Judgment Day and Other Stories


Illustrated by Joe Orlando, written by Al Feldstein & Jack Oleck with Ray Bradbury, Otto Binder & Bill Gaines (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-727-7

During an era of traditionally genre-inspired entertainments, EC Comics excelled in tales that both epitomised and revolutionised the hallowed, hoary themes such standard story categories utilised.

The company had started publishing 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 high-minded 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 failing when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

As detailed in the comprehensive closing feature 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, critic and fan Ted White) his son was rapidly dragged into the company by Business Manager and unsung hero Sol Cohen who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of being a chemistry teacher and quickly refashioned the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics…

After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments copying industry fashions, young Bill began to closely collaborate with 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 collaboratively 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 1955 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction and even creating 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 Editor of Mad magazine for the next three decades …

This ninth volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library gathers a mind-boggling selection of science fiction tales – mostly co-plotted by sci-fi fan and companion-in-crime (and Horror and Comedy and…) Gaines – all illuminated by the company’s most successful alumnus: a legendary, chameleonic artist, illustrator, editor and latterly discoverer of new talent who went on to impact the burgeoning comics industry over and over again.

The Amazing work of Joe Orlando (1927-1998) has been gathered here in a fabulous bible of iconic graphic futurism: a lavish monochrome hardcover edition packed with supplementary features and dissertations; beginning with historian and educator Bill Mason’s informative and laudatory essay ‘Orlando Ascendant’.

What follows is a spectacular beguiling, amazing and frequently wryly hilarious panoply of fantastic wonders, opening with an adaptation of one of Ray Bradbury’s most famous short stories taken from his Martian Chronicles cycle. Bradbury – a huge fan of comics – had, after a tricky start (involving an unsanctioned adaptation of one of his works), struck a deal with EC that saw a number of his horror, crime and science fantasy tales transformed into quite remarkable pieces of mature strip magic.

The eerily poignant and disturbing yarn ‘The Long Years!’ was adapted by Feldstein for Weird Science #17, (January/February 1953) and detailed how a relief ship to the Red Planet found an old man and his young family. …Or rather the perfect thinking facsimiles he had built after they had died decades previously. In that same month Weird Fantasy #17 featured an all-original Feldstein/Gaines yarn.

‘In the Beginning…’ was a delightfully convoluted time-paradox tale which took flight after Earth explorers landed on a mysterious tenth planet in the solar system, after which

‘Infiltration’ (Shock SupenStories #7, February/March 1953) highlighted Cold War paranoia and repression as a plucky young woman takes up her post in Washington DC and uncovers evidence of alien enemies entrenched in the corridors of power.

Wry irony underpinned the tale of a greedy TV repairman who stumbled upon a crashedUFO and sought to make his fortune by patenting some of the unique components in   ‘Dissassembled!’ (Weird Science #18, March/April 1953), whilst simultaneously, in Weird Fantasy #18, ‘Judgment Day!’ took a powerful poke at America’s institutionalised bigotry and racism with the allegorical tale of an Earthman visiting a colony of robots who had devised a uniquely oppressive form of apartheid.

The stunningly effective story was reprinted in Incredible Science Fiction #33 (January/February 1956) as Gaines & Feldstein’s last sally and parting shot against the repressive, ever-more censorious Comics Code Authority before shutting down EC’s comicbook division for good…

‘Keyed Up!’ from Weird Science #19, May/June 1953 detailed how a drunken spacer who had accidentally killed most of his fellows came a cropper after trying to bury the evidence, whilst that month in sister publication Weird Fantasy #19 ‘Time for a Change!’ saw explorers on Pluto lethally succumb to the tempo and dangers of local rotational conditioners before ‘The Meddlers!’ (Shock SupenStories #9, June/July 1953) revealed how small-town suspicion and hostility turned a scientist into a pariah, a corpse and eventually the doom of scenic Millville

Gaines and Feldstein were as much satirists, reformers and social commentators as entertainers and never missed an opportunity to turn a harsh spotlight on stupidity, cupidity, prejudice and injustice. They struck gold with ‘The Reformers’ (Weird Science #20, July/August 1953), which outrageously lampooned interfering star-roving blue-stocking do-gooders who discovered a planet they simply couldn’t find fault with… no matter how infernally hard they tried.

