieving her of the onerous duty. Bortag, however, has not ended his depredations and swoops down on his flying swordfish Drox, making short work of Scarecrow and Billina who have volunteered to guard the tree in Valynn’s absence.

His sack full of stolen fruit, the sinister scrumper then rushes to the edge of Oz – just where it meets the Deadly Desert – and feeds his plunder to a hideous sleeping hag. She is the legendarily evil Wicked Witch of the South and, horrifically, at first touch of the plundered pippins ‘The Witch Awakes’

Secrets are revealed in ‘Bortag’s Unfortunate Past’ as the homely Quadling mage is spurned by the monster he has loved for countless ages. She immediately returns to the tree and begins voraciously consuming Enchanted Apples. With each bite magic diminishes and the fabulous denizens of Oz become increasingly mundane. Billina barely has time to convince the jilted wizard to fix the crisis his unrequited love has caused before she reverts to a mere clucking fowl…

With all Oz’s mystical champions helpless before the Witch, it’s up to Dorothy and grieving, repentant lovelorn Bortag to stop the Witch’s brutal depredations. Luckily, they still have one advantage: ‘The Magic Belt’

Witty, wise, thrilling and potent with the narrative power of comradeship and redemption, this stunning yarn is followed by another lavishly-limned suspenseful thriller as The Ice King of Oz opens with ‘The Proposal’

The Emerald City is abuzz with excitement as a heretofore-unknown realm sends a diplomatic delegation to Oz. After the usual exchange of fantastic gifts the ambassador Popsicle drops his bombshell. The Ice King intends to cleave to other traditional forms of alliance by marrying Princess Dorothy…

The revelation is greeted with great surprise and a gentle but firm refusal which only results in ‘Treachery’ as the icy embassage vanishes overnight, taking Ozma with them as a flash-frozen prisoner.

A hurried council-of-war results in hastily-assembled rescue party, supplemented by new companion Flicker. Originally a human Candle-Maker, he was turned into a one of his own tapers by the Wicked Witch of the West. Only recently restored to life, he remains a man made of wax with a head fiercely aflame…

Transported in a magical vehicle by Glinda the Good’s sorcery, Dorothy, Scarecrow, tin man Nick Chopper and Flicker voyage ever southward to ‘The Land of Ice’ enduring many sub-zero perils until they broach the snowy wastelands and find themselves ‘In the Ice Palace’

However, after a calamitous confrontation against the cold commander’s amassed legions, our heroes seem doomed to remain ‘In the Ice King’s Power’ until Dorothy’s common sense and Flicker’s valiant determination find a way to pierce his frozen façade…

Compellingly, hypnotically illustrated and written with beguiling grace, this is a fabulous romp for devotees and newcomers alike, and this captivating collection also includes a vast treasure-trove of extras beginning with a sublime Art Gallery of original covers, painted cover studies, character designs, early concept-art, plus the first four pages of an as-yet unfinished tale entitled ‘General Jinjur of Oz’.

Word of Warning: do not read this. It’s utterly brilliant and causes a real wrench when you realise there’s no more and no conclusion…

Also included are a lovely painting of Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion, 5 pages of pencil art layouts for The Enchanted Apples of Oz, a gallery of Shanower Christmas Cards and a watercolour vignette disclosing ‘A Concise History of the Marvelous Land of OZ’.

If you still constantly crave to visit the lost lands of childhood wonder, this superb picture parade is probably your only passport to adventure…

© 2010 Eric Shanower. All rights reserved. © 2010 Idea and Design Works, LLC.

Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde volume 5: The Happy Prince


Adapted by P. Craig Russell (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-981-6

Craig Russell began his illustrious career in comics during the early 1970s and came to prominence young through a groundbreaking run on science fiction adventure series Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds.

Although his fanciful, meticulous, classicist style was joyously derived from the great illustrators of Victorian and Edwardian heroic fantasy and his craftsmanlike visual flourishes of Art Nouveau were greatly at odds with the sausage-factory deadlines and sensibilities of the mainstream comicbook industry, the sheer power and beauty of his work made him a huge draw.

By the 1980s he had largely retired from the merciless daily grind, preferring to work on his own projects (generally adapting operas and plays into sequential narratives) whilst undertaking the occasional high-profile special for the majors – such as Dr. Strange Annual 1976 – completely reworked and re-released as Dr. Strange: What Is It that Disturbs You, Stephen? in 1996 – or Batman: Robin 3000.

As the industry at last matured – in the midst of a fantasy boom – Russell returned to comics with Marvel Graphic Novel: Elric (1982), further co-adapting prose tales of Michael Moorcock’s iconic sword-&-sorcery star in Epic Illustrated magazine and elsewhere.

