Captain America Epic Collection volume 2: The Coming of… the Falcon


By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, Gene Colan, John Romita Sr., John Buscema, Tom Sutton, Marie Severin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0007-6

During the Marvel Renaissance of the early 1960’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby tried the same tactic that had worked so tellingly for DC Comics, but with mixed results. Julie Schwartz had scored an incredible success with his revised versions of the company’s Golden Age greats, so it seemed natural to try and revive the characters that had dominated Timely/Atlas in those halcyon days.

A new Human Torch had premiered as part of the revolutionary Fantastic Four, and in the fourth issue of that title the Sub-Mariner resurfaced after a twenty-year amnesiac hiatus (everyone concerned had apparently forgotten the first abortive attempt to revive an “Atlas” superhero line in the mid-1950s).

The Torch was promptly given his own solo feature in Strange Tales from issue #101 on and in #114 the flaming teen fought an acrobat pretending to be Captain America. With reader-reaction strong, the real thing promptly resurfaced in Avengers #4 and, after a captivating and centre-stage hogging run in that title, was granted his own series as half of the “split-book” Tales of Suspense with #59 (cover-dated November 1964).

This resoundingly resolute full-colour Epic Collection gather the last few issues of that run – ToS #97-99 – and the freshly re-titled Captain America #100-#119 spanning January 1968 to November 1968 and also includes a contemporaneous brace of Star-Spangled Spoofs from Not Brand Echh #3 and 12 to lighten the fervently patriotic load.

As this volume opens the Sentinel of Liberty has just retired from superhero service and revealed his secret identity to the world only to jump straight back into the saddle with S.H.I.E.L.D. for #97’s ‘And So It Begins…’: a four-part tale that spectacularly concludes in issue #100, with which number Tales of Suspense became simply Captain America. Guest starring the Black Panther, it tells of the return of long-dead Baron Zemo and an orbiting Death Ray. Scripted by Lee and bombastically drawn by King Kirby, ‘The Claws of the Panther!’ was inked by both Joe Sinnott and the great Syd Shores, who became regular embellisher with ‘The Man Who Lived Twice!’, whilst that premier hundredth first issue (how weird is that?) used the extra page length to retell Cap’s origin before climactically closing the superb thriller with ‘This Monster Unmasked!’

Marvel’s inexorable rise to dominance of the American comicbook industry really took hold in 1968 when a number of their characters finally got their own titles. Prior to that and due to a highly restrictive distribution deal the company was tied to a limit of 16 publications per month.

To circumvent this limitation, Marvel developed split-books with two series per publication, such as Tales of Suspense where original star Iron Man was joined by Cap. When the division came Shellhead started afresh with a First Issue, but Cap retained the numbering of the original title; thus premiering at #100.

Captain America#101-102 saw the return of fascist revenant Red Skull and another awesome Nazi revenge-weapon in ‘When Wakes the Sleeper!’ and ‘The Sleeper Strikes!’ as our hero and his support crew Agent 13 and Nick Fury hunt a murderous mechanoid capable of ghosting through solid Earth and blowing up the planet.

Although the immediate threat was quashed the instigator was still at large and #103 saw ‘The Weakest Link!’ as a budding romance with S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 13 (finally revealed after two years as Sharon Carter) interrupted by the nefarious Red Skull.

The über-fascist’s new scheme of nuclear blackmail extended to a second issue, wherein his band of war-criminal assassins, The Exiles, tested Cap nigh to destruction on the hidden isle where he became the ‘Slave of the Skull!’

That issue and the following super-villain team-up wherein Living Laser and the Swordsman united with another old Cap foe to attack ‘In the Name of Batroc!’ featured the loose flowing inking of Dan Adkins whilst Frank Giacoia embellished the spies-and-evil-doppelgangers romp ‘Cap goes Wild!’ in issue #106, before Shores returned in #107 for the sinister ‘If the Past Be Not Dead…’: an action-packed psycho-thriller introducing malevolent, mind-bending psychiatrist Doctor Faustus.

The Star-Spangled Avenger was rescuing Agent 13 again in breakneck thriller ‘The Snares of the Trapster!’ before Captain America #109 (January 1970) redefined his origin with ‘The Hero That Was!’: a spectacular wrap-up to Kirby’s run on the Sentinel of Liberty – at least for the moment…

Comics phenomenon and one-man sensation Jim Steranko then took over the art chores with #110, for a brief stint that became everybody’s favourite Cap epic for decades to come. After a swift and brutal skirmish with the Incredible Hulk, Rick Jones became the patriotic paladin’s new sidekick in ‘No Longer Alone!’, just in time for the pair to tackle the iconically lascivious Madame Hydra and her obedient hordes in #111’s ‘Tomorrow You Live, Tonight I Die!’ – both inked by Joe Sinnott in a landmark saga that galvanised a generation of would-be comics artists.

Seemingly killed at the issue’s close, the next month saw a bombastic account of Captain America’s career by fill-in superstars Kirby and George Tuska, before Lee, Steranko and Tom Palmer concluded the Hydra epic with ‘The Strange Death of Captain America’ in #113.

A period of artistic instability then kicked off with John Romita the Elder illustrating a tense spy-caper inked by Sal Buscema. ‘The Man Behind the Mask!‘ in CA #114 was merely prologue to an extended war against the Red Skull. Issue #115 – ‘Now Begins the Nightmare!’ – was drawn by John Buscema and inked by his brother Sal, wherein the arch-villain uses the reality-warping Cosmic Cube to switch bodies with the shield-slinger, whilst ‘Far Worse than Death!’ followed Cap’s frantic attempts to escape his own friends and allies. This issue saw the start of Gene Colan’s impressive run on the character, here accompanied by the smooth inks of Joe Sinnott.

The third instalment returned him to the Isle – and clutches – of the Exiles in a tale that introduced Marvel’s second black superhero. ‘The Coming of … the Falcon!’ was a terse, taut build-up to issue #118 with the neophyte hero taking centre-stage in ‘The Falcon Fights On!’ before all the ducks fall neatly into place for a spectacular finale in ‘Now Falls the Skull!’ in #119.

Supplementing and counterpointing the drama are two daft doses of period silliness from spoof comic Not Brand Echh. First up, Lee, Roy Thomas & Tom Sutton describe ‘The Honest-to-Irving, True-Blue Top Secret Original Origin of Charlie America!’ (#3, October 1967) before the irrepressible Marie Severin delves into ‘Charlie America’s Family Album!’ (#12 February 1969).

Also on offer are a selection of Kirby’s and Colan’s original art pages and covers, rejected covers, unseen pencil and colour roughs by Romita (from stories in this volume) and a gallery of classic Kirby and Steranko covers modified by painters Dean White and Richard Isanove, originally seen on assorted Marvel Masterworks editions…

These are tales of dauntless courage and unmatchable adventure, fast-paced and superbly illustrated, which rightly returned Captain America to the heights that his Golden Age compatriots the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner never regained. They are pure escapist magic. Glorious treats for the eternally young at heart, these are episodes of sheer visual dynamite that cannot be slighted and should not be missed.
© 1968, 1969, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks volume 8


By Stan Lee, John Romita, John Buscema, Ross Andru, Jim Mooney, Bill Everett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2074-2) (HB)                   978-0-7851-8807-0 (TPB)

This eighth astounding full-colour compilation of webspinning wonderment again follows the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero through deadly dangers and romantic rollercoasters as the second great era of Amazing Arachnid artists moved inevitably to a close. Although the elder John Romita would remain closely connected to Spider-Man’s adventures for some time yet, these tales would be amongst his last long run as lead illustrator on the series.

