John Constantine, Hellblazer volume 1: Original Sins (New Edition)


By Jamie Delano, Rick Veitch, John Ridgway, Alfredo Alcala, Tom Mandrake, Brett Ewins, Jim McCarthy & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-300-6-7

Originally created by Alan Moore during his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing, John Constantine is a mercurial modern wizard, a dissolute chancer who plays like an addict with magic on his own terms for his own ends. He is not a hero. He is not a nice person. Sometimes though, he’s all there is between us and the void…

Given his own series by popular demand, Constantine premiered at the height of Thatcherite Barbarism in Britain, during the dying days of Reaganite Atrocity in the US, to become a founding father of DC’s adult-oriented Vertigo imprint.

This collection is available in paperback and digital formats, collecting John Constantine, Hellblazer #1-9 plus crossover chapters from Swamp Thing #76-77; cumulatively spanning January to October 1988 and beginning a renaissance in comicbook horror that thrives to this day.

Back in 1987 Creative Arts and Liberal Sentiments were dirty words in many quarters and the readership of Vertigo was pretty easy to profile. British scripter Jamie Delano began the series with a relatively safe horror-comic plot about an escaped hunger demon, introducing us to Constantine’s unpleasant nature and odd acquaintances – such as Papa Midnite – in a tale of infernal possession and modern voodoo, but even then, discriminating fans were aware of a welcome anti-establishment political line and metaphorical underpinnings.

‘Hunger’ and ‘A Feast of Friends’ also established another vital fact. Anyone who got too close to John Constantine tended to end very badly, very quickly…

‘Going for It’ then successfully equated Conservative Britain with Hell, with demons trading souls on their own stock market and Yuppies getting ahead in the rat race by selling short. Set on Election Day 1987, this potent pastiche never loses sight of its goal to entertain, whilst making telling points about humanity, individuality and society.

Constantine’s cousin Gemma and tantalising splinters of his Liverpool childhood are revealed in ‘Waiting for the Man’: a tale of abduction and ghosts which introduces disturbing Christian fundamentalists the Resurrection Crusade, and a mysterious woman known only as Zed.

America is once again the focus of terror in ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ as the Vietnam war breaks out again in rural Iowa, before we pop back to Blighty for ‘Extreme Predjudice’.

Skinheads, racism demons and more abound as Delano cannily joins up lots of previously unconnected dots to reveal a giant storyline in the making. The Damnation Army are up to something, but nobody knows who they are. Now everything’s going bad and somehow Zed and the Resurrection Crusade are at the heart of it all…

Brett Ewins & Jim McCarthy briefly replace magnificent regular artist John Ridgway for the first three pages of ‘Ghost in the Machine’, before the beautifully restrained and poignantly humanistic stylism returns with Constantine further unraveling the Damnation plot by catching up with the Coming Thing: the cutting edge mysticism dubbed cyber-shamanism.

In Delano’s world the edges between science and magic aren’t blurred – they simply don’t exist…

Alfredo Alcala signs on as inker with ‘Intensive Care’ and the drama ramps up to a full gallop as the plans of both Crusade and Army are revealed, and the value and purpose of Zed are finally exposed. All Constantine can do in response is make the first of many bad bargains with Hell….

The volume then takes a stranger turn due to the nature of periodical publishing…

The storyline in Hellblazer #1-8 ran contiguously, before converging with Swamp Thing, wherein the wizard reluctantly lends his physical body to the planetary plant elemental so that the vegetable guardian can impregnate its human girlfriend Abigail Arcane.

Thus, in the ninth issue, there’s a kind of dissolute holding pattern in play as the weary wizard confronts the ghosts of all the people he’s gotten killed to allow all the pieces to be suitably arranged. ‘Shot to Hell’ (Delano, Ridgway & Alcala) then neatly segues into Swamp Thing #76-77 for the conception of a new messiah. Sort of…

The post-Alan Moore Swamp Thing comics were long neglected after the author’s departure, but eventually fans realised that writer-artist Rick Veitch – aided by veteran inker Alcala – produced a stunning sequence of mini-classics well worthy of serious scrutiny. The issues built on Moore’s cerebral, visceral writing as the world’s planet elemental became increasingly involved with ecological matters.

Having decided to “retire”, Swamp Thing (an anthropomorphic plant with the personality and mind of murdered biologist Alec Holland) was charged by his ephemeral overlords in “the Green” with facilitating the creation of his/its successor. However, the ancient and agonising process was contaminated by consecutive failures and false starts, leading to a horrendous series of abortive creatures and a potentially catastrophic Synchronicity Maelstrom.

Alec, “wife” Abigail and the chillingly charismatic Constantine are eventually compelled to combine forces – and indeed some body-fluids – in ‘L’Adoration de la Terre’ (Swamp Thing #76, by Veitch & Alcala) – to create a solution before the resultant chaos-storm destroys the Earth.

The process is not with risk – or shame – but the affair is brought to a successful conclusion in ‘Infernal Tringles’ (Swamp Thing #77, and with Tom Mandrake pencilling) and with terrestrial order restored, the participants go their separate ways… but the events have affected them all in ways that will have terrible repercussions in the months and years to come…

Rounding out the so-sophisticated spook-fest is an original covers gallery by Dave McKean and John Totleben, and an “in-world” exposé of Constantine by faux journalist Satchmo Hawkins in ‘Faces on the Street’.

Also included are other relics of the antihero’s sordid past such as the lyrics from Venus of the hardsell – a single from John’s aberrant punk band mucous membrane – plus extracts from the magician’s medical file whilst he was an inmate of the Ravenscar Secure Psychiatric Facility

Delivered by creators capable and satiric, but still wedded to the basic tenets of their craft, these superb examples of contemporary horror fiction – inextricably linking politics, religion, human nature and sheer bloody-mindedness as the root cause of all ills – are still powerfully engaging. Beautifully constructed, they make a truly abominable character seem an admirable force for our survival. The art is clear, understated and subtly subversive while the slyly witty, innovative stories jangle at the subconscious with scratchy edginess.

This is a book no fear-fan should be without.
© 1987, 1988, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Inhumans Masterworks volume 1


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Archie Goodwin, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gene Colan, Neal Adams, Mike Sekowsky & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-41419 (HC)                 978-0-7851-4142-6 (TPB)

Debuting in 1965 and conceived as one more incredible lost civilisation during Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s most fertile and productive creative period, The Inhumans are a secretive race of phenomenally disparate beings genetically altered by aliens in Earth’s primordial pre-history.

They subsequently evolved into a technologically-advanced civilisation far ahead of emergent Homo Sapiens and isolated themselves from the world and barbarous dawn-age humans, first on an island and latterly in a hidden valley in the Himalayas, residing in a fabulous city named Attilan.

The mark of citizenship is immersion in the mutative Terrigen Mists which further enhance and transform individuals into radically unique and generally super-powered beings. The Inhumans are necessarily obsessed with genetic structure and heritage, worshipping the ruling Royal Family as the rationalist equivalent of mortal gods.

With a new TV series debuting to mixed reviews and reactions, it’s worth taking a look at how the hereditary outsiders first impacted the Marvel Universe and this tome (available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions) compiles their first solo-starring appearances from the Tales of the Uncanny Inhumans back-up series in Thor #146-153, a one-off yarn from Marvel Super-Heroes #15, their run in Amazing Adventures #1-10, plus a guest shot in Avengers #95, spanning the period November 1967 to January 1972. Also included are a trio of spoof features taken from Not Brand Echh #6 and 12 (February 1968 and February 1969).

Designed to delight all fanboy truth-seekers, the Introduction by Mark Evanier sets the ball rolling with candid and informative behind-the-scenes revelations detailing the true publishing agenda and “Secret Origin of the Inhumans”, before reintroducing the Royal Family of Attilan. Black Bolt, Medusa, Triton, Karnak, Gorgon, Crystal and the rest would soon become mainstays of the Marvel Universe.

The hidden race began their first solo feature in from Thor #146: a series of complete, 5-page vignettes detailing some of the tantalising backstory so effectively hinted at in previous appearances. ‘The Origin of… the Incomparable Inhumans’ (by Lee, Kirby & Joe Sinnott) plunges back to the dawn of civilisation where cavemen flee in fear from technologically advanced humans who live on an island named Attilan.

In that futuristic metropolis, wise King Randac finally makes a decision to test out his people’s latest discovery: genetically mutative Terrigen rays…

The saga expands a month later in ‘The Reason Why!’ as Earth’s duly-appointed Kree Sentry visits the island and reveals how his masters in ages past experimented on an isolated tribe of primitive humanoids. Now observing their progress, the menacing mechanoid learns that the Kree lab rats have fully taken control of their genetic destiny and must now be considered Inhuman…

Skipping ahead 25,000 years, ‘…And Finally: Black Bolt!’ then reveals how a baby’s first cries wreck the city and reveal the infant prince to be an Inhuman unlike any other… one cursed with an uncontrollable sonic vibration which builds to unstoppable catastrophic violence with every utterance…

Raised in isolation, the prince’s 19th birthday marks his release into the city and contact with the cousins he has only ever seen on video screens. Sadly, the occasion is co-opted by Bolt’s envious brother Maximus who tortures the royal heir to prove he cannot be trusted to maintain ‘Silence or Death!’