Russell’s stage-arts adaptations had begun appearing in 1978: first in the independent Star*Reach specials Night Music and Parsifal and then from 1984 at Eclipse Comics where the revived Night Music became an anthological showcase for his earlier experimental adaptations; not simply operatic dramas but also rousing timeless adventure tales from Kipling’s Jungle Books and other literary classics.

In 1992 he began adapting the Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde – a mission he continues to date, with this fifth volume (in its second printing) deftly transforming the author’s heartbreaking and salutary allegorical fable of pure virtue and human hypocrisy into a work of capital “A” graphic Art.

First published in May 1888, The Happy Prince and Other Tales was Wilde’s first book for children with the lead story merely one of a quintet of literary gems – the others being The Nightingale and the Rose, The Selfish Giant, The Devoted Friend and The Remarkable Rocket – and here adaptor Russell utilises all his skills to staggering effect and creates an evocative, beguiling sensation.

Sacrificing the usual Wildean bon mots for wickedly earnest and ferociously barbed social criticism, this riveting fable is set in a prosperous town where all the important people revel in the beauty of the golden, gem-bedecked statue of a former prince who died young and spoiled in the lap of overwhelming luxury.

Now his spirit resides in a gleaming, glittering statue and from his lofty perch the gilded potentate can view the entire town. However, within his metal frame his lead heart is crushed by the suffering and poverty of the poor he sees in every dark, ignored corner of the metropolis.

As the seasons turn the suffering statue convinces the last swallow in the land to forego migration to Egypt and has the plucky, cocky bird methodically strip him of the jewels and gold which make him such a resplendent sight before secretly redistributing these riches to those who need them most…

As winter comes and the statue’s resources dwindle, the swallow too is failing. The rich folk are soon embarrassed by the state of their former premier monument and react typically, all blithely unaware of the subtle change which has embraced the lower classes, who are now warm, fed and happy for the first time… but only at a terrible unsuspected cost to the boy and the bird…

I wasn’t kidding about heartbreaking. Our Victorian ancestors knew the value and power of pathos and sentiment and weren’t shy in using it to give kids all the emotional tools they needed for growing up.

It’s a gift we sadly lost sometime in the 1980s when we began cocooning and obsessively shielding our young from life’s darker aspects, and whilst it might have saved a few parents having difficult talks with their children, it deprived future generations of much-needed understanding and empathy.

This is a very sad story – think “Feed the Birds” in the Mary Poppins movie and lay in sufficient supplies of hankies – but one that every child and their appointed caretakers absolutely must see, especially in today’s world of cruel, crushing, crippling One-Percentism and facile, vapid, selfish self-aggrandisement…

Like all the other volumes in this series, The Happy Prince is another high point in Russell’s splendid, stellar career: an incredibly lovely, irresistibly readable example of superb writing – so go and read Wilde’s original prose tomes too – and sublime comic art at its very best.

Now that it’s finally back in print, you simply must avail yourself of this magically meaningful masterpiece…
© 2012 P. Craig Russell. All rights reserved.

Plastic Man Archives volume 4


By Jack Cole (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-835-8

As adroitly recounted by European comics historian and film critic Andreas C. Knigge in his Foreword to this fourth beguiling Deluxe Archive collection, Jack Cole was one of the most uniquely gifted talents of America’s Golden Age of Comics.

Before moving into the magazine and gag markets he originated landmark tales in horror, true crime, war, adventure and especially superhero comicbooks, and his incredible humour-hero Plastic Man remains an unsurpassed benchmark of screwball costumed hi-jinks: frequently copied but never equalled. It was a glittering career of distinction which Cole was clearly embarrassed by and unhappy with.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This lavish, full-colour hardback barely contains the exuberantly elongated exploits of the premier polymorph from Police Comics #40-49 and Plastic Man #3 (stretching from March 1945 to Spring 1945), and opens with an outrageous murder mystery in Woozy’s loon-filled boarding house as ‘The Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder’ inexorably lead to a fatal stabbing and the ever-imaginative Plas aping the victim until the culprit tries to kill him again…

Police #41 details how an epidemic of shoplifting threatens to close a department store, but when Plas and Woozy hunt down prime suspect ‘Louie the Lift’ they soon discover the thief is only the stooge of a far more dangerous crook, whilst ‘The Diabolical Dr. Dratt’ is clearly his own maniacal man; conning innocent strangers into distilling a deadly new weapon which could level the city…