After a shaky start – suffering cancellation before his first issue – The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages. Before long the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics soap-opera became the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

Peter Parker was a smart-but-alienated kid bitten by a radioactive spider during a school science trip. Discovering astonishing arachnid abilities – which he augmented with his own natural chemistry, physics and engineering genius – the kid did what any lonely, geeky nerd would do with such newfound prowess: he tried to cash in for girls, fame and money.

Making a costume to hide his identity in case he made a fool of himself, Parker became a minor media celebrity – and a criminally self-important one. To his eternal regret, when a thief fled past him one night he didn’t lift a finger to stop him, only to find when he returned home that his guardian uncle Ben Parker had been murdered.

Crazed and vengeful, Peter hunted the assailant who’d made his beloved Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known, discovering, to his horror, that it was the self-same felon he had neglected to stop. His irresponsibility had resulted in the death of the man who raised him, and the traumatised boy swore to forevermore use his powers to help others…

Since that night, the Wondrous Wallcrawler has tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public usually baying for his blood even as he perpetually saves them…

The rise and rise of the Amazing Arachnid accelerated as the Swinging Sixties drew to a close and, by the time of the tales collected herein (Amazing Spider-Man#68-77 originally released between January-October 1969, plus an obscure thriller from Marvel Super-Heroes #14), Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades were on the way to being household names as well as the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia.

Stan Lee’s scripts were completely in tune with the times – as observed by most kids’ parents at least – and the increasing use of soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t.

Thematically, gangsterism dominated (probably due to the contemporary buzz caused by Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather) and an increasing use of mystery plots balanced a dependence on costumed super-foes as antagonists: all finely balanced with the usual suspect-pool of thugs, hoods and mob-bosses, but these were not the individual gangs of the Ditko days.

Now Organised Crime and Mafia analogue The Maggia were the big criminal-cultural touchstone as comics caught up with modern movies and headlines.

Issue #68 (by Lee, Romita & Jim Mooney) started a lengthy saga featuring the pursuit of an ancient stone tablet by various nefarious forces, beginning with The Kingpin who exploited a topical moment of student dissent to foment a ‘Crisis on the Campus!’

When a seemingly inevitable riot erupted, the Big Bad tried to swipe the artefact, leaving a few teenagers we’re all too familiar with looking very guilty…

Meanwhile Peter Parker, already struggling with debt, a perpetually at-Death’s-Door Aunt May, relationship grief with girlfriend Gwen Stacy and no time to study, was accused of not being involved enough by his fellow students…

During this period scripter Lee increasingly tapped into the student unrest of the times in various Marvel titles and ‘Mission: Crush the Kingpin!’ further tightened the screws as the student unrest exploded into violence whilst the corpulent crime czar incriminated Spider-Man in the tablet’s theft.

Hounded and harried in ‘Spider-Man Wanted!’ the web warrior nevertheless managed to defeat the Kingpin only to (briefly) believe himself a killer after he attacked personal gadfly J. Jonah Jameson in a fit of rage; causing an apparent heart attack in the obsessive, hero-hating publisher.

At his lowest ebb, and now stuck with the tablet, Parker is attacked by sometime-Avenger Quicksilver in ‘The Speedster and the Spider!’ (#71), before John Buscema signs on as layout-man in ‘Rocked by the Shocker!’

No sooner does Spider-Man leave the stone tablet with Gwen’s dad – former Police Chief Stacy – than the vibrating villain attacks, pinching the petrified artefact and precipitating a frantic underworld civil war. The Maggia dispatch brutal over-sized enforcer Man-Mountain Marko to retrieve it at all costs in ‘The Web Closes!’ (Lee, Buscema, Romita & Mooney) as upstart lawyer Caesar Cicero makes his long-anticipated move to depose aged Don of Dons Silvermane

However, the frail, elderly crime-lord knows the true secret – if not the methodology – of the tablet. To that end, he abducts biologist Curt Connors and his family to reconstruct the formula hidden on the stone and bring him ultimate victory.

Unfortunately, nobody but Spider-Man knows Connors is also the lethal Lizard and that the slightest stress might unleash the reptilian monster within to once more threaten all humanity. ‘If this be Bedlam!’ (Romita & Mooney) leads directly into ‘Death Without Warning!’ as the decrypted power of the tablet causes a cataclysmic battle that seemingly destroys one warring faction forever, decimating the mobs, but also freeing a far more deadly threat…

Amazing Spider-Man #76 sees John Buscema become full penciller with ‘The Lizard Lives!’ whilst concluding chapter ‘In the Blaze of Battle!’ witnesses the webspinner trying to defeat, cure and keep the tragic secret of his friend Connors, all whilst preventing guest-starring Human Torch Johnny Storm exterminating the marauding rogue reptile forever…

Closing this comics compendium is a one-off yarn from Marvel Super-Heroes #14 (May 1968). ‘The Reprehensible Riddle of the… The Sorcerer!’ actually debuted a year previously in the try-out title and reads to me like an inventory tale rushed out to fill a deadline gap or printed just before its “use-by” date expired. Nonetheless, as crafted by Lee, Ross Andru & Bill Everett, it offers a different spin on the wallcrawler as an enigmatic psychic targets Spider-Man, using psionic strikes and voodoo tricks to draw the hero to New Orleans and a death duel with a synthetic, science-tinged homunculus…

Spider-Man became a permanent unmissable part of many teenagers’ lives at this time and did so by living a life as close to theirs as social mores and the Comics Code would allow. Blending cultural authenticity with glorious narrative art, and making a dramatic virtue of the awkwardness, confusion and sense of powerlessness most of the readership experienced daily, resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, delivered in addictive soap-opera slices, but none of that would be relevant if the stories weren’t so compellingly entertaining.

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. Why not see why…?
© 1968, 2012 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Billy and Buddy volume 5: Clowning Around


By Verron, Veys, Corbeyran, Chric & Cucuel; coloured by Anne-Marie Ducasse and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-200-3

Known as Boule et Bill in Europe (at least in the French speaking bits, that is; the Dutch and Flemish call them Bollie en Billie), this evergreen, immensely popular cartoon saga of a dog and his boy debuted in the Christmas 1959 edition of Spirou.

The perennial fan-favourite resulted from Belgian writer-artist Jean Roba (Spirou et Fantasio, La Ribambelle) putting his head together with Maurice Rosy – the magazine’s Artistic Director and Ideas Man who had also ghosted art and/or scripts on Jerry Spring, Tif et Tondu, Bobo and Attila during a decades-long, astoundingly productive career at the legendary periodical.

Intended as a European answer to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Boule et Bill quickly went its own way and developed a unique style and personality, becoming Rosa’s main occupation for the next 45 years.

Roba launched Boule et Bill as a mini-récit (a 32-page, half-sized freebie insert) in the December 24th 1959 Spirou. Like Dennis the Menace in The Beano, the strip was a big hit from the start and for 25 years held the coveted and prestigious back-cover spot. Older British fans might also recognise the art as early episodes – (coincidentally) retitled It’s a Dog’s Life – ran in Fleetway’s legendary anthology weekly Valiant from 1961 to 1965…

A cornerstone of European life, the strip generated a live-action movie, animated TV series, computer games, permanent art exhibitions, sculptures and even postage stamps. Like some select immortal Belgian comics stars, Bollie en Billie have been awarded a commemorative plaque and have a street named after them in Brussels….

Large format album editions began immediately, totalling 21 volumes throughout the 1960s and 1970s. These were completely redesigned and re-released in the 1980s, supplemented by a range of early-reader books for toddlers. Collections are available in 14 languages, selling in excess of 25 million copies of the 32 albums to date.

