Showcase Presents Eclipso


By Bob Haney, Lee Elias, Alex Toth, Jack Sparling & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2315-1

Although it’s generally accepted that everybody loves a good villain they seldom permit them the opportunity of starring in their own series (except perhaps in British comics, where for decades the most bizarre and outrageous rogues such as Charlie Peace, Spring-Heeled Jack, Dick Turpin, Von Hoffman or The Dwarf were seen as far more interesting than mere lawmen).

However, when America went superhero crazy in the 1960s (even before the Batman TV show sent the entire world into a wild and garish “High Camp” frenzy) DC converted all of its anthology titles into character-driven vehicles. Long-running paranormal investigator Mark Merlin suddenly found himself sharing the cover spot with a costumed but very different kind of co-star.

Breathing new life into the hallowed Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde concept, Bob Haney & Lee Elias debuted ‘Eclipso, The Genius Who Fought Himself’ in House of Secrets #61 (cover-dated July-August 1963. It began the torturous saga of solar scientist Bruce Gordon who was cursed to become host to a timeless Evil.

Whilst observing a solar eclipse on tropical Diablo Island, Gordon is attacked and wounded by Mophir, a crazed witchdoctor wielding a black diamond. As a result, whenever an eclipse occurs Gordon’s body is possessed by a demonic, destructive alter ego with incredible powers and malign hyper-intellect.

The remainder of the first instalment showed how the intangible interloper destroyed Gordon’s greatest achievement: a futuristic solar-powered city.

The format established, Gordon, his fiancé Mona Bennett and her father, who was also Gordon’s mentor, pursued and battled the incredible Eclipso and his increasingly astounding schemes. At least he had a handy weakness: exposure to sudden bright lights would propel him back to his cage within Bruce Gordon…

‘Duel of the Divided Man’ saw the helpless scientist attempting to thwart the uncontrollable transformations by submerging to the bottom of the Ocean and exiling himself to space – to no effect, whilst in ‘Eclipso’s Amazing Ally!’ – illustrated by the justifiably-legendary Alex Toth – the malignant presence manifests when an artificial eclipse and lab accident frees him entirely from Gordon’s body.

Against the backdrop of a South American war Gordon and Professor Bennett struggle to contain the liberated horror but all is not as it seems…

Issue #64 ‘Hideout on Fear Island’ finds Gordon, Mona and Bennett hijacked to a Caribbean nation inundated by giant plants for an incredible clash with giant robots and Nazi scientists. Naturally, when Eclipso breaks out things go from bad to worse…

‘The Man Who Destroyed Eclipso’ has the Photonic Fiend kidnap Mona before a deranged physicist actually separates Eclipso and Gordon as part of his wild scheme to steal a nuclear missile, after which the threat of a terrifying alien omnivore forces heroes and villain to temporarily join forces in ‘The Two Faces of Doom!’

‘Challenge of the Split-Man!’ sees Gordon and Eclipso once more at odds as the desperate scientist returns to Mophir’s lair in search of a cure before inexplicably following the liberated villain to a robot factory in Scotland.

Veteran cartoonist Jack Sparling took over the artist’s role with #68 wherein ‘Eclipso’s Deadly Doubles!’ reveal how Gordon’s latest attempt to effect a cure only multiplies his problems, after which ‘Wanted: Eclipso Dead or Alive!’ relates how the beleaguered boffin is hired by Scotland Yard to capture himself – or at least his wicked and still-secret other self…

‘Bruce Gordon, Eclipso’s Ally!’ returns the long-suffering trio to Latin America where an accident robs Gordon of his memory – but not his curse – leading to the most ironic alliance in comics…

‘The Trial of Eclipso’ has the periodically freed felon finally captured by the police and threatening to expose Gordon’s dark secret after which ‘The Moonstone People’ strand the Bennetts, Gordon and Eclipso on a lost island populated by scientists who haven’t aged since their own arrival in 1612…

Even such a talented writer as Bob Haney occasionally strained at the restrictions of writing a fresh story for a villainous protagonist under Comics Code Restrictions, and later tales became increasingly more outlandish after ‘Eclipso Battles the Sea Titan’, in which a subsea monster threatens not just the surface world but also Eclipso’s ultimate refuge – Bruce Gordon’s fragile body…

Another attempt to expel or eradicate the horror inside accidentally creates a far more dangerous enemy in ‘The Negative Eclipso’ after which a criminal syndicate, fed up with the Photonic Fury’s disruption of their operations, decrees ‘Eclipso Must Die!’

It had to happen – and did – when Mark Merlin (in his new and unwieldy superhero persona of Prince Ra-Man) met his House of Secrets stable-mate in book-length thriller ‘Helio, the Sun Demon!’ (#76, with the concluding second chapter drawn by the inimitable Bernard Baily).

Here Eclipso creates a fearsome, fiery solar slave and the Bennetts team with the enigmatic super-sorcerer to free Bruce and save the world from flaming destruction.

All-out fantasy subsumed suspense in the strip’s dying days with aliens and weird creatures abounding, such as ‘The Moon Creatures’ which Eclipso grew from lunar dust to do his wicked bidding or the hidden treasure of Stonehenge that transformed him into a ‘Monster Eclipso’.

Issue #79 saw a return match for Prince Ra-Man in ‘The Master of Yesterday and Tomorrow!’ with Baily again pitching for an extended epic wherein Eclipso gets his scurrilous hands on a selection of time-bending trinkets, before #80 (October 1966) ended the series with no fanfare, no warning and no ultimate resolution as ‘The Giant Eclipso!’ pitted the fade-away fiend against mutants, cops and his own colossal doppelganger.

Not everything old is gold and this quirky, exceedingly eccentric collection of comics thrillers certainly won’t appeal to everyone. However, there is a gloriously outré charm and helter-skelter, fanciful delight in these silly but absorbing sagas.

If you’re of an open-minded mien and the art of Elias, Toth, Sparling and Baily appeals as it should to all right-thinking fans (the drawing never looked more vibrant or effective than in this crisp and splendid black and white collection) then this old-world casket of bizarre wonders will certainly appeal.

Not for him or her or them then, but perhaps this book is for you?
© 1963-1966, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Complete Peanuts volume 3: 1955-1956


By Charles Schulz (Canongate Books/Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84767-075-5 (Canongate HB):             978-1-56097-647-9 (Fantagraphics HB)

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal. At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since Schulz’ departure. Book collections, a merchandising mountain and television spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire.

Cartoonist Charles M Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for half a century. During that time he published 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000, and died – from the complications of cancer – the day before his last strip was printed…

None of that is really the point. Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate imposed upon him – changed the way newspaper strips were received and perceived, and proved that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punch lines.

Following a heartfelt and clearly awestruck Foreword from contemporary cartoon genius Matt Groening, this third gargantuan landscape hardback compendium (218 by 33 by 172 mm in the solid world and infinitely variable in its digital iterations) offers in potent monochrome the fifth and sixth years in the life of Charlie Brown and Co: an ever-evolving bombardment of cruel insight and bitingly barbed hilarity.

