Spider-Man: Secret Wars


By Paul Tobin, Patrick Scherberger, Clayton Henry & Terry Pallot, with Jim Shooter, Mike Zeck, John Beatty &various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-4449-6 (digest TPB)

Presented in the manner of the company’s all-ages Marvel Adventures format, this inviting tale offers cosmic thrills, chills and light drama by in-filling on one the House of Ideas’ biggest successes. Assiduously revisiting the epic “maxi-series”, writer Paul Tobin, penciller Patrick Scherberger and inkers Clayton Henry & Terry Pallot cannily crafted an engagingly expanded selection of Spider-sagas faithful to the original whilst adding contemporary complexity and depth to the iconic wall-crawler.

This delightful digest-sized paperback (and eBook) collection collects a 4-issue miniseries from February-May 2010, and also re-presents the original Secret Wars #1 (May 1984): specifically its opening chapter by James Shooter, Mike Zeck & John Beatty.

The premise of the original 1980s blockbuster was that an all-powerful alien calling itself The Beyonder briefly abducted an army of Earth heroes and villains to a purpose-built alien Battleworld created as an arena in which to prove which was mightier – Good or Evil.

Whilst by no means a new plot, it gave the entire company a massive commercial boost and allowed a number of major series to radically retool at a time when comic book sales were in a dire downturn. This canny slice of infilling explores some of the saga’s untold moments in an engaging and appealing way, adding contemporary sensibilities and a lighter take to a classic but straightforward Fights ‘n’ Tights yarn.

I would strongly suggest, however, that if you’ve never seen the original epic, you track it down before tackling Spider-Man: Secret Wars – it’s not actually necessary, but you will get the most out of the new material that way…

The drama opens at a most critical moment, seconds after the almighty Molecule Man has dropped an entire mountain on top of the embattled heroes. With the Incredible Hulk holding up millions of tons of rock, the entombed good guys perforce take a few moments to chill and reminisce.

Top of Spider-Man’s list is the many gaffes he’s made since arriving, particularly the way he’s treated Captain America and the monstrous Green Goliath currently holding all their lives in his big green hands…

Thanks to heroic teamwork, all the buried brigade eventually emerge safely, but the wall-crawler has learned a hard lesson in a most harrowing manner…

The second chapter also focuses strongly on damaging mis- and pre-conceptions as the residents of Denver, Colorado – simultaneously shanghaied by the Beyonder and dumped on his remodelled planet as some kind of control group – is assaulted by a horde of marauding aliens, and the heroes form a living barricade with the valiant but all-too-human civilian defenders to lives and property.

They are surprisingly assisted by arch-nemesis and ultimate evil Doctor Doom, but try as he might Spider-Man cannot fathom the Iron Dictator’s true purpose…

At one critical juncture, the world-devouring cosmic god Galactus decided to end the contest early by eating Battleworld, prompting a desperate alliance by the transplanted heroes and villains to stop him. Here, portions of their combined assault are examined in detail as Spider-Man experiences bizarre reality-warping episodes – a natural side effect of proximity to the perilous planetivore – and flashes back and forward through his personal past and futures, experiencing happiness and the darkest of imagined terrors…

The original miniseries culminated with Doom stealing the Beyonder’s power to become omnipotent. In this modern re-visitation, that conditional triumph is examined as the web-spinner is granted a taste of paradise by the troubled new god who is finding it hard to hang on to lust for conquest – or even personal ambition – after achieving all-consuming divinity…

The cleverly introspective human adventure is capped off by a re-presentation of the original saga’s first issue from 1984, wherein ‘The War Begins’ with the Avengers, X-Men and Fantastic Four; Magneto, the Hulk and an utterly out-of-his-depth Spider-Man all teleported into the deep unknown to see a galaxy destroyed and a world constructed purely so that a cosmic force can determine which of two philosophies is correct.

Arrayed against them were Doom, Galactus, Molecule Man, Ultron, the Lizard, Dr. Octopus, the Enchantress, Absorbing Man, Kang the Conqueror and the Wrecking Crew: all of whom have no problem with a disembodied voice telling them “Slay your enemies and all you desire shall be yours”…

Unceremoniously dumped on the brand new world, the sides split into factions and the War begins…

This blockbusting little box of delights also includes a full cover gallery by Scherberger, Christina Strain, Chris Sotomayor, Veronica Gandini, Jean-Francis Beaulieu, Zeck & Beatty as well as pages of Scherberger’s early character sketches.

Fast-paced and impressive, bright and breezy with lots of light-hearted action and some solid sly laughs, this book really sees the alternative web-spinner hitting his wall-crawling stride with the violence toned down and “cartooned-up” whilst the stories take great pains to keep the growing youth-oriented soap opera sub-plots pot-boiling on but as clear as possible.

In 2012 the Marvel Adventures line was superseded by specific titles tied to Disney XD TV shows designated as “Marvel Universe cartoons”, and these days there’s an entire TV and movie based Marvel Action line to play in, but these collected stories are still an intriguing and perhaps more culturally accessible means of introducing character and concepts to kids born often two generations or more away from those far-distant 1960s originating events. However even though these Spidey super stories are extremely enjoyable yarns, parents should note that some of the themes and certainly the violence might not be what everybody considers “All-Ages Super Hero Action” and might perhaps better suit older kids…
© 2018 MARVEL.

Showcase Presents Warlord


By Mike Grell, with Vince Colletta & various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-2473-8 (TPB)

Geez! Once you start thinking about what books you’d like to see on sale again, your brain just won’t let go…

During the troubled 1970s the American comics industry suffered one of the worst of its periodic downturns and publishers desperately cast about for anything to bolster the flagging sales of superhero comics.

By revising their self-imposed industry code of practice (administered by the Comics Code Authority) to allow supernatural and horror comics, publishers tapped into a global revival of interest in spiritualism and the supernatural, and – as a by-product – opened their doors to Sword-&-Sorcery as a viable genre, thanks primarily to Roy Thomas & Barry Windsor-Smith’s adaptation of R. E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian.

DC launched a host of such titles into that budding market but, although individually interesting, nothing seemed to catch the public’s eye until issue #8 of the company’s latest try-out title First Issue Special.

In that issue popular new Legion of Super-Heroes, Aquaman and Green Lantern artist Mike Grell launched his pastiche, homage and tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s works (particularly Pellucidar – At the Earth’s Core) which, after a rather shaky start (like Conan, the series was cancelled early in the run but rapidly reinstated) went on to become for a time DC’s most popular book.

Blending swords, sorcery and super-science with spectacular, visceral derring-do, the lost land of Skartaris was a venue expertly designed for adventure: stuffed with warriors, mythical creatures, dinosaurs and scantily-clad hotties. How could it possibly fail?

This stupendous monochrome compendium, gathers 1st Issue Special #8 (from November 1975) and Warlord #1-28 (January-February 1976 – December 1979), delivering wild wonder and breathtaking thrills from the outset.

The magic commences with ‘Land of Fear!’ as in 1969, U2 spy-pilot Colonel Travis Morgan is shot down whilst filming a secret Soviet base. The embattled aviator manages to fly his plane over the North Pole before ditching, expecting to land on frozen Tundra or pack-ice on the right side of the Iron Curtain.

Instead he finds himself inside the Earth, marooned in a vast, tropical jungle where the sun never sets. The incredible land is populated by creatures from every era of history and many that never made it into the science books. There are also cavemen, savages, lost races, mythical beasts, barbaric kingdoms and fabulous warrior-women.

Plunging head-on into the madness, the baffled airman saves an embattled princess from a hungry saurian before both are captured by soldiers. Taken to the city of Thera, Morgan is taught the language by his fellow captive Tara and makes an implacable enemy of the court wizard Deimos. After surviving an assassination  attempt the pair escape into the eternal noon of the land beneath the Earth.

Within months Morgan won his own-bimonthly title written, pencilled and inked by Grell. ‘This Savage World’ saw the lost airman and the Princess of Shamballah fall deeply in love, only to be separated by slavers who leave Morgan to die in #2’s ‘Arena of Death.’ Surviving a timeless period as a galley slave, Morgan, with Nubian warrior Machiste, lead an insurrection of Gladiators that escalates into full-scale revolution, earning him the title of The Warlord in the process.

However, after this issue the series vanished for months until the end of the year. Cover-dated October-November 1976, Warlord #3 debuted ‘War Gods of Skartaris’, as Morgan returned in all his gory glory, leading his army of liberation and hunting for Tara until he stumbles across his downed aircraft – now worshipped as a god by lizard-men but still packed with lots of 20th century ordnance…

Moreover, it had crashed into a temple that gave the first clues to the incredible secret of the lost land…

‘Duel of the Titans’ sees the Warlord’s army lay siege to Thera, where Deimos has seized power and holds Tara hostage. The mage’s sorcery is no match for high explosives and inevitably he loses his life to Morgan’s flashing blade.