Roba crafted more than a thousand pages of gag-strips in a beguiling, idealised domestic comedy setting, all about a little lad and his exceedingly smart Cocker Spaniel before eventually surrendering the art chores to his long-term assistant Laurent Verron in 2003.

The successor subsequently took over the scripting too, upon Roba’s death in 2006. This edition is the first Cinebook translation to feature the series as crafted by “Veron” and his team of gag-writers Veys, Corbeyran, Chric & Cucuel

As Billy and Buddy, the strip returned to British eyes in enticing Cinebook compilations from 2009 onwards: introducing to 21st century readers an endearingly bucolic late 20th century, sitcom-styled nuclear family set-up consisting of one bemused, long-suffering and short-tempered dad, a warmly compassionate but painfully flighty mum, a smart, mischievous son and a genius dog who has a penchant for finding bones, puddles and trouble…

Originally released in 2003, Quel cirque! was the 29th European collection, and the first completed by Verron and his team, but it admirably continues in the approved manner: further exploring the timeless and evergreen relationship of a dog and his boy (and tortoise) for our delight and delectation. There are a few more mod-cons and a bigger role for girls such as skipping sharpie Juliet but, in essence, nothing has changed…

Delivered as a series of stand-alone rapid-fire gags, quips and jests, the socialisation and behaviour of little Billy is measured by carefree romps with four-footed friend Buddy: indulging in spats with pals, dodging baths, hunting and hoarding bones, outwitting butchers, putting cats and school friends in their place, misunderstanding adults, causing accidents and costing money; with both kid and mutt equally adept at all of the above.

Buddy is the perfect pet for an imaginative and playful boy, although the manipulative mutt is overly fond of purloined food and ferociously protective of boy and bones and his ball.

The pesky pooch also cannot understand why everyone wants to constantly plunge him into foul-tasting soapy water, but it’s just a sacrifice he’s prepared to make to be with Billy…

Buddy also has a fondly platonic relationship with tortoise Caroline (although this autumnal and winter-themed compilation finds her again largely absent through hibernation pressures) and a suspicious knack for clearing off whenever Dad has one of his explosive emotional meltdowns over the cost of canine treats, repair bills or the Boss’ latest impositions.

As well as shorter skirts and more modern toys the majority of this tome involves even more successful raids against the family fridge and local butchers’ shops, a marked improvement in successful bath attempts and the rather foolish addition of a doggy door. Sentimental burglars regularly fall for the dog’s cunning wiles and mum persists in trying to civilise her man, her son and that mutt, and of course enemy neighbour Madame Stick and her evil cat Corporal are always on hand to provide effective opposition…

One big revelation is that Buddy understands sign language – although how he learned is a shock – and when romance is in the air both boy and dog are similarly smitten and we discover that tortoises are not immune to the barbs of jealousy…

Despite the master’s passing his legacy is in safe hands. The strips remain genially paced and filled with wry wit and potent sentiment: enchantingly funny episodes which run the gamut from heart-warming to hilarious, silly to surreal and thrilling to just plain daft: a charming tribute to and lasting argument for a child for every pet and vice versa.

This is another supremely engaging family-oriented compendium of cool and clever comics no one keen on introducing youngsters to the medium should be without.
Original edition © Studio Boule & Bill 2003 by Verron in the style of Roba. English translation © 2014 Cinebook Ltd.

The Drops of God volume 1


By Tadashi Agi & Shu Okimoto translated by Kate Robinson (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-27-8

Every so often a graphic novel jumps the ghetto walls and makes a splash in the wider world and this intriguing manga monolith is the latest: eschewing the usual icebreakers of horror, sci fi or blood-soaked action to target the lofty and insular world of the high-end vintner trade and the obsessive fascination of oenophilia (I’m chucking in a bunch of technical terms all enticingly explained in the book, but you can cheat and use your search engine of choice).

Created by brother and sister thriller-writing team Shin & Yuko Kibayashi (Kindaichi’s Case Files, GetBackers) under their nom de crime Tadashi Agi and sensitively illustrated by Shu Okimoto, Kami no Shizuku debuted in 2004 in Kondansha’s Morning with book compilations beginning a year later.

The siblings are also two of the most influential wine connoisseurs in the world and their expertise and passion shine through every page of this monolithic manga tome which took the wine world by storm and won the Gourmand and Cookbook Award in 2009 – presumably a first for any work of fiction, let alone graphic novel. It was described by Decanter Magazine as “arguably the most influential wine publication in the past 20 years.”

Of course, all I care about is comics, but even on my terms this is a thoroughly entertaining, immaculately realised soap/thriller drama that would make fans of Jackie Collins or Dick Francis rethink their allegiances.

The tale stars follows prodigal son Shizuku Kanzaki; raised from birth to follow his father’s obsession only to rebel and seek his own path until tragedy and circumstance pull him back to his destiny, …

The first eighteen chapters of the delectable saga are contained in this first English translation, beginning with ‘The Scent of a Hundred Flowers’: introducing apprentice Sommelier Miyabi Shinohara who almost shames her wine-bar/restaurant employers in front of a prominent – but boorish – wine snob until a dashing young man saves the day with a bit of daredevil decanting…

It transpires that the lad is a small cog in a vast beer-making concern and has never tasted wine: a shocking admission since Shizuku is the son of global superstar of wine criticism Yutaka Kanzaki

It seems old man Kanzaki had great hopes and aspirations for his son, training the boy from birth in flavours, odour detection and discrimination like a vintner version of Doc Savage, but the boy rebelled and rejected his father’s passion.

The situation changes when Shizuku is informed of his sire’s death and a unique will…

‘A Prayer to the Fruitful Earth’ reveals the elder Kanzaki had a vast and valuable private collection of stellar vintages and has left them, his house and a fortune to his wayward son under a bizarre condition.

The heir must indulge in a duel with dark prince of wine-tasters – and inheritor of Kanzaki’s mantle as greatest critic in Japan – Issei Tomine in a dozen blind tastings of the greatest vintages in the collection – the “Twelve Apostles” – as well as the mysterious thirteenth bottle known only as “the Drops of God”. To the one who most closely agrees with the master’s own description goes everything…

At first Shizuku doesn’t care, but the arrogance of Tomine and a burning desire to understand the father who pushed him to such extraordinary lengths moves the orphan to an alliance with Miss Shinohara. Her crash-course in the history, lore and philosophy of the wine industry and craft in ‘The Profound and Subtle Queen’ as well as his first ever actual taste of the magical elixir precipitates a major transformation in the lad…

For reasons even he doesn’t understand, the neophyte decides to accept the challenge of the Drops of God in ‘Over the Bed Wafts an Aroma of Awakening’. Thus begins his education, inestimably assisted by his incredible sense of smell, expanded palate and physical skills he never even knew he possessed, all courtesy of his early training.

In episodes with such evocative titles as ‘The God of Burgundy’, ‘A Maiden Fleeing through Strawberry Fields’, ‘Tasting in the Park’ and ‘Cradling God’s Blessing in Both Hands’, what follows is a dazzling display of hard fact and the theosophical fervour of the grape-grower’s art, seamlessly blended with a canny melodrama of rivalry, redemption and (perhaps) burgeoning young love as Shizuku discovers the obsessive power of his father’s life.

With surprising intensity the cast expands as the story unfolds: the nigh-mystical nature of wine is seen to mend fences, restore lost lovers and even diagnose illness in ‘Draining the Glass of Reunion’, ‘A Maiden Smiling in the Strawberry Fields’, ‘The Sweet Dessert of Parting’ and ‘The Ones Who Watch Over’.