In ‘Arctic Circle Adventure’ the misshaped manhunters head to the far north to save a little professor’s radium mine from claim-jumpers but none of the polar perils compare to the ardour of marriage-mad Hut Sut who thinks Woozy is the man of her dreams, after which the big goof helps a down-&-out drifter get into a old folks home and precipitates a ‘Murder at the home for the Aged’. Thankfully Plastic Man is on hand to ascertain the identity of the assassin-wolf in the well-wrinkled fold…

Sheer absurdity – and Woozy – trigger a city-wide disaster when a founding father determines to sell the smelly, garbage-strewn land the city is built on back to the Indians and Plas’ poltroon pal makes it happen. Soon ‘Chief Rain-in-the-Trap’ and his braves are running roughshod over everyone and the chameleonic cop is intent on discovering if there’s a pale face behind all that war-paint…

Issue #46 reveals the genesis – and demise – of ‘The Owl’s Witch Union’ as a crook realises magic has as much power as the A-bomb and organises all the city’s sham shamans and con conjurers to take control of the state by eradicating its legislature and government…

‘Slicer and Doser’s Medical School’ finds Woozy trying to save his partner’s life when a pair of deranged surgeons decide to dissect Plastic Man for the sake of science and the betterment of humanity, and it’s just such noble sentiments which prompt inventor Jasper Tipple to design ‘The City of the Future’. Sadly since honest entrepreneurs won’t provide the venture capital to build it the poor fool accepts dirty money and sees his masterpiece become a safe-haven for crooks… until Plastic Man takes an elasticated hand…

The monthly exploits end here with Police Comics #49 (cover-dated December 1945) and the sad tale of a young lady whose physical blandishments were merely average but who nevertheless had the power to make men into helpless puppets.

After years of men acting like slaves around her naturally she fell for the one man immune to her gifts. Such a shame he was a murderous conman and she was so naïve and love-struck…

It was more luck than wit which saved Plas, Woozy and ‘Thelma Twittle, Super-Charmer’

Rounding out this stylish slapstick selection is grand quintet of tales from Plastic Man #3 (Spring 1946) which opens with ‘The Killing of Snoopy Hawks’ wherein Woozy is threatened by a gossip columnist who ends up dead. Although the cops feel certain it’s the confirmed felon at fault, Plastic Man is equally suspicious of the former banker, upcoming actress and brutal prize-fighter also on the victim’s scandal-list…

The Pliable Paladin almost meets his match when a criminal sociologist hoodwinks a trio of genuine magic makers into destroying the only barrier to his nefarious plots in ‘B. T. Tokus and the Witch Doctors’ after which the stooge becomes the star as ‘Woozy Winks: The Escape of Smelly Pitts’ finds the Dolorous Dope attempting a (semi-legal) get-rich-quick bounty-hunting scheme only to be captured by his target, and fooled into getting married…

Plastic Man’s uncanny abilities are then explored in prose short ‘The Hand Behind’ before this superb slice of superhero silliness concludes with a daring tale of High Seas drama as at-long-last body-conscious Mr. Winks goes in search of deodorant and becomes embroiled in an ambergris-smuggling racket, which is only the tip of an illegal iceberg.

When the oaf turns up missing again, Plastic Man gets on the case and soon discovers and closes ‘A Whale of a Tale’

Augmented by all the stupendously hilarious covers and a ‘Biographies’ feature detailing the author’s amazing achievements and unhappy life, this is another true gem of funnybook virtuosity: exciting, breathtakingly original and still thrilling, witty, scary, visually outrageous and pictorially intoxicating more than seventy years after Jack Cole first put pen to paper.

Plastic Man is a truly unique creation who has only grown in stature and appeal and this is a magical comics experience fans would be crazy to deny themselves.
© 1945, 1946, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Asterix and the Missing Scroll


By Jean-Yves Ferri & Didier Conrad, translated by Anthea Bell (Orion Books)
ISBN: 978-1-4440-

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Classical Way to Celebrate the Season… 9/10

Asterix debuted in 1959 and has since become part of the fabric of French life. His exploits have touched billions of people all around the world for five and a half decades and for almost all of that time his astounding adventures were the sole preserve of originators Rene Goscinny and/or Albert Uderzo.

After nearly 15 years as a weekly comics part-work subsequently collected into book-length compilations, in 1974 the 21st saga – Asterix and Caesar’s Gift – became the first to be released as a complete, original album prior to serialisation. Thereafter each new tome was an eagerly anticipated, impatiently awaited treat for legions of devotees, but perhaps none more so than this one, created by Uderzo’s handpicked replacements – scripter Jean-Yves Ferri (Fables Autonomes, La Retour à la terre) and illustrator Didier Conrad (Les Innomables, Le Piège Malais, Tatum) – who landed the somewhat poisoned chalice after he retired in 2009.