Warlord #5 finds the reunited lovers heading for Tara’s home city Shamballah, discovering en route ‘The Secret of Skartaris!’ in a lost temple that hides millennia-old computer records revealing the entire land to be a lost colony of Atlantis, with much of the magic of the timeless region nothing more than advanced technology. When one such dormant device rockets Morgan away, Tara thinks her man is gone forever…

‘Home is a Four-Letter Word!’ sees the displaced aviator returned to the surface-world with eight years gone by since his crash: emerging from a lost outpost in the Andes where a multi-national excavation is being conducted in the ruins of Machu Pichu.

However, the dig scientists use Morgan’s dog-tags to contact his CIA superiors and rapidly-arriving, extremely suspicious spooks assume he defected all these years ago: especially since one of the archaeologists is soviet researcher Mariah Romanova. When the intransigent spies rouse a demonic watchdog Morgan’s only chance is to head back to Skartaris – with Mariah in tow…

Back in the temple, the day spent on Earth has somehow translated into an interminable time within it. Tara is long gone and Morgan elects to follow her trail to Shamballah. Stopping in the city of Kiro, Morgan and Mariah save his old comrade Machiste from the insidious horror of ‘The Iron Devil’, after which the trio voyage together: attacked by cyborg vampires from ‘The City in the Sky’ and braving ‘The Lair of the Snowbeast’ – wherein Morgan discovers a unique benefactor and a tragically brief love…

Warlord #10 offers the opening sally in a long-running saga as the ‘Tower of Fear’ has the trio aiding a maiden in distress and inadvertently restoring the underland’s greatest monster to life. ‘Trilogy’ in #11 features a triptych of vignettes to display conflicting aspects of the Warlord’s complex character, after which ‘The Hunter’ pits the wandering warriors against a manic, vengeful CIA agent who followed Morgan to Skartaris before ‘All Men Are Mine’ depicts the gravely wounded Warlord’s battle against the very personification of Death.

Issue #15,‘Holocaust’ (inked by Joe Rubinstein) marks the series’  advancement to a monthly schedule whilst finally reuniting Morgan and Tara in Shamballah. The obtuse warrior is stunned to see Mariah heartbroken by the couple’s joy, resulting in hers and Machiste’s incensed departure. The biggest shock, though, is Morgan’s  introduction to his son, Joshua… He doesn’t have much time to dwell, though, as the city starts to explosively self-destruct. …And while Morgan and Tara combat the crisis, undead Deimos strikes, abducting the baby…

Vince Colletta came aboard as regular inker with the beginning of ‘The Quest’ as Morgan and Tara hunt the revenant sorcerer, starting with ‘Visions in a Crimson Eye’; battling Deimos’ minions and rival magicians; encountering and surviving the desert-locked ‘Citadel of Death’ (which reveals some intriguing Skartaran history from the Age of the Wizard Kings) before being briefly distracted by alien invaders in ‘Bloodmoon’.

Scouring Skartaris, Tara and Morgan reunite with Mariah and Machiste in ‘Wolves of the Steppes’ after which the quartet brave Deimos’ fortress in ‘Battlecry’, just as the unliving savant begins experimenting on little Joshua, marrying recovered Atlantean science with his sinister sorceries…

The epic quest concluded in Warlord #21 with Morgan compelled to battle an enslaved adult Joshua in ‘Terminator’. When he kills his own son, the Warlord’s heart breaks and his love abandons him… but as ever, nothing is quite as it seems…

Shell-shocked, Morgan loses himself in drink and bloodletting, battling werewolves and worse in ‘The Beast in the Tower’; subterraneans and cannibals in ‘The Children of Ba’al’ and tragically trysting with a love that cannot last in ‘Song of Ligia’ before becoming a mercenary in ‘This Sword For Hire’ and making a new friend in unscrupulous but flamboyant thief Ashir.

Together they accept ‘The Challenge’ of winning ultimate knowledge and, as Deimos begins his next deadly assault, Morgan relives all his past lives (which include Lancelot, Jim Bowie and Crazy Horse) whilst experiencing first-hand the true story of ‘Atlantis Dying’

The last inclusion in this compilation comprises two linked tales. In the first, Morgan crushes alien horrors in ‘The Curse of the Cobra Queen’ whilst long absent Tara, Mariah and Machiste are drawn into a time-warping encounter with the lost masters of ‘Wizard World’ – the opening salvo in another extended epic that you’ll have to wait for a second volume to enjoy…

The tricky concept of relativistic time and how it does or doesn’t seem to function in this Savage Paradise increasingly grated with many readers, but as Grell’s stated goal was to produce a perfect environment for yarn-spinning, not a science project, the picky pedant would be best advised to suck it up or stay away.

For we simple, thrill-seeking fantasy lovers, however, these are pure escapist tales of action and adventure, light on plot and angst but aggressively and enthusiastically jam-packed with action and wonder. These are timeless tales that will enthral, beguile and enchant. As the man himself constantly says “in Skartaris, always expect the unexpected”… even a long overdue revival of these reprint compendia…
© 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Violenzia and Other Deadly Amusements


By Richard Sala (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-885-4 (TPB)

Richard Sala was a lauded and brilliantly gifted exponent and comics creator who deftly blended beloved pop culture artefacts and conventions – particularly cheesy comics and old horror films – with a hypnotically effective ability to tell a graphic tale.

A child who endured sustained paternal abuse, Sala grew up in Chicago and Arizona. Retreating into childish bastions of entertainment, he eventually escaped family traumas and as an adult earned a Masters Degree in Fine Arts. He became an illustrator after rediscovering a youthful love of comic books and schlock films that had brightened his youth.

His metafictional, self-published Night Drive in 1984 led to appearances in legendary 1980s anthologies Raw, Blab! and Prime Cuts, with animated adaptations produced for Liquid Television.

He died in 2020 aged 65, but his work remains welcomingly atmospheric, dryly ironic, wittily quirky and mordantly funny; indulgently celebrating childhood terrors, gangsters, bizarre events, monsters and manic mysteries, with a host of women as his stars of choice: girl sleuth Judy Drood, the glorious trenchant storybook investigator Peculia and this particular femme so very fatale…

Sala’s art is a joltingly jolly – if macabre – joy to behold and shone on many out-industry projects such as his work with Lemony Snickett, The Residents and even Jack Kerouac: illustrating the author’s outrageous Doctor Sax and The Great World Snake.

This compelling mystery melange from 2015 combines a quartet of short comics treats commencing with the eponymous ‘Violenzia’: a vividly coloured and constructed pastiche of Hammer Horror films of a mystery maid and her gleaming guns, rousing villagers and pitilessly dealing with a sinister murder cult in the manner they deserve all while getting ever-closer to a very familiar monk-like mastermind…

That smartly witty twisty tale segues to an eerie sepia sampled soliloquy, poetically and despondently following a foredoomed soul retracing his steps until horrifying recalling what he’d ‘Forgotten’

Macabre musings in the mode of a child’s alphabet primer, ‘Malevolent Reveries – An Alphabetical Exhibition’ mixes rhyme with crafty pictures of the artist’s cartoon canon of characters from ‘An Afternoon of Appalling Apparitions’ to ‘Zero Hour on Zombie Island’ cannily calm the nerves before climactic chills are unleashed when ‘Violenzia Returns’. This time her gunsights are set on the Council of Augers and her dogged pursuit throws up some sudden surprises and a whiff of doomed romance; or possibly just doom…

Clever, compelling and staggeringly engaging, this fabulous farrago of fantastic fiends and ferocious fights (also available in digital formats) is a perfect introduction to Sala’s worlds: a sublimely nostalgic escape hatch back to days when unruly children scared themselves silly under the bedcovers at night, and an ideal gift for idle moments for the big kid in your life – whether he/she/they are just you, imaginary or even relatively real…

Violenzia and Other Deadly Amusements © 2015 Richard Sala. This edition © 2015 Fantagraphics Books All rights reserved.

Space Clusters – DC Graphic Novel 7


By Arthur Byron Cover & Alex Niño (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-0930289140 (Album PB)

Ever had a greebley, itchily irritating, unsuitable day when everything – even physical laws and common sense – seem to have taken spiteful umbrage at you? Well, those get more frequent the older you get.

If you actually reach a vintage and vantage where it’s commonplace, the only remedy – albeit short-lived – is to have a moan and whine about something else. As displacement strategies go, it’s generally non-addictive and satisfying in the short-term, and maybe somebody, somewhere will listen…

My go-to subject whenever that happens is superb graphic works that have been left to fade away without even digital versions made for posterity. Like this one…

During the 1980s DC, like many publishers galvanised by new print-formats and price-tags, attempted to liberate comics narratives from previous constraints of size, format and content.