Even Shizuku’s career alters as he transfers from sales to the Beer company’s small and struggling wine division where he finds that even all he has learned is not enough after falling foul of snobbery and bigotry in ‘At All the Battles’ Start’, ‘A Lovely Cruel Flower’, ‘Tough Love for a Saucy Lolita’, ‘The Mystery Man of the Wine Division’ and ‘Merry-Go-Round’

Meanwhile Tomine has begun to stack the odds in his favour by introducing a seductive secret agent into the lives of Shizuku and Miss Shinohara during ‘A Fantastico Night’, wherein some nasty facts about the true character of the Prince of wine-critics is exposed…

As much religion and philosophy as science and art, the cachet and inherent excitement of the wine trade transfers readily and effectively in this tale to make for a superbly readable tale for older readers.

The Japanese excel at making superb comics which simultaneously entertain and educate (check out economics textbook Japan Inc. by Shotaru Ishinomori to see what I mean) and the powerful, evocative imagery used to capture the sensorial effect of wine on the tongue and myriad fragrances in the nostrils is staggeringly effective – a brilliant use of the disciplines as only comics can muster them.

This is an astoundingly compelling comics-read and might well be the perfect gift for all those people you thought you couldn’t buy a graphic novel for…

This black and white book is printed in the traditional ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format – even if you pick it up as a digital edition.
© 2011 Tadashi Agi/Shu Okimoto. All rights reserved.

Lucky Luke volume 11: Western Circus


By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Frederick W Nolan (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-55-7

Lucky Luke is a rangy, good-natured, lightning-fast cowboy who roams the fabulously mythic Old West, having light-hearted adventures with his sarcastic horse Jolly Jumper whilst interacting with a host of historical and legendary figures.

His continuing exploits over seventy years have made him one of the best-selling comic characters in Europe (68 individual adventures totalling more than 300 million albums in 30 languages thus far), with the usual spin-off toys, computer games, animated cartoons and a plethora of TV shows and live-action movies.

Lucky was created in 1946 by Belgian animator, illustrator and cartoonist Maurice de Bévère (“Morris”) and first seen in the 1947 Annual (L’Almanach Spirou 1947) of Le Journal de Spirou, before launching into his first weekly adventure ‘Arizona 1880’ on December 7th 1946.

Working solo until 1955, Morris produced nine albums of affectionate sagebrush spoofery before teaming with old pal and fellow trans-American tourist Rene Goscinny, who became the regular wordsmith as Luke attained the dizzying heights of legend, commencing with ‘Des rails sur la Prairie’ (Rails on the Prairie), which began serialisation in Spirou on August 25th 1955.

In 1967, the six-gun straight-shooter switched sides, transferring to Goscinny’s own magazine Pilote with ‘La Diligence’ (The Stagecoach). Goscinny created 45 albums with Morris before his untimely death, from whence Morris soldiered on both singly and with fresh collaborators.

Morris died in 2001 having drawn fully 70 adventures, plus some spin-off sagas crafted with Achdé, Laurent Gerra, Benacquista & Pennac, Xavier Fauche, Jean Léturgie, Jacques Pessis and others, all taking their own shot at the venerable vigilante…

Lucky Luke first amused British readers during the late 1950s, syndicated to weekly anthology Film Fun and again in 1967 in Giggle, where he used the nom de plume Buck Bingo.

In all these venues – as well as the numerous attempts to follow the English-language successes of Tintin and Asterix albums – Luke sported a trademark cigarette hanging insouciantly from his lip. However, in 1983 Morris – no doubt amidst both pained howls and muted mutterings of “political correctness gone mad” – deftly substituted a piece of straw for the much-travelled dog-end, which garnered him an official tip of the hat from the World Health Organization.

The most recent and successful attempt to bring Lucky Luke to our shores and shelves comes from Cinebook (who have rightly restored the foul weed to his lips on the interior pages, if not the covers…), and it’s clearly no big deal for today’s readership as we’re well past sixty translated books and still going strong.

Lucky Luke – Western Circus was the 25th collaboration – and now available both in English on paper and as an e-book – first published in Europe in 1970. The story is a classic range rider spoof of B-Movie westerns, with the laconic wanderer in fine form as he helps the (outlandishly) needy and deals with an iconic baddie in a most unique manner…

It all begins as our hero flees an Indian war party until saved by a most unlikely benefactor: soused circus impresario Captain Erasmus Mulligan (a deft tribute to the legendary W.C. Fields) and his pal Andy – a rather threadbare and motheaten Indian Elephant…

Soon Luke is helping fix a broken wagon and enjoying a free show courtesy of the far-travelled Western Circus; a talented band a bit past their best, who all came west to avoid clashing with insufferable showman P.T. Barnum…

The genial gunman’s private viewing is suddenly interrupted by an attack from the still-incensed braves of Chief Lame Bull, but Luke – and Andy – soon convince the raging warriors to watch the performance instead. Further violence is then forestalled by the arrival of a cavalry troop who escort the entertainers to Fort Coyote, a thriving township controlled by skeevy entrepreneur Corduroy “Diamond Tooth” Zilch.

The circus hits town just as the ambitious Zilch is promoting his annual Grand Rodeo, and when the populace seem more enthralled by even these tatty newcomers rather than Zilch’s old familiar festival, the big man decides The Show must not go on…

Before long his increasingly insidious antics devolve into utter farce and even a small-scale Indian war, and Luke and Jolly are compelled to slap on the greasepaint and join in with motley…

A deliriously rambunctious romp, Western Circus offers fast-paced, seductive slapstick and dry wit in copious amounts for another merry caper in the tradition of Destry Rides Again and Blazing Saddles. Superbly crafted by comics masters, it provides a wonderful introduction to a unique genre for today’s readers who might well have missed the romantic allure of an all-pervasive Wild West that never was…
© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1970 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics.

Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude


By Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, Mike Friedrich, Bill Mantlo, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Steve Englehart, Wellinton Alves, Daniel Govar, Andrea Di Vito, Jim Starlin, Sal Buscema, Steve Gan, Bob McLeod & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5410-5

With another Marvel Filmic Fantasy premiering around the world, here’s a timely trade paperback collection to augment the cinematic exposure and cater to movie fans wanting to follow up with a comics experience.

Comprising a big bunch of reprints and digital material designed to supplement the first movie release, this compilation contains Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude #1-2, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Infinite Comic #1 and Guardians of the Galaxy #0.1, plus debut or early appearances of Drax, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, Groot and Star-Lord as first seen in Iron Man #55, Strange Tales #181, Incredible Hulk #271, Tales to Astonish #13 and Marvel Preview #4.

Thanks to all that fabulous, futuristic technology, you can even look at this treasure chest of thrills on screen too through its digital iteration if you prefer…

The sky-high high jinks kick off with a glimpse at the frankly horrific childhoods of Gamora and Nebula with big daddy Thanos, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wellinton Alves & Manny Clark: set just before the first film begins (the clue’s in the name as it comes from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude #1), after which # 2 provides a similarly candid review of Rocket and Groot as their quest for cash draws them into a questionably legal repo job for a criminal big shot…

Next up is Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Infinite Comic #1 by Abnett & Lanning, storyboarder Daniel Govar and artist Andrea Di Vito: a screen-based adventure, rather uncomfortably reformatted for the printed page. Here Taneleer Tivan, The Collector commissions Gamora with the retrieval of a certain Orb…

Of course, all these plot strands get knotted together in the movie…

The classic appearances kick off with Iron Man#55 (February 1973), scripted by Mike Friedrich and illustrated by Jim Starlin & Mike Esposito. ‘Beware The … Blood Brothers!’ introduces Drax the Destroyer, an incredibly powerful alien… or so he seems at first glance.