After their initial epic Asterix and the Picts proved they could follow ably in their masters’ footsteps, critics started wondering if the new kids could pull it off again…

Whether as an action-packed comedic romp with sneaky, bullying baddies getting their just deserts or as a sly and wicked satire for older, if-no-wiser heads, these new yarns seem to be is just as engrossing as the established canon especially as English-speakers are still happily graced with the brilliantly light touch of translator Anthea Bell who, with former collaborator Derek Hockridge, played no small part in making the indomitable little Gaul so palatable to Anglophilic sensibilities.

As you already know, half of the intoxicating epics are set in various exotic locales throughout the Ancient World, whilst the rest take place in and around Uderzo’s adored 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.

Although the country is divided by the notional conquerors into provinces Celtica, Aquitania and Armorica, the very tip of the last named stubbornly refuses to be pacified. The otherwise dominant Romans, utterly unable to overrun this last bastion of Gallic insouciance, are reduced to a pointless policy of absolute containment – and yet the Gauls come and go as they please.

Thus a tiny seaside hamlet is permanently hemmed in by heavily fortified garrisons Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium, filled with veteran fighters who would rather be anywhere else on earth than there…

Their “prisoners” couldn’t care less; daily defying and frustrating the world’s greatest military machine by uncaringly going about their everyday affairs, bolstered by magic potion brewed by resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits and strategic aplomb of diminutive dynamo Asterix and his simplistic, supercharged best friend Obelix

Le Papyrus de César was released on October 22nd 2015, simultaneously hurtling off the shelves of many nations as Asterix and the Missing Scroll (or whatever the local language equivalent of the many nations addicted to these epics might be).

Even though, as with many previous tales, it takes its momentum from satirising current affairs the resemblances to certain unscrupulous publishing magnates and founders of information-leaking internet sites is both remarkable and – I’m sure – utterly coincidental…

This home fixture begins away in glorious Rome where Caesar is anticipating the release of his memoirs Commentaries on the War with the Gauls (or Commentarii de Bello Gallico as your granddad probably knew it). Unimaginative, forthright Caesar has ended the ruminations with a final scroll detailing how he has been unable to completely end the conflict because of repeated incidents with a small village of indomitable Gauls who simply won’t accept that they’ve been conquered.

He is shocked – but not averse – to the suggestion of his advisor and publisher Libellus Blockbustus who recommends that they just leave it out of the published edition…

The expurgated publication is a sensation throughout the empire and far away in that still-unconquered enclave life goes on as usual after publication. In fact when the latest newspaper arrives the villagers are only concerned with the latest horoscopes.

As myopic Wifix reads them out, aged Geriatrix takes his prediction to heart and sees “new conquests” in his future whilst Obelix is mortally crushed by a rather specific prognostication to “avoid conflict, take stock and go easy on the roast boar”…

Asterix, who shares the same birthday as his ponderous pal, doesn’t believe in all that astrology rubbish, but cannot shake the big buffoon out of his debilitating dudgeon. Although that means things grow quiet in Gaul, back in Rome a clandestine crisis has erupted. A mute Numidian Scribe named Bigdatha has taken umbrage with the massaging of the truth and, believing the public has a right to know everything, has turned whistleblower. Swiping Caesar’s 24th scroll – “Defeats at the Hands of the Indomitable Gauls of Armorica” – he has passed it on to Confoundtheirpolitix, a Gaulish “newsmonger without borders”…

Fearing the scandal will affect profits and dreading what Caesar will do if he’s made to appear foolish or dishonest, Blockbustus instigates emergency measures and sends Roman secret police to arrest the scribe and the newsmonger. Confoundthepolitix however has already rushed to Armorica and sought sanctuary in a certain village that Romans cannot enter…

When details of the omissions on the scroll are revealed (particularly Asterix’ many exploits such as The Chieftain’s Shield, Mansions of the Gods and so on) the villagers react in different ways – those that aren’t still fighting over the horoscope predictions at least.