More importantly this also gave the phenomenally gifted humorist Orlando a rare opportunity to apply his subtler gifts of character nuance and comic timing.

Totalitarianism came under the hammer with ‘The Automaton’ (Weird Fantasy #20, July/August 1953) as a rebellious individual who refused to acknowledge that he was “property of the State” killed himself. Over and over and over and over again…

‘Home Run!’ (Shock SuspenStories #10 August/September 1953) saw a creature trapped on Earth go to extraordinary measures to return to Mars whilst Weird Science #21 (September/October 1953) played with the plot of the Ugly Duckling for the cruel fantasy ‘The Ugly One’.

An invisible, untouchable intruder wreaked havoc with a band of stellar prospectors in the chilling ‘My Home…’ (Weird Fantasy #21, September/October 1953), before Bradbury’s deeply moving family fable ‘Outcast of the Stars’ (Weird Science #22 November/December 1953) confirms Orlando’s artistic star quality with the subtly uplifting tale of a poor man who gives his children the most magnificent gift of all time…

In a genre where flash and dazzle were the norm, the illustrator’s deft ability to portray the subtler shades of being merely human regularly took the readers’ breath away…

Alien archaeologists reconstructed a shocking surprise when they reached Earth and reconstructed ‘The Fossil’ (Weird Fantasy #22 November/December 1953) and ‘Fair Trade’ (Weird Science Fantasy #23, Spring 1954) explored the ever-present prospect of atomic Armageddon before Feldstein adroitly adapted another pulp sci-fi author’s masterwork in ‘The Teacher from Mars’ (Weird Science Fantasy #23 June 1954).

Otto Binder had two writing careers. As Eando Binder he crafted superb short stories and classic space novels whilst as comicbook scripter using his given name he revolutionised superhero sagas as chief writer on Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, assorted icons of the Superman Family and a host of others.

Amongst the legion of publishers he worked for was EC Comics, but he had no part in the adaptation of his deeply moving tale of an alien educator facing intolerance from his human students. The magic comes purely from Feldstein’s sensitive adaptation and Orlando’s passionate drawing.

Weird Science Fantasy #25 (September 1954) offered a gem of existentialist philosophy in ‘Harvest’ wherein a robotic farmer questions his never-ending task… until he finally meets the things he’s been growing his crops for, after which Jack Oleck concocts a brace of clever yarns beginning with ‘Conditioned Reflex’ (Incredible Science Fiction #30 July/August 1955) which tells a brilliantly conceived shaggy-dog story about alien invasion and the perils of smoking before ‘Fallen Idol!’ (Incredible Science Fiction #32 November/December 1955) takes us to a post-atomic World of Tomorrow wherein a bold raid on a fallen metropolis promises to change the lives of the barbaric humans and their ambitious leader forever…

The last three stories in this titanic tome are adaptations of Binder’s astoundingly popular pulp sci-fi series starring “Human Robot” Adam Link: ten novellas written between 1939 and 1942.

As detailed in prose introductory briefing Adam Link: Behind the Scenes, the first three prose thrillers were adapted by Feldstein and Orlando at the end of the publisher’s struggle against comics censorship. Orlando returned to the feature a decade later when EC-influenced Creepy revived Adam Link, with Binder himself on the scripts. (Another graphic novel collection, another time, perhaps…?)