Trapped by another extraterrestrial newcomer – Thanos – under the desert, Drax is rescued by the Armoured Avenger, but it’s merely a prelude to the main story which appeared in Captain Marvel #25-33, a saga to be savoured elsewhere…

Gamora was first seen in Strange Tales #181 (August 1975), as Avatar of Life Adam Warlock made his way across the cosmos, battling the depredations of the Universal Church of Truth and his own evil future self The Magus. Technically it was her second, but in this yarn she got a name and speaking part…

‘1000 Clowns!’ – by Starlin and Al Milgrom – saw the accursed hero trapped in an insidious psychic prison even as in the notionally real world, a green-skinned gamin was slowly eradicating his tormentors. She was about to free the golden saviour, when Warlock escaped under his own steam. If he’d known that Gamora was actually working for his cosmic nemesis Thanos, he might not have bothered…

Rocket Raccoon was a minor character who first appeared in backup serial ‘The Sword in the Star’. His actual debut was in Marvel Preview #7 in 1976 but in 1982, writer Bill Mantlo brought him into the mainstream of the Marvel Universe with a choice starring role in Incredible Hulk #271 (May 1982).

Like Wolverine and the Punisher years before, the foul-mouthed, fuzzy faced iconoclast then simply refused to go away quietly…

Illustrated by Sal Buscema, ‘Now Somewhere in the Black Holes of Sirius Major There Lived a Young Boy Name of… Rocket Raccoon!’ find Earth’s jade juggernaut stranded on an alien world where sentient animals used super-scientific gadgetry to battle robot clowns. They do this to preserve the security of humans who seem incapable of caring for themselves. When Green-skin arrives, a simmering civil war is just breaking out…

With the Hulk safely removed from the combat zone, Rocket faded from view for a few years before returning in a new-fangled format for comicbooks: a miniseries…

More sidereal shenanigans surface in an absolute classic of the gloriously whacky “Kirby Kritter” genre, predating the birth of the Marvel Age. Crafted by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers, ‘I Challenged Groot! The Monster from Planet X’ (Tales to Astonish #13, November/December 1960) reveals how a studious biologist saves humanity from a rapacious walking tree intent on stealing Earth cities and shipping them back to his distant world. The tree titan might have started life as a disposable notion, but he too grew into a larger role over the unfolding decades…

Notional leading man Star-Lord premiered in monochrome mature-reader magazine Marvel Preview # 4 (January 1976), appearing thrice more – in #11, 14 and 15 – during the height of the Star Wars-inspired Science Fiction explosion of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Years previously a warrior prince of an interstellar empire was shot down over Colorado and had a brief fling with solitary Earther Meredith Quill. Despite his desire to remain in idyllic isolation, duty called the starman back to the battle and he left, leaving behind an unborn son and a unique weapon…

A decade later, the troubled boy saw his mother assassinated by alien lizard men. Peter Jason Quill vengefully slew the creatures with Meredith’s shotgun, before his home was explosively destroyed by a flying saucer.

The orphan awoke in hospital, his only possession a “toy” ray-gun his mother had hidden from him his entire life. He became obsessed with the stars – astronomy and astrology – and overcame all odds to become a part of America’s budding space program… but he made no friends and plenty of enemies on the way…

Years later his destiny found him, as the half-breed scion was elevated by the divinity dubbed the “Master of the Sun”, becoming Star-Lord. Rejecting both Earth and his missing father, Peter chose freedom, the pursuit of justice and the expanse of the cosmos…

From such disparate strands movie gold can be made, but never forget that the originating material is pretty damned good too and will deliver a tempting tray of treats that should have most curious fans scurrying for back-issue boxes, bookshop shelves or online emporia…
© 1960, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1982, 2014 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sshhhh!


By Jason (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-497-0

Jason is John Arne Saeterrøy: born in Molde, Norway in 1965 and an overnight international cartoon superstar since 1995 when his first graphic novel Lomma full ay regn (Pocket Full of Rain) won Norway’s biggest comics prize: the Sproing Award.

He won another in 2001 for the series Mjau Mjau and in 2002 turned almost exclusively to producing graphic novels. A global star among the cognoscenti, he has many more major awards from such disparate regions as France, Slovakia and the USA.

All his tales brim with bleak isolation and are swamped with a signature surreality; largely pantomimic progressions populated with cinematically-inspired, darkly comic anthropomorphs ruminating on his favourite themes of relationships and loneliness, viewed through a charmingly macabre cast of bestial movie archetypes and cartoon critters.

A perfect example of his oeuvre is ‘Sshhhh!’: a deliciously evocative, extended romantic melodrama created without words; the bittersweet tale of boy-bird meeting girl-bird in a world overly populated with spooks and ghouls and skeletons but afflicted far more harshly by loneliness and regret. Of course, it’s not just that. It’s also boy-bird loses girl-bird to death, other men, his own inadequacies and the vagaries of parenthood. It’s about how money fixes nothing and how Death is ever at your elbow and can be – quite frankly – a bit of a pest…

It’s sex and death and discontentment and bloody ungrateful kids; aliens, being invisible, miserable vacations, disappointing locations, guys who are sexier than you and The Devil… and birds-nests…

The enchantingly formal page layouts are rendered in a minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style: solid blacks, thick lines and settings of seductive simplicity augmented here by a stunning palette of stark pastels and muted primary colours.

Jason’s work always jumps directly into the reader’s brain and heart, always probing the nature of “human-ness” by using the beastly and unnatural to ask persistent and pertinent questions. Although the clever sight-gags are less prominent here, his repertory company of “funny-animal” characters still uncannily display the subtlest emotions with devastating effect, proving again just how good a cartoonist he is.

This comic tale is best-suited for adults but makes us all look at the world through wide-open childish eyes. Jason is instantly addictive and a creator every serious fan of the medium should move to the top of the “Must-Have” list. Don’t even wait for a physical copy, buy a digital edition ASAP, just so you can see immediately what all the fuss is about…
All characters, stories and artwork© 1998, 1999, 2008 Jason. All rights reserved.

Krazy & Ignatz 1929-1930: A Brick, A Mice, A Lovely Night


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-529-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The basic premise is evergreen and deceptively simple: Krazy is a rather effeminate – not to say gender-indeterminate – dreamily sensitive and romantic feline hopelessly in love with rude, crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous Ignatz Mouse. It’s the old story of opposites attracting but here the oodles of affection are unreciprocated and the love is certainly only going one way…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This captivating chronicle – covering 1929-1930 in a comfortably hefty (231 x 15 x 305 mm) monochrome softcover tome – as always offers added value as context, background and other cartoon treats. Here Ben Schwartz critically appraises the exalted eccentric content of the material in ‘The Court Jester: Hearst, Herriman, and the Death of Nonsense’ whilst the much-missed Bill Blackbeard delves deeper into the feature’s background in his Introduction essay ‘The Man Behind the Pupp Behind the Mouse Behind the Kat: George Herriman, 1880-1944’; paying particular attention to the sublime scribbler’s relationship with other cartoonists of the era such as Jimmy Swinnerton, Tad Dorgan and a young upstart named Elzie Segar…

On to the strips then: within this strange brew of eccentric emotional overload, the perpetual play unfolds as always but with one major evolution as Herriman begins to indulge in extended storylines and continuing continuity…

The emphasis is strongly on bricks and how to get them in the early episodes with the law mostly having the upper paw. The mouse regularly ends up banged up in the county hoosegow as Krazy pines for passionately propelled portions of brick-shaped symbolism even whilst further pursuing that dream of a singing career.

Ignatz, as ever, hunts for the perfect projectile – heavy, accurate and of negligible cost – but hasn’t learned that nothing comes for free as he regularly falls prey to mountebanks, charlatans and fortune tellers…

Brickmaker Kolin Kelly gets into a shooting war with the region’s other baker – bread pundit Kikkero Kooki – and their search for ammunition leads to much more projectile peril.

