Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 5: 1945-1946


By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-484-9

Probably the most successful comic strip fantasy ever produced, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched on February 13th 1937, a luscious full-colour Sunday page offering a perfect realm adventure and romance. Year by year, in real time, the strip followed the exploits of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his ancestral homeland in Scandinavian Thule who grew up to roam the world and rose to a paramount position amongst the mightiest heroes of fabled Camelot.

As crafted by sublime master draftsman Harold “Hal” Foster, the princeling matured to clean-limbed manhood in a heady sea of exotic wonderment; visiting far-flung lands and siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts.

There have been films, animated series and all manner of books, toys, records, games and collections based on the strip – one of too few to have lasted from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (over 4000 episodes and still forging ever onward) – and even in these declining days of the newspaper narrative strip as a viable medium it still claims over 300 American papers as its home. It has even made it into the very ether with an online edition.

Foster produced the strip, one spectacular page a week until 1971, when he began to ease up on his self-appointed workload. With the syndicate’s approval, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt illustrator John Cullen Murphy was chosen to draw the feature. Foster continued as writer and layout designer until 1980, after which he fully retired and Murphy’s son assumed the writer’s role.

In 2004 the senior Cullen Murphy also retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip has soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of writer Mark Schultz and artists Gary Gianni and Tom Yeates.

This seventh gloriously oversized full-colour hardback volume reprints the strips from January 7th 1945 to 29th December 1946 during which time his celebrated yet rarely seen “Footer strip” The Mediaeval Castle was brought to conclusion.

Because of wartime paper rationing, newspapers across the country needed to fill their reduced page counts carefully. To assist their clients the syndicate dictated format-changes to most of their strip properties and Prince Valiant began to appear with an unrelated (and therefore optional) second feature, which individual papers could opt to omit according to their local space considerations.

Apparently the three-panel-per week saga starring the 11th century family of Lord and Lady Harwood, their young sons Arn and Guy and teenaged daughter Alice – a feudal pot-boiler so popular that it spawned a couple of relatively contemporary book collections – wasn’t dropped by a single paper throughout its 18-month run from April 23rd 1944 to 25th November 1945, but Foster was happy to return to one epic per full page once the newsprint restrictions were lifted.

In this volume the strip sees a less than historical Christmas celebration and harsh winter turn into a fruitful spring as the bitter rivalry with neighbour Sir Gregory slowly mends, thanks in no small part to a hostage swap of their first-born sons and Alice’s romantic inclinations towards young and dashing Hubert Gregory. Of course it doesn’t hurt that their quarrelsome fathers have been called away Crusading…

P. Craig Russell’s introductory essay ‘Jack Kirby, Hal Foster and Me’ expresses and describes Prince Valiant’s influence on one of today’s most lauded creators, after which the magnificent main saga then resumes.

What Has Gone Before: Despite his many exploits and triumphs, restless Valiant is haunted by visions of Queen Aleta of The Misty Isles, whom he believes has bewitched him, utterly unaware that she saved his life not once but twice.

Val pays an adventure-filled to his father King Aguar – whom he has restored to overlordship of Thule, eradicating assorted bandit bands, being shipwrecked and cast away before foiling a plot to oust the aged monarch.

Once home, however, a hunting accident almost kills him and, laid up, he plays Cupid for a crippled artist and a Viking’s daughter. Once, barely recovered, he then repulses an invasion by barbarian Finns.

Never a man for peace and indolence, Val then determines to free himself of Aleta’s bewitching spell. Returning to Camelot the Prince enlists the aid of Sir Gawain and they promptly set off across Europe towards Misty Isles. In Germany they are attacked by barbaric Goths, before taking ship in Rome and being shipwrecked. The squire Beric and now amnesiac Val are marooned whilst Gawain is captured for ransom by an ambitious Sicilian noble.

As Beric sacrifices himself to save his Prince’s life, Valiant finally recovers his wits and lands on the extremely hostile Misty Isles…

Aleta, spellbinder of Val’s nightmares, has recently been ill-used by fate. Never the supernatural monster he believed, she was, however, in dire straits with a flock of suitors and her own courtiers pressing her to marry immediately and produce an heir. So it was with mixed emotions that she saw the boy she had saved burst in, snatch her up and flee the Isles with her as his rather uncomplaining prisoner.

Val, wounded, exhausted but triumphant, now has the cause of all his woes chained and at his mercy as he turns toward England…

After crossing a vast desert with pursuers hard on their heels the couple reach the port of Tobruch, where the local despot tries to buy Val’s hard-won prize. Somehow his hatred towards her has become something else and soon he is protecting her from bandits and numerous other perils.

She returns the favour when he is injured: nursing him through fever and even convincing a band of roving Tuaregs to escort them across Arabia. By the time the couple reach Bengasi Val is again her slave, but only realises it after a recuperative stay in the palace of the Sultan. It’s at that moment that Donardo, Robber Emperor of Saramand strikes, stealing Aleta and setting his band of brigands upon Valiant.

The villain’s biggest mistake is not ensuring Val is dead. Alone and weaponless, the Arthurian knight relentlessly tracks the thieves and deals with them mercilessly before reaching Donardo’s citadel moments too late to exact full vengeance.

Unable to liberate Aleta, he instead foments a full scale war between the Robber Emperor and his neighbours, each as wicked and untrustworthy as Aleta’s abductor…

Barbaric and time-consuming, the conflict rages, with each king secretly seeking to double-cross his temporary ally. However, whilst Val is riding a tiger by acting as the warlord of the attacking forces, Aleta takes her fate into her own hands and escapes from Donardo’s castle and is (relatively) safe when Saramand is sacked and the Emperor meets his long-delayed fate…

Leaving the devastated city, Val, reunited with his love and his legendary Singing Sword, travels to Rome, arriving just as Vandal general Genseric attacks the Eternal City. Befriended by Genseric’s employer, the former Empress Eudoxia, Val and Aleta are married there before again trying for England. To do so, they steal a ship from the victorious, blood-crazed and very drunk Vandals, heading to the relative safety of Lyon.

As they quit the vessel, a slave implores Val to free him, and the scribe Amurath joins their party. He is clearly quite taken with Aleta’s new handmaiden Cidi

With Rome fallen every vestige of civilisation – such as safe roads – has ended and the party is soon under attack by bandits. These Val can handle, but he has no conception of the peril he faces when Cidi develops a lethally obsessive fascination for him…

When besotted Amurath stops the handmaiden from poisoning Aleta, Cidi responds by committing suicide and the heartbroken scribe changes. As the newlyweds enter Paris, he schemes to have them shamed and killed by the noble Thane Roth as they stay in his palace…

The freed slave had underestimated Aleta however, and the sinister plan fails…

As Val and Aleta commence the last leg of their journey they meet and employ a tempestuous fire-haired northern titan named Katwin. She will be the Lady’s handmaiden in England…

With little trouble the party reach Camelot where Aleta soon becomes a Court favourite – despite a few hilariously compromising moments before she is formally introduced to Arthur. She soon sets tongues wagging by riding and hunting just like man…

The scandals continue after Valiant and others are despatched on a mission against the Saxons. Refusing to be separated from her husband, the headstrong Queen of the Misty Isles impersonates a knight and joins the war-party…

Soon after, whilst hunting with Val and Gawain, she charms a band of outlaws led by charismatic Hugh-the-Fox when they are all captured for ransom. Brokering a peace and pardon from Arthur she turns the woodsmen into scouts against the ever-encroaching Jutes and Saxons of high king Horsa.

After spectacularly repulsing the invaders with “his” wood scouts, Val’s next adventure pits him against the treacherous Sir Modred, who seeks power by exposing Sir Launcelot’s relationship with Queen Guinevere. To save the monarch’s shame, Aleta impetuously confesses to being the knight’s actual lover… just as Val returns from a mission and gets the wrong idea…

The outraged, betrayed Prince flees Camelot and only loyal Katwin is able to bring him to his senses. Reunited and both penitent, the newlyweds decide to spend winter in Thule, where Aguar can get to know his new daughter-in-law. It’s not a happy homecoming, however, and as the barely-rested Val is forced to quell a potential rebellion in Overgaard another brews in the fiefdom of Earl Jon.

Amidst the dour, grim-minded warriors, bright-and-breezy Aleta struggles to win the favour of the King – until she shows him another way to deal with his subjects’ dissatisfaction…

To Be Continued…

This volume also includes a stellar glimpse of the storyteller’s commercial endeavours in magazines and advertising in Brian M. Kane’s informative essay ‘Foster the Illustrator’ and a discussion of the strip’s amazing, groundbreaking co-star in ‘Aleta: Water Nymph of the Misty Isles’ to wrap up the full immersion in the myriad splendours of a long-gone age…

Rendered in a simply stunning panorama of glowing visual passion and precision, Prince Valiant is a constantly onrushing rollercoaster of rousing action, exotic adventure and grand romance; mixing glorious human-scaled fantasy with dry wit, broad humour with shatteringly dark violence.

Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring, this is a masterpiece of fiction: a never-ending story no one should miss. If you have never experienced the intoxicating grandeur of Foster’s magnum opus these magnificent, lavishly substantial deluxe editions are the best way to do so and will be your portal to an eye-opening world of wonder and imagination…
Prince Valiant © 2012 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2011 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.

Charley’s War: volume 1: 2 June 1916-1 August 1916

New, Expanded Review

By Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-627-9

When Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun began their tale of an impressionable lad who joins up just in time to fight in the disastrous Somme campaign, I suspect they had, as usual, the best of authorial intentions but no real idea that this time they were creating sheer comicstrip magic.

According to Neil Emery’s splendid appreciation ‘Into Battle: a Chronology of Charley’s War’, the landmark feature was originally published in British war strip anthology Battle – AKA Battle Picture Weekly, Battle Action etc. – beginning in issue #200, (6th January 1979 and running until October of 1986): recounting in harrowing detail and with shocking passion the life of an East-End kid who lied about his age to enlist with the British Army reinforcements then setting out to fight the Hun in 1916.