Graphic novels were still an unproven quantity in America and Big Guns DC and Marvel – as well as angelic upstarts First and Comico – adopted a kind of scattershot “suck it and see” attitude for content and embraced the European Album size and page format.

Whereas the House of Ideas had a solid publishing plan that didn’t stray too far from their usual periodical product, DC looked to expand or overlap markets by creating “boutique” imprints such as the Science Fiction Graphic Novel line which adapted classic short stories and novellas into highly experimental graphic narratives and a general catch-all… the DC Graphic Novel Series.

Often – at least in sequential narrative terms – there’s not much discernible difference between the two, but since this a safe space to review and promote graphic novels, please be assured that this is one that works excessively well: evocative, bold and beautifully realised.

To accompany in-house landmarks like Jack Kirby’s Hunger Dogs and licensed material like Star Raiders and Warlords, DC commissioned all-new tales such as the spectacular, unique and eons-spanning cosmic fantasy of the Space Clusters.

Scripted by author Arthur Byron Cover (Autumn Angels, An East Wind Coming) the true lure here is lavish full-colour illustration of the most stylish, uncompromisingly impressive artists of the 1970s Filipino invasion – Alex Niño.

He was born in 1940, son of and later assistant to a professional photographer. Alex studied medicine at University of Manila but dropped out in 1959 to pursue his dream of being a comics artist.

He apprenticed with Jess Jodloman and worked on a number of successful features before following Tony DeZuñiga in the first wave of Islands artists to work for DC, Marvel, Gold Key and Warren. A stand-alone stylist even amongst his talented confederates, Niño started on DC’s supernatural anthologies such as House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion, Secrets of Sinister House, Weird War Tales, Weird Mystery Tales and The Witching Hour before moving onto character driven series such as Korak, Son of Tarzan, Space Voyagers and period Caribbean pirate Captain Fear – which he co-created with Robert Kanigher.

His Marvel work included adaptations for their own “illustrated Classics” line and landmark interpretations of Ellison’s ‘“Repent Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman’ and Moorcock’s ‘Behold the Man’ for Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction(and where’s that longed for collection, while we’re whining?) as well as the stunning Savage Sword of Conan classic ‘People of the Dark’ and assorted inking jobs on superhero titles.

He found his fullest expression in Warren Publishing’s mature-oriented magazines Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella and the outrageously over-the-top sci-fi erotica title 1984/1994 before largely leaving the industry for Hollywood design work.

True afficionados might also seek out his stint on Archie’s The Comet and Shield/Steel Sterling whilst DC’s Thrillerand Omega Men were fairly impressive swan-songs. He also worked for a variety of smaller companies during the 1980s Independents boom and the curious should track down his one-man band Alex Niño’s Nightmare #1, featuring translated Filipino material, published in 1989 by Innovation.

He occasionally returned to comics in such titles as Dark Horse Presents, Shaman, John Jakes’ Mullkon Empire, Savage Sword of Conan and God the Dyslexic Dog, Dead Ahead and Batman: Black and White.

Offering overtones of Les Miserables and The Forever War, Space Clusters opens as beloved rogue and man of the people Ethan Dayak is finally cornered by dedicated Earth cop Lieutenant Kara Basuto of the Terran Interplanetary Corps on a far-flung alien world.

She has pursued the smuggler of decadent art across the universe at sub-light speeds for eighty years, aging only when she hits a new planet and emerges from suspended animation.

Kara is cold, fanatical and dedicated whilst Dayak is an affable, personable and loving man instantly adored by every race and sentient species he encounters …

During their latest confrontation, Ethan again escapes, thanks to the intervention of his latest paramour, causing the increasingly remorseless Basuto to finally cross the line and kill civilians…

Crushed, defeated and despondent, Dayak sets course for the edge of the galaxy, intending to sleep his way to infinity but even this does not deter Basuto who implacably follows. Time becomes nothing and eventually both fall into the event horizon of a Black Hole where something incredible happens: both are transformed into supernal, sentient energy phenomena, still trapped in their course of flight and relentless pursuit…

However, here at the end of space and time, a mighty new race populates the universe and how these ancient new gods deal with the last life of the cosmos makes for a powerful and beguiling drama no fan of the fantastic will want to miss, especially as the expanded page size and enhanced colour palette gave Niño ample opportunity to let his fantastic imagination run wild.

It’s an inexpressible pity that its out of print (but at least copies are still readily available from online vendors) and this is an experiment DC should seriously consider reviving and resuming. So why don’t we do that then?…
© 1986 DC Comics Inc. All rights reserved.

Suicide Squad volume 1: Trial by Fire (New Edition)


By John Ostrander, Luke McDonnell, Bob Lewis, Karl Kesel, Dave Hunt & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5831-3 (TPB)

Following the huge success of Crisis on Infinite Earths, fickle fan-interest was concentrated on DC, and many of their major properties – and indeed the entire continuity – were opened up for radical change, innovation and renewal.

So, how best to follow the previous year’s cosmic catastrophe? Why not a much smaller and more personal Great Disaster, spotlighting those strangers in familiar costumes and a bunch of beginnings rather than the deaths and endings of the Crisis?

Thus, Darkseid of Apokolips attacked humanity’s spirit by destroying the very concept of heroism and individuality in Legends and sent hyper-charismatic Glorious Godfrey to America to lead a common man’s crusade against extraordinary heroes, while he initiated individual assaults to demoralize and destroy key champions of Earth.

The rampant civil unrest prompted President Ronald Reagan to outlaw costumed crime-busters and opened the door for a governmental black-bag operation to use super-powered operatives who had no option but to obey the orders of their betters…

That was the beguiling concept behind the creation – or more accurately consolidation and reactivation – of separate but associated concepts dating back to the 1960s and the first revival of superhero comics.

John Ostrander was new to DC; lured with editor Mike Gold from Chicago’s First Comics where their work on Starslayer, Munden’s Bar and especially Grimjack had made the independent minnows some of the most popular series of the decade. Spinning out of Legends, Ostrander hit the ground running with a superb and compelling reinterpretation of the long neglected Suicide Squad: a boldly controversial revaluation of meta-humanity and the hidden role of government in a world far more dangerous than the placid public believed…

Devised by Robert Kanigher, The War that Time Forgot debuted in Star Spangled War Stories #90 (April-May 1960) and ran until #137 (May 1968). The wonderment began as paratroops and tanks of “Question Mark Patrol” were dropped on Mystery Island from whence no American soldiers ever returned. The crack warriors discovered why when the operation was overrun by Pterosaurs, Tyrannosaurs and worse: all superbly rendered by veteran art team Ross Andru & Mike Esposito.

What followed was years of astonishing action as various military disciplines – of assorted nationalities – pitted modern weapons and human guts against the most terrifying monsters ever to stalk the Earth…

The Brave and the Bold #25 (September 1959) was the first issue of the title in its new format as a try-out vehicle testing new characters and concepts before launching them into their own series. Inauspiciously, the premier starred a quartet of human specialists – Colonel Rick Flag, medic Karin Grace and big-brained boffins Hugh Evans and Jess Price – officially convened by the US government into a Suicide Squad codenamed Task Force X to investigate uncanny mysteries and tackle unnatural threats.

The gung-ho gang – another Kanigher, Andru & Esposito invention – appeared in six issues but never really caught the public’s attention – perhaps because they weren’t costumed heroes – and quickly faded from memory.

In April 1967, Our Fighting Forces #106 began running the exploits of homicide detective Ben Hunter who was recruited by the army during WWII to run roughshod over a penal battalion of prisoners who had grievously broken regulations.

Facing imprisonment or execution, the individually lethal military malcontents were given a chance to earn a pardon by undertaking missions deemed too tough or hopeless for proper soldiers. Hunter’s Hellcats – inarguably “inspired” by the movie The Dirty Dozen – ran until OFF #122 (December 1969) on increasingly nasty and occasionally fatal little sorties, before being replaced without fanfare or preamble by The Losers and similarly lost to posterity.

This reissued trade paperback/digital collection (spanning May to December 1987) gathers the in-filling, background-providing revised backstory from Secret Origins #14 and the first 8 issues of the decidedly devious thriller serial set in the darkest corners of the-then DCU. It opens sans fanfare in the Oval Office as strident political insider Amanda Wallerbriefs the President on ‘The Secret Origin of the Suicide Squad’ (by Ostrander, Luke McDonnell & Dave Hunt).

