Black Jack volume 3

By Osamu Tezuka translated by Camelia Nieh (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-934287-41-5

This third volume of the collected series featuring a super-surgeon operating outside the rules of civilised law contains fifteen of the very best sagas blending science, adventure, the supernatural, comedy and even a little romance into its searing incisions into the nature and practice of the healing arts in the modern world.

Black Jack overcame horrendous injuries as a child, and although still carrying many scars within and without, travels the globe, curing any who can pay his exorbitant prices – usually in cash but sometimes with more exotic or metaphysical coin. He is the ultimate loner, except for Pinoko, a small girl he literally built from the remnants of a previous case. Unlicensed by any medical board on Earth, he holds himself to the highest ethical standards possible… his own.

The book commences with ‘Disowned Son’ a heart-warming tragedy richly redolent of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Read this with ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ (preferably the Harry Chapin version) playing softly in the background…

Medicine meets Sci Fi in an eerie thriller as a famine-ravaged region of Africa throws up an even worse horror: a disease that causes the victims to compress and lose body-mass. The race to find a cure is breakneck since all the doctors – including Black Jack – are also fatally ‘Shrinking’

There’s more globetrotting in ‘Dingoes’, as well as a baffling medical mystery when an unknown disease ravages the Outback and our lone hero, but the (ecological) moral of this tale is positively subdued compared to the bitter tale of malpractice, nepotism and outright villainy in ‘Your Mistake’ wherein a spoiled young doctor frames a nurse to cover his own negligence. As the doctor’s dad is the Hospital’s Chief of Medicine the nurse’s case seems hopeless. …Paging Dr. Black Jack…

It doesn’t matter how big or strong you are. Some things nobody can fight. ‘The Robin and the Boy’ tells how a little boy’s kindness to a wounded bird can have miraculous consequences. And you will cry. No “ifs”, “buts” or “maybes”.

‘The Boy Who Came From the Sky’ drops a critical case straight into the surgical samurai’s lap when a defecting Soviet pilot lands his stolen prototype super-fighter in Black Jack’s backyard. Also aboard are the pilot’s wife and their young son, who is in urgent need of the doctor’s skills. Tense and gripping, this classy tale demonstrates just what Men of Honour will do for Family if not for Country, and what they are prepared to pay…

It had to happen eventually but ‘Black Jack in Hospital’ is anything but predictable as a car smash puts the renegade surgeon on someone else’s operating table: a doctor who loathes everything the outcast represents and stands for. But this antagonist’s sister is so very pretty and doesn’t every hospital stay result in a little romance?

‘A Woman’s Case’ begins with an emergency operation on a gold-digging social climber in a train station waiting-room and ends with a highly revealing insight as to how the renegade healer calculates debts and obligations whilst ‘Two Dark Doctors’ introduces the equally outcast and reviled Doctor Kiriko: at once cruelly similar and a polar opposite of Black Jack. But whereas once a fee is settled the surgical ronin will move Heaven and Earth to preserve life, Kiriko’s fees generally ensure a swift and pain-free release from all suffering…

Tezuka famously studied medicine but never practiced, and in ‘The Residents’ highlights the struggle between impatient young doctors and their hide-bound pompous self-aggrandizing superiors in a sharp and unpredictable fable that will surprise even the most jaded and experienced reader.

‘Recollections of a Spinster’ jumps into “Tharg’s Future Shocks” territory with a moody reminiscence about a scar-faced outlaw surgeon who inserted himself into a budgeting and resources row at a big American hospital – and consequently changed the Fate of a Nation, whilst ‘Pinoko Loves You’ is a disturbing tale of a chiselling, cheapskate client who thinks more about the cost than the patient – once the surgery’s completed. This harrowing yarn, more than any other yet seen, defines the unique relationship between Black Jack and his DIY “daughter.”

‘Tenacity’ is another heart-breaker of a story, following the tragic Yamanobe as he struggles to pass the National Medical Exam and become a licensed Medical Practitioner. Cherishing everything Black Jack despises, the idealist young man would give his very last breath to prove the outlaw’s way was wrong…

Another tale of personal honour, ‘An Odd Relationship’ throws a thief and a dedicated cop into Black Jack’s lap. The hunter and hunted become ward-buddies, unaware that each is the other’s nemesis, and this volume closes with ‘Baby Blues’, a shocking tale of wayward schoolgirls and a newborn baby stuffed into a railway station locker.

As always, you only think you know what the author is saying here: the actual tale will still leave you breathless with amazement…

Always remember when reading: despite all the scientific detail, all the frighteningly accurate terminology and trappings. Black Jack isn’t medical fiction; they’re fables of morality with medicine replacing magic… or perhaps duelling. This is a saga of personal combat, with the lone gunfighter battling hugely oppressive counter-forces (the Law, the System, himself) to win just one more victory: medicine as mythology, experiences by Ronin with a Gladstone bag.

These are some of the best ethical thought puzzles mind of man can conceive, beautifully told and stylishly illustrated: and they’re also great stories you’ll find impossible to forget.

This book is printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.

© 2009 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2009 by Camelia Nieh and Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Black Jack volume 2

By Osamu Tezuka translated by Camelia Nieh (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-934287-28-6

God of Manga Osamu Tezuka died in 1989, but with the exploits of outlaw super-surgeon Black Jack he created a blend of lone wolf hero, troubled genius, passionate outsider and amoral humanitarian who is more contemporary now than he ever was in the 1970s when these tales first surfaced in Japan. Combining the indomitable will of Conan and Doc Savage with the intellect of Sherlock Holmes and ambivalent, if intuitive drive of Dr. Gregory House, the unlicensed mercenary medic endured public condemnation and professional scorn, experiencing every genre of storytelling as he smashed all those barriers at the frontier of medicine.

Horror, adventure, science-fiction and straight-out cops and robbers all play a major part in this second collection of tales which leads off with a breathtaking chase story as a broken instrument shard is lost in a patient’s bloodstream, and roaring through his arteries to an inevitable, lethal rendezvous with the heart. Even with