Popeye Classics volume 1


By Bud Sagendorf, edited and designed by Craig Yoe (Yoe Books/IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-61377-557-8                  eISBN: 978-1-62302-264-8

There are few comic characters that have entered communal world consciousness, but a grizzled, bluff, uneducated, visually impaired old sailor with a speech impediment is possibly the most well-known of that select bunch.

Elzie Segar had been producing Thimble Theatre since December 19th 1919, but when he introduced a coarse, brusque “sailor man” into the saga of Ham Gravy and Castor Oyl on January 29th 1929, nobody suspected the giddy heights that walk-on would reach…

In 1924 Segar created a second daily strip The 5:15: a surreal domestic comedy featuring weedy commuter and would-be inventor John Sappo and his formidable wife Myrtle which endured – in one form or another – as a topper/footer-feature accompanying the main Sunday page throughout the author’s career. It even survived his untimely death, eventually becoming the trainee-playground of Popeye’s second great stylist Bud Sagendorf.

After Segar’s tragic and far too premature death in 1938, Doc Winner, Tom Sims, Ralph Stein and Bela Zambouly all worked on the strip as the animated features brought Popeye to the entire world. Sadly, none of them had the eccentric flair and raw inventiveness that had put Thimble Theatre at the forefront of cartoon entertainments…

Born in 1915, Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf was barely 17 when his sister – who worked in the Santa Monica art store where Segar bought his supplies – introduced the kid to the master who became his teacher and employer as well as a father-figure. In 1958, Sagendorf took over the strip and all the merchandise design, becoming Popeye’s prime originator…

When Sagendorf took over, his loose, rangy style and breezy scripts brought the strip itself back to the forefront of popularity and made reading it cool and fun all over again. He wrote and drew Popeye in every graphic arena for 24 years. He died in 1994 after which “Underground” cartoonist Bobby London took over.

Bud had been Segar’s assistant and apprentice, and from 1948 onwards he wrote and drew Popeye’s comicbook adventures in a regular monthly title published by America’s king of licensed periodicals, Dell Comics.

When Popeye first appeared, he was a rude, crude brawler: a gambling, cheating, uncivilised ne’er-do-well. He was soon exposed as the ultimate working class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, but with an innate, unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not, a joker who wanted kids to be themselves – but not necessarily “good” – and someone who took no guff from anyone.

Naturally, as his popularity grew Popeye mellowed somewhat. He was still ready to defend the weak and had absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows but the shocking sense of dangerous unpredictability and comedic anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed… but not in Sagendorf’s comicbook yarns…

Collected in their entirety in this beguiling full-colour hardback (also available in a digital edition) are the first four 52-page quarterly funnybooks produced by the Young Master spanning February/April 1948 to November 1948/January 1949.

The stunning, seemingly stream-of-consciousness stories are preceded by an effusively appreciative Introduction‘Society of Sagendorks’ – by inspired aficionado and historian/publisher Craig Yoe and a fabulous collation of candid photos and letters plus strip proofs, original comicbook art and commissioned paintings, an Activity Book cover and greetings card designs contained in ‘A Bud Sagendorf Scrapbook’.

Popeye’s fantastic first issue launched in February 1948, with no ads and duo-coloured (black and red) single page strips on the inside front and back covers. The initial instant episode finds mighty muscled, irrepressible “infink” Swee’ Pea enquiring ‘Were there ever any pirates around here?’ before doing a bit of digging, after which the full-coloured fun begins with ‘Shame on You! or Gentlemen Do Not Fight! or You’re a Ruffian, Sir!’

The salty swab earns a lucrative living as an occasional prize-fighter and here upcoming contender Kid Kabagge and his cunning manager Mr. Tillbox use a barrage of psychological tricks to put Popeye off his game. The key component is electing Olive Oyl President of the fake Anti-Fisticuff Society to convince her man to stop being a beastly ruffian and abandon violence. That only works until the fiery frail learns she’s been gulled…

Swee’ Pea then stars in ‘Map Back! Or Back Map!’ as sinister unprincipled villain Sam Snagg tattoos an invisible secret diagram onto the baby’s body but falls foul of the boy’s garrulous guardian when trying to reclaim the kid and divine the location of Spinachovia’s hidden treasures…

Wrapping up the full-length action is ‘Spinach Revolt’ as Popeye’s pater Poopdeck Pappy kicks up a fuss about constantly having to eat healthy food.

As the first Superman of comics, Popeye was not a comfortable hero to idolise. A brute who thought with his fists and didn’t respect authority, he was uneducated, short-tempered, fickle (when hot tomatoes batted their eyelashes – or thereabouts – at him); an aggressive troublemaker, he wasn’t welcome in polite society… and he wouldn’t want to be.

Time changed Popeye and made him tamer, but the shocking sense of unpredictability, danger and anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed, so in 1936 Segar brought it back again…

A memorable and riotous sequence of Dailies introduced ancient, antisocial crusty reprobate Poopdeck Pappy. The elder mariner was a hard-bitten, grumpy lout quite prepared – even happy – to cheat, steal or smack a woman around if she stepped out of line. He was Popeye’s prodigal dad and once that old goat was firmly established Segar set Olive and her Sailor Man the Herculean task of “Civilizing Poppa”. At the time of this tale that’s still very much a work in progress …

Fed up with eating spinach, Pappy hides his meals and steals the wherewithal to secretly subsist on a diet of candy, cakes and sodas. He even inveigles the lad next door into being the mule in his scurrilous scheme but cannot evade the digestive consequences of his acts…

The premiere outing ends with a brace of single pagers detailing how Swee’ Pea deals with persistent salesmen and a day’s fishing before issue #2 commences…

Master moocher Wellington J. Wimpy again has cause to declare ‘Sir! You are a cheapskate!’ before Swee’ Pea and Popeye are swept up in a controversial debate. In ‘That’s What I Yam!” or ‘I Yam! I Yam’ the sailor believes his baby boy tough enough to wander around town unsupervised but has reasons to revise his opinion after the kid vanishes. Moreover, when he does resurface, the tyke is subject to strange transformations and behaviours. It’s as if a class of trainee hypnotists have all been using the kid as a practise subject but forgot to bring him out of his trance afterward…

Pappy stars in ‘Easy Money’, with the greedy reprobate realising how much cash his sterling son earns for each boxing bout. Determined to get on the gravy train too, the oldster shaves off his beard and impersonates Popeye. By the time he catches wise, Pappy has conned Olive and Wimpy into his scheme and set up a punishing bout with a huge purse, so somebody is going to have to fight…

The issue ends with a two-tone short showing the hazards of bathing Swee’ Pea and another full colour back cover gag with a bullying neighbour realising the folly of trying to spank Popeye’s boy…

Popeye #3 leads with an epic 32-page spooky maritime epic as the superstitious sailor reluctantly agrees to transport 250 “ghosk” traps to ghastly, radish – and phantom – infested ‘Ghost Island’: a cunning yarn of mystery and over-zealous imagination starring many cast regulars and preceded by a hilarious map of the route replacing the inside-front cover gag…

Following up is an implausible account of Popeye apparently becoming a violent bully, beating up ordinary citizens in ‘Smash! or You Can Tell She’s My Girl, Because She’s Wearing Two Black Eyes!’ Happily, a doctor at the sailor’s trial is able to diagnose the incredible truth before things go too far, after which Swee’ Pea indulges in too much sugar in the red and black bit and learns the manly way to play with dolls on the colour back cover…

The final inclusion in this outrageous compilation begins with Wimpy up to his old tricks whilst Popeye hunts ducks before another extended odyssey finds the sailor and hangers-on Swee’ Pea, Olive and Wimpy heading West on safari to capture a rare Ipomoea from sagebrush hellhole ‘Dead Valley’

It’s a grim wilderness Popeye has endured before: an arid inferno no sane man would want to revisit unless a scientist hired him to. Sadly, that’s not the opinion of local bandit boss Dead Valley Joe who assigns all his scurvy gang the task of dissuading or despatching the uppity easterners before they uncover the region’s incredible secret…

Back home again, Olive Oyl receives a surprise ‘Gift from Uncle Ben!’ Sadly, the strange flying beast called a Zoop prefers Swee’ Pea’s company and her warm generosity in donating the beast takes a hard knock when a stranger offers a million dollars for it…

One final brace of Swee’ Pea shorts then sees the wily kid orchestrate free baseball views for his pals before indulging in food politics to win over a stray cat and wrap up in amiable style these jolly, captivating cartoon capers.