The excitable Lutetian newsmonger is adamant that the contents of the scroll could topple Caesar and something must be done to preserve it, prompting Chief Vitalstatistix to affably write his own history of the war to set things right. More sensibly Getafix suggests that since Gauls don’t appreciate writing but memorialise facts and history in their oral tradition, he should transport the potentially devastating data to the Forest of the Carnutes where the Grand Druid Archaeopterix can commit the information to his mighty and phenomenal cogitative cranial chronicles…

Meanwhile word has reached Centurion Verigregarius in Totorum to get that scroll back at all costs and he surrounds the village with a cordon of his best warriors. That means nothing to the villagers of course. In the dead of night Asterix, Getafix and faithful petite wonder-hound Dogmatix sneak out of a secret door and set out on their mission, dragging with them dolorous, downcast and decidedly pacifistic Obelix. They are unaware that they are being stalked by a crack squad of elite Roman army surveillance specialists, equipped with the latest advancement in the empire’s covert communications technology…

Back in Rome, every fresh evidence of Caesar’s delight in his new-found authorial celebrity terrifies Blockbustus more and more. With the humiliating last chapter still out there, a monarch’s reputation and thus the publisher’s life remain balanced on a knife-edge. Succumbing to panic, the wily advisor heads for Armorica to take personal charge of the search, even as our heroes reach the fabled forest. As their stalkers fall victim to the unique and fabulous security measures of the Carnutes druids, Getafix renews old acquaintances and begins the torturous process of committing the scroll to Archaeopterix’ capacious memory…

In Totorum, deprived of all the ongoing fresh facts and breaking news, Blockbustus and Verigregarius plan a major assault on the village to retrieve the scroll they think is still there. Their cause is greatly advanced when they catch Confoundtheirpolitix outside the stockade and take him hostage…

Thankfully the embattled Gauls have messaging system which can reach all the way to the great forest and Archaeopterix has a power-potion of his own which will allow his guests to get back to the village in time to save the day…

Even Obelix gets to play once he learns that he was read the wrong horoscope and can have as many boars and hit as many Romans as he wants. But then Julius Caesar angrily arrives and all Tartarus breaks loose…

Fast-paced, furiously funny, stuffed with action and hilarious, contemporary swipes and timeless jibes plus a marvellously enchanting double twist ending, this is a splendid continuation of the series by creators who clearly know what they’re doing and enjoy doing it. Asterix and the Missing Scroll is an unmissable joy for lovers of laughs and devotees of comics alike and a welcome addition to the mythic canon.

True Dat…
© 2015 Les Éditions Albert René. English translation: © 2015 Les Éditions Albert René. All rights reserved.

The Rupert Treasury


By Mary Tourtel (Purnell Books)
ISBN: 9 78-0-36106-343-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Truly British Brilliance with Universal Appeal… 9/10

There’s not a lot around these days in our field which caters specifically for little kids, their nostalgic parents and guardians whilst simultaneously introducing them to the ineluctably tactile wonders and sensorium of a high quality comics anthological experience. Once upon a time there was a whole subdivision of the publishing business dedicated to enthralling and enchanting our youngest and, hopefully, brightest but now all I can think of are The Beano and The Phoenix

At least we still have books – old and new – to fill the gap.

Moreover, comics fans and the British in general equally adore a well-seasoned tradition and in terms of pictorial narrative and sheer beguilement there’s nothing more perfect than the hairy national treasure called Rupert.

Long before television took him, the Little Bear was part of our society’s very fabric and never more so than at Christmas when gloriously painted, comfortingly sturdy rainbow-hued Annuals found their way into innumerable stockings and the sticky hands of astounded, mesmerised children.

The ursine über-star was created by English artist and illustrator Mary Tourtel (January 28th 1874-March 15th 1948) and debuted in the Daily Express on November 8th 1920; the beguiling vanguard and secret weapon of a pitched circulation battle with rival papers the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail. Both papers had cartoon characters for kiddies – Teddy Tail in the Mail and the soon-to-be legendary Pip, Squeak and Wilfred in the Mirror.

Tourtel’s daily serial of the Little Lost Bear ran for 36 instalments and triggered a phenomenon which remains in full force to this day, albeit largely due to the diligent efforts of her successor Alfred Edmeades Bestall, MBE, who wrote and illustrated Rupert Bear from 1935 to 1965 and was responsible for the Annuals which began with the 1936 edition.

The artist originally chosen to spearhead the Express’ cartoon counterattack was already an established major player on the illustration scene – and fortuitously married to the paper’s News Editor Herbert Tourtel, who had been ordered by the owners to come up with a rival feature.

The unnamed little bear was illustrated by Mary and initially captioned by Herbert, appearing as two cartoon panels per day with a passage of text underneath. He was originally cast as a brown bear until the Express decided to cut costs and inking expenses resulting in the iconic white pallor we all know and love today.