Prior to that author Pat Mills’ Introduction reviews the tone of those times and his intent to shake things up by sneaking an anti-war saga into a ferociously successful periodical which featured gritty he-men dealing with “the Enemy” in a variety of memorable effective means and milieus…

The stunning strip contingent – 29 episodes in all – of this magnificent monochrome hardback opens with a 4-page instalment. ‘Charley’s War – the Story of a Soldier in World War One’ sees 16-year-old London Bus worker Charley Bourne join up – despite not being old enough – and enduring horrific experiences in the mud and blood-soaked trenches.

Military life was notoriously hard and unremittingly dull… except for brief bursts of manic aggression which ended so many lives. Closely following the recorded course of the war, Mills & Colquhoun put young Charley and a rapidly changing cast (constantly whittled away by various modes of combat attrition) through weekly hell and showed another, far from glorious aspect of the conflict to the those 1970s readers.

Each episode was cunningly punctuated and elucidated by the telling narrative device of the lad’s letters to his family in “Blighty” and later reproductions of cartoons and postcards of the period.

With veteran soldier Ole Bill Tozer as his mentor Charley narrowly survives shelling, mudslides, digging details, gas attacks, the trench cat, snipers, the callous stupidity of his own commanding officers – although there are examples of good officers too – and the too often insane absurdity of a modern soldier’s life: quickly becoming a “Tommie” with a gift for lucky escapes.

When Tozer leads a party across No-Man’s Land to capture prisoners for interrogation new pal Ginger sustains a frankly hilarious wound in his nether regions. But as a result and despite the sortie establishing the inadvisability of an attack, the Allied Commanders continue their plans for a Big Push. Thus the lad is confronted with a moral dilemma when he catches a comrade trying to wound himself and get sent home before the balloon goes up. This time, grim fate intervenes before the boy soldier can make a terrible choice…

The unit’s troubles increase exponentially when arrogant toff Lieutenant Snell arrives; constantly undermining every effort by sympathetic officer Lieutenant Thomas to make the soldier’s lives tolerable. The self-serving aristocrat takes a personal dislike to Charley after the lad drops his huge picnic hamper in the trench mud…

On July 1st The Battle of the Somme began and, like so many others , Charley and his comrades are ordered “over the top” to walk steadily into the mortars and machine gun fire of the entrenched German defenders. Thomas, unable to stand the stupidity, cracks and commands them to charge at a run. It saves their lives but lands his men in a fully-manned German dug-out…

After ferocious fighting the lads gain a brief respite but the retreating Huns have left insidious booby-traps to entice them. Many favourite characters die before Charley, Ginger and poor shell-shocked Lonely are captured.

As they await their fate the traumatised veteran at last reveals the horrific events of the previous Christmas and why he wants to die. Moreover the root cause of that atrocity was the same Snell who now commands their own unit…

Through Charley’s dumb luck they escape the Boche, only to blunder into a gas attack and rescue by British Cavalry. The mounted men then gallop off to meet stern German resistance (resulting in some of the most upsetting scenes ever seen in comics) whilst Bourne and Co. are miraculously reunited with their comrades.

The combat carnage has not ceased however and the hard-pressed British are desperate to get a vital message to HQ. Charley volunteers: pushing his luck as the “thirteenth runner”…

To Be Continued…

This stunning first volume – happily still readily available – concludes with a heavily illustrated ‘Strip Commentary’ with Mills’ wonderfully informative chapter notes and commentary revealing background detail and production secrets and a historical feature by Steve White on ‘The Battle of the Somme: Putting Charley’s War in Context’.

Charley’s War closely followed actual events of the war, but this s not the strip’s only innovation. The highly detailed research concentrated more on the characters than the fighting – although there was still plenty of appalling action – and declared to the readership (which at the time of original publication were categorically assumed to be boys between ages 9-13) that “our side” could be as monstrous as the “bad guys”.

Mills also fully exercised his own political and creative agendas on the series and was always amazed at what he got away with and what seeming trivialities his editors pulled him up on.

There is no (anti) war story as gripping, engaging and engrossing, and certainly no strip which so successfully transcends its mass-market, popular culture roots to become a landmark of fictive brilliance. We can only thank our lucky stars that no Hollywood hack has made it a blockbuster which would certainly undercut the tangibility of the “heroes” whilst debasing the message.

There is nothing quite like it and you are diminished by not reading it.

Charley’s War is a true highpoint in the narrative examination of War through any artistic medium: a timeless classic of the art form and now let’s unite to make sure that it’s NOT all over by Christmas…
© 2004 Egmont Magazines Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The Complete Crumb Comics volume 8: The Death of Fritz the Cat – New Edition


By R. Crumb & guests (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-0-56097-076-7

This book contains really clever and outrageously dirty pictures, rude words, non-condemnatory drug references and allusions, apparent racism, definite sexism, godless questioning of authority and brilliantly illustrated, highly moving personal accounts and opinions. It also painfully displays a genius grappling with his inner demons in a most excruciatingly honest and uncomfortable manner.

If you – or those legally responsible for you – have a problem with that, please skip this review and don’t buy the book.

Really.

I mean it…

Robert Crumb is a truly unique creative force in comics and cartooning, with as many detractors as devotees. From the first moments of the rise of America’s counterculture, his uncompromising, forensically neurotic introspections, pictorial rants and invectives unceasingly picked away at societal scabs, measuring his own feelings and motives whilst ferociously ripping way civilisation’s concealing curtains for his own benefit. However, he always happily shared his unwholesome discoveries with anybody who would take the time to look…

In 1987 Fantagraphics Books began the Herculean task of collating, collecting and publishing the chronological totality of the artist’s vast output, and those critically important volumes are being currently reissued for another, more liberated generation.

The son of a career soldier, Robert Dennis Crumb was born in Philadelphia in 1943 into a dysfunctional, broken family. He was one of five kids who all found different ways to escape their parents’ highly volatile problems, and comic strips were paramount among them.

Like his older brother Charles, Robert immersed himself in the comics and cartoons of the day; not just reading but creating his own. Harvey Kurtzman, Carl Barks and John Stanley were particularly influential, but also comic strip legends such as E.C. Segar, Gene Ahern, Rube Goldberg, Bud (Mutt and Jeff) Fisher, Billy (Barney Google) De Beck, George (Sad Sack) Baker and Sidney (The Gumps) Smith, as well as classical illustrators like C.E. Brock and the wildly imaginative and surreal 1930’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies animated shorts.

Defensive, introspective, frustrated, increasingly horny and always compulsively driven, young Robert pursued art and self-control through religion with equal desperation. His early spiritual repression and flagrant, hubristic celibacy warred with his body’s growing needs. …

To escape his stormy early life, he married young and began working in-house at the American Greeting Cards Company. He discovered like minds in the growing counterculture movement and discovered LSD. By 1967 Crumb had moved to California and became an early star of Underground Commix. As such he found plenty of willing hippie chicks to assuage his fevered mind and hormonal body whilst reinventing the very nature of cartooning with such creations as Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, Devil Girl and a host of others. He worked on in what was essentially a creative utopia throughout the early 1970’s but the alternative lifestyle of the Underground was already dying. Soon it would disappear: dissipated, disillusioned, dropped back “in” or demised.

A few dedicated publishers and artists stayed the course, evolving on a far more businesslike footing as Crumb carried on creating, splitting his time between personal material and commercial art projects whilst incessantly probing deeper into his turbulent inner world.

This eighth volume mostly covers – in chronological order – material created and published in 1971 (with the merest tantalising smidgen of stuff from 1972), when the perpetually self-tormented artist first began to experience creative dissatisfaction with his newfound status as alternative cultural icon: a period when the no-longer insular or isolated artist was at his most flamboyantly creative, generating a constant stream of new characters, gags, commercial art jobs, short strips and with longer material popping up seemingly everywhere.

It was also the moment when he began to realise the parasitic, exploitative nature of many of the hangers-on exploiting his work for profits which he never saw himself – particularly filmmaker Ralph Bakshi, whose phenomenally successful movie of Fritz the Cat prompted Crumb to kill the cunning kitty character off…

That and more are all faithfully reproduced in this compilation – which makes for another rather dry listing here, I’m afraid – but (as always) the pictorial material itself is both engrossing and astoundingly rewarding. But please don’t take my word for it: buy the book and see for yourselves…

After a passionate if meandering photo-packed Introduction from wife and collaborator Aline Kominsky-Crumb – whom he first met in 1971 – the stream of cartoon consciousness and literary freewheeling begins with the salutary tale of ‘Stinko the Clown in Stinko’s New Car’ from Hytone, rapidly followed by the strange romance of ‘Maryjane’ originally seen in Home Grown Funnies, which also provided the (now) racially controversial and unpalatable ‘Angelfood McDevilsfood in Backwater Blues’ – with that horrific homunculus The Snoid – and twisted “love” story of ‘Whiteman Meets Big Foot’

The underground Commix scene was awash with artistic collaborations and a selection of jam sessions kicks off here with ‘Let’s Be Realistic’ from Hungry Chuck Biscuits wherein Crumb, Jay Lynch, Jay Kinney & Bruce Walthers surreally free-associated, whilst in Mom’s Homemade Comics Denis Kitchen, Don Glassford, Dale Kuipers, Jim Mitchell, Pete Poplaski, Wendel Pugh, Jay Lynch, Dave Dozier, Bruce Walthers & Dennis Brul joined forces with the bespectacled outsider to make some ‘Kumquat Jam’

From ProJunior, ‘Perdido Part One’ and ‘ProJunior in Perdido Part Two’ saw the Dagwood-esque everyman experience the growth in social violence courtesy of Crumb and fellow legend S. Clay Wilson.

All on his own again Crumb captured the appalling nature of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash!’ (from Thrilling Murder) and crafted a lovely ‘Nostalgic Books catalog cover’ for their Summer/Fall 1971 issue, after which a tranche of material from Big Ass #2 (August 1971) starts with a paranoiac perusal of ‘The Truth!’, before another obnoxious jerk resurfaces to dominate sexy bird creatures in ‘Eggs Ackley in Eggs Escapes’ even as the intimately contemplative domestic explorations of  ‘A Gurl’ dissolve into the raucous, earthy humour of ‘Anal Antics’ to end the first black and white section of this challenging chronicle.

A vividly vivacious Color Section celebrates a wealth of covers, opening with ‘The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog’(March 1971), followed by ‘Home Grown Funnies’ and its angsty back cover strip ‘The Desperate Character Writhes Again!’. Moving on, ‘Big Ass #2’, ‘Mr. Natural #2’ – front and back covers – leads to ‘Bijou Funnies #6’ and the rainbows end on the sublimely subversive front for ‘The People’s Comics’.