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

There is more than one Popeye. Most of them are pretty good, and some are truly excellent. This book is definitely one of the latter and if you love lunacy, laughter and rollicking adventure you must now read this.
Popeye Classics volume 1 © 2013 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Popeye © 2013 King Features Syndicate. ™ Heart Holdings Inc.

Superman: The Golden Age volume 2


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Wayne Boring, Jack Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6530-4

It’s incontrovertible: The American comicbook industry – if it existed at all – would have been 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.

Superman spawned an inconceivable army of imitators and variations, and within three years of his 1938 debut, the intoxicating blend of eye-popping action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early Man of Steel 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, eye-popping excess and vigorous dashing derring-do.

Now with moviegoers again anticipating a new cinematic interpretation of the ultimate immigrant tale, here’s my chance to once more highlight perhaps the most authentic of the many delightful versions of his oft-reprinted early tales.

Re-presenting the epochal run of raw, unpolished but viscerally vibrant stories by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster which set the funnybook world on fire, here – in as near-as-dammit the texture, smell and colour of the original newsprint – are the crude, rough, uncontrollable wish-fulfilling, 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 captured the imagination of a generation.

This second revamped and remastered collection of the Man of Steel’s earliest exploits, reprinted in the order they first appeared, spans the still largely innocent and carefree year of 1940 in a spiffy package that covers all his appearances from Action Comics #20-31, Superman #4-7 and his last starring role in New York World’s Fair #2 (and that only because the title would convert to initially World’s Best before and eventually settling as the much more reserved World’s Finest Comics).

Although Siegel & Shuster had very much settled into the character by now the buzz of success still fired them and innovation still sparkled amidst the exuberance. This incredible panorama of torrid tales opens with ‘Superman and the Screen Siren’ from Action#20 (January 1940) as beautiful actress Delores Winters is revealed not as another sinister super-scientific megalomaniac but the latest tragic victim and organic ambulatory hideout of aged mad scientist Ultra-Humanite who had perfected his greatest horror… brain transplant surgery!

This is followed with an immediate sequel as “Delores” attempts to steal another scientist’s breakthrough and utilise ‘The Atomic Disintegrator’ to demolish the Man of Steel whilst Action #22 loudly declares ‘Europe at War’ a tense and thinly disguised call to arms for the still neutral USA, and a continued story – almost unheard of in those early days of funny-book publishing which spectacularly concluded in #23.

Superman #4, cover-dated Spring, featured four big adventures that began with a succession of futuristic assassination attempts in ‘The Challenge of Luthor’. After an educational cartoon vignette on ‘Attaining Super-Strength’, the original Man of Might battles dinosaurs and bandits in ‘Luthor’s Undersea City’, before saving the world from financial and literal carnage by ferreting out ‘The Economic Enemy’ – a prophetic spy story about commercial sabotage by an unspecified foreign power…

The issue then ends with a tale of gangsters intimidating Teamsters called ‘Terror in the Trucker’s Union’.

In Action Comics #24 ‘Carnahan’s Heir’ becomes Superman’s latest social reclamation project as the Metropolis Marvel promises to turn a wastrel into a useful citizen, whilst the next told the tale of the ‘Amnesiac Robbers’ compelled to crime by an evil hypnotist.

Superman #5 is a superb combination of human drama, crime and wickedly warped science with our hero crushing ‘The Slot Machine Racket’ and foiling a rival paper’s ‘Campaign Against the Planet’. The insidious threat of ‘Luthor’s Incense Machine’ is similarly scuttled before finally Big Business chicanery is exposed and punished in ‘The Wonder Drug’. These are augmented by a flurry of gag cartoons by Siegel & Schuster promoting health and exercise…

Next comes a tale of gangsters attempting to plunder jewels from exhibits at the New York World’s Fair as seen in New York World’s Fair #2 credited to Siegel and Schuster but looking to my tired old eyes to be the wonderful Jack Burnley (Anyone got any comments or information they care to share here?)…

Siegel & Shuster had created a true phenomenon and were struggling to cope with it. As well as the monthly and bimonthly comics a new quarterly publication, World’s Finest Comics – springing from the success of the publisher’s New York World’s Fair comic-book tie-ins – would soon debut and their indefatigable hero was to feature prominently in it. Also, the Superman daily newspaper strip, which began on 16th January 1939, with its separate Sunday strip following from November 5th of that year, was garnering millions of new fans. The need for new material and creators was constant and oppressive.

From Action Comics#26 (July 1940) came ‘Professor Cobalt’s Clinic’ wherein Clark Kent and Lois Lane expose a murderous sham Health Facility with a little Kryptonian help, whilst the next month dealt a similar blow to the corrupt orphanage ‘Brentwood Home for Wayward Youth’. The September issue found Superman at the circus, solving the mystery of ‘The Strongarm Assaults’, a fast-paced thriller beautifully illustrated by the astonishingly talented Jack Burnley.

Whilst thrilling to that, kids of the time could also have picked up the sixth issue of Superman (September/October 1940). Produced by Siegel and the Superman Studio, with Shuster increasingly only overseeing and drawing key figures and faces, this contained four more lengthy adventures.

‘Lois Lane, Murderer’, ‘Racketeer Terror in Gateston’, ‘Terror Stalks San Caluma’ and ‘The Construction Scam’ had the Man of Action saving his plucky co-worker from a dastardly frame up, rescuing a small town from a mob invasion, foiling a blackmailer who’s discovered his secret identity and spectacularly fixing a corrupt company’s shoddy, death-trap buildings.

Action Comics #29 (October 1940) again features Burnley art in a gripping tale of murder for profit. Human drama in ‘The Life Insurance Con’ was replaced by deadly super-science as the mastermind Zolar created ‘A Midsummer Snowstorm’, allowing Burnley a rare opportunity to display his fantastic imagination as well as his representational acumen and dexterity.

Superman# 7 (November/December1940) marked a creative sea-change as Wayne Boring became Schuster’s regular inker and saw the Man of Steel embroiled in local politics when he confronted ‘Metropolis’ Most Savage Racketeers’, quelled man-made disasters in ‘The Exploding Citizens’, stamped out City Hall corruption in ‘Superman’s Clean-Up Campaign’ (illustrated fully by Wayne Boring) and put villainous high society bandits ‘The Black Gang’ where they belonged – behind iron bars.

This volume ends with another all-star inclusion from Action Comics – # 31 in fact – with Burnley drawing another high-tech crime caper as crooks put an entire city to sleep and only Clark Kent isn’t ‘In the Grip of Morpheus’

My admiration for the stripped-down purity and power of these Golden Age tales is boundless. Nothing has ever come near them for joyous, child-like perfection. You really should make them part of your life.
© 1940, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Plastic Man Archives volume 6


By Jack Cole & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0154-8

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

In 1954 Cole quit comics for the lucrative and prestigious field of magazine cartooning, swiftly becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour gags and stunningly saucy pictures began regularly running in Playboy from the fifth issue.

Cole eventually moved into the lofty realms of newspaper strips and, in May 1958, achieved his life-long ambition by launching a syndicated newspaper strip, the domestic comedy Betsy and Me.

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

Without doubt – and despite his other triumphal comicbook innovations such as Silver Streak, Daredevil, The Claw, Death Patrol, Midnight, Quicksilver, The Barker, The Comet and a uniquely twisted and phenomenally popular take on the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest creation and contribution was the zany Malleable Marvel who quickly grew from a minor back-up character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the era.

“Plas” was the wondrously perfect fantastic embodiment of the sheer energy, verve and creativity of an era when anything went and comics-makers were prepared to try out every outlandish idea…

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

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

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

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

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

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

This sublimely sturdy sixth full-colour hardback exposes more eccentrically exaggerated exploits of the elastic eidolon from Plastic Man #5 and 6 and his regular monthly beat in Police Comics #59-65, covering October 1946 to April 1947. Before the hilarious action kicks off, Michael T. Gilbert offers an appreciation of Cole and his gift for concocting uniquely memorable characters in the Foreword after which the power-packed contents of his fifth solo-starring vehicle commences with ‘They Call Him Weapons’ as a seemingly innocuous gunsmith graduates from selling his ordnance innovations to criminals to becoming a bandit himself. His bloody trail leads Plas and Woozy to a house the tinkerer has tricked up into an inescapable death trap…

Cole’s constant and ever-growing pressure to fill pages led to his hiring artists to assist in the illustration of his madcap scripts. Alex Kotzky pitched in for ‘The Mysterious Being Called Hate’ as our chameleonic crime-crusher faces sorcerous neophyte Mr. Giglamp after the infernally inquisitive fool finds himself a satanic sponsor and becomes a demonic danger to society.

