Lion Annual 1974


By many and various (Fleetway)
No ISBN – SBN 85037-067-1

Being almost universally anthology weeklies, British comics over the decades have generated a simply incomprehensible number of strips and characters in a variety of genres ranging from the astounding to the appalling. Perhaps it’s just personal bias based on being the right age at the right time, but the 1970s adventure material from Fleetway Publications seems to me the most imaginative and impressive of a long line of pictorial pleasures.

Fleetway was a small division of IPC – then the world’s largest publishing company – and had, by the early 1970s, swallowed or out-competed all other English outfits producing mass-market comics except the exclusively television-themed Polystyle Publications.

As it always had been, the megalith was locked in a death-struggle with Dundee’s DC Thomson for the hearts and minds of their assorted juvenile markets – a battle the publishers of the Beano and Dandy finally won when Fleetway sold off its dwindling comics line to Egmont Publishing and Rebellion Studios in 2002.

The 1950s had ushered in a revolution in British comics. With wartime restrictions on printing and paper lifted, a steady stream of new titles emerged from many companies and when the Hulton Press’ The Eagle launched in April 1950, the very idea of what weeklies could be altered forever.

The oversized, prestige package graced with lush photogravure colour was exorbitantly expensive, however, and when London-based publishing powerhouse Amalgamated Press retaliated with their own equivalent, it was (understandably) a more economical affair.

I’m assuming they only waited so long before the first issue of Lion debuted (dated February 23rd 1952), to see if their flashy rival periodical was going to last…

Like The Eagle, Lion was a mix of prose stories, features and comic strips and had its own cover-featured space-farer… Captain Condor – Space Ship Pilot.

Initially edited by Reg Eves, the title eventually ran for 1156 weekly issues until 18th May 1974 when it merged with Valiant. Along the way, in the traditional manner of British comics (which subsumed weaker-selling titles to keep popular strips going), Lion absorbed Sun in 1959 and Champion in 1966; even swallowing Eagle itself in April 1969 before merging with Thunder in 1971.

Despite its being one of the country’s most popular and enduring adventure comics, Lion vanished in 1976 when Valiant was amalgamated with Battle Picture Weekly.

Despite the weekly’s demise, there were 30 Lion Annuals between 1953 and 1982, all targeting the lucrative Christmas market, combining a broad variety of original strips with prose stories; sports, science and general interest features; short humour strips and – increasingly from the 1970s – reformatted reprints from IPC/Fleetway’s vast back catalogue.

This edition is technically the penultimate “proper” Lion Annual. In May 1974 the long-running title was merged with Valiant as very much the junior partner.

Valiant itself would be absorbed into Battle Picture Weekly two years later but although the title itself was on its uppers, the Christmas Annual market worked on different principles and retailers seemed ever-eager to see familiar names when stocking up on one-off big-ticket items.

The memory of many defunct comics survived for years beyond their demise because publishers kept on banging out hardback collections for titles parents and retailers remembered from their own pasts.

Lion Annual 1974 was released in Autumn 1973, the 21st volume since the comic began. There would be nine more before the hallowed name finally vanished from vendors’ shelves…

Boasting the traditional blend of full-colour, duo-tone and monochrome sections, this titanic tome kicks off in procedural manner and rainbow hues as ‘Spot the Clue with Zip Nolan’ (art by Ted Kearon) finds the motorcycle cop spectacularly solving theft at a logging camp after which a prose outing for ‘The Spellbinder’ (probably written by Tom Tully and spot-illustrated by regular strip artist Geoff Campion) reveals how young Tom Turville and his ancient alchemist ancestor Sylvester accidentally activate – and thwart – a terrorist fifth column menacing Britain…

‘Mowser the Priceless Puss and his Enemy James the Butler’ sees Reg Parlett’s cosseted kitty score another hilarious win in his ongoing war with malign manservant (and obnoxious, obstreperous, uppity snob) James after his cat-loving boss suggests a picnic, before ‘Secrets of the Demon Dwarf’ (Alfonso Font art) finds time-displaced WWI mad scientist Doktor Gratz still trying to reverse the result of the Great War by attacking modern-day Britain with robot stormtroopers, mole machines and his infamous armoured Zeppelin…

Campion’s ‘World Beaters: Peugeot Bébé’ delivers a fact-filled profile of the tiny foreign car after which Ian Kennedy depicts ‘Paddy Payne and the Battle of Eagles’ with the Air Ace seconded to the Maginot Line and embroiled in a grudge match between obsessed officers on both sides fighting to retain or retrieve a hotly contested battle standard…

‘Mowser’ then puts paid to James’ spotless reputation and – following two pages of general ‘Jokes’ – prose thriller ‘The Giant Dog of the Mause Valley’ explores the legend of a mythical hound before a bunch of irrepressible youngsters dubbed the ‘Can- Do-Kids’ thwart a conniving property tycoon in text treat ‘Moving House’…

Created by E. George “Ted” Cowan & Alan Philpott, The Jungle Robot debuted in the first issue of Lion in 1952, before vanishing until 1957. On his triumphant return in the 1960s as Robot Archie, “old tin bonce” became one of the most popular and long-lasting heroes of British comics.

Here the amazing and iconic automaton and his hapless handlers Ted Ritchie and Ken Dale find themselves fighting fake sharks and cunning gold thieves on the Amazon River in a sterling strip limned by Ted Kearon, after which photo-feature ‘Waterspeed’ outlines the intrinsic allure of powerboats.