Here our increasing browbeaten but resolutely optimistic little round head and his high-maintenance mutt Snoopy respond with increasing bewilderment to the rapidly changing world of TV, sports, games and especially peers who seem designed only to vex, belittle or embarrass the introspective everyboy.

Gaining far greater prominence is obnoxious “fussbudget” Lucy who, with her infant sibling Linus – an actual architectural idiot savant – are getting more and more of the best lines and set-ups. Another up and comer settling in (amidst a cloud of dust and detritus) is hapless toxic innocent ‘Pig-Pen’: a sad clown in the grand manner, buffeted by a cruel condition but manfully persevering throughout…

Bombastic Shermy and mercurial Patty are slowly being eased out, and brusque Violet is slowly losing ground to gags starring Beethoven-obsessed, long-suffering musical prodigy Schroeder. Linus’ mystic tranquiliser the Security Blanket also gains greater prominence, but his anxiety peaks exponentially whenever raucous, strident newcomer Charlotte Braun ambles by…

The daily diet of rapid-fire gags had now successfully evolved from raucous slapstick to surreal, edgy, psychologically honed introspection, crushing peer-judgements and deep rumination in a world where kids – and certain animals – were the only actors, although even inanimate objects occasionally got into the action with malice aforethought…

The relationships, however, were ever-evolving: deep, complex and absorbing even though “Sparky” Schulz never deviated from his core message to entertain…

The first Sunday page had debuted on January 6th 1952: a standard half-page slot offering more measured fare than the daily. Both thwarted ambition and explosive frustration became part of the strip’s signature denouements and continue to develop here. There are some pure gem examples of running gag mastery in here too, regarding Lucy’s ongoing relationship to certain snowmen of her own macabre devising and mounting jealousy that her predestined inamorata would rather look at plaster busts of Beethoven than upon her living form…

Perennial touchstones on display herein include playing, playing pranks, playing sports, playing golf, playing baseball, playing in mud, playing in snow, playing musical instruments, playing marbles, the rules of croquet, learning to read, coping with increasingly intransigent if not actually malevolent kites, teasing each other, making baffled observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups.

New themes include America’s fascination with flying saucers, ditto for TV sensation Davy Crockett, art appreciation and Snoopy’s growing desire to be anything but a maligned and put-upon little dog. Especially one starved of tasty treats and bonbons…

The soft-soap ostracization of Charlie Brown and his expressions of alienation are well explored but in truth Lucy is the real star here, with episodes seeing her seeking to become Mayor of the United States, duelling Snoopy with skipping ropes and investigating the mystery of why the planet is getting smaller…

More exploration of Snoopy’s incredible inner mindscape can be seen here and there are plenty of season-appropriate gags about summer sun, winter snow and the Fall of leaves as well as riffs on festive events such as Halloween, Easter and Christmas. During this time Good Ol’ Charlie starts getting those stress-induced head and stomach aches…

And best of all, auteur Schulz is in brilliant imaginative form crafting a myriad of purely graphic visual gags any surrealist would give their nose-teeth to have come up with…

Now and forevermore Charlie Brown – although still a benign dreamer with his eyes affably affixed on the stars – is solidly locked on the path to his eternal loser, singled-out-by-fate persona and the sheer diabolical wilfulness of Lucy starts sharpening itself on everyone around her…

Adding to the enjoyment and elucidation, a copious ‘Index’ offers instant access to favourite scenes you’d like to see again, after which Gary Groth reviews the life of ‘Charles M. Schulz: 1922-2000’, rounding out our glimpse of the dolorous graphic genius with intimate revelations and reminiscences…

Still readily available, this volume offers the perfect example of a masterpiece in motion: comedy gold and social glue gradually metamorphosing in an epic of spellbinding graphic mastery which became part of the fabric of billions of lives, and which continues to do so long after its maker’s passing.

How can you possibly resist?
The Complete Peanuts: 1955-1956 (Volume Three) © 2004 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. Foreword © 2005 Matt Groening. “Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000” © 2004 Gary Groth. All rights reserved.

Adventures of Tintin: Tintin and the Broken Ear


By Hergé & various; translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-617-4 (HB)                    : 978-0-416-57030-5 (PB)

Georges Prosper Remi – AKA Hergé – created a true masterpiece of graphic literature with his many tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and the Hergé Studio, Remi completed 23 splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art.

Like Charles Dickens with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hergé died in the throes of creation, and final outing Tintin and Alph-Art remains a volume without a conclusion, but still a fascinating examination and a pictorial memorial of how the artist worked.

It’s only fair though, to ascribe a substantial proportion of credit to the many translators whose diligent contributions have enabled the series to be understood and beloved in 38 languages. The subtle, canny, witty and slyly funny English versions are the work of Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi worked for Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. The following year, the young artist – a passionate and dedicated boy scout – produced his first strip series: The Adventures of Totor for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine.

By 1928 he was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécles children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme and unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette when Abbot Wallez urged Remi to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

And also, perhaps, highlight and expose some the Faith’s greatest enemies and threats…?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate this simple yet effective innovation into his own work.

He would produce a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments, running until May 8th 1930.

Accompanied by his dog Milou (Snowy to us Brits), the clean-cut, no-nonsense boy-hero – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul (a soldier in the Belgian Army) – would report back all the inequities from the “Godless Russias”.

The strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was an actual foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme

The odyssey was a huge success, assuring further – albeit less politically charged and controversial – exploits to follow. At least that was the plan…

After six years of continuous week-by-week improvement, Hergé was approaching his mastery when he began The Broken Ear. His characterisations were firm in his mind, and the storyteller was creating a memorable not to say iconic supporting cast, whilst balancing between crafting satisfactory single instalments and building a cohesive longer narrative.

The version reprinted here (in either hardback or softcover as you prefer) was repackaged in colour by the artist and his studio in 1945, although the original ran as monochrome 2-page weekly instalments from 1935-1937, but there are still evident signs of his stylistic transition in this hearty, exotic mystery tale that makes Indiana Jones look like a boorish, po-faced amateur.

Back from China, Tintin hears of an odd robbery at the Museum of Ethnography and, rushing over, finds the detectives Thompson and Thomson already on the case in their own unique manner.

A relatively valueless carved wooden Fetish Figure made by the Arumbaya Indians has been taken from the South American exhibit. Bafflingly, it was returned the next morning, but the intrepid boy reporter is the first to realise that it’s a fake, since the original statue had a broken right ear.

Perhaps coincidentally, a minor sculptor has been found dead in his flat…

Thus begins a frenetic and enthralling chase to find not just who has the real statue but also why a succession of rogues attempt to secure the dead sculptor’s irreverent and troublesome parrot, with the atmospheric action encompassing the modern urban metropolis, an ocean-going liner and the steamy, turbulent Republic of San Theodoros.

Hhere the valiant lad becomes embroiled in an on-again, off-again Revolution. Eventually, though, our focus moves to the deep jungle where Tintin finally meets the Arumbayas and a long-lost explorer, finally getting one step closer to solving the pan-national mystery.