Woozy had his own back-up solo feature in Plastic Man and here the Stalwart Simpleton inspires a down-at-heel gangster to modify a heroic legend to his own unscrupulous ends in ‘Robin Hood Returns’ (drawn by Bart Toomey), after which prose puzzler ‘Snig River’ sees a simple fishing trip prank land a basket full of fugitive crooks. A baffling mystery then confounds the populace in ‘The Evil of Moneybags’. When millionaire Aloysius P. Japers starts giving away all his money only the stretchable sleuth notices that all the beneficiaries start turning up dead and penniless…

In Police Comics #59 Woozy and Plas are helpless before ‘The Menace of Mr. Happiness’ (Cole & Andre LeBlanc) as a drug store clerk accidentally invents a serum which paralyses victims with joy whilst #60 invoked the author’s fascination with mad scientists in ‘The Man Who Built Himself a Body’ (Cole & LeBlanc) as weedy Professor Spindrift constructs a series of robot suits so that he can muscle his way to the top of the underworld…

A million-dollar bounty on Plastic Man leads to ‘A Bundle of Trouble’ (Cole & LeBlanc) in Police #61, culminating in a baby-sized assassin infiltrating the hero’s home as a heavily armed foundling, before Plastic Man #6 opens with criminal genius Scientific Sherman stealing the astronomical discoveries of ‘The Moon Wizard’ and seemingly stranding Plas and Woozy on the distant lunar orb.

‘The Crimes of Mother Goose’ features a crook committing fairy tale-inspired thefts to bewilder the Ductile Detective and his partner after which Woozy hunts alone for ‘The Zwili Cat’ (Cole & Kotzky) obsessing crooks and bad-men all over town, before text tale ‘Scarlett Goes Straight’ finds our hero helping an ex-con capture his former unrepentant associates.

To close the issue, a common jewel thief gains incredible leaping powers and becomes costumed crook ‘The Grasshopper’ (Cole & Kotzky) but is ultimately unable to escape the relentless and remarkable reach of his pliable pursuer.

Police Comics #62 finds flashy socialite Leda Van Doom interviewing prospective husbands only to lose one in suspicious circumstances in ‘The Cupid’s Bow Murder’.

After solving that thorny mystery Plas and Woozy combat a macabre gambling boss moonlighting as a marine marauder dubbed ‘The Crab’ in #63 and paint a ‘Bulls-Eye on Crime’ a month later as they expose a candy factory operating as a clearing house for stolen gems before wrapping up this compendium of comedic crime-busting by helping homeless newlyweds find a place to live.

Sadly, that task entails evicting and arresting a house full of deadly spies and clearing all the death traps out of ‘The Apartment of Dr. Phobia’

Augmented by all the astoundingly ingenious covers, this is another unmissable masterclass of funnybook virtuosity: still exciting, breathtakingly original, thrilling, witty, scary, visually outrageous and pictorially intoxicating more than seventy years after Jack Cole first put pen to paper.

Plastic Man is a unique creation and this is a magical experience comics fans would be crazy to avoid.
© 1946, 1947, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Golden Age volume 1


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-9109-2

Nearly 79 years ago Superman started the whole modern era of fantasy heroes: outlandish, flamboyant indomitable, infallible, unconquerable.

He also saved a foundering industry and created an entirely new genre of storytelling – the Super Hero.

Since June 1938 he has grown into a mighty presence in all aspects of art, culture and commerce even as his natal comicbook universe organically grew and expanded.

Within three years of his Summer debut, the intoxicating mix of eye-popping action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early exploits of the Man of Tomorrow had grown to encompass crime-busting, reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy and even whimsical comedy, but once the war in Europe and the East snared America’s consciousness, combat themes and patriotic imagery dominated most comicbook covers if not interiors.

In comicbook terms at least Superman was quickly master of the world, and utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry. There was the popular newspaper strip, a thrice-weekly radio serial, games, toys, foreign and overseas syndication and the Fleischer studio’s astounding animated cartoons.

Moreover, the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release and the energy and enthusiasm of originators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster went on to inform and infect the burgeoning studio which grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

This new compilation of the original stories – re-presented in chronological publishing order – covers June 1938 to December 1939 and features the groundbreaking yarns from Action Comics #1-19, Superman #1-3 and his pivotal appearance from New York’s World Fair No. 1 and although most of the early tales were untitled, here, for everyone’s convenience, they have been given descriptive appellations by the editors.

Thus, after describing the foundling’s escape from exploding Planet Krypton and offering a scientific rationale for his incredible abilities explaining his astonishing powers in nine panels, with absolutely no preamble the wonderment begins with Action #1’s primal thriller ‘Superman: Champion of the Oppressed!’ as the costumed crusader – masquerading by day as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent – began averting numerous tragedies.

As well as saving an innocent woman from the Electric Chair and roughing up a wife beater, the tireless crusader worked over racketeer Butch Matson – consequently saving feisty colleague Lois Lane from abduction and worse – and outed a lobbyist for the armaments industry who was bribing Senators on behalf of greedy munitions interests fomenting war in Europe…

The next breathtaking instalment in Action #2 (July 1938) saw the mercurial mystery-man travelling to the war-zone to spectacularly dampen down the hostilities already in progress in ‘Revolution in San Monte Part 2’ before ‘The Blakely Mine Disaster’ found the Man of Steel responding to a coal-mine cave-in to expose corrupt corporate practises and afterwards cleaning up gamblers who ruthlessly fixed games and players in #4’s ‘Superman Plays Football’.

The Action Ace’s untapped physical potential was highlighted in the next issue as ‘Superman and the Dam’ pitted the human dynamo against the power of a devastating natural disaster, after which in #6 canny chiseller Nick Williams attempted to monetise the hero – without asking first. ‘Superman’s Phony Manager’ even attempted to replace the real thing with a cheap knock-off but quickly learned a very painful and memorable lesson in ethics…

Although Superman starred on the first cover, the staid and cautious editors were initially dubious about the alien strongman’s popular appeal and fell back upon more traditional genre scenes for the following issues (all by Leo E. O’Mealia and all included here).

Superman – and Joe Shuster’s – second cover appeared on Action Comics #7 (December 1938) and prompted a big jump in sales even as a riotous romp inside revealed why ‘Superman Joins the Circus’ with the caped crusader crushing racketeers taking over the Big Top.

Fred Guardineer then produced genre covers for #8 and 9 whilst the interiors saw ‘Superman in the Slums’ working to save young delinquents from a future life of crime and depravity and latterly featured the city cops’ disastrous decision to stop the costumed vigilante’s unsanctioned interference in ‘Wanted: Superman’.

That manhunt ended in an uncomfortable stalemate…

Action Comics #7 had been one of the highest-selling issues ever, so #10 again sported a stunning Shuster shot whilst Siegel’s smart story of ‘Superman Goes to Prison’ struck another telling blow against institutionalised injustice with the Man of Tomorrow infiltrating a prison to expose the brutal horrors of the State Chain Gangs.

Action #11 featured a maritime cover by Guardineer whilst inside heartless conmen were driving investors to penury and suicide before the Metropolis Marvel interceded in ‘Superman and the “Black Gold” Swindle’.

Guardineer’s cover of magician hero Zatara for issue #12 incorporated another landmark as the Man of Steel was given a cameo badge declaring he was inside each and every issue. Between those covers, ‘Superman Declares War on Reckless Drivers’ provided a hard-hitting tale of casual joy-riders, cost-cutting automobile manufacturers, corrupt lawmakers and dodgy car salesmen who all felt the wrath of the hero after a friend of Clark Kent was killed in a hit-&-run incident.

By now the editors had realised that the debut of Superman had propelled National Comics to the forefront of the fledgling industry, and in 1939 the company was licensed to produce a commemorative comicbook celebrating the opening of the New York World’s Fair, with the Man of Tomorrow topping the bill on the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics among such early DC four-colour stars as Zatara, Butch the Pup, Gingersnap and gas-masked mystery avenger The Sandman.

Following an inspirational cover by Sheldon Mayer, Siegel & Shuster’s ‘Superman at the World’s Fair’ described how Lois and Clark are dispatched to cover the gala event, giving the hero an opportunity to contribute his own exhibit and bag a bunch of brutal bandits to boot…

Back in Action Comics #13 (June 1939 and another Shuster cover) the road-rage theme of the previous issue continued as ‘Superman vs. the Cab Protective League’ pitted the tireless foe of felons against a murderous gang trying to take over the city’s taxi companies. The tale also introduced – in almost invisibly low key – The Man of Steel’s first great nemesis – The Ultra-Humanite

Next follows a truncated version of Superman #1. This was because the industry’s first solo-starring comicbook reprinted the earliest tales from Action, supplemented with new and recovered material – and that alone is featured here.