Bull Pupp is wiser to the Mouse’s modus operandi these days, prompting Ignatz to take to the skies in a variety of unlikely aircraft and as always there are strictly visual pun sessions to play well against the numerous slapstick antics, as Ignatz devises ever-more complex schemes to bounce his earthen wares off the Kat’s bean whilst the weird landscapes and eccentric elemental conditions as ever add to the humorous inspiration with apocryphal wind witches and snow squaws constantly making their invisible presences felt…

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

As 1930 dawns change is in the air and – after a series of wintery japes and a surprise eruption of local volcano Agathla – strange yet comfortably unchanging Kokonino get its biggest shake-up of all when amorous predator Monsieur Kiskidee Kuku hits town and make a determined play for the sentiment-starved Kat…

Having made allies of Ignatz and Offisa Pupp, the rascally gallic rogue turns the heads of many of the female inhabitants incurring the ire of many males, but the bounder is also an expert fencer so reprisals are grudging and muted…

Before long one of those troublesome continental ménage-triangle deals is in play and fireworks start brewing before the affairs of dishonour are all settled…

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

Wrapping up the cartoon gold is another erudite and instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page’ (providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed) plus a foray of final fillip offering an example how certain papers played with the layout of the strip to enhance its popularity and a genuine historical find: the sheet music to 1911’s Krazy Kat Rag

Herriman’s masterpiece is a phenomenal achievement: in all the arenas of Art and Literature there has never been anything like these strips. If, however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this companionable compendium is a most accessible way to do so. Heck, it’s even available as an eBook now so don’t waste the opportunity…
© 2003, 2008 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Captain America Masterworks volume 2


By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Jack Kirby, John Romita Sr., Gil Kane, Jack Sparling & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1785-8 (HB)        978-0-7851-5931-5(TPB)

After his resurrection in Avengers #4 (March 1964), Captain America grew in popularity and quickly won his own solo feature, sharing Tales of Suspense with former teammate Iron Man (beginning with #59, cover-dated November 1964).

Scripted by Stan Lee and with the astoundingly prolific Jack Kirby either pencilling or laying out each action-packed episode, the series grew in standing and stature until it became must-read entertainment for most comics fans.

This second Masterworks compilation re-presents ToS #82-99 (October 1966 to March 1969) and concludes with Captain America #100 as the Star-Spangled Stalwart took the next big step and returned to solo stardom in the April cover-dated first issue.

The dynamic dramas contained herein signalled closer links with parallel tales in other titles. Thus, with subversive science scoundrels Advanced Idea Mechanics defeated by S.H.I.E.L.D. in Strange Tales ‘The Maddening Mystery of the Inconceivable Adaptoid!’ pitted Cap against one last unsupervised experiment as A.I.M.’s artificial life-form – capable of becoming an exact duplicate of its victim – stalked Cap in a tale of vicious psychological warfare. Sadly, even masterfully manufactured mechanoids are apt to err and ‘Enter… The Tumbler!’ (inked by Dick Ayers) saw a presumptuous wannabe attack the robot after it assumed the identity of our hero before ‘The Super-Adaptoid!’ completed an epic of breathtaking suspense and drama as the real McCoy fought back and overcame everybody…

Such eccentric cross-continuity capers would carry the company to market dominance in a few short years and become not the exception but the norm…

‘The Blitzkrieg of Batroc!’ and ‘The Secret!’ returned to the early minimum-plot, all-action, overwhelming-odds yarns whilst ‘Wanted: Captain America’ (by Roy Thomas, Jack Sparling & Joe Sinnott) offered a lacklustre interval involving a frame-up before Gil Kane took his first run on the character with ‘If Bucky Lives…!’, ‘Back from the Dead!’, ‘…And Men Shall Call Him Traitor!’ and ‘The Last Defeat!’ (TOS #88-91, with the last two inked by Sinnott): a superb thriller of blackmail and betrayal starring the Red Skull. The fascist felon had baited a trap with a robotic facsimile of Cap’s dead partner, triggered it with super-hirelings Power Man and the Swordsman and then blackmailed the Star-Spangled Sentinel into betraying his country and stealing an atomic submarine…

Kirby & Sinnott were back for ‘Before My Eyes Nick Fury Died!’, ‘Into the Jaws of… AIM!’ and ‘If This Be… Modok!’ as the Champion of Liberty fought a giant brain-being manufactured purely for killing…

In rapid succession ‘A Time to Die… A Time to Live’ and ‘To Be Reborn!’ see the hero retire and reveal his secret identity, only to jump straight back into the saddle with S.H.I.E.L.D. for #97’s ‘And So It Begins…’ a four-part epic which concluded in the aforementioned issue #100, with which number Tales of Suspense became simply Captain America. Guest starring the Black Panther, it described the apparent return of long-dead Baron Zemo utilising an orbiting Death Ray to scourge Africa and threaten the world.

‘The Claws of the Panther!’ was inked by both Sinnott and the great Syd Shores – who would continue for the next year as regular inker – beginning with ‘The Man Who Lived Twice!’, whilst the hundredth issue used the extra page-length to retell the origin before concluding a superb thriller with ‘This Monster Unmasked!’

Rounding out this patriotic bonanza is a gallery of original art pages by Kirby and Kane plus uncorrected proofs showing last-minute editorial alterations to the priceless published pearls of wonder.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Batman: Knightfall


By Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant, Jim Aparo, Norm Breyfogle, Graham Nolan, Jim Balent, Bret Blevins, Klaus Janson, Mike Manley & various (DC Comics) ISBN: 978-1-4012-3379-2

The early 1990s were troubled times for the American comicbook industry, with speculative collectors rather than fans driving the business. Many new companies had established themselves using attention-catching gimmicks augmented by cutting-edge print technology and shameless pandering to simplistic sex and violence and the tactics had worked, sparking a glossy, four-colour Gold-Rush amongst fans and, more importantly, previously disinterested outsiders.

With vapid ploys and fleeting trends fuelling frantic mass-multiple purchases by buyers who were too scared to even open up the hundreds of polybagged, technologically-enhanced variant-covered issues they intended to pay for college and a condo with, the major publishers were driven to design boldly bonkers stunts just to keep the attention of their once-devoted readership. At least here, however, story-content still held some worth and value…

In 1992 DC began their epic Death of Superman story-arc and apparently immediately afterward began preparing a similar tradition-shaking, continuity-shattering epic for their other iconic household-name property. Groundwork had already been laid with the introduction of Jean-Paul Valley, a mild-mannered student utterly unaware that he had been programmed since birth by his father and an ancient warrior-cult to become an hereditary instrument of assassination (see Batman: Sword of Azrael) so all that was needed was to sort creative personnel and decide just how best to shake up the life of the Gotham Guardian…

KnightFall, and the subsequent KnightQuest and KnightsEnd, follow the brutal fall, replacement and inevitable return of Bruce Wayne as the indomitable, infallible Batman and was another spectacular success from the old guard which showed all the comicbook upstarts and Young Turks the true value of proper storytelling. It also proved the unshakable power of established characters, as the world was gripped by the Dark Knight’s horrific defeat at the hands of a blatantly superior nemesis.