Here however the wonderment commences with ‘I, Robot’ (yep, Isaac Asimov didn’t coin the phrase, and was forced to use it on his own anthology of robot tales in 1950) from Weird Science Fantasy #27 (January/February 1955) which saw an erudite, sensitive mechanical man commit his origins to paper whilst waiting for a mob of outraged humans to come and destroy him…

The story continued in ‘The Trial of Adam Link’ in issue #28 (March/April) as crusading

lawyer Thomas Link struggles to clear the robot of a murder charge and win for him the right to be called human before the sequence concludes with ‘Adam Link in Business’ (Weird Science Fantasy #29 May/June 1955) as the enfranchised automaton struggles to find his place in society and is struck low by the emotion of love…

Throughout this collection, encompassing monstrous pride, overweening prejudice, terrifying power and fallen glories, Joe Orlando’s sly and subversive artistry always captured the frailties and nobility of Man and the crazy, deadly and ironically cruel, funny nature of the universe that awaited him. These stories are wonderful, subtle and entrancing and, adding final weight to the proceedings, is S.C. Ringgenberg’s biography of artistic renaissance man ‘Joe Orlando’, the aforementioned history of EC and a comprehensively illuminating ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ feature by Arthur Lortie, Tom 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.

Judgment Day is a mind-bending, eye-popping paean of praise to the sheer ability of a master of the comic art and offers a fabulously engaging introduction for every lucky stargazer 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…

Judgment Day 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.

Barnaby volume 2


By Crockett Johnson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-709-3

This is one of those rare books worthy of two reviews. So, if you’re in a hurry…

Buy Barnaby volume 2 now – it’s one of the five best comic strips of all time and this superb hardcover compilation has lots of fascinating extras. If you harbour any yearnings for the lost joys of childish wonder and the suspicious glee in catching out adults trying to pull a fast one, you would be crazy to miss this book…

However, if you’re still here and need a little more time to decide…

Today’s newspapers have precious few continuity drama or adventure strips. Indeed, if a paper has any strips – as opposed to single panel editorial cartoons – chances are they will be of the episodic variety typified by Jim Davis’ Garfield or Scott Adams’ Dilbert.

You might describe these as single-idea pieces with a set-up, delivery and punch-line, all rendered in a sparse, pared-down-to-basics drawing style. In that they’re nothing new and there’s nothing wrong any of that ilk on their own terms.

Narrative impetus comes from the unchanging characters themselves, and a building of gag-upon-gag in extended themes. The advantage to the newspaper is obvious. If you like a strip it encourages you to buy the paper. If you miss a day or two, you can return fresh at any time having, in real terms, missed nothing.

Such was not always the case, especially in America. Once upon a time the daily “funny” – comedic or otherwise – was a crucial circulation builder and preserver, with lush, lavish and magnificently rendered fantasies or romances rubbing shoulders with thrilling, moody masterpieces of crime, war, sci-fi and everyday melodrama. Even the legion of humour strips actively strived to maintain an avid, devoted following.

And eventually there was Barnaby, which in so many ways bridged the gap between then and now.

On April 20th 1942, with America at war for the second time in 25 years, the liberal New York tabloid PM began running a new, sweet little kid’s strip which was also the most whimsically addicting, socially seditious and ferociously smart satire since the creation of Al Capp’s Li’l Abner – another utter innocent left to the mercy of scurrilous worldly influences…

The outlandish 4-panel daily, by Crockett Johnson, was the product of a perfectionist who didn’t particularly care for comics, but who – according to celebrated strip historian Ron Goulart – just wanted steady employment…

David Johnson Leisk (October 20th 1906-July 11th 1975) was an ardent socialist, passionate anti-fascist, gifted artisan and brilliant designer who had spent much of his working life as a commercial artist, Editor and Art Director.

Born in New York City and raised in the outer wilds of Queens when it was still semi-rural – very near the slag heaps which would eventually house two New York World’s Fairs in Flushing Meadows – “Dave” studied art at Cooper Union (for the Advancement of Science and Art) and New York University before leaving early to support his widowed mother. This entailed embarking upon a hand-to-mouth career drawing and constructing department-store advertising.

