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.

Zero Hour and Other Stories


Illustrated by Jack Kamen, written by Al Feldstein, Bill Gaines, Ray Bradbury & Jack Oleck (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-704-8

From 1950-1954 EC was the most innovative and influential comicbook publisher in America, dominating the genres of crime, horror, adventure, war and science fiction. They even originated an entirely new beast – the satirical comicbook – with Mad.

After a shaky start and following the death of his father (who actually created comicbooks in 1933), new Editor/publisher William Gaines and his trusty master-of-all-comics trades Al Feldstein turned a slavishly derivative minor venture into a pioneering, groundbreaking enterprise which completely altered the perception of the industry and art form.

They began co-plotting the bulk of EC’s output together, intent on creating a “New Trend” of stories aimed at older, more discerning readers (rather than the mythical 8-year-olds comics ostensibly targeted) and shifted the emphasis of the ailing company towards dark, funny, socially aware broadly adult fare.

Their publishing strategy also included hiring some the most gifted writers and artists in the field. One of the earliest and certainly most undervalued at the time was Jack Kamen…

This lavish monochrome hardcover volume, another instant classic in Fantagraphics’ EC Library, gathers a scintillating selection of Kamen’s quirkily low-key science fiction tales which always favoured character over spectacle or gimmicks and human frailty and foibles: the kind of offbeat yarns which predominated in such cleverly thought out TV shows as Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, which followed in EC’s wake…

This almanac of The Unknown is, as always, stuffed with supplementary features beginning with ‘Graceful, Glamorous, and Easy on the Eye’: an informative, picture-packed history and critical appreciation by lecturer Bill Mason, after which the succession of scary, funny Tomorrow Stories opens with ‘Only Human!’

Kamen actually began working for EC before their New Trend days, brought in by old friend Al Feldstein (who scripted most of the stories here after barnstorming plot-sessions with affirmed SF fan and closet scientist Gaines) and this yarn from Weird Science #11, January/February 1952, perfectly shows the artist’s facility for capturing feminine allure (which served him well in his earlier romance comics days).

The tale is smart too as a group of readers is hired to educate the first ever electronic brain, but are unable to keep their feelings from contaminating the project…

‘Shrinking from Abuse!’ (Weird Fantasy #11, also January/February 1952) is more recognisably EC “just desserts” fare, as an abusive chemist’s size-changing solution leads to his beleaguered wife getting the final word in, whilst ‘The Last Man!’ from W S #12 (March/April 1952) plays morality games after a male survivor of atomic Armageddon finally locates a new Eve and finds she is the only woman he can’t possibly repopulate the world with…

Weird Fantasy #12, (March/April 1) revealed ‘A Lesson in Anatomy’ as a little lad’s ghoulish curiosity inadvertently ended an alien infiltration attempt, after which ‘Saving for the Future’ (Weird Science #13, May/June) offered a stunning lesson in Compound Interest when a poor couple opened a bank account and went into induced hibernation for 500 years, whilst ‘The Trip!’ (W F#13, May/June) looked at a different aspect of the topic as a philandering scientist attempted to use quick freeze tech to run off with his pretty assistant, but forgot something really important…

‘Close Call!’ (W F #14, July/August) took a rather cruel look at a female scientist who wished that her male colleagues would stop hitting on her and wasn’t too happy at the hand fate then dealt her, before Weird Science #15 (September/October 1952) took a knowing glimpse at everyman’s dream when a nerd accidentally acquired the time-lost means to make perfect, willing women – and still got everything wrong due to ‘Miscalculation!’

Feldstein worked on every genre in EC’s stable, but the short, ironic, iconic science thrillers he produced during that paranoid period of Commies and H-Bombs, Flying Saucer Scares and Red Menaces, irrevocably transformed the genre from cowboys in tinfoil suits and Ray-gun adventure into a medium where shock and doom lurked everywhere.

His cynically trenchant outlook and darkly comedic satirical stories made the cosmos a truly dangerous, unforgiving place and kept it such – until the Comics Code Authority and television pacified and diminished the Wild Black Yonder for all future generations. He did however maintain a strong working relationship with Space-babes and ethereally beautiful E.T.s – and nobody drew them better than Kamen…

 ‘He Who Waits!’(Weird Fantasy #15, September/October 1952) revealed one of their best collaborations as an old botanist discovered a luscious, seductive maiden only eight inches tall, living in one of his plants. The bittersweet tale showed that love could overcome any obstacle…

Greed is another unfailing plot driver in EC stories and in ‘Given the Heir!’ (W S #16, November/December) a poor new husband recruits his own descendent in a crazy plan to change the past and inherit millions. Unfortunately he didn’t pay as much attention to family history as he should have…

‘What He Saw!’ in W F #16, (November/December) is an unrelenting tale of induced madness inflicted upon a lost space explorer whilst 1953 began in fine style with another science lesson as ‘Off Day!’ (Weird Science #17, January/February) outrageously depicted the potential results of the law of averages taking a day off before ‘The Parallel!’ (W S #18, March/April 1953) explored the concept of alternate earths as a smart but poor genius attempted to improve his life by murdering his other selves…

Weird Fantasy #18 (March/April) featured the eponymous ‘Zero Hour’ – adapted from a Ray Bradbury short story – and dealt with the subtlest of Martian invasions as imaginary friends used human children to pave their way, after which the Gaines/Feldstein brain trust described the grim fate of a chancer who used intercepted future gadgetry to turn his automobile into a getaway vehicle nobody could catch… or find… in ‘Hot-Rod!’ (Weird Fantasy #19, May/June 1953).