Smartly amalgamating the aforementioned Hellcats and Colonel Flag through early missions against those dinosaurs, Ostrander neatly tied together strands and linked obscure periods of recent events to provide a shocking secret history of America: a time when superheroes were forced into retirement after World War II, with the US military and Task Force X used to unobtrusively take out those monsters, spies, aliens and super-criminals who didn’t conveniently pack up with them…

Waller has a plan: she doesn’t want society to depend on the current crop of capricious super do-gooders and has recruited Flag’s damaged and driven son to run a new penal battalion comprising captured super-villains who will work off the books for the highest echelons of government, using metahuman force for the greater – i.e. political – good…

The true reasons and motivations for her actions are then disclosed in a tragic story of personal loss and criminal atrocity before she is grudgingly given the go-ahead, but told that if the new initiative fails or becomes public knowledge, she alone will bear the blame…

The series proper – by Ostrander and McDonnell – begins with ‘Trial by Blood’ (inked by Karl Kesel) as metahuman terrorist team The Jihad – working out of rogue state Qurac bloodily prepare to bring slaughter to America. Tipped off by an asset inside the killer sect, the US wants to stop the killers before they start. This means sending Waller’s convict team to kill off the Jihad before they even leave their impregnable mountain fortress.

Knowing criminals cannot be trusted, the set-up involves not just bribery – reduced sentence deals, favours and pardons – but also minor coercion. Combat operations are led by traumatised, obsessively patriotic Rick Flag Jr. – assisted by amnesiac martial arts master Bronze Tiger. To keep everybody honest and on-mission, convict-operatives Deadshot, Plastique, Mindboggler, Captain Boomerang and schizophrenic sorceress Enchantress are wired with remote-detonation explosive devices…

Backed by a support team which includes Flag’s ex-girlfriend Karin Grace and Briscoe, an oddball mystery pilot enjoying a rather unusual relationship with his seemingly sentient helicopter gunship, the squad seem ready for anything. However, even before they set off for Qurac, things go badly wrong after Boomerang and Mindboggler clash and the Australian promises bloody vengeance…

Linking up with undercover asset Nightshade, even more misfortune manifests as the teleporting covert op violently complains to Flag about the horrific things she has had to do since infiltrating Jihad. Challenged but committed now, the unwilling agents begin their assignments in assassination but the ‘Trial by Fire’ unravels when one of the Squad switches sides…

Thankfully, the US has another agent in play and undercover, so the damage is limited. Nevertheless, not every American makes it home…

Issue #3 finds defeated and deflated New God Glorious Godfrey incarcerated in Belle Reve: a superhuman detention centre and top secret base of the Suicide Squad, whilst a universe away his master Darkseid despatches Female Furies Lashina, Stompa, Bernadeth and Mad Harriet to fetch him home.

Tensions pop Earth-side when Flag strenuously objects to mind-wiping procedures being used on one of his “recruits”, and Waller takes flak from Nightshade and super-disguise expert Nemesis over her handling of the Qurac mission… even getting grief from mouthy felon Digger Harkness.

The erstwhile Captain Boomerang was promised a measure of leniency and even a place outside the walls if he behaved, and thinks it’s time he got his reward. All arguments end however when the unstoppable Furies bust in to administer Darkseid’s judgement in ‘Jailbreak’

Despite their best efforts the mere mortals are swept aside and only the renewal of an internecine struggle for command of the Furies prevents greater harm to the criminal crew…

As Bob Smith takes over inking these tense yarns, domestic issues take precedence when a new masked hero begins cleaning up the streets of Central City. Waller is painfully aware that the increasingly popular vigilante is turning minority criminals over to the cops, but letting white perps slide if they promise to join burgeoning political party the Aryan Empire

With undercover specialists Black Orchid and Nemesis taking the lead and obnoxious racist Harkness acting as thoroughly credible decoy, the team – supplemented by Time Thief Chronos – lay a trap for a white supremacist billionaire to end ‘William Hell’s Overture’

A disastrous dip into Cold War realpolitik then begins when Waller is ordered to send a team into a Soviet gulag to rescue a dissident novelist in ‘The Flight of the Firebird’.

Tapping criminal strategist The Penguin to plan the complex mission, neither she, her superiors nor indeed anyone seems aware that the Russians actually want to banish gadfly Zoya Trigorin to the West, but she wants to stay a martyr in the Novogorod “psychiatric centre”…

More importantly, the foredoomed scheme depends on Enchantress, who now exhibits all the more bloodthirsty symptoms of being crazier than a bag-full of rabid badgers…

Before they head off, Flag checks in on Harkness (who has earned his own place in New Orleans), blithely unaware that the unrepentant rogue is already planning to supplement his civil service stipend by returning to his old felonious ways…

The mission begins and the Squad slowly infiltrates the frozen town of Gorki and breaks into Novogorod, but when Trigorin refuses to leave they are forced to kidnap her and make a desperate escape across Russia in ‘Hitting the Fan’.

The botched job leads American authorities to disavow all knowledge of their efforts, but the real problem is still the killing cold, vast distance and murderously determined efforts of Soviet super-team The People’s Heroes, who relentlessly hunt the survivors who have been ‘Thrown to the Wolves’ by their own bosses…

This glimpse at the grubby underside of super-heroics concludes with a smart yet incisive perusal of project psychologist Simon La Grieve’s ‘Personal Files’: offering insights and setting up future subplots for Waller, Flag, Deadshot Floyd Lawton, Boomerang and temporarily curtailed, mystically-bound Enchantress as well as her helpless human host June Moon

These were and remain a magnificent mission statement for the DC Universe, offering gritty, witty, cohesive and contemporary stories that appealed not just to Fights ‘n’ Tights fanatics but also lovers of espionage and crime capers. This collection is perfect fun-fodder for today’s so-sophisticated, informed and thrill-seeking readers.
© 1987, 2021 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved. Original compilation © 2011, DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Rawhide Kid Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Ross Andru, Paul Reinman, Dick Ayers & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2117-6 (HB) 978-0-7851-8848-3 (TPB)

For the greater part of the 1960s nobody did superheroes better than Marvel Comics. However, even fully acknowledging the stringencies of the Comics Code Authority, the company’s style for producing their staple genre titles for War, Romance and especially Western fans left a lot to be desired. Hints at sex, the venality of authority figures or sticking a proper gun in a character’s hand and boldness and innovation gave way to overwhelming caution and a tone that wouldn’t be amiss in kids’ cartoons or pre-Watershed family TV shows.

Mercifully for revivals of such venerable stars as the Rawhide Kid, the company’s meagre art-pool consisted of such master craftsmen as Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers and others…

Technically the Kid is one of the company’s older icons, having debuted in his own title with a March 1955 cover-date. A stock and standard sagebrush centurion clad in a buckskin jacket, his first adventures were illustrated by jobbing cartoonists such as Bob Brown and Ayers but the comicbook became one of the first casualties when Atlas’ distribution woes forced the company to cut back to 16 titles a month in the autumn of 1957.

With Westerns big on TV and youthful rebellion a hot new societal concept in 1960, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby concocted a brand new six-gun stalwart – little more than a teenager – and launched him in summer of that year, economically continuing the numbering of the failed original.

Reprinting Rawhide Kid #17-25, spanning August 1960 to December1961, these western wonders are available in hardback, trade paperback and digital editions (there’s even a Marvel Essential monochrome tome out there): all offeringan eclectic mix of hoary clichés, astounding genre mash-ups and the occasional nugget of pure cowboy story-gold with some of the King’s most captivating and impressive art as well as significant contributions from a number of other laudable pencil-pushers.

Most important to remember is that these yarns are not even trying to be gritty or authentic: they’re accessing and addressing the vast miasmic morass of wholesome, homogenised Hollywood mythmaking that generations preferred to learning of the grim everyday toil and terror of the real Old West, so sit back, reset your moral compass to “Fair Enough” and relax and revel in simple Black Hats vs. White Hats, delivered with all the bombast and bravura Jack Kirby and his contemporaries could so readily muster…

Following an Introduction from honorary hombre Stan Lee, it all begins with the 17th (but still, quirkily, debut) issue as Lee, Kirby & Ayers introduce adopted teenaged Johnny Bart who teaches all and sundry in cow-town Rawhide to ‘Beware! The Rawhide Kid’

That happened after his retired Texas Ranger Uncle Ben was gunned down by fame-hungry cheat Hawk Brown. After very publicly exercising his right to vengeance, the naive kid fled Rawhide before he could explain, resigned to life as an outlaw…

Following text thriller ‘Dynamite Trail’ the comic marvels resume with ‘Stagecoach to Shotgun Gap!’ as youthful fugitive teaches passengers not to judge an outlaw by appearances, before we pause for a salutary fable in the Don Heckillustrated ‘With Gun in Hand!’ revealing the deadly downside of being the most infamous shootist, after which we return to Kirby and The Kid for a bout of rustler outwitting in ‘When the Rawhide Kid Turned… Outlaw!’