He supplemented his income with occasional cartoons to magazines such as Collier’s before becoming an Art Editor at magazine publisher McGraw-Hill. He also began producing a moderately successful, “silent” strip called The Little Man with the Eyes.

Johnson had divorced his first wife in 1939 and moved out of the city to Connecticut, sharing an ocean-side home with student (and eventual bride) Ruth Krauss, always looking to create that steady something when, almost by accident, he devised a masterpiece of comics narrative…

However, if his friend Charles Martin hadn’t seen a prototype Barnaby half-page lying around the house, the series might never have existed. Happily Martin hijacked the sample and parlayed it into a regular feature in prestigious highbrow leftist tabloid PM simply by showing the scrap to the paper’s Comics Editor Hannah Baker.

Among her other finds was a strip by a cartoonist dubbed Dr. Seuss which would run contiguously in the same publication. Despite Johnson’s initial reticence, within a year Barnaby had become the new darling of the intelligentsia…

Soon there were book collections, talk of a Radio show (in 1946 it was adapted as a stage play), a quarterly magazine and rave reviews in Time, Newsweek and Life. The small but rabid fan-base ranged from politicians and the smart set such as President and First Lady Roosevelt, Vice-President Henry Wallace, Rockwell Kent, William Rose Benet and Lois Untermeyer to cool celebrities such as Duke Ellington, Dorothy Parker, W. C. Fields and even legendary New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.

Of course the last two might only have checking the paper because the undisputed, unsavoury star of the strip was a scurrilous if fanciful amalgam of them both…

Not since George Herriman’s Krazy Kat had a piece of popular culture so infiltrated the halls of the mighty, whilst largely passing way over the heads of the masses and without troubling the Funnies sections of big circulation papers.

Over its 10-year run (April 1942 to February 1952), Barnaby was only syndicated to 64 papers nationally, with a combined circulation of just over five and a half million, but it kept Crockett (a childhood nickname) and Ruth in relative comfort whilst America’s Great and Good constantly agitated on the kid’s behalf.

What more do you need to know?

One dark night a little boy wished for a Fairy Godmother and something strange and disreputable fell in through his window…

Barnaby Baxter is a smart, ingenuous and scrupulously honest pre-schooler (four years old to you) and his ardent wish was to be an Air Raid Warden like his dad. Instead he was “adopted” by a short, portly, pompous, mildly unsavoury and wholly discreditable windbag with pink pixie wings.

Jackeen J. O’Malley, card carrying-member of the Elves, Gnomes, Leprechauns and Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society – although he hadn’t paid his dues in years – unceremoniously installed himself as the lad’s Fairy Godfather. A lazier, more self-aggrandizing, mooching old glutton and probable soak (he certainly frequented taverns but only ever raided the Baxter’s icebox, pantry and humidor, never their drinks cabinet…) could not be found anywhere.

Due more to intransigence than evidence – there’s always plenty of physical proof, debris and fallout whenever O’Malley has been around – Barnaby’s mum and dad adamantly refuse to believe in the ungainly, insalubrious sprite, whose continued presence hopelessly complicated the sweet boy’s life.

The poor parents’ greatest abiding fear was that Barnaby was cursed with Too Much Imagination…

At the end of the previous volume O’Malley became implausibly – and almost overnight – an unseen and reclusive public Man of the Hour, preposterously translating that cachet into a political career by accidentally becoming a patsy for a corrupt political machine. In even more unlikely circumstances O’Malley was elected to Congress…

This strand gave staunchly socialist cynic Johnson ample opportunity to ferociously lampoon the electoral system, the pundits and even the public. As usual Barnaby’s parents had to perpetually put down their boy: assertively assuring him that the O’Malley the grown-ups had elected was not a fat little man with pink wings…

Despite looking like a fraud – he’s almost never seen using his magic and always has one of Dad’s stolen panatela cigars as a substitute wand – J. J. O’Malley is the real deal: he’s just incredibly lazy, greedy, arrogant and inept. He does sort of grant Barnaby’s wishes though… but never in ways that might be wished for…

Once O’Malley had got his foot in the door – or rather through the bedroom window – a succession of bizarre characters began to regularly turn up to baffle and bewilder Barnaby and Jane Shultz, the sensible little girl next door.