Another ‘Jokes’ selection segues into sinister drama ‘The White-Eyes’ with wicked mad mastermind Ezra Creech using his super-strong zombie mind-slaves to steal army weapons and further his war against humanity. Happily, plucky teens Nick Dexter and Don Redding still have the measure of the malign maniac and his shambling myrmidons…

After ‘Mowser’ enjoys a spot of fishing, ‘The Spellbinder’ returns in strip form to lay a few unhappy ghosts at a Suffolk stately home after which another Campion ‘World Beater’ – ‘Meganeura Super Bug’ offers a glimpse at a prehistoric dragonfly before we all head back to WWII where schoolboy strategic prodigy ‘General Johnny’ (illustrated by Renato Polese perhaps?) sees the modern Alexander caught behind German lines and forced to fight his way back to safety…

Fire alarm foolishness makes ‘Mowser’ all warm inside and out after which ‘The Last of the Harkers’ finds hapless last surviving heir Joe and his ghostly coach attempting to reclaim a dead ancestor’s trophy and title for the Arduous Training and Obstacle Course in Glen Sporran. Joe was attempting to recover all the clan’s past prizes as a legal requirement to save the family seat, whilst villainous speculator Bert Swizzle saw the contests as his opportunity to take over the ancient pile…

This time, the rogue thought swapping dummy ordnance for the real thing would stop Joe, but he couldn’t be more wrong…

Brits of this period much preferred fantastic villains and antiheroes to straight do-gooders, and prose yarn ‘The Shadow of the Snake’ here heralds the return of an extremely popular serpentine super-crook.

Angus Allan & John Catchpole’s had begun the ophidian epic in the weekly Lion in 1972; cataloguing outrageous crimes of mad scientist Professor Krait who could transform himself into a reptilian rogue with all the assorted evolutionary advantages of the world’s reptilian denizens.

Here the bizarre bandit’s plan to plunder a bullion train is countered by his mortal nemesis and former lab assistant Mike Bowen, who regularly advises the bewildered, overmatched police…

A text examination of Alexander Selkirk – ‘The Real Robinson Crusoe’ – leads into a moth-eaten episode for ‘Mowser’ after which ‘Spot the Clue with Zip Nolan’ monochromatically features the canny cop scotching a criminal scheme operating as a civil war re-enactment whilst prose account ‘Anchored to a Blazing Hurricane!’ retells a shocking event from the Battle of Britain.

Following a prose outing details Robot Archie liberating a Burmese ruby mine from river pirates, photo-feature ‘Do It Yourself War’ celebrates table-top military gaming, ‘Mowser’ meets a snooty pedigree mutt and a full-colour match starring underage professional footballers ‘Carson’s Cubs’ (art by Fred T. Holmes) details how a subversive dietician can wreak more havoc than a bent referee on a successful team…

Stuntmen brothers Joe and Sandy then earn their title as ‘The Speed Kings’ after stumbling into a plot to sabotage a powerboat record attempt whilst text thriller ‘Noah’s Ark’ reveals how survivors cope with a flooded world before this walk down memory lane wraps up with the surely prophetic ‘“Stop this Man” Say the Camelot Clan’ wherein wealthy American speculators plan to turn the entire United Kingdom into a giant gasworks.

Only a disparate and slightly bonkers Historical Preservation Society stand in their way, but these fulminating little Englanders have a few tricks up their sleeves and the latest foray – to pave over Loch Ness and build a power station – flops for the strangest and most obvious reasons…

This is a glorious lost treasure-trove for fans of British comics and lovers of all-ages fantasy, filled with danger, drama, hobby-data and diverse delights, illustrated by some of the most talented artists in the history of the medium. Track it down, buy it for the kids and then read it too. Most of all, pray that somebody somewhere is actively working to preserve and collect these sparkling and resplendent slices of our fabulous graphic tradition in more robust and worthy editions.
© IPC Magazines Ltd. 1974. All rights reserved.

The Dandy Book 1982


By various
No ISBN:

For many British readers – comics fans or not – the Holiday Season means The Beano Book, but publisher D.C. Thomson produced a wide range of weekly titles over the decades, most of which also offered superb hardcover annuals.

Way back when, most annuals were produced in a wonderful “half-colour” which British publishers utilised in order to keep costs down. This was done by printing sections or “signatures” of the books with only two plates, such as Cyan (Blue) and Magenta (Red) or Yellow and Black.

The sheer versatility and range of hues provided was simply astounding. Even now this technique inescapably screams “Holiday Extras” for me and my aging contemporaries. This particular example boasts the barely-yesterday year of 1982 (and would have hit shop shelves in late August 1981) when printing technology was still expensive and complicated, and full colour a distant dream.

Until it folded and was reborn as a digital publication on 4th December 2012, The Dandy was the third-longest running comic in the world (behind Italy’s Il Giornalino – launched in 1924 – and America’s Detective Comics in March 1937). Premiering on December 4th 1937, it broke the mould of its traditionalist British predecessors by using word balloons and captions rather than narrative blocks of text under sequential picture frames.

A huge success, The Dandy was followed eight months later on July 30th 1938 by The Beano – and together they utterly revolutionised the way children’s publications looked and, most importantly, how they were received.

Over decades the “terrible twins” spawned a bevy of unforgettable and dearly-beloved household names to delight generations of avid and devoted readers, and their end-of-year celebrations were graced by bumper bonanzas of the weekly stars in extended stories housed in magnificent hardback annuals.

As WWII progressed, rationing of paper and ink forced “children’s papers” into an alternating fortnightly schedule. On September 6th 1941 only The Dandy was published. A week later just The Beano appeared. The normality of weekly editions only resumed on 30th July 1949 but before long the bonnie books were once more an unmissable part of the Christmas experience.

The frolicsome fun begins on the inside front cover as veteran star Desperate Dan (illustrated by Charles Grigg?) gets the ball rolling with some typically macho pancake racing endeavours – which wrap up with a powerful punchline at the show at the end – before Korky the Cat graciously introduces the forthcoming festivities.

Rather than the usual set of gag-favourites, this edition properly commences with light-drama yarn ‘Tufty’s Lucky Terrier’, revealing how a lonely lad’s school sporting career takes a bold turn thanks to his beloved pet pooch…

The Smasher is a lad hewn from the same mould as Dennis the Menace and in the first of his vignettes (drawn by Hugh Morren or perhaps David Gudgeon) the bombastic boy carves a characteristic swathe of anarchic destruction to beat sporting bullies and win a heaving table full of goodies to scoff. Then well-meaning cowboy superman Desperate Dan (limned by Peter Davidson?) moves heaven and earth to join the town band in another typically destructive and traumatic extended outing…

Larcenous snack addict Tom Tum (Keith Reynolds) keeps fit by outsmarting and burgling his parsimonious neighbour whilst Grigg’s Korky the Cat confounds a gamekeeper before popping back to introduce cartoon puzzle ‘A Super “Ice” Scream from Korky’ after which feuding fools The Jocks and the Geordies (Jimmy Hughes) renew their small nationalistic war in a wax museum infested with dull exhibits and nasty teachers…

David Mostyn’s Bertie Buncle and his Chemical Uncle finds the prankish lad having fun with his inventive relative’s super vacuum cleaner, and Harry and his Hippo (Andy Fanton?) sees the exiled African animal outsmart his human hosts to secure a warm bed on a cold night before mighty pooch Desperate Dawg (George Martin) spars with a circus strongman.