More Lee, Kirby & Ayers magic opens #18 as the lonely outsider joins a real outlaw gang only to find he cannot stomach his new allies and finds himself ‘At the Mercy of Wolf Waco!’ The continued tale concludes in ‘The Rawhide Kid Strikes Back!’ as Rawhide saves a besieged  train from the brutes before riding off into the night. Genre prose piece ‘The Brave White Man’ – illustrated by Joe Maneely – brings us to Ross Andru & Mike Esposito’s tale of an old sheriff and ‘The Midnight Raiders!’ before the Kid closes the show by taking down an ignorant bully in ‘A Legend is Born!’

Another extended tale opened Rawhide Kid #19 with ‘Gun Duel in Trigger Gap’ divided into ‘Chapter 1: The Garson Gang Strikes!’ and ‘Chapter 2: Revenge of the Rawhide Kid!’ as the fugitive tries to build a new, peaceful life until fate and marauding outlaws ruin everything…

Text vignette ‘Two-Gun Justice’ leads to Paul Reinman’s pocket précis of Kit Carson in ‘The Rip-Snorter’ before ‘Fight or Crawl, Kid!’ again finds a big man taken to task for bad behaviour by the increasingly impatient Rawhide…

Issue #20’s ‘Shoot-Out with Blackjack Bordon sees the Kid fooled by a canny brute with a fake badge and spurious pardon as ‘Chapter 1: The Treachery of Blackjack Bordon’ leads inevitably to ‘Chapter 2: The Rawhide Kid Strikes Back!’ Text tale ‘Old Mining Town’ precedes Heck’s moral homily ‘Return of the Gunfighter!’ which echoes the Kid’s sacrifice in turning a child’s hero worship into loathing and disgust in ‘The Defeat of the Rawhide Kid!’

The first instalment of #21’s extended tale ‘The Gunmen of Sundown City!’ finds Rawhide respectfully surrendering to an aging marshal, only to assist the lawman when’s ambushed in ‘The Kid Fights for his Life!’ The drama continues in ‘The Rawhide Kid… Outlaw!’ and spectacularly ends in the traditional manner in a ‘Showdown with Grizzly Younger’. Prose mystery ‘The Ghostly Prints’ then ushers us into lowkey, Heck limned revenge yarn ‘The Gunslinger!’

In the months before Fantastic Four #1 debuted, the former Atlas outfit found that for them aliens ruled. Thus, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that Rawhide Kid #22 (June 1961) mashed up Monsters and Indians for ‘Beware!! The Terrible Totem!!’, as restless Rawhide stumbles into a silver mine staffed by slaves just in time for the criminals in charge to incur the wrath of a giant terror.

‘The Totem Strikes!’ and the Kid resists, learning that his incredible foe is an awakened alien who is extremely angry at everyone… and bulletproof. Its rampage leaves Rawhide ‘Trapped by the Totem!’, but still swift and smart enough to engineer ‘The End of the Totem’

Prose yarn ‘No Guns in Town’ then takes us neatly to Heck’s ‘Slap Leather, Lawman!’ as another well past it lawman faces down his final foe…

A year after his debut, Stan, Jack& Dick – mostly Stan, I suspect – felt it was time for the western wonder to revisit and recap the way it began. Issue #23 delivered a remastered masterpiece with ‘The Origin of the Rawhide Kid!’ for new readers to enjoy, before text tale ‘Golden Trail’ cleared the palate for more action in extended saga ‘A Place to Hide!’ The Kid’s latest shot at peace and romance go south when the gang of Montana Joe hit town and stern steps need to be taken to save civilians in ‘No Place to Hide!’ after which Reinman recounts a tale of mistaken identity in ‘They Called Him Outlaw!’

Kirby & Ayers’ were reaching a peak of artistic excellence when Rawhide Kid #24 proclaimed a ‘Showdown in Silver City!’ with the Kid ambushed and replaced by a cunning imposter who learned too late the folly of his actions, and prose yarn ‘Tie Your Sixgun Low’ segued into an all Ayers affair of ‘The Man Without a Gun’ proving you don’t need firearmsto deal with trouble before rejoining the King for ‘Gunman’s Gamble!’ as the Kid saves a widow’s home from repossession by a small demonstration of shooting skills…

This initial compilation concludes with #25 and a classic clash seeing the Kid ride into a town already plagued by a (masked and costumed) bandit. As much whodunnit as action adventure, ‘The Bat Strikes!’ and text filler ‘Trail of Long Ago’ takes us a brutal battle with outraged Indians and turbulent skies in ‘The Twister!’ After inking Kirby’s epic vistas Ayers illustrates a tale of foolish assumptions in ‘The Man who Robbed the Express!’ before he, Kirby & Lee reveal who ‘Those who Live by the Gun…’ shouldn’t try to bushwhack the Rawhide Kid when he’s sleeping…

Also on view is a bonus cover gallery of Mighty Marvel Western #1-16 by Herb Trimpe, Frank Giacoia, John Verpoorten and John Severin, highlighting the 1968-71 reprint run of Rawhide Kid Classics.

To be frank, unless you’re an old school western buff, the stories here are mostly mediocre, occasionally insensitive, and once or twice borderline offensive. If the social climate and your own conscience trouble you, stay away from here. If however, you can see this stuff in historical context – created by genuine reformers who pioneered diversity in comics and even created the Black Panther together – take a look. Here is work that built the groundwork of the Marvel revolution and some of the very best narrative artwork ever seen.
© 2020 MARVEL.

Die Laughing


By Andre Franquin, translated by Jenna Allen (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-091-1 (HB)

Like so much in Franco-Belgian comics, it all starts with Le Journal de Spirou. The magazine was first seen on April 2nd1938, with its engaging and eponymous lead strip created by Rob-Vel (François Robert Velter). In 1943 publishing giant Dupuis purchased all rights to the comic and its titular star, after which comic-strip prodigy Joseph Gillain (“Jijé”) took the helm.

In 1946 Jijé’s assistant assumed the creative reins, gradually side-lining the previously-established short gag vignettes in favour of extended adventure serials. He introduced a broad, engaging cast of regulars: adding to the mix phenomenally popular rare beast and animal marvel Marsupilami (first seen in Spirou et les héritiers in 1952 and eventually a spin-off star of screen, plush toy store, console games and albums in his own right).

He continued crafting increasingly fantastic tales and absorbing Spirou sagas until his resignation in 1969. Throughout that period the creator was deeply involved in the production of the weekly Spirou comic and increasingly beset by depression and other mental health issues.

André Franquin was born in Etterbeek, Belgium on January 3rd 1924. Drawing from an early age, the lad only began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943. When the war forced the school’s closure a year later, he found work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels where he met Maurice de Bévère (AKA Lucky Luke creator “Morris”), Pierre Culliford (Peyo, creator of The Smurfs and Benny Breakiron) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945 all but Peyo signed on with Dupuis, and Franquin began his career as a jobbing cartoonist/illustrator, producing covers for Le Moustique and scouting magazine Plein Jeu. During those early days, Franquin and Morris were being tutored by Jijé, who was the main illustrator at Le Journal de Spirou. He turned the youngsters – and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite (AKA “Will” – Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, Le jardin des désirs) – into a smoothly functioning creative bullpen known as La bande des quatre or “Gang of Four”. They later reshaped and revolutionised Belgian comics with their prolific and engaging “Marcinelle school” style of graphic storytelling…

Jijé handed Franquin all responsibilities for the flagship strip part-way through Spirou et la maison préfabriquée (Spirou #427, June 20th 1946). The new kid ran with it for the next two decades; enlarging the scope and horizons of the feature until it became purely his own. Almost every week fans would meet startling new characters such as comrade/rival Fantasio or crackpot inventor and Merlin of mushroom mechanics the Count of Champignac.

Spirou & Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, travelling to exotic places, uncovering crimes, exploring the fantastic and clashing with a coterie of exotic arch-enemies. However, throughout all that time Fantasio was still a full-fledged reporter for Le Journal de Spirou and had to pop into the office all the time.