Soon though early developmental “bedding-in” was accomplished and the engaging scenario was fully entrenched in the hearts and minds of readers. Young Rupert lives with his extremely understanding parents in idyllically rural Nutwood village: an enticing microcosm and exemplar of everything wonderful about British life. The place is populated by anthropomorphic animals and humans living together and overlaps a lot of very strange and unworldly places full of mythical creatures and legendary folk…

A huge hit, Mary’s Rupert quickly expanded into a range of short illustrated novels (46 by my count from the early 1920s to 1936, with a further run of 18 licensed and perpetually published by Woolworth’s after that. It’s from the former that the five tales in this splendid hardback commemoration are taken…

Tourtel’s bear was very much a product of his times and social class: inquisitive, adventurous, smart, helpful yet intrinsically privileged and therefore always labouring under a veiled threat of having his cosy world and possessions taken away by the wicked and undeserving.

Heretical as it might sound, like the unexpurgated fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm, the pre-Bestall Rupert yarns all have a darker edge and worrisome undercurrent with mysterious forces casually, even capriciously targeting our innocent star. Naturally, pluck, good friends and a benevolent adult or two are always on hand to help our hero win through…

This glorious tome – still readily available through many internet vendors and originated in 1984 – gathers a quintet of typical Tourtel tales from the book editions, packing a wealth of full colour painted, duo-hued and monochrome ink-line illustrations into his enchanting pages and opens with the all-colour adventure of ‘Rupert and the Robber Wolf’ from 1932, with the text as always delivered in a succession of rhyming couplets.

The story sees Rupert deprived of his new pocket watch by a burly vulpine bandit and, despite seeking the assistance of best pal Bill Badger, friendly mystic The Wise Old Goat, pixies, fauns and rural troubleshooter The Pedlar, ending up a prisoner of the wolf.

Happily the Old Goat and a posse of police are on hand to collar the crook and his wayward son before something really nasty occurs…

Rendered in bucolic shades of green, ‘Rupert and the Old Miser’ (first released circa 1925) finds our bear playing with a new ball which flies over a forbidding wall into a large garden. When Rupert sneaks in to retrieve his toy he encounters a range of odd and terrified creatures all suborned to the eccentric whims of the rapacious Master Raven

When the bear is caught the ebon enchanter declares the trespasser to be his property too and sets the poor mite to work as his latest chattel.

Rupert is despondent, but help is at hand. The Little Bear’s friends have concocted a cunning plan to rescue him and when the scheme succeeds the miser meets a grisly fate chasing his fleeing new slave…

Equally verdant in its art aspects is the saga of ‘Rupert and the Enchanted Princess’ (1928) which opens with the bear snatched up by a great bird and delivered to a distant kingdom where a feudal monarch pleads with him to find his missing daughter.

Despite the scorn of the assembled knights, Rupert sets out and, with the aid of woodland creatures and a talking horse, overcomes ogres, dragons and other terrors before reversing the magic curse of three witches and returning the Princess to her doting dad…

Rendered in beautiful, clear, clean black-&-white line art ‘Rupert and the Mysterious Flight’ (1930) begins when The Prince and Princess of the Wood of Mystery send the Little Bear a fully functional aeroplane. Soon Rupert is enjoying his maiden voyage but gets lost and alights in the Land of Kinkajous, where King Toucan – after an initial fright – sets the boy a series of never-ending mystic challenges. After a number of Herculean labours are accomplished Rupert at last regains his flying machine and makes a break for freedom and home…

The fantastic voyages then conclude with the full-colour ‘Rupert and the Magic Toyman’ (1933) wherein a thrilling day enjoying a Fair and Sports Day leads to the unlucky bear being spirited away by a genial craftsman whose enticing wares mask his true nature.

The toy maker is, in fact, a wicked sorcerer and his constructions are transformed animals and even a Princess…

Undaunted, Rupert organises an escape back to Princess Belinda’s kingdom, but the Toyman has already ensorcelled the whole place into a land of marionettes. Happily, a glimmer of hope remains and the tables can be turned if only Rupert can find and recruit the valiantly heroic Moorland Will whose hunting horn can undo the magic spell…

Beautifully realised, superbly engaging fantasies such as these are never out of style and this fabulous tome should be yours, if only ass means of introducing the next generation to a perfect world of wonder and imagination.
© 1984 Beaverbrook Newspapers Limited. Artwork & text © 1984 Purnell Publishers Limited from original Mary Tourtel material.

The Juggler of Our Lady – the Classic Christmas Story


By R. O. Blechman with a Foreword by Jules Feiffer and Introduction by Maurice Sendak (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-80030-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A truly immaculate confection… 10/10

Christmas is not just about shiny new toys and sparkly knitwear. It’s just as much about unearthing or revisiting old, beloved and almost totally forgotten treasures.