Whilst unrelenting in my admiration for Hergé I must interject a necessary note of praise for translators Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner here. Their light touch has been integral to the English-language success of Tintin, and their skill and whimsy is never better seen than in their dialoguing of the Arumbayas.

Just read aloud and think Eastenders

The slapstick and mayhem incrementally build to a wonderfully farcical conclusion with justice soundly served all around, all whilst solid establishing a perfect template for many future yarns: especially those that would perforce be crafted without a political or satirical component during Belgium’s grim occupation by the Nazis.

Here, however, Hergé’s developing social conscience and satirical proclivities are fully exercised in a telling sub-plot about rival armaments manufacturers using an early form of shuttle diplomacy to gull the leaders of both San Theodoros and its neighbour Nuevo-Rico into a war simply to increase company profits, and once again oil speculators would have felt the sting of his pen – if indeed they were capable of any feeling…

It’s hard to imagine that comics as marvellous as these still haven’t found their way onto everybody’s bookshelf, but if you are one of this underprivileged underclass, there’s no better time to rectify that sorry situation.

The Broken Ear: artwork © 1945, 1984 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai.
Text © 1975 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Altered Boys volume 1: The Book of Billy


By Michael J. Uhlman, Brian Wasiak, Jon C. Scheide, Robert Rath & various (Shinebox Press)
ISBN: 25274-0480-3

The eternally meandering demarcation line between justice and vengeance has been a favoured theme of drama since storytelling began and is never going to grow stale or overused.

Such tales are always about addressing fundamental universal wrongs which impact on our core values, but they generally come seasoned by topical outrages, such as this moody and compelling opening act in what reads to me like a movie or TV miniseries in the making.

Altered Boys is the brainchild of Hollywood insiders Michael J. Uhlman, Brian Wasiak & Jon C. Scheide, brought to vivid life by illustrator Robert Rath.

It tackles, with cathartic venom and a hunger for redress, one of society’s most vile and iniquitous scandals: the historical and ongoing betrayal and abuse of the innocent faithful by their spiritual – and moral – leaders.

With the current global backlash against religions that value their own wealth and reputations over the harm (some) priests inflict upon the most vulnerable of their charges, here’s an honest and understandable reaction, couched in the trappings of a cop drama and conspiracy thriller.

Once upon a time in Boston there were four boys. It was 1984 and Michael, Mark, Christian and Billy were just your average best friends with their entire lives ahead of them enjoying nothing but high hopes and bold expectations. They were also altar boys at the local Catholic church where the formidable Father Fitzgerald officiated…

Today, the long-separated pals are attending Billy’s funeral. It’s a fractious ill-tempered reunion and there’s plenty of guilt to go around about what happened to him – and them – back then. Even more over how he ended up…

Michael can’t let it go and, displaying an unnerving set of strategies and skills, tracks down Fitzgerald, easily penetrating many devious layers of obfuscation the Church provided when they quietly relocated the paedophilic monster.

Their reunion and confrontation is short and very final…

In the aftermath, Michael enjoys a quiet reconciliation breakfast with Mark and Christian before leaving town. He then has a slanging match with his own superiors and starts lying to his bosses…

In Washington DC, FBI Director Rivera has a visitor. The Cardinal has received a disturbing file he doesn’t want but needs to share. Catholic priests are dying.

Many are committing what doctrine and faith considers a mortal sin and taking their own lives whilst others are just being shot in their homes.

It might not be clear to the authorities what’s going on, but His Eminence knows what all these priests have in common…

What nobody yet realises is that it’s not just Catholics or even simply Christian clerics at risk. Something very methodical and efficient is excising deviant officiants of every faith: those who betray their flocks and predate on their congregations whilst relying on their superiors’ silence to safeguard them.

Now person or persons unknown are using the Churches’ own abominable cowardice in covering up scandals to mask an unswerving elimination of the unholy…

Moreover, Michael’s enigmatic bosses are slowly realising their top operative is also off the rails and ministering to his own agenda…

To Be Continued…

Sharing an edgy tone with Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River and elements of both Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight and Amy Berg’s Deliver Us from Evil, this potent exploration of monsters and champions seeks to redefine notions of Good and Evil whilst telling a darkly gripping story of timeless appeal. It’s working so far…

On a personal note: Having been raised Catholic myself before rationality overwhelmed me, it’s an issue that has long personally aggrieved me and shamed every good and decent person I know (as it should everybody on Earth). It’s good to see mainstream adventure comics seriously addressing the issues in mature – if necessarily bombastic – manner. The second volume is in production as we speak and hopefully it won’t be long before we can see the investigation proceed in Altered Boys: The Book of Rebecca
© 2018 Shinebox Press.

Altered Boys: The Book of Billy is available digitally on Comixology and hard copies can be obtained via the website.

Iron Fist Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Doug Moench, Tony Isabella, Chris Claremont, Gil Kane, Larry Hama, Arvell Jones, John Byrne & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5032-9 (HB)

Comicbooks have always operated within the larger bounds of popular trends and fashions – just look at what got published whenever westerns or science fiction dominated on TV – so when the ancient philosophy and health-&-fitness discipline of Kung Fu made its unstoppable mark on domestic entertainment it wasn’t long before the Chop Sockey kicks and punches found their way onto the four-colour pages of America’s periodicals.

As part of the first Martial Arts bonanza, Marvel converted a forthcoming license to use venerable fictional villain Fu Manchu into a series about his son. The series launched in Special Marvel Edition#15, December 1973 as The Hands of Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu and by April 1974 (#17) the title became his exclusively.

A month later the House of Ideas launched a second oriental-tinged hero in Iron Fist; a character combining Eastern combat philosophy with high fantasy, magic powers and a proper superhero mask and costume…

The character also owed a hefty debt to Bill Everett’s pioneering golden Age super-hero Amazing Man who graced various Centaur Comics publications between 1939 and 1942. The tribute was paid by Roy Thomas & Gil Kane who adopted and translated the fictive John Aman’s Tibetan origins into something that meshed better with the 1970’s twin zeitgeists of Supernatural Fantasy and Martial Arts Mayhem…

This power-packed collection (available as both sturdy hardback and bantamweight EBook) gathers the far-ranging appearances of the youthful Living Weapon from Marvel Premier #15-25 and Iron Fist#1-2 (spanning May 1974 to December 1975), tracking the high-kicking wonder as he uncovers his past and rediscovers a long-deferred heritage of humanity before inevitably settling into the inescapable role of costumed crusader…

Following a fond and informative reminiscence from Thomas in his Introduction, the non-stop action begins with the spectacular Marvel Premier #15 and the first flurry of ‘The Fury of Iron Fist!’

Thomas, Kane & inker Dick Giordano reveal how a young masked warrior defeats the cream of a legendary combat elite in a fabled other-dimensional city before returning to Earth.

Ten years previously little Daniel Rand had watched helplessly as his father and mother died at the hands of family friend Harold Meachum whilst the party risked Himalayan snows to find the legendary lost city of K’un Lun.