Behind the iconic Shuster cover the first episode was at last printed in full, describing the alien foundling’s escape from exploding Planet Krypton, his childhood with unnamed Earthling foster parents and journey to the big city as ‘Origin of Superman’.

Also included in those six pages (cut from Action #1, restored for solo vehicle and designated ‘Prelude to “Superman, Champion of the Oppressed”’) was the Man of Steel’s routing of a lynch mob and capture of the real killer which preceded his spectacular saving of the accused murderess that started the legend…

Rounding off the unseen treasures is the solo page ‘A Scientific Explanation of Superman’s Amazing Strength!’, a 2-page prose adventure of the Caped Crime-crusher, a biographical feature on Siegel & Shuster and a glorious Shuster pin-up from the premier issue’s back cover.

Sporting a Guardineer Zatara cover, Action#14 saw the return of the manic money-mad scientist in ‘Superman Meets the Ultra-Humanite’ wherein the mercenary malcontent switches his incredible intellect from incessant graft, corruption and murder to an obsessive campaign to destroy the Man of Tomorrow.

Whilst Shuster concentrated on the interior epic ‘Superman on the High Seas’ – wherein the heroic hurricane tackled sub-sea pirates and dry land gangsters – Guardineer illustrated an aquatic Superman cover for #15, as well as the Foreign Legion cover on #16 wherein ‘Superman and the Numbers Racket’ has the hero save an embezzler from suicide and subsequently wreck another wicked gambling cabal.

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

A thrice-weekly radio serial was in the offing and would launch on February 12th 1940. With games, toys, and a growing international media presence, Superman was swiftly becoming everybody’s favourite hero…

The second issue of the Man of Tomorrow’s own title opened with ‘The Comeback of Larry Trent’ – a stirring human drama wherein the Action Ace cleared the name of the broken heavyweight boxer, coincidentally cleaning the scum out of the fight game, and is followed by ‘Superman’s Tips for Super-Health’ before ‘Superman Champions Universal Peace!’ depicts the hero once more going up against unscrupulous munitions manufacturers by crushing a gang who had stolen the world’s deadliest poison gas weapon.

‘Superman and the Skyscrapers’ finds newshound Kent investigating suspicious deaths in the construction industry, leading his alter ego into confrontation with mindless thugs and their fat-cat corporate boss, after which a contemporary ad and a Superman text tale bring the issue to a close.

Action Comics #17 featured ‘The Return of the Ultra-Humanite’ in a viciously homicidal caper involving extortion and the wanton sinking of US ships and featured a classic Shuster Super-cover as the Man of Steel was awarded all the odd-numbered issues for his attention-grabbing playground.

That didn’t last long: after Guardineer’s last adventure cover – an aerial dog fight – on #18 and which led into ‘Superman’s Super-Campaign’ with both Kent and the Caped Kryptonian determinedly crushing a merciless blackmailer, Superman just monopolised all the covers from #19 onwards. That issue disclosed the peril of ‘Superman and the Purple Plague’ as the city reeled in the grip of a deadly epidemic created by the Ultra-Humanite.

Closing this frenetic fun and thrill-filled compendium is the truncated contents of Superman #3, reprinting only the first and last strips contained therein, since the other two were reprints of Action Comics #5 and 6.

‘Superman and the Runaway’, however, is a gripping, shockingly uncompromising expose of corrupt orphanages, after which – following a brief lesson on ‘Attaining Super-Health: a Few Hints from Superman!’ – Lois finally goes out on a date with hapless Clark simply because she needs to get closer to a gang of murderous smugglers. Happily, his hidden alter ego is on hand to rescue her in the bombastic gang-busting ‘Superman and the Jewel Smugglers’

Although the gaudy burlesque of monsters and super-villains still lay years ahead of our hero, these primitive and raw, completely captivating tales of corruption, disaster and social injustice are just as engrossing and speak as 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 direct and enthralling manner by our relentlessly entertaining champion in summarily swift and decisive fashion.

No continued stories here!

As fresh and compelling now as they ever were, these endlessly re-readable epics perfectly display the savage intensity and sly wit of Siegel’s stories – which literally defined what being a Super Hero means – whilst Shuster created the basic iconography for all others to follow.

Such Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
© 1938, 1939, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Krazy and Ignatz 1927-1928: Love Letters in Ancient Brick


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-507-6

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

Krazy and Ignatz (as it is dubbed in these fabulous commemorative tomes from Fantagraphics) is a creation which can only be appreciated on its own terms. Over its many years of abstracted amazement the series gradually developed a unique language – at once both visual and verbal – whilst abstrusely exploring the immeasurable variety of human experience, foibles and peccadilloes with unfaltering warmth and understanding and without ever offending anybody… except a few local newspaper editors…

Sadly, however, it certainly baffled far more than a few…

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

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

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

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

The basic premise is evergreen and deceptively simple: Krazy is an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive and romantic feline of indeterminate gender hopelessly in love with rude, crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous Ignatz Mouse. It’s the old story of opposites attracting but here the oodles of affection are unreciprocated and the love is certainly only going one way…

Ignatz is a true unreconstructed male; drinking, stealing, fighting, conniving, constantly neglecting his wife and children and always responding to Krazy’s genteel advances by clobbering the Kat with a well-aimed brick (obtained singly or in bulk from noted local brick-maker Kolin Kelly) which the smitten kitten invariably and inexplicably misidentifies as tokens of equally recondite affection.

The third crucial element completing an anthropomorphic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp, who is completely besotted with Krazy, professionally aware of the Mouse’s true nature, yet hamstrung – by his own amorous timidity and sense of honour – from removing his diabolical and un-reconstructable rival for the foolish feline’s affections.

Krazy is, of course, blithely oblivious to Pupp’s dilemma…

Collaboratively co-populating the ever-mutable stage are a stunning supporting cast of inspired bit players such as dreaded deliverer of unplanned, and generally unwanted, babies Joe Stork; wandering hobo Bum Bill Bee, unsavoury conman and trickster Don Kiyoti, busybody Pauline Parrot, self-aggrandizing Walter Cephus Austridge, inscrutable – often unintelligible – Chinese mallard Mock Duck, dozy Joe Turtil and a host of other audacious characters, all equally capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features.

The exotic, quixotic episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Kokonino (based on the artist’s vacation retreat in Coconino County, Arizona) where surreal playfulness and the fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscape are perhaps the most important member of the cast.

The strips themselves are a masterful mélange of unique experimental art, wildly expressionistic and strongly referencing Navajo art forms whilst graphically utilising sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully evocative lettering and language: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous with a compelling musical force (“Soff, soff brizz”, “l’il dahlink” or “Ignatz, ware four is thou at Ignatz??”).

Yet for all that, the adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerie, idiosyncratic, astonishingly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous, violent slapstick. Oft times Herriman even eschewed his mystical meandering mumblings and arcane argots for the simply sublime grace of a silent gag in the manner of his beloved Keystone Cops…

There have been numerous Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the strip was rediscovered and reclaimed by a better-educated, open-minded and far more accepting audience.

This tantalising tome – covering 1927-1928 in a comfortably hefty (231 x 15 x 305 mm) monochrome softcover edition as always offers added value as context, background and other cartoon treats are delivered by the much-missed Bill Blackbeard in his puckish Introduction essay of short informational snippets ‘Pilfering Mrs. Kwak-Wak’s Good Old Goods and Goodies Bag’

Here press clippings of a near-death experience for Herriman and fellow strip man Jimmy Swinnerton are re-presented beside early gag pages such as Embarrassing Moments and excepts from Hearst Joke Book editions of The Dingbats. Also included are a wealth of strips by Herriman’s contemporaries, rivals and plagiarists…

On to the strips then: within this compelling chronicle of undying amours utterly unhorsed by smirking Fate, the perpetual play unfolds as always but with some of those intriguing supplementary characters increasing coming to the fore.