Jack Silver (by Bill Holroyd) then finds the alien schoolboy and his human pal Curley Perkins still on fantastic planet Marsuvia and battling a giant thieving Fuzzy Face covertly employed by super-villain Captain Zapp.

A game of cowboys goes typically wrong for Bully Beef and Chips (Gordon Bell?) whilst Tom Tum briefly indulges in tape-recording fun before reverting to hunger-fuelled type, Korky renews his decades-old conflict with the house mice and Peter’s Pocket Grandpa (Ron Spencer) sees the pint-sized pensioner creating a chaos-prone circus act using white rats as his savage beasts.

Korky’s Gallery of Schoolboy Howlers precedes Holroyd’s young DIY enthusiast in The Tricks of Screwy Driver, after which Greedy Pigg (George Martin), makes his mark as the voracious teacher (always attempting to confiscate and scoff his pupils’ snacks) switches targets and swipes the headmaster’s dinner instead.

Radio-tagged golf and cricket balls cause carnage in Bertie Buncle and his Chemical Uncle after which Desperate Dan clashes with a cow-pie snaffling escaped circus lion and George Martin’s Izzy Skint – He Always Is! finds the youthful entrepreneur failing spectacularly to monetise the family dog.

More food theft preoccupies The Smasher before Korky tests your wits once more with visual brainteasers in Here’s a Hoot! Spot the “Owl”! and Holroyd – or perhaps Steve Bright – conjures up equine excitement starring schoolboy Charley Brand and robotic pal Brassneck when the manmade schoolboy wins a racehorse and opts for a career as a steeplechase jockey.

Bully Beef and Chips finds both terroriser and perennial victim suffering from poetry homework even as Greedy Pigg comes to a slippery end in pursuit of illicit dinners. The Jocks and the Geordies play nocturnal pranks on UFO spotters and The Tricks of Screwy Driver result in an uncontrollable powered snow cart and icy duckings all around…

Desperate Dawg then employs a giant cowbell to stop a stampede, Korky’s crockery mishaps win him a most unwelcome new job and Peter’s Pocket Grandpa foils a jewellery heist with his micro roller-skating skills before the show closes with Izzy Skint – He Always Is! who sagely allows thieving bullies to defeat themselves in another masterful mirth moment from George Martin.

Stuffed with glorious gag-pages and bursting with classic kids’ adventure, this is still a tremendously fun read and even in the absence of the legendary creators such as Dudley Watkins, Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid, there’s still so much merriment on offer I can’t believe this book is nearly four decades old. If ever anything needed to be issued as commemorative collections it’s such D.C. Thomson annuals as this…
© 1968 D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. All rights reserved.

Superman Annual 1969 with Batman and Superboy


By Jerry Seigel, Leo Dorfman, E. Nelson Bridwell, Edmond Hamilton, Jerry Coleman, Al Plastino, Curt Swan, Wayne Boring, George Papp, Jim Mooney, Bob Brown & various (Top Sellers, Ltd by arrangement with the K. G. Murray Publishing Co.)
No ISBN – ASIN: B00389XM8C

Before DC and other American publishers began exporting comicbooks directly into the UK in 1959, our exposure to their unique brand of fantasy fun came from licensed reprints. British publishers/printers like Len Miller, Alan Class and Top Sellers bought material from the USA – and occasionally Canada – to fill 68-page monochrome anthologies – many of which recycled the same stories for decades.

Less common were strangely coloured pamphlets produced by Australian outfit K. G. Murray: exported to the UK in a rather sporadic manner. The company also produced sturdy Annuals which had a huge impact on my earliest years (I suspect my abiding adulation of monochrome artwork stems from seeing supreme stylists like Curt Swan, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson strut their stuff uncluttered by flat colour…).

In Britain we began seeing hardcover Superman Annuals in 1950 and Batman Annuals in 1960. Since then a number of publishers have carried on the tradition. This particular tome emerged at the close of the Batman TV phenomenon which briefly turned the entire planet Camp-Crazed and Bat-Manic; offering a delightfully eclectic mix of material designed to cater to young eyes and broad tastes.

This collection – proudly proclaiming second billing for Batman and Superboy – is printed in a quirky mix of monochrome, dual-hued and full-colour pages which made Christmas books such bizarrely beloved treats and opens with ‘Clark Kent’s Great Superman Hunt’ by Leo Dorfman & Al Plastino and originally a back-up in Superman #180 (October 1965).

Here, to the disgust of his friends, the Daily Planet star reporter seemingly exhorts the public to come forward with information to unmask the Man of Steel. Of course, there’s a deeper scheme in play here…

‘Prison for Heroes’ and ‘The Revenge of Superman’ come from World’s Finest Comics #145 (November 1964): an enthralling and dramatic thriller where Batman is hypnotically pressganged to an alien internment citadel: not as a cell-mate for Superman and other interplanetary champions, but as their sadistic jailer…

Edmond Hamilton, Curt Swan & George Klein shine in this potent yarn, delivering a superb team-up tale to excite fans of all ages.

Switching from full-colour to black-&-magenta, ‘You Too can be a Super Artist’ (Superman #211, November 1968) sees Frank Robbins, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito offer advice and starter tips on depicting the Action Ace, after which ‘Batman Kwizzlers’ test your general knowledge and short strip ‘The Superboy Legend: Superboy’s Secret Hideaways’ (by E. Nelson Bridwell, Bob Brown & Wally Wood from Superboy # 161, December 1969) reveals the secret treasures stored in the Boy of Steel’s Smallville home.