Little Danny had travelled with his wealthy parents and business partner Meachum in search of the fabled city – which only appears on Earth for one day every ten years. Wendell Rand hides some unsuspected connection to the fabled Shangri La, but is killed before they find it, and Danny’s mother sacrifices herself to save her child from wolves… and her murderous pursuer.

As he wanders alone in the wilderness, the city comes to Danny. He spends the next decade training: mastering all forms of martial arts in the militaristic, oriental, feudal paradise. He endures arcane ordeals, living only for the day he will return to Earth and avenge his parents…

After conquering all comers and refusing peace, a home and immortality, Iron Fist touches Earth once more: a Living Weapon able to turn his force of will into a devastating super-punch…

From the outset the feature was plagued by an inability to keep a stable creative team, although, to be fair, story quality never suffered, only plot and direction. Reaching New York City in #16, ‘Heart of the Dragon!’ (by Len Wein, Larry Hama & Giordano) finds Iron Fist reliving the years of crushing tuition and toil which had culminated in a trial by combat with mystic dragon Shou-Lao the Undying. Victory granted him the power to concentrate his fist “like unto a thing of Iron” and other, as yet unspecified, abilities. The epic clash had branded his chest with the seared silhouette of the fearsome wyrm…

His recollections are shattered when martial arts bounty hunter Scythe attacks, revealing that Meachum knows the boy is back and has put a price on his callow head…

Danny has not only sacrificed immortality for vengeance but also prestige and privilege. As he left K’un Lun, supreme ruler of the city Yü Ti, the August Personage in Jade, had revealed that murdered Wendell Rand had been his own brother…

Marvel Premier #17 saw Doug Moench take over scripting as Iron Fist storms Meachum’s skyscraper headquarters: a ‘Citadel on the Edge of Vengeance’ and converted into a colossal 30-storey death trap. Danny’s undaunted progress to the top leads to a duel with cybernetically-augmented giant Triple-Iron and a climactic confrontation with his parents’ killer in #18’s ‘Lair of Shattered Vengeance!’

The years had not been kind to Meachum. He lost his legs to frostbite returning from the high peaks, and, upon hearing from Sherpas that a boy had been taken into K’un Lun, the broken American had spent the intervening decade awaiting in dread for his victims’ avenger…

Filled with loathing, frustration and pity, Iron Fist turns away from his intended retribution, but Meachum dies anyway, slain by a mysterious Ninja as the deranged multi-millionaire attempts to shoot Danny in the back…

In #19, Joy Meachum and her ruthless uncle Ward – convinced that Iron Fist has assassinated the wheelchair-bound Harold – steps up the hunt for Danny through legal and illegal means, even as the shell-shocked Living Weapon aimlessly wanders the strange streets of Manhattan. Adopted by the enigmatic Colleen Wing, Danny meets her father, an aging professor of Oriental Studies who has fallen foul of a ‘Death Cult!’

In his own youthful travels, the aged savant had acquired ancient text The Book of Many Things which, amongst other wonders, held the secret of K’un Lun’s destruction. The deadly disciples of Kara-Kai are determined to possess it…

After thwarting another murder attempt Iron Fist tries to make peace with Joy, but instead walks into an ambush with the bloodthirsty ninja again intervening and slaughtering the ambushers…

A period of often painful inconsistency began as Tony Isabella, Arvell Jones & Dan Green took over with #20. The Kara-Kai cultists renew their attacks on the Wings whilst Ward Meachum hires a veritable army of killers to destroy the Living Weapon in ‘Batroc and Other Assassins’ – with the identity of the ninja apparently revealed here as the elderly scholar…

Marvel Premier #21 (inked by Vince Colletta) introduced the ‘Daughters of the Death Goddess’ as the Wings are abducted by the cultists and bionic former cop Misty Knight debuts, first as foe but soon after as an ally.

When Danny tracks down the cult he discovers some shocking truths – as does the ninja, who had been imprisoned within the ancient book by the August Personage in Jade in ages past and possessed Professor Wing in search of escape and vengeance…

All is revealed and the hero exonerated in #22’s ‘Death is a Ninja’ (inked by “A. Bradford”) with the ninja disclosing how, as disciple to sublime wizard Master Khan, he had attempted to conquer K’un Lun only to be imprisoned within the crumbling tome for his pains.

Over the years the prisoner had discovered a temporary escape and subsequently manipulated the Wings and Iron Fist to secure a permanent release and the doom of his jailers. Now exposed, the ninja faces the Living Weapon in a final cataclysmic clash…

A measure of stability resumed with #23 as Chris Claremont, Pat Broderick & Bob McLeod took the series in a new direction. With his life’s work over and nearly nine years until he can go “home”, Danny is now a man without purpose… until, whilst strolling with Colleen, he stumbles into a spree shooting in ‘The Name is… Warhawk.’

When the cyborg-assassin has a Vietnam flashback and begins heedlessly sniping in Central Park, the Pride of K’un Lun instantly responds to the threat… and thus begins his new role as a hero…

In ‘Summerkill’ (inked by Colletta) the itinerant exile battles alien robot The Monstroid and commences a long and complicated association with Princess Azir of Halwan. The incident also coincides with the mysterious Master Khan resurfacing, apparently intent on killing her and seizing her country…

Inked by Al McWilliams, Marvel Premier #25 was the last of the hero’s run and the start of his short-but-sweet Golden Age as John Byrne signed on as regular penciller for ‘Morning of the Mindstorm!’

Whilst Colleen is driven to unconsciousness and abducted and her father pushed to the edge of insanity by mind-bending terrorist Angar the Screamer, Danny – who is made of far sterner, more disciplined stuff – overcomes the psycho-sonic assaults and tracks the attackers to Stark Industries and into his own series…

Iron Fist #1 (November 1975) featured ‘A Duel of Iron!’ as he is tricked into battling Iron Man, even as Colleen escapes and runs into Danny’s future nemesis Steel Serpent before being recaptured and renditioned to Halwan…

After a spectacular, inconclusive and ultimately pointless battle, Danny and Misty Knight also head for Halwan in ‘Valley of the Damned!’ (#2, inked by Frank Chiaramonte), with our hero recalling a painful episode from his youth wherein his best friends Conal and Miranda chose certain death beyond the walls of regimented K’un Lun rather than remain in the lost city where they could not love each other…

To Be Continued…

Iron Fist’s peripatetic saga ranks amongst the most exciting and enjoyable Costumed Dramas of Marvel’s second generation. If you want a good, clean fight comic (and one supported by a TV iteration) this is certainly one of your best bets. Bow reverently, and Begin…
© 1974, 1975, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Survivors Book 2: The Eyes That Burned


By Hermann, translated by Dwight R. Decker (Fantagraphics Books)
No ISBN: ASIN: B005KE6S2K

Hermann Huppen was born in 1938 in Bévercé, in what is now the Malmedy region of Liège Province, Belgium. He studied to become a furniture maker and worked as an interiors architect before finally settling on a career in comics.