Thor #150 (March 1968) saw the start of a lengthier continued tale as ‘Triton’ leaves the hidden city to explore the greater human world, only to be captured by a film crew making an underwater monster movie. Allowing himself to be brought back to America, the wily manphibian escapes when the ship docks and becomes an ‘Inhuman at Large!’

The series concluded with Triton on the run and a fish out of water ‘While the City Shrieks!’ before returning to Attilan with a damning assessment of the Inhumans’ lesser cousins…

The first Inhuman introduced to the world was the menacing Madame Medusa in Fantastic Four #36: a female super-villain joining team’s antithesis the Frightful Four. This sinister squad comprised evil genius The Wizard, shapeshifting Sandman and gadget fiend The Trapster and their battles against Marvel’s first family led to the exposure of the hidden race and numerous clashes with humanity.

In 1967 a proposed Inhumans solo series was canned before completion, but the initial episode was retooled and published in the company’s try-out vehicle Marvel Super-Heroes. Written by Archie Goodwin and illustrated by Gene Colan & Vince Colletta, ‘Let the Silence Shatter!’ appeared in #15 (July 1968), revealing how the villainous quartet were temporarily reunited after the Wizard promises a method for control Black Bolt’s deadly sonic affliction in return for Medusa’s services. As usual, the double-dealing mastermind betrays his unwilling accomplice but again underestimates her abilities and intellect, resulting in another humiliating defeat…

A few years later, bi-monthly “split-book” Amazing Adventures launched with an August 1970 cover-date and the Inhumans sharing the pages with a new Black Widow series. The big news however was that Kirby was both writing and illustrating the ‘The Inhumans!’

Inked by Chic Stone, the first episode saw the Great Refuge targeted by atomic missiles apparently fired by the Inhumans’ greatest allies, prompting a retaliatory attack on the Baxter Building and pitting ‘Friend Against Friend!’ However, even as the battle raged Black Bolt was taking covert action against the true culprits…

Issue #3 sees the uncanny outcasts as ‘Pawns of the Mandarin’ when the devilish tyrant tricks the Royal Family into uncovering a mega-powerful ancient artefact, but he is ultimately unable to cope with their power and teamwork in the concluding chapter ‘With These Rings I Thee Kill!’

AA #5 (March 1971) ushered in a radical change of tone and mood as the currently on-fire creative team of Roy Thomas & Neal Adams took over the strip after Kirby shockingly left Marvel for DC.

Inked by Tom Palmer, ‘His Brother’s Keeper’ sees Maximus finally employ a long-dormant power – mind-control – to erase Black Bolt’s memory and seize control of the Great Refuge.

The real problem however, is that at the moment the Mad One strikes, Black Bolt is in San Francisco on a secret mission. When the mind-wave hits, the stranger forgets everything and as a little boy offers assistance, ‘Hell on Earth!’ (inked by John Verpoorten) begins as a simple whisper shatters the docks and the vessels moored there…

As Triton, Gorgon, Karnak and Medusa flee the now utterly entranced Refuge in search of Black Bolt, ‘An Evening’s Wait for Death!’ finds little Joey and the still-bewildered Bolt captured by a radical black activist determined to use the Inhuman’s shattering power to raze the city’s foul ghettoes. A tense confrontation in the streets with the police draws storm god Thor into the conflict during ‘An Hour for Thunder!’, but when the dust settles it seems Black Bolt is dead…

Gerry Conway, Mike Sekowsky & Bill Everett assumed the storytelling duties with # 9 as The Inhumans took over the entire book. Reaching America, the Royal Cousins’ search for their king is interrupted when they are targeted by a cult of mutants.

‘…And the Madness of Magneto!’ reveals Black Bolt in the clutches of the Master of Magnetism who needs the usurped king’s abilities to help him steal a new artificial element but ‘In His Hands… the World!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) soon proves that with his memory restored nothing and no one can long make the mightiest Inhuman a slave…

The series abruptly ended there. Amazing Adventures #11 featured a new treatment of graduate X-Man Hank McCoy who rode the trend for monster heroes by accidentally transforming himself into a furry Beast. The Inhumans simply dropped out of sight until Thomas & Adams wove their dangling plot threads into the monumental epic unfolding from June 1971 to March 1972 in The Avengers #89-97.

At that time Thomas’ bold experiment was rightly considered the most ambitious saga in Marvel’s brief history: an astounding saga of tremendous scope which dumped Earth into a cosmic war the likes of which comics fans had never before seen. The Kree/Skrull War set the template for all multi-part crossovers and publishing events ever since…

It began when, in the distant Kree Empire, the ruling Supreme Intelligence is overthrown by his chief enforcer Ronan the Accuser. The rebellion results in humanity learning aliens hide among them, and public opinion turns against suerheroes for concealing the threat of repeated alien incursions…

A powerful allegory of the Anti-Communist Witch-hunts of the 1950s, the epic sees riots in American streets and a political demagogue capitalising on the crisis. Subpoenaed by the authorities, castigated by friends and public, the Avengers are ordered to disband.

Oddly omitted here, issue #94 entangles the Inhumans in the mix, disclosing that their advanced science and powers are the result of Kree genetic meddling in the depths of prehistory. With intergalactic war beginning, Black Bolt missing and his madly malign brother Maximus in charge, the Kree now come calling in their ancient markers…

Wrapping up the graphic wonderment here, ‘Something Inhuman This Way Comes…!’ (from Avengers #95, January 1972) coalesces many disparate story strands as aquatic adventurer Triton aids the Avengers against government-piloted Mandroids before beseeching the beleaguered heroes to help find his missing monarch and rescue his Inhuman brethren from the press-ganging Kree…

After so doing, the Avengers head into space to liberate their kidnapped comrades and save Earth from becoming collateral damage in the impending cosmos-shaking clash between Kree and Skrulls (a much-collected tale you’d be crazy to miss…).

Appended with creator biographies and House Ads for the Inhumans’ debut, the thrills and chills are topped off with three comedy vignettes. The first, from Not Brand Echh #6 (the “Big, Batty Love and Hisses issue!” of February 1968) reveals how ‘The Human Scorch Has to… Meet the Family!’: a snappy satire on romantic liaisons from Lee, Kirby & Tom Sutton, and is complimented by ‘Unhumans to Get Own Comic Book’ (Arnold Drake, Thomas & Sutton) and ‘My Search for True Love’ by Drake & Sutton: both from Not Brand Echh #12 (February 1969).

The first of these depicts how other artists might render the series – with contenders including faux icons bOb (Gnatman & Rotten) Krane, Chester (Dig Tracing) Ghoul and Charles (Good Ol’ Charlie…) Schlitz, whilst the second follows lovelorn Medoozy as she dumps her taciturn man and searches for fulfilment amongst popular musical and movie stars of the era…

These stories cemented the outsiders place in the ever-expanding Marvel universe and helped the company to overtake all its competitors. Although making little impact at the time they are still potent and innovative: as exciting and captivating now as they ever were. This is a must-have book for all fans of graphic narrative and followers of Marvel’s next cinematic star vehicle.
© 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Et Cetera volume 1


By Tow Nakazaki (TokyoPop)
ISBN: 978-1-59532-130-5

Western adventures and cowboy escapades are very much in the eye of the beholder. Many global cultures offer a unique spin on the already vastly protoplasmic genre and this tragically out-of-print series features one of the most engaging treatments I’ve ever seen.

As created by Tow Nakazaki, Etosetoro was originally released in Japan as nine volumes between February 1998 and January 2001 before being translated into French by Glénat and English by TokyoPop, to entertain and delight between August 2004 and April 2007. The exceedingly eccentric series is long overdue for revival…

An irreverent, genre-bending hilarious western pastiche, this delightful romp is not for you if history and logic are personal bugbears, but if it helps think of it all happening on an alternate Earth…

The story sees star-struck teenaged girl Mingchao quit her mountaintop shack and wild west roots to travel in search of the American Dream: that means a glitzy showbiz career in Hollywood.

With her she takes the fantastic Eto Gun built by her grandfather. This one-of-a-kind pistol fires the spirits of the (Japanese) Zodiac with fantastic bullets manifesting in the form of animate animal ghosts.

Naturally it takes a while – and lots of trial-and-error – for her to discover how it works. This eventually resolves into dipping the gun in the “essence” of a specific totem animal. That could mean food or clothing made from them but more often as not it demands dealing with their droppings…

Happily, the trouble she inevitably finds herself in is best dealt with by Mingchao’s innate feistiness and ingenuity. And along the trail to fame long she is been befriended by a mysterious, young and good-looking “Preacher-Man” named Baskerville.