The crossover publishing event impacted many comics outside the usual Batbook suspects, spawned a bunch of toys, three novelisations, many (necessarily incomplete) trade paperback collections and even jumped the pond to Britain’s staid BBC who turned it into a serialised audio-play on Radio One…

In 2012 DC finally began collecting the entire saga into three huge chronological compilations which, whilst still not truly complete, render the tale a far smoother and more readable experience for older fans and curious newcomers…

Batman: KnightFall volume 1, which could be best codified as and divided into ‘The Breaking of the Bat’ and ‘Who Rules the Night’, gathers the pertinent contents of Batman: Vengeance of Bane Special #1, Batman #491-500, Detective Comics #659-666, Showcase ’93 #7-8 and Batman: Shadow Of The Bat #16-18 – spanning January to October 1993 – and scrupulously covers the most traumatic six months of Bruce Wayne’s adult life in instalments of a shared and progressing narrative alternating between Bat-titles and discrete creative teams.

What you won’t find out here: in the months preceding the start of KnightFall (roughly correlating to Batman issues #484-489 and Detective #654-658), a mysterious new criminal had entered Gotham, covertly observing the Caped Crimebuster at work as the hard-pressed hero tackled sinister crime-lord Black Mask, psycho-killer Metalhead and juvenile military genius The General, all whilst foiling an assassination plot against Police Commissioner Jim Gordon.

On the edge of exhaustion, Wayne began seeing doctor and holistic therapist Shondra Kinsolving, whilst assigning Tim Drake – the third Robin – to training and monitoring Jean-Paul Valley, with the intention of turning the former Azrael’s dark gifts to a beneficial purpose.

Kinsolving was also treating Drake’s father, crippled after an attack by another of the City’s endless stream of criminal lunatics…

Coldly clinical observer Bane revealed himself and designed further tests for the depleted Dark Knight, challenging Batman for the right to rule Gotham, by manufacturing confrontations with Killer Croc and The Riddler; the latter augmented and driven crazy by a dose of deadly super-steroid Venom

Thus, the action begins here with the origin of the calamitous challenger in ‘Vengeance of Bane’ by Chuck Dixon, Graham Nolan & Eduardo Barretto, wherein the hulking brute is fully revealed and exposed.

Years ago, on the Caribbean island of Santa Prisca, the ruling junta imprisoned the pregnant wife of a freedom fighter. When the baby was born, he was sentenced in his father’s stead to life on the hellish prison rock of Pena Duro where he somehow thrived, touched by the horror and madness to inexorably become a terrifying, brilliant master of men.

Not merely surviving but educating himself and ultimately thriving on the hard medicine of life, the boy knew he had a destiny beyond those walls. Eventually he named himself Bane.

His only non-hostile contacts became his faithful lieutenants, Trogg, Zombie and the Americano Bird, whose tales of the Bat in Gotham City fired the eternal prisoner’s jealousy and imagination…

Santa Prisca’s entire economy is based on drug smuggling and Bane’s moment came when one of his periodic rages crippled thirty inmates. After finally being subdued by an army of guards he was turned over to scientists testing a new iteration of the muscle and aggression-enhancing formulation Venom. The effects of the steroid had caused the death of all previous candidates, but Bane survived and the delighted technologists devised biological implants that would deliver doses of the drug directly into his brain, enabling him to swiftly multiply his strength and speed at the press of a button…

A plan formed and the patient faked his own death. Disposed of as trash, he returned, seizing the Venom supply, rescuing his comrades and indulging in a fearsome vengeance-talking against his oppressors. Then he turned greedy eyes towards Gotham and the only rival he could imagine…

KnightFall proper begins after Bane’s challenge to the already on-the-ropes Gotham Gangbuster with Batman #491 as ‘The Freedom of Madness’ (Doug Moench & Jim Aparo) sees the ambitious strategist steal National Guard armaments and use them to free every insane super-criminal locked away in Arkham Asylum.

Pushed almost beyond rationality, Batman orders Robin to stick with his mission to train and de-program Jean-Paul and sets out to recapture all his most dangerous enemies, whilst Bane sits back, watching and waiting…

Issue #492 sees the round-up start with the Mad Hatter in ‘Crossed Eyes and Dotty Teas’ (Moench & Norm Breyfogle) proving that even Bane can make mistakes, for whilst Batman acts according to plan and scotches the Hatter’s main party, the Mad Cap Maniac has already despatched a mind-controlled Film Freak to track down their mysterious liberator…

Detective Comics #659 opens with Hellenic god-obsessed Maxie Zeus, innocuous Arnold Wesker and hyperthyroid brute Amygdala fleeing shattered Arkham in ‘Puppets’ (Dixon & Breyfogle) as Batman is called to the alley where the broken, lifeless body of Film Freak is found.

As The Ventriloquist, Wesker used the gangster doll Scarface to express his murderous schemes and – with Amygdala now in tow – has begun a lethal search to get back his old boss. The Dark Knight is obsessively locked on recapturing all his old enemies and ignores Robin’s pleas for rest and reason before tackling the hulking brute, but the confrontation does allow the cool-headed Boy Wonder to turn the tables on Bird, secretly following the Dynamic Duo for Bane.

However, the Pena Duro inmate is too much for the apprentice adventurer and only Bane’s order stops Bird from killing the boy too soon. The chaos is building in Gotham and the master planner wants nothing to spoil his intricate schemes…

Moench & Breyfogle then contribute ‘Redslash’ (Batman #493) as knife-wielding nut-job Victor Zsasz invades a girl’s school. The blood-soaked psycho marks each kill with a new scar on his own body and it’s been too long since his last…

By-the-book cop Lieutenant Stan Kitch’s wait-and-see policy only results in two more deaths that Batman cannot scrub from his own over-worked conscience. In the final confrontation patrolwoman Rene Montoya needs all her determination and utmost efforts to prevent the Dark Knight from beating Zsasz to death…

The chaos grows…

When they last met, Bane nearly crippled Killer Croc and the diseased carnival freak goes looking for payback in Detective #660, but his ‘Crocodile Tears’ (Dixon, Jim Balent & Scott Hanna) lead Robin – still craftily tracking Bird and Bane – into a deadly trap in the City’s sewers before Batman#494’s ‘Night Terrors’ (Moench, Aparo & Tom Mandrake) finally sees the re-emergence of the Joker, having fun his own way whilst looking for a partner to play with.

A collapsed tunnel saves Robin, but Bruce Wayne seems hell-bent on self-destruction; unable to relax until the maniacs are back behind padded bars. Ignoring all pleas from Alfred and Tim, he heads out into the night and narrowly prevents Jim Gordon’s murder at the hands of illusion-casting cannibal Cornelius Stirk, but is woefully unaware that the Clown Prince has allied with the Scarecrow and kidnapped Gotham Mayor Armand Krol

In Detective #661 the Arkham Alumni terrorise Krol, forcing him to further sabotage the benighted metropolis through emergency edicts even as pyromaniac Garfield Lynns sets the ‘City on Fire’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna). Having allowed Robin to tag along, Batman permits the Boy Wonder to tackle Firefly whilst the exhausted manhunter searches for less predictable prey. Meanwhile, Wesker is closing in on his Scarface and a recently de-toxified Riddler can’t pull off a robbery because there’s nobody around to answer his obsessively-constructed crime conundrums…

Barely breaking stride to take out the Cavalier, the Caped Crusader stumbles across the Firefly and almost dies at the hands of the relative lightweight in ‘Strange Bedfellows’ (Batman #495, Moench, Aparo & Bob Wiacek) as, impatient to help, Jean-Paul takes to the streets on his own, eager to contribute in his makeshift masked identity…

Finally convinced to take a night off, Bruce attends a civic gala and is recognised by Bane just as Poison Ivy turns up to kidnap all of Gotham’s glitterati. As Batman fights floral-based zombies, Gordon and his top aide Harvey Bullock lead the GCPD into a perfect ambush set by Scarecrow and the Joker…

Detective #662 sees Robin spectacularly if injudiciously tackle Riddler’s ‘Burning Questions’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) just as Batman finally writes finis to Firefly’s horrific depredations, and unsanctioned vigilante Huntress secretly joins the battle to stem the rising tide of chaos, after which Batman #496 commences the climactic clash between the completely exhausted Masked Manhunter and his maddest monsters in ‘Die Laughing’ (Moench, Aparo & Josef Rubinstein), with Scarecrow and Joker explosively sealing off the Gotham River Tunnel… with the broken Mayor at the bottom of it.