Drastically modified and abridged from Superboy # 147 (May-June 1968 and illustrated by George Papp), ‘The Origin and Powers of the Legion of Super Heroes’ offers a pictorial checklist of the Future’s greatest champions, supplemented by Bridwell’s prose history lesson ‘The Lore of the Legion’.

Next comes some participation events beginning with ‘Superman’s Christmas Quiz: Christmas in Many Lands’ (most likely written by Jack Schiff and definitely illustrated by Ruben Moreira from many different contemporary venues) and ‘Superman… and his Space Zoo!’ puzzles.

Then, again truncated and culled from many separate tales, ‘The Origin of the Bizarro World’ takes clips drawn by Wayne Boring and John Forte to precis the whacky backwards super-clowns; ‘Metropolis Mailbag’ answers readers’ questions about all things Kryptonian and the activity section closes with brain-busting conundrums in ‘The Batman Whirly-Word Game’.

Full colour comics action resumes with ‘The Spell of the Shandu Clock’ (Superman #126, January 1959: by Jerry Coleman, Boring & Stan Kaye) providing spooky chills, supposedly supernatural chills and devious ploys to outwit a malevolent criminal mastermind.

From Superboy #109 (December 1963) Jerry Seigel & Papp revealed how a timid Earth orphan is transported to another world to become planetary champion ‘The Super-Youth of Brozz’ after which ‘The Sweetheart Superman Forgot’ by Seigel & Plastino (Superman #165, November 1963) aspires to the heady heights of pure melodrama as the Man of Tomorrow loses his powers, memories, and the use of his legs before loving and losing a girl who only wants him for himself.

In a most poignant moment, the hero recovers his lost gifts and faculties and returns to his old life with no notion of what he’s lost and who waits for him forever alone…

Romance is also on the cards in Dorfman & Mooney’s ‘Zigi and Zagi’s Trap for Superman!’ (Action Comics #316. September 1964) wherein juvenile alien delinquents lure the hero to their homeworld and set him up romantically with their spinster aunt Zyra

With their eclectic selection of tales, Annuals like this one introduced generations of kids to the wild wonderment of the American comics experience and to readers of a certain age remain a captivating, irresistible lure to more halcyon times and climes.
© National Periodical Publications Inc. New York.

Merry Christmas, Boys and Girls!

In keeping with my self-imposed Holiday tradition here’s another pick of British Annuals selected not just for nostalgia’s sake but because it’s my house, my day and my rules…

If you’re lucky enough to stumble across a vintage volume or modern facsimile, I hope my words convince you to expand your comfort zone and try something old yet new…

Still topping my Xmas wish-list is further collections from fans and publishers who have begun to rescue this magical material from print limbo in (affordable) new collections…

Great writing and art is rotting in boxes and attics or the archives of publishing houses, when it needs to be back in the hands of readers once again. As the tastes of the reading public have never been broader and since a selective sampling of our popular heritage will always appeal to some part of the mass consumer base, let’s all continue rewarding publishers for their efforts and prove that there’s money to be made from these glorious examples of our communal childhood.=

Father Kissmass and Mother Claws


By Bel Mooney & Gerald Scarfe (Hamish Hamilton Ltd.)
ISBN: 978-0-24111-700-2

If you’ve finally grown up, Christmas is traditionally a time for tales of monsters and horrors so I’ve dredged up and re-exhumed this wonderful and superbly chilling graphic slice of satire from a time when horrific ghastly beasts stalked through Britain, sowing discomfort and dread where e’er they trod, without a clue what they were doing or a thought for the poor souls they stepped on and destroyed.

In this cold, dark country, the brittle, demonic and so very cruel Mother Claws broods and frets. It’s time once again to put something in the stockings of the Nation’s inhabitants, but she Doesn’t Want To.

She would rather cut things from their stockings – and so she does, with her corpulent, greedy Father Kissmass egging her on.

So very carried away are they, that her herd of Tamedeer – sycophantic self-servers though they be, even Tebbie and Hestle – rebel.

On Christmas Eve they ignore her whips and pull her sleigh to a hovel with a star above it. A homeless couple, with a special newborn baby, reach out to her needing just a little help…

Father Kissmass And Mother Claws was produced at the height of the Thatcher regime and uses dark, strident imagery from brilliant ethical Rottweiler Gerald Scarfe to concoct a savage sidebar to the nativity story for devastating satirical effect.

This swingeing allegory of Thatcher’s Britain is infested with her cabinet’s “Big Beasts” tellingly depicted as cowed pack animals by Scarfe’s flick-knife art, whilst Bel Mooney’s prose is as comforting as a velveteen cosh. This is the best of what graphic satire can do. It’s just a pity today’s leaders don’t warrant the same loving attentions…

No wait, look at the papers! It’s a Christmas miracle! They bloody do. Just squint a bit and tell yourself the names have been changed to protect the far-from-innocent…
Text © 1985 Bel Mooney. Illustrations © 1985 Gerald Scarfe. All Rights Reserved.

The Snowman – 35th Anniversary Edition


By Raymond Briggs (Puffin)
ISBN: 978-0723297420 (HC)            978-0723275534 (PB)

Released to celebrate 35 years since the debut of the perennial children’s favourite in 1978, and with the 40th anniversary swiftly bearing down on us, it’s a fitting time and the right season to re-examine this wonderful book, free of the huge ancillary industry and multi-media branding that’s grown around it, strictly in terms of pure graphic narrative.

Despite being repackaged as numerous book spin-offs, and dogged by impact-diluting sequels, animated films and even a stage musical, The Snowman started out as a slim (32 page) picture book: A lyrical tale of forgotten winter joy.

I can’t remember the last time we had enough snow to even baffle my cat (if you’ve never seen a pampered house-moggy’s first response to solid-seeming-cold-wet-white-stuff, then you’ve never laughed so hard the cocoa came out of your nose) let alone coat the world in a clean blanket of wonder, but that’s what happens here.