As they make their way to far-distant California the ever-growing band of pilgrims encounter many of the icons of the untamed bad-lands, such as cowed townsfolk, villainous outlaws, evil cattle-barons, cows, ornery ol’ coots, cow-punchers, distressed widow-wimmin’, cows…

This light-hearted meander through the iconography of a million cowboy movies is fast paced, occasionally saucy and laugh-out-loud funny, and offers the inestimable benefit of sheer freshness afforded by seeing such old clichés through differently-conditioned Eastern eyes.

The first volume also includes a number of themed puzzle pages for anyone wanting to take a deeper dip into the legends that underpin the animal ammo…

Beguiling and irresistibly enticing, Et Cetera is a slice of marvellous mirth and magic for jaded fans and tops my list of Manga series in urgent need of contemporary revisiting and re-release
© 1998, 2005 Tow Nakazaki. All Rights Reserved. English script © 2005 TokyoPop Inc.

Lex Luthor: A Celebration of 75 Years


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Bill Finger, Edmund Hamilton, Len Wein, Cary Bates, Elliot S. Maggin, John Byrne, Roger Stern, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Brian Azzarello, Paul Cornell, Geoff Johns, John Sikela, Wayne Boring, Curt Swan, Jackson Guice, Howard Porter, Matthew Clark, Lee Bermejo, Frank Quitely, Pete Woods, Doug Mahnke & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6207-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Sound Reason to Keep up with Science Classes as well as Reading… 9/10

Closely paralleling the evolution of the groundbreaking Man of Steel, the exploits of the mercurial Lex Luthor are a vital aspect of comics’ very fabric. In whatever era you choose, the ultimate mad scientist epitomises the eternal feud between Brains and Brawn and over those decades has become the Man of Steel’s true antithesis and nemesis as well as an ideal perfect indicator of what different generations deem evil.

This stunning compilation – part of a dedicated series introducing and exploiting the comics pedigree of venerable DC icons – is available in hardback Trade Paperback and digital formats and offers a sequence of snapshots detailing how Luthor has evolved in his never-ending battle with Superman.

The groundbreaking appearances selected are preceded here by a brief critical analysis of the significant stages in the villain’s development, beginning with ‘Part I: 1940-1969 The Making of a Mastermind’. After history and deconstruction comes sinister adventure as the grim genius debuted in ‘Europe at War Part 2’ (by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster from Action Comics #23, April 1940).

Although not included here Action #22 had loudly declared ‘Europe at War’ – a tense and thinly-disguised call to arms for the still neutral USA – and as the Man of Tomorrow tried to stem the bloodshed the tale became a continued story (almost unheard of in those early days of funny-book publishing).

Spectacularly concluding in #23, Clark Kent’s European investigations revealed a red-headed fiend employing outlandish science to foment war for profit and intent on conquering the survivors as a modern-day Genghis Khan. Of course, the Man of Steel strenuously objected…

Next comes ‘The Challenge of Luthor’ from Superman #4 (Spring/March1940) and created at almost the same time: a landmark clash with the rogue scientist who, back then, was still a roguish red-headed menace with a bald and pudgy henchman. Somehow in the heat of burgeoning deadlines, master got confused with servant in later adventures and the public perception of the villain irrevocably crystalized as the sinister slap-headed super-threat we know today…

This story – by Siegel & Shuster – involves an earthquake machine and ends with Luthor exhausting his entire arsenal of death-dealing devices in attempts to destroy his enemy with no negligible effect…

From Superman #17 (July 1942), ‘When Titans Clash’, by Siegel & John Sikela, depicts how the burly bald bandit uses a mystic powerstone to survive his justly deserved execution and steals Superman’s abilities. However, the Action Ace stills maintains his wily intellect and outsmarts his titanically-empowered foe…

Jumping ahead ten years, ‘Superman’s Super Hold-Up’ World’s Finest Comics #59 (July 1952, by Bill Finger, Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye) is a supremely typical duel of wits in which the Einstein of Crime renders the Metropolis Marvel helpless with the application of a devilish height- and pressure-sensitive mega explosive device – but only for a little while…

World’s Finest Comics #88 (June 1957) provides ‘Superman and Batman’s Greatest Foes!’ (by Edmond Hamilton, Dick Sprang & Stan Kaye) which finds “reformed” master criminals Lex and the Joker ostensibly setting up in the commercial robot business – which nobody really believed – and as it happens quite correctly…

As the mythology grew and Luthor became a crucial component of Superman’s story, the bad boy was retroactively introduced into the hero’s childhood. ‘How Luthor Met Superboy!’ (from Adventure Comics #271, April 1960 by Siegel & Al Plastino) details how Superboy and the budding genius were pals until a lab accident burned off the human’s hair and in his prideful fury Lex blamed the Kryptonian and swore revenge…

In ‘The Conquest of Superman’ (Action Comics #277, June 1961 by Bill Finger, Curt Swan & John Forte) the authorities paroled Lex to help with an imminent crisis only to have the double-dealer escape as soon as the problem was fixed. By the time Superman returned to Earth, Luthor was ready for him…

Superman #164, October 1963, featured ‘The Showdown between Luthor and Superman’ (by Hamilton, Swan & George Klein): the ultimate Silver Age confrontation between the Caped Kryptonian and his greatest foe, pitting the lifelong foes in an unforgettable confrontation on the post-apocalyptic planet Lexor – a lost world of forgotten science and fantastic beasts – which resulted in ‘The Super-Duel!’ and displayed a whole new side to Superman’s previously two-dimensional arch-enemy.

Part II: 1970-1986 Luthor Unleashed previews how a more sophisticated readership demanded greater depth in their reading matter and creators responded by adding a human dimension to the avaricious mad scientist, as seen in ‘The Man Who Murdered the Earth’ from Superman #248 (February 1972 by Len Wein, Swan & Murphy Anderson).

Here Luthor dictates his final testament after creating a Galactic Golem to destroy his sworn enemy, and ponders how his obsession caused the destruction of Earth…

For the 45th anniversary of Action Comics Superman’s two greatest enemies – the other being Brainiac – were radically re-imagined for an increasingly harder, harsher world. ‘Luthor Unleashed’ in issue #544 (June 1983, by Cary Bates Swan & Murphy Anderson) saw the eternal duel between Lex and Superman lead to the destruction of Lexor and death of Luthor’s new family after the techno-terror once again chose vengeance over love. Crushed by guilt and hatred, the maniacal genius reinvents himself as an implacable human engine of terror and destruction…

Elliot S. Maggin, Swan & Al Williamson then offer a glimpse into the other motivating force in Luthor’s life by exposing ‘The Einstein Connection’ (Superman #416, February 1986) wherein a trawl through the outlaw’s life reveals a hidden link to the greatest physicist in history…

The Silver Age of comicbooks had utterly revolutionised a flagging medium, bringing a modicum of sophistication to the returning sub-genre of masked mystery men. However, after decades of cosy wonderment, Crisis on Infinite Earths transformed the entire DC Universe and led to the creation of a harder, tougher Superman. John Byrne’s radical re-imagining was most potently manifested in Luthor, who morphed from brilliant, obsessed bandit to ruthless billionaire capitalist… as seen in the introduction to Part III: 1986-2000 Captain of Industry

The tension begins with ‘The Secret Revealed’ (Superman #2, February 1987 by John Byrne, Terry Austin & Keith Williams) when the relentless tycoon kidnaps everyone Superman loves to learn his secret and after collating all the data obtained by torture and other means jumps to the most mistaken conclusion of his misbegotten life…

‘Metropolis – 900 Miles’ (Superman volume 2 #9, September1987 by Byrne, & Karl Kesel) then explores the sordid cruelty of the oligarch as he cruelly torments a pretty waitress with a loathsome offer and promises of a new life…

‘Talking Heads’ appeared in Action Comics #678 (June 1992, by Roger Stern, Jackson Guice & Ande Parks) set after Luthor – riddled with cancer from constantly wearing a green Kryptonite ring to keep Superman at arms’ length – has secretly returned to Metropolis as his own son in a hastily cloned new young and handsome body. Acting as a philanthropist and with Supergirl as his girlfriend/arm candy, young Luthor has everybody fooled, Sadly, everything looks like falling apart when rogue geneticist Dabney Donovan is arrested and threatens to tell an incredible secret he knows about the richest man in town…

‘Hostile Takeover’ comes from JLA #11 1997) wherein Grant Morrison, Howard Porter & John Dell opened interstellar saga ‘Rock of Ages’ with the Justice League facing a newly-assembled, corporately-inspired Injustice Gang organised by Lex and run on his ruthlessly efficient commercial business model.

Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman are targeted by a coalition of arch-enemies comprising Chairman-of-the-Board Lex, the Joker, Circe, Mirror Master, Ocean Master and Doctor Light with ghastly doppelgangers of the World’s Greatest Heroes raining destruction down all over the globe.

Even with new members Aztek and second generation Green Arrow Connor Hawke on board, the enemy are running the heroes ragged, but the stakes change radically when telepath J’onn J’onzz detects an extinction-level entity heading to Earth from deep space…

The action and tension intensify when the cabal press their advantage whilst New God Metron materialises, warning the JLA that the end of everything is approaching.