Cold, emotionless invaders infiltrated human society only to be doomed by seductive feelings in ‘…Conquers All!’ (W F #20, July/August) after which the Bradbury prose piece “Changeling” became ‘Surprise Package’ in Weird Science #20 (also July/August 1953) detailing the complex web of savage emotions engendered when Love Mannequins become commonplace…

Bradbury’s sequel ‘Punishment Without Crime’ (W S #21, September/October) took the theme further by considering if killing such automata might be murder, before ‘Planely Possible’ (W F #21, September/October) returns to the concept of parallel Earths for a car crash survivor who would do anything to be reunited with his dead wife – or nearest approximation – after which cruel and unscrupulous carnival owners learn what its like to be ‘The Freaks’ (Weird Fantasy #22, November/December 1953)…

Cold war paranoia and repression inform the 1984-like world of ‘4th Degree’ (Weird Science-Fantasy #27, January/February 1955) as a closet rebel attempts to unmake his totalitarian world through time travel, and this glossy, dark trip through vintage tomorrows ends with ‘Round Trip’ from Weird Science-Fantasy #27 (March/April 1955) with a touching and contemplative reverie of a life lived long if not well…

Regarded as one of the company’s fastest artists (only the phenomenal Jack Davis turned in his pages at a greater rate) Kamen always produced illustrative narrative which jangled nerves and twanged heartstrings: his lush forms and lavish inks instantly engaging and always concealing brilliant touches of sly, knowing humour. He was often overshadowed by EC’s other stalwarts but he was every bit their equal.

The timeless comics tales are followed by more background revelations in S.C. Ringgenberg’s ‘Jack Kamen’ and a special essay on the artist’s later life in ‘From Science Fiction to Science Fortune’ drawing intriguing parallels between his EC cartoons and the design assistance he later contributed to his inventor son Dean’s landmark creations – the portable Drug Infusion pump, portable Kidney Dialysis machine and Segway PT (yeah, that Dean Kamen) – before ending on another comprehensively illuminating ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ from Tom Spurgeon, Janice Lee and Arthur Lortie.

The short, sweet but severely limited output of EC has been reprinted ad infinitum in the decades since the company died. These astounding, ahead-of-their-time-comics tales did not just revolutionise our industry but also impacted the whole world through film and television and via the millions of dedicated devotees still addicted to New Trend tales.

Zero Hour is the 8th Fantagraphics compendium highlighting the contributions of individual creators, adding a new dimension to aficionados’ enjoyment whilst providing a sound introduction for those lucky souls encountering the material for the very first time.

Whether an aged EC Fan-Addict or the merest neophyte convert, this is a book no comics lover or crime-caper victim should miss…
Zero Hour 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.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 6: “Me Li’l Swee’Pea”


By Elzie Crisler Segar, with Doc Winner (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-483-2

Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester, Illinois on 8th December 1894. His father was a handyman, and the boy’s early life was filled with the kinds of solid, dependable blue-collar jobs that typified his generation of cartoonists. He worked as a decorator and house-painter and also played drums; accompanying vaudeville acts at the local theatre.

When the town got a movie-house he played for the silent films, absorbing all the staging, timing and narrative tricks from keen observation of the screen. Those lessons would become his greatest assets as a cartoonist. It was while working as the film projectionist, aged 18, that he decided to become a cartoonist and tell his own stories.

Like so many others he studied art via mail, in this case W.L. Evans’ cartooning correspondence course out of Cleveland, Ohio, before gravitating to Chicago where he was “discovered” by Richard F. Outcault – regarded by most as the inventor of newspaper comic strips with The Yellow Kid and, later, Buster Brown.

The celebrated cartoonist introduced him around at the prestigious Chicago Herald. Still wet behind the ears, Segar’s first strip, Charley Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, debuted on 12th March 1916. In 1918 he married Myrtle Johnson and moved to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American to create Looping the Loop, but Managing Editor William Curley saw a big future for Segar and packed the newlyweds off to New York, HQ of the mighty King Features Syndicate.

Within a year Segar was producing Thimble Theatre, which launched December 19th 1919 in the New York Journal. It was a pastiche of movie-inspired features like Hairbreadth Harry and Midget Movies, with a repertory cast to act out comedies, melodramas, comedies, crime-stories, chases and especially comedies for vast daily audiences. The core cast included parental pillars Nana and Cole Oyl, their lanky highly-strung daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor and Olive’s plain and simple occasional boyfriend Horace Hamgravy (later known as just Ham Gravy).

