Showcase Presents Challengers of the Unknown volume 1


By Jack Kirby, Bob Brown, Dave Wood, Ed Herron, Roz Kirby, Marvin Stein, Bruno Premiani, George Klein, Wally Wood & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1087-8 (TPB)

In an era where comicbooks had slipped into an undirected and formless mass of genre-niches, the Challengers of the Unknown were a bridging concept between the fashionably all-American human trouble-shooters who monopolised comicbooks for most of the 1950s and the costumed mystery men who would soon return to take over the industry.

As superheroes were being gradually revived in 1956 under the cautious aegis of Julius Schwartz, here was a super-team – the first of the Silver Age – with no powers, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes and the most dubious of motives: Suicide by Mystery.

Despite all that they were a huge hit and struck a chord that lasted for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable.

Jack Kirby was – and remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are, quite rightly, millions of words written about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium. I’m going to add even more words to that superabundance in this review of one of his best projects, which like so many others, he perfectly constructed before moving on as he always did, leaving highly competent but never quite as inspired talents to build upon his legacy.

When the comic industry suffered an economic collapse in the mid 1950’s, Kirby’s partnership with Joe Simon ended and he returned briefly to DC Comics. Here he worked on mystery tales and the minority-interest Green Arrow back-up strip whilst creating newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.

Never idle for a moment, he also re-packaged for Showcase (a try-out title that launched the careers of many DC mainstays) an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and collaborator Simon had closed their innovative but unfortunate Mainline Comics.

After years of working for others, Simon and Kirby had finally established their own publishing company, producing comics for a much more sophisticated audience, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by the anti-comic book witch-hunt of US Senator Estes Kefauver and psychologist Dr Fredric Wertham.

Simon moved into advertising, but Kirby soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, if less experimental, companies.

The Challengers of the Unknown were four ordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Clearly what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, they decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and, naturally, Justice.

The Kirby tales of the team have been thankfully immortalised in full-colour archival print and digital editions, but the team captivated readers for a decade beyond those glorious beginnings, and thus far those tales are only available in these monochrome tomes. Hope springs eternal, though…

The series launched with ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’ (Showcase #6, cover-dated January/February 1957 – which meant it came out in time for Christmas 1956). Kirby and scripter Dave Wood, plus inkers Marvin Stein and Jack’s wife Roz, crafted a spectacular epic as the doom-chasers are hired by duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient container holding otherworldly secrets and powers.

This initial story roars along with all the tension and wonder of the B-movie thrillers it emulates and Kirby’s awesome drawing resonates with power and dynamism. That continues for the sequel, a science fiction drama sparked by an alliance of Nazi technologies and American criminality which unleashes a terrible robotic monster. ‘Ultivac is Loose!’ (Showcase #7, dated March/April 1957) introduces beautiful and capable boffin (aren’t they always?) Dr. June Robbins, who becomes the unofficial fifth Challenger at a time when most comic females (and living ones too) – had been banished back to subsidiary domestic status in that so-conservative era.

The team didn’t reappear until Showcase #11 (November/December 1957) as The Flash and Lois Lane got their shots at the big time. When the Challs did return, it was in alien invasion adventure ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’, with unique realist Bruno Premiani inking a taut doomsday chiller pinning readers to the edges of their seats even today, and by the time of their last Showcase outing (#12, January /February 1958) they had won their own title.

‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ was defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and ingenuity (with the wonderful inking of George Klein adding subtle clarity to the tale of an international criminal who steals an ancient weapons cache that threatens the entire world if misused), but the biggest buzz came two months later with the debut of their own magazine.

Issue #1, written and drawn by Kirby, with Stein on inks, presented two complete stories plus an iconic introductory page that would become almost a signature second logo for the team.

‘The Man Who Tampered with Infinity’ pits the heroes against a renegade scientist whose cavalier dabbling liberates dreadful monsters from the beyond onto our defenceless planet, after which the team are abducted by aliens to become ‘The Human Pets’.

The same creators were responsible for a brace of thrillers in #2. ‘The Traitorous Challenger’ is a monster mystery, with June returning to sabotage a mission in the Australian Outback, whilst ‘The Monster Maker’ finds the team seemingly helpless against a super-criminal who can conjure up and animate solid objects out of his thoughts.

The third issue features ‘Secret of the Sorcerer’s Mirror’ with Roz Kirby & Marvin Stein again inking the mesmerising pencils, as the boys pursue a band of criminals whose magic looking glass can locate deadly ancient weapons, although the most intriguing tale for fans and historians is undoubtedly ‘The Menace of the Invincible Challenger’.

Here team strongman Rocky Davis is rocketed into space, only to crash back to Earth with strange, uncanny powers.

For years the obvious similarities of this group – and especially this adventure – to the origin of Marvel’s Fantastic Four (FF #1 came out in the autumn of 1961) have fuelled speculation. In all honesty, I simply don’t care. They’re both similar and different but equally enjoyable, so read both. In fact, read them all.

With #4 the series became artistically perfect as the sheer luminous brilliance of Wally Wood’s inking elevated the art to unparalleled heights. The scintillant sheen and limpid depth of Wood’s brushwork fostered an abiding authenticity in even the most outrageous of Kirby’s designs and the result is – even now – breathtaking.

‘The Wizard of Time’ is a full-length masterpiece wherein a series of bizarre robberies leads the team to a scientist with a time-machine. By visiting oracles of the past, he finds a path to the far future. When he gets there, he plans on robbing it blind, but the Challengers find a way to follow him…

‘The Riddle of the Star-Stone’ (#5) is a contemporary full-length thriller, wherein an archaeologist’s assistant uncovers an alien tablet bestowing various super-powers when different gems are inserted into it. The exotic locales and non-stop spectacular action are intoxicating, but the solid characterisation and ingenious writing are what make this such a compelling read.

Scripter Dave Wood returned for #6’s first story. ‘Captives of the Space Circus’ has the boys kidnapped from Earth to perform in a interplanetary show, but the evil ringmaster is promptly outfoxed and the team returns for Ed Herron’s mystic saga ‘The Sorceress of Forbidden Valley’, as June becomes an amnesiac puppet in a power struggle between a fugitive gangster and a ruthless feudal potentate.

There are also two stories in #7. Herron scripted both the relatively straightforward alien-safari tale ‘The Beasts from Planet 9’ and much more intriguing ‘Isle of No Return’ with the team confronting a scientific bandit before his shrinking ray leaves them permanently mouse-sized.

Issue #8 is a magnificent finale to a superb run, as Kirby & Wally Wood go out in style via two gripping spectaculars (both of which introduce menaces who would return to bedevil the team in future tales).

‘The Man Who Stole the Future’ by Dave Wood, Kirby and the (unrelated) Wally, introduces Drabny – a mastermind who steals mystic artefacts and conquers a small nation before the lads hand him his marching orders. This is a tale of blistering battles and uncharacteristic, if welcome, comedy, but the true gem is science fiction tour-de-force ‘Prisoners of the Robot Planet’, with art by Kirby & Wally, and most probably written by Kirby & Herron. Petitioned by a desperate alien, the Challs travel to his distant world to liberate the population from bondage to their own robotic servants, who have risen in revolt under the command of fearsome automaton Kra.

These are classic adventures, told in a classical manner. Kirby developed a brilliantly feasible concept with which to work and heroically archetypical characters in cool pilot Ace Morgan, indomitable strongman Rocky, intellectual aquanaut “Prof”. Haley and daredevil acrobat Red Ryan. He then manipulated, mixed and matched an astounding blend of genres to display their talents and courage in unforgettable exploits that informed every team comic that followed, and certainly influenced his successive and landmark triumphs with Stan Lee. But then he left.

The Challengers would follow the Kirby model until cancellation in 1970, but, due to a dispute with Editor Jack Schiff the writer/artist resigned at the height of his powers. The Kirby magic was impossible to match, but as with all The King’s creations, every element was in place for the successors to run with.

Challengers of the Unknown #9 (September 1959) saw an increase in the fantasy elements favoured by Schiff, and perhaps an easing of the subtle tension and inter-group fractious bickering that marked previous issues (Comics Historians take note: the Challs were snapping and snarling at each other years before Marvel’s Cosmic Quartet ever boarded that fateful rocket-ship).

A number of writers, many sadly lost to posterity, stepped in, including Bill Finger, Ed Herron and possibly Jack Miller, Bob Haney and Arnold Drake, but one man took over the illustrator’s role: Bob Brown.

Brown was born August 22nd 1915 and he died in 1977 following a long illness. He studied at Hartford Art School and Rhode Island School of Design, and worked with his showbiz folks and sister in a song-&-dance act from 1927 onwards. He was drafted in 1940 – the year he also began working as a comics artist and scripter for Fox, Timely/Atlas. As the war intensified, he was an aircraft radio operator, an aviation cadet and served in the Pacific as bombardier and navigator in B-29 bombers, earning six air medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

After jobbing around the industry during the late 1040s and 1950’s Brown settled at National Comics/DC, co-created the long-running Space Ranger, drawing Tomahawk, western hero Vigilante, Batman, Superboy, Doom Patrol, World’s Finest Comics and a host of other features and genre shorts. He moved to Marvel in the 1970s where he drew Warlock, Daredevil and the Avengers among others.

He was a consummate professional and drew every issue of the Challengers from #9-63: almost a decade of high adventure ranged from ravaging aliens, cute-and-fuzzy space beasts to truly scary supernatural horrors.

‘The Men who Lost their Memories’ finds the team fighting crooks with a thought-stealing machine, whereas ‘The Plot to Destroy Earth!’ is a full-on, end-of-humanity thriller with monsters bent on carving our world into chunks for their resource-hungry alien masters. Only the guts and ingenuity of our heroes can save the day…

A destructive giant with a deadly secret is the motivating premise of ‘The Cave-Man Beast’ and #10’s cover-featured second tale sets another time-travel conundrum as the boys discover their own likenesses on a submerged monolith in fanciful thriller ‘The Four Faces of Doom’.

Issue #11 is an action-packed full-length interdimensional romp subdivided into ‘The Creatures from the Forbidden World’, ‘Land beyond the Light’ and ‘The Achilles Heel’, after which the two-story format returns for the next issue, which boasts ‘The Challenger from Outer Space’ – with an alien superhero joining the team – and ‘Three Clues to Sorcery’ with our quarrelsome quartet again forced to endure exotic locales and extreme perils to acquire mystic artefacts for a criminal mastermind. Even so, this time there’s a unique and deadly twist in this oft-told tale…

‘The Prisoner of the Tiny Space Ball’ see the team rescuing the ruler of another world, before Rocky is possessed by the legendary Golden Fleece, making him a puppet of ‘The Creatures from the Past’.