While there he conceived another landmark icon, a comedic foil and meta-real alter ego who was an accident-prone, big-headed junior in charge of minor jobs and dogs-bodying. His name was Gaston Lagaffe and through him Franquin expressed his unruly dissident opinions and tendencies…

Gaston – who debuted in #985, (February 28th 1957) – grew to be one of the most popular and perennial components of the comic. In terms of entertainment schtick and delivery, older readers will certainly recognise beats of Jacques Tati and timeless elements of well-meaning self-delusion British readers will recognise from Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em or Mr Bean. It’s slapstick, paralysing puns, pomposity lampooned and no good deed going noticed, rewarded or unpunished…

In a splendid example of good practise, Franquin mentored his own band of apprentice cartoonists during the 1950s. These included Jean Roba (La Ribambelle, Boule et Bill/Billy and Buddy); Jidéhem (Sophie, Starter, Gaston Lagaffe) and Greg (Comanche, Bruno Brazil, Bernard Prince, Zig et Puce, Achille Talon), who all worked with him on Spirou et Fantasio. In 1955, a contractual spat with Dupuis saw Franquin briefly enlist with rivals Casterman on Le Journal deTintin, where he collaborated with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the fashion/lifestyle domestic comedy gag strip Modeste et Pompon. Franquin almost immediately  patched things up with Dupuis and returned to Spirou, subsequently co-creating Gaston Lagaffe (known in Britain these days as Gomer Goof) in 1957, but was obliged to carry on his Casterman commitments too…

From 1959, writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem assisted Franquin, but by 1969 the artist had reached his Spirou limit. He quit, taking his mystic yellow monkey with him…

Later creations include fantasy series Isabelle, illustration sequence Monsters and this arcane convergence of bleak gallows humour, adult conceptual nihilism and impassioned social and ideological frustration lensed through comedy. If you’re aware of the later work of Spike Milligan, you’ll know instinctively what I mean. The strip and original series title Idées Noires has entered into common usage in French-speaking countries, as a term for gloomy or negative thoughts: dark ideas daily obsessing people in crisis expunged and expressed through strident manic humour…

It began as he recuperated from a heart attack in 1975. Idées Noires was part of an insert comic – Le Trombone illustré – he and Yvan Delporte produced for weekly Le Journal de Spirou beginning with the March 17th 1977 issue. After 30 mini-issues, and with the global situation looking increasingly fraught, a revitalised Franquin took the strip to mature reader magazine Fluide Glacial where it ran until 1983.

Plagued throughout his life by depression, Franquin passed away on January 5th 1997, but his legacy remains: a vast body of work that reshaped the landscape of European comics.

In 2018, Fantagraphics gathered and translated the strips, releasing them as Die Laughing.

As seen in Cynthia Rose’s erudite and informative Introduction – ‘Liberty, Audacity, Hilarity: André Franquin’ – the peripatetic feature gave Franquin room to address his allegiances with issues of environmentalism, animal cruelty, political duplicity and plain old human insanity and strike back with the best weapons in his arsenal: sarcasm, mockery and despairing outrage.

To further demarcate the series from past works, the images are delivered in scratchy, shocking lines and solid blacks, with elements reversed out: it’s a world of silhouettes, deep shadows and brooding forward spaces and middle-grounds, with no extraneous detail: all delivered in eerie evocative, expressionist monochrome, rather than the shining and substantial Disney-inspired colour of Spirou and the Marsupilami…

This hardback and digital compilation consists of half and full page shorts plus a few longer cartoon strips lampooning and spearing, smug pomposity, business greed, military-industrial chicanery and ruthlessness, planetary abuse such as inflicted by oil companies and the global arms race. There are many mordant observations on sport, war for profit, the death penalty (still the guillotine, for Pete’s sake!), alien abduction, the rat race, sheer random surreal absurdism, all skewered by a sense of cosmic justice acknowledged, if not satisfied…

A constant theme returned to with merciless regularity is bloodsports and the kind of arsehole who finds fun and feels magnified by pointless slaughter. Especially singled out are those French “traditionalists” who simply must slaughter songbirds in their thousands every year as they migrate to and from Europe…

Franquin was a master of comedy in all its aspects from whimsically light to trenchantly black-edged. Come see how and why…
Die Laughing © 2018 by Fantagraphics Books, Inc. Comics © Editions Audie/Franquin Estate. All rights reserved. Introduction © 2018 by Cynthis Rose. Afterword © 2018 Gotlib Estate. All other images and text © 2018 their respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam!”


By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-779-7 (HB)

HAPPY BIRTHDAY POPEYE!

The incredible Sailor-Man first shumbled onto the world stage in comic strip Thimble Theatre on January 17th 1929. Even though last year Fantagraphics began rereleasing this material in smaller less copious volumes – which I’ll also be reviewing – this initial colossal collection is probably my favourite vintage book ever and I mourn much that it’s out of print and unavailable digitally. I live in hope though…

Thimble Theatre was an unassuming comic strip which began on 19th December 1919; one of many newspaper features that parodied/burlesqued/mimicked the era’s (silent) movies. Its more successful forebears included C.W. Kahles’ Hairbreadth Harry and Ed Wheelan’s Midget Movies (later renamed Minute Movies).

These all used a repertory company of characters to play out generic adventures firmly based on those expressive cinema antics. Thimble Theatre’s cast included Nana and Cole Oyl, their gawky daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor, and Horace Hamgravy, Olive’s sappy would-be beau.

The series ticked along for a decade, competent and unassuming, with Castor and Ham Gravy, as he became, tumbling through get-rich-quick schemes, gentle adventures and simple gag situations until September 10th 1928 (the first strip reprinted in this astonishingly lavish and beautiful collection), when explorer uncle Lubry Kent Oyl gave Castor a present from his latest exploration of Africa: a hand-reared Whiffle Hen – most fabulous of all birds. It was the start of something groundbreaking.

As eny fule kno Whiffle Hens are troublesome, incredibly rare and possessed of fantastic powers, but after months of inspired hokum and slapsick shenanigans, Castor was resigned to Bernice – for that was the hen’s name – when a series of increasingly peculiar circumstances brought him into contention with the ruthless Mr. Fadewell, world’s greatest gambler and king of the gaming resort of ‘Dice Island’.

Bernice clearly affected writer/artist E.C. Segar, because his strip increasingly became a playground of frantic, compelling action and comedy during this period…

When Castor and Ham discovered that everybody wanted the Whiffle Hen because she could bestow infallible good luck, they sailed for Dice Island to win every penny from its lavish casinos. Sister Olive wanted to come along but the boys planned to leave her behind once their vessel was ready to sail. It was 16th January 1929…

The next day, in the 108th instalment of the saga, a bluff, irascible, ignorant, itinerant and exceeding ugly one-eyed old sailor was hired by the pair to man the boat they had rented, and the world was introduced to one of the most iconic and memorable characters ever conceived. By sheer, surly willpower, Popeye won the hearts and minds of readers: his no-nonsense, grumbling simplicity and dubious appeal enchanting the public until by the end of the tale, the walk-on had taken up full residency. He would eventually make the strip his own…

The journey to Dice Island was a terrible one: Olive had stowed away, and Popeye – already doing the work of twelve men – did not like her. After many travails the power of Bernice succeeded and Castor bankrupted Dice Island, but as they sailed for home with their millions Fadewell and his murderous associate Snork hunted them across the oceans. Before long, Popeye settled their hash too, almost at the cost of his life…

Once home, their newfound wealth quickly led Castor, Ham and Olive into more trouble, with carpetbaggers, conmen and ne’er-do-wells constantly circling, and before long they lost all their money (a common occurrence for them), but one they thing they couldn’t lose was their sea-dog tag-along. The public – and Segar himself – were besotted with the unlovable, belligerent old goat. After an absence of 32 episodes Popeye shambled back on stage, and he stayed for good.

Although not yet the paramour of Olive, Popeye increasingly took Ham’s place as a foil for sharp-talking, pompous Castor Oyl, and before long they were all having adventures together. After escaping jail at the start of ‘The Black Barnacle’ (December 11th 1929) they found themselves aboard an empty ship and at the start of a golden age of comic strip magic…

Segar famously considered himself an inferior draughtsman – most of the world disagreed and still does – but his ability to weave a yarn was unquestioned, and it grew to astounding and epic proportions in these strips.

Day by day he was creating the syllabary and graphic lexicon of a brand-new art-form, inventing narrative tricks and beats that a generation of artists and writers would use in their own works, and he did it while being scary, thrilling and funny all at once.

‘The Black Barnacle’ introduced the dire menace of the hideous Sea-Hag – one of the greatest villains in fiction – and the scenes of her advancing in misty darkness upon our sleeping heroes are still the most effective I’ve seen in all my years…

This incredible tale leads seamlessly into diamond-stealing, kidnappings, spurned loves, an African excursion and the introduction of wealthy Mr. Kilph, whose do-gooding propensities lead Castor and Popeye into plenty of trouble, beginning with the eerie science fiction thriller ‘The Mystery of Brownstone Hill’ and the return of the nefarious Snork, who almost murders the salty old seadog a second time…

The black and white dailies section ends with ‘The Wilson Mystery’ as Castor and Popeye set up their own detective agency – something that would become a common strip convention and the perfect maguffin to keep adventurers tumbling along. Even Mickey Mouse donned metaphoric deerstalker and magnifying glass for much of his own strip service…

These superb and colossal hardcover albums (200 pages and 368 mm by 268 mm) are augmented with fascinating articles and essays; including testimonial remembrances from famous cartoonists – Jules Feiffer in this first volume – and accompanied by the relevant full colour Sunday pages from the same period.