A return to monochrome provides two more strips from Big Ass #2 beginning with the savagely ironic ‘A Word to you Feminist Women’ and the cruelly hilarious ‘Sally Blubberbutt’ after which the contents of Mr. Natural #2 (October 1971) unfold with ‘Mr. Natural “Does the Dishes”’, before ruminating and sharing more timeless wisdom with resident curious “Straight” Flakey Foont in ‘A Gurl in Hotpants’.

This leads to ‘Sittin’ Around the Kitchen Table’ and meeting ‘The Girlfriend’, after which two untitled Mr. Natural graphic perambulations result in a cult war with the adherents of the aforementioned Snoid and everything ends with the sage and his buddy The Big Baby being released from jail to go ‘On the Bum Again’

From Bijou Funnies #6 comes another taste of ‘ProJunior’ as the poor shmuck seeks employment to keep his girlfriend quiet, whilst the jam feature ‘Hef’s Pad’ (by Crumb, Lynch & Skip Williamson) exposes the darker side of selling out for cash and fame…

A strip from Surfer Magazine vol. 12, #6 trenchantly heralds the advent of work from 1972 when ‘Salty Dog Sam “Goes Surfin’!”’, whilst the cover of Zap 7 (Spring issue) and the Nostalgia Press Book Service Catalog cover neatly segues into three superb landmark strips from The People’s Comics beginning with a deeply disturbing glimpse inside the befuddled head of the “Great Man” in ‘The Confessions of R. Crumb’.

That poignantly outrageous graphic outburst leads to a cruelly sardonic polemic in ‘The R. Crumb $uck$e$$ Story’ which merely serves as a sound narrative investment for the shockingly self-satisfied, liberating cartoon catharsis achieved by killing off his now-unwelcome signature character in ‘Fritz the Cat “Superstar”’

If Crumb had been able to suppress his creative questing, he could easily have settled for a lucrative career in any one of a number of graphic disciplines from illustrator to animator to jobbing comic book hack, but as this pivotal collection readily proves, the artist was haunted by the dream of something else – he just didn’t yet know what that was…

Crumb’s subtle mastery of his art-form and obsessive need to reveal his every hidden depth and perceived defect – in himself and the world around him – has always resulted in an unquenchable fire of challenging comedy and untamed self-analysis, and this terrific tome shows him at last mastering – or at least usefully channelling – that creative energy for the benefit of us all.

This superb series charting the perplexing pen-and-ink pilgrim’s progress is the perfect vehicle to introduce any (over 18) newcomers to the world of grown up comics. And if you need a way in yourself, seek out this book and the other sixteen as soon as conceivably possible…

Let’s Be Realistic © 1971, 1992, 1997, 2013 Crumb, Jay Lynch, Jay Kinney, Bruce Walthers & R. Crumb. Kumquat Jam © 1971, 1992, 1997, 2013 Denis Kitchen, Don Glassford, Dale Kuipers, Jim Mitchell, Pete Poplaski, Wendel Pugh, Jay Lynch, Dave Dozier, Bruce Walthers, Dennis Brul & R. Crumb. All other material © 1971, 1972, 1992, 1997, 2013 Robert Crumb. All contributory art material and content © the respective creators/copyright holders. All rights reserved.

Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 1: 1937-1938


By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-141-1

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Ideal for anybody who ever dreamed or wondered… 10/10

Rightly reckoned one of the greatest comic strips of all time, the nigh-mythical saga of a king-in-exile who became one of the greatest warriors in an age of unparalleled heroes is at once fantastically realistic and beautifully, perfectly abstracted – an indisputable paradigm of adventure fiction where anything is possible and justice will always prevail. It is the epic we all want to live in…

On one thing let us be perfectly clear: Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant is not historical. It is far better and more real than that.

Possibly the most successful and evergreen fantasy creation ever conceived, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched on Sunday 13th February 1937, a glorious weekly, full-colour window not onto the past but rather onto a world that should have been. It followed the tempestuous life of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his ancestral homeland of faraway Thule who persevered and, through tenacity, imagination and sheer grit, rose to become one of the mightiest heroes of the age of Camelot.

As depicted by the incredibly gifted Foster, this noble scion would, over the years, grow to mighty manhood amidst a heady sea of wonderment; roaming the globe and siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts.

There have been films, cartoon series and all manner of toys, games and collections based on the feature – one of the few newspaper strips to have lasted from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (over 4000 episodes and counting) and even in these declining days of newspaper cartooning it still claims over 300 American papers as its home.

Foster produced the strip, one spectacular page a week until 1971, when, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt artist John Cullen Murphy was selected to draw the feature. Foster carried on as writer and designer until 1980, after which he fully retired and Murphy’s son took over scripting duties.

In 2004 Cullen Murphy also retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of artist Gary Gianni and writer Mark Schultz and latterly Thomas Yeates, conquering one more exotic land by making it onto various web locations.

This exquisite oversized hardback volume (362 x 268mm), reprints in glorious colour – spectacularly restored from Foster’s original Printer’s Proofs – the princely pristine Sunday pages from February 1937 to December 25th 1938: those formative forays of an already impressive tale which promised much and delivered far more than anybody might have suspected during those dim and distant days…

Before the drama begins, however, Brian M. Kane offers an informative picture and photo-packed potted history of ‘Harold Rudolf Foster: 1892-1982’ after which Fred Schreiber conducts ‘An Interview with Hal Foster’ – first seen in Nemo: The Classic Comics Magazine in 1984.

Moreover, after the superb Arthurian epic exploits of the quintessential swashbuckling hero which follows, this initial collection is rounded off by Kim Thompson’s discourse on the many iterations of reprints over the years and around the world in ‘A History of Valiants’

The actual action-packed drama commences in distant Scandinavia as the King of Thule, his family and a few faithful retainers dash for a fishing boat, intent only on escaping the murderous intentions of a usurper’s army.

Their voyage carries them to the barbarous coast of Britain where they battle bands of wild men before securing a safe retreat in the gloomy fens of East Anglia. After many hard battles they reach an uneasy détente with the locals and settle into a harsh life as regal exiles…

The young Prince Valiant was but five years old when they arrived and his growing years in a hostile environment toughen the boy, sharpen his wits and give him an insatiable taste for mischief and adventure.

He befriends a local shepherd boy and together their escapades include challenging the marauding ancient dinosaurs which infest the swamp, battling a hulking man-brute and bedevilling a local witch. In retaliation the hag Horrit predicts that Val’s life would be long and packed with incredible feats but always tainted by great sorrow.

All that, plus the constant regimen of knightly training and scholarly tuition befitting an exile learning how to reclaim his stolen kingdom, make the lad a veritable hellion, but everything changes when his mother passes away. After a further year of intense schooling in the arts of battle, Valiant decides to leave the Fens and make his way in the dangerous lands beyond…

Whilst sparring with his boyhood companion, Val unsuspectingly insults Sir Launcelot who is fortuitously passing by. Although the hero is sanguine about the cheeky lad’s big mouth, his affronted squire attempts to administer a stern punishment but is rewarded with a thorough drubbing. Indeed, Launcelot has to stop the Scion of Thule from slitting the battered and defeated man’s throat.

Although he has no arms, armour, steed or money, Valiant swears that he will become a Knight…

Luck is with the Pauper Prince. After spectacularly catching and taming a wild stallion his journey is interrupted by the gregarious paladin Sir Gawain, who shares a meal and regales the boy with tales of chivalry and heroism. When their alfresco repast is spoiled by robber knight Sir Negarth who unfairly strikes the champion of Camelot, Val charges in and Gawain regains consciousness to find the threat ended, Negarth hogtied and his accomplice skewered…

Taking Val under his wing, wounded Gawain escorts the boy and his prisoner to Camelot but their journey is delayed by a gigantic dragon. Val kills it too – with the assistance of Negarth – and spends the rest of the trip arguing that the rogue should be freed for his gallantry…

He is still stoutly defending the scoundrel at his trial before King Arthur, and is rewarded by being appointed Gawain’s squire. Unfortunately Val responds badly to being teased by the other knights-in-training and finds himself locked in a dungeon whilst his tormentors heal and the Knights of the Round Table ride out to deal with an invasion of Northmen…

Whilst the flowers of chivalry are away, a plot is hatched by scheming Sir Osmond and Baron Baldon. To recoup gambling debts they intend to capture and ransom Gawain, but have not reckoned on the dauntless devotion and ruthless ingenuity of his semi-feral squire.

Easily infiltrating the bleak fortress imprisoning the hero, Val liberates his mentor through astounding feats of daring and brings the grievously wounded knight to Winchester Heath and Arthur…

As Gawain recuperates, he is approached by a young maiden. Ilene is in need of a champion and, over his squire’s protests, the still gravely unfit knight dutifully complies. Val’s protests might have been better expressed had he not been so tongue-tied by the most beautiful girl he has ever seen…

The quest to rescue Ilene’s parents is delayed when an unscrupulous warrior in scarlet challenges them, intent on possessing the lovely maiden. Correctly assessing Gawain to be no threat, the Red Knight did not live long enough to revise his opinion of the wild-eyed boy who then attacked him…

Leaving Ilene and the re-injured Gawain with a hermit, Valiant continues on alone to Branwyn Castle, recently captured by an “Ogre” who is terrorising the countryside. Through guile, force of arms and devilish tactics he then ends the threat forever.

This is an astonishing tour de force of graphic bravura that no fan could ever forget. Aspiring cartoonist Jack Kirby certainly didn’t: he recycled Val’s outlandish outfit used to terrorise the Ogre’s soldiers as the visual basis for his 1970s horror-hero Etrigan the Demon

Having successfully routed the invaders and freed Ilene’s family, Val began earnestly courting the grateful girl. His prophecy of lifelong misery seemed assured however, when her father had to regretfully inform him that she was promised to Arn, son and heir of the King of Ord

Even before that shock could sink in, Valiant was called away again. Ailing Gawain had been abducted by the sorceress Morgan le Fey, who was enamoured of the knight’s manly charms…

When Val confronts her she drugs him with a potion and he endures uncounted ages in her dungeon before affecting his escape. Weak and desperate, the lad makes his way to Camelot and enlists Merlin in a last-ditch ploy to defeat the witch and save his adored mentor…

In the meantime events have progressed and Val’s bold plans to win Ilene are upset when invitations to her wedding arrive at Camelot. Initially crushed, the resilient youth determines to travel to Ord and challenge Prince Arn for her hand.