In 1924 Segar created a second daily strip The 5:15: a surreal domestic comedy featuring weedy commuter and would-be inventor John Sappo and his formidable wife Myrtle (surely, no relation?) which endured – in one form or another – as a topper/footer-feature accompanying the main Sunday page throughout the author’s career, even surviving his untimely death, eventually becoming the trainee-playground of Popeye’s second great stylist Bud Sagendorf.

A born storyteller, Segar had from the start an advantage even his beloved cinema couldn’t match: a brilliant ear for dialogue and accent which boomed out from his admittedly average adventure plots, adding lustre and sheer sparkle to stories and gags he always felt he hadn’t drawn well enough. After a decade or so – and just as cinema caught up with the invention of “talkies” – he finally discovered a character whose unique sound and individual vocalisations blended with a fantastic, enthralling nature to create a literal superstar.

Popeye the sailor, brusque, incoherent, plug-ugly and stingingly sarcastic, lurched on stage midway through the protracted continuity ‘Dice Island’, (on January 17th 1929: see E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam!”) and, once his part was played out, simply refused to leave.

Within a year he was a regular and, as the strip’s circulation skyrocketed, he gradually took his place as the star. The strip title was changed to reflect the fact and most of the tired old gang – except Olive – consigned to oblivion …

The Old Salt clearly inspired his creator. The near decade of thrilling mystery-comedies he crafted and the madcap and/or macabre new characters with which he furiously littered the strips revolutionised the industry, laid the groundwork for the entire superhero genre (sadly, usually without the leavening underpinnings of his wryly self-aware humour) and utterly captivated the whole wide world.

These superb oversized (375 x 268 mm) hardback collections are the ideal way of discovering or rediscovering Segar’s magical tales, and this sixth and final mammoth compendium augments the fun with another an insightful introductory essay from Richard Marschall exploring ‘The Continuity Style of E. C. Segar: Between “Meanwhile” & “To Be Continued” and closes with an absorbing end-piece essay describing the globalisation of the character in ‘Licensing and Merchandising Move to Center Stage of the Thimble Theatre: Popeye Fisks his way into American Culture plus a 1930 magazine feature graphically revealing the Sailor Man’s natal origins and boyhood in ‘Blow Me Down! Popeye Born at Age of 2, But Orphink from Start’ scripted by unknown King Features writers but gloriously and copiously illustrated by Segar himself.

As always the black-&-white Daily continuities are presented separately to the full-colour Sunday’s, and the monochrome mirth and mayhem – covering December 14th 1936 to August 29th 1938 12th – begins with an all new adventure ‘Mystery Melody’ wherein Popeye’s disreputable dad Poopdeck Pappy is haunted and hunted by the sinister Sea Hag whose ghastly Magic Flute is employed to lure the old goat back into the clutches of the woman he loved and abandoned years ago…

The tension and drama grows in the second chapter ‘Tea and Hamburgers’ when the Hag approaches another old flame – J. Wellington Wimpy – and uses the reprobate’s insatiable lust (for food) to help capture Poopdeck. The plan works, but not quite as the sinister sorceress intended…

In ‘Bolo vs Everyone!’ events escalate completely beyond control as the Hag’s primordial man-monster attacks and the grizzled mariner ends the fight in his own inimitable manner, whilst mystic marvel Eugene the Jeep (a fantastic 4th dimensional beast with incredible powers) uses his gifts to temporarily settle the Sea Hag’s hash…

A decided change of pace began with the next storyline. ‘A Sock for Susan’s Sake’ showcases Popeye’s big heart and sentimental nature as he takes a destitute and starving waif under his wing: buying her clothes, breaking her out of jail and going on the run with her.

His kind-hearted deeds arouse deep suspicions about his motives from friends and strangers alike…

It’s a tribute to Segar’s skills that the storyline perfectly balances social commentary and pathos with plenty of action (that sock in question is not footwear) and non-stop slapstick comedy. Their peregrinations again land Susan and the Old Salt in jail – for vagrancy – but the wonderfully sympathetic and easily amused Judge Penny really makes the prosecution work hilariously hard for a conviction in ‘Order in the Court!’

Naturally, jealous Olive gets completely the wrong idea and uses the Jeep to track down her straying beau in ‘Who is That Girl?’ leading to the discovery of the ingénue’s origins and the restoration of her stolen fortune – a case calling for the return of ace detective and former strip star Castor Oyl…

The grateful child and her father burden Popeye with a huge reward but as he has his own adequate savings at home he gives it all – with some unexpected difficulty – away to “Widdies and Orphinks”…

In the next sequence the Sailor Man has reason to regret that generosity as, on returning to his house, he finds his hard-earned “Ten Thousing dollars” savings have been stolen…

Most annoyingly he knows Poopdeck has taken it but the old goat won’t admit it, even though he has a new diamond engagement ring which he uses to bribe various loose young (and not so young) women into going out gallivanting with him and sowing ‘Wild Oats’

When Popeye first appeared he was a rough, rude, crude and shocking anti-hero. The first Superman of comics was not a comfortable paragon to idolise but a barely human brute who thought with his fists and didn’t respect authority. Uneducated, opinionated, short-tempered, fickle (whenever hot tomatoes batted their eyelashes – or thereabouts – at him), a gambler and troublemaker, he wasn’t welcome in polite society…and he wouldn’t want to be.