Here then are the more gag-oriented complete tales from 2nd March 1930 through February 22nd 1931, including the “topper” Sappo.

A topper was a small mini-strip that was run above the main feature on a Sunday page. Some were connected to the main strip, but many were just extraneous filler. They were used so that individual editors could remove them if their particular periodical had non-standard page requirements. Originally entitled The 5:15, Sappo was a surreal domestic comedy gag strip created by Segar in 1924 which became peculiarly entwined with the Sunday Thimble Theatre as the 1930s unfolded – and it’s a strip long overdue for consideration on its own unique merits….

Since many papers only carried dailies or Sundays, not necessarily both, a system of differentiated storylines developed early in American publishing, and when Popeye finally made his belated appearance, he was already a fairly well-developed character. Thus, Segar concentrated on more family-friendly gags – and eventually continued mini-sagas – and it was here that the Popeye/Olive Oyl modern romance began: a series of encounters full of bile, intransigence, repressed hostility, jealousy and passion which usually ended in raised voices and scintillating cartoon violence – and they are still as riotously funny now as then.

We saw softer sides of the sailor-man and, when Castor and Mr. Kilph realised how good Popeye was at boxing, an extended, trenchant and scathingly witty sequence about the sport of prize-fighting began. Again, cartoon violence was at a premium – family values were different then – but Segar’s worldly, probing satire and Popeye’s beguiling (but relative) innocence and lack of experience kept the entire affair in hilarious perspective whilst making him an unlikely and lovable waif.

Popeye is fast approaching his centenary and still deserves his place as a world icon. How many comics characters are still enjoying new adventures 93 years after their first? These magnificent volumes are the perfect way to celebrate the genius and mastery of EC Segar and his brilliantly imperfect superman. These are books that every home and library should have.

© 2006 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2006 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel Team-Up Marvel Masterworks volume 6


By Bill Mantlo, Chris Claremont, Sal Buscema, John Byrne, Keith Giffen & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2931-2 (HB)

The concept of team-ups – an established star pairing or battling (usually both) with new or less well-selling company characters – has been with us since the earliest days of comics, but making the brief encounter/temporary alliance a key selling point really took hold with DC’s The Brave and the Bold before being taken up by their biggest competitor.

Marvel Team-Up was the second regular Spider-Man title, launching at the end of 1971. It went from strength to strength, proving the time had finally come for expansion and offering a regular venue for uncomplicated action romps to supplement the House of Ideas’ complex sub-plot fare in regular books. However, even in the infinite Marvel Multiverse, certain stars shine more brightly than others and some characters turn up in team-ups more often than others…

In recent years, carefully curated themed collections from the back-catalogue have served to initiate new readers intrigued by Marvel’s Movie and TV endeavours, but there’s no real substitute for seeing Marvel’s continuity unfolding in chronological and this compelling hardback/eBook compilation gathers the contents of Marvel Team-Up #53-64; MTU Annual #1 and includes a pertinent debut from Marvel Premiere #31; collectively covering August 1976 to December 1977.

Following Chris Claremont’s Introduction offering fond remembrances of the times and key writer Bill Mantlo, open with an epic length adventure from Marvel Team-Up Annual #1 by Mantlo, Sal Buscema & Mike Esposito (from a plot by Mantlo, Claremont & Bonnie Wilford).

‘The Lords of Light and Darkness!’ sees Spider-Man and the then-newly minted and revived X-Men, Banshee, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus, Phoenix and Cyclops helping Charles Xavier combat a pantheon of scientists mutated by atomic accident and elevated to minor godhood.

Like most deities, the puissant ones believed they knew what was best for humanity…

Mantlo then teamed with John Byrne & Frank Giacoia to bring closure to a tale begun – and left hanging – in August 1976’s Marvel Premiere #31, which can be found at the back of this book.

Marvel Team-Up #53 detailed a ‘Nightmare in New Mexico!’ as The Hulk meets troubled and AWOL gene-splicing experiment Woodgod as the tragic construct flees from corrupt Army Colonel Del Tremens. By the time the wallcrawler drops in, the fugitive outcasts have joined forces leaving him a  ‘Spider in the Middle!’ (inked by Esposito).

As Tremens seeks to suppress the calamitous crisis – and his own indiscretions – by killing everyone, the final scene sees the webspinner trapped in a rocket and blasted into space…

Marvel Team-Up #55 revealed a ‘Spider, Spider on the Moon!’ (Mantlo, Byrne & Dave Hunt) with returned cosmic Avenger Adam Warlock intercepting the ship before assisting the Arachnid and mysterious alien The Gardener against The Stranger: all seeking possession of the Golden Gladiator’s life-sustaining Soul Gem…

Back on Earth but still a trouble-magnet, in #56 Spider-Man assists Daredevil against ‘Double Danger at the Daily Bugle!’ (Mantlo, Sal B & Hunt) when Electro and Blizzard take the entire Newsroom hostage, after which Claremont assumed full scripting duties, laying the groundwork for a complex extended thriller embroiling the still-naïve hero in a deadly espionage plot.

With artists Sal Buscema & Dave Hunt, Claremont began redefining the Widow’s ways in Marvel Team-Up #57 (May 1977). ‘When Slays the Silver Samurai!’ sees Spidey saved from lethal ambush by the Black Widow, implausibly holding up a collapsing building, and reluctantly taking possession of a strange statuette that he soon forgets all about. That’s an oversight he’ll later regret…

In #58, the webspinner aids Ghost Rider against The Trapster in ‘Panic on Pier One!’ (Pablo Marcos inks) before he can investigate further.  Another distraction comes when MTU #59 declares ‘Some Say Spidey Will Die by Fire… Some Say by Ice!’ (Claremont, Byrne & Hunt) when veteran Avenger Yellowjacket is apparently murdered by rampaging mystery maniac Equinox, the Thermo-Dynamic Man. The Amazing Arachnid is hard-pressed to stop the traumatised Waspexacting bloody vengeance in concluding episode ‘A Matter of Love… and Death!’ in MTU #60…

The secret of the clay artefact is revealed in #61 as Human Torch Johnny Storm joins his creepy-crawly frenemy in battle against the Super-Skrull and learns ‘Not All Thy Powers Can Save Thee!’, with the furious clash calamitously escalating to include Ms. Marvel Carol Danvers with the next issue’s ‘All This and the QE2’

Despite the very best efforts of Claremont & Byrne, their Kung Fu fantasy Iron Fist never quite achieved the kind of sales traction that rewarded their collaboration on the X-Men. The living weapon lost his circulation battle with issue #15 of his own title. Although ending in spectacular fashion, the cancellation was clearly unplanned, as two major subplots went unresolved: private detective Misty Knight had disappeared on an undercover assignment to investigate European gang-boss John Bushmaster and K’un Lun kid Danny Rand was suffering repeated attacks on his chi by the enigmatic and murderous Steel Serpent

Frustrated fans didn’t have to wait long for a resolution. Marvel Team-Up was becoming the creative team’s personal clearing house for unresolved plot-lines. Issues #63 & 64 exposed the secret of the sinister K’un Lun pariah on the ‘Night of the Dragon’ before Rand and Spidey – with the assistance of Daughters of the Dragon Misty Knight and Colleen Wing– finally ended his threat in blistering martial arts manner with ‘If Death Be My Destiny!’

This epic tome is packed with rarely-seen extras, beginning with the contents of the Marvel Comics Memory Album Calendar 1977, released in late 1976 and preceded here by a ‘Special F.O.O.M. Preview!’ from the fabled fan-mag’s #16 (December 1976) issue. The Calendar pages follow, written by Roy Thomas and limned by Jack Kirby, John Romita Sr., Joe Sinnott, Ed Hannigan, Frank Giacoia, Gil Kane, John Buscema, Ron Wilson, Gene Colan, Jack Abel, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, George Pérez, Tom Palmer, P. Craig Russell and John Verpoorten.