His true vocation commenced in 1963 when he joined with writer Greg (Michel Régnier) to create cop series Bernard Prince for Tintin. The artist then added to his weekly chores with Roman adventure serial Jugurtha (scripted by Jean-Luc Vernal) and in 1969 expanded his portfolio further by adding the Greg-penned western Comanche to his seamlessly stunning output…

Bernard Prince and Comanche made Hermann a superstar of the industry – a status he has built upon with further classics such as The Towers of Bois-Maury, oneiric fantasy Bonnes Nuits, Nic!, Sarajevo-Tango, Station 16, Afrika and many more.

However, Hermann bravely dropped guaranteed money-spinner Prince (but stayed with Comanche because of his abiding love for western- themed material) when a rival publisher offered him the opportunity to write and draw his own strip. That was legendary European comics impresario (and Hermann’s agent) Ervin Rustemagic, who slotted his new dystopian thriller into German magazine Zack. Soon the strip was appearing in translation all over the world.

By my count there are 34 volumes and one Special Edition (most of which can be read as stand-alone tales) in circulation globally and has been serialised in Journal de Spirou, Metal Hurlant, Stripoteka and Politikin Zabavnik amongst others.

Jeremiah is a saga of survival and friendship in a post-apocalyptic world – with all the trappings of later hits like Mad Max – but inexplicably, despite its American settings and the sheer quality of the stories and art, has never really caught on in the US.

Fantagraphics were the first to introduce the unlikely hero and his world – retitled The Survivors! – in the opening years of the specialised Comicbook Direct Sales marketplace.

That heady air of enterprise and openness to new and different kinds of illustrated experiences somehow didn’t spread to Jeremiah, however, and the series vanished after just two translated volumes.

Catalan took up the challenge next with a single album in 1990, after which Malibu released a triptych of 2-issue comicbook miniseries between January and September 1991.

At the end of 2002, Dark Horse Comics partnered with Europe’s Strip Art Features syndicate to bring the series to the public attention again; releasing later albums with no appreciable response or reward, despite tying in to the broadcasting of J. Michael Straczynski and Sam Egan’s woefully disappointing TV series based on the strip.

In 2012 the publishers had another shot: releasing the first nine European albums in three of their always-appealing Omnibus editions. These are harder to find than hen’s teeth (even after a civilisation ending nuclear exchange) so now I’m having another go.

I’m not publishing anything, just categorically stating that Jeremiah – in whatever printed iteration you can find it – is one of the finest bodies of sequential graphic storytelling and illustrative excellence ever put to paper, so if you love science fiction, gritty westerns, rugged adventure or simply bloody good comics, somehow track down Hermann’s masterpiece and give it a go.

In case you need a bit of plot and context, here’s what happens in the first tale as delivered by Fantagraphics. La Nuit des rapaces was released as a French-language Album in April 1979 and picked up by the US Indy publisher in 1982.

It describes how America died, not due to political intrigue or military error but as the result of a grotesque and appalling race war.

When the dust settled and the blood dried, the republic was reduced to pockets of survivors scavenging in ruins or grubbing out a life from leftover machines and centuries-old farming practises. It was a new age of settlers, pioneers and bandits. There was no law but brute force and every walled community lived in terror of strangers…

In that pitiless world, Jeremiah was an unhappy, rebellious teen who craved excitement and despised his little dirt-grubbing, formidably-stockaded village of Bend’s Hatch.

He got his wish the night he was late home. Locked out and stuck in the desert wastelands, the callow boy encountered youthful nomadic scavenger Kurdy Malloy and wound up beaten and unconscious. The assault saved his life…

Finally reaching home next morning, Jeremiah found the village razed and burning, with everything of value taken – including all able-bodied men. women and children…

Assuming Kurdy at least partly responsible, Jeremiah tracked the wanderer and saved him from being tortured by other outlaws in the desert wastes. A cack-handed rescue resulted in them establishing an uneasy truce whilst Kurdy taught the kid the necessities of life on the run.

Determined to find his people, Jeremiah and Kurdy followed their trail to the thriving outlaw town of Langton. The makeshift metropolis was divided in two: ordinary folk and an army of thugs led by a debauched madman Mr. W. E. Birmingham

From a central citadel his thugs run roughshod over everybody else, but before long the newcomers stoked resentment and anger into full rebellion…

When the shooting stopped the settlers were in control and Jeremiah convinced Kurdy to invade the Red Nation in search of the missing slaves…

Due to the exigencies of Fantagraphics’ licensing deal, the second translated volume was actually fourth Euro-Album Les Yeux de fer rouge (first released in 1980), but the jump is barely noticeable.

In Du sable plein les dent and Les Héritiers sauvages the lads successfully infiltrate and escape from tyrannical insular Indian country, but without freeing any captives. Now they are wandering the vast, malformed wastelands in search of a prisoner who has escaped the Red Dictatorship…

The Eyes That Burned opens in those eerie expanses with the brutalised boys uneasily catching glimpses of something strange dogging them. As night falls they meet a pioneer family whose wagon has become bogged down, but, even after tense, untrusting introductions slowly resolve into uneasy alliance, the combined stragglers are unable to free the conveyance.

The situation changes when macabre showman Pinkus L. C. Khobb pops up out of nowhere and has his heavily-cloaked performer and companion Idiamh lift the vehicle free. The weird strangers are gone before the party can thank them, but doughty matron Faye has had some kind of seizure and now sits comatose and unresponsive…

Unable to help, Jeremiah and Kurdy press on, tracking their target to a grim hell-hole town dubbed Lerbin’s Gate. Although they ride horses, they are amazed to find Pinkus has got there ahead of them. As they unsuccessfully enquire about the Indian escapee, the showman and his act perform spectacularly. The crowds are suitably enthralled but some of the visitors are taken strangely ill immediately afterwards…

When the boys decide to return to the wastes and scout around the Indian borderland, Pinkus is watching…

The altered terrain is a terrifying hellscape of sand, dust and petrified flora and before long, the lads are pretty sure their increasingly close calls with death are no accidents…

Eventually, they cross the barrier back into Indian territory and encounter motorised war parties rounding up escaped slaves. After a brutal skirmish they also face an utterly unexpected outcome: survivors from Bend’s Hatch being helped by a traitor in the Indian military and covertly running an underground railroad for fleeing slaves…

The reunion and exultancy only last until Pinkus pops up again, revealing his cruel conniving connection to the slaver state before turning his deadly mutant monster on the fugitives…

Sadly for the vile vaudevillian, Jeremiah is fast, observant, deeply intuitive and just as ruthless…

Fast-paced, explosively engaging, with wry and positively spartan writing and fantastic twists on classic cinema tropes, The Eyes That Burned uses beautiful pictures to tell a compelling story that is one the best homages to the wild west ever crafted. Try it and see…
The Survivors! volume Two: The Eyes That Burned © 1982 Koralle, Hamburg.

Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel


By Eoin Colfer &Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano with colour by Paolo Lamanna (Puffin Books)
ISBN: 978-0-141-32296-4

In an age when the boundaries of good guys and bad guys are constantly blurred and redefined, it’s well to keep your options open. One admirable player for the other side (mostly) is the captivating Artemis Fowl II. A criminal mastermind, scion of Ireland’s greatest family of rogues and villains, he is probably the greatest intellect on the planet.

The wee lad inherited the family business when his father mysteriously vanished on a caper, a loss from which Artemis’ mother has never recovered.

This Machiavellian anti-hero is a teenager so smart that he has deduced that fairies and mystical creatures actually exist and thus spends this first book stealing their secrets to replenish the family’s depleted fortunes and fulfil his greatest heart’s desire…

His greatest ally is Butler, a manically loyal and extremely formidable hereditary retainer who is a master of physical violence…

The first of the eight novels (with four so far making the transition to sequential narrative whilst production of the Disney movie nears completion) is here adapted by the author and Andrew Donkin; illustrated in a kind of Euro-manga style that won’t suit everybody but which nevertheless perfectly captures the mood and energy of the original.

This lavish adventure is also interspersed with comprehensive and clever data-file pages (by Megan Noller Holt) to bring everybody up to full speed on this wild, wild world…

Fowl is utterly brilliant and totally ruthless. Once determining that the mythological realm of pixies, elves, ogres and the like are actually a highly advanced secret race predating humanity and now dwelling deep underground, he “obtains” and translates their Great Book and divines all their secrets of technology and magic.

Artemis has a plan for the greatest score of all time, and knows that he cannot be thwarted, but he has not reckoned on the wit, guts and determination of Holly Short, an elf who works for the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance Force.

She is the only female LEPRecon operative allowed to work on the world’s surface and has had to prove herself every moment of every day…

Combining sinister mastery, exotic locales, daring adventure, spectacular high fantasy concepts and appallingly low puns and slapstick, this tale has translated extremely well to the comics medium (but that’s no reason not to read the books too, especially as they’re all available in paperback and digital formats), offering a clever plot and characters that are both engaging and grotesquely vulgar – and thus perfect fare for kids.

I especially admire the kleptomaniac dwarf Mulch Diggum, whose species’ biological self-defence mechanism consists of overwhelming, explosive flatulence…

Farting, fighting and fantasy are pretty much the perfect combination for kid’s fiction and boys especially will revel in the unrestrained power of the wicked lead character. This is a little gem from a fabulously imaginative creator and an unrelentingly rewarding publisher. Long may you all reign…
Text © 2007 Eoin Colfer. Illustrations © 2007 Giovanni Rigano. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Dial H for Hero


By Dave Wood, Jim Mooney, George Roussos, Frank Springer, Sal Trapani Jack Sparling & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2648-0

In the mid-Sixties the entire world went crazy for costumed crusaders and every comicbook publisher was frantically seeking new ways to repackage an extremely exciting yet intrinsically limited concept. Perhaps its ultimate expression came with the creation of a teen-aged everyman champion who battled crime and disaster in his little town with the aid on a fantastic wonder-tool…

This slim monochrome paperback compendium collects the entire run from House of Mystery (#156, January 1966 to #173, March-April 1968) when the title vanished for a few months to re-emerge later as DC’s first new anthological supernatural mystery titles: the next big sensation…

Created by Dave Wood & Jim Mooney, Dial H For Hero detailed the incredible adventures of boy genius Robby Reed who lived with his grandfather in idyllic Littleville: a genial everytown where nothing ever happened…

Sadly, very little is known about writer Dave Wood, whose prolific output began in the early days of the American comics industry and whose work includes such seminal classics (often with artistic legends Jack Kirby and Wally no-relation Wood) as Challengers of the Unknown and seminal “Space Race” newspaper strip Sky Masters.

A skilled jobbing writer, Wood frequently collaborated with his brother Dick. They bounced around the industry, scripting mystery, war, science fiction and adventure tales and among his/their vast credits are stints on most Superman family titles, Batman, Detective Comics, World’s Finest, Green Arrow, Rex the Wonder Dog, Tomahawk, Blackhawk, Martian Manhunter and many others.

As well as Dial H For Hero Wood created the bizarre sleeper hit Animal Man and the esoteric but fondly regarded Ultra, the Multi-Alien.

James Noel Mooney started his comics career in 1940, aged 21, working for the Eisner & Eiger production shop and at Fiction House on The Moth, Camilla, Suicide Smith and other B-features. By the end of the year he was a mainstay of Timely Comic’s vast funny animal/animated cartoon tie-in department.

In 1946 Jim moved to DC to ghost Batman for Bob Kane and Dick Sprang. He stayed until 1968, working on a host of features including Superman, Superboy, Legion of Super-Heroes, World’s Finest Comics and Tommy Tomorrow, as well as various genre short stories for the company’s assorted anthology titles like Tales of the Unexpected and House of Mystery.

He famously drew Supergirl from her series debut in Action Comics #253 to #373, after which he returned to Marvel and stellar runs on Spider-Man, Marvel Team-up, Omega the Unknown, Man-Thing, Ghost Rider and a host of other features as both penciller and inker. Prior to that move he was illustrating Dial H For Hero; the only original DC feature he co-created.

Big things were clearly expected of the new feature, which was parachuted in as lead and cover feature, demoting the venerable Martian Manhunter to a back-up role at the rear of each issue.

The first – untitled – story opens with an attack on the local chemical works by super-scientific criminal organisation Thunderbolt just as young Robby and his pals are playing in the hills above the site. As they flee, the plucky lad is caught in a landslide and falls into an ancient cave where lies hidden an obviously alien artefact that looks like an outlandish telephone dial.

After finding his way out of the cavern Robby becomes obsessed with the device and spends all his time attempting to translate the arcane hieroglyphs on it. Eventually he determines that they are instructions to dial the symbols which translate to “H”, “E”, “R” and “O”…

Ever curious, Robby complies and ia suddenly transformed into a colossal super-powered Giantboy, just in time to save a crashing airliner and quash another Thunderbolt raid. Returning home, he reverses the dialling process and goes to bed…

These were and still are perfect wish-fulfilment stories: uncluttered and uncomplicated yarns concealing no grand messages or themes: just straight entertainment expertly undertaken by experienced and gifted craftsmen who knew just how to reach their young-at-heart audiences. Thus, no-one is surprised at the ease with which Robby adapts to his new situation…

When Thunderbolt strikes again next morning Robby grabs his dial but is startled to become a different hero – high-energy being The Cometeer.

Streaking to the rescue he is overcome by the raider’s super weapon and forced dial back into Robby again. Undeterred, he later tries again and as The Mole finally tracks the villains to their base and defeats them. The leader escapes, however, to become the series’ only returning villain…

Mr. Thunder was back in the very next issue as Robby became The Human, Bullet, bestial energy-being Super-Charge and eerie alien Radar-Sonar Man to crush ‘The Marauders from Thunderbolt Island’ after which criminal scientist Daffy Dagan steals the H-Dial after defeating the boy’s next temporary alter ego Quake-Master.