Only the detonation of the tunnel roof and a million gallons of ingressing river prevent Batman from beating the Harlequin of Hate to death, but Detective #663 proves there’s ‘No Rest for the Wicked’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) as our hero frantically hauls Krol to safety, merely to fall victim to a concerted assault by Bane’s hit squad.

Narrowly escaping, the harried hero heads home only to find Alfred unconscious and his home invaded by the orchestrator of all his woes…

Batman #497 presents the end of the road in ‘Broken Bat’ – by Moench, Aparo & Dick Giordano – as Bane finally attacks in person, mercilessly beating the exhausted but valiantly battling hero, ultimately breaking Batman’s spine in a savage demonstration of his physical and mental superiority.

Detective #664 sees the beginning of Bane’s Reign in ‘Who Rules the Night’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) as the Scourge of Pena Duro drops the broken Batman’s body in the middle of Gotham; publicly declaring himself the new boss.

Even after Alfred and Robin intercept the ambulance carrying their shattered friend and mentor, saving his life proves a touch-and-go proposition, and in the interval Joker and Scarecrow come to a parting of the ways whilst the Ventriloquist is reunited with his malevolent master Scarface.

Gotham is a city at war and soon Boy Wonder and ex-Azrael are prowling the rooftops trying to stem the tide…

The tale diverges here to reveal the contents of Showcase ’93 #7 and 8, wherein Alfred, Robin and Jean-Paul restlessly wait by the comatose Wayne’s bedside, and traumatised Tim Drake recalls how mere days previously they thwarted the latest murder-spree of erstwhile Gotham DA Harvey Dent.

‘2-Face: Double Cross’ and the concluding ‘2-Face: Bad Judgment’ (Moench & Klaus Janson) depict the Double Desperado again challenging his one-time ally by setting up a hangman’s court in a confused and tragic attempt to convict Batman of causing all the former prosecutor’s problems…

Batman #498’s ‘Knights in Darkness’ (Moench, Aparo & Rick Burchett) see the brutalised Wayne regain consciousness as a paralysed, paraplegic wreck, only to reveal an even greater loss: his fighting spirit. Faking a road crash to explain his massive injuries, Tim and Alfred consult blithely oblivious Dr. Kinsolving in an attempt to restore the billionaire’s shattered spirit and broken body, whilst Bane goes wild in the city, mercilessly consolidating his hold on the various gangs and rackets.

To further his schemes and swiftly counter any stubborn opposition, the King of Gotham recruits Catwoman as his personal thief and retrieval service…

And in Wayne Mansion, as Shondra begins her course of therapy – now knowing full well her patient’s injuries were not caused by pranging a Porsche – Tim Drake carries out Bruce’s wishes and offers Jean-Paul the role and Mantle of Batman…

Gotham City is a criminal’s paradise with thugs big and small running riot now that the Dark Knight has been so publicly destroyed, but Detective #665 reveals ‘Lightning Changes’ (Dixon, Nolan & Giordano) as the new but inexperienced Batman and Robin team start wiping up the street scum and making them fear the night again, under strict instructions from Wayne to avoid major threats until they’re ready.

Valley, however, seems to be slowly coming unglued, happily using excessive force and chafing to test himself against Bane.

Meanwhile, demoralised, wheelchair-bound Bruce is becoming increasing dependent on Shondra. When he can’t find her, he wheels himself through the gardens to the adjoining house of Tim’s father Jack Drake in time to interrupt an abduction by masked gunmen. Despite his best efforts, Wayne is unable to stop them taking Shondra and the elder Drake, whilst in Gotham the new Bat has overstepped his orders and determined to go after Bane – even if it means allying with gangsters and risking the lives of innocent children…

One final diversion comes next in a sidebar tale from Shadow of the Bat#16-18 wherein Alan Grant, Bret Blevins, Mike Manley & Steve George describe how the sinister Scarecrow returns to his old college life long enough to turn innocent students into his phobic slaves as part of a grandiose and clearly crazy plan to turn himself into ‘The God of Fear’

Juvenile ideologue and criminal genius Anarky escapes prison just in time to see “Batman” facing off against his first fully deranged super-villain and realises that the Dark Knight is as much a threat to the people as the Tatterdemalion of Terror. The young rebel decides that for the good of the common man he should take them both out…

It doesn’t quite work out that way, but after Scarecrow exposes Batman to his fear gas and it doesn’t work, they combine to vanquish the failed deity. Valley, in an increasingly rare moment of rationality, lets Anarky off with a pretty scary warning. The former Azrael muses on how his programming had made him immune to the fear chemicals, but he couldn’t be more wrong…

The Beginning of the End starts in Batman #499 with ‘The Venom Connection’ (Moench, Aparo & Hanna), as Jean-Paul’s ruthless savagery and burgeoning paranoia drives a wedge between him and Robin, whilst oblivious to it all, the rededicated and driven Bruce Wayne uses the sleuthing skills of a lifetime to trace the kidnappers to Santa Prisca…

In the Batcave, Jean-Paul realises he is still subject to the deep programming that created Azrael when he falls into a trance and awakens to find he has designed deadly new high-tech gauntlets to augment his war on crime. Bane, meanwhile, ignores all entreaties to act, refusing to bother with a mere impostor.

In a blockbusting raid, Batman and Robin capture Bane’s lieutenants, although the Darker Knight coldly risks children’s lives to achieve victory. Alienated and deeply troubled, Tim resolves to tell Bruce but finds the Mansion deserted. Bruce and Alfred have left for the Caribbean, unaware that they have a svelte stowaway in the form of Selina Kyle

Detective #666 pushes things to fever-pitch with ‘The Devil You Know’ (Dixon, Nolan & Hanna) as the augmented, ever-angry and clearly losing it Batman breaks Trogg, Bird and Zombie out of jail and follows them back to Bane, only to fall before the sheer power and ferocity of the Venom-addicted living juggernaut…

Batman #500 is divided into a landmark two-part conclusion. ‘Dark Angel 1: the Fall’, by Moench, Aparo & Terry Austin, sees Batman frantically escape certain death at Bane’s hands and retreat to the Batcave where Azrael’s submerged programming – dubbed “the System” – takes temporary control: devising a perfectly-honed technological armoured suit that turns Batman into a human war-machine. Far more worrying is the rift that drives Robin, Nightwing and every other possible ally away as Valley prepares for his final confrontation with Bane…

The infuriated King of the City wants it too: challenging the impostor to a highly public duel in the centre of Gotham. ‘Dark Angel 2: the Descent’ (art by Mike Manley) sees a catastrophic clash which comprehensively crushes Bane and publicly proclaims the return of a new, darker Champion of the Night. As Batman narrowly chooses to leave Bane a crushed and humiliated living trophy rather than dead example, Robin – who had to save a train full of innocent bystanders from becoming collateral casualties of Batman – realises something very bad has come to Gotham…

To Be Continued…

There’s something particularly enticing about these colossal mega-compilations (available in both printed and digital editions) that utterly delights the 10-year-old in me: proven, familiar favourite stories in a huge, wrist-numbing package offering a vast hit of full-colour funnybook action, suspense and solid entertainment. And there’s even better to come…
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