Even the boy’ new dog Gorgon was an oddity. The pooch could talk – but never when adults were around, and only then with such overwhelming dullness that everybody listening wished him as mute as every other mutt…

The mythical oddballs and irregulars included timid ghost Gus, Atlas the Giant (a two foot tall, pint sized colossus who was not that impressive until he got out his slide-rule to demonstrate that he was, in truth, a mental Giant) and Launcelot McSnoyd, an invisible Leprechaun who was O’Malley’s personal gadfly: always offering harsh, ribald counterpoints and home truths to the Godfather’s self-laudatory pronouncements…

Johnson continually expanded his gently bizarre cast of gremlins, ogres, ghosts, policemen, Bankers, crooks, financiers and stranger personages – all of whom could see O’Malley – but the unyieldingly faithful little lad’s parents were always too busy and too certain that the Fairy Godfather and all his ilk were unhealthy, unwanted, juvenile fabrications.

This second stupendous collection opens with a hearty appreciation from Jules Feiffer in the Foreword before cartoonist, biographer and historian R. C. Harvey provides a critical appraisal in ‘Appreciating Barnaby and the Power of Imagination’ after which the captivating yarn-spinning takes us from January 1st 1944 to December 31st 1945.

There’s even more elucidatory content at the back after all those magic-filled pictures too, as education scholar and Professor of English Philip Nel provides another fact-filled, scene-setting, picture-packed ‘Afterword: O’Malley Takes Flight’ and Max Lerner’s 1943 PM feature ‘Barnaby’s Progress’ is reprinted in full.

Nel also supplies strip-by-strip commentary and background in ‘The Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes, and Little Men’s Chowder & Marching Society: a Handy Pocket Guide’

However what we all love is comics so let’s jump right in as the obese elf gets caught up in exhibiting his miniscule expertise in ‘The Manly Art of Self-Defense’ (which ran from 28th December 1943 to 19th January 1944), and follows Mr. Baxter’s purchase of a few items of exercise equipment.

Always with an eye to a fast buck, O’Malley organises a prize fight between poor gentle Gus and the obstreperous Brooklyn Leprechaun, all whilst delaying his long overdue return to the Capitol.

The godfather is expert in delay and obfuscation but eventually, in a concatenation of curious circumstances, the Congressman buckles under pressure from both his human and fairy-folk constituents to push through a new hydroelectric project – in actuality two vastly different ones – and wings off to begin the process of funding ‘The O’Malley Dam’ (20th January – 22nd April)…

As the political bandwagon gets rolling, further hindered by Mr. Baxter and Barnaby visiting the Congressman’s never-occupied office in Washington DC, the flighty, easily distracted O’Malley takes it upon himself to enscribe the natural history of his people in ‘Pixie Anthropology’ (24th April-18th May), even as back home the Big Fight gets nearer and poor Gus continues to flap under his punishing training regimen…

‘Mr. O’Malley, Efficiency Expert’, which ran from 19th May to 8th June, then saw the Fairy Fool step in when overwork and worry laid Mr. Baxter low. The factory manager was pilloried by concerns over production targets, but whilst he was remanded to his sickbed, the flying figment was busy “fixing” the crisis for him…

During that riotous sequence another oddball was introduced in the diminutive form of Gridley the Salamander: a “Fire Pixey” who couldn’t raise a spark even if supplied with matches and gasoline…

The under-worked winged windbag was a master of manipulation and ‘O’Malley and the Buried Treasure’ (9th June – 7th September) saw the airborne oaf inveigle invitations for the Baxters to the beachside cottage owned by Jane’s aunt. Once there it wasn’t long before avaricious imagination and a couple of old coins spawned a rabid gold rush amongst the adults who really should have known better.