This is a subtle and compelling story. A young boy awakens to a heavy snowfall. Dressing, he dashes outside and romps among the falling flakes. He spends all day building a snowman, and even when he he’s snugly back inside, he can’t stop looking at his magnificent creation. Happy and exhausted he goes to bed.

When everybody’s asleep he invites the now-animate icy golem indoors where they play, share a meal, and – naturally – do the washing up when they’ve finished. Outside the skies are clear and the white flakes no longer fill the heavens. Having seen the boy’s world, the Snowman offers to show his own, and the pair soar aloft on a wondrous voyage over land and sea where the snows are falling still.

On eventually returning to the mundane Earthly home, they say goodnight. The boy goes reluctantly back to bed and the frosty sentinel takes up his abandoned position in the garden. In the morning the boy dashes out, but only heartbreak and disappointment await, for the new morning has melted his midnight companion.

This truly beautiful tale is no cheery, mawkish fantasy; it is an examination of the intense nature of a child’s life and the poignancy of change. We never know if the adventure was simply a dream or an actuality, but the knowledge that such all-encompassing wonder is fleeting is a lesson we all learn as we grow.

The ability to recapture such a lesson – both its joys and its pains – is a rare and awesome thing, and what a tribute to Raymond Brigg’s abilities that we don’t hate him for making us enjoy re-experiencing it.

Utterly wordless, in panels deprived of dark borders and hard edges, Briggs spins a delicate web of magic. Using the child’s own creative tools of pencil and crayon he crafts lyrical pastel picture-poems that are truly evocative and spellbinding. Despite being co-opted by the Christmas Industry this isn’t merely a seasonal tale but a timeless one. There’s no Bright Red or Holly Green to dazzle and break this charm: Briggs, as always uses presentiment and understatement as his basic tools.

Our industry seems to wilfully neglect this creator whose graphic narratives have reached more hearts and minds than Spider-Man, The Spirit or Spawn ever will, yet his works remain among the most powerful and important in the entire field. The Snowman, despite my pompous pontificating, remains a work of sublime and simple universal beauty. Get it for your kids, get it for yourself, but when the cartoon comes on again this Christmas, don’t watch that, Read This.
© 1978 Raymond Briggs. All Rights Reserved.

Archie’s Christmas Classics (Archie Classics Series Volume 1)


By Frank Doyle, Harry Lucey, George Gladir, Dan DeCarlo, Bill Vigoda, Tom Moore, Bob White, Al Hartley, Stan Goldberg, Joe Edwards, Bob Bolling & various (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-879794-78-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: For All Those Who’ve Been Extra Good This Year… 9/10

As long-term readers might recall, my good lady wife and I have a family ritual we’re not ashamed to boast of or share with you. Every Christmas we barricade the doors, draw the shutters, stockpile munchies, stoke up the radiators and lazily subside with a huge pile of seasonal comics from yesteryear.

(Well, I do: she also insists on a few monumental feats of cleaning and shopping before manufacturing the world’s most glorious and stupefying meal to accompany my reading, gorging and – eventually, inevitably – snoring…

Oh, so much snoring!!!)

The irresistible trove of funnybook treasures generally comprises older DC’s, loads of Disney’s and some British annuals, but the vast preponderance is Archie Comics.

From the earliest days this American institution has quite literally “owned Christmas” through a fabulously funny, nostalgically charming, sentimental barrage of cannily-crafted stories capturing the spirit of the season through a range of cartoon stars from Archie to Veronica, Betty to Sabrina and Jughead to Santa himself…

For most of us, when we say “comicbooks” people’s thoughts turn to steroidal blokes, anthropomorphic animals and even women in garish tights hitting each other, bending lampposts and lobbing trees or cars about.

That or stark, nihilistic crime, horror or science fiction sagas aimed at an extremely mature and sophisticated readership of confirmed fans…

Throughout the decades though, other forms and genres have waxed and waned. One that has held its ground over the years – although almost completely migrated to television these days – is the genre of teen-comedy begun by and synonymous with a carrot topped, homely (at first just plain ugly) kid named Archie Andrews.

MLJ were a small publisher who jumped on the “mystery-man” bandwagon following the debut of Superman. In November 1939 they launched Blue Ribbon Comics, promptly following-up with Top-Notch and Pep Comics. Content was the standard blend of costumed heroes and two-fisted adventure strips, although Pep did make a little history with its first lead feature The Shield, who was the American industry’s first superhero to be clad in the flag (see America’s 1st Patriotic Hero: The Shield).

After initially revelling in the benefits of the Fights ‘N’ Tights game, Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater (MLJ, duh!) spotted a gap in their blossoming market. In December 1941 their stable of costumed cavorters and two-fisted adventurers were gently nudged aside – just a fraction at first – by a wholesome, improbable and far-from-imposing new hero; an unremarkable (except, perhaps, for his teeth) teenager who would have ordinary adventures just like the readers, but with the laughs, good times, romance and slapstick emphasised.

Almost certainly inspired by the hugely popular Andy Hardy movies, Goldwater developed the concept of a youthful everyman protagonist and tasked writer Vic Bloom & artist Bob Montana with the job of making it work. Their precocious new notion premiered in Pep #22: a gap-toothed, freckle-faced, red-headed kid obsessed with impressing the pretty blonde girl next door.

An untitled 6-page tale introduced hapless boob Archie Andrews and wholesomely pretty Betty Cooper. The boy’s unconventional best friend and confidante Jughead Jones also debuted in the first story, as did idyllic small-town utopia Riverdale. It was a huge hit and by the winter of 1942 the kid and his pals won a title of their own.