Here’s a superb case in point – finally back in print after far too many years away – thanks to the perspicacious souls at Dover Books…

Oscar Robert Blechman is a glittering star in America’s graphic arts firmament and an international superstar. Brooklyn-born in 1930, he has excelled as cartoonist, illustrator, author, animator/Director, editorial cartoonist, Editorial Director and ad-man.

He’s won awards for his commercials and TV specials and been venerated in an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art. His anti-Vietnam cartoons graced The Village Voice through the early 1970s whilst his cartoons and illustrations appeared in such prestigious vehicles as Punch, The New Yorker, Trump, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Show, Theater Arts and Humbug.

He’s also produced fascinating graphic narratives such as Georgie and can reasonably claim to have produced one of the very first English-language Graphic Novels… which is the subject of today’s lecture…

In 1952 Blechman used his groundbreaking and soon-to-be phenomenally influential minimalist line-style – deftly augmented with judicious watercolours – to make a much-told tale all his own.

The Juggler of Our Lady was his first book: initially published by Henry Holt, and superbly fetishized and commemorated through brother-cartoonist Maurice Sendak’s fondly emotional Introduction in this sublime new pocket hardback edition. The slim tome became a landmark in graphic narrative and is beloved by generations.

Anatole France’s 1892 tale Le Jongleur de Notre Dame is probably the most widely accepted version of the original medieval religious-miracle legend but there have been so many others that the story is as much part of most people’s seasonal landscape as Santa Claus or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Blechman’s reinvigoration managed to retain all the awe and wonder, whilst adding such a potent blend of wry humour, pitiful humility and gentle hope to the mix that it can make a grown man weep. In 1958 his book became an animated Terrytoons TV short with a huge impact when it was adapted by Al Kouzel & Gene Deitch and narrated by that legendary Christmas Spirit Boris Karloff…

You know the story: Cantalbert is an itinerant juggler who loves his work. He feels that if more people juggled there would less time for war and misery and folk would act better, feel better and be better.

Nobody, however, will listen and the despondent performer – hungry for spirituality – joins a monastery. Even here he does not fit in and is saddened by his lack of suitable talents to venerate The Lord and especially The Virgin Mary…

Everything comes to a head on Christmas Eve when the monks all display the magnificent presents they have made for the Madonna and poor Cantalbert has nothing worthy to give.

Later, when all is quiet, the sad juggler offers the only thing he knows and loves to the statue of The Virgin and something wonderful happens…

Deftly deconstructed and wondrously appreciated in a Foreword by Comics and Cartooning Titan Jules Feiffer, The Juggler of Our Lady is a masterpiece of graphic dexterity and an utterly beguiling experience no lover of the storytelling arts should be without.

Text and illustrations © 1997 R. O. Blechman. Foreword © 1997 2015 Jules Feiffer. Introduction © 1980 Maurice Sendak. All rights rserved.
The Juggler of Our Lady – the Classic Christmas Story will be released November 27th 2015 and is available for pre-order now. Check out www.doverpublications.com, your internet retailer or local comic or bookshop.

Barefoot Gen volume 10: Never Give Up


By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-601-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Shocking, Momentous, Unmissable… 10/10

Constantly revised and refined by its creator and publishers around the world, Barefoot Gen is the quintessential anti-war tract and message of peace for humanity. It is angry, uncompromising and never forgives those who seek to perpetuate greed, mendacity and bloody-handed stupidity.

After many years of struggle the entire epic semi-autobiographical saga has being remastered as an unabridged and uncompromising 10-volume English-language translation by Last Gasp under the auspices of Project Gen, a multinational organisation dedicated to peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Hadashi no Gen was first seen in Japan began in 1973, serialised in Shūkan Shōnen Jampu (Weekly Boys Jump) following an occasional 1972 series of stand-alone stories in various magazines which included Kuroi Ame ni Utarete (Struck by Black Rain) and Aru Hi Totsuzen (One Day, Suddenly).

The scattered tales eventually led Shonen’s editor Tadasu Nagano to commission the 45-page Ore wa Mita (I Saw It) for a Monthly Jump special devoted to autobiographical works. Nagano clearly recognised that the author – an actual survivor of the word’s first atomic atrocity – had much more to say which readers needed to see and commissioned the serial which has grown into this stunning landmark epic.

The tale was always controversial in a country which still generally prefers to ignore rather than confront its mistakes and indiscretions and, after 18 months, Hadashi no Gen was removed from Jump, transferred first to Shimin (Citizen), then Bunka Hyōron (Cultural Criticism), and Kyōiku Hyōron (Educational Criticism).