He was soon exposed as the ultimate working class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, but with an innate and unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not, a joker who wanted kids to be themselves – but not necessarily “good” – and somebody who took no guff from anyone.

As his popularity grew he somewhat mellowed. He was always ready to defend the weak and had absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows. He was and will always be “the best of us”… but the shocking sense of unpredictability, danger and comedic anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed. So in 1936 Segar brought it all back again in the form of Popeye’s 99-year old unrepentantly reprobate dad…

The elder mariner was a rough, hard-bitten, grumpy brute quite prepared and even happy to cheat, steal or smack a woman around if she stepped out of line, and once the old Billy goat (whose shady past possibly concealed an occasional bit of piracy) was firmly established, Segar set Popeye and Olive the Herculean and unfailingly funny task of civilising the old sod…

They returned to their odious chore here as Pappy’s wild carousing, fighting and womanising grow ever more embarrassing and lead to the cops trying – and repeatedly failing – to jail the senior seaman.

Poopdeck finally goes too far and pushes one of his fancy woman fiancées into the river. At last brought to trial, he pleads ‘Extenuvatin’ Circumsnances’

The final full saga began on 15th November 1937 as ‘The Valley of the Goons (An Adventure)’ saw Popeye and Wimpy drugged and shanghaied. Even though he could fight his way back home, Popeye agrees to stay on for the voyage since he needs money to pay lawyers appealing Pappy’s prison sentence. He quickly changes tack, however, when he discovers the valuable cargo they’re hunting is Goon skins! The Cap’n and his scurvy crew are planning to slaughter the hapless hulking exotic primitives for a few measly dollars…

After brutally driving off the murderous thugs, Popeye – and the shirking Wimpy – are marooned on the Goons’ isolated island…

The barbaric land holds a few surprises: most notably the fact that the natives are ruled over by Popeye’s dour old pal King Blozo (formerly of Nazilia) who, with his idiot retainer Oscar, is calling all the shots. It’s a happy coincidence as Wimpy’s eternal hunger and relentless mooching have won him a death sentence and he’s in imminent danger of being hanged…

All this time Olive, guided by the mystical tracking gifts of the Jeep, has been sailing the seven seas in search of her man and she beaches her boat just as Popeye begins to get the situation under control. In doing so he unfairly earns the chagrin of the island’s unseen but highly voluble sea monster George

Shock follows shock as the eerie voiced unseen creature is revealed as the horrendous Sea Hag who re-exerts her uncanny hold (some illusions but mostly the promise of unlimited hamburgers) upon Wimpy and tries to make him the ‘Bride of George’

In the middle of this tale Segar fell seriously ill with Leukaemia and his assistant Doc Winner assumed responsibility for completing the story: probably from Segar’s notes if not at his actual direction.

Although Winner’s illustrations carry ‘Valley of the Goons’ to conclusion, this tome excludes the all-Winner adventure ‘Hamburger Sharks and Sea Spinach’ before resuming with the May 23rd instalment by the apparently recovered Segar.

‘King Swee’Pea’ saw the feisty baby – who had been left with Popeye – become the focus of political drama and family tension when he was revealed to be heir to the Kingdom of Demonia

After a protracted tussle with that nation’s secret service and bombastic kingmaker F.G. Frogfuzz Esquire, the Sailor Man has himself appointed regent and chief advisor and, taking most of the cast with him, relocates to the harsh land where only Ka-babages grow.

Popeye soon finds that his mischievous little charge has started to speak: increasingly crossing and contradicting his gruff guardian and others, much to the annoyance of blustering bully King Cabooso of neighbouring (rival) nation Cuspidonia

Before long another unique crisis manifests in ‘Rise of the De-Mings’ as smug and sassy subterranean critters begin devastating the Ka-babage crop even as Swee’Pea and Caboosa escalate their war of insults…

Sadly, although coming back strongly, within three months Segar had relapsed. The adventures end here with his last strip and a précis of Winner’s eventual conclusion…

Segar passed away six weeks after his final Daily strip was published.

The full-colour Sunday pages in this volume run from 20th September 1936 to October 2nd 1938, a combination of Star turn and intriguing footers.

After an interlude with a new wry and charming feature – Pete and Patsy: For Kids Only – the artist settled once again upon an old favourite to back up Popeye.