Dagan becomes a horrifying multi-powered monster when he learns to ‘Dial “V” For Villain’ but after the defeated hero takes back the artefact Robby redials into techno-warrior The Squid and belatedly saves the day.

Clearly the Mystery in House of… was related to where the Dial came from, what its unknown parameters were and who Robby would transform into next…

Issue #159 pitted The Human Starfish, Hypno-Man and super-powered toddler Mighty Moppet (who wielded weaponised baby bottles) in single combats with a shape-changing gang of bandits dubbed ‘The Clay-Creep Clan’ whilst ‘The Wizard of Light’ played with the format a little by introducing a potential love-interest for Robby in his best friend’s cousin Suzy

It also saw the return of Giant-Boy, the introduction of sugar-based sentinel of justice King Candy and the lad’s only transformation into an already established hero – the Golden Age legend Plastic Man.

Cynical me now suspects the move was a tester to see if the Pliable Paladin – who had been an inert resource since the company had bought out original publisher Quality Comics in 1956 – was ripe for a relaunch in the new, superhero-hungry environment.

DC’s Plastic Man #1 was released five months later…

House of Mystery #161 featured awesome ancient Egyptian menace ‘The Mummy with Six Heads’ who proves too much for Robby as Magneto (same powers but so very not a certain Marvel villain) and Hornet-Man, but not intangible avenger Shadow-Man, whilst in the next issue ‘The Monster-Maker of Littleville’ is proved by Mr. Echo and Future-Man to be less mad scientist than greedy entrepreneur…

‘Baron Bug and his Insect Army’ almost ends Robby’s clandestine career when the boy turns into two heroes at once; but even though celestial twins Castor and Pollux are overmatched, animated slinky-toy King Coil proves sufficient to stamp out the Baron’s giant mini-beasts. Human wave Zip Tide, living star Super Nova and Robby the Super-Robot are then hard-pressed to stop the rampages of ‘Dr. Cyclops – the Villain with the Doomsday Stare’ but eventually overcome the outrageous odds – and oddness…

Things got decidedly peculiar in #165 when a clearly malfunctioning H-Dial called up ‘The Freak Super-Heroes’Whoozis, Whatsis and Howzis – to battle Dr. Rigoro Mortis and his artificial thug Super-Hood in a bizarrely captivating romp with what looks like some unacknowledged inking assistance from veteran brush-meister George Roussos (who popped in a couple more times until Mooney’s departure).

Suzy became a fixture by moving into the house next door with ‘The King of the Curses’ who found his schemes to plunder the city thwarted by The Yankee-Doodle Kid and Chief Mighty Arrow, a war-bonneted Indian brave on a winged horse…

In HoM #167 ‘The Fantastic Rainbow Raider’ easily defeated Balloon Boy and Muscle Man but had no defence against the returning Radar-Sonar Man, whilst ‘The Marauding Moon Man’ easily overmatched Robby as The Hoopster but had no defence when another glitch turned old incarnations The Mole and Cometeer into a single heroic composite imaginatively christened Mole-Cometeer, but the biggest shock of all comes when ‘The Terrible Toymaster’ defeats Robby – AKA Velocity Kid – and Suzy cajoles the fallen hero into dialling her into the scintillating Gem Girl to finish the mission.

As it was the 1960s, Suzy didn’t quite manage on her own, but after Robby transforms into the psionically-potent Astro, Man of Space they soon closed the case – and toybox – for good. This one was all Mooney and so was the next.

‘Thunderbolt’s Secret Weapon’ was also the artist’s last hurrah with the Kid of a Thousand Capes as the incorrigible cartel tries to steal a supercomputer, only to be stopped dead by Baron Buzz-Saw, Don Juan (and his magic sword) and the imposing Sphinx-Man.

With House of Mystery #171 a radical new look emerged, as well as slightly darker tone. The writing was clearly on the wall for the exuberant, angst-free adventurer…

‘The Micro-Monsters!’ was illustrated by Frank Springer and sees Robby dial up King Viking – Super Norseman, Go-Go (a fab hipster who utilised the incredible powers of popular disco dances …and how long have I waited to type that line!!!?) and multi-powered Whirl-I-Gig to defeat bio-terrorist Doc Morhar and belligerent invaders from a sub-atomic dimension.

Springer also drew ‘The Monsters from the H-Dial’ wherein the again on-the-fritz gear turns Reed’s friend Jim into various ravening horrors every time Robby dials up.

Luckily the unnamed animated pendulum, Chief Mighty Arrow and the Human Solar Mirror our hero successively turns into prove just enough to stop the beasts until the canny boy can apply his trusty screwdriver to the incredible artefact once again.

In those distant days series ended abruptly, without fanfare and often in the middle of something… and such was the fate of Robby Reed. HoM #173, by Wood & Sal Trapani, saw the lad solve a mystery in ‘The Revolt of the H-Dial’ wherein the process reshapes him into water-breathing Gill-Man and a literal Icicle Man: beings not only unsuitable for life on Earth but also compelled to commit crimes.

Luckily by the time Robby dials into Strata Man he’s deduced what outside force is affecting his dangerously double-edged device…

And that was that. The series was gone, the market was again abandoning the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd and on the immediate horizon lay a host of war, western, barbarian and horror comics…

Exciting, fun, engaging and silly in equal amounts (heck, even I couldn’t resist a jibe or too and I genuinely revere these daft, nostalgia-soaked gems), Dial H For Hero has been re-imagined a number of time since these innocent odysseys first ran, but never with the clear-cut, unsophisticated, welcoming charm displayed here.

This is Ben-10 for your dad’s generation and your kid’s delectation: and only if they’re at just that certain age. Certainly you’re too grown up to enjoy these glorious classics. Surely you couldn’t be that lucky; could you…?
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 2010 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

The Dick Tracy Casebook – Favorite Adventures 1931-1990


By Chester Gould, selected by Max Allan Collins and Dick Locher (St. Martins/Penguin)
ISBN: 978-0-31204-461-9 (HB)                978-0-14014-568-7 (PB)

All things considered, comics have a pretty good track record on creating household names. We could play the game of picking the most well-known fictional characters on Earth (usually topped by Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, Superman and Tarzan) and in that list you’ll find Batman, Popeye, Blondie, Charlie Brown, Tintin, Spider-Man, Garfield, and not so much now – but once upon a time – Dick Tracy.

At the height of the Great Depression cartoonist Chester Gould was looking for strip ideas. The story goes that as a decent guy incensed by the exploits of gangsters (like Al Capone who monopolised the front pages of contemporary newspapers) he settled upon the only way a normal man could fight thugs: Passion and Public Opinion.

Raised in Oklahoma, Gould was a Chicago resident and hated seeing his home town in the grip of such wicked men, with far too many honest citizens beguiled by the gangsters’ power and charisma.