Archie Comics #1 was MLJ’s first non-anthology magazine and with it began a slow transformation of the entire company. With the introduction of ultra-rich, raven-haired Veronica Lodge, all the pieces were in play for the industry’s second Genuine Phenomenon…

By 1946 the kids were in charge, so MLJ became Archie Comics, retiring most of its costumed characters years before the end of the Golden Age to become, to all intents and purposes, a publisher of family-friendly comedies. The hometown settings and perpetually fruitful premise of an Eternal Romantic Triangle – with girl-hating best bud Jughead Jones and scurrilous rival Reggie Mantle to test, duel and vex our boy in their own unique ways – the scenario was one that not only resonated with the readership but was infinitely fresh…

Archie’s success, like Superman’s, forced a change in content at every other publisher (except perhaps Gilberton’s Classics Illustrated) and led to a multi-media brand which encompasses TV, movies, newspaper strips, toys and merchandise, a chain of restaurants and, in the swinging sixties, a pop music sensation when Sugar, Sugar – from the animated TV cartoon – became a global pop smash. Clean and decent garage band “The Archies” has been a fixture of the comics ever since…

The Andrews boy is good-hearted, impetuous and lacking common sense, Betty his sensible, pretty girl next door who loves the ginger goof, and Veronica is rich, exotic and glamorous: only settling for our boy if there’s nobody better around. She might actually love him too, though. Archie, of course, is utterly unable to choose who or what he wants…

Unconventional, food-crazy Jughead is Mercutio to Archie’s Romeo, providing rationality and a reader’s voice, as well as being a powerful catalyst of events in his own right. That charming House of Luurve (and Annexe of Envy) has been the rock-solid foundation for seven decades of funnybook magic. Moreover, the concept is eternally self-renewing…

This eternal triangle has generated thousands of charming, raucous, gentle, frenetic, chiding and even heart-rending humorous dramas ranging from surreal wit to frantic slapstick, with the kids and a constantly expanding cast of friends… (boy genius Dilton Doily, genial giant jock Big Moose and aspiring comicbook cartoonist Chuck amongst many others) growing into an American institution and part of the nation’s cultural landscape.

The feature has thrived by constantly re-imagining its core archetypes; seamlessly adapting to the changing world outside its bright, flimsy pages, shamelessly co-opting youth, pop culture and fashion trends into its infallible mix of slapstick and young romance. Each and every social revolution has been painlessly assimilated into the mix and, over the decades, the company has confronted most social issues affecting youngsters in a manner always both even-handed and tasteful.

Constant addition of new characters such as African-American Chuck and his girlfriend Nancy, fashion-diva Ginger, Hispanic couple Frankie and Maria and spoiled home-wrecker-in-waiting Cheryl Blossom have contributed to a wide and appealingly broad-minded scenario. In 2010 Archie easily cleared the American industry’s final hurdle when openly gay Kevin Keller became an admirable advocate, capably tackling and dismantling the last major taboo in mainstream Kids’ comics.

One of the most effective tools in the company’s arsenal has been the never-failing appeal of seasonal and holiday traditions. In Riverdale it was always sunny enough to surf at the beach in summer and it always snowed at Christmas…

The Festive Season has never failed to produce great comics stories. DC especially have -since their earliest days – perennially and effectively embraced the magic of the holiday with a decades-long succession of stunning and sentimental Batman thrillers, as well as many other heroic team-ups incorporating Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Sgt. Rock and all the rest…

Archie also started early (1942) and kept on producing memorable year-end classics. The stories became so popular and eagerly anticipated that in 1954 the company created a specific oversized title – Archie’s Christmas Stocking – to cater to demand, even as it kept the winter months of its other periodicals stuffed with assorted tales of elves and snow and fine fellow-feeling…

Seasoned (see what I did there?) with covers and pin-ups, this splendidly appealing, full-colour celebration – recently re-released as an eBook – gathers a superb selection of Cool Yule extravaganzas from those end-of-year annuals and other sources.

Without preamble the jolly japes commence with a selection from Archie Giant Series #6: Archie’s Christmas Stocking 1959.

‘Slide Guide!’ by the irrepressible team of Frank Doyle & Harry Lucey highlights Reggie and Archie’s bid to out-do each other impresses a pack of youngsters of the danger of sledding, after which ‘Snow Mistake!’ (Doyle & Bill Vigoda) sees the rivals unite when Veronica dates another boy. Their scheme to set ever-enraged schoolmate Big Moose on the new kid goes agonisingly amiss though…

‘Fire Bugged’ (Doyle & Dan DeCarlo) then reveals how helpful Archie’s attempts to prove Christmas trees are a fire hazard enflames and enrages Ronnie’s dad, whilst ‘Come Onna My House’ (Doyle & Vigoda) details the minor spat of BFFs Betty and Veronica as they decide who will host Archie on Christmas morning…

Tom Moore reveals untrammelled greed in one-pager ‘Archie’s Pal Jughead in Shocking Stocking!’ before – following a racy Veronica the X-Mas elf pin-up – ‘Not Even a Moose’ (Doyle & Vigoda) leads off topical tales from Archie’s Christmas Stocking #10, 1961.

Here Reggie plays foolish pranks on the naïve giant and discovers the danger of telling people there is such a man as Santa whilst ‘Those Christmas Blues!’ (Bob White) sees Archie’s parents lament that they’ve been side-lined in favour of the girls in their boy’s life but have a wonderful surprise awaiting them…

Two half-pagers ‘A Head Start’ and ‘Reggie: Generous to a Fault’ segues into Betty and Veronica’s Coloring Page (not so engrossing if you’re reading the eBook edition!) after which a bad cold afflicts a close friend and causes a catastrophic case of Chinese Whispers in regard to gift-giving in ‘Archie’s Pal Jughead: “Code Three”’ (Doyle & Vigoda).