The bizarrely entertaining Sappo (and the scene-and show-stealing Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle) supplemental strip returned in a blaze of imaginative wonder, as Segar also benched the cartooning tricks section which allowed him to play graphic games with his readership and again pushed the boundaries of Weird Science as the Odd Couple – and long-suffering spouse Myrtle - spent months exploring other worlds.

The assorted Saps also dabbled with robot dogs, brain-switching machines and fell embarrassingly foul of such inventions as long-distance spy-rays, anti-gravity devices, limb extending “Stretcholene”, “Speak-no-Evil” pills, Atom-Counters and the deeply disturbing trouble magnet dubbed “Dream Solidifier” whilst Sappo’s less scientific but far more profitable gimmicks kept the cash rolling in and the arrogant Professor steaming with outrage…

Above these arcane antics Sunday’s star attraction remained fixedly exploring the comedy gold of Popeye’s interactions with Wimpy, Olive Oyl and the rest of Segar’s cast of thousands (of idiots).

The humorous antics – in sequences of one-off gag strips alternating with the occasional extended saga – saw the Sailor-Man fighting for every iota of attention whilst his mournful mooching co-star became increasingly more ingenious – not to say surreal – in his quest for free meals…

An engaging Micawber-like coward, cad and conman, the insatiable J. Wellington Wimpy debuted on May 3rd 1931 as an unnamed and decidedly partisan referee in one of Popeye’s frequent boxing matches. The scurrilous but polite oaf obviously struck a chord and Segar gradually made him a fixture. Always hungry, keen to take bribes and a cunning coiner of many immortal catchphrases – such as “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” and ‘Let’s you and him fight’ - he was the perfect foil for a simple action hero and increasingly stole the entire show just like anything else unless it was nailed down…

There was also a long-suffering returning rival for Olive’s dubious and flighty affections: local charmer Curly

When not beating the stuffing out of his opponents or kissing pretty girls, Popeye pursued his flighty, vacillating and irresolute Olive with exceptional verve, if little success, but his life was always made more complicated whenever the unflappable, so-corruptible and adorably contemptible Wimpy made an appearance.

Infinitely varying riffs on Olive’s peculiar romantic notions or Wimpy’s attempts to cadge food or money (for food) were irresistible to the adoring readership, but Segar wisely peppered the Sundays with longer episodic tales, such as the saga of ‘The Terrible Kid Mustard’ (which ran from December 27th 1936 to February 28th 1937) and pitted the prize-fighting Sea Salt against another boxer who was as ferociously fuelled by the incredible nourishing power of Spinach…

Another extended endeavour starred the smallest addition to the cast (and eponymous star of this volume). The rambunctious tyke Swee’Pea was never an angel and when he began stealing jam and framing Eugene the Jeep (March 7th through 28th) the search for a culprit proved he was also precociously smart too.

The impossible task of civilising Poopdeck Pappy also covered many months – with no appreciable or lasting effect – and incorporated an outrageous sequence wherein the dastardly dotard become scandalously, catastrophically entangled in Popeye’s mechanical diaper-changing machine…

On June 27th Wimpy found the closest thing to true love when he met Olive’s friend Waneeta: a meek, retiring soul whose father owned 50,000 cows. His devoted pursuit filled many pages over the following months, as did the latest scheme of his arch-nemesis George W. Geezil, who bought a café/diner with the sole intention of poisoning the constantly cadging conman…

Although starring the same characters the Sunday and Daily strips ran separate storylines, offering Segar opportunities to utilise the same good idea in different ways.

On September 19th 1937 he began a sequence wherein Swee’Pea’s mother returned, seeking to regain custody of the boy she gave away. The resultant tug-of-love tale ran until December 5th and displayed genuine warmth and angst amidst the wealth of hilarious antics by both parties to convince the feisty “infink” to pick his favourite parent…

On January 16th 1938 Popeye was approached by scientists who had stumbled upon an incipient Martian invasion. The invaders planned to pit their monster against a typical Earthman before committing to the assault and the Boffins believed that the grizzly old pug was the planet’s best bet…

Readers didn’t realise that the feature’s glory days were ending. Segar’s advancing illness was affecting his output – there are no pages reproduced here between February 6th and June 26th – and although when he resumed the gags were funnier than ever (especially a short sequence where Pappy shaves his beard and dyes his hair so he could impersonate Popeye and woo Olive) the long lead-in time necessary to create Sundays only left him time to finish more 15 pages.

The last Segar signed strip was published on October 2nd 1938. He died eleven days later.

There is more than one Popeye. If your first thought on hearing the name is an unintelligible, indomitable white-clad sailor always fighting a great big beardy-bloke and mainlining tinned spinach, that’s okay: the animated features have a brilliance and energy of their own (even the later, watered-down anodyne TV versions have some merit) and they are indeed based on the grizzled, crusty, foul-mouthed, bulletproof, golden-hearted old swab who shambled his way into Thimble Theatre and wouldn’t leave. But they are really only the tip of an incredible iceberg of satire, slapstick, virtue, vice and mind-boggling adventure…

Popeye and the bizarre, surreally quotidian cast that welcomed and grew up around him are true icons of international popular culture who have grown far beyond their newspaper strip origins. Nevertheless, in one very true sense, with this marvellous yet painfully tragic final volume, the most creative period in the saga of the true and only Sailor Man closes.