Their meeting is nothing like Val imagined but, after much annoying interference, he and the rather admirable Arn finally begin their oft-delayed death-duel only to be again distracted when news comes that Ilene has been taken by Viking raiders…

What follows is another unparalleled moment of comics magnificence as Valiant sacrifices everything for honour, gloriously falls to superior forces, wins possession of Flamberge (the legendary Singing Sword which is brother to Excalibur) and is captured and reunited with Ilene… only to lose her again to the cruellest of fates…

After escaping from the Vikings and covering himself with glory at the Lists in Camelot – although he doesn’t realise it – the heartsick, weary Prince returns to his father in the melancholy Anglian fens, again encountering ghastly Horrit and nearly succumbing to fever.

When he recovers months later he has a new purpose: he and his faithful countrymen will travel to Thule and rescue the nation from the cruel grip of the usurper Sligon.  Unfortunately during the preparations Valiant discovers the countryside has been invaded by Saxons and is compelled by his honour to race to Camelot and warn Arthur…

To Be Continued…

Prince Valiant is a hurtling juggernaut of action and romance, blending hyper-realistic fantasy with sardonic wit, and broad humour with unbelievably stirring violence, all rendered in an incomprehensibly lovely panorama of glowing art.

Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring, Foster’s magnum opus is a World Classic of storytelling, and this magnificent deluxe edition is something no fan can afford to be without.

If you have never experienced the majesty and grandeur of the strip, this breathtaking premium collection is the best possible way to start and will be your gateway to a staggering world of wonder and imagination…

All comics material © 2009 King Features Syndicate except Tarzan page, © 2009 ERB Inc. All other content and properties © 2009 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.

P. Craig Russell’s Opera Adaptations Hardcover Set


By P. Craig Russell & various (NBM)
Set ISBN: 978-1-56163-755-3
Vol. 1 ISBN: 978-1-56163-350-0
Vol. 2 ISBN: 978-1-56163-372-2
Vol. 3 ISBN: 978-1-56163-388-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Startling, seductive and sublime… 10/10

Here’s a tremendous opportunity and irresistible bargain for aficionados of magnificent Art and Grand Spectacle…

P. Craig Russell began his illustrious career in comics during the early 1970s and came to fame early with a groundbreaking run on science fiction adventure series Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds. His fanciful, meticulous classicist style was derived from the great illustrators of Victorian and Edwardian heroic fantasy and was greatly at odds with the sausage-factory deadlines and sensibilities of the mainstream comicbook industry.

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 the industry grew up and a fantasy boom began he returned to comics with Marvel Graphic Novel: Elric (1982), further adapting 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 others.

In 2003 Canadian publisher NBM began a prodigious program to collect all those music-based masterpieces into The P. Craig Russell Library of Opera Adaptations: first as the luxurious clothbound hardcovers under discussion here and eventually in more affordable trade paperback albums.

Now all three of the sturdy originals are available again as a lavish economical shrink-wrapped set no fan of the comic arts could possibly resist.

Completed in 1990, the first huge volume (300 x210mm) features an epic rendering of Mozart’s lush fairytale romance The Magic Flute (from Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto) wherein valiant if lackadaisical Prince Tamino and his unwelcome but supremely practical bird-catcher sidekick Papageno are tricked by the Queen of Night into rescuing her daughter Pamina from the wicked sorcerer Sarastro.

To aid them she gave the Prince a Magic Flute and the oafish dullard a set of enchanted bells, but she had not told them the true nature of the victim or their opponents…

A glorious panorama of love, betrayal, duplicity, enchantment and comedy – and dragons! – this is a fabulous example of the artist’s visual virtuosity.

Volume 2 is comprised of shorter works, beginning with the aforementioned Parsifal, realised from the Second Act of Richard Wagner’s opera, with a script adapted by long-term collaborator Patrick C. Mason, who also provides an Introduction and erudite commentary.

The work is the earliest represented in the collection and still contains stirring remnants of Russell’s action-hero style as the pure and heroic knight (a “germanised” version of Camelot’s Sir Percival in quest of the Holy Grail) finds the doughty and beautiful seeker undertaking ‘His Journey’, facing the seductive wiles of the debased siren Kundry and her Flower-Maidens in ‘His Temptation’ before eventually achieving ‘His Victory’ over malign magic and the weaknesses of the flesh…

Letitia Glozer’s Introduction to Songs by Mahler precedes two powerful evocations of ferocious imagination as ‘The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow’ (with a script by Mason) and the idyllic Arcadian pastel dreamscape of ‘Unto This World’ bemuse the reader until the opening of dark fairytale horror with ‘Ariane & Bluebeard’.

As revealed in Olivier Messiaen’s Introduction, Maurice Maeterlinck’s poem became a stunning symbolist opera scored by Paul Dukas, and Russell’s adaptation maintains the philosophical underpinnings whilst deftly telling of a township in revolt as the brutal lord of the manor brings his sixth bride to his castle.

The peasants are determined that the killer will not destroy another maiden but strong-willed Ariane has her own opinions and will determine her own fate…

Russell himself provided the Introduction for the final work in this volume. ‘The Clowns’ is crafted in stark and memorable monochrome, eschewing the vibrant colours of the previous pieces for a horrific interpretation of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci – a play-within-a-play of the new “Verismo” school of operatic storytelling which abandoned fantasy for tales of ordinary people and tawdry, sordid realism.

Pencilled by Galen Showman over Russell’s layouts and under the master’s inks and tones, it concerns a band of travelling players, who find that close proximity breeds boredom not fidelity, and proves that sinful passions indulged cannot help but lead to jealousy and murder…

The wide-eyed full colour wonderment wraps up in the third P. Craig Russell Library of Opera Adaptations, which features Pelleas and Melisande, Salome, Ein Heldentraum and Cavalleria Rusticana.

Mason’s informative Introduction to Maeterlinck’s masterpiece of forbidden love and familial injustice (as set to music by Claude Debussy) precedes a superb adaptation by Russell and scripter Barry Daniels, which relates how gruff widower Prince Golaud finds a strange, forlorn young woman whilst out hunting and, smitten with the sad, beautiful creature, marries her. He was supposed to wed distant Princess Ursula whose alliance might have saved the impoverished and slowly starving kingdom…

Melisande doesn’t really care. She seems to carries a mysterious secret within that manifests as a quiet compliance. She only really appears to display any passion for life after her new husband’s brother Prince Pelleas returns to court. As the two young people spend time together, Golaud is wracked with growing suspicion and when his bride loses her wedding ring the scene is irretrievably set for tragedy…

Scripted by Mason again, ‘Ein Heldentraum’ (A Hero’s Dream) is a short piece completed for this volume, visualising a bleak Lied or Art Song by German composer Hugo Wolf – a minor epic of fantastic imagination with just the hint of a potential happy ending.

That can’t be said of the next tale. ‘The Godfather’s Code’ is also new: a cruel, grim tale of death and broken promises taken from the Cavalleria Rusticana (rustic or peasant’s chivalry) by Pietro Mascagni from the libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci as originally adapted from a play and short story written by Giovanni Verga.

It was the first great example of the Verismo opera and is also one of Russell’s most effective adaptations.

Depicted in the bright, vivid colours of an Italian Easter, the story concerns vivacious Lola who revels in the first flowering of a new romance, even as fallen woman Santuzza desperately seeks the man for whose attentions she gave her virtue and now stands excommunicated by the Church and damned by her own conscience…

The outcast kneels in prayer outside the chapel, hungry for a glance of her adored Turridu, but she knows in her heart he has abandoned her for his first love.

When at last he arrives, the cad discards her whilst hypocritical Lola mocks. Thus Santuzza is driven to do the unpardonable: tell proud carter Alfio what his wife and best friend do whilst he works away from home…

The grandeur and tragedy all concludes with the biblical horror story of ‘Salome’ transformed from Oscar Wilde’s play into Richard Strauss’ opera of “shocking depravity” and thus perfect meat for comics cognoscenti.

In ancient Judea, the Tetrarch Herod rules by the grace of Rome, in a Court of utter decadence and indulgence. His wife is the debauched wanton Herodias, but lately even she has paled in the King’s eyes as her daughter Salome has blossomed.

The queen’s every blandishment is useless as her husband becomes more and more obsessed with the virginal sixteen year old…

Have grown up in the most debased place on world Salome is under no illusions as to Herod’s attentions or intentions, but her mind is preoccupied by the strident prisoner pent in the hole beneath the palace floor. Jokanaan condemns everything about the Court and warns all who hear of the messiah to come, heedless of the danger to himself. He is also exceedingly beautiful, as wilful Salome discovers when she forces a besotted guard to let him out so that she can see him. The precocious child has never met anyone who did not want her and John the Baptist’s indifference enflames her. The prophet is someone worthy of her body and chastity so she throws herself at him, but is roundly rejected.

Her passions aroused and rebuffed, the furious, confused girl decides to do anything she must and give everything she is if it will punish her tormentor…

The astounding strips and stories contained here are an indisputable high point in the long, slow transition of an American mass market medium into a genuine art form, but they are also incredibly lovely and irresistibly readable examples of comics on their own terms too.

This collection is a grand spectacle all lovers of picture storytelling would be crazy to miss.
© 1977, 1978, 1984, 1986, 1989, 1990 1998, 2004, 2013 P. Craig Russell. All rights reserved.

Fall Guy for Murder and Other Stories


By Johnny Craig, with Ray Bradbury, Bill Gaines & Al Feldstein (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-658-4

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

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

As they began co-plotting the bulk of EC’s output together, intent on creating a “New Trend” of stories aimed at older and more discerning readers – and not the mythical 8-year-old comicbooks ostensibly targeted – they shifted the emphasis of the ailing company towards dark, funny, socially aware and more adult fare.