As ever, these snippets of a greater saga are more frustrating than fulfilling, so be prepared to hunt down the complete saga. You won’t regret it…

A true Teflon businessman, Lex ended the millennium running for President and Part IV: 2000-Present 21st Century Man follow a prose appraisal with ‘The Why’ from President Luthor Secret Files and Origins #1 (2000, by Greg Rucka, Matthew Clark & Ray Snyder). Here the blueprint to power and road to the White House is deconstructed, picturing the daily frustrations and provocations which inspired the nefarious oligarch to throw his hat into the political ring…

The next (frustratingly incomplete) snippet comes from a miniseries where the antagonist was the star. ‘Lex Luthor Man of Steel Part 3’ by Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo offers a dark and brooding look into the heart and soul of Superman’s ultimate and eternal foe: adding gravitas to villainy by explaining Lex’s actions in terms of his belief that the heroic Kryptonian is a real and permanent danger to the spirit of humanity.

Luthor – still believed by the world at large to be nothing more than a sharp and philanthropic industrial mogul – allows us a peek into his psyche: viewing the business and social (not to say criminal) machinations undertaken to get a monolithic skyscraper built in Metropolis. The necessary depths sunk to whilst achieving this ambition, and Lex’s manipulating Superman into clashing with Batman, are powerful metaphors, but the semi-philosophical mutterings – so very reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead – although flavoursome, don’t really add anything to Luthor’s character and even serve to dilute much of the pure evil force of his character.

Flawed characters truly make more believable reading, especially in today’s cynical and sophisticated world, but such renovations shouldn’t be undertaken at the expense of the character’s heart. At the end Luthor is again defeated: diminished without travail and nothing has been risked, won or lost. The order restored is of an unsatisfactory and unstable kind, and our look into the villain’s soul has made him smaller, not more understandable.

Lee Bermejo’s art, however, is astoundingly lovely and fans of drawing should consider buying this simply to stare in wonder at the pages of beauty and power that he’s produced here. Or read the entire story in its own collected edition…

Rather more comprehensive and satisfying is ‘The Gospel According to Lex Luthor’ as first seen in All-Star Superman #5. Crafted by Morrison, Frank Quitely & Jamie Grant from September 2006, here an unrepentant Luthor on Death Row grants Clark Kent the interview of his career and scoop of a lifetime, after which ‘The Black Ring Part 5’ (Action Comics #894, December 2010 by Paul Cornell & Pete Woods) confirms the genius’ personal world view as Death of the Endless stops the universe just so she can have a little chat with Lex and see what he’s really like…

This epic trawl through the villain’s published life concludes with a startling tale from Justice League volume 2, #31 (August 2014) as the post-Flashpoint, re-rebooted New 52 DCU again remade Lex into a villain for the latest generation: brilliant, super-rich, conflicted and hungry for public acclaim and approval. In ‘Injustice League Part 2: Power Players’ by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke, Keith Champagne & Christian Alamy, bad-guy Luthor has helped save the world from extradimensional invaders and now wants to be a hero. His solution is to make the real superheroes invite him to join the Justice League, and that can be accomplished by ferreting out Batman’s secret identity and blackmailing the Dark Knight into championing his admission…

Lex Luthor is arguably the most recognizable villain in comics and can justifiably claim that title in whatever era you choose to concentrate on; goggle-eyed Golden Age, sanitised Silver Age or malignant modern and Post-Modern milieus. This book captures just a fraction of all those superb stories and offers a delicious peek into the dark, unhealthy side of rivalry and competition…

This monolithic testament to the inestimable value of a good bad-guy is a true delight for fans of all ages and vintage.
© 1940, 1942, 1952, 1954, 1957, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1972, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2014, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: A Death in the Family


By Jim Starlin, Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo, George Pérez & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1401225162 (HC)                        978-1-4012-3274-0 (TPB)

Modern comicbooks live or die on the strength of their “Special Event” publishing stunts but every so often such storylines can get away from editors and publishers and take on a life of its own. This usually does not end well for our favourite art form, as the way the greater world views the comics microcosm is seldom how we insiders and cognoscenti see it. Just check out the media frenzies that grew around the Death of Superman or Death of Captain America crossovers…

One of the most controversial comics tales of the last century saw an intriguing marketing attention-grabber go spectacularly off the rails – for all the wrong reasons – to become instantly notorious whilst simultaneously and sadly masking the real merits of the piece.

Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger & Jerry Robinson, Robin, the Boy Wonder debuted in Detective Comics #38 (April 1940): a juvenile circus acrobat whose parents were murdered by a greedy mob boss. The story of how Batman took the orphaned Dick Grayson under his scalloped wing and trained him to fight crime has been told, retold and revised many times over the decades and still undergoes the odd tweaking to this day

The child Grayson fought beside Batman until 1970 when, as a sign of the turbulent times, he flew the nest, to become a Teen Wonder and college student. His invention as a junior hero for younger readers to identify with had inspired an incomprehensible number of costumed sidekicks and kid crusaders throughout the industry, and Grayson continued in similar vein for the older, more worldly-wise readership of America’s increasingly rebellious youth culture.

Robin even had his own solo series in Star Spangled Comics from 1947-1952, a solo spot in the back of Detective Comics from the end of the 1960s which he alternated and shared with Batgirl, and a starring feature in anthology utility comic Batman Family. During the 1980s the young warrior led the New Teen Titans, re-established a turbulent working relationship with Batman and reinvented himself as Nightwing. This of course left the post of Robin open…

After Grayson’s departure Batman worked alone until he caught a streetwise young urchin trying to steal the Batmobile’s tires. Debuting in Batman #357 (March 1983) this lost boy was Jason Todd, and eventually the little thug became the second Boy Wonder (#368, February 1984), with a short but stellar career, marred only by his impetuosity and tragic links to one of the Caped Crusader’s most unpredictable foes…

Todd had serious emotional problems that became increasingly apparent in the issues leading up to A Death in the Family wherein the street kid became more callous and brutal in response to the daily horrors he was being exposed to. When he caused the death of a vicious, abusive drug-dealer with diplomatic immunity, Todd entered a spiral that culminated in the first unforgettable story-arc collected in this volume (available in hardcover, trade paperback and digital editions), collectively comprising Batman #426-429, and #440-442 as well as New Teen Titans #60-61 and material from Batman Annual #25.

As Batman #426 (December 1988) opens, Jason is acting ever more violently. Seemingly incapable of rudimentary caution, he is suspended by Batman who believes the boy has not adjusted to the death of his parents. Meanwhile, the Joker is again on the loose. But rather than his usual killing frenzy, the Clown Prince is after mere cash, as the financial disaster of “Reaganomics” has depleted his coffers – meaning he can’t afford his outrageous signature murder gimmicks…

Without purpose, Jason wanders the streets where he grew up. When he sees an old friend of his parents, she reveals a shocking secret. The woman who raised him was not his birth-mother…

She knows of a box of personal papers indicating three women, each of whom might be his true mother. Lost and emotionally volatile, Jason sets out to track them down…

His potential mother is either Lady Shiva, world’s deadliest assassin, Mossad agent Sharmin Rosen or Dr. Sheila Haywood, a famine relief worker in Ethiopia. As the lad bolts for the Middle East and a confrontation with destiny, he is unaware Batman is also in that troubled region, hot on the Joker’s trail as the Maniac of Mirth attempts to sell a stolen nuclear missile to any terrorist who can pay…

The estranged heroes accidentally reunite to foil the plot, and Jason crosses Rosen off his potential mom-list. As Batman offers to help Jason check the remaining candidates the fugitive Joker escapes to Ethiopia. After eliminating Shiva, who has been training terrorists in the deep desert, the heroes finally get to Jason’s true mother Sheila Haywood, unaware that she has been blackmailed into a deadly scam involving stolen relief supplies with the Clown Prince of Crime…

I’m not going to bother with the details of the voting fiasco that plagues all references to this tale: it’s all copiously detailed elsewhere (just Google and see) but suffice to say that to test then-new marketing tools a 1-900 number was established and – thanks to an advanced press campaign – readers were offered the chance to vote on whether Robin would live or die in the story. You can even see the original ad reproduced here…

Jason dies.

The kid had increasingly become a poor fit in the series and this storyline galvanised a new direction with a darker, more driven Batman. The changes came almost immediately as Joker, after killing Jason in a chilling, unforgettably violent manner, becomes UN ambassador for Iran (later revised as the fully fictional Qurac – just in case) and – at the personal request of the Ayatollah himself – attempted to kill the entire UN General Assembly during his inaugural speech.

With echoes of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Superman then becomes a government watchdog tasked with stopping Batman from breaching diplomatic immunity as the vengeance-hungry Caped Crusader attempts to stop the Joker at any cost, leading to a spectacular yet chillingly inconclusive conclusion with the portents of dark days to come…

And here is the true injustice surrounding this tale: the death of Robin (who didn’t even stay dead) and the voting debacle took away from the real importance of this story – and perhaps deflected some real scrutiny and controversy. Starlin had crafted a clever and bold tale of real world politics and genuine issues which most readers didn’t even notice…

Terrorism Training Camps, Rogue States, African famines, black marketeering, charity relief fraud, Economic, Race and Class warfare, diplomatic skulduggery and nuclear smuggling all featured heavily, as did such notable hot-button topics as Ayatollah Khomeini, Reagan’s Cruise Missile program, the Iran-Contra and Arms for Hostages scandals and the horrors of Ethiopian refugee camps.