As an added treat, the debut/origin of “The Man-Brute Called Woodgod” (Marvel Premiere #31, August 1976) comes next as Mantlo, Keith Giffen and Klaus Janson explore the merits, ethics and repercussions of manufacturing life and meddling with nature. ‘Birthday!’ finds a modern-day faun rampaging through the ruins of a murdered town, searching for meaning and answers from the savage military men and technicians whose only solution to oversight and potential censure is murder and cover-ups…

The sinister science project saga is supplemented by F.O.O.M. #13’s interview ‘Woodgod Wanderings’ plus a gallery of Byrne original art pages.

These tales are of variable quality but all have an honest drive to entertain and please, whilst artistically the work – particularly action-man-on-fire Byrne – is superb, and most fans will find little to complain about. Although not perhaps a book for casual or more maturely-oriented readers there’s lots of fun on hand and young readers – or Marvel Cinematic supporters – will have a blast, so why not consider this tome for your “Must-Have” library? © 2021 MARVEL

Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom Dark Horse Archives volume Two


By Paul S. Newman, Frank Bolle, George Wilson & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1593073275 (HB) 978-1616553241 (TPB)

The comics colossus identified by fans as Dell/Gold Key/Whitman had one of the most complicated publishing set-ups in history, but that didn’t matter one iota to the kids of all ages who consumed their vastly varied product.

Based in Racine, Wisconsin, Whitman had been a crucial part of the monolithic Western Publishing and Lithography Company since 1915, drawing upon commercial resources and industry connections that came with editorial offices on both coasts (and even a subsidiary printing plant in Poughkeepsie, New York).

Another connection was with fellow Western subsidiary K.K. Publications (named for licensing legend Kay Kamen who facilitated extremely lucrative “license to print money” merchandising deals for Walt Disney Studios between 1933 and 1949).

From 1938, Western’s comicbook output was released under a partnership deal with a “pulps” periodical publisher under the umbrella imprint Dell Comics – and again those creative staff and commercial contacts fed into the line-up of the Big Little, Little Golden and Golden Press books for children. This partnership ended in 1962 and Western had to swiftly reinvent its comics division as Gold Key.

As previously stated, Western Publishing had been a major player since comics’ earliest days, blending a huge tranche of licensed titles such as newspaper strip, TV and Disney titles, (like Nancy and Sluggo, Tarzan, or The Lone Ranger) with home-grown hits like Turok, Son of Stone and Space Family Robinson.

In the 1960s, during the camp/superhero boom the original adventure titles expanded to include Brain Boy, M.A.R.S. Patrol, Total War (created by Wally Wood), Magnus, Robot Fighter (by the incredible Russ Manning) and – in deference to the atomic age of heroes – Nukla and another brilliantly cool and understated thermonuclear white knight…

Despite supremely high quality and passionate fan-bases, Western’s pantheon never really captured the media spotlight of DC or Marvel’s costumed cut-ups, and eventually – in 1984 – the West Coast crew closed their comics division, having lost or ceded their licenses to DC Marvel and Charlton.

As a publisher, Gold Key never really “got” the melodramatic, breast-beating, often-mock-heroic Sturm und Drang of superheroes – although for a sadly-dwindling number of us, the understated functionality of Silver Age classics like Magnus, Robot Fighter or remarkably radical concepts of atomic crusader Nukla and even the crime-fighting iterations of classic movie monsters Dracula, Frankenstein and Werewolf were utterly irresistible.

The sheer off-the-wall lunacy of features like Neutro or Dr. Spektor I will save for a future occasion…

The company’s most recognisable and significant stab at a superhero was an understated nuclear age paladin with the rather unwieldy codename of Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom, who debuted in an eponymous title dated October 1962 – Happy Anniversary! – sporting a captivating painted cover by Richard M. Powers that made the whole deal feel like a grown up book rather than a mere comic.

With #3, Frank Wilson took over the iconic painted covers: a glorious feature that made the hero unique amongst his costumed contemporaries…

By the time of this second collection – also available in hardback, but tragically not in any digital editions I know of – Paul S. Newman (A Date With Judy; The Lone Ranger; Turok, Son of Stone; I Love Lucy and literally countless other titles) was the sole writer and Frank Bolle (The Twilight Zone; Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery; Flash Gordon; The Heart of Juliet Jones) was providing slick understated visuals for one of the most technically innovative and conceptually spectacular series on the stands…

More factual opinions and inside information can be accessed in the ‘Foreword’ by Jim Shooter (a latter day Solar scribe) as well as a fond critical appraisal and background on the classics that follow…

The Supreme Science Hero was born when a campaign of sabotage at research base Atom Valley culminates in the death of Dr. Bentley and the accidental transmutation of his lab partner Doctor Solar into a (no longer) human atomic pile with incredible, impossible and apparently unlimited powers and abilities. Of course, his very presence is lethal to all around him…

The nuclear nightmares – from Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom #8-14 (July 1964 to September 1965) – begin with the latest ploy mysterious mastermind Nuro, who wants the monopoly on atomic science. A fiend employing espionage and murder, his current scheme is to use mind-science to destroy his enemies, deploying ‘The Thought Controller’ to create hallucinations and exhaust Solar to the point of expiration. It initially works but Nuru has not reckoned on the devotion of girlfriend Gail Sanders and mentor Dr. Clarkson who help him overcome ‘The Final Challenge’

Cover-dated October-December, issue #9 revealed how the spy supremo abducts America’s greatest cybernetic innovator and compels him to construct ‘Transivac, the Energy-Consuming Computer’. Rapidly becoming self-aware and autonomous, the monster machine seems easy able to complete its mission and destroy Solar but when it goes berserk even Nuro neds his arch enemy to defeat ‘The Enemy Within’

Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom #10 (January-February 1965) tells in two parts how a hasty effort to repair the utterly fractured polar ice shelf necessitates the Atomic Adventurer absorbing unimaginable extra energy from our closest star to save humanity. Tragically, the solar overdose turns him into a 100 foot, mega-tonnage colossus and ‘The Sun Giant’ must perform extraordinary energy-consuming feats to reduce himself to human scale…

He’s still not quite there in #11 (March-April) as Nuro strikes again, exploiting the Man of the Atom’s exertions and increasing amnesia to orchestrate ‘The Day Solar Died’. As the hero becomes a growing menace, only a token of love turns back the tide of terror…

Economic catastrophe stems from a sinister plot as ‘The Mystery of the Vanishing Silver’ (#12, May-June) sees Solar working for the Federal government while Nuro’s top henchman Aral Uzbek demonstrates his own appetite for destruction and multi-tasking skills, leading to a shocking new transition for all men of the Atom before order is restored…

Please don’t stop me if you’ve heard this next one…

When ‘The Meteor from 100 Million B.C.’ (#3 July-August) crashes into a swamp and buries itself down deep, hyper-fast evolutionary forces quickly generate waves of monstrous predatory life-forms that demand rapid responses and a pose a momentous moral quandary for Solar, Gail and Clarkson. Ultimately, the stark demands of survival of the fittest make the decision for them…

The epics end for now with #14 (September-October 1965) As Nuro and Uzbek’s latest terror-weapon prompts a full infiltration of Atom Valley and subsequent sabotage of a new reactor. While the Man of the Atom prevents nuclear catastrophe, the radiation alters his composition, giving him an uncontrollable new ability in ‘Solar’s Midas Touch’. Inadvertently changing the atomic structure of anything he touches, the frantic hero is further tested when Nuro’s toy is unleashed for a crucial rocket launch at Cape Kennedy and Solar must find a way to turn misfortune to his advantage…

Rounding out this second tome, a Bonus Section culled from filler pages in issues #15-22 and all colored and retouched by Dan Jackson, examines ‘The Science of Solar’ with peeks into ‘Secrets of Atom Valley’, ‘Birth of a Death Ray’, ‘Security Guard’, and ‘…Her Two Mile “Gun”’, whilst Doctor Solar: Forms of Energy examines ‘Radio Waves’, ‘Light’and ‘Heat’ before class is dismissed following breakdowns of Doctor Solar’s Senses – specifically ‘Touch’ and ‘Hearing’– and a summation of ‘The Five Incredible Senses of the Man of the Atom’

Augmented by fulsome ‘Biographies’ of the creative personnel, this charismatic collection offers potently underplayed and scientifically astute (as far as the facts of the day were known) adventures blending the best of contemporary movie tropes with the still fresh but burgeoning mythology of the Silver Age superhero boom. Enticingly restrained and understated, these Atom Age action comics offered a compelling counterpoint to the eccentric hyperbole of DC and Marvel and remain some of the most readable thrillers of the era.

These tales are lost gems from a time when fun was paramount and entertainment a mandatory requirement. This is comics the way they were and really should be again…
DOCTOR SOLAR®, MAN OF THE ATOM ARCHIVES Volume 1 ™ and © 2010 Random House, Inc. Under license to Classic Media, LLC. All rights reserved.