We open with the change of years bringing weeks’ worth of seasonal disorders and sartorial shenanigans as Krazy further pursues that dream of a singing career. Ignatz, meanwhile, hunts for the perfect projectile which over and again draws him into the clutches of mountebanks, charlatan and magicians…

That search for ammunition leads to many more brick-based broadsides but these days Bull Pupp is far wiser to the Mouse’s modus operandi…

An occasional strictly visual pun session plays well against the numerous slapstick antics, even as Ignatz devises ever-more convoluted ways to bounce his bricks off the Kat’s bean whilst the weird landscapes and eccentric elemental conditions increasingly add to the humorous inspiration with apocryphal wind witches and snow squaws making their invisible presences felt…

Recurring cousins Krazy Katfish and Krazy Katbird pop up to muddy the romantic waters, whilst Kat and Mouse frequently indulge in the growing freedom of the skies and waterways via balloon and other aeronautical apparatus or maritime machine.

Joe Stork continues to divide his time between the delivery of (generally unwanted) babies and other, less legal packages and there’s a many a jest regarding the total illegality of easily obtained hooches and fire-waters…

As the years progress Ignatz spends ever-longer periods in jail yet seldom fails to find a way to deliver the punishing skull blows Krazy yearns for…

Many cast members become obsessed with being struck by lightning and other electrical intercessions, but the biggest surprise is undoubtedly a time-warping origin sequence which carries us back to the obscure infancies of Krazy, Ignatz and Bull…

There are more wandering wonderments as certain elephantine geological features again take up unescorted perambulation and the county even catches a touch of meteor fever as the landscape is beset by falling stars and fiery flotsam from space.

The year again concludes with uncharacteristic chills and spills as Kokonino is subjected to squalls of snow but worst of all is a plague of politicians, prophets and preachers all proselytising on the path to peace, forcing the residents make their feelings acrimoniously clear…

…And always plain mischief rules, whenever Herriman pictorially plays hob with the laws of physics, just to see what will happen…

Wrapping up the cartoon gold is a peek at one of the earliest and rarest of merchandising items – a 1920s wooden Ignatz doll – as well as another erudite and instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page’ (providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed). One final fillip is a selection of out-of-sequence replacement pages plus a sequence of pertinent daily strips which tie into the regular run of Sundays collected here…

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

If, however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this companiable compendium is a most accessible way to do so. Heck, it’s even available as an eBook now so don’t waste the opportunity…
© 2002, 2008 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Krazy & Ignatz volume 4 – 1925-1926: “There is a Heppy Lend, Fur, Fur Awa-a-ay”


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-386-7

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

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

Sadly, however, it baffled far more than a few…

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

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

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

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

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

Ignatz is a true unreconstructed male; drinking, stealing, fighting, conniving, constantly neglecting his wife and children and always responding to Krazy’s genteel advances by clobbering the Kat with a well-aimed brick (obtained singly or in bulk from noted local brick-maker Kolin Kelly) which the smitten kitten invariably misidentifies as tokens of equally recondite affection.

The third crucial element completing an anthropomorphic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp, who is completely besotted with Krazy, professionally aware of the Mouse’s true nature, yet hamstrung – by his own amorous timidity and sense of honour – from removing his devilish rival for the foolish feline’s affections.

Krazy is, of course, blithely oblivious to Pupp’s dilemma…

Also populating the ever-mutable stage are a stunning supporting cast of inspired bit players such as dreaded deliverer of unplanned, and generally unwanted, babies Joe Stork; hobo Bum Bill Bee, unsavoury conman and trickster Don Kiyoti, busybody Pauline Parrot, self-aggrandizing Walter Cephus Austridge, inscrutable – often unintelligible – Chinese mallard Mock Duck, dozy Joe Turtil and a host of other audacious characters all equally capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features.

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

The strips themselves are a masterful mélange of unique experimental art, wildly expressionistic and strongly referencing Navajo art forms whilst graphically utilising sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully evocative lettering and language: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous with a compelling musical force (“Soff, soff brizz”, “l’il dahlink” or “Ignatz, ware four is thou at Ignatz??”).

Yet for all that, the adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerie, idiosyncratic, astonishingly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous, violent slapstick. Sometimes Herriman even eschewed his mystical mumblings and arcane argots for the simply sublime grace of a silent gag in the manner of his beloved Keystone Cops…

There have been numerous Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the strip was rediscovered by a better-educated, open-minded and far more accepting audience. This fabulous forth tome – covering 1925-1926 in a comfortably hefty (231 x 15 x 305 mm) softcover edition returns the strip to its monochrome roots and offers added value as context, background and possible explanations are delivered by the much-missed Bill Blackbeard in his effusive essay ‘By George, It’s Krazy’ before a second text “found-feature” exploits Herriman’s journalistic gifts with contemporary movie reviews delivered by “Thet Ket” in ‘“The Gold Rush” as Seen by Krazy Kat’ and ‘Krazy Kat Sees Miss Davies in “Janice Meredith”’ as both prose and cartoon critiques…

On to the strips then: within this compelling compendium of incessant passions thwarted in another land and time the unending drama plays out as usual, but with some of those intriguing supplementary characters increasing coming to the fore.

We open with the change of years bringing a few weeks’ worth of weird ruminations on the nature of time before Ignatz’s continual search for his ammunition of choice leads to many brick-based gags and his occasional fleecing by Coconino’s copious coterie of confidence tricksters.

Of course the mouse is a man who enjoys revenge served hot, cold or late…

As well as increased roles for the Kat’s cousins Krazy Katfish and Krazy Katbird there is more involvement for Joe Stork, who expands out of the exclusive delivery of (generally unwanted) babies into the hooch-dissemination business during those heady days of Prohibition, as well the introduction of tail-less Manx Cat and a Krazy cow.

As expected there is a solid dependence on the strange landscapes and eccentric flora for humorous inspiration. Moreover in the Jazz Age of Technological Marvels the mouse frequently takes to the skies to deliver his brain-busting bon mots…

The dangerous delights of Piñatas are introduced to American readers and there’s a healthy dose of surrealism after certain elephantine geological features come to life, whilst Krazy’s Kool is at last lost once Ignatz begins baking his own bricks and cutting Kolin Kelly out of the mounting fiscal equation. Once rubber trees start popping up all over the landscape, nobody is truly safe from the consequences of escalating slapstick silliness…

The year then concludes with uncharacteristic chills and spills when Coconino is subjected to sudden squalls of snow which lead inevitably to too much water as 1926 opens cold and crisp and sodden…

Herriman incorporated his love of cinema here by introducing an itinerant film crew to the cast and began playing even more with his audience and the Fourth Wall after one of the cartoon regulars swiped all the black ink leaving the rest of the cast in a deeply diminished state of embellishment.

The infinitely inventive scribbler also created a bigger role for Mock Duck who temporarily quit the laundry business to set up as a psychic prognosticator and surly seer whilst poor Pupp began to slowly gain the upper paw in the turbulent triangular relationship…

Krazy, meanwhile, discovered a previously unsuspected – and apparently genetically predisposed – affinity for lighting and electricity which the rest of the cast were able to share but not enjoy…

Also always on offer are wry cartoon commentaries on the increasingly technological advancement of the nation, seasonal landmarks and the evergreen fodder of unwanted kids and illegal drinking as well as more pomposity punctured and penny-pinching money-making schemes from the town’s great and good always coming to nothing…

…And sometimes plain mischief rules, such as when Herriman pictorially plays hob with the laws of physics just to see what will happen…

Wrapping up the cartoon gold is another erudite and instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page’, providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed.

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

If, however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this glorious compendium is a most accessible way to do so. Heck, it’s even available as an eBook now so don’t waste the opportunity…
© 2002 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Justice League of America: The Silver Age volume 2


By Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky, Bernard Sachs & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6515-1

The advent of the Justice League of America marks the moment when superheroes truly made comicbooks their own particular preserve. Even though the popularity of masked champions has waxed and waned since 1960 and other genres have re-won their places on published pages, in the minds of America – and the world – Comics means Superheroes.

The JLA signalled that men – and even a few women – in capes and masks were back for good…

When Julius Schwartz began reviving and revitalising the nigh-defunct superhero genre in 1956, his key moment came a few years later with the uniting of these reconfigured mystery men into a team…

The League was launched in issue #28 of The Brave and the Bold (March 1960) and cemented the growth and validity of the revived sub-genre, triggering an explosion of new characters at every company producing comicbooks; even spreading to the rest of the world as the 1960s progressed.