Their publishing strategy also included hiring some the most gifted writers and artists in the field. One of the very best and most undervalued today was Johnny Craig…

This lavish monochrome hardcover volume, part of Fantagraphics’ EC Library, gathers a chilling collection of Craig’s supernatural suspense and especially his superbly Noir-drenched crime stories in a wonderful primer of peril packed with supplementary interviews, features and dissertations, beginning with the informative and picture-packed ‘Brilliant Good Guys, Even More Brilliant Bad Guys’ by lecturer Bill Mason, after which the succession of classic genre tales begins with  ‘One Last Fling!’ from Vault of Horror #21 October/November 1951. Craig was an absolute master of pen-and-ink illustration, but his scripting was just as slick and deceptively, hilariously seductive.

In his initial yarn here, a circus knife-thrower refused to let the mere fact that his beloved assistant had become a vampire drive them apart, whilst ‘Out of the Frying Pan…’ (from Crime SuspenStories #8, December 1951/January 1952) is a wry gem of misdirection, as a temporarily blind killer lets the wrong little old man plan his escape from hospital for him…

From Vault of Horror #22 (December 1951/January 1952), ‘Fountains of Youth!’ was straightforward supernatural thriller about a vitality-leeching monster, but ‘Understudy to a Corpse!’ (Crime SuspenStories #9, February/March 1952) was a brilliantly twisty murder-plot involving a penniless actor who murdered his uncle and diverted police attention by impersonating the victim post mortem. It did not go according to plan…

‘A Stitch in Time!’ (Vault of Horror #23 February/March 1952) is a grotesque classic in which a tyrannical sweatshop boss pays a ghastly price for abusing the desperate seamstresses in his employ, before ‘…Rocks in His Head!’ from Crime SuspenStories #10 (April/May 1952) sees a harassed hard-pressed surgeon with a greedy young wife making a disastrous choice when faced with a jewel-bedecked corpse to autopsy, and ‘A Bloody Undertaking!’ (Vault of Horror #24, April/May 1952) takes the same theme into supernatural territory as a pretty young thing turns the head of an old country doctor who really should know better…

Regarded as one of the company’s slowest creators, Craig nevertheless found time to illustrate scripts by Gaines & Feldstein such as ‘…On a Dead Man’s Chest!’ (Haunt of Fear #12 March/April 1952) wherein, after a sordid affair and brutal murder, retribution from beyond the grave sought out the victim’s wife and philandering brother…

‘Stiff Punishment!’ from Crime SuspenStories #11 June/July 1952 was all Craig, however, and again dealt with the pressures of greedy young things who wed staid old doctors. This time when the medical lecturer finally snapped he thought he had the perfect way to hide the body – but, ironically, he hadn’t…

In ‘Séance!’ (Vault of Horror #25 June/July 1952) a couple of conmen kill a mark who learns too much but are undone when the widow consults their own spiritualist for answers, after which Gaines & Feldstein scripted a shocking tale of gluttony and a vengeful sword-swallower in the gloriously macabre ‘Fed Up!’ from Haunt of Fear #13 May/June 1952.

The genuine tension of ‘The Execution!’ (Crime SuspenStories #12 August/September 1952), wherein a death row inmate waited for the witness who could save him from the chair, came from one simple shocking fact. In Craig’s stories the good guys didn’t always win, and justice was frequently derailed and even cheated…

‘Two of a Kind!’ (Vault of Horror #26 August/September 1952) offered a sexually charged love story of the most extreme kind of sacrifice, whilst in ‘Silver Threads Among the Mold!’ (Vault of Horror #27 October/November 1952) an avaricious model regrets making a fool of the sculptor who adores and supports her, and ‘Sweet Dreams!’ (Crime SuspenStories #14 December 1952/January 1953) reveals the dire lengths an insomniac will stoop to in search of a little rest.

‘Till Death…’from Vault of Horror #28, December 1952/January 1953 – is, for many fans, the ultimate zombie story as a besotted plantation owner loses his new bride to disease and soon learns to regret using voodoo to restore her to his side.

‘When the Cat’s Away…’ (Crime SuspenStories #15 February/March 1953) is pure Crime Noir as a cuckolded husband deals with his wife and best friend with finesse and grim finality, whilst ‘The Mausoleum!’ from Vault of Horror #29, February/March 1953, sees an English landowner sell his family castle to a ghost-crazy American, lock, stock and damning evidence of the murder he committed to inherit everything…

‘Rendezvous!’ (Crime SuspenStories #16 April/May 1953) brilliantly outlines the sheer dumb luck that scotched the perfect murder/insurance scam, after which ‘Split Personality!’ (Vault of Horror #30 April/May 1953) details the incredible lengths to which a con artist went to deprive identical twin sisters of their fortunes…

‘Touch and Go!’ from Crime SuspenStories #17 June/July 1953 is Craig’s sublimely paranoiac and compulsive adaptation of the Ray Bradbury vignette about a killer who left damning fingerprints, whilst romantic obsession underpins the tragic tale of an artist-turned-mugger who only stole to pay for true love’s medical bills in ‘Easel Kill Ya!’ from Vault of Horror #31 June/July 1953.

This addictive compilation concludes with a devilishly convoluted tale of a Private Eye set up to take the blame for a perfect crime. Written by Gaines & Feldstein, ‘Fall Guy for Murder!’ (Crime SuspenStories #18 August/September 1953) is the quintessential 1950s crime story: smart, scary, devious and morally utterly ambiguous…

The comics classics are then followed by more background revelations via S.C. Ringgenberg’s in-depth personal history in ‘Johnny Craig’ – complete with a stunning selection of Craig’s most eye-catching and controversial covers – and a general heads-up on the short-lived but world-shaking  phenomenon in ‘The Ups and Downs of EC Comics: A Short History’ by author, editor, critic and comics fan Ted White and the comprehensively illuminating ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ by Mason, 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 titanic comics tales revolutionised not just our industry but also impacted the whole world through film and television and via the millions of dedicated devotees still addicted to New Trend tales.

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

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

Fall Guy for Murder and Other Stories © 2013 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All comics stories © 2013 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., reprinted with permission. All other material © 2013 the respective creators and owners.
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Brooding menace and stunning drama leavened with black humour… 10/10

Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant volume 7: 1949-1950


By Hal Foster (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-645-4

Arguably the most successful comic strip fantasy ever conceived, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched as a Sunday page feature on February 13th 1937, a luscious full-colour weekly window onto a perfect realm of perfect adventure and romance.

The strip followed the life and exploits of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his ancestral homeland in Scandinavian Thule who grew up to roam the world and rose to a paramount position amongst the mightiest heroes of fabled Camelot.

Written and drawn by sublime master draftsman and storyteller Harold “Hal” Foster, the epic followed the little princeling through decades of thrilling exploits as he matured into a clean-limbed warrior and eventually family patriarch through a heady sea of wonderment, visiting far-flung lands and siring a dynasty of equally puissant heroes whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts.

There have been films, animated series and all manner of toys, games and collections based on the strip – one of the few to have lasted from the thunderous 1930s to the present day (over 3900 episodes and counting) – and even in these declining days of the newspaper narrative strip as a viable medium, it still claims over 300 American papers as its home. It has even made it into the very ether with an online edition.

Foster ceaselessly produced the strip, one enchanting page per week until 1971 when, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt illustrator John Cullen Murphy was chosen to succeed him as illustrator. Foster continued as writer and designer until 1980, after which he retired and Cullen Murphy’s daughter Mairead took over colouring and lettering whilst her brother John assumed the writer’s role.

In 2004 the senior Cullen Murphy also retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip has since soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of artists Gary Gianni and latterly Thomas Yeates, with Mark Schultz scripting.

Restored from Foster’s original Printer’s Proofs, this seventh spectacularly luxurious oversized (362 x 264mm) full-colour hardback volume reprints the pages from January 2nd 1949 to 31st December 1950 (#621 to 725 if you’re counting).

What has Gone Before: after an extended sojourn in an incredible New World, Valiant and Aleta have brought their newborn son back to Britain and sought out the warrior’s old comrade Prince Arn to be the child’s Godfather. Val is astounded that the bluff solitary hero is also a husband and currently searching for Godparents for his own newborn son and heir…

Before the Dark Ages delights resume, latest illuminator Thomas Yeates delivers a remarkable introductory essay discussing ‘The Long Shadow of Hal Foster’ and the innumerable artists who owe him a creative debt, after which the never-ending saga picks up with the Princes and their families travelling back to fabled Camelot for a double Christening, presided over by King Arthur himself…

Soon however duty calls again and Valiant, Sir Gawain and hapless, bumbling hedge-wizard Oom Fooyat are dispatched to the wilds of Wales to investigate a nest of vile black magic. Seamlessly blending thrills and grandeur with broad comedy, Foster delivers an enchanting light-hearted romantic romp wherein level-headed Val exposes the macabre happenings at Illwynde Castle and plays matchmaker to more than one of his faithful retinue…

Job done and the fief secure, Gawain and the Prince of Thule return to Camelot, picking up en route a boy with chivalric intentions and the determined courage of a lion. The enigmatic Geoffrey is desperate to win his spurs, but when Valiant introduces the lad to Aleta, the prospective page boy is gripped by a ferocious, life-changing, all consuming crush…

Whilst the well-meaning kid perpetually embarrasses himself in his drive to impress his master’s wife, Arthur despatches Valiant and a small band of knights to Scotland to inspect the wall which keeps the northern savages at bay. Aleta then attempts to keep Geoffrey out of trouble by ordering the puppy to follow and keep her husband safe…

It’s an unlucky decision: as Valiant and his inspection force discover when they see that Hadrian’s Wall has been breached and hundreds of Picts are ravening southward…

Confronted with an impossible situation the Prince again resorts to unconventional tactics and traps the huge barbarian army on the English side whilst sending Geoffrey back to Camelot with a message for Arthur… and to save the hero-struck boy from dying in the unwinnable battle to come…

Breaking all the rules of knighthood for the noblest of reasons, Geoffrey speedily delivers his message and is astounded when Aleta rushes off to join Valiant in Scotland. Again disregarding consequences and probably relinquishing forever his dream of knighthood, the boy follows her northwards…