His last strips were often augmented or even fully ghosted by Doc Winner, but the intent is generally untrammelled, leaving an unparalleled testament to Segar’s incontestable timeless, manic brilliance for us all to enjoy over and over again.

There is more than one Popeye. Most of them are pretty good and some are truly excellent. However there was only ever one by Elzie Segar – and don’t you think it’s time you sampled the original and very best?
© 2012 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2011 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 8: 1951-1952


By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-699-7

The stellar Sunday page Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur debuted on 13th February 1937, a luscious and luminous full-colour weekly window into a miraculous too-perfect past of adventure and romance, even topping creator Hal Foster’s previous impossibly popular comics masterpiece Tarzan.

The saga of noble knights played against a glamorised, dramatised Dark Ages historical backdrop as it followed the life of a refugee boy driven from his ancestral homeland in Scandinavian Thule who grew up to roam the world and attain a paramount position amongst the heroes of fabled Camelot.

Writer/artist Foster wove the epic tale over decades, as the near-feral wild boy matured into a paragon of chivalric virtue: knight, warrior, saviour, vengeance-taker and eventually family patriarch in a constant deluge of wild – and joyously witty – wonderment.

The restless hero visited many far-flung lands, siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes and utterly enchanting generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts.

There have been films, animated series and all manner of toys, games and collections based on Prince Valiant – one of the few adventures strips to have lasted from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (over 4000 episodes and counting) – and even here in the end times of the newspaper narrative cartoons, it continues to astound in more than 300 American papers. It’s even cutting its way onto the internet with an online edition.

Foster tirelessly crafted the feature until 1971 when illustrator John Cullen Murphy (Big Ben Bolt) succeeded him as illustrator. Foster continued as writer and designer until 1980, after which he retired and Cullen Murphy’s daughter Mairead took over colouring and lettering whilst her brother John assumed the writer’s role.

In 2004 the senior Cullen Murphy also retired, since when the strip has soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of artists Gary Gianni and latterly Thomas Yeates with Mark Schultz (Xenozoic) scripting.

Before the astonishing illumination of dauntless derring-do recommences, Editor Brian M. Kane discusses, in amazing detail, the incredible tales of the creator’s pre-and-early comics days as an advertising artist and the impact of his “Mountie” paintings on early 20th century American ads in the fascinating Foreword essay ‘An Artist Nowhere Near Ordinary: Hal Foster’s Lord Greystoke of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’.

This volume of sublime strips is also balanced by another erudite Kane piece at the back: describing the now forgotten entertainments phenomenon of the Silver Lady Awards bestowed annually by the fabled, prestigious but now forgotten “Banshees”.

‘Hal Foster and the Other Woman’ reveals the story behind the story of King Features’ “Shadow Cabinet” and how Foster won his Silver Lady in1952 as well as noting many of his other testimonials such as the Rueben, the Swedish Academy’s Adamson Award and his election to our own Royal Society (for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce): an honour he shared with the likes of Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin and Stephen Hawking…

This 8th enormously entertaining and luxurious oversized (362 x 264mm) full-colour hardback volume reprints the pages from January 7th 1951 to 28th December 1952 (pages #726 to 829, if you’re counting) but before we proceed…

What has Gone Before: after the double christening in Camelot of his and Prince Arn of Ord’s sons, Valiant was soon back in the saddle as an Arthurian troubleshooter, cleaning out a extortion-minded sorcerer’s den in Wales and picking up new squire Geoffrey – known affectionately as Arf – before heading North to Hadrian’s Wall and a brutally punishing and protracted siege by invading Picts.

It was nearly Val’s last battle…

When Aleta joined her dying husband he miraculously recovered. His forthright wife elected to take him back to his Scandinavian homeland so she dispatched Geoffrey to Camelot with orders for her handmaiden Katwin and nurse Tillicum to obtain a ship and meet her with baby Arn at the village of Newcastle…

Soon the group were bound for Thule, bolstered by the bombastic return of boisterous far-larger-than-life Viking Boltar: a Falstaff-like “honest pirate” who ferried the re-united extended family to Valiant’s harsh, cold homeland. Along the way Boltar found himself bitten by the love bug …

A chance meeting with an old cleric also disclosed the truth about Arf: the faithful squire had been forced from his home when his sire Sir Hugo Geoffrey took a new young bride. She didn’t want an annoying stepson underfoot but now she was gone and the boy could return home… if he wanted to…

Eventually the party reached the chilly castle of King Aguar and settled in for a winter of snowy rest and recuperation – although the temperatures could not cool Arf’s hot temper and propensity for finding trouble…

Aguar, meanwhile, had been seriously considering converting his rowdy Norse realm to the peaceful tenets of Christianity, but all the missionaries roaming his lands were cantankerous idiots preaching their own particular brand of faith – when not actively fighting each other.