He decided to pictorially get it off his chest with a procedural crime thriller that championed the ordinary cops who protected civilisation. He took “Plainclothes Tracy” to legendary newspaperman and strips Svengali Captain Joseph Patterson, whose golden touch had blessed such strips as Gasoline Alley, The Gumps, Little Orphan Annie, Winnie Winkle, Smilin’ Jack, Moon Mullins and Terry and the Pirates among others.

Casting his gifted eye on the work, Patterson renamed the stern protagonist Dick Tracy and revised his love interest into steady girlfriend Tess Truehart.

The series launched on October 4th 1931 through Patterson’s Chicago Tribune Syndicate and rapidly became a huge hit, with all the attendant media and merchandising hoopla that follows.

Amidst the toys, games, movies, serials, animated features, TV shows et al, the strip soldiered on, influencing generations of creators and entertaining millions of fans. If you’ve never seen the original legend in action this collection – still readily available and released to accompany the Warren Beatty movie in 1990 – is a great introduction.

Selected by Max Allen Collins and Dick Locher, who worked on the strip after Gould retired, it presents complete adventures from each decade of the strip’s existence to date, and gives a grand overview of the development from radical ultra-violent adventure to forensic Police Procedural through increasingly fantastical science fiction and finally back-to-basics cop thriller under Collins’ own script tenure.

From the 1930s comes the memorable and uncharacteristic ‘The Hotel Murders’ (9th March – 27th April, 1936) wherein the terrifyingly determined cop solves a genuine mystery with a sympathetic antagonist instead of the usual unmitigated, unrepentant outlaw.

Whodunits with clues, false trails and tests of wits were counterproductive in a slam-bang, daily strip with a large cast and soap-opera construction, but this necessarily short tale follows all the ground rules as Tracy, adopted boy side-kick Junior, special agent Jim Trailer and the boys on the Beat track down the killer of a notorious gambler.

The best case of the 1940s – and for many the best ever – was ‘The Brow’ (22nd May – 26th September, 1944) in which the team must track down a ruthless and brilliant Nazi spy. As my own personal favourite, I’m doing you all the favour of saying no more about this compelling, breathtaking yarn, and you’ll thank me for it, but I will say that this is a complete reprinting, as others have been edited for violence and one edition simply left out every Sunday instalment – which is my own definition of policed brutality.

By the 1950s Gould was at his creative peak. ‘Crewy Lou’ (22nd April – 4th November, 1951) and ‘Model’ (23rd January – 27th March, 1952) are perfect examples of the range of his abilities. The first is an epic of minor crimes and criminals escalating into major menaces whilst the latter is another short shocker with the conservative Gould showing that social ills could still move him to action in a tale of juvenile delinquency as Junior grows into a teenager and experiences his first love affair…

As with many creators in it for the long haul the revolutionary 1960s were a harsh time for established cartoonists. Along with Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon, Dick Tracy especially foundered in a social climate of radical change where the popular slogans included “Never trust anybody over 21” and “Smash the Establishment”.

The strip’s momentum faltered, perhaps as much from the shift towards science fiction themes (Tracy moved into space and the alien character Moon Maid was introduced) as any old-fashioned attitudes.

In the era when strip proportions had begun to diminish as papers put advertising space above feature clarity, his artwork had attained dizzying levels of creativity: mesmerising, nigh-abstract concoctions of black-&-white that grabbed the eye no matter what size editors printed it. ‘Spots’ (3rd August – 30th November) 1960 comes from just before the worst excesses, but still displays the artist’s stark, chiaroscurist mastery in a terse thriller that shows the fundamental secret of Tracy’s success and longevity – Hot Pursuit wedded to Grim Irony.

The 1970s are represented by ‘Big Boy’s Open Contract’ (12th June – 30th December 1978) by Max Allen Collins & Rick Fletcher. Although he retired in 1977, Gould still consulted with the new creative team, and this third outing for the new guys saw the long-awaited return of Big Boy, a thinly disguised Capone analogue Tracy had sent to prison at the very start of his career, and whose last try for revenge tragically cost the hero a loved one and forever changed the strip.

Representing the 1980s, the final tale is ‘The Man of a Million Faces’ (October 5th 1987 – April 10th 1988) by Collins & Dick Locher. Like Fletcher, this illustrator was an art assistant to Gould who took up the master’s mantle.

Despite the simply unimaginable variety of crimes and criminals Tracy has brought to book, this sneaky story of a bank robber and his perfect gimmick proves that sometimes the back to basics approach leads to the best results.

Dick Tracy is a milestone strip that has influenced all popular fiction, not simply comics. Baroque villains, outrageous crimes and fiendish death-traps pollinated the work of numerous strips and comics such as Batman, but his studied use – and startlingly accurate predictions – of crime-fighting technology and techniques gave the world a taste of cop thrillers, police procedurals and forensic mysteries decades before shows such as such as CSI and The Coroner made the disciplines everyday coinage.

This is a fantastically readable strip and this chronological primer is a wonderful way to ease yourself into his stark, no-nonsense, Tough-love, Hard Justice world.
© 1990 Tribune Media Services, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Walt Kelly’s Our Gang, Vol 1


By Walt Kelly (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN 978-1560977537

The movie shorts series Our Gang (latterly the Li’l Rascals) were one of the most popular in American Film history. Beginning in 1922 they featured the fun and folksy humour of a bunch of “typical kids”. Atypically though, there was always full racial equality and mingling – but the little girls were still always smarter than the boys. Romping together, they all enjoyed idealised adventures in a time both safer and more simple.

The rotating cast of characters and slapstick shenanigans were the brainchild of film genius Hal Roach who directed and worked with Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy amongst many others. These brief cinematic paeans to a mythic childhood entered the “household name” category of popular Americana in amazingly swift order.

As times and tastes changed Roach was forced to sell up to the celluloid butcher’s shop of MGM in 1938, and the features suffered the same interference and loss of control that marred the later careers of Stan and Ollie, the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton.

In 1942 Dell released an Our Gang comicbook written and drawn by Walt Kelly who, consummate craftsman that he was, deftly restored the wit, verve and charm of the glory days via a progression of short comic stories which elevated lower-class American childhood to the mythic peaks of Dorothy in Oz, Huckleberry Finn or Laura Ingalls of Little House… fame.

Over the course of the first eight issues so lovingly reproduced in this glorious collection, Kelly moved beyond the films – good or otherwise – to scuplt an idyllic story-scape of games and dares, excursions, adventures, get-rich-quick schemes, battles with rival gangs and especially plucky victories over adults: mean, condescending, criminal or psychotic.

Granted great leeway, Kelly eventually settled on his own cast, but aficionados and purists can still thrill here to the classic cast of Mickey, Buckwheat, Happy/Spanky, Janet and Froggy.

Thankfully, after far too long a delay, today’s comics are once again offering material of this genre to contemporary audiences. Even so, many modern readers may be unable to appreciate the skill, narrative charm and lost innocence of this style of children’s tale. If so I genuinely pity them, because this is work with heart and soul, drawn by one of the greatest exponents of graphic narrative America has ever produced. I hope their loss is not yours.

© 2006 Fantagraphics Books. All Rights Reserved.