Their arrival precipitates an unexpected and nigh-miraculous end to the war, but Valiant is close to death. After tending his hurts Aleta decides that she will take her husband back to his Scandinavian homeland, and dispatches the now-exhausted Geoffrey back to Camelot to inform her handmaiden Katwin and nurse Tillicum to obtain a ship and meet her with baby Arn at the village of Newcastle

Despite dreading the judgement awaiting him at Court, the boy thunders back and, after arranging for his wounded master’s (wonderful wife’s) wishes to be carried out, surrenders himself to his fate…

Of course the King is no fool and a great respecter of honour and courage. He summarily condemns the boy to banishment: for a year and a day Geoffrey must not set foot on English soil…

Mind in a whirl the redoubtable boy is taken to a barge secured by Katwin and sails to Caledonia with the family party to a reunion with Valiant and Aleta…

Soon the group are headed to Thule, bolstered by the bombastic reappearance to boisterous far-larger-than-life Viking Boltar: a Falstaff-like rogue and “honest pirate” not seen since volume 3…

The excitable old rogue ferries the extended family to Val’s cold homeland – with a few unplanned, profitable but dangerous stops along the way – but soon finds himself smitten by the love bug too…

One mystery has been solved, however, as a chance meeting with an old cleric discloses the faithful squire to be actually called Arf, forced from his home when his father Sir Hugo Geoffrey took a new young bride who didn’t want an annoying stepson underfoot. Now she is gone and the boy can return home if he wishes…

Eventually the expanded party reaches the chilly castle of King Aguar and settles in to a long period of snowbound rest and recuperation – until boisterous Jarl Egil makes an inappropriate advance on Aleta and hotheaded Arf dashes to her defence…

Soon the encounter has escalated and Valiant is forced into an utterly unnecessary duel of honour which can only end in pointless tragedy…

Happily the repentant Arf finds a way to satisfy honour all around but the King is plagued by a knotty problem wit cannot solve. Aguar has been seriously considering converting his Norse realm to Christianity, but the many devout missionaries roaming the land are cantankerous idiots all preaching their own particular brand of faith – when not actively fighting each other.

Thus in Spring, he tasks the fully fit Valiant with an embassage to Rome to ask the Pope to send priests and teachers who actually carry the true and official Word of God. Restless and eager Val promptly sets out, accompanied by Arf, the doughty Rufus Regan and new comrade Egil. Their mission coincides with the planting season when Aguar’s men return to their homes to sow the crops for the coming year…

No sooner have they departed however than vassal king Hap-Atla, seething from an old slight delivered to his deceased sire, rebels and besieges Arguar’s castle. With manpower dangerously depleted the situation looks grim until wily Aleta takes control of the situation and scores a devastating victory that contravenes all the rules of manly warfare.

Unseen for three months, Valiant and his companions at last reappear as they land in Rouen to begin the arduous overland trek to the HolyCity. The journey is full of short bursts of violence and outrageous incidents as, since Rome fell to the Vandals, Europe has become a seething mass of lawless principalities.

Most of these improvised kingdoms are run by brigands or worse, all seeking to fill their coffers at any unwary traveller’s expense…

In one unhappy demesne the quartet dethrone a robber baron and nearly end up married to his daughters (young Arf particularly caught the imagination of the decidedly dangerous and ambitious teenager Ollie), whilst in another Val gets hold of an alchemist ruler’s horrific black powder and is almost blown to smithereens.

Eventually however they arrive at the castle of welcoming noble Ruy Foulke and enjoy a pleasant night’s rest – only to awaken and find the place under attack by heinous villain Black Robert and his savagely competent forces…

To Be Continued…

Also included in this striking compendium is an intoxicating glimpse at the author’s virtuosity in ‘“See America First”: Hal Foster’s Union Pacific Paintings’, a series of painted advertising landscapes compiled and discussed by Brian M. Kane.

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

Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring, the strip is a World Classic of fiction and something no fan can afford to miss. If you have never experienced the intoxicating grandeur of Foster’s magnum opus these magnificent, lavishly substantial deluxe editions are the best way possible to do so and will be your gateway to an eye-opening world of wonder and imagination…

Prince Valiant © 2013 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2013 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Ideal for anybody who ever strived or dreamed or wished… 10/10 

Child of Tomorrow and Other Stories


By Al Feldstein with Graham Ingels, George Roussos, George Olesen, Max Elkan & Sid Check (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-659-1

EC Comics began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company to half-sister National/DC, retaining only Pictures Stories from the Bible. His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups as the major target market.

He augmented his core title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History but the worthy project was already struggling when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

As detailed in the final comprehensive essay in this superb graphic collection, his son William was dragged into the family business, with much support and encouragement from unsung hero Sol Cohen – who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of being a chemistry teacher and transformed the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics

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

As they began co-plotting the bulk of EC’s stories together, they shifted the emphasis of the ailing company in a bold and impressive change of 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 8-year old all comicbooks ostensibly targeted.

From 1950 to 1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction and the originator of an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…

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

This volume of the Fantagraphics EC Library gathers a mind-boggling selection of Feldstein fantasy stories in a lavish monochrome hardcover edition, packed with supplementary interviews, features and dissertations, beginning with the informative ‘Cosmic Destruction With a Twist of Wry’ by lecturer Bill Mason and a gushing Introduction from cartoon superstar Gilbert Hernandez. Oddly enough writer-artist Feldstein was no fan of science fiction but was turned on to the genre by Gaines; an insomniac with a brain that always voraciously sought out the fresh and the new…

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

His cynically trenchant outlook and darkly comedic satirical stories made the cosmos a truly dangerous, unforgiving place and kept it such – until the Comics Code Authority and television pacified and diminished the Wild Black Yonder for all future generations…

This superb monochrome hardback sampler of cosmic calamity opens with ‘“Things” from Outer Space!’ (originally presented in Weird Science #12, May/June 1950), wherein a scientist’s comely assistant accidentally uncovers alien infiltrators in the highest echelons of America’s government.

From the same month ‘Am I Man or Machine?’ (Weird Fantasy #13) then taps into Noir sensibilities with a tale of true love and tragic sacrifice when an accident victim falls into the hands of scientists too concerned with mere mechanical advancement, oblivious to sentiment…

Weird Science #13 (July/August 1950) tapped into the nation’s unease by gloriously spoofing the Air Force investigation into alien sightings with ‘The Flying Saucer Invasion’, whilst Feldstein and Gaines started a convention of writing themselves into their stories in Weird Fantasy #14 that same month as their comicbook editorial speculation led to enemy agents causing a ‘Cosmic Ray Bomb Explosion!’

Doomsayers and whistleblowers always played a big part in these tales. In ‘Destruction of the Earth!’ (Weird Science #14, September/October 1950), Washington’s refusal to listen to maverick researcher Fredrick Holman had truly catastrophic repercussions, whilst over in that month’s Weird Fantasy (#15) the Capitol was saved from ‘Martian Infiltration!’ by another, friendlier race of visitors…

‘Panic!’ (Weird Science #15, November/December 1950) played with the fact of Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, but the tone over in Weird Fantasy #16 was far more sardonic when ‘The Last City’ revealed the logical flaw in New York’s plan to erect an impenetrable, air-tight, H-bomb proof force field over the metropolis…

Sex, love and time-travel merged in Weird Science #5 (January/February 1951) as an ordinary Joe took a mysterious tourist trip into the future and brought back heartbreak in the form of a synthetic, build-her-yourself wife – and trust me, the ending is not one you’ll be expecting – whilst in ‘Child of Tomorrow!’ (Weird Fantasy #17) a lucky survivor of an atomic conflagration discovers at first hand the appalling effects of radiation on human reproduction…

The grim warnings and prognostications continued in ‘Spawn of Venus’ (Weird Science #6, March/April 1951) as an exploratory voyage to our sister world brings back something hungry which cannot be killed, whilst in that month’s Weird Fantasy (#6 – as the frankly whacky numbering systems were at last rationalised) a doomed romance was rekindled by fate after a bold astronaut returned from a ‘Space-Warp!’.

‘It Was the Monster from the Fourth Dimension’ (Weird Science #7, May/June 1951) pitted valiant friends against a creature – or a least a portion of it – from outside our limited perceptions, but Feldstein’s wry, cynically dry humour fully informed the tale of a patriotic hillbilly super-prodigy who naturally offered his gifts and services to the bigwigs in Washington in ‘7 Year Old Genius!’ (Weird Fantasy #7, May/June 1951).

Man versus Monster was an inescapably popular and rousing theme of the times and ‘Seeds of Jupiter!’ (Weird Science #8, July/August 1951) is one of the most visually compelling examples of the type, whilst the accidental time-travel by astronauts in Weird Fantasy #8 imaginatively postulated on ‘The Origin of the Species!’ displays the author’s superb ability to build tension, even if you have already guessed the “shock ending”…

Even whilst scripting and illustrating these stories, the tireless Feldstein was becoming increasingly involved in the editorial and production side of the business.

After The Origin of the Species! he stopped drawing science fiction adventures, but wrote stories for other artists to draw. This final section reprints a few of them by less prolific or well known illustrators – who probably won’t have their own book collections – and kicks off with ‘House, in Time!’ (Weird Science #15, November/December 1950) for horror star Graham Ingels to render

In it a young couple rent a perfect dwelling at a ludicrous price, but are unable to comply with the peculiar landlord’s simple request – to never open the back door…

The multi-talented George Roussos limned the next three, beginning with Weird Fantasy #7 (May/June 1951) wherein astronauts discover another Earth ‘Across the Sun!’ and learn a ghastly secret of human development, after which ‘The Escape!’ (Weird Science #8, July/August 1951) delivers a knockout crime thriller of murder in space and inescapable justice.

That motif of cosmic comeuppance also informs ‘The Slave Ship!’ (Weird Fantasy #8, July/August 1951) as piratical traders in human flesh find out just what that feels after aliens abduct them…

Unsung comic strip stalwart George Olesen (Ozark Ike, The Phantom) illustrated ‘The Slave of Evil!’ (Weird Science #9, September/October 1951) wherein a mechanical man displays more humanity than the humans who constructed him, after which veteran Max Elkan revealed the heartbreaking secret of ‘The Connection!’ (Weird Fantasy #9, September/October 1951) between a heartbroken old inventor and a vivacious young orphan girl.