Therefore when spring arrived he tasked his fully recovered son with a mission to Rome, beseeching the Pope to send proper priests and real teachers of the officially sanctioned religion to spread the Word of God.

No sooner had Val, Arf, doughty Rufus Regan and new comrade Jarl Egil set off, however, than vassal king Hap-Atla – seething from an old slight delivered to his deceased sire – rebelled, besieging Aguar’s castle. With manpower dangerously depleted the situation looked grim until wily Aleta took control, scoring a stunning triumph which shockingly contravened all the rules of manly warfare.

Valiant and his companions meanwhile had landed in Rouen and trekked onwards to the HolyCity, encountering thieves, murderers and worse as Europe, deprived of the Pax Romana, had descended into barbarism: reduced to a seething mass of lawless principalities ruled by greedily ambitious proto-emperors…

In one unhappy demesne the quartet dethroned a robber-baron but almost ended up wed to his unsavoury daughters, whilst in another Val encountered an alchemist-king who had accidentally invented an explosive black powder…

Exhausted, they eventually were welcomed at the castle of benevolent noble Ruy Foulke – but their good night’s sleep was spoiled when their host was attacked by villainous overlord Black Robert and his savagely competent forces…

This chronicle’s action commences as the visitors stoutly and resolutely defend their host against overwhelming force, with all combatants blithely unaware that Foulke’s daughter and Black Robert’s son are lovers. The youngsters almost sacrifice their lives to end the hostilities, and Valiant brokers an alliance which ends the bloodshed but has to leave quickly as his actions have deprived the invaders of much promised booty…

On the road again they missionaries encounter roving bands of barbarian reivers and take refuge in a monastery at the foot of the French Alps. The clerics offer to guide the quartet over the mountains to Italy, but are woefully short of the protective garments made from the cold-resistant Chamois, so Valiant goes off hunting the elusive antelope.

Trouble is never far from the Prince of Thule and his frozen safari brings him into conflict with another band of invading Huns or Tartars, which only ends when the capable northerner destroys them with an avalanche.

Properly kitted out, Arf, Egil, Rufus and Val are then taken over the horrific high passes, enduring ghastly arctic conditions before they reach the other side. Young Arf suffers most, and Val has to leave his crippled squire – whose feet have frozen – at a hospice in Torino whilst the remainder of his battered party carry on to Rome.

The EternalCity has become a cess-pit of iniquity since it was sacked by the barbarians and the Missionaries are given a constant run-around by greedy and duplicitous officials until Val discovers that the Pope has removed himself from the city and established a new home in Ravenna.

Although Valiant is still denied a meeting, the Pontiff appoints a committee which agrees to send true Christian teachers to icy Thule, but before details can be finalised the Prince is called back to Torino where Arf has taken a turn for the worse…

The Squire has lost the will to live, along with his left foot, and with all his chivalric ambitions destroyed is beyond consoling. In a powerful and moving sequence Valiant patiently brings the boy back from a fatal depression and sets him upon a new path: scholar and official historian of the kings of Thule.

Since the boy cannot handle the arduous trek back to Scandinavia, Valiant sends Egil and Rufus on ahead with the Pope’s team of missionaries and teachers by the most direct route whilst he accompanies Arf in a more leisurely and roundabout journey by ship.

En route the fierce man of war helps found the Christian Mission at San Marino before he and the still emotionally fragile lad board a Genoese trader. After crossing the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar), fresh passengers join them and the boy is utterly smitten by the demure charms of the beauteous Adele, daughter of wealthy Eastern lord Sieur Du Luc

Luckily, Valiant has been schooling his former squire in the courtly skills of music and poetry…

The boy’s timorous wooing of the Mediterranean charmer pays off in a multitude of ways. His strength and confidence returns, Adele favours and returns his attentions and the amused and charmed sailors, delighted to have the burdensome (and occasionally pirate-plagued) journey eased somewhat, carve Arf a marvellous wooden leg which is so well-fashioned that he can throw away his crutches and walk as a man should…

When the vessel reaches England the boy takes time to reconcile with his father and introduce Adele so that the tricky and torturous process of making a marriage match may begin, whilst Valiant’s return to Camelot and joyous reunion with best friend Sir Gawain propels the two old comrades and devoted merry pranksters into an orgy of practical jokes and good-natured duels with their fellow knights…

Sadly the riotous times end too soon, as word comes from Aguar that Val should return to Thule with the utmost speed. Arranging for Arf to meet them en route, Valiant accepts Gawain’s offer to take ship from his own island kingdom of Orkney, but although his brother-in-arms is a fine fellow, the knight’s family are another matter.