The extended vacation also saw the first appearance of moisture-averse sovereign of the seas Davy Jones

Whilst the Congressman was busily avoiding work, his seat vanished during boundary reorganisation, but ever-undaunted the pixilated political animal soldiered on, outrageously campaigning in the then-ongoing Presidential Election throughout the cruelly hilarious ‘O’Malley for Dewey’ (8th September – 8th November 1944)…

Newspaper strips always celebrated seasonal events and, after the wry satire of the race for power, whacky whimsy was highlighted with the advent of ‘Cousin Myles O’Malley’ (9th - 24th November). The puny Puritan pixie had come over on the Mayflower and was still trying to catch a turkey for his very first Thanksgiving Dinner.

Naturally his take-charge, thoroughly modern relative was a huge (dis)advantage to his ongoing quest…

With Christmas fast approaching, an injudicious expression from Ma Baxter regarding a fur wrap sets Barnaby and his Fairy guardian on the trail of the fabled and fabulous, ferocious ermine beast and sees the introduction of ‘The O’Malley Fur Trading Post’ (25th November 1944 to 27th January 1945).

Although legendary and mythical gnomish huntsman J. P. Orion fails to deliver, an unlucky band of fur thieves fall into the hunters’ traps and soon find their latest haul missing. Before long poor Mr. Baxter is looking at the chilling prospect of jail time for receiving stolen property…

With the global conflict clearly drawing to a close, Johnson threw himself into the debate of what the post-War world would be like in a swingeing attack on the financial system and the greedy gullibility of professional money men. Barnaby and most especially his conniving godfather almost shatter the American commercial world in a cunning fable entitled ‘J.J. O’Malley, Wizard of Wall Street’ (29th January – 26th May)…

With America still reeling, the ever-unfolding hilarity took an arcane turn and saw Mr. Baxter suffer more than the usual degree of personal humiliation and confusion when he took Barnaby, Gorgon and Jane for a short walk and lost them in the littlest woods in America.

They had of course been led astray by O’Malley who accidentally dumped them on ‘Emmylou Schwartz, Licensed Witchcraft Practitioner’ (28th May – 3rd July). She had been in a bad mood since the Salem Witch Trials…

As a result of this latest unhappy encounter and a shameful incident with a black cat, the dogmatic dog was hexed and became ‘Tongue-Tied Gorgon’ (4th - 10th July)… not that most people could tell…

When Barnaby’s Aunt Minerva wrote a bestseller, O’Malley felt constrained to guide her budding career in ‘Belles Lettres’ (11th July – 17th August). The obnoxious elf was a little less keen when he discovered it was only a cookbook, but perked up when it led to Minerva being offered a newspaper column.

Being an expert in this field too, O’Malley continued his behind-the-scenes support amidst ‘The Fourth Estate’ (18th August-8th September), renewing his old acquaintance with an impishly literal Printers Devil named Shrdlu

Despite O’Malley’s best efforts Minerva remained a success and was soon looking for her own place. In ‘Real Estate’ (10th September – 10th October), Barnaby was helpless to prevent poor Gus being used by the godfather as a ghostly goad to convince a spiritualist-obsessed landlady to let to his aunt rather than a brace of conmen…

A perfect indication of the wry humour that peppered the feature can be seen in ‘Party Invitations’ which ran from 11th – 20th October as O’Malley attempts to supersede the usual turkey-and-fixin’s feast with a fashionable venison banquet – even though he can’t catch a deer and won’t be cooking it once it’s been butchered…

Congruent with that was the introduction of erudite aborigine ‘Howard the Sigahstaw Indian’ (22nd October-23rd November) – who was just as inept in the hunting traditions of his forefathers – after which the festive preparations continued with ‘O’Malley’s Christmas List’ (24th November-15th December) wherein the always-generous godfather discovers the miracle of store credit and goes shopping for presents for everybody.