The forays into the fantastic conclude then with ‘Strategy!’ (Weird Science #14, July/August 1952) illustrated by Sid Check, which reveals the big mistake of brain-stealing aliens who picked the wrong man to probe for Earth’s military secrets…

Also adding to the value of this captivating chronicle is ‘Gut and Glory’: an interview with the creator himself, conducted by Gary Groth, the incisive biography ‘Al Feldstein’ by S.C. Ringgenberg, a general heads-up on the entire EC phenomenon in ‘The Ups and Downs of EC Comics: A Short History’ by author, editor, critic and comics fan Ted White and the comprehensively illuminating ‘Behind the Panels: Creator Biographies’ by Bill Mason, Arthur Lortie 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 changed not just 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, this series of collections (Child of Tomorrow is the sixth) highlighting thematic contributions of individual creators has added a new dimension to au fait readers’ enjoyment and offers a solid introduction for those lucky souls encountering the material for the very first time.

I strongly suggest that whether you are an aged EC Fan-Addict or callow contemporary convert, this is a book no comics aficionado can afford to miss…

Child of Tomorrow and Other Stories © 2013 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All comics stories © 2013 William M. Gaines Agent, Inc., reprinted with permission. All other material © 2013 the respective creators and owners.

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Wide Eyed Wonderment seasoned with wry wit… 9/10

The Complete Crumb Comics volume 5: Happy Hippy Comix – New Edition


By R. Crumb & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-0-930193-92-8

This book contains really clever and outrageously dirty pictures, rude words, non-condemnatory drug references and allusions, apparent racism, definite sexism, godless questioning of authority and brilliantly illustrated, highly moving personal accounts and opinions.

If you – or those legally responsible for you – have a problem with that, please skip this review and don’t buy the book.

Really. I’m not kidding…

Robert Crumb is a unique creative force in comics and cartooning, with as many detractors as devotees. His uncompromising, excoriating, neurotic introspections, his pictorial rants and invectives, unceasingly picked away at societal scabs and peeked behind forbidden curtains for his own benefit, but he has always happily shared his unwholesome discoveries with anybody who takes the time to look…

In 1987 Fantagraphics Books began the nigh-impossible task of collating, collecting and publishing the chronological totality of the artist’s vast output and those critically important volumes are now being reissued.

The son of a career soldier, Robert Dennis Crumb was born in Philadelphia in 1943 into a functionally broken family. He was one of five kids who all found different ways to escape their parents’ highly volatile problems, and comic strips were paramount among them.

As had his older brother Charles, Robert immersed himself in the comics and cartoons of the day; not just reading but creating his own. Harvey Kurtzman, Carl Barks and John Stanley were particularly influential, but also comic strip masters such as E.C. Segar, Gene Ahern, Rube Goldberg, Bud (Mutt and Jeff) Fisher, Billy (Barney Google), De Beck, George (Sad Sack) Baker and Sidney (The Gumps) Smith, as well as illustrators like C.E. Brock and the wildly imaginative and surreal 1930’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies animated shorts.

Defensive, introspective and always compulsively driven, young Robert pursued art and self-control through religion with equal desperation. His early spiritual repression and flagrant, hubristic celibacy warred with his body’s growing needs…

From this point onwards, the varied and exponentially impressive breadth of Crumb’s output becomes increasingly riddled with his often hard-to-embrace themes and declamatory, potentially offensive visual vocabulary as his strips grope towards the creator’s long-sought personal artistic apotheosis, and this third volume covers material created and published between 1960-1966 as the self-tormented artist began to find a popular following in a strangely changing world.

Escaping his stormy early life, he married young and began working in-house at the American Greeting Cards Company. He discovered like minds in the growing counterculture movement and discovered LSD. By 1967 Crumb had moved to California and became an early star of Underground Commix. As such he found plenty of willing hippie chicks to assuage his fevered mind and hormonal body whilst reinventing the very nature of cartooning with such creations as Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, Devil Girl and a host of others. It is from this period that the engrossing, amazing and still shocking strips in this book stem…

He worked on in what was essentially a creative utopia throughout the early 1970’s but the alternative lifestyle of the Underground was already dying. Soon it would disappear: dissipated, disillusioned, dropped back “in” or demised. A few truly dedicated publishers and artists stayed the course, publishing on a far more businesslike footing as Crumb carried on creating, splitting his time between personal material and commercial art projects whilst incessantly probing deeper into his turbulent inner world.

This particular collection covers the period when the insular, isolated Crumb first began to make a name for himself with a flood of gags, posters, commercial art jobs, short strips and longer material popping up seemingly everywhere. All are faithfully reproduced in this compilation – which makes for a rather dry listing here, I’m afraid – but (trust me) the pictorial output is both engrossing and legendary.

Actually, don’t trust me: buy the book and see for yourselves…

After a photo and cartoon-stuffed (from 1968 sketchbooks) Introduction from the old scallywag himself, praising the effects of mind-altering chemicals and recalling the first heady days of Counter-Culture celebrity, the wave of visual excess and literary freewheeling begins with ‘The Old Pooperoo Pauses to Ponder’: a baroque procession of his fun-loving characters rounded off with a micro strip at the bottom, revealing Eggs Ackley’s opinion that ‘This Kid’s a Scream!’, after which Mr. Natural, Angelfood McSpade and all the rest are reassured that ‘You’re Gonna Get There Anyway’ (all from East Village Other December 1-16, 1967).

Next ‘Mr. Natural, the Man from Affiganistan’ shares more timeless wisdom with resident curious “Straight” Flakey Foont (EVO December 15-30 1968), after which a rush of shorts from EVO January 12-17 begins.

‘Sky-Hi Comics’, ‘Then on the Other Hand…’ are followed by ‘Nuttin’ but Nuttin’, ’Here She Comes! It’s Hippy!’ and ‘Junior High & his Sidekick Judy Holiday’ from the January 19-25 edition whilst ‘Those Cute Little Bearzy Wearzies/George Gwaltny’ (EVO January 26-February 1 1968) precedes Natural’s inevitable return to act as guru to ‘Schuman the Human’ from EVO February 9-15th.

The Wise one continues in revelatory style when ‘Mr. Natural Meets God’ (supplemented by) ’Gail Snail and The Walkie Talkies’ from EVO February 16-22, whilst the next weekly issue described how ‘Mr. Natural Gets the Bum’s Rush’, and Schuman declared ‘Let’s Be Honest’ before Crumb confronted the period’s racism head on with customary shocking frankness in ‘Mr. Natural Repents’, ‘Hey, Mom!’ and attendant strip ‘Let’s Have Nigger Hearts For Lunch’ (EVO March 1-7 1968).

Zap #2 June 1968, then provided wry ‘Hamburger Hi-Jinx’ with Cheezis K. Reist and shockingly introduced iconic Bête Noir ‘Angelfood McSpade’ before closing with a warning to avoid cheap imitations from ‘Mr. Natural’.

Bijou #1, from Summer 1968, then supplies a wealth of intriguing, astonishing fare leading with ‘Neato Keano Time!’ before ‘The Big Little Boy’ and ‘Bo Bo Bolinski, He’s a Clown!’ went through their paces. Following that ‘Mr. Spiff’ makes a call and ‘Here They Are! Puppets of your favourite cartoon characters!’ provides paper-dolls of Angelfood and Mr. Natural. The harsh, ironic hilarity all ends with a laidback Bijou Funnies Ad

The inescapably controversial Ms. McSpade and friends then cropped up in ‘All Asshole Comics’ (Chicago Seed, July 1968), after which covers for ‘Nope #6’ and ‘Nope #7’ (both 1968) are followed here by ‘The Zap Show’ – a captivating art jam with Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso & S. Clay Wilson.

A ‘Fritz the Cat title page’ then acts as prologue to an outrageous tale of student terrorism and teen licentiousness in ‘Fritz the No-Good’ (taken from Cavalier, September/October 1968), after which you’ll need to rotate the book to be shocked by the interiors of digest-sized Snatch #1 (October 1968): rude and raunchy spoofs such as ‘The Adventures of Andy Hard-on’, ‘Krude Cut-Ups’ and ‘The Fight’ plus assorted gags like ‘Jailbait of the Month’, ‘Hi, Swingers’ and much more…

A rather lovely ‘Janis Joplin: original cover for Cheap Thrills (1968) is followed by

‘The Phonus Balonus Blues’ and ’Where the Action Isn’t’ (EVO September 27 1968) as well as the cover of that issue – ‘Can the Mind Know it?’

From the October 11 issue of East Village Other comes a barrage of strips: ‘Sleezy Snot Comics’, ‘Mr. Natural’, ‘Booger Buddies’ and more plus an ‘Ad for Head Comix’ whilst the October 18th edition provided both ‘Angelfood McSpade’ and ‘Cum Comix’, and October 25th a ‘Mr. Natural, disguised as a vacuum cleaner salesman, talks to the Housewives of America’ cover.

‘Edgar and Maryjane Crump’ and ‘Crime in the Streets’ both originated in EVO November 1) after which an ‘alternate cover for Zap #3’ segues into the infamous ‘Dirty Dog’ strip from Zap #3 (December 1968).

That underground classic also premiered ‘Mr. Goodbar “Off his Rocker”’, an astounding

‘Atomic Comics Jam’ with S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, Victor Moscoso & Rick Griffin, grotesque shorts ‘Let’s Eat’ and ‘Mr. Natural’, ‘Hairy’ and ‘Street Corner Daze.’

Another digest-sized landscape section next reproduces the XXX-rated contents of Snatch #2’ (January 1969) including ‘Look Out Girls!! The Grabbies are Coming’, ‘Down on the Farm’, ‘The Family that Lays Together Stays Together’ and far more before an ‘ad for San Francisco Comic Book Company’ from Bogeyman #2, 1969, leads seamlessly into ‘Don’t Gag On It… Goof On It!’ (Gothic Blimp Works, Ltd. #1, March 1969).

The April 1969 ‘cover for Creem #2’ precedes a stunning spoof of Romance comics with ‘The Bleeding Heart Syndrome’ (Tales from the Ozone #1, 1969) before ‘Shoo Shoo Baby’ and ‘The Pricksters’ (GBW #2, 1969) suspends the black and white barrage to briefly usher in a spectacular ‘Color Section’

The polychromatic madness begins with ‘Head Comix covers’ (front and back and 1968), keeping up the pressure with the Zap Comix #2 covers’ from December, as well as a ‘Fritz the Cat cover’, the ‘Cheap Thrills’ record cover for Big Brother and the Holding Company and the December 1968Snatch #1 covers’.