Gawain’s mother Morgause is reputed a witch, whilst her other sons Agravaine, Gaheris and vile Mordred are little better than brutes and outright villains. Moreover the men of Orkney have little love for Scandinavians, being regular recipients of savage raids from assorted Northmen…

After Gawain scotches their plan to hold Valiant for ransom, the Prince proposes ending years on enmity with a trade agreement which will make the ancient nations allies and at last sets off for Thule to receive some shocking news: during the year he has been away Aleta has given birth to twin daughters.

Although the proud father is astounded and delighted, his firstborn son is not taking the loss of star-status well – as described in a charming sequence of comedic adventures starring Prince Valiant Arn in the Days of King Arthur

Another crisis soon occurs however as Boltar, ignorant of Aguar’s new treaty, accidentally pirates the Orkney ship transporting Adele to Thule and suffers the wrath of his king and former comrades.

Imprisoned in Aguar’s castle, the confused and indignant Boltar is secretly released by Tillicum, but the old rogue, misinterpreting her gesture of love, does her the honour of kidnapping her – just as all his romantic forebears have – and is baffled when she escapes and pulls a knife on him…

Fed up and utterly desolate, Boltar and his crew continue to their base in the Shetlands, leaving Aleta to mend fences with the King and discuss with the disconsolate nanny how best Tillicum can get her man…

Boltar meanwhile has been thoroughly tested: Thule’s ancient rivals the Danes have amassed a fleet to attack Aguar and offer his now-disgraced “Good Right Hand” a share of the spoils and glory to join his ships to their armada…

Despite being vexed and tempted, the old pirate instead risks his life to warn Aguar of the sneak attack and after a spectacular campaign of seaborne slaughter accepts his long-delayed punishment. To keep him in line, Aguar makes Tillicum responsible for his continued good behaviour…

Idyllic weeks pass until Valiant, bored with inaction, drags his new biographer Arf into a patrol of the nation’s border, only to have them both washed away in a flash flood and forced to spend weeks fighting their way back to civilisation from the primitive northern wilderness.

There are gentler moments in the restless warrior’s life, such as the foolish wager he makes soon after his triumphant return that he can catch and train a hawk better than Aleta’s Merlin and his father’s Golden Eagle, but the days are mostly quiet in Thule… until at long last Rufus and Egil arrive with the Pope’s Christian missionaries.

Both have converted on the trip and Valiant and Aleta are overjoyed that their daughters Valeta and Karen can be baptised, but the task of taking the gospels to the devoutly warlike worshippers of Thor and Odin will be far from simple…

As the European set to, lecturing and building churches, Val and Rufus become involved in a cross-border water dispute and the Prince, in a rare moment of diplomacy, furnishes a solution that prevents rather than ends bloodshed.

No such opportunity arises when he is ambushed as he returns to Aguar. The arrow that nearly ends his life is fired in error, by a serf who mistakes the prince for the local under-chief, Sigurd Holem.

Once a noble and trusted deputy of Aguar, the Fief-holder has become a cruel tyrant: enslaving his own countrymen and defying any – including his Lord’s heir – to stop him.

Determined to avenge the cruelties of Sigurd, Valiant infiltrates the monster’s impenetrable citadel and, through cunning engineering tricks, brings the entire daunting edifice crashing into ruins…

The next few strips use the device of Arf’s growing biography to lavishly recapitulate many of Valiant’s greatest exploits, such as the overthrow of Sligon and restoration of Aguar to Thule or the haunting fate of doomed mountain outpost Andelkrag, before the tone switches again and little Arn is forced to face the stomach-churning consequences of being a “mighty hunter” when nanny Tillicum makes him confront the results of his firing arrows at animals…

The boy and his guardian take centre-stage in the next sequence too when Boltar returns home from another bloody and profitable voyage and jealous rivals at court attempt to humiliate the rowdy blowhard.

The plan is cruel and simple. When Tillicum rejoins her man at his home Vikingsholm she brings the wide-eyed Arn with her, where during a moment of quiet converse with Boltar the hunting-mad lad slips from her careful scrutiny and is abducted.

The kidnappers however have not reckoned on the Native American’s determination or tracking skills. After stalking them all alone for days, she rescues the boy just as the furious following Boltar catches up to her, and the conspirators have mere moments to regret their vile actions…

And when Valiant hears of the plot, he and Boltar then deal with the rest of the plotters in similar manner…

This volume’s stunning saga temporarily end with the opening movements of another epic extended story arc as the progress of the Christian missionaries leads Valiant – still far from a believer in the One God – to be targeted by Druids and Pagan warriors determined to crush the threat to their bombastic pantheon before it can take hold…

To Be Continued…

Rendered in a simply stunning panorama of glowing visual passion and precision, Prince Valiant is a non-stop rollercoaster of boisterous action, exotic adventure and grand romance; blending human-scaled fantasy with dry wit and broad humour, soap opera melodrama with shatteringly dark violence.

Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring, the strip is a landmark of comics fiction and something no fan can afford to miss.
Prince Valiant and all comics material © 2014 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2014 their respective creators or holders. This edition © 2014 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.