Issue #14 opens with one of the few adventures with a credited scripter. Ed “France” Herron was a 30-year comics veteran and ‘The Man who Conquered the Challengers’ is one of his best tales, with crooked archaeologist Eric Pramble stealing an ancient formula for “liquid light” which makes him functionally immortal. Moreover, every time he’s killed, he reanimates with a different super-power!

As Multi-Man, Pramble became the closest thing to an arch-villain the series ever had, and even graduated to becoming a regular foe across the DCU. Once again, cool wits and sheer nerve find a way to victory that sheer firepower never could.

In second yarn ‘Captives of the Alien Beasts’, all five Challs are teleported to another world by animals who have invaded a scientist’s laboratory. It’s a relatively innocuous tale when compared to #15’s all-out fight-fest ‘The Return of Multi-Man’ and bizarre offering ‘The Lady Giant and the Beast’, wherein June is transformed into a 50-foot leviathan just as a scaly monster cuts a swathe of destruction through the locality.

Issue #16’s ‘Incredible Metal Creature’ sees an Earth thug join forces with an escaped alien criminal. No real Challenge there, but a back-up yarn finds the team in Arabia as ‘Prisoners of the Mirage World’ facing knights who have been trapped there since the time of the Crusades.

This thrill-stuffed then tome concludes with #17’s supernatural crime whimsy ‘The Genie who Feared June’, and interplanetary mission of mercy ‘The Secret of the Space Capsules’; both solid pieces of adventure fiction that, if not displaying the unique Kirby magic, are redolent with its flavours.

As well as being probably (certainly at this moment, anyway) my favourite comics series, Challengers of the Unknown is sheer escapist wonderment, and no fan of the medium should miss the graphic exploits of these perfect adventurers in the ideal setting of not so long ago in a simpler better world than ours. If only we could convince DC Comics to give them the archival home in print and digital editions they so richly deserve, to match the constant re-imaginings the team and title regularly enjoy…
© 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Black Panther Epic Collection volume 2 1977-1988: Revenge of the Black Panther


By Jack Kirby, Ed Hannigan, Peter B. Gillis, Jim Shooter, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Jerry Bingham, Denys Cowan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1542-1 (TPB)

Acclaimed as the first black superhero in American comics and one of the first to carry his own series, the Black Panther’s popularity and fortunes have waxed and waned since he first appeared in Fantastic Four. In fact, back then the cat king actually attacked Marvel’s First Family as part of an extended plan to gain vengeance on the murderer of his father. He was also the first black superhero in American comics, debuting in summer 1966.

As created and realised by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee, T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, is an African monarch whose secretive kingdom is the only source of vibration-absorbing wonder mineral Vibranium. The miraculous alien metal – derived from a fallen meteor which struck the continent in lost antiquity – is the basis of the country’s immense wealth, enabling Wakanda to become one of the wealthiest and most secretive nations on Earth. These riches allowed the young king to radically remake his country, creating a technological wonderland even after he left Africa to fight as one of America’s mighty Avengers.

For much of its history Wakanda has been an isolated, utopian technological wonderland with the tribal resources and people safeguarded and ruled since time immemorial by a human warrior-king deriving cat-like physical advantages from secret ceremonies and a mysterious heart-shaped herb. This has ensured the generational dominance of the nation’s Panther Cult and Royal Family.

Wakanda has never been conquered by outsiders. The primary reason is an unbroken line of divinely-sponsored warrior kings who safeguard the united, unified tribes. Another is that miraculous super-mineral found nowhere else on Earth. The top-secret “Vibranium mound” had guaranteed the country’s status as a clandestine superpower for centuries but in modern times has increasingly made Wakanda a target for subversion, incursion and even invasion as the world grew ever smaller…

In contemporary times the chieftain is T’Challa: an unbeatable, super-smart, feline-empowered strategic genius who divides his time between ruling at home and serving abroad in superhero teams such as The Avengers, Fantastic Force, The Illuminati and The Ultimates, beside the world’s mightiest costumed champions.

This trusty trade paperback (and eBook) gathers the entire blockbusting, mind-bending reinvention by Jack Kirby and others from Black Panther volume 1 # 1-15 (January 1977-May 1979), the continuation in Marvel Premiere #51-53 (cover-dated December 1979 to April 1980), material from Marvel Team-up #100 (December 1980) and a groundbreaking, 4-issue miniseries spanning July to October 1988.

Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel in the mid 1970’s was much hyped at the time but swiftly proved to be controversial. His new creations (2001, The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man) found friends rapidly, but his tenure on established earlier creations Captain America and Black Panther divided the fan base.

Kirby was never slavishly wedded to tight continuity and preferred, in many ways, to treat his stints on titles as a “Day One”. His commitment was to wholesome, eye-popping adventure, breakneck action and breathless, mind-boggling wonderment. Combined with his absolute mastery of the comic page and unceasing quest for the Next Big Thrill, it all makes for a captivating read, but will never satisfy those readers fully committed to the minutiae of the Marvel Universe.

Beginning here with Black Panther #1, what they got was a rollercoaster ride of classic Kirby concept-overload as the Hereditary King of a miraculous Lost Kingdom gallantly pursues fabulous time machines, fights future men and secret samurai clans, thwarts the plots of super-rich artefact stealers and foils schemes to nuke his hidden homeland, usurp his rule and even consume his faithful subjects…

This feline funfest is about frantic action and begins at full pelt with a re-introductory romp spotlighting diminutive treasure hunter Abner Little. This devious gentleman entices T’Challa into a search for ‘King Solomon’s Frog!’ after introducing himself as a friend and colleague of the Panther’s grandfather Azzari the Wise

Soon, the mismatched pair are in hot pursuit of a historical wonder machine that sows death and destruction in its wake. The ancient brass amphibian has the ability to open time-portals, bringing lethal threats from other eras, but its real capacity for catastrophe comes from Little’s rival Collectors, who bring astounding ordnance and unsurpassed riches into play in their own efforts to possess the mystic time-machine.

Most ruthless and relentless is Queen Zanda of Narobia, who expertly ambushes the questers with a highly-skilled mercenary taskforce before accidentally triggering the frog into shanghaiing a hyper-evolved walking WMD from his own far-flung future era. She also assures T’Challa’s continued assistance by targeting Wakanda with atomic missiles…

Reluctantly uniting to sedate ‘The Six-Million Year Man’, T’Challa, Little and Zanda then race to uncover King Solomon’s tomb where a twin of the Brass Frog rests. This particular item possesses the most welcome function of returning objects and creatures to their point of origin…

Their ‘Race Against Time’ is exacerbated when the groggy tomorrow-man revives just as the searchers locate the tomb. He angrily unleashes psionic hell and awakens King Solomon’s formidable funereal guardian Ogar. Thankfully, reluctant teamwork saves them and the newly-found second frog restores order, if not sanity…

Tragically for the tomb-raiders, the time to determine if they are ‘Friends or Foes’ swiftly passes, since the calamitous clashes have destabilised the long-lost treasury trove. With mighty explosions wracking the site, it is all T’Challa can do to drag his artefact-lusting companions to safety before Armageddon occurs…

Unfortunately for the Panther, he has proved his worth and – with Wakanda still a nuclear target – ultimate ineffectuality. When the assembled Collectors – Zanda, Count Zorba, Colonel Pigman and withered coffin-dodger Silas Mourner – see the warrior king in battle, they determine he must win for them the ultimate prize…

The ‘Quest for the Sacred Water-Skin!!’ begins as T’Challa and equally reluctant Abner Little set off to find a fabled hidden land where a sect of Samurai warriors have dwelt for centuries; sustained by honour, their martial arts and a literal fountain of youth.

Overcoming monsters and warriors, T’Challa establishes a bond of honour with the last proponents of Bushido, but sadly his venal companion upsets the applecart by secretly stealing A Cup of Youth’

Meanwhile in Wakanda, internal trouble flares when the Panther’s half-brother General Jakarra makes a power-grab, bolstered by a sacrilegious utilisation of unrefined vibranium…

Black Panther #7 sees the hero and his scurrilous sidekick escape the Samurai city even as ‘Drums!’ sound across Wakanda and the incredible secret origin of Panther Cult and Vibranium Mound are simultaneously revealed.

When the awesome sky metal first crashed to Earth in primordial times, it transformed many men into monsters. Thankfully mighty chief Bashenga – taking the black cat as his totem – created a force to destroy the creatures and police the metal: preventing alien infection from spreading and forever after shielding his people through a line of dedicated defenders.

As his latest successor heads for a final confrontation with the Collectors, King T’Challa has no way of knowing his devoted regent N’Gassi has been captured or that Jakarra has gained deadly power through exposure to the gene-warping force of raw Vibranium…

Having battled his way free, T’Challa heads for home. His people, however, are already suffering the increasingly crazed depredations of a Jakarra no longer even remotely human.

Further delayed by a mercy mission – plucking dying men from the sea – the king bemoans his absence whilst half a world away, N’Gassi takes a desperate gamble and “requests” that the sedentary royal cousins – Ishanta, Joshua Itobo, Khanata and Zuni – step up to lead the fight against Jakarra. But are they ‘Panthers or Pussycats?’

Surprising everybody with a show of solidarity and unconventional tactics, the ‘Black Musketeers’ manage to contain the monstrous usurper until T’Challa returns, but his arrival coincides with the loss of Jakarra’s last vestige of humanity. Now a shambling beast resolvs that ‘This World Shall Die!’ in an Earth-shattering detonation. The horrific abomination is barely defeated inside the Mound by a true Black Panther who does not escape the mineral’s mutagenic properties…

Issue #11 finds T’Challa recovering from his struggle against Jakarra and plagued by eerie recurring dreams of future battles. As citizens begin vanishing all over Wakanda – including Prince Khanata – the medical team reaches the conclusion that the king has developed some form of Extra-Sensory Perception.

This new gift – or perhaps curse? – promptly leads the Panther to the abductors’ HQ where phantasmal madman ‘Kiber the Cruel’ is converting abducted humans to energy and consuming them…

Following ‘The Kiber Clue’, T’Challa strives mightily to save his kinsman and subjects, but arrives too late for anything but vengeance…

As Jim Shooter, Ed Hannigan, Jerry Bingham & Gene Day take over from the abruptly departed Kirby, the saga swiftly wraps up with the true nature of Kiber grotesquely exposed and the Panther’s judgement delivered in #13’s ‘What is… and What Should Never Be’

With Hannigan scripting, the Black Panther rapidly re-entered the mainstream Marvel universe in ‘The Beasts in the Jungle!’ (#14 March 1979): opening Wakanda’s first Embassy in New York City, applying to the United Nations and rejoining his former allies in the Avengers.