Most importantly, it signalled a new and fearfully casual approach to violence and death in comicbooks.

This is a superbly readable tale, morally challenging and breathtakingly audacious – but it’s controversial in all the wrong places and for all the wrong reasons. But don’t take my word for it: read it and see for yourself.

The saga is appended here by an afterword from Marv Wolfman, before the sequel he penned introduces the third kid to don the cape and pixie boots…

After Grayson’s departure and Jason’s death the shock and loss traumatised Batman. Forced to re-examine his own origins and methods, he becomes a far darker knight…

After a period of increasingly undisciplined encounters Batman is on the very edge of losing not just his focus but also his ethics and life: seemingly suicidal on his frequent forays into the Gotham nights. Interventions from his few remaining friends and associates prove ineffectual. Something drastic had to happen if the Dark Knight is to be salvaged.

Luckily there was an opening for a sidekick…

The second story arc here is a crossover tale originally running in Batman #440-442 and New Teen Titans #60-61 from October to December 1989. Plotted by Wolfman and George Pérez, scripted by Wolfman with the Batman chapters illustrated by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo, and the Titans sections handled by Pérez, Tom Grummett & Bob McLeod, a new character enters the lives of the extended Batman Family; a remarkable child who will change the shape of the DC Universe.

‘Suspects’ sees Batman rapidly burning out, but not only his close confederates but also an enigmatic investigator and a mystery villain have noticed the deadly deterioration. However, as the criminal mastermind embroils the wildly unpredictable Two-Face in his scheme, the apparently benevolent voyeur is hunting for Dick Grayson: a mission successfully accomplished in second chapter, ‘Roots’.

The first Robin had become disenchanted with the adventurer’s life, quitting the New Teen Titans and returning to the circus where the happiest and most tragic days of his life occurred. Here he is confronted by a young boy who has deduced the secret identities of both Batman and Robin…

‘Parallel Lines’ then unravels the enigma of Tim Drake, who as a toddler was in the audience the night the Flying Graysons were murdered. Tim was an infant prodigy, and when, months later he saw new hero Robin perform the same acrobatic stunts as Dick Grayson, he instantly realises who the Boy Wonder must be – and thus, by extrapolation, the real identity of Batman.

A passionate fan, Drake followed the Dynamic Duo’s exploits for a decade: noting every case and detail. He knew when Jason Todd became Robin and was moved to act when his murder led to the Caped Crusader going catastrophically off the rails.

Taking it upon himself to fix his broken heroes, Drake determines to convince the “retired” Grayson to became Robin once more – before Batman makes an inevitable, fatal mistake. It might all be too little too late, however, as in ‘Going Home!’, Two-Face makes his murderous move against a severely sub-par Gotham Guardian…

Concluding with a raft of explosive and highly entertaining surprises in ‘Rebirth’, this long-overlooked Bat-saga introduces the third Robin (who would get into costume only after years of training – and fan-teasing) whilst acknowledging both modern sentiments about child-endangerment and the classical roles of young heroes in heroic fiction. Perhaps a little slow and definitely a bit too sentimental in places, this is nevertheless an excellent, key Batman story, and one no fan should be unaware of.

This combined compilation offers also a full cover gallery by Mike Mignola & Pérez plus a lost treasure for fans and aficionados. Printed comics are produced with a long lead-in time so when the phone poll to determine Jason’s fate was launched, the editors had to prepare for both outcomes. Wrapping up proceedings here is the alternate final page by Aparo & DeCarlo depicting Robin’s survival to gratify the dreams of those who originally voted against what these days would have been agonisingly and inappropriately dubbed “R-exit”…

Potent, punchy and eminently readable, this is a bold Bat-treat well worth tracking down and devouring.
© 1988,1989, 2006, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Frederic Mullally’s Amanda


By Frederic Mullally, John Richardson & “Ken” (Ken Pierce Books)
ISBN: 978-0-91227-703-5

When I reviewed the comic strip collection Danielle recently, I declaimed at long length about having to become an apologist for some of the themes and content of what used to be called “cheesecake” or “girly” strips: a genre stuffy old-fashioned Britain used to excel at and happily venerate.

After all, aren’t we proud that we’re that sort of culture? Saucy postcards, Carry-On films, ingenuously innocent smut and a passion for double entendre which have for decades obscured and obfuscated genuine concerns such as entrenched gender pay-gaps, unwarranted interest in and control of female reproductive rights and sexual behaviour, double standards for men and women’s work and recreational behaviours, and that incomprehensible Mystery of Mysteries: just why men are utterly certain that anything they fancy automatically fancies them back and is therefore fair game for creepy jollity and unwanted attentions excused as “just having bit of fun” or “paying a compliment”…

Yes, it’s one of those days…

Meanwhile, back at this book and in a time long gone but not forgotten – as John Dakin points out in his introduction to this particular short-lived strip-siren – The Sun (original home of the lady in question) was the country’s best-selling newspaper and was proudly, provocatively populist. That translated into low laughs and acres of undraped female flesh everywhere except the sports section – and even there when possible… because the readers where mostly blokes and lads in search of that aforementioned easily digested little bit of fun…

By 1976 the battle for female equality had mostly moved from headlines and leader columns to the business pages: the frenzied height of the much-maligned “Sexual Revolution” with women demanding equal rights, fair pay and honest treatment had passed (so isn’t it marvellous that they’ve got all those things sorted now?). Contraception-on-demand and burning bras were gone – except for the provision of comedy fodder – and most men had generally returned to their old habits, breathing a heavy sigh of relief…

Written by journalist, columnist, novelist, political writer and editor (of left-wing magazine Tribune) Frederic Mullally, Amanda launched on January 26th 1976, and initially seemed a low-key, low-brow reworking of his prestigious Penthouse satire O Wicked Wanda!

However, there were marked differences for anybody looking below the satin-skinned surface…

Amanda Muller is the beautiful (naturally), sequestered heir to the world’s largest fortune, and once her old fossil of a father finally kicks the bucket she decides to become a teen rebel and have all the fun she’d missed growing up in an old castle with only prim staff and her cousins Wiley and Hunk for company. With thief turned companion Kiki, she determines to splurge and spree and have anything she wants…

The strip ran for a year and the first illustrator was John Richardson, a highly gifted artist with a light touch blending Brian Lewis with Frank Bellamy: a veteran visual storyteller who worked practically everywhere in Britain from 2000AD to DC Thomson to Marvel UK, as well as for specialist magazines such as Custom Car, Super Bike and Citizen’s Band.

The introductory story here sees Amanda – shedding her clothes at every opportunity – attempt to buy a noble title, only to fall foul of a Mafia plot to seize control of Italy’s Nudist Beaches, before moving on to a “career” as a pop-star – which once more draws her into a world of unscrupulous sharks and swindlers…

Whilst looking for a new maid, Amanda and Kiki then become embroiled in a continental burglary ring, before the author’s political and ethical underpinnings break loose as brainy cousin Wiley is invited to display his new electronic Chess brain behind the Iron Curtain. Naturally physical Adonis Cousin Hunk wants to come along – it’s just before the next Olympic Games after all – and the girls tag along just for kicks.

Since you just can’t trust a Commie they’re all soon in lots of trouble, but naturally the frolicsome foursome escape with relative ease. The next adventure, and all the remaining strips, are illustrated by somebody who signs him (or her) self “Ken”, and who, I’m ashamed to say, I know absolutely nothing about. Competent, but a tad stiff and hesitant, and lacking the humorous touch of Richardson, I’d lay money on the enigma being an Italian or Hispanic artist – but I’ve been wrong before and I will be again…

Safely home again, Amanda resolves to create a feminist magazine entitled New Woman, and despatches Kiki to interview the world’s greatest Chauvinist Pig – fashion designer “Bruno” – only to once more fall foul of crooks; although this time it’s kidnappers and embezzlers.

Still in editorialising mode, the young proud kids then head to super-sexist banana republic Costa Larga, just in time for the next revolution; infiltrating the “Miss Sex Object” beauty contest with the intent of sabotaging it, before concluding their globe-trotting by heading for a tropical holiday just as the local government is overthrown by a tin-pot dictator…

All my cavils, caveats and frustrated kvetchings aside Amanda was series that started out with few pretensions and great promise, but, the early loss of Richardson and – I suspect – Mullally’s intellectual interests soon overwhelmed what charms it held. Nevertheless, this collection is a good representative of an important period and a key genre in British cartooning history: one we should really be re-examining in much greater detail.

Some of the gags are still funny (especially in our modern world where celebrity equates with exactly where drunken, stoned rich people threw up last) and if you are going to ogle and objectify naked women at least well-drawn ones can’t be harmed or humiliated in the process.