Archie’s job as guardian of the year’s presents results in a catastrophic mess in ‘Gift Collection’ after which Betty and Veronica experience a just comeuppance for calling the boys slobs in ‘Do No Evil’ (Doyle & DeCarlo: Archie Giant Series #6: Archie’s Christmas Stocking 1959)

Following a suitably seasonal Mr. Weatherbee Pin-up Page and Jughead single-page gag ‘More Pull than Talent!’, Archie and Reggie clash over a present for Veronica in ‘Go for Broke’ (from Archie Giant Series #4: Archie’s Christmas Stocking 1957) after which ‘Boxed In’ sees the red-headed fool outsmart himself in his quest for the perfect present…

Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica: ‘R is for Rooked’ (DeCarlo from Archie Comics Digest #3, December1973) sees reluctant go-between Jughead botch a spy mission to find out what Ronnie’s buying Archie whilst ‘Black Book Bonanza’ (same guy, same source) discloses how Moose comes to believe he’s now one of Santa’s official helpers…

Skulduggery and intrigue inform Doyle & Bob White’s ‘A Christmas Tale’ (Life with Archie #33, January 1965) as Ronnie promises a month of dating exclusivity to whomever chops down the biggest charity Christmas Tree. When Archie and Jughead team up to ensure the Andrews boy wins, Betty and Reggie unite to scotch their plans…

Archie Giant Series #150: Archie’s Christmas Stocking January 1968 supplies single page Veronica gag ‘Prize Surprise’ (by George Gladir & Al Hartley), leads into ‘Treed’ (Doyle & Hartley) as mystic Xmas elf Jingles helps Archie survive Reggie’s latest campaign of Christmas terror after which Archie and the Gang Make their Christmas Wish’ (Hartley) and

Christmas Pin-up (DeCarlo) bring us to ‘Wanted: Santa Claus’ (Life with Archie #26, February 1969) with Mr. Weatherbee in a turmoil because he thinks the Andrew’s boy has usurped his annual role as the school Kris Kringle…

A ‘Merry Christmas Dear Reader’ ensemble pin-up leads into sentimental tearjerker ‘It’s Not the Gift’ as Archie saves a young kid from a tragic Christmas before Doyle, Lucey & Mario Acquaviva reveal how garage-band The Archies appal and offend the older generation with their ‘Ode to Santa’ (from Laugh Comics #215 February 1969) after which Archie Giant Series #150 provides DeCarlo’s ‘Christmas Fashions for Betty and Veronica’.

‘Temptation’ (Doyle, Lucey & Chic Stone; Archie #232 February 1974) then proves Jughead very wise indeed after he argues that even Reggie can’t resist the good feelings of Christmas and – following an Archie Pin-up ‘Shopper Comes a Cropper’ (Gladir, Lucey & Stone) finds Archie in the same old bind after double-booking Christmas shopping with both Betty and Ronnie…

Doyle, DeCarlo & Rudy Lapick examine the bleaker side of the season in ‘The Greatest Gift’ (Life with Archie #154, February 1975) as the gang befriend a lonely and embittered old shopkeeper, whilst – after a Lucey Archie’s Coloring Page – Betty and Ronnie declare war on each other’s trimming and decorating taste in ‘Tree Spree’ (Archie Giant Series #242: Archie’s Christmas Love-In: January 1976).

‘Spirit Sprite’ (Archie Giant Series #454: Archie’s Christmas Love-In: January 1977) sees the Riverdale kids working to get Jughead and Big Ethel together under the mistletoe before Betty and Archie overcome exorbitant prices and circumvent ‘Tree Travail’ with a public display of seasonal cheer whilst Mr. Lodge counters his own financial worries by joining Santa’s ‘Aid Parade’

Wrapping up the festivities is prose yarn “Christmas Jeer” (Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica #16; January 1955) as the friendly rivals’ clash over duplicate dresses threatens to derail the big Christmas party…

These are joyously effective and entertaining tales for young and old alike, crafted by some of Santa’s most talented Helpers, epitomising the magic of the Season and celebrating the perfect wonder of timeless all-ages storytelling. What kind of Grinch could not want this book in their kids’ stocking (from where it can most easily be borrowed)?
© 2011 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Batman Adventures volume 4


By Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Kelley Puckett, Alan Grant, Dan Raspler, Ty Templeton, Ronnie Del Carmen, Mike Parobeck, Rick Burchett, Dev Madan, Glen Murakami, Dan Riba, Kevin Altieri, Butch Lukic & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6061-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An Ideal Gift for Young, Old and Especially Yourself… 10/10

The brainchild of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Batman: The Animated Series aired in the US from September 5th 1992 to September 15th 1995. The TV cartoon – ostensibly for kids – revolutionised everybody’s image of the Dark Knight and inevitably fed back into the printed iterations, leading to some of the absolute best comicbook tales in the hero’s many decades of existence.

Employing a timeless visual style dubbed “Dark Deco”, the show mixed elements from all eras of the character and, without diluting the power, tone or mood of the premise, re-honed the grim avenger and his team into a wholly accessible, thematically memorable form.

It entranced young fans whilst adding shades of exuberance and panache that only the most devout and obsessive Batmaniac could possibly object to.

A faithful comicbook translation was prime material for collection in the newly-emergent trade paperback market but only the first year was ever released, plus miniseries such as Batman: Gotham Adventures and Batman Adventures: The Lost Years. Nowadays, however, we’re much more evolved and reprint collections have established a solid niche amongst the cognoscenti and younger readers…

This fourth, final and Seasonally sensitive compendium gathers issues #28-36 of The Batman Adventures (originally published from January-October 1995) plus The Batman Adventures Holiday Special #1 and The Batman Adventures Annual #2: a scintillating, no-nonsense frenzy of family-friendly Fights ‘n’ Tights fantasy that celebrates traditional values such as gift-giving, crime-crushing, mistletoe-related smooching, world conquest, forgiveness, and all out action in uncanny and outlandish places…

The merriment and mayhem open with the varied contents of The Batman Adventures Holiday Special #1: and a moody ‘Intro’ from Dini & Dan Riba before grossly uncivilised cop Harvey Bullock and his so very long-suffering partner Renee Montoya go undercover as Department Store Santa and Elf in ‘Jolly Old St. Nicholas’ (Dini & Timm).

The apparently invisible thief plundering the store was expecting cops – but not Batgirl – but the assembled embarrassed heroes never contemplated having to battle a seriously-slumming super-villain exposed by the police action…

Next shiny bauble is ‘The Harley and the Ivy’ wherein Dini & Ronnie Del Carmen depict the larcenous ladies going on an illicit shopping spree after kidnapping Bruce Wayne, thanks to a dose of Ivy’s mind-warping kisses…

Slightly darker and far colder, ‘White Christmas’ by Dini & Glen Murakami then pits Batman against the increasing bereft and deranged Mr. Freeze who tries to turn Gotham City into a vast snow-globe as a tribute to his dead wife before The Joker enquires ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’ (Dini & Timm, Kevin Altieri & Butch Lukic) whilst attempting to kill every reveller in Gotham Square at the stroke of midnight…

Having saved the city yet again old comrades Batman and Jim Gordon then get together for a spot of breakfast and moment of quiet contemplation in ‘Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot’ (Dini & Riba) to wrap up this potent parcel of Christmas cheer.