Never one to concentrate for long, he is briefly distracted by a guessing competition in ‘Bean-Counting’ (8th - 15th December) – the prize of a home movie camera being the ideal gift for young Barnaby – and this parade of monochrome cartoon marvels concludes with the dryly hilarious saga of ‘The Hangue Dogfood Telephone Quiz Program’ (17th December 1945-1st January 1946) wherein Gorgon’s reluctant answers to an advertising promotion again threaten to hurl the entire American business world into chaos…

Intellectually raucous, riotous, sublimely surreal and adorably absurd, the untrammelled, razor-sharp whimsy of the strip is always instantly captivating, and the laconic charm of the writing is well-nigh irresistible, but the lasting legacy of this ground-breaking strip is the clean sparse line-work that reduces images to almost technical drawings, unwavering line-weights and solid swathes of black that define space and depth by practically eliminating it, without ever obscuring the fluid warmth and humanity of the characters.

Almost every modern strip cartoon follows the principles laid down here by a man who purportedly disliked the medium…

The major difference between then and now should also be noted, however.

Johnson despised doing shoddy work, or short-changing his audience. On average each of his daily encounters – always self-contained – built on the previous episode without needing to re-reference it, and contained three to four times as much text as its contemporaries. It’s a sign of the author’s ability that the extra wordage was never unnecessary, and often uniquely readable, blending storybook clarity, the snappy pace of “Screwball” comedy films and the contemporary rhythms and idiom of authors such as Damon Runyan and Dashiel Hammett.

He managed this miracle by type-setting the dialogue and pasting up the strips himself – primarily in Futura Medium Italic but with effective forays into other fonts for dramatic and comedic effect.

No sticky-beaked educational vigilante could claim Barnaby harmed children’s reading abilities by confusing the tykes with non-standard letter-forms (a charge levelled at comics as late as the turn of this century), and the device also allowed him to maintain an easy, elegant, effective balance of black and white which makes the deliciously diagrammatic art light, airy and implausibly fresh and accessible.

During 1946-1947, Johnson surrendered the strip to friends as he pursued a career illustrating children’s book such as Constance J. Foster’s This Rich World: The Story of Money, but eventually he returned, crafting more magic until he retired Barnaby in 1952 to concentrate on books.

When Ruth graduated she became a successful children’s writer and they collaborated on four tomes, The Carrot Seed (1945), How to Make an Earthquake, Is This You? and The Happy Egg, but these days Crockett Johnson is best known for his seven “Harold” books which began in 1955 with the captivating Harold and the Purple Crayon.

During a global war with heroes and villains aplenty, where no comic page could top the daily headlines for thrills, drama and heartbreak, Barnaby was an absolute panacea to the horrors without ever ignoring or escaping them.

The entire glorious confection that is Barnaby is all about our relationship with imagination. This is not a strip about childhood fantasy. The theme here, beloved by both parents and children alike, is that grown-ups don’t listen to kids enough, and that they certainly don’t know everything.

For far too long Barnaby was a lost masterpiece. It is influential, ground-breaking and a shining classic of the form. You are all the poorer for not knowing it, and should move mountains to change that situation. I’m not kidding.

Liberally illustrated throughout with sketches, roughs, photos and advertising materials as well as Credits, Thank Yous and a brief biography of Johnson, this big hardback book of joy is a long-overdue and very welcome addition to 21st century bookshelves – most especially yours…

Barnaby vol. 2 and all Barnaby images © 2014 the Estate of Ruth Krauss. Supplemental material © 2014 its respective creators and owners.

Moomin: the Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip volume 2


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

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

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

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

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

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

Moomintroll was her signature character. Literally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superman Chronicles volume 9


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No “To Be Continueds” here!

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

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

Asterix and the Magic Carpet


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superman Chronicles volume 8


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No “to be continueds” here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Modern comics and graphic novels evolved from newspaper comic strips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

566 Frames


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

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

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

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

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

No problem: families always have plenty more history…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Simon & Kirby Library: Horror!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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