Also, I don’t think a drawing has ever contributed to anybody’s low self-esteem or body-dysmorphia issues; Dear God, at least, I hope not…
© 1984 Express Newspapers Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: Great Responsibility


By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9581-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because With Great Goodness Comes Great Presents… 10/10

Outcast, geeky high school kid Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and, after attempting to cash-in on the astonishing abilities he’d developed, suffered an irreconcilable personal tragedy. Due to the teenager’s arrogant neglect, his beloved guardian Uncle Ben was murdered and the traumatised boy determined henceforward to always use his powers to help those in dire need.

For years the brilliant young hero suffered privation and travail in his domestic situation, whilst his heroic alter ego endured public condemnation and mistrust as he valiantly battled all manner of threat and foe…

Spanning November 1964 to July 1966, this second full-colour Epic Collection devoted to the astounding early years as described by plotter and illustrator Steve Ditko and scripter/Editor Stan Lee reprints Amazing Spider-Man #18-38 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2, and kicks off with the middle chapter of an ambitious 3-part saga (which began in Amazing Spider-Man #17); depicting a rapidly-maturing hero touching emotional bottom before rising to triumphant victory over all manner of enemies.

In the previous volume the wallcrawler endured renewed print assaults from the Daily Bugle and its rabid publisher J. Jonah Jameson just as enigmatic archfoe Green Goblin began a war of nerves and attrition, using the Enforcers, Sandman and an army of thugs to publicly humiliate the Amazing Arachnid. To exacerbate matters Peter’s beloved Aunt May’s health took a drastic downward turn…

Resuming with ‘The End of Spider-Man!’ and explosively concluding in the triumphal ‘Spidey Strikes Back!’ – featuring a turbulent team-up with friendly rival Johnny Storm, the Human Torch – this extended tale proved the fans were ready for every kind of narrative experiment (single issue or even two stories per issue were still the norm in 1964) and Stan & Steve were more than happy to try anything.

With ‘The Coming of the Scorpion!’ Jameson let his obsessive hatred for the cocky kid crusader get the better of him; hiring scientist Farley Stillwell to endow a private detective with insectoid-based superpowers. Unfortunately, the process drove mercenary Mac Gargan completely mad before he could capture Spidey, leaving the webspinner with yet another lethally dangerous meta-nutcase to deal with…

‘Where Flies the Beetle’ features a hilarious love triangle as the Torch’s girlfriend used Peter Parker to make the flaming hero jealous. Unfortunately, the Beetle – a villain with high-tech insect-themed armour – was simultaneously stalking her to use as bait for a trap. As ever, Spider-Man was simply in the wrong place at the right time, resulting in a spectacular fight-fest…

‘The Clown, and his Masters of Menace’ offered a return engagement for the Circus of Crime with splendidly outré action and a lot of hearty laughs provided by increasingly irreplaceable supporting stars Aunt May, Betty Brant and J. Jonah Jameson whilst #23 presented a superb thriller blending the mundane mobster and thugs that Ditko loved to depict with the more outlandish threat of a supervillain attempting to take over all the city’s gangs.

‘The Goblin and the Gangsters’ is both moody and explosive, a perfect contrast to ‘Spider-Man Goes Mad!’ in #24. This psychological stunner finds a clearly delusional hero seeking psychiatric help, but there is more to the matter than simple insanity, as an insidious old foe made an unexpected return…

Issue #25 once again sees the Bugle’s obsessed publisher take matters into his own hands. ‘Captured by J. Jonah Jameson!’ introduces Professor Smythe – whose dynasty of robotic Spider-Slayers would bedevil the wallcrawler for years to come – hired by the bellicose newsman to remove Spider-Man for good.

Issues #26 and 27 comprised a captivating 2-part mystery exposing a deadly duel between the Green Goblin and an enigmatic new masked criminal. ‘The Man in the Crime-Master’s Mask!’ and ‘Bring Back my Goblin to Me!’ together form a perfect arachnid epic, with soap-opera melodrama and screwball comedy leavening tense crime-busting thrills and all-out action.

‘The Menace of the Molten Man!’ from #28 is a tale of science gone bad and remains remarkable today not only for the spectacular action sequences – and possibly the most striking Spider-Man cover ever produced – but also as the story in which Peter Parker finally graduates from High School.

Ditko was on peak form and fast enough to handle two monthly strips. At this time he was also blowing away audiences with another oddly tangential superhero. Those disparate crusaders met in ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’: lead story in the second super-sized Spider-Man Annual (October of that year and filled out with vintage Spidey classics).

The entrancing fable unforgettably introduced the Amazing Arachnid to arcane other realities as he teamed up with the Master of the Mystic Arts to battle power-crazed mage Xandu in a phantasmagorical, dimension-hopping masterpiece involving ensorcelled zombie thugs and the stolen Wand of Watoomb. After this, it was clear that Spider-Man could work in any milieu and nothing could hold him back…

Also included here from that immensely impressive landmark are more Ditko pin-ups in ‘A Gallery of Spider-Man’s Most Famous Foes’ – highlighting such nefarious ne’er-do-wells as The Scorpion, Circus of Crime and the Beetle.

Back in the ever-more popular monthly mag ASM #29 warned ‘Never Step on a Scorpion!’ as the lab-made larcenous lunatic returned, craving vengeance against not just the webspinner but also Jameson for turning a disreputable private eye into a super-powered monster…

Issue #30’s off-beat crime-caper then cannily sowed the seeds for future masterpieces as ‘The Claws of the Cat!’ features a city-wide hunt for an extremely capable burglar (way more exciting than it sounds, trust me!), plus the introduction of an organised mob of thieves working for mysterious new menace the Master Planner.

Sadly by this time of their greatest comics successes, Lee and Ditko were increasingly unable to work together on their greatest creations.

Ditko’s off-beat plots and quirky art had reached an accommodation with the slickly potent superhero house-style Jack Kirby had developed (at least as much as such a unique talent ever could). The illustration featured a marked reduction of signature line-feathering and moody backgrounds plus a lessening of concentration on totemic villains, but, although still very much a Ditko baby, Amazing Spider-Man’s sleek pictorial gloss warred with Lee’s scripts. These were comfortably in tune with the times if not his collaborator. Lee’s assessment of the audience was probably the correct one, and disagreements with the artist over the strip’s editorial direction were still confined to the office and not the pages themselves. However, an indication of growing tensions could be seen once Ditko began being credited as plotter of the stories…

After a period where old-fashioned crime and gangsterism predominated, science fiction themes and costumed crazies started to return full force. As the world went gaga for masked mystery-men, the creators experimented with longer storylines and protracted subplots…

When Ditko abruptly left, the company feared a drastic loss in quality and sales but it didn’t happen. John Romita (senior) considered himself a mere “safe pair of hands” keeping the momentum going until a better artist could be found, but instead blossomed into a major talent in his own right, and the wallcrawler continued his unstoppable rise at an accelerated pace…

Change was in the air everywhere. Included amongst the milestones for the ever-anxious Peter Parker collected here are graduating High School, starting college, meeting true love Gwen Stacy and tragic friend/enemy Harry Osborn plus the introduction of arch nemesis Norman Osborn. Old friends Flash Thompson and Betty Brant subsequently begin to drift out of his life…

‘If This Be My Destiny…!’ from issue #31 details a spate of high-tech robberies by the Master Planner culminating in a spectacular confrontation with Spider-Man. Also on show is that aforementioned college debut, first sight of Harry and Gwen and Aunt May on the edge of death due to an innocent blood transfusion from her mildly radioactive darling Peter…

This led to indisputably Ditko’s finest and most iconic moments on the series – and perhaps of his entire career. ‘Man on a Rampage!’ shows Parker pushed to the edge of desperation as the Planner’s men make off with the serums that might save her, resulting in an utterly driven, berserk wallcrawler ripping the town apart whilst trying to find them.

Trapped in an underwater fortress, pinned under tons of machinery, the hero faces his greatest failure as the clock ticks down the seconds of May’s life…

This in turn results the most memorable visual sequence in Spidey history as the opening of ‘The Final Chapter!’ luxuriates in five full, glorious pages to depict the ultimate triumph of will over circumstance. Freeing himself from tons of fallen debris, Spider-Man gives his absolute all to deliver the medicine May needs, and is rewarded with a rare happy ending…

Russian exile Kraven the Hunter then returns in ‘The Thrill of the Hunt!’ seeking vengeance for past humiliations by impersonating the webspinner, after which #35 confirms that ‘The Molten Man Regrets…!’: a plot-light yet inimitably action-packed combat classic wherein the gleaming golden bandit foolishly resumes his career of pinching other people’s valuables…

Amazing Spider-Man #36 features a deliciously off-beat, quasi-comedic turn in ‘When Falls the Meteor!’ as deranged, would-be scientist Norton G. Fester starts stealing extraterrestrial museum exhibits whilst calling himself the Looter

In retrospect these brief, fight-oriented tales, coming after such an intricate, passionate epic as the Master Planner sage should have indicated that something was amiss. However fans had no idea that ‘Once Upon a Time, There was a Robot…!’ – featuring a beleaguered Norman Osborn targeted by his disgraced ex-partner Mendel Strom and some eccentrically bizarre murder-machines in #37 and the tragic tale of ‘Just a Guy Named Joe!’ – wherein a hapless sad-sack stumblebum boxer gains super-strength and a bad-temper – were to be Steve Ditko’s last arachnid adventures…

As added enticements – and alone worth the price of this collection of much-reprinted material – is a big gallery of extras including reproductions of 20 ultra-rare Steve Ditko Spider-Man pencil pages plus an unused cover…

Although other artists have inked his narratives, Ditko handled all the art on Spider-Man and these lost gems demonstrate his fluid mastery and just how much of the mesmerising magic came from his pens and brushes…

Also included are rare Ditko T-shirt designs, posters and ad art, plus a range of Marvel Masterworks covers with Kirby and Ditko’s original images enhanced by painter Dean White.