Spanning February 1962 to May 1963, this latest full-colour paperback collection of timeless classics (also available digitally) re-presents issues #9-19 of the epochal first series of Justice League of America with scripter Gardner Fox and illustrators Mike Sekowsky & Bernard Sachs seemingly able to do no wrong…

Although Superman and Batman were included in the membership their participation had been strictly limited as editorial policy at the start was to avoid possible reader ennui and saturation from over-exposure. That ended with the stories gathered here as they joined the regulars Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, J’onn J’onzz – Manhunter from Mars and late inductee Green Arrow. There were also contributions from “typical teenager” Snapper Carr: a hip and plucky mascot who proved a focus of ferocious fan debate for decades thereafter…

Justice League of America #9 opens proceedings here: a legendary and oft-recounted tale and the start of a spectacular run of nigh-perfect super-hero adventures. ‘The Origin of the Justice League’ recounts the circumstances of the team’s birth: an alien invasion saga of mighty space warriors seeking to use Earth as a gladiatorial arena in which to decide the future ruler of their distant world Appellax.

It’s followed by the series’ first continued story. ‘The Fantastic Fingers of Felix Faust’ finds the World’s Greatest Superheroes already battling a marauder from the future when they’re spellbound by a vile sorcerer. Faust has awoken three antediluvian demons and sold them the world in exchange for 100 years of unlimited power. Although the heroes eventually outwit and defeat Faust they have no idea that the demons are loose…

In ‘One Hour to Doomsday’ the JLA pursue and capture their initial target The Lord of Time, but are then trapped a century from their home-era by the awakened, re-empowered demons. This level of plot complexity hadn’t been seen in comics since the closure of EC Comics, and never before in a superhero tale. It was a profound acknowledgement by the creators that the readership was no longer simply little kids – if indeed it ever had been…

Arch-villain Doctor Light debuted in #12, attempting a pre-emptive strike on the team by transporting them to carefully selected sidereal worlds where their abilities would be useless, but ‘The Last Case of the Justice League’ proved to be anything but, and in the next issue the heroes saved our entire reality by solving ‘The Riddle of the Robot Justice League’ created to stop the champions from halting the theft of our life-energy by agents of another cosmic realm.

‘The Menace of the “Atom” Bomb’ in issue #14 was a neat way of introducing latest member The Atom whilst showing a fresh side to an old villain masquerading as new nemesis Mister Memory whilst issue #15’s ‘Challenge of the Untouchable Aliens’ added some fresh texture to the formulaic plot of extra-dimensional invaders out for our destruction.

‘The Cavern of Deadly Spheres’ was a deceptive change-of-pace tale with a narrative technique that just couldn’t be used on today’s oh-so-sophisticated audience, but still has the power to grip a reader, after which ‘Triumph of the Tornado Tyrant’ saw a sentient cyclone that had once battled the indomitable Adam Strange (in Mystery in Space #61- or Adam Strange Archives volume 1) set up housekeeping on an desolate world and ponder the very nature of Good and Evil.

It soon realised that it needed the help of the Justice League to reach a survivable conclusion.

Teaser Alert: As well being a cracking yarn, this story is pivotal in the development of the android hero Red Tornado

In #18 the heroes were forcibly summoned to a subatomic world by three planetary champions whose continued existence threatened to destroy the very world they were designed to protect. ‘Journey to the Micro-World’ found the JLA compelled to defeat opponents who were literally unbeatable and discovering yet again that Batman’s brains were a super power no force could thwart…

A final perplexing puzzle was posed in ‘The Super-Exiles of Earth’ after unstoppable duplicates of the heroes went on a crime-spree, forcing the world’s governments to banish the League into space. Battling undercover, the team proved too much for the mystery mastermind behind the plot and returned to public acclaim in a stellar wrap-up to another fabulous feast of four-colour fun.

With iconic covers by Sekowsky and Murphy Anderson, these tales are a perfect example of all that was best about the Silver Age of comics, combining optimism and ingenuity with bonhomie and adventure. This slice of better times also has the benefit of cherishing wonderment whilst actually being historically valid for any fan of our medium. And best of all the stories here are still captivating and enthralling transports of delight.

These classical compendia are a dedicated fan’s delight: an absolute gift for modern fans who desperately need to catch up without going bankrupt. They are also perfect to give to youngsters as an introduction into a fabulous world of adventure and magic…
© 1962, 1963, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Golden Age volume 1


By Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Whitney Ellsworth, Sheldon Moldoff, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6333-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Vintage Comicbook Perfection… 10/10

For anyone who’s read more than a few of these posts, my tastes should be fairly apparent, but in case you’re in any doubt, here’s a flat-out confession: I’m that shabby, possibly crazy old geezer muttering at the checkout about how things were better before, and all new things are crap and not the same and…

You get the picture. Now, ignore all that. It’s true but it’s not relevant here.

Batman: The Golden Age is the latest paperback-format (there’s also a weightier, pricier but more capacious hardback Omnibus available) re-presentation of the Dark Knight’s earliest exploits.

Set in original chronological order, it forgoes glossy, high-definition paper and reproduction techniques in favour of a newsprint-adjacent feel and the same flat, bright-yet-muted colour palette which graced the originals.

There’s no fuss, fiddle or Foreword, and the book steams straight into the meat of the matter with the accumulated first year and a half of material masked mystery-man plus all those stunning covers spanning Detective Comics #27-45; Batman #1-3 and the Dynamic Duo’s story from New York World’s Fair Comics 1940; cumulatively covering all the groundbreaking escapades from May 1939-November 1940.

As Eny Fule Kno, Detective #27 spotlighted the Gotham Guardian’s debut in the ‘Case of the Chemical Syndicate!’ by Bob Kane and close collaborator/co-originator Bill Finger.

This spartan, understated yarn introduced dilettante playboy criminologist Bruce Wayne, drawn into a straightforward crime-caper wherein a cabal of industrialists were successively murdered. The killings stopped when an eerie figure dubbed “The Bat-Man” intruded on Police Commissioner Gordon’s stalled investigation and ruthlessly exposed and dealt with the hidden killer.

The next issue saw the fugitive vigilante return to crush ‘Frenchy Blake’s Jewel Gang’ before encountering his very first psychopathic killer and returning villain in Detective #29. Gardner Fox scripted the next few adventures beginning with ‘The Batman Meets Doctor Death’, featuring a deadly duel of wits with deranged, greedy general practitioner Karl Hellfern and his assorted instruments of murder: the most destructive and diabolical of which was sinister Asiatic manservant Jabah

Confident of their new villain’s potential, Kane, Fox and inker Sheldon Mayer encored the mad medic for the next instalment in ‘The Return of Doctor Death’, before Fox and Finger co-scripted a 2-part shocker which introduced the first bat-plane, Bruce’s girlfriend Julie Madison and undead horror The Monk in an expansive, globe-girdling spooky saga. ‘Batman Versus the Vampire’ concluded in an epic chase across Eastern Europe and a spectacular climax in a monster-filled castle in issue #32.

Detective Comics #33 featured Fox & Kane’s ‘The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom’: a blockbusting disaster thriller which just casually slipped in the secret origin of the Gotham Guardian, as mere prelude to intoxicating air-pirate action, after which Euro-trash dastard Duc D’Orterre found his uncanny science and unsavoury appetites no match for the mighty Batman in ‘Peril in Paris’.

Bill Finger returned as lead scripter in issue #35, pitting the Cowled Crusader against crazed cultists murdering everyone who had seen their sacred jewel in ‘The Case of the Ruby Idol’ – although the many deaths were actually caused by a far more prosaic villain, after which grotesque criminal genius ‘Professor Hugo Strange’ (inked by new kid Jerry Robinson) debuted with his murderous man-made fog and lightning machine in #36, and all-pervasive enemy agents ‘The Spies’ ultimately proved no match for the vengeful masked Manhunter in #37.

Detective Comics #38 (April 1940) changed the landscape of comicbooks forever with the introduction of ‘Robin, The Boy Wonder’: child trapeze artist Dick Grayson whose parents were murdered before his eyes and who thereafter joined Batman in a lifelong quest for justice, by bringing to justice mobster mad dog Boss Zucco

After the Flying Grayson’s killers were captured, Batman #1 (Spring 1940) opened proceedings with a recycled origin culled from portions of Detective Comics #33 and 34. ‘The Legend of the Batman – Who He Is and How He Came to Be!’ by Fox, Kane & Moldoff offered in two perfect pages what is still the best ever origin of the character, after which ‘The Joker’ (Finger, Kane & Robinson – who produced all the remaining tales in this astonishing premiere issue) introduced the greatest villain in DC’s criminal pantheon via a stunning tale of extortion and wilful wanton murder.

‘Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters’ follows as the old adversary returns with laboratory-grown hyperthyroid horrors to rampage through the terrified city and ‘The Cat’ – who later added the suffix ‘Woman’ to her name to avoid any possible doubt or confusion – plied her felonious trade of jewel theft aboard the wrong cruise-liner and fell foul for the first time of the dashing Dynamic Duo.