Just like his indomitable hero, Keiji Nakazawa never gave up and his persistence led to a first Japanese book collection in 1975, translated by the newly-constituted Project Gen team into Russian, English and then other languages including Norwegian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Finnish, Indonesian, Tagalog and Esperanto.

The author completed his story in 1985 and his telling testament of survival has since been adapted into live-action and anime films, operas, musicals and live-action television dramas; all spreading the message across every continent and all generations.

This concluding volume brings the story of irrepressible, ebullient Gen and his friends to a close, once again pitting the forceful vitality of a select band of bomb survivors against the constant shadow of tragedy which implacably dogs them in the city slowly recovering from nuclear conflagration.

Here the indomitable idealistic individualist, having finally found a way to express his anger and effectively fight back against the idiocies and injustices of a world which lets Atom bombs fall and is seemingly incapable of learning from its mistakes, at last strikes back at the demagogues and monsters who still keep the bad old ways alive even after their people suffered the most hideous of consequences…

Barefoot Gen: Never Give Up begins following the inspirational ‘Gen’s Message: A Plea for Nuclear Abolition’ by the Translators and Editors and, as always, the other end of this monochrome paperback balances the essay with a biography of the author and invaluable data ‘About Project Gen’

The graphic manifesto resumes in March 1953 as Gen prepares for his school graduation ceremony, despite seldom attending the hidebound institution for the past few years. Fellow bomb orphans Ryuta and quietly stolid Musubi – who have shared his shabby shack for years – are also in high spirits. They have been constantly selling dresses made by radiation-scarred outcast Katsuko on Hiroshima’s rebuilt street corners, diligently saving the proceeds until she has enough money to open a shop. Now the manager of one of the big stores wants to buy all the clothes they can manufacture to sell in his fashionable venues…

At the Graduation Ceremony Gen once again loses his temper when the faculty begin memorialising the past and celebrating the failed regime of the empire. Later, his savage confrontation with teachers and visiting dignitaries sparks a minor student revolution. For many of the juvenile delinquents it also presents an opportunity to inflict some long-delayed retribution on the educational bullies who have beaten them for years…

Encouragingly, however, not all the parents and attending adults take the teachers’ side and a potentially murderous confrontation is (rather violently) defused by Gen…

The boy’s life then changes forever when he bumps into a young woman and is instantly smitten. His pursuit of lovely Mitsuko will bring him into conflict with her brutal father, former employer and unrepentant war-lover Nakao; now a highly successful businessman going places in the reconstructed city…

Gen has been studying with elderly artist Seiga Amano, learning the skills his own father would have passed on had he not died in 1945. The mentor/father-figure encourages his protégé to pursue Mitsuko and it costs them both their jobs…

The seeming setback is in fact liberating and before long the star-crossed youngsters are in a fevered euphoria of first love. So engaged is Gen that he is not there when stolid Musubi is targeted by a cruel Yakuza honey-trap who addicts him to drugs and fleeces him of all Katsuko’s hard-earned savings…

With a happy ending so close he can touch it Gen is dragged back down to earth by a trio of tragedies which leave him near-broken and all alone. The legacies of the bombing have again cost him almost everything…

After a horrendous bout of death and vengeance-taking, Gen seems to have nothing to live for, but the despondent young man is saved by aged Amano who rekindles his spirit and wisely advises him to get out of Hiroshima and start his real life in the world beyond it…

Keiji Nakazawa’s broad cartoon art style has often been subject of heated discussion; his simplified Disney-esque rendering felt by some to be at odds with the subject matter, and perhaps diluting the impact of the message. I’d like to categorically refute that.

The style springs from his earliest influence, Osamu Tezuka, Father of Animé and God of Manga who began his career in 1946 and whose works – Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island), Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and so many more – eased some of the grim realities of being a bomb survivor, providing escape, hope and even a career path to the young illustrator. Even at its most bleak and traumatic the epic never forgets to shade horror with humour and counterpoint crushing loss with fiery idealism and enthusiasm.

As such the clear line, solid black forms and abstracted visual motifs act as tolerable symbols for much of the horror in this parable. The art defuses but never dilutes the horror of the tragedy and its aftermath. The reader has to be brought through the tale to receive the message and for that purpose drawings are accurate, simplified and effective. The intent is not to repel (and to be honest, even as they are they’re still pretty hard to take) but to inform, to warn.

Bleak and violent but ultimately impossibly uplifting, Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen is without peer and its legacy will be pervasive and long-lasting. So now you’ve been warned, buy this book. Buy the entire series. Tell everyone you know about it. Barefoot Gen is an indisputable classic and should be available to absolutely everyone… © 2009 Keiji Nakazawa. All rights reserved.