Full of energy, verve, pathos and laughs, gloriously short of post-modern angst and breast-beating, these fun classics – available in numerous formats including eBook editions – are quintessential comicbook magic which constitute the very foundation of everything Marvel became. This classy compendium is an unmissable opportunity for readers of all ages to celebrate the magic and myths of the modern heroic ideal…
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Iznogoud Volume 1: The Wicked Wiles of Iznogoud


By René Goscinny & Jean Tabary, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-905460-46-5

Lots of folks believe today’s unlucky! Bosh and tarradiddle! Let’s look at a really unfortunate comics icon and the genius who conceived him…

René Goscinny was one of the most prolific, and therefore remains one of the most read, writers of comic strips the world has ever seen. Paris-born – in 1926 – the immortal scribe was actually raised in Argentina where his father taught mathematics. From an early age the lad showed artistic promise, and studied fine arts. He graduated in 1942.

While working as a junior illustrator in an advertising agency in 1945, an uncle invited Goscinny to stay in America, where he found work as a translator. After National Service in France, young René settled in Brooklyn and pursued an artistic career. In 1948 he became an assistant for a little studio that included Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jack Davis and John Severin as well as European giants-in-waiting Maurice de Bévère (“Morris”, with whom he produced Lucky Luke from 1955-1977). Also temporarily in-house were Joseph Gillain (Jijé) and Georges Troisfontaines, head of the World Press Agency, the company providing comics for French magazine Spirou

After contributing scripts to Belles Histoires de l’Oncle Paul and ‘Jerry Spring’ Goscinny was made head of World Press’ Paris office where he met his life-long creative partner Albert Uderzo (Jehan Sepoulet, Luc Junior) as well as creating Sylvie and Alain et Christine (with “Martial”- Martial Durand) and Fanfan et Polo (drawn by Dino Attanasio).

In 1955 Goscinny, Uderzo, Charlier and Jean Hébrard formed the independent Édipress/Édifrance syndicate, creating magazines for general industry (Clairon for the factory union and Pistolin for a chocolate factory). With Uderzo he produced Bill Blanchart, Pistolet and Benjamin et Benjamine, and himself wrote and illustrated Le Capitaine Bibobu.

Goscinny seems to have invented the 9-day week. Using the pen-name Agostini he wrote Le Petit Nicholas (drawn by Jean-Jacques Sempé), and in 1956 he began an association with the revolutionary magazine Tintin, writing stories for many illustrators including Dino Attanasio, (Bob De Moor), Maréchal, Tibet, André Franquin and Berck, as well as crafting Oumpah-Pah with Uderzo.

Goscinny also wrote strips for the magazines Paris-Flirt and Vaillant.

In 1959 Édipress/Édifrance launched Pilote, and Goscinny went into overdrive. The first issue featured his and Uderzo’s magnum opus Asterix the Gaul, and he also re-launched Le Petit Nicolas, Jehan Pistolet/Jehan Soupolet whilst debuting Jacquot le Mousse and Tromblon et Bottaclou (drawn by Godard).

When Georges Dargaud bought out Pilot in 1960, Goscinny remained as editor-in-Chief, but still found time to add new series Les Divagations de Monsieur Sait-Tout (Martial), La Potachologie Illustrée (Cabu), Les Dingodossiers (Gotlib) and La Forêt de Chênebeau (Mic Delinx).

He also wrote frequently for television and in his spare time created a little something entitled Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah for Record (first episode January 15th 1962), illustrated by a Swedish-born artist named Jean Tabary. A minor success, it was re-tooled as Iznogoud after it transferred to Pilote. Goscinny died in November 1977.

Jean Tabary was born in Stockholm, and began his epic comics career in 1956 on French mainstay Vaillant, illustrating Richard et Charlie. He graduated to the hugely popular boy’s adventure strip Totoche in 1959. The engaging head of a kid gang, Totoche spawned a spin-off, Corinne et Jeannot, and as Vaillant transformed into Pif, the lad even got his own short-lived comic; Totoche Posche.

Tabary drew the series until 1976, and has revived it in recent years under his own publishing imprint Séguinière /Editions Tabary.

In 1962 the illustrator teamed with René Goscinny to produce imbecilic Arabian potentate Haroun el-Poussah, but it was the villainous foil – power-hungry vizier Iznogoud – who stole the show… possibly the little rat’s only successful plot.

With the emphasis shifted to the shifty shrimp, the revamped series moved to Pilote in 1968, evolving into a huge fan-favourite, spawning 30 albums to date, a long-running TV cartoon show and even a live action movie. Following their success, Goscinny & Tabary collaboratively created Valentin, and Tabary also wrote Buck Gallo for Delinx to draw.

When Goscinny died in 1977 Tabary took over writing Iznogoud, moving to book length complete tales, rather than the compilations of short stories that typified their collaborations.

So, what’s it all about?

Like all the best comics it works on two levels: as a comedic romp of sneaky baddies coming a cropper for younger readers, and as a pun-filled, sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads, much like its more famous cousin Asterix – and translated here with the brilliantly light touch of master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge who made the indomitable little Gaul so very palatable to the English tongue.

Iznogoud is Grand Vizier to Haroun Al Plassid, Caliph of Ancient Baghdad, but the conniving little shyster has loftier ambitions – or as he is always shouting it – “I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph!”

The vile vizier is “aided” – and that’s me being uncharacteristically generous – in his schemes by bumbling assistant Wa’at Alahf, and in this first album (available in paperback and eBook formats) they begin their campaign with ‘Kissmet’, wherein pandemonium ensues after a talking frog is revealed to be an ensorcelled Prince who can only regain human form if smooched by a human being.

Iznogoud sees an opportunity if he can only trick the simple-minded Caliph into puckering up; unfortunately but typically, the little rotter forgets that he’s not the only ambitious man in Baghdad…

‘Mesmer-Eyezed’ then finds him employing a surly stage hypnotist to remove the Caliph whilst ‘The Occidental Philtre’ sees him employ a flying potion obtained from a lost, jet-lagged western sorcerer, each with hilarious but painfully counter-productive results.

Tabary drew himself into ‘The Time Machine’ as a comic artist desperate to meet his deadlines who falls foul of a mystical time cabinet, but when he meets the vizier, that diminutive dastard can clearly see its Caliph-removing potential – to his eternal regret…

Soon after in ‘The Picnic’ Iznogoud takes drastic action, luring Haroun Al Plassid into the desert, but as usual his best-laid plans really aren’t, and the book then concludes with ‘Chop and Change’ as our indefatigable villain gets hold of a magic goblet which can switch the minds of any who drink from it, forgetting that Caliphs are important people who employ food-tasters…

Snappy, fast-paced slapstick and painfully delightful word-play abound in these mirthfully infectious tales and the series has become a household name in France; said term has even entered French political life as a description for a certain type of politician: over-ambitious, unscrupulous – and usually short in stature…

Eight albums were originally translated into English during the 1970s and 1980s without really making any little impact here, but since Cinebook’s revival the vile Vizier has finally caught on in a superb sequence of gloriously readable and wonderfully affordable comedy epics that found an appreciative audience among British kids of all ages.

Surely you and yours should number amongst them?
© 1967 Dargaud Editeur Paris by Goscinny & Tabary. All Rights Reserved.

Dope


Adapted by Trina Robbins from the novel by Sax Rohmer (It’s Alive/IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-957-8

The 1980s were a hugely fertile time for American comics-creators. An entire new industry started with the birth of the Direct Sales market and – as dedicated specialist retail outlets sprung up all over the country (operated by fans for fans) – new companies experimented with formats and content whilst eager readers celebrated the happy coincidence that everybody seemed to have a bit of extra cash to play with.

Most importantly, much of the “kid’s stuff” stigma finally dissipated. America was catching up to the rest of the world in acknowledging that sequential narrative might just be a for-real actual art-form able to handle sophisticated themes and notions…

Consequently, many new publishers were soon competing for the attention and cash of punters who had grown resigned to getting their on-going picture stories from DC, Marvel, Archie and/or Harvey Comics. European and Japanese material had been creeping in and by 1983 a host of young companies such as WaRP Graphics, Pacific, Capital, Now, Comico, Vortex, First, Dark Horse and many others had established themselves and were making impressive inroads.