The initial issue ends with the ‘The Joker Returns’ as the sinister clown breaks jail to resume his terrifying campaign of murder for fun and profit before “dying” in mortal combat with the Gotham Guardian.

Following a superb pin-up (originally the back cover of the premier issue) of the Dynamic Duo by Kane, the tense suspense and all-out action continues with Detective #39 and ‘The Horde of the Green Dragon’ – oriental Tong killers in Chinatown – by Finger, Kane & Robinson, after which ‘Beware of Clayface!’ finds the Dynamic Duo solving a string of murders on a film set which almost sees Julie Madison the latest victim of a monstrous movie maniac…

Batman and Robin solved the baffling mystery of a kidnapped boy in Detective #41’s ‘A Master Murderer’ before enjoying their second solo outing in four comics classics from Batman #2 (Summer 1940).

It begins with ‘Joker Meets Cat-Woman’ (Finger, Kane, Robinson & new find George Roussos) wherein svelte thief, homicidal jester and a crime syndicate all tussle for the same treasure with the Caped Crusaders caught in the middle.

‘Wolf, the Crime Master’ offers a fascinating take on the classic Jekyll & Hyde tragedy after which an insidious and ingenious murder-mystery ensues in ‘The Case of the Clubfoot Murderers’ before Batman and Robin confront uncanny savages and ruthless showbiz promoters in poignant monster story ‘The Case of the Missing Link’.

‘Batman and Robin Visit the New York World’s Fair’ comes from the second New York World’s Fair Comics. Finger, Kane & Roussos followed the vacationing Dynamic Duo as they track down a maniac mastermind with a metal-dissolving ray, after which Detective Comics #42 again finds our heroes ending another murder maniac’s rampage in ‘The Case of the Prophetic Pictures!’ before clashing with a corrupt mayor in #43’s ‘The Case of the City of Terror!’

An unparallelled hit, Batman stories never rested on their laurels. The creators always sought to expand their parameters as with Detective #44 and a nightmarish fantasy of giants and goblins in ‘The Land Behind the Light!’, after which Batman #3 (Fall 1940) has Finger, Kane, Robinson & Roussos rise to even greater heights, beginning with ‘The Strange Case of the Diabolical Puppet Master’: an eerie episode of uncanny mesmerism and infamous espionage…

Then a grisly scheme ensues as innocent citizens are mysteriously transformed into specimens of horror and artworks destroyed by the spiteful commands of ‘The Ugliest Man in the World’ before ‘The Crime School for Boys!!’ sees Robin infiltrate a gang who have a cruel and cunning recruitment plan for dead-end kids…

‘The Batman vs. the Cat-Woman’ then reveals the larcenous lady in well over her head when she steals for – and from – the wrong people…

The issue also offered a worthy Special Feature as ‘The Batman Says’ presented an illustrated prose Law & Order pep-talk crafted by Whitney Ellsworth and illustrated by Robinson…

The all-out action concludes here with a magnificent and horrific Joker jape from Detective Comics #45 as ‘The Case of the Laughing Death’ displays the Harlequin of Hate undertaking a campaign of macabre murder against everyone who has ever defied or offended him…

Including full Creator biographies and with Batman covers by Kane, Robinson & Roussos and all the other general action ones by Fred Guardineer & Creig Flessel, this is a stunning monument to exuberance and raw talent. Kane, Robinson and their compatriots created an iconography which carried the Batman feature well beyond its allotted life-span until later creators could re-invigorate it. They added a new dimension to children’s reading… and their work is still captivatingly accessible.

Moreover, these early stories set the standard for comic superheroes. Whatever you like now, you owe it to these stories. Superman gave us the idea, but writers like Finger and Fox refined and defined the meta-structure of the costumed crime-fighter.

Where the Man of Steel was as much Social Force and wish fulfilment as hero, Batman and Robin did what we ordinary mortals wanted to do. They taught bad people the lessons they deserved…

These are tales of elemental power and joyful exuberance, brimming with deep mood and addictive action. Comicbook heroics simply don’t come any better.

One final thing: I’m still that guy in paragraph one, right? I’ve read these stories many, many times, in every format imaginable, and I’d like to thank whoever decided that they should also be available in as close a facsimile to the originals as we can get these days.

More than anything else, this serves to perfectly recapture the mood and impact of that revolutionary masked avenger and, of course, delights my heavily concealed inner child no end.
© 1939, 1940, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Sidney Smith’s The Gumps


By Sidney Smith, edited and compiled by Herb Galewitz (Charles Scribner’s Sons)
ISBN: 978-0-68413-997-5

Chances are you’ve never heard of him, but Robert Sidney Smith (February 13th 1877-October 20th 1935) is probably one of the most influential creators in the history of popular entertainment. A pretty big claim, I admit, but true nonetheless.

Smith was a pioneer of what we call continuity and the most successful early cartoonist to move the medium on from situational, gag-a-day variations on a theme (a style which dominates again today in almost all popular strips like B.C., Blondie or Beetle Bailey) and build a relationship based on progress with his avid audience.

The Gumps grew from a notion of influential comic strip Svengali Joseph Medill Patterson – Editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune – who shaped the development of such iconic institutions as Little Orphan Annie, Gasoline Alley, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates and so many more. He handed the idea to Smith to make magic with….

The ongoing saga of a middle class American family began in 1917 and ran for 42 years, inviting readers to share the – largely comedic – tribulations of chinless wonder Andy Gump, his formidable wife Minerva, son Chester, cat Hope, dog Buck and fearsome elderly cook/housemaid Tilda.

Andy was a regular blowhard with lots of schemes to make his fortune, Min was shrewish and nagging, the boys were troublesome and Tilda was a nosy tartar. The domestic scene occasional drifted into thrilling adventure and flights of fancy whenever eccentric, two-fisted globetrotting millionaire Uncle Bim paid a visit…

It sounds hackneyed now, but that’s because The Gumps wrote the book on what daily story narratives should be: a lot of laughs, plenty of vicarious judgement, the occasional tragedy, oodles of long-drawn out tension and characters everyone recognised if not actually identified with…

Having enticed and beguiled a nation, The Gumps was one of the earliest strips to make the jump to celluloid. More than four dozen Universal Pictures 2-reel comedies were released between 1923- 1928 starring Joe Murphy as the gormless patriarch. These followed fifty or more animated cartoons produced and directed by Wallace A. Carlson with scripts credited to Smith which were first seen between in 1920 and 1921.

The Gumps became an early sensation of radio (1931-1937), paving the way for all later family soap operas which mimicked the irresistible format.

Most importantly, as the strip progressed, its growing popularity became a key driver in the rise of comics syndication. Eventually Sidney Smith’s baby was being seen across America and the world and he became one of the most highly-paid artists in the history of the medium.

His salary was enormous and kept rising. The grateful Patterson frequently rewarded him with a new extravagance to show his gratitude. The legend goes that racing mad speed-freak Smith was driving his latest luxury Rolls Royce when he died in a smash-up in 1935…

After his shocking death, Patterson parachuted in sports cartoonist Gus Edson. He was a creditable replacement but the indefinable pizzazz was gone. Whether it was something unique to Smith or simply that times were changing will never be known. Readership declined steadily – although it took decades – and the feature finally folded on October 17th 1959, by which time less than twenty papers carried it.

There will probably never be a comprehensive or complete Gumps collection: the art is still wonderful and most of the gags remain well-conceived and effective. The real problem is the pacing and verbosity of the text in the panels.