The ribald rainbows end with Snatch #2 covers’ (January 1969) before ‘Flower Children on Broadway’ from Bijou #2 (1969) return us to monochrome merriment, ‘Nutsboy’ (Bogeyman #2, 1969) presages today’s teen obsession with “Slasher-flicks” and ‘Mr. Know-It-All and his pal Diz in What the Fuck’ (with S. Clay Wilson from GBW #3, 1969) continues the dark and bloody mood.

This landmark compilation concludes with Crumb’s contributions to Motor City #1 (April 1969) starting with ultra-independent femme fatal ‘Lenore Goldberg and her Girl Commandos’, after which cool dude ‘The Inimitable Boingy Baxter’ turns Detroit on its head, and mini-mystic Savannah Foomo explores reality with ordinary folk and ‘The Desperate Character’ in ‘Deep Meaning Comics’ and ‘More Deep Meaning Gommigs’, leaving good old Eggs Ackley to wrap thing up in macabre style with ‘Eyeball Kicks’

If Crumb had been able to suppress his creative questing, he could easily have settled for a lucrative career in any one of a number of graphic disciplines from illustrator to animator to jobbing comic book hack, but as this pivotal collection readily proves, the artist was haunted by the dream of something else – he just didn’t yet know what that was…

Crumb’s subtle mastery of his art-form and obsessive need to reveal his most hidden depths and every perceived defect – in himself and the world around him – has always resulted in an unquenchable fire of challenging comedy and riotous rumination, and this chronicle begins to show his growing awareness of where to look.

This superb series charting the perplexing pen-and-ink pilgrim’s progress is the perfect vehicle to introduce any (over 18) newcomers to the world of grown up comics. And if you need a way in yourself, seek out this book and the other sixteen as soon as conceivably possible…
© 1967, 1968, 1969, 1989, 2004, 2013 Robert Crumb. All contributory art material and content © the respective creators/copyright holders. All rights reserved.

The Twin Knights


By Osamu Tezuka, translated by Maya Rosewood (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-939130-01-3

Osamu Tezuka first rescued and then utterly revolutionised the Japanese comics industry during the 1950s and 1960s. Being a devoted fan of the films of Walt Disney he also performed similar sterling service in the country’s fledgling animation industry.

Many of his earliest works were aimed at children but right from the start his expansive fairytale stylisations – so perfectly seen in this splendid romp – harboured more mature themes and held hidden treasures for older readers…

Ribon no Kishi or “Knight of the Ribbon” was a breakthrough series which Tezuka returned to repeatedly during his life and one that is being continued even in the 21st century by his disciples. The simplistic but engaging fable of a Princess forced by political intrigue and cruel fate to pose as a man – and a warrior knight at that – has been adapted into movie and TV anime seen all over the world (generally known as some variation of “Choppy and the Princess” in places as far-flung as Canada, France Australia and Brazil) and in 2006 a stage musical was launched.

The serial was first published in Kodansha’s Shoujo Korabu (Shōjo Club), running from January 1954 to January 1956, with the generational sequel collected here appearing in Nakayoshi magazine as Futago no Kishi between January 1958 and June 1959.

The series is a perennial favourite and classic of the medium and this complete-in-one-volume yarn continues the saga begun in the two-volume softcover English-language Princess Knight.

Influenced heavily by Disney’s fairytale feature-films, each chapter herein is designated a “Scene” and opens with an homage to movie musical set-pieces in a ‘Prologue’ which reveals that the beautiful Queen Sapphire of Silverland has just given birth to a boy and a girl…

Scene 2 reveals ‘The Twin’s Secret’ as ambitious nobles of the court begin lobbying for one or other of the newborns to be named as heir (apparently, the subject of male primogeniture doesn’t appear to be a hindrance or issue in Silverland), with such vigour that proud father Franz is spending all his time breaking up duels…

Depressed and flustered the King gets a helping hand from the angel Tink, and Prince Daisy rather than Princess Violetta is officially nominated Heir Apparent.

However ambitious Duchess Dahlia and her ineffectual husband are unprepared to accept the decision and make treasonous plans. Soon, baby boy Daisy has been abducted and left to die in a wooded wilderness ruled over by the ferocious monster Slobb

The people are divided and, in an effort to curtail civil war, Sapphire and Franz devise an insane plan. The twins were identical and now Violetta will play the part of both siblings, for as long as it takes to find her lost brother and preserve the kingdom. The Queen is particularly distraught that, for sake of duty, her daughter must endure the selfsame hardships that forced a young Sapphire to become the turbulent Knight of the Ribbon all those years ago…

‘In the Forest’ meanwhile, the Prince has been adopted by a fawn whose love and devotion is so great that the Goddess of the Forest grants her the power to become human from dusk till dawn. Papi will raise the boy as her little brother “Ronnie”, but the Goddess warns that her shape-shifting gift comes with some serious provisos and inevitable tragic consequences…

A decade passes and Daisy, left alone every day, becomes a headstrong, independent lad and mighty hunter. His greatest dream is to shoot a certain deer that always avoids him with almost human intelligence…

At the palace ‘Violetta’s Sadness’ grows as she is one day demure damsel and the next a boy harshly schooled in all the manly arts of war. Eventually she runs off and meets the palace gardener’s boy Tom Tam, but her brief, carefree respite kindles an incredible suspicion in the ever-scheming, always watching Dahlia…

More time passes and on the separated children’s fifteenth birthday a crisis is reached when only Violetta attends the huge party. Thankfully, the arrival of enigmatic envoys ‘Prince White and Prince Black’ distracts the ever-watching plotters and allows the distraught Princess to change into her masculine mode. The visiting brothers are keen on hunting in the Forest of Slobb, however, and when “Daisy” accompanies them Dahlia confirms her suspicions using the keen nose of a savage hunting hound…

Prince Black is as dark as his name and belligerently picks a fight with “Daisy”. Although beaten in the ensuing duel he cheats and is admonished by his noble brother, but in his heart hatred blooms and festers…

Prince White, meanwhile, finds himself impossibly drawn to the beautiful boy Daisy and is delighted to hear that the plucky lad has a sister who is his exact match and equal…

Dahlia, seeing an opportunity, distracts Prince Black from taking out his ire on the local fauna and offers him an intriguing proposition…

When White is wounded by Slobb, the hunting party returns to the palace – with Papi in her deer form one of the captured prizes – and as Daisy changes into her girl clothes to meet and minister to the visiting Prince’s injuries the scurrilous Black observes the transformation and discovers the nation’s greatest secret…

As the sun sets the trussed but living fawn becomes human again and ‘What Papi Saw’ describes how her eavesdropping on Black and Dahlia changes the fate of Silverland forever…

Horrifically, however, after escaping the palace and earnest pursuit from Prince Black, she is shot in her own home by the boy she has raised. Reverting to human and on her deathbed she tells heartbroken Ronnie everything she has learned and urges him to fulfil his true destiny …

That begins with a final fateful battle against the terrifying Slobb after which the keen hunter forever forswears his boyhood pursuits and finds all the animals in the forest pay him homage. Meanwhile in the palace Dahlia makes her move, forcing the compromised Royal Family into temporary custody in ‘The North Tower’.

Even her husband is surprised at her plan to ensure that they never leave it…

Long ago the King of Mice pledged his allegiance to Sapphire, and his successor now informs Violetta of her lost brother’s location and even aids her escape – clad in the legendary guise of Knight Ribbon – but she is too late.

Her brother has vanished. As the disguised Violetta slumps in dejection she is accosted by a saucy wench most taken with the beautiful young man before her. The wild, teasing creature offers aid which is gratefully accepted…

Emerald is in fact a ‘Gypsy Queen’ and, promising to aid the Knight, takes “him” to their wizened fortune teller Nara Yama, who reveals the missing brother is alive. She also divines the masquerader’s true identity and gender!

Just then the usurper Duke’s men raid the camp but the gypsies fight them off and flee…

At the palace Dahlia’s husband as acting regent gets a double surprise. The first is the corpse of the once-unstoppable Slobb and the other is the youth who dragged it in.

Common woodsman Ronnie is the spitting image of the missing Violetta in her male aspect and might well act as a pliable ‘Substitute Daisy’ when the Royal Family finally succumb to the slow-acting poison secretly being administered to them…

Things take a magical turn when Emerald and Knight Ribbon stumble upon the hidden ‘Palace of Roses’ and learn the true nature of Princes Black and White. Both are mystical creatures but whilst the good Prince wishes he could lose his powers and wed Violetta, Black is determined to cause her extreme suffering and death…

With the faithful, still-oblivious Gypsy Queen’s aid the Ribbon Knight survives Black’s garden of horrors and the pair escape ‘Inundation’ and eldritch ‘Storm’ as they fight their way out of Rose Citadel, but are soon trapped in a ghastly ‘Mirage Forest’ controlled by the witch Begonia until a magical sprite adopts them. However ‘Devoted Tiln’ must pay an awful price for her valiant intercession which only brings the fugitives to the relative safety of a small village.

Prince Black leads the Regent’s soldiers to them there and Violetta is exposed. Shocked and angry, Emerald nevertheless helps her escape to ‘Wolf Mountain’ where another tragic sacrifice leads the rebels into one final battle against the plotters, restores order for the just and inflicts well-deserved punishment upon the wicked in the action-packed, wildly romantic – if inappropriately entitled – ‘Epilogue’

The Twin Knights is a spectacular, riotous, rollicking adventuresome fairytale about desire, destiny and determination which cemented the existence of the Shoujo (“Little Female” or young girl’s manga) genre in Japan and can still deliver a powerful punch and wide eyed wonder on a variety of intellectual levels. One of the most beguiling kid’s comics Tezuka ever crafted, it’s a work that all fans and – especially parents – should know, but be warned, although tastefully executed, this tales doesn’t sugar coat the drama and more than one favourite character won’t be alive at the end. If you have sensitive kids read it first and, if you too have a low woe quotient, pack handkerchiefs…

This black and white book is printed in the traditional ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format.
© 2013 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2013 by Vertical, Inc. All rights reserved.