New talent, established stars and fresh ideas all found a thriving forum to try something a little different both in terms of content and format. Even smaller companies had a fair shot at the big time and a lot of great material came – and too often, as quickly went – without getting the attention or success it warranted.

At the forefront of the revolution – and a perfect example – was publisher Eclipse Comics who entered the arena at the start in 1981 with a black-&-white anthology magazine, quickly followed up by a terrific line of genre titles crafted by the industry’s top talents and emerging superstars.

Although the fledglings were gone a decade later, their influence lives on, as does much of the material they originally released, picked up, reprinted and expanded upon by more fortunate successors…

The latest long-overdue returnee is a decades-anticipated and awaited (by me at the very least) cartoon compilation of a scarce-remembered book adaptation. The inspirational tome was a scandalous classic of crime and debauchery from a semi-mythical era penned by Sax Rohmer who is mostly remembered for inventing the ultimate personification of stranger-danger Fu Manchu.

Starting its serialised run in oversized monochrome anthology Eclipse (The) Magazine and concluding in the pages of full-colour indie anthology Eclipse Monthly, Sax Rohmer’s Dope was deftly adapted by pioneering cartoonist Trina Robbins, beginning in the second issue (July 1981) and featuring all the rest until the 8th and final one (January 1983). Uncompleted, the saga continued and climaxed over the first three issues of Eclipse Monthly (August – October 1983) before promptly vanishing from view despite its magazine stablemates such as Ms. Tree, I Am Coyote, Ragamuffins, Masked Man and others all going on to greater success – and collected editions…

Here then at last is Trina Robbins’ lost masterpiece: a moody interpretation of a rather infamous and groundbreaking book – sensationally based on the first recorded celebrity death due to drugs abuse and available as a sturdy monochrome hardback or digital edition…

The stark shenanigans are preceded by an effusive Foreword from artist and publisher C. Spike Trotman, and a revelatory, reminiscing Introduction by Robbins herself, disclosing the origins of her adaptation whilst confronting head-on the dreadful truth: Dope was a book of its time, unashamedly racist, as was its author.

Trina then makes a rock solid and potently valid case for why we elevated 21st centurians should read it anyway…

The astounding black-&-white shocker opens in ‘London, 1919’ as sound fellow Quentin Gray meets up with fellow swells Mrs. Irvin and her raffish companion Sir Lucien Pyne before being introduced to the seductive and tantalising half-world of the High Society drugs scene as disseminated through the machinations of ostensible perfume trader Sheikh El Kazmah

It’s the same old story: flighty Rita Irvin has succumbed to addiction but has no more money. Yet still she baulks when the seedy dealer suggests another manner of payment…

‘Chapter Two: The Fatal Cigarette’ opens a little later when Quentin greets formidable government official Commissioner Seton (recently returned from the east where he earned the title “Pasha” for his services to the Empire). The wise authoritarian has come to view the recently expired corpse of Pyne: stabbed to death soon after Gray left him and now lying in Kazmah’s apartments. Of Rita there is no sign…

On later meeting Rita’s physician Dr. Margaret Halley, Quentin’s disquiet grows. The boldly modern young woman even demands he throw away the cigarettes Pyne gave him before she speaks further. Of course, he had no idea until she warned him that they were laced with opium…

‘Chapter Three: A Star is Born – and Falls’ relates the sad tale of rising theatrical sensation Rita Dresden and how the nightly pressures of performing were temporarily assuaged by the scheming Pyne who offered her comfort and calming chemical gifts: comforts that she soon could not do without…

Rita’s fall retroactively continues in ‘Chapter Four: Pipe Dreams’ as she is introduced into a dope ring of well-heeled degenerates: attending the “poppy parties” of Mr. Cyrus Kilfane and encountering the striking and sinister Lola Sin

Fleeing that debauched debacle, Rita literally ran into well-meaning Monte Irvin and was almost saved.

Almost…

Chapter Five: Limehouse Blues’ relates how the triply-addicted (veronal, cocaine and opium) Rita decides to marry Monte but cannot shake the corrupting influence of Pyne, his circle of privileged peers and the implacable beast her addiction has become…

Even her marriage proves no bulwark and ‘Chapter Six: To the Brink’ sees the new bride drawn into a cycle of abuse and exploitation as Madame Sin and her enigmatic husband fleece the newlywed and seek to use her to expand their clientele…

Events rush towards a sordid yet inevitable conclusion in ‘Chapter Seven: Mollie Gets Amorous’ as Gray, Seton and formidable Police Chief Inspector Kerry close in on the poppy club and the nefarious dealers; leading to a daring Limehouse raid in Chapter Eight: A Visit to Sin’ with shocking disclosures in Chapter Nine: Above and Below’ and the exposing of even darker secrets and an intoxicating conclusion in Chapter Ten: The Song of Sin Sin Wa’

Following an in insightful Afterword from groundbreaking cartoonist Colleen Doran, Jon B. Cooke offers a wealth of background and historical context in ‘Sax, Drugs, and the Yellow Peril’: describing the nativity of Rohmer’s novel and the very real scandal of London actress and Society ingenue Billie Carleton whose death from a cocaine overdose rocked the Empire and beyond in 1918.

The photo-filled feature section also offers “Background Dope” sidebars on Rohmer’s ‘The Red Kerry Mysteries’, ‘Her Other Drugs of Choice’, ‘Slumming in the East End’ and ‘The Devil Doctor in Comics’ as well as a captivating ‘Trina Robbins Biographical Sketch’ and other contributors.

Potent, innovative, powerful and – in comicbook terms at least – a damned fine read, Dope is a sheer delight no lover of the graphic medium should miss and this hard-hitting stylish hardback may be the best thing you’ll buy this year.
Dope © 1981-2017 Trina Robbins. Foreword © 2017 C. Spike Trotman. “Sax, Drugs, and the Yellow Peril”, Trina Robbins bio © 2017 Jon B. Cooke. Afterword © 2017 Colleen Doran. All Rights Reserved.

Lucky Luke volume 12: The Rivals of Painful Gulch


By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-60-1

Lucky Luke is a rangy, good-natured, cowboy able to “draw faster than his own shadow”. He amiably roams the fabulously mythic Old West, having light-hearted adventures with his sarcastic horse Jolly Jumper, whilst interacting with a host of historical and legendary figures.

His continuing exploits over seventy years have made him one of the best-selling comic characters in Europe (more than 83 individual albums, sales totalling in excess of 300 million in 30 languages… so far…), with the usual spin-off toys, computer games, animated cartoons and a plethora of TV shows and live-action movies.

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

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

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

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

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

In all these venues – as well as in numerous attempts to follow the English-language album successes of Tintin and Asterix – Luke sported a trademark cigarette hanging insouciantly from his lip. However, in 1983 Morris – amidst both pained howls and muted mutterings of “political correctness gone mad” – deftly substituted a piece of straw for the much-travelled dog-end, which garnered him an official tip of the hat from the World Health Organization.

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

Lucky Luke – Les rivaux de Painful Gulch was the Dynamite Duo’s 10th collaboration (available in English on paper and as an e-book as The Rivals of Painful Gulch) and first published in Europe in 1962.

The outrageous tale draws on the legendary and infamous feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families in West Virginia and Kentucky between 1863 and1891 and opens with our hero and his chatty horse peaceably proceeding until repeatedly stopped by bushwackers demanding the cowboy remove his hat.

With his patience rapidly evaporating Luke eventually learns the region and township of Painful Gulch is plagued with two warring families who shoot at each other at every opportunity. The O’Haras all have enormous red noses whilst huge wingnut ears are the genetic marker of every son of the O’Timmins clan…

The rest of the townsfolk live in fear of the ferociously feuding families because the only thing they have in common is a mutual inability to hit anything they aim at. They always miss their targets but the collateral damage to bystanders, building and livestock is appalling…

Ever keen to keep the peace, Lucky attempts to play peacemaker, but even he can’t stop the gun-crazed whackos from blasting way at each other and blowing up any civic amenity that might possibly benefit their hated foes.

Eventually, even Luke’s cool patience is exhausted and when the rapidly departing Mayor nominates our hero as his successor, the furious newcomer resorts to subterfuge, pandering and chicanery to establish a lasting détente.

…And when even that doesn’t work, the lone gunman plays his ultimate trump card and ropes in the weary, long-suffering wimmin-folk of the O’Timmins and O’Haras to settle the issue…

Slick, sly and sassy, The Rivals of Painful Gulch is a fast-paced slapstick romp with plenty of action, lots of laughs and barrel-loads of buffoonery superbly crafted by comics masters, and offers a wonderful glimpse into a unique genre for today’s readers who might well have missed the romantic allure of an all-pervasive Wild West that never was…
© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1971 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics. English translation © 2008 Cinebook Ltd.