Smith was writing and drawing a new way to tell stories and had to be sure the majority of his audience were with him. For lots of modern readers, blessed with a hundred years of progress, much of the material can seem interminably slow. Not so back then: many of Smith’s boldest innovations caused uproar and shock on a periodic basis…

This sterling monochrome landscape hardback from 1974 (254 x 231 x 23 mm) offers the best of all possible worlds; extracting salient snippets, events and extracts from key storylines whilst providing fascinating commentary and context where necessary…

On Thursday February 8th 1917 Sidney Smith’s funny animal strip Old Doc Yak ended with the sagacious ruminant moving out of their house and wondering who the next tenants might be. The following Monday – February 12th – the doors opened on the Gump clan. The magic started strong and just kept on going…

Packed with photos and plenty of astonishing facts, Herb Galewitz’s ‘Introduction’ offers the run-down on the strip and its creator whilst also providing a glimpse at the star in the making through ‘Sidney Smith’s Sports Cartoons’. Also revealed are ‘The Last Old Doc Yak’ strip and a handy pictorial introduction to the cast before ‘The Early Years – 1917-20’ sees the stories begin to unfold…

Scenes of wedded bliss and domestic contention abound as Andy and Min contend with household chores, wayward furnaces, gardening, child-rearing and each other. As ticked off as they got, the happy marrieds seldom let their adversarial moments linger or fester…

‘Andy On Vacation – 1922’ shows our hero’s take on bucolic pastimes such as fishing, hiking and cooking after he and Min take separate holidays and Andy finds himself at a lakeside cabin with the least welcoming couple in history. Mr. Gump doesn’t mind: it takes all sorts and he’s willing to be accommodating…

The satire cup overflows when the pontificating prawn then enters politics. ‘Andy Runs for Congress – 1922’ provides plenty of scope for character assassination, skulduggery and corrupt shenanigans before all the votes are finally cast and counted…

The Gumps really hit its peak after moving en masse into melodrama as with ‘The Vindication of Tom Carr – 1929’ wherein romantic series regular Mary Gold’s one true love is wrongfully convicted of robbery. Smith sagely portrayed the trial in daily bulletins which built tension and sympathy in equal amounts. When the travesty of justice saw the real culprit rapaciously move in on Mary, the assembled readership was aghast and astoundingly vocal in their protests…

They went absolutely crazy when the vile predator’s machinations led shockingly to ‘The Death of Mary Gold – 1929’. The story then moved from the comics section to the Front Page as readers registered their disapproval even as the sales of papers carrying the strip skyrocketed…

Uncle Bim was an exotic semi-regular whose appearances always caused sparks. His lonely years of prospecting and wealth-gathering looked likely to end when he met Millie De Stross but her social-climbing mother had other ideas. These brought her to near ruin when the gullible old lady met unscrupulous embezzler and conman Townsend Zander who masqueraded as royalty in ‘The Count Bessford Affair – 1933’

With Mama firmly in the crook’s pocket, the scoundrel demanded marriage to Millie as part of his illegally-obtained payment. When that went wrong he resorted to kidnap and blackmail.

The audience was breathless and terrified. Their favourite funny page feature had a track record of letting the good guys suffer and killing off heroines…

When ‘The Disappearance of Uncle Bim – 1933’ was finally resolved, the distraught millionaire and his intended rushed to the altar but Zander had one last card to play, resulting in ‘A Foiled Wedding! – 1934’

The villain’s outrageous claim to have already wed Millie led to more courtroom drama and ‘A Legal Hassle! – 1934’ which allowed the reprehensible and haughty Mama De Stross to sue Bim for his fortune, so Andy took the beleaguered suitor to his old holiday haunt for ‘An Interlude at Shady Rest – 1934’

Batteries fully recharged, the irrepressible Gumps returned to the fray and at last defeated Zander and Mrs. De Stross, resulting in a long-delayed happy ending of sorts with ‘Bim and Millie, United at Last – 1934’.

Of course that meant the newlyweds had to cope with ‘Mama De Stross, Mother In Law – 1934’

These too-brief tastes of Smith’s amazing graphic narrative achievements are supplemented by a selection of shorter vignettes such as a glimpse at the unique service of housemaid ‘Tilda’ and the wiles of child prodigy ‘Chester Gump’ as well as a peek at successor ‘Gus Edson’s The Gumps.

Also on view is an appreciation of Smith’s gag-panel displaying the oriental wisdom of ‘Ching Chow’.

Although disquieting – if not actually disturbing – to modern eyes, this philosophy-spouting comedy Chinaman first appeared on January 27th 1927 and on Smith’s death was taken over by Stanley Link. Regarded as an irreplaceable cartoon “fortune cookie” by many editors, the panel was crafted by a succession of creators and ran until June 4th 1990, outliving The Gumps by almost forty years…

The examples seen here are counterbalanced by a ‘Comparison of Chester Gump and Stanley Link’s Tiny Tim and followed by a photo-feature ‘Miscellany’ displaying a wide range of Gumps books and merchandise to end this cartoon celebration…

Studious and genuinely enticing for students of the comic form and anybody interested in the development of both soap operas and sitcoms, this book provides insight and a fascinating visual tour of a phenomenon and world we’ve mostly outgrown, but one worth celebrating for all that.
© 1974 The Chicago Tribune/N.Y. News Syndicate Inc. All rights reserved.

Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde volume 3: The Birthday of the Infanta


Adapted by P. Craig Russell with Galen Showman (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-214-5 (Signed HC)        978-1-56163-775-1 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Comicbook Gift of the Graphic Magi… 9/10

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

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

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

As our industry grew up and coincided with the global fantasy boom, Russell returned to the comics industry with Marvel Graphic Novel: Elric (1982), further adapting prose tales of Michael Moorcock’s iconic sword-&-sorcery star in the magazine Epic Illustrated and elsewhere.

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

In 1992, he began adapting the two volumes of Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde – a mission he continues to date, deftly balancing tales of pious allegorical wonderment with a wry touch and clear, heartfelt joy in the originating material of a mercurial misunderstood, much-maligned master of devastating, so-quotable epigrams who was briefly the most popular man in London Society…

First published in May 1888, The Happy Prince and Other Tales was Oscar Fingall O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’s first book for children with the lead story merely one of a quintet of literary gems. The others within were The Nightingale and the Rose, The Devoted Friend, The Remarkable Rocket and The Selfish Giant.

It was followed in 1891 by A House of Pomegranates; Wilde’s second book of stories for children which held The Young King, The Fisherman and his Soul, The Star-Child and our subject today The Birthday of the Infanta, with adaptor Russell utilising all his skills to staggering effect to deliver a masterpiece of sardonic whimsy and casual cruelty.

In the glittering court of the King of Spain, the monarch is celebrating his beautiful daughter’s twelfth birthday. For such an occasion the normally closeted, haughty child is allowed to play with other, lesser youngsters whilst conniving courtiers look on and seek any moment of advantage which might further their own prospects.

There’s little chance of that, however. The King is not the man he was and has languished in growing misery since his beloved wife died soon after delivering the sole heir. So bereft is he at the loss of his flighty French bride’s boundless spirit and joyous joie de vivre that he cannot bear to have her interred. Instead her mummified corpse still occupies the chapel in the grand palace…

Thus the Infanta grew up isolated by her elevated position and swamped with magnificence, drowning in privilege and inundated in all things beautiful, but deprived of companionship. Today she takes full advantage of the youthful playthings around her, revelling in every boisterous dance and all attentions paid by the sons and daughters of the Court. The entertainments are even more thrilling: acrobats, jugglers, jongleurs, dancers, magicians and wild beasts all amaze, but nothing delights the lovely child more than the hideous, malformed dwarf-boy who dances for her, lost in his own simple, insensate world.

The deformed, inadvertent fool is a present from two particularly noxious nobles who had seen him capering innocently in the forests and promptly made off with him. The blithe simpleton knows nothing of this, only that his actions in this immaculate garden of boughs and flowers make the most beautiful creature in the world happy… and that her laughter is music to him…

His idiot caperings concluded, the dwarf is given a perfect white rose by the Infanta before the nobles’ children are escorted away. This casual, indifferent act drives him to even greater paroxysms and in his head a dangerous idea forms…

Later he sneaks into the Palace, finding room after room of breathtaking opulence and dazzling magnificence until he reaches at last the Infanta’s apartments. Curiously peeking in, he spies a coarse, misshapen monster mimicking his every move. Never has he seen such a thing of such utter ugliness…

What follows is one of the saddest, most relentless withering denouements in literature; a thinly-veiled yet ferocious condemnation of the brutal force of vanity and deadly power of surface glamour devastatingly depicted with debilitating detail by Russell and his assistant/letterer Galen Showman.

Bring tissues, and probably a stiff drink. You’ll need them.

A deeply moving, studiously horrific and truly tragic fairytale that shows not all endings are happy or even just, The Birthday of the Infanta displays Wilde’s razor-edged social commentary and scathingly beautiful cynicism to full effect; denying us the requisite happy ending and harbouring a cruel barb to prick and train the conscience…

This unsettling yet unmissable adaptation signalled another high point in Russell’s astounding career: another milestone in the long, slow transition of an American mass market medium into a genuine art form.

Most importantly, this and the other volumes in the series are incredibly lovely and irresistibly readable examples of superb writing (so please read Wilde’s original prose tomes too) and sublime examples of comics at their most potent.
© 1998 P. Craig Russell. All rights reserved.