Like the show, most Batman Adventures stories were crafted as 3-act plays and the conceit resumes here with issue #28 (January 1995) as Kelly Puckett, Mike Parobeck & Rick Burchett celebrate the holidays with ‘Twelve Days of Madness’ It opens with ‘What Child is This?’ as escaped loon Harley Quinn misses her Mistah J and drops him a note in Arkham Asylum.

As a strange outbreak of lunacy suddenly grips the city, ‘God Rest Ye Psycho Councilmen’ finds esteemed psychologist Dr. Heimlich visit the institution and recommending making the Joker direct a little Christmas theatre for the inmates…

Happily, the Dark Knight is on hand to expose shocking charlatanry and handle the ‘Asylum Fideles’ threatening to upset he mental applecart…

Batman Adventures #29 finds Bruce Wayne again hunting Ra’s Al Ghul as ‘Demonseed’ (Dev Madan & Burchett), opens with ‘Secret Hopes, Secret Fears’ and the in-mufti manhunter trailing a deadly Tesla Device aLl over the world, with former beloved Talia trying to kill him at every opportunity.

‘Wayne: Bruce Wayne’ sees the ex-lovers reunited to stop a third party purloining the menacing mechanism before facing inevitable and ultimate betrayal in ‘Till Death Do You Part’

It’s a spotlight on bad guys as Puckett, Burchett & Murakami reveal the story of a ‘Natural Born Loser’ in #30.

In-joke Triumvirate of Terror Mastermind, Mr. Nice and The Perfesser (who bear litigiously remarkable resemblances to DC editors Mike Carlin, Archie Goodwin and Dennis O’Neil) return in a tryptic of origin tales beginning with ‘Waiting for the Dough’ as yet another criminal mastermind breaks into their prison in search of a treasure map.

Sadly, those individual confrontations – continued in ‘The Dark Nice Returns’ and concluding with ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Pearl’ – only prove that the top dog in Gotham is actually the Bat…

Alan Grant scripts #31 for Madan & Burchett to illustrate as youthful ideologue ‘Anarky’ convenes ‘The People’s Court’ to judge rich businessmen such as Bruce Wayne for their money-grubbing acts. With his mentor captured, teen wonder Robin becomes the key ‘Witness for the Defense’ and combines ‘The Gentle Art of Philosophy’ with his usual derring-do to win the argument and save the day

Dan Raspler, Parobeck & Burchett reveal ‘A Soldier’s Story’ in #32 as ‘Into the Valley of Death’ sees criminals wage war in Gotham dressed as rival armies from history. Crazed rival millionaires playing games from their childhood have sponsored this chaotic ‘War and Remembrance’ but it’s Batman who wins ‘The Last Battle’

Batman Adventures #33 covers ‘Just Another Night’ (Ty Templeton, Madan & Burchett) as a movie night with single mum Veronica Thomas and her son Justin spirals into terror when they are mugged by a gunman on the way home. Paralysed by traumatic ‘Deja Vu’, Bruce goes on a maddened rampage of childish revenge leading to a justice and a ‘Dark Victory’ of sorts, but ‘At What Cost…’?

The first volume of the series wraps up with a 3-issue epic starring one of the Dark Knight’s most insidious enemies. It begins with ‘In Memoriam’ (#34 by Puckett, Parobeck & Burchett) as deranged psychologist Hugo Strange pays ‘Charons Fee’ to exact his vengeful schemes. Later, as Batman pursues super-thief Catwoman, he realises some of his memories have been erased. However, by deductively ‘Filling in the Gaps’ the Caped Crimebuster only allows Strange ‘Total Recall’ to Bruce Wayne’s past…

In #35 ‘The Book of Memory’ (Puckett, Templeton, Parobeck & Burchett) heralds ‘Strange Days’ as Catwoman turns a mindwiped Batman into her perfect acrobatic accomplice. With Gotham’s guardian missing Robin consults Commissioner Gordon and soon ‘The Trap is Set…’.

Elsewhere, as Hugo Strange spirals into breakdown, ‘Uptown, Saturday Night’ reveals how Batman is captured and cured. Or so it seems…

‘The Last Batman Adventure’ appears in #36 as Templeton, Parobeck & Burchett depict Robin and his junior partner, ‘Batman, The Boy Wonder’, still searching for Bruce’s purloined past. Afflicted with the mentality of a child, the hero convinces Catwoman to help him ensure ‘Batman, The Dark Knight Returns’, but they are almost too late to prevent ‘The Unusual Fate of Hugo Strange’ after the tragic madman goes after the true author of all his woes…

This spectacular softcover selection (also available as an eBook) concludes with a high-octane occult romp by Dini, Murakami & Timm first published in The Batman Adventures Annual #2.

‘Demons’ sees Ra’s Al Ghul blow up parts of Gotham to secure a long-lost mystic tablet and win a rare victory over the late-arriving Dark Knight. Overpowered and outgunned, Batman contacts consultant supernatural specialist Jason Blood and discovers the demonologist and the “Demon’s Head” are ancient adversaries…

Surviving drug-induced magical dreams, Batman realises that Al Ghul plans to invoke a demonic entity Haahk in his city and scourge humanity from the Earth. Nevertheless, he heads for a showdown he knows he cannot win, but Blood has one more secret to reveal: his longevity is caused by a demon imprisoned in his body…

Etrigan dwells inside Jason, lives to fight and is ferociously eager to settle score with Ra’s and Haahk…

Epic and electrifying, this rocket-paced tribute to Jack Kirby crackles with kinetic energy and moody menace: a perfect point to end on and one that promises more and greater thrills to come…

Breathtakingly written and iconically illustrated, these stripped-down rollercoaster-romps are pure, irresistible Bat-magic and this is a compendium every fan of any age and vintage will adore.
© 1995, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.