All too soon smothered in red tape and diplomatic hurdles, T’Challa welcomes working with his superhero guests but is quickly embroiled in a deadly scheme by old enemy Klaw, the Master of Sound, and blithely unaware that other relationships are about to be renewed…

After the resurgent villain battles the World’s Mightiest Heroes to a standstill, T’Challa manages to inflict the ‘Revenge of The Black Panther!’ in the final issue (May 1979), yet leaves everything on a cliffhanging note as former lover and consort Monica Lynne breaks into the Wakandan Embassy…

When Kirby took over the character, Black Panther had just ended a highly-acclaimed run in Jungle Action. Following the epic ‘Panther’s Rage’ saga, scripter Don McGregor began an even more groundbreaking saga in ‘The Panther Versus the Klan’.

That convoluted yarn had been abruptly cancelled before conclusion the previous year, but the contents of Marvel Premiere#51-53 provided an ending to the Klan clash as well as an acceptable in-universe explanation as to why wise and noble T’Challa abruptly dropped his hunt for answers and abandoned his adored beloved Monica

Opening minutes after Black Panther #15 finished, ‘The Killing of Windeagle!’ sees T’Challa arriving back at his new American Embassy, only to be attacked by an unknown flying warrior who claims to be an old foe.

After subduing the assailant, the King experiences even more turmoil as Lynne and Georgia journalist Kevin Trublood accost him. Although his staff all seem familiar with the woman, T’Challa has no memory of either of them…

Granting an audience with the couple, the Panther hears how Monica’s sister Angela was murdered, and how the death seemed to involve both the Ku Klux Klan and rival offshoot the Dragon’s Circle. As he listens, T’Challa hears that for a time he was the prime investigator of the murder, but his mind is clouded and he recalls none of it. Suddenly Windeagle attacks again, but as the Panther fights back his opponent is assassinated by a sniper…

Working with the police, T’Challa uncovers the sordid history of a petty gangster who somehow became a flying fury and establishes links to yet another organisation: The Spiritual Light Society. At every turn, events seem to be pushing him towards one inescapable conclusion: Monica’s ridiculous, unbelievable story is true and someone has tampered with his mind and memory…

When they are ambushed again by armed thugs – later identified as Klansmen – their spirited resistance is supplemented by more sniper fire and the Panther’s ‘Journey Through the Past!’ impels him to invade a Klan gathering. This conclave is subsequently violently disrupted by a costumed maniac called Soul Strangler

Despite not remembering, the Panther believes he’s deduced the nature of the contemporary civil war between KKK and Dragon’s circle, and more importantly, who killed Angela. With resignation and trepidation, T’Challa, Kevin and Monica head for a showdown in the Deep South…

Inked by Alan Gordon, Marvel Premiere #53 delivered ‘The Ending, In Anger!’ as T’Challa visits Monica’s family home and the dam in his memory finally shatters. Acting with clarity at last, the Black Panther tracks down the villains who captured and brainwashed him during his previous visit, exposes a tawdry truth behind all the death and intimidation and brings a kind of closure to all the innocents touched by the tragedy…

With the major story-arcs at last concluded it was back to relative obscurity and bit-parts for the Panther, with the exception of a short tale that would have huge repercussions on the hero’s life in the future.

‘Cry… Vengeance!’, by Chris Claremont, John Byrne & Bob McLeod, first appeared in Marvel Team-Up #100 and saw African X-Man Storm targeted by assassins. Easily defeating her attackers, she learns they were hired by Boer hardman Andreas de Ruyter

This sends her mind winging back to her childhood journey across Africa as teenager: an arduous trek made easier after she linked up with a young boy on his own rite of passage ritual. His name was T’Challa and she learned that he was a prince only after South African mercenaries led by de Ruyter tried to kidnap the boy for political advantage.

After driving the thugs off, the youngsters spent a brief but idyllic time together before their paths diverged and duty pulled them apart.

Decades later, the villain is back and seeking vengeance, so Ororo reunites with the boy the world now calls Black Panther to end the maniac’s threat forever…

As the 1980s closed, the Panther made a dynamic comeback in 1988, courtesy of writer Peter B. Gillis and illustrators Denys Cowan & Sam DeLarosa…

The Black Panthers rule over a fantastic African paradise which isolated itself from the rest of the world millennia ago. Blessed with unimaginable resources – both natural and not so much – the nation of Wakanda developed uninterrupted into the most technologically advanced human nation on Earth, utterly unmolested by rapacious European imperialism. That did not mean that geographical neighbours were allies, however…

In ‘Cry, the Accursed Country!’ technologically-advanced white nationalist country Azania has subjugated and tormented its own black majority population for centuries whilst plotting the downfall of Wakanda. As global condemnation of the apartheid regime mounts, T’Challa learns that the Panther God has withdrawn his blessing and instead consecrated and empowered an imprisoned priest in Azania as a new Black Panther. When this savage avatar begins inflicting bloody retribution on the ruling class, the Azanians blame Wakanda…

Deprived of his feline gifts and herding war-hungry dissidents in his own nation, T’Challa faces a crisis of confidence – and faith – in ‘For Duty, For Honor, For Country!’ which is no help when Azania targets Wakanda with its own team of super-agents: The Supremacists

Soon T’Challa’s people face international condemnation and nuclear Armageddon after ‘The Moorbecx Communique!’ adds layers of espionage to the escalating crisis, compelling the outcast king to risk his principles and challenge his god to regain his birthright in ‘A Cat Can Look at a King…’

Most tragically, the Panther must defeat his dark mirror image and knows that win or lose, nothing will ever be the same again…

This collection is also augmented by Kirby-era Editorial pages, house ads, a potted history of the Black Panther from #14, the Rich Buckler & McLeod cover to the never-released BP #16 and unused Bingham pencil pages. Also on show, are info pages and maps of Wakanda from The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, featuring T’Challa, Klaw, Klaw’s Blaster, Vibranium, and Kiber the Cruel.

There are also text features from Marvel Age #20 and #63; covering the much-delayed Gillis/Cowan revival, plus a pinup by Bill Reinhold, and Kirby/Ernie Chan and Al Milgrom/Klaus Janson original art pages as well as unused Bingham pencils to feast your eyes upon…

An explosive rocket ride of thrills, spills, chills and too-long delayed gratification, these long-lost classics confirm the Black Panther as one of the most complex and versatile characters in comics and simply scream “Read me! Read me!” So you should and you must…
© 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1988, 2019 Marvel. All rights reserved.

Pogo – The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips volume 3: Evidence to the Contrary


By Walt Kelly, edited by Carolyn Kelly & Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-694-2 (HB)

Books of this stature and calibre are worth buying and reading at every moment of every day, and rather than waste your valuable time with my purely extraneous blather, you could just hit the shops or online emporia and grab this terrific tome right now.

If you still need more though, and aren’t put off by me yet, I’m honoured to elucidate at some length…

Walter Crawford Kelly Jr. was born in 1913 and began his cartooning career whilst still in High School as artist and reporter for the Bridgeport Post. In 1935 he moved to California and joined the Disney Studio, working on animated short films and such features as Dumbo, Fantasia and Pinocchio.

His steady ascent was curtailed by the infamous animator’s strike in 1941. Refusing to take sides, Kelly quit, moving back East and into comicbooks – primarily for Dell who held the Disney rights license – amongst many other popular properties – at that time.

Despite his glorious work on major mass-market, people-based classics such as the Our Gang movie spin-off, Kelly preferred and particularly excelled with anthropomorphic animal and children’s fantasy material.

For the December 1942-released Animal Comics #1 he created Albert the Alligator and Pogo Possum, wisely retaining the copyrights to the ongoing saga of two affable Bayou critters and their young African-American pal Bumbazine. Although the black kid soon disappeared, the animal actors stayed on as stars until 1948 when Kelly moved into journalism, becoming art editor and cartoonist for hard hitting, left-leaning liberal newspaper The New York Star.

On October 4thth 1948, Pogo, Albert and an ever-expanding cast of gloriously addictive, ridiculously exuberant characters began their strip careers, appearing in the paper six days a week until the periodical folded in January 1949.

Although ostensibly a gently humorous kids feature, by the end of its New York Star run (reprinted in Pogo: The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips volume 1) the first glimmerings of an astoundingly barbed, boldly satirical masterpiece of velvet-pawed social commentary had begun to emerge…

When the paper folded Pogo was picked up for mass distribution by the Post-Hall Syndicate, debuting on May 16th 1949 in selected outlets across the nation. A colour Sunday page launched January 29th 1950 and both were produced simultaneously by Kelly until his death in 1973 and thereafter by his talented wife and family until the feature was at last laid to rest on July 20th 1975.

At its height the strip appeared in 500 papers in 14 countries and the book collections – which began in 1951 – eventually numbered nearly 50, collectively selling over 30 million copies… and all that before this Fantagraphics series even began…

In this third volume (available as a hardback and in eBook editions) of a proposed full dozen reprinting the entire Kelly canon of the Okefenokee Swamp critter citizenry, undoubtedly the main aspect of interest is the full-on comedic assault against possibly the greatest danger and vilest political demagogue America ever endured (at least in the 20th century…) but the counterattack against witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy is merely one of the many delights in this stunning mix of free expression and wild and woolly whimsy…

This colossal and comfortingly sturdy landscape compilation (boasting three-hundred-and-fifty-six 184 x 267mm pages) includes the monochrome ‘Daily Strips’ from January 1st 1953 to December 31st 1954, and the Sundays – in their own full-colour section – from January 4th to December 26th of the same years.

Supplemental features this time comprise a Foreword from award-winning cartoonist Mike Peters (Mother Goose & Grimm); a wealth of deliriously winning unpublished illustrations and working drawings by Kelly and utterly invaluable context and historical notes in R.C. Harvey’s ‘Swamp Talk’ . This last also compellingly, almost forensically, details the rise and fall of rabblerousing “red-baiter” Joe McCarthy and how Kelly courageously opened America’s fight back against the unscrupulous, bullying chancer (and the movement for which he was merely a publicity-hungry figurehead) with an unbeatable combination broadside of ridicule and cool disdain…

The closing biographical feature ‘About Walt Kelly’ by Mark Evanier is supplemented by a comprehensive ‘Index of the Strips’ and a gloriously inspired selection of ‘Noteworthy Quotes’ to fill out the academic needs of the readers, but of course the greatest boon here is the strips and characters themselves.

Kelly was a masterful inventor of engaging and endearing personalities, all of whom carried as many flaws as virtues. The regular roll call (some commentators reckon to be as many as 1000!) included gentle, perpetually put-upon and bemused possum Pogo, boisterous, happily ignorant alligator Albert, dolorous, sensitive Porkypine, obnoxious turtle Churchy La Femme, lugubrious hound Beauregard Bugleboy, carpet-bagging Seminole Sam Fox, pompously ignorant know-it-all Howland Owl, sveltely seductive skunk Miz Mam’selle Hepzibah, long suffering matron Miz Beaver, maternal Miz Groun’chuck and her incomprehensible, bitey baby Grundoon plus all the other bugs, beasts and young’uns of the swamp, but the author’s greatest strength lay in his uniquely Vaudevillian rogues, scoundrels and outright villains.

The likes of Tammanany Tiger, officious Deacon Mushrat, sinister, sycophantic beatnik communist Catbirds Compeer and Confrere, sepulchral Sarcophagus MacAbre, sloganeering P.T. Bridgeport and a trio of brilliantly scene-stealing bats named Bewitched, Bothered and Bemildred were perfect confections to illustrate all manner of pestilential pettifogging, mean manners and venal self-serving atrocities as they intermingled and interfered with the decent folk volubly enduring the vicissitudes of such day-to-day travails as love, marriage, comicbooks, weather, rival strips, fishing, the problem with kids, the innocent joys of sport, cadging food, making a living and why neighbours shouldn’t eat each other…

In this volume the topics of exotically extravagant conversation include the longevity and worth of New Year’s Resolutions, the scandalous behaviour of Porkeypine’s kissing-thief Uncle Baldwin, a get-rich scheme involving dirt and opening shots at the burgeoning phenomenon of commercial television. However, the gradual conversion of the Deacon’s Boy Bird Watchers society into a self-policing vigilante committee looking out for strangers and making sure all the citizens are right-thinking and proper-looking would quickly insinuate itself into every corner of the feature…

The anti-foreigner sentiments peak following the arrival of Deacon Mushrat’s old pal The Hon. Mole MacCarony; a blind, self-aggrandizing politico determined to root out all (undisclosed) threats, enforce conformity and stamp out the diseases obviously carried by strangers.

The xenophobic dirt-digger was based on Nevada Senator Patrick McCarran who briefly shaped paranoid public opinion on a platform of severely restricting immigration and implementing the speedy deportation of all communists and non-Americans. Clearly and sadly, his poisonous legacy and methodology remains a valuable asset to many politicos and opinion-shapers today…

Things got much darker – and therefore more effectively ludicrous – with the arrival of Mole’s malicious and ambitious associate Simple J. Malarkey – whose bullying tactics soon began to terrify his fellow bigots as much as the increasingly outraged, off-balance citizens…

Eventually the villains fall out and trigger their own downfall, with the mortified Deacon sheepishly denying his part in the fiasco. Peace and (in)sanity return and with sunny days ahead weather-prognosticating frog Picayune debuts, only to suffer a great loss when Albert accidentally ingests the amphibian’s pal Halpha – an amoeba who actually did all the meteorological messing about…

Voracious Albert generally swallowed a lot of things, but his biggest gaffe probably occurs after meeting Roogey Batoon, a pelican impresario who – briefly – managed Flim, Flam and Flo: a singing fish act billed as the Lou’siana Perches

Many intriguing individuals shambled into view at this time: Ol’ Mouse and his tutorial pal Snavely (who taught worms how to be cobras and rattlers), cricket-crazed British bugs Reggie and Alf and family icons Bug Daddy and Chile, but the biggest mover and shaker to be introduced was undoubtedly a sporty Rhode Island Red chicken named Miss Sis Boombah.

The formidable biddy is a physically imposing and prodigiously capable sports enthusiast (and Albert’s old football coach), who wanders in as survey taker for “Dr. Whimsy’s report on the Sectional Habits of U.S. Mail Men” (a brilliant spoof of the societally sensational Kinsey Report on sexual behaviour in America) but her arrival also generates a succession of romantic interludes and debacles which eventually lead to a bewildered Mushrat proposing marriage before leaving her in the lurch and disappearing into the deepest parts of the swamp…

Mole reared his unseeing head again, causing merely minor mischief, but when the marriage-averse Deacon encounters the terrifying Malarkey lurking in hiding with sinister acolyte Indian Charlie (who bears a remarkable resemblance to then-current US Vice-President Richard Milhouse Nixon) the scene is set for another savage and often genuinely scary confrontation…

That’s also exactly what Miss Boombah has in mind as she sets out – accompanied by Bewitched, Bothered and Bemildred – to hunt down the scoundrel who left her in the lurch at the church…

Other story strands and insane interludes include such epic mini sagas as the search for an abducted puppy – lampooning TV cop series Dragnet – and a long session on the keeping and proper sharing of secrets, much ado about gossip and the art of being a busybody.

Most memorable of all though, are Churchy’s sudden predilection for dressing up as a pretty little blonde girl, perpetually visiting Martians and poor Pogo’s oddly domestic recipe for A-Bombs…

In his time, satirical supremo Kelly unleashed his bestial spokes-cast upon many other innocent, innocuous celebrity sweethearts such as J. Edgar Hoover, the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Clan, as well as lesser leading lights likes Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson and – with eerie perspicacity – George W. Romney (U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Governor of Michigan and father of some guy named Mitt), but nothing ever compared to his delicious and devilish deconstruction of “Tailgunner Joe” in the two extended sequences reprinted here…

Kelly’s unmatched genius lay in his seemingly effortless ability to lyrically, if not vivaciously, portray through anthropomorphic affectation and apparently frivolous nonsense language comedic, tragic, pompous, infinitely sympathetic characters of any shape or breed, all whilst making them undeniably human.

He used that gift to readily blend hard-hitting observation of our crimes, foibles and peccadilloes with rampaging whimsy, poesy and sheer exuberant joie de vivre. However, he usually toned down the satirical scalpels for the magnificently imaginative ‘Sunday Funnies’: concentrating instead on fantastic and unfailingly hilarious serial fables and comedy romps.

Some of the best he ever conceived conclude this volume, beginning with the epic saga of little faun Melonbone whose search for the Fountain of Youth inadvertently causes Sam Duck to revert to an egg. The distraught drake’s wife is not best pleased at having to hatch her own husband out at her age (after all, she’s no spring chicken)…

Churchy and Albert endure the ire of sharp toothed tot Grundoon as the kid’s inability to converse leads the alligator to accidentally swallow his turtle pal, after which the animal crackpots all get very lost for a long time in their own swampy backyard…

Howlan Owl’s latest get-rich-quick scheme – digging to China – results in his and Albert’s reluctant consultation of an Atlas and the shocking conclusion that the Russians have taken over Georgia…

The panicked reaction of the chumps precipitates their accidentally awakening an oversleeping bear who opts to celebrate Christmas in the middle of August. Eventually, everybody catches up to him just in time for the true Yule event…

After the usual New Year’s shenanigans, 1954 truly takes hold as everyone’s favourite alligator tries to recount the amazing exploit of ‘King Albert and the 1001 Arabian Knights of the Round Table’ – despite each listener’s evident and express disinterest – before Howlan and Churchy became compulsively embroiled in a furious feud over pugilism.

Soon thereafter Albert is mistaken for a monster after getting his head stuck in a cauldron. Sadly, once he’s finally extricated from the calamitous cookpot, other unhappy folk become the infernal alembic’s unwilling method of locomotion…

No sooner does that culinary catastrophe conclude than the whole sorry fiasco promptly kicks off again with a lovesick octopus now playing transient chapeau to a succession of unfortunate and duly startled swamp critters …

The hairy, scaly, feathered, slimy folk of the surreal swamp lands are, of course, inescapably us, elevated by burlesque, slapstick, absurdism and all the glorious joys of wordplay from puns to malapropisms to raucous accent humour into a multi-layered hodgepodge of all-ages delight – and we’ve never looked or behaved better…

This stuff will certainly make you laugh; it will probably provoke a sentimental tear or ten and will certainly satisfy your every entertainment requirement. Timeless and ineffably magical, Pogo is a giant not simply of comics, but of world literature and this magnificent third tome should be the pride of every home’s bookshelf, right beside the others.

…Or, in the popular campaign parlance of the all politically astute critters – “I Go Pogo!” and so should you.

Pogo Vol. 3: Evidence to the Contrary and all POGO images, including Walt Kelly’s signature © 2014 Okefenokee Glee & Perloo Inc. All other material © 2014 the respective creator and owner. All rights reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection volume 4 1967-1968: The Goblin Lives


By Stan Lee, Gary Friedrich, Arnold Drake, John Romita, Don Heck, Jim Mooney, Ross Andru, Larry Lieber, Marie Severin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1780-7 (TPB)

Amazing Spider-Man was always a comicbook that matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead – of its fan-base. In this superbly scintillating compilation of chronological webspinning wonderment, the World’s Most Misunderstood Hero survives another rocky period of transformation as the second great era of Amazing Arachnid artists moved inevitably to a close. Although the elder John Romita would remain closely connected to the Wall-Crawler’s adventures for a little time yet, these tales would be amongst his last sustained run as lead illustrator on the series.

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

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

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

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

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

The rise and rise of the Amazing Arachnid increased pace as the Swinging Sixties drew to a close. By the time of the tales collected in this fulsome, full-colour Epic Collection (available in ponderous paperback or ephemeral eBook formats and re-presenting Amazing Spider-Man #53-67, spurious spoofs from parody mag Not Brand Echh #6 and 11, plus an obscure thriller from Marvel Super-Heroes#14, and cumulatively spanning October 1967 to December 1968 and the usual basket of editorial extras), Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades were on the way to being household names as well as the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia.

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

Thematically, there’s still a large percentage of old-fashioned crime and gangsterism and an increasing use of mystery plots. Dependence on costumed super-foes as antagonists was finely balanced with the usual suspect-pool of thugs, hoods and mob-bosses, but these were not the individual gangs of the Ditko days.

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

A multi-part saga began in #53 with ‘Enter: Dr. Octopus’, wherein the many-tentacled madman tries to steal a devastating new piece of technology. After being soundly routed, Otto Octavius goes into hiding as a lodger at Aunt May’s house in ‘The Tentacles and the Trap!’, before regrouping and finally triumphing in ‘Doc Ock Wins!’

The madman even convinces a mind-wiped webslinger to join him before the astonishing conclusion in ‘Disaster!’ as, despite being bereft of memory, the wallcrawler turns on his sinister subjugator and saves the day…

Shell-shocked and amnesiac, Spider-Man is lost in New York in #57 (with lay-outs by Romita and pencils from the reassuringly reliable Don Heck) until he clashes with Marvel’s own Tarzan analogue in ‘The Coming of Ka-Zar!’, whilst in the follow-up ‘To Kill a Spider-Man!’, vengeance-crazed roboticist Professor Smythe again convinces J. Jonah Jameson to finance another murderous mechanical Spider-Slayer and hunt down his personal bête noir…

With Heck still in the artist’s chair, Amazing Spider-Man #59 sees the hero finally regain his memory and turn his attention to a wave of street-crime in ‘The Brand of the Brainwasher!’ Here a new mob-mastermind starts taking control of the city by mind-controlling city leaders and prominent cops – including Police Captain George Stacy, the father of Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen…

The tension builds as the schemer is revealed to be one of Spidey’s old foes in ‘O, Bitter Victory!’ This revelation creates even bigger problems for Peter and Gwen before concluding chapter ‘What a Tangled Web We Weave…!’ sees our hero save the day but still stagger away more victim than victor …

Amazing Spider-Man #62 declaimed ‘Make Way for …Medusa!’ as Lee, Romita, Heck & Mike Esposito supplied a fresh change-of-pace yarn with the webspinner stumbling into combat with the formidable Inhuman due to the machinations of a Madison Avenue ad man.

Spider-Man’s popularity led to Marvel attempting to expand his reach to older readers via the magazine market.

July 1968 saw the launch of Spectacular Spider-Man #1 by Lee, John Romita & Jim Mooney: a lengthy political thriller with charismatic reformer Richard Raleigh ferociously campaigning to become Mayor. The run results in his being targeted and hunted by a brutish monster seemingly determined to keep the old political machine in place at all costs…

Rendered in moody wash tones, the drama soon discloses a sinister plotter behind the campaign of terror… but his identity was the last one Spidey expected to expose…

Also included was a retelling of the hallowed origin tale ‘In the Beginning…’ by Lee, with Larry Lieber pencils and inks-&-tones added by the great Bill Everett.

Back in the four-colour world, Amazing Spider-Man #63 saw the original elderly Vulture return to crush his youthful usurper Blackie Drago in ‘Wings in the Night!’ before taking on Spidey for dessert.

The awesome aerial assaults concluded with carnage on the city’s highest buildings in ‘The Vultures Prey’ leading to another art-change (with the sumptuous heavy line-work of Jim Mooney briefly replacing the workmanlike Heck & Esposito) in #65 as a wounded Spider-Man is arrested and has to engineer ‘The Impossible Escape!’ from a Manhattan prison, incidentally foiling a mass jailbreak along the way.

A psychotic special-effects mastermind returns seeking loot and vengeance in #66’s ‘The Madness of Mysterio!’ (Romita, Heck & DeMeo) as the master of FX illusions engineers his most outlandish stunt, whilst in the background amnesiac Norman Osborn slowly regains his memory.

Although the wallcrawler is subjected to a bizarre form of mind-bending it nevertheless results in an all-out action-packed brawl (rendered by Romita & Mooney) entitled ‘To Squash a Spider!’. Perhaps more interestingly, this yarn introduces Randy Robertson, college student son of the Daily Bugle’s city editor and one of the first young black regular roles in Silver Age comics.

Lee and his staff were increasingly making a stand on Civil Rights issues at this time of unrest and Marvel would blaze a trail for African American and other minority characters in their titles. There would also be a growth of student and college issues during a period when American campuses were coming under intense media scrutiny…

The magazine experiment then concludes with The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 (November 1968). To offset disappointing sales, Marvel had abruptly switched to a smaller size and added colour, but it was to be the last attempt to secure older-reader shelf-space until the early 1970s. At least the story was – and remains – top-rate…

Following monochrome recap ‘The Spider-Man Saga’ Lee, Romita & Mooney deal with months of foreshadowing by finally revealing how Norman Osborn shakes off his selective amnesia and returns to full-on super-villainy in ‘The Goblin Lives!’

Steeped in his former madness and remembering Peter Parker is Spider-Man, Osborn plays cat and mouse with his foe, threatening all the hero’s loved ones until a climactic battle utilising hallucinogenic weapons again erases the Goblin personality… for the moment…

Closing the drama division of this colossal comics compendium is a one-off yarn from Marvel Super-Heroes #14 (May 1968).

‘The Reprehensible Riddle of the… The Sorcerer!’ reads to me like an inventory tale rushed out to fill a deadline gap or printed just before its “use-by” date expired. Nonetheless, as crafted by Lee, Ross Andru & Bill Everett, it offers an enticingly different spin on the wallcrawler with an enigmatic psychic targeting Spider-Man using psionic strikes and voodoo tricks to draw the hero to New Orleans and a death duel with a synthetic, science-tinged homunculus…

Always fond of a giggle himself, the hero was a regular star of comedy vehicle Not Brand Echh. All romance issue #6 (February 1968) featured Gary Friedrich & Marie Severin’s ‘With This Ring, I Thee Web!’ as the young man pursues his destined true love only to suffer a tragic loss, whilst December’s #11 provided a trenchant fable decrying success and merchandising in Arnold Drake, Severin & John Tartaglione’s ‘Fame is a Cross-Eyed Blind Date with B-a-a-a-d Breath!’

Also on show are a wealth of art treats including original art and production photostats; unused pencil pages by Romita and Lieber; sketches and painted magazine covers by Harry Rosenbaum and Romita; house ads; character sketches and notes, and reproductions of earlier collection covers by Romita & Dean White.

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

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. Why not see why…?
© 1968, 2019 Marvel. All rights reserved.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume one


By Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill, with Ben Dimagmaliw & Bill Oakley (America’s Best Comics/DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-665-1 (HB) 978-1-56389-858-7 (TPB)

The Victorian era saw the birth of both popular and populist publishing, especially in the sub-genres of fantasy and adventure fiction.

Writers – and accompanying illustrators – of varying skill, but possessed of unbounded imaginations, explored and proselytized the concepts of honour and heroism, wedded unflinchingly to the underlying core-belief of English Supremacy in matters of culture and technology. In all worlds and even beyond them, the British gentleman took on all comers for Right and Decency, viewing danger as a game and showing “Johnny Foreigner” just how that game was played.

In today’s poisoned political environment, it’s rather odd to see so much of that dated and offensive rhetoric revived and bombarding us from venal politicians’ untrustworthy mouths and online arsenals without a hint or trace of the splendid irony used in this delicious exercise in retro-imagination…

For all the faults our modern sensibilities can – or at least should – detect in those stirring sagas, many of them remain unshakable classics of adventure and the roadmap of all modern fictional heroes. Open as they are to charges of Racism, Sexism (and Misogyny; so, so much misogyny), Class Bias and Cultural Imperialism, the best of them remain the greatest of all our store of communally-shared ripping yarns.

As heroic prototypes, a gaggle of these Imperialist icons were fabulously deputized by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill for a six-issue miniseries in 1999 (coloured by Ben Dimagmaliw and lettered by Bill Oakley) which managed to say as much or more about our modern world as that far ago one, and incidentally tell a truly captivating tale as compelling as any of its antecedents.

Available in deluxe hardcover, trade paperback, digital editions and omnibus collections, the story is also one of the best superhero exploits you’ll ever read, all presented as a faux seasonal compendium of that bygone age, with puzzles, paint-by numbers pages, pin-ups, a cover gallery and text features (such as novella ‘Allan and the Sundered Veil’ gilding the lily: a book no fan of fiction should miss.

Wilhelmina Murray survived a clash with a supernatural bloodsucking monster but was forever altered by the encounter. Some years later, recruited by British Secret Service chief Campion Bond, she is charged with organising a team of superior operatives to defeat an insidious foreign menace growing within the very heart of the British Empire. To this end, she circles the globe and convinces the greatest hero and most iniquitous outlaws of the era to band together.

Aged Great White Hunter Allan Quatermain is unlikely company for Invisible Man Hawley Griffin, Captain Nemo and Mister Hyde, although diffident and cultured Dr. Henry Jekyll can be considered a suitable companion for a widow under almost any circumstance…

Despite differences of class, honour, attitude, morality and disposition, together they ultimately foil a most dastardly plot only to discover that all is not as it seems…

The story grew beyond the authors’ avowed expectations of “a kind of Victorian Justice League” to become a veritable steampunk classic, with fin de siècle technology, trappings, expectations and attitudes, to establish itself as a powerful allegory for our own millennial end of days, and the act of its creation materialising as a game for creator and reader alike as every character in the tale was culled from existing works of literature and the audience all-but-dared to identify them…

The wit, artifice and whimsy of the compelling mystery – for that, gentle reader is what it is – as well as the vast, complex array of sub-texts and themed extras (such as faux advertising broadsheets woven into the text) all add to a truly immersive experience the inevitable film adaptation could not match.

To be Clear. This book is better than the movie. Do not watch it. Read This!

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an incredible work of scholarship and artistry recast into a fabulous pastiche of an entire literary movement. It’s also a brilliant piece of comics wizardry of the sort that no other art form can touch.

If you haven’t seen the film – and even more so if you have – I urge you to read this. And then you can start in on Dickens, Rider Haggard, Stevenson, Wells, Verne, Conan Doyle, Stoker, Rohmer and all the glorious rest…
© 1999, 2000 Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill. All Rights Reserved.

Zombillenium volume 4: Royal Witchcraft


By Arthur de Pins, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112219-9- (HB)

Arthur de Pins is a British-born French filmmaker, commercial artist and Bande Dessinées creator whose strips – such as adult comedy Peccadilloes (AKA Cute Sins) and On the Crab – have appeared in Fluide Glacial and Max.

In recent years his superbly arch and beautifully illustrated supernatural horror-comedy Zombillénium has become his greatest success and lead to the overlong hiatus between the last translated volume and the cracking read under review today. The in-demand maestro was supervising and co-directing with Alexis Ducord a magnificent animated movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out your streaming service of choice…

The Bande dessinée it was based on is a truly addictive comics cult classic which began in 2009 (serialised in Le Journal de Spirou from #3698 on) and has now filled four albums released in English thanks to Canadian publisher NBM.

Rendered with beguiling style and sleek, easy confidence, the unfolding saga details the odd goings-on in a horror-themed amusement park staffed by actual monsters and operated and owned by a cabal of capitalistically-inclined infernal powers. They have big expansion plans that are only curtailed by the perpetually lethal jockeying for pole position on the diabolical Board of Directors…

Zombillenium is a truly magical entertainment experience celebrating every aspect of the spooky and supernatural, where (human) families can enjoy a happy day out rubbing shoulders with werewolves, witches and all breeds of bogeyman. Of course, those enthralled customers might not laugh so hard if they knew all the monsters were real, usually hungry and didn’t much like humans … except in a culinary fashion…

The inaugural volume introduced hard-working, exceedingly humane Park Director (and vampire) Francis Von Bloodt, newly-reborn Aurelian Zahner (a pathetically inept thief until he expired at the park and returned transformed into a demonic indentured employee of the business) and quirkily stroppy British Witch Gretchen: a young newcomer interning at the park whilst secretly advancing her own agenda.

As they individually toiled away at the vast entertainment enterprise its true nature was slowly revealed: for unwary, unlucky mortals the site is a conduit to the domain of the damned and its devilish overlord Behemoth: an intolerant horror ever-hungry for fresh souls…

The humans of the nearest town know the monsters are real (as work-shy absconders keep hiding from their bosses there) and undertake many schemes to evict or exorcise the inhabitants of the site. For the uncanny undead workers from the Park – who would rather be anywhere else – conditions of employment worsen every day: it is regarded as one of the least profitable holiday destinations on Earth and The Board are always threatening to make sweeping changes…

For most of its existence – despite the incredible bargaining power of the many monster Trade Unions – the only way out of a Zombillenium contract was the True Death and a final transition to Hell, but then a cascade of changes upset many apple-carts. Through it all, newcomer Aurelian was somehow always shouldering the blame for every new crisis.

Stuck between a rock and a hot place, Zahner gradually adapts to his new (un)life of constant sorrow whilst growing closer to Gretchen after she shared with him her own awful life-story; revealing what he has become whilst disclosing what her real mission is at the Park. The big boob has no idea how much she left out…

The saga moved into apocalyptic high gear in previous episode Control Freaks as Gretchen’s private plot gathered pace after she made contact with a loved one currently confined in Hell. The bold sorceress promised a seemingly impossible liberation before sneaking out, whilst in the mortal world a long-dreaded day dawns and all the arcane artisans and supernatural staff quailed at Big News…

Officially a consultant despatched to “observe” how the park was run, elite vampire Bohémond Jaggar de Rochambeau wanted to take the business by the throat and shake things up. He forces Von Bloodt, the revolting Shop-Stewards and all objectors to achieve his new business model at any cost…

One of the most unfortunate aspects of the fearsome funfair is that any human dying on Zombillenium property is instantly reborn a monster, owned by Behemoth and compelled to work eternally in the theme park until the master takes them below. Under Francis’ governance that had been wisely offset by a set of stringent rules, the first of which stated that no employee is ever allowed to attack a human. Jagger has other ideas: he impetuously killed a little girl, delivering in no uncertain terms the new working time directives to Francis and the astounded staff.

The Park was a pump designed to generate money for the shareholders and a steady supply of souls to Behemoth. Now Von Bloodt’s hands-off-humans policy was superseded by more robust policies demanding bigger returns on both sides of the investment…

The news was met with mixed feelings by the workforce: most were scared, appalled and resistant, but a significant proportion saw it as the opportunity they’ve long argued for and a chance to feed and feast and hunt all those obnoxious yet tasty human morsels…

The result of the mounting tensions was a cataclysmic battle of supernatural forces and revolt of the monsters, which triggered an evacuation of Zombillenium. Casualties were kept to a minimum but eventually, when the dust settled, Francis was out and Jaggar was in charge; actively encouraging the killing of unattached or unaccompanied humans, who now come in droves to the most exciting entertainment experience in the world…

This latest infernal escapade – released in Europe as La Fille de l’air and available in English in both oversized Hardback Album and eBook formats – opens some time later as the Board’s machinations result in the entire Park enterprise being offered as the prize in a demonic contest.

At the Park site, winter grips the land and Aurelian and Gretchen are running a dangerous side-game: smuggling monsters to freedom outside the infernal boundaries. That enterprise ends when the young witch is ambushed and defeated in a spectacular aerial duel with an even more powerful sorceress – Charlotte Hawkins – Monster Hunter!

The victor is Director Jagger’s latest attraction, but also hides a tragic and deadly secret that will shatter lives and post lives in Zombillenium. In the meantime, however, the rebels undertake a desperate scheme to oust Jaggar and replace him with Aurelian before the discorporate raider slaughters every breather in the vicinity. Sadly, it involves recruiting Lieutenant Leonie Tran: a human police officer still seething from the transformation spell Gretchen ruined her life with…

As always, nothing goes right and before long all-out magical war breaks out, with demons deviously vying for control of the site, humans screaming and running about in panic and Gretchen forced into a fatal rematch with Charlotte that leads to a most unlikely and unexpected denouement…

To Be Continued…

One of the most engaging candidates in a burgeoning category of seditiously mature and subversively ironic horror-comedies, this deliciously arch tale combines pop-cultural archetypes with smart and sassy contemporary insouciance and a solid reliance on the verities of Nature – Human or otherwise…

Sly, smart, sexy and scarily hilarious, Zombillenium masters that remarkable trick of marrying slapstick with satire in a manner reminiscent of Asterix or Cerebus the Aardvark, whilst deftly treading its own unforgettable and enticing path. You’ll curse yourself for missing out and if you don’t, there are things out there which will do it for and to you…
© Dupuis 2018 by De Pins. All rights reserved. © NBM 2019 for the English edition.

Showcase Presents Metal Men volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Bob Haney, Ross Andru, Mike Esposito, Ramona Fradon & various (DC Comics)
SBN: 978-1-4012-1559-0 (TPB)

Dc comics have a vast unexploited wealth and variety of comics classics that remain untapped for modern fans. This especially kid-friendly series is one that really should be back in digital and paperback archival tomes…

In contrast to his gritty war and adventure scripts Robert Kanigher usually kept his fantasy and superhero comicbook tales light, visually intriguing and often extremely outlandish… and that’s certainly the case with these eccentric artificial heroes who briefly caught the early 1960’s zeitgeist for bizarre and outrageous light-hearted adventure.

The Metal Men first appeared in four consecutive issues of National/DC’s try-out title Showcase: legendarily created over a weekend by Kanigher after an intended feature blew its press deadline. The prospect was rapidly rendered by the art-team of Ross Andru & Mike Esposito: a last-minute filler that attracted a large readership’s eager attention. Within months of their fourth and final adventure, the gleaming gladiatorial gadgets were stars of their own title.

This first cheap and cheerful monochrome compendium collects the electrifying contents of Showcase #37-40, Metal Men #1-15 (spanning (March/April 1962 to September 1965) as well as the first of their nine team-up appearances in Brave and the Bold: specifically issue #55.

The alchemical excitement began in Showcase #37 (March/April 1962) with ‘The Flaming Doom!’ wherein an horrific radioactive antediluvian beast flies out of a melting polar glacier (geez! Topical) to mindlessly devastate humanity’s great cities. Helpless to stop the creature, the American military desperately approaches brilliant young technologist Dr. Will Magnus for a solution. He rapidly constructs a doomsday squad of self-regulating, highly intelligent automatons, patterned after Tina, a prototype “female” robot constructed from platinum and malleable memory ceramic, governed by a tiny supercomputer dubbed a “Responsometer”.

This miracle of micro-engineering not only simulates – or perhaps originates – thought processes and emotional character for the robots, but constantly reprograms the base form – allowing the mechanoids to change their shapes.

Magnus patterns his handmade heroes on pure metals, with Gold as leader of a tight-knit team consisting of Iron, Lead, Mercury and Tin warriors. Thanks to their responsometers, each robot specialises in physical changes based on its elemental properties but – due to some quirk of programming – the robots also develop personality traits mimicking the metaphorical attributes of their base metal.

Tina is especially intransigent, believing herself to be passionately in love with her dashing creator…

As soon as they’ve introduced themselves, the shining squad sets off to confront the deadly monster in a flying rocket-saucer and, after a terrible battle, succeed at the cost of their own brief lives…

In Showcase #38 a very public campaign to reconstruct the Metal Men results in Magnus building them anew. However, their unique characters are gone and they promptly fail in battle against a Soviet-backed Nazi scientist’s robotic marauder… until the desperate Yankee inventor manages to recover their original responsometers in ‘The Nightmare Menace!’

‘The Deathless Doom!’ then pits the malleable machines against an animated glassine tank used to store toxic residues from failed experiments by genius chemist Professor Norton. The intermingled waste products combine to create a deadly new life form dubbed Chemo who (Which? What?) would become one of the greatest menaces in the DC universe…

The Showcase trial run concluded with September/October 1962 issue as ‘The Day the Metal Men Melted!’ sees Chemo return just as Magnus’ previous exposure to the Toxic Terror coincidentally transforms the inventor into a radioactive, metallic giant. Acutely aware of his dangerous condition, Magnus exiles himself to deep space and manages to take Chemo with him where, luckily, the outer limits provide the valiant scientist with an unexpected cure…

Whereas the first three tales were relatively straight dramas, with this yarn rationalistic physics began giving way to fantastic fringe science and comedic elements began to proliferate. By increasingly capitalising on the Metal’s Men quirky characters, successive stories became as much fantasy as drama.

Metal Men #1 launched with an April/May 1963 cover-date, detailing the astonishing ‘Rain of the Missile Men’, in which alien robot Z-1 falls in love with Tina from astronomically afar and builds innumerable hordes of duplicates of himself to claim her. When his automaton army invades Earth, only Tina survives to the end of the issue…

At this point Magnus is becoming increasingly schizophrenic about the desperately lovesick and fiercely jealous Tina: alternately berating her impossible emotions then moping and missing her after he’s donated the troublesome toy to a museum… Huh! Robot Women: can’t live with them, can’t make them whatever you want them to…

Kanigher’s greatest ability was always his knack for dreaming up outlandish visual situations and bizarre emotive twists. ‘Robots of Terror’ describes how the frustrated Tina constructs her own mechanical Doc Magnus, which turns evil and develops an equally iniquitous team of elemental warriors – Barium, Aluminium, Calcium, Zirconium, Sodium and Plutonium – to battle the recently reconstructed Metal Men, after which #3’s ‘The Moon’s Mechanical Army!’ sees the team undertake a lunar search for the Platinum Bombshell after she sacrifices herself to save them all. In the process, they inadvertently bring an uncontrollable amoebic monster back to Earth…

Tin was the meekest Metal and most lacking in confidence, but in ‘The Bracelet of Doomed Heroes!’ a Giant-Alien-Robot-Amazon-Queen takes a shine to the timid tyke and shanghaies him to her distant planet. When his alchemical comrades come to the rescue they are trapped and enslaved until Tin turns the tide in the concluding ‘Menace of the Mammoth Robots!’

Back on Earth, the Metal Men battle a Gas Gang (Oxygen, Helium, Chloroform, Carbon Monoxide and Carbon Dioxide) of evil mechanical marauders after cosmic rays made Magnus evil and electronic on ‘The Day Doc Turned Robot!’, after which ‘The Living Gun!’ finds a fully-restored team confronting a colossal monster formed from a runaway solar prominence.

Metal Men #8 has the team take a little blind boy on a jaunt to another world, only to be trapped by extraterrestrial robots in ‘The Playground of Terror!’ before young Billy saves the day in the concluding battle with ‘The Robot Juggernaut!’

‘Revolt of the Gas Gang!’ relates how Doc is forced to revive the vaporous villains when the Metal Men are accidentally merged into one monolithic menace, after which the tightly continuous sagas briefly halt here to include a team-up tale from Brave and the Bold #55 (August/September 1965) in which writer Bob Haney and illustrators Ramona Fradon & Charles Paris detail the ‘Revenge of the Robot Reject’.

When a series of suspicious lab accidents destroys the Heavy Metal Heroes, distraught Doc is menaced by rogue robot Uranium and its silver metal lover Agantha, until size-changing champion Professor Ray Palmer intervenes as the all-conquering Atom, after which the scrap-heap scrappers are once more resurrected to end the evil automaton’s nuclear threat forever.

Meanwhile, back in Metal Men #11, by usual suspects Kanigher, Andru & Esposito, ‘The Floating Furies!’ finds the resourceful robots both upon and beneath the briny seas, battling intelligent mines, giant crustaceans and even King Neptune, before Z-1’s inexhaustible horde of Missile Men returns to ‘Shake the Stars!’, after which the ‘Raid of the Skyscraper Robot’ introduces a new Metal Man… of sorts.

When lonely Tin builds himself a girlfriend from a toy kit, neither is able to withstand the mockery of fellow metal Mercury. The automatic lovers flee Earth, only to encounter a devastated mobile planet of monolithic mechanical monsters which follow them back here – only to face final defeat at the gleaming hands of the reunited team.

Chemo returns to disable – but never defeat – the Metal Men in #14’s ‘The Headless Robots!’ before this initial instalment of elemental epics concludes with ‘The Revenge of the Rebel Robots!’ in which the fashionable fad for acronymic spy stories pitches the Sterling Stalwarts into combat with a giant spy machine from the subversive secret society B.O.L.T.S.! (…and no, I don’t know what it stands for…)

Wildly imaginative, weirdly enthralling and brilliantly daft, these full-on, frantic fantasies are a superb slice of the nostalgic good old days, when every day lasted a week and the world was stuffed to bursting with dinosaurs, robots and monsters. Sometimes, if you buy the right book, you can still get all those thrills at once, so let’s hope it’s not long before these marvellous yarns are back in vogue… and print…

© 1962-1965, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Tintin in Tibet


By Hergé, Bob De Moor, Roger Leloup and others, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont UK)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-819-2 (HB) 978-1-40520-631-0 (Album PB)

Georges Prosper Remi, known all over the world as Hergé, created a timeless masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and entourage of iconic associates.

Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and other supreme stylists of the Hergé Studio, he created 23 timeless yarns (initially serialised in instalments for a variety of newspaper periodicals) which have grown beyond their pop culture roots to attain the status of High Art.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi began working for conservative Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-esque editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A devoted boy scout, one year later the artist was producing his first strip series – The Adventures of Totor – for monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine. By 1928 Remi was in charge of producing the contents of the newspaper’s weekly children’s supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

While he was illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette written by the staff sports reporter – Wallez asked his compliant cash-cow to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who roamed the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

The rest is history…

Some of that history is quite dark: During the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, Le Vingtiéme Siécle was closed down and Hergé was compelled to move his supremely popular strip to daily newspaper Le Soir (Brussels’ most prominent French-language periodical, and thus appropriated and controlled by the Nazis).

He diligently toiled on for the duration, but following Belgium’s liberation was accused of collaboration and even being a Nazi sympathiser. It took the intervention of Belgian Resistance war-hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist.

Leblanc also provided cash to create a new magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which he published and managed. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a weekly circulation in the hundreds of thousands, which allowed the artist and his growing studio team to remaster past tales: excising material dictated by the Fascist occupiers and unwillingly added to ideologically shade the wartime adventures. These modernising exercises generally improved and updated the great tales, just in time for Tintin to become a global phenomenon.

With World War II over and his reputation restored, Hergé entered the most successful period of his artistic career. He had mastered his storytelling craft, possessed a dedicated audience eager for his every effort and was finally able to say exactly what he wanted in his work, free from fear or censure. Sadly, Hergé’s personal life was less satisfactory, but although plagued by physical and mental health problems, the travails only seemed to enhance his storytelling abilities…
Tintin au Tibet began initial serialisation in Le Journal de Tintin #523, running from 17th September 1958 to #585: the November 25th 1959 issue. The inevitable book collection was released in 1960.

Tintin in Tibet is unlike any other story of the plucky, valiant boy reporter. At this time Hergé’s 25-year marriage was ending, and he was recovering from a series of nervous breakdowns whilst tormented by dreams of “unending white”. Rather than take a break or even retire, he began the most eerie, mystical and personal story of his long career.
This yarn is special in many ways and the Master’s personal favourite…

Tintin and Captain Haddock are vacationing in the mountains of Europe when the boy reporter is seized by a bizarre fit after reading of a plane crash in Nepal. Inexplicably, he screams the name of his old friend Chang (Chang Chong-Chen, left behind in China at the end of The Blue Lotus).

From that moment, his entire consciousness is preoccupied with his old friend. Frenzied inquires reveal that Chang was indeed, on the crashed airliner and is now believed dead. Despite all rational argument, Tintin knows somehow his friend has survived and immediately sets out to rescue him, with a protesting Captain Haddock reluctantly in tow.

Against all odds, the duo travel through India to the mountainous borderlands and into the Himalayas. Nothing can shake Tintin’s obsessive belief that Chang is alive and urgently needs him… Along the way they make another new comrade in the person of Sherpa guide Tharkey

How the attendant physical and mental hardships are overcome make for a grim and uncharacteristically bleak tale, whilst the examples of mysticism, paranoia and overtly supernatural phenomena are an uncomfortable fit in the fantastic but rational universe that Tintin inhabits. There isn’t even a villain du jour, but for all that, the story does work, and no other adventure so well depicts the heroic qualities of the lad and the deep emotional bond between him and his greatest friends, Chang and Haddock.

Of course, Hergé’s utter professionalism would not allow him to produce anything that was not eminently readable, captivatingly funny (where appropriate) and stirringly thrilling. Although perhaps the oddest tale, this might just be the author’s most revealing.
Tintin in Tibet: artwork © 1960, 1984 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1962 Egmont UK Limited. All rights reserved.

Incredible Hulk Marvel Masterworks volume 10


By Len Wein, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Steve Englehart, Tony Isabella, Herb Trimpe & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9596-2 (HB)

During the 1970s the Incredible Hulk settled into a comfortable – if spectacularly destructive – pattern. A globe-trotting, monster-mashing plot formula saw tragic Bruce Banner hiding and seeking cures for his gamma-transformative curse, alternately aided or hunted by prospective father-in-law US General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross and his daughter – the scientist’s unobtainable inamorata – Betty, with a non-stop procession of guest-star heroes and villains providing the battle du jour.

Herb Trimpe had made the character his own, displaying a penchant for explosive action and an unparalleled facility for drawing technology – especially honking great ordnance and vehicles. Beginning with Roy Thomas – unofficial custodian of Marvel’s burgeoning shared-universe continuity – a string of skilful scripters effectively played the afflicted Jekyll/Hyde card for maximum angst and ironic heartbreak as the Jade Juggernaut became a pillar of Marvel’s growing pantheon.

This chronologically-curated hardback and eBook compendium re-presents issues #171-183, encompassing cover-dates January 1974 to January 1975, and begins with a brace of revelatory Introductions from then Editor-in-Chief Roy Thomas and returning scripter Len Wein on the creation of a certain mutant Canadian…

Before that debut, however, the drama commences with excessive bombast but no appreciable fanfare as ‘Revenge!’ (by Gerry Conway – from a Steve Englehart plot – with art by Trimpe & Jack Abel) finds the Green Goliath a stowaway on a plane back to military Mecca Hulkbuster Base. The jet carries a new Project: Greenskin commanding officer. Spit-&-polish Colonel John D. Armbruster has taken over from the politically sidelined Thunderbolt Ross….

The camp is eerily deserted and the reason soon becomes clear as bludgeoning brutes Abomination and The Rhino attack the new arrivals. Having subdued the entire garrison, they plan on detonating the base’s gamma-bomb self-destruct device but are utterly unprepared for the Hulk’s irascible intervention…

Roy Thomas plotted Tony Isabella’s script for #172 wherein the Hulk – captured by the ungrateful soldiers he saved – is hurled into another dimension, allowing a mystic menace to inadvertently escape. ‘And Canst Thou Slay… The Juggernaut?’ reveals that even that magically augmented menace cannot resist our favourite monster’s might and features a telling cameo by the X-Men, after which Thomas scripts all-Trimpe art-fest ‘Anybody Out There Remember… The Cobalt Man?’, wherein another old X-adversary – Ralph Roberts – picks up the Jade Giant at sea before sailing his research vessel into a nuclear test explosion…

Dying of radiation exposure, the deranged technologist then determines to demonstrate atomic bombs are bad to a callous, uncaring world by detonating one over Sydney in Doomsday… Down Under’ (Conway, Thomas, Trimpe & Abel). The second clash with the azure-armoured Cobalt Man results in a blistering battle in the stratosphere, a cataclysmic explosion and Hulk crashing to earth far, far away as a ‘Man-Brute in the Hidden Land!’ (#175, Thomas, Trimpe & Abel)…

Here a typically short-tempered encounter with the Uncanny Inhumans and devastating duel with silent super-monarch Black Bolt, after the usual collateral carnage, ends with the gamma gladiator hurtling to the far side of the sun in a rocket-ship for a date with allegory if not destiny.

During the early 1970s a throwaway Fantastic Four character dubbed Him was transubstantiated into a modern interpretation of the Christ myth and placed on a world far more like our own than the Earth of Marvel’s universe.

That troubled globe was codified as Counter-Earth and upon it messianic Adam Warlock battled a Satan-analogue known as the Man-Beast. Hulk had briefly visited once before and now he crashed there again to complete the allegorical epic beginning with ‘Crisis on Counter-Earth!’ by Conway, Trimpe & Abel.

Since the Hulk’s departure, Man-Beast and his animalistic minions (all spawned by godlike genetic meddler The High Evolutionary) had become America’s President and Cabinet. Moving decisively, they had finally captured Warlock and led humanity to the brink of extinction, leaving the would-be messiah’s disciples in utter confusion.

Now with the nation in foment, the Hulk’s shattering return gives Warlock’s faithful flock an opportunity to save their saviour in ‘Peril of the Plural Planet!’ but the foray badly misfires and Warlock is captured. Publicly crucified at the behest of the people, humanity’s last hope perishes…

Meanwhile on true-Earth, Ross and Armbruster discover trusted comrade (and Ross’ son-in-law) Major Glenn Talbot has escaped from a top security Soviet prison and is making his triumphant way back to the USA…

The quasi-religious experience concludes with ‘Triumph on Terra-Two’ (Conway, Isabella, Trimpe & Abel) as the dead prophet resurrects whilst Hulk is waging his last battle against Man-Beast just in time to deliver a cosmic coup de grace before ascending from Counter-Earth to the beckoning stars…

Incredible Hulk #179 signalled a long-overdue thematic reboot as Len Wein signed on as writer/editor with strong ideas on how to put some dramatic impact back into the feature. It began with ‘Re-enter: The Missing Link’, as the Jade Juggernaut loses patience during his return trip and bursts out of his borrowed spaceship just as America’s military defences shoot it down.

He crashes to earth in the mining district of Appalachia and, reverting to befuddled Bruce Banner, is adopted by the dirt-poor Bradford family. They have a habit of taking in strays and have already welcomed a strange, huge yet gentle being they’ve named Lincoln.

As time passes Banner recognises the creature as a former Hulk foe known as the Missing Link. The colossal brute is neither evil nor violent (unless provoked) but is lethally radioactive, and the fugitive physicist faces the dilemma of having to break up a perfect happy family before they all die.

The Link, of course, refuses to cooperate or go quietly…

Next comes the most momentous story in Hulk history which starts with ‘And the Wind Howls… Wendigo!’ (#180, October 1974, Wein, Trimpe & Abel). Here the Green Giant gallivants across the Canadian Border and encounters a witch attempting to cure her brother of a curse which has transformed him into a rampaging cannibalistic monster.

Unfortunately, that cure means Hulk must become a Wendigo in his stead…

It is while the Great Green and Weird White monsters are fighting that mutant megastar Wolverine first appears – in the very last panel – and that’s what leads into the savage fist, fang and claw fest that follows.

‘And Now… The Wolverine!’ captivatingly concludes the saga as the Maple nation’s top-secret super-agent is unleashed upon both the Emerald Goliath and man-eating Wendigo in an action-stuffed romp teeming with triumph, tragedy and lots of slashing and hitting. The rest is history…

Back south of the border, Major Talbot has been reunited with his wife and family and is eagerly expecting a meeting with President Ford as ‘Between Hammer and Anvil!’ (with Trimpe taking sole charge of the art chores) finds the ever-isolated Hulk meeting and losing a true friend in jolly hobo Crackerjack Jackson.

The über-action portion of the tale comes from two escaped convicts who despise each other but are forced to endure togetherness because of an alien chain which shackles them whilst imparting overwhelming physical power. It’s not, nearly enough, however, enough to stop a fighting-mad, heartbroken Hulk…

This catastrophic compilation concludes with the return of electrical vampire and life-stealer ZZZAX in ‘Fury at 50,000 Volts!’: wrecking a new life Banner surreptitiously starts carving out for himself in Chicago…

To Be Continued…

This superbly cathartic tome also reproduces John Romita’s first design sketches for Wolverine, a page of original art from the debut and house ads for the issue, as well as covers and frontispieces by John Byrne & Abel and Trimpe from later Hulk/Wolverine reprint collections.

The Incredible Hulk is one of the most well-known comic characters on Earth, and these stories, as much as the movies, cartoons, TV shows, games, toys and action figures, are the reason why. For an uncomplicated, honestly vicarious and cathartic experience of Might literally making Right, you can’t do better than these yarns.
© 1974, 1975, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Henry Speaks for Himself


By John Liney, edited by David Tosh (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-733-8 (TPB)

Created by veteran cartoonist Carl Anderson as a silent, pantomimic gag-panel first seen on March 19th 1932, Henry was one of the most venerated and long-lived of American newspaper comics strips.  It was developed for The Saturday Evening Post before being picked up by legendary strip advocate and propounder William Randolph Hearst.  He brought it and the then-69 year old Anderson to his King Features Syndicate in 1934. The first comic strip appeared on December 17th with a full colour Sunday half-page following on March 10th 1935.

The Saturday Evening Post had to content itself with a new feature entitled Little Lulu by Marjorie Henderson Buell. I wonder how that worked out…?

Being a man of advanced years, Anderson employed Don Trachte to assist with the Sundays whilst John J. Liney performed the same role for the Monday to Saturday black and white iteration. This continued until 1942 when arthritis forced Anderson to retire. Trachte and Liney became de facto creators of the feature – although the originator’s name remained on the masthead for the next two decades.

Liney (1912-1982) had started as a staff cartoonist on the Philadelphia Evening Ledger and began selling gag ideas to Anderson in 1936 before landing the full-time assistant’s job. After assuming the illustrator’s role in 1942 he took over sole writing responsibilities for the daily in 1945, continuing Henry until 1979 when he finally retired.

His own name had been adorning the strip since 1970.

Liney was also a passionate teacher and educator on comics and cartooning, with a position at Temple University. Nevertheless, he still found time to write and draw a comicbook iteration of the mute and merry masterpiece from 1946 to 1961.

Major licensing monolith Western Publishing/Dell Comics had been successfully producing comicbooks starring animation characters, film icons and strip heroes since the mid 1930s, and when they launched Henry – first in Four Color Comics #122 and #155 (October 1946 and July 1947) and then in his own 65 issue title from January 1948 – they successfully argued for a radical change in the boy’s make-up.

The newspaper strip had always been a timeless, nostalgia-fuelled, happily humour-heavy panoply of gags and slapstick situations wherein the frankly weird-looking little bald kid romped and pranked in complete silence, with superb cartooning delivering all the communication nuance the vast international audience needed.

Now however, with children seen as the sole consumers, the powers-that-be felt that the little mutant should be able to speak and make himself understood. Liney easily rose to the challenge and produced a sublime run of jolly, wild, weird and often utterly surreal endlessly inventive adventures – some approaching “Stream-of-Consciousness” progressions that perfectly captured the ephemeral nature of kids’ concentration. He also introduced a captivating supporting cast to augment the boy, and his appealingly unattractive, forthright and two-fisted inamorata Henrietta.

This splendid softcover (and ebook) collection gathers some of the very best longer tales from the comicbook run in the resplendent flat primary colours that are so evocative of simpler – if not better – days and begins after a heartfelt reminiscence in the Foreword by Kim Deitch, after which Editor, compiler and devotee David Tosh outlines the history of the character and his creators in ‘Henry – the Funniest Living American’.

He then goes on to explain ‘The Dell Years’ before offering some informative ‘Notes on the Stories’.

The magical story portion of this collection is liberally interspersed with stunning cover reproductions; all impressively returning to the quiet lad’s silent comedy gag roots, a brace of which precede a beautiful double-page spread detailing the vast and varied cast Liney added to mix.

Then from issue #7 (June, 1949) we find ‘Henry is Thinking Out Loud!’ as the boy keeps his non-existent mouth shut and explores the medium of first person narrative, inner monologues and thought-balloons whilst getting into mischief looking for odd jobs to do…

October’s edition, Henry #9, introduced the good-natured, cool but increasingly put-upon Officer Yako in ‘You Can’t Beat the Man on the Beat!’ in an escalating succession of brushes with the law, bullies, prospective clients and darling Henrietta.

That bald boy still hadn’t actually uttered a sound, but by #14 (August 1950) he had found his voice, much to the amusement of his layabout Uncle (he never had a name) who eavesdropped on the assorted kids comparing their ‘Funny Dreams’.

After a quartet of covers Henry #16 (December 1950) found Liney playing with words as ‘Rhyme Without Reason’ found all the characters afflicted with doggerel, meter, couplets and all forms poetic with Liney even drawing himself into the madcap procession of japes and jests, whilst ‘A Slice of Ham’ from issue #22 (December 1951) cleverly riffed on Henry’s ambitions to impress Henrietta by becoming an actor. This yarn includes a wealth of Liney caricatures of screen immortals such as Chaplin, Gable, Sinatra and more, whilst introducing a potential rival for Henry’s affections in cousin Gilda

In #24 (April 1952) Henry ‘Peeks into the Future’ by outrageously pondering on his possible careers as an adult, before plunging into Flintstone or Alley Oop territory – complete with cave city and dinosaurs – as a result of studying too hard for a history test in ‘The Stone Age Story’ from issues #29, February 1953.

After four more clever funny covers, growing up again featured heavily with ‘Choosing Your Career’ (#45, March 1956) as the little fool road-tested a job as a home-made cab driver and accidentally slipped into law enforcement by capturing a bandit.

In #48 (December 1956) Henry attended a fancy dress party and became ‘The Boy in the Iron Mask’, and this completely charming compilation closes by reprising that sojourn in the Stone Age with #49 (March 1957)’s ‘Rock and Roll’

Concluding the comedy capers is fond personal reminiscence ‘Henry and Me’ by David Tosh; a man justifiably delighted to be able to share his passion with us and hopefully proud that this book gloriously recaptures some of the simple straightforward sheer joy that could be found in comicbooks of yore.

Henry Speaks for Himself is fun, frolicsome and fabulously captivating all-ages cartooning that will enthral anyone with kids or who has the soul of one.
Henry Speaks for Himself © 2014 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2014 King Features, Inc. All other material © its respective creators. This book was produced in cooperation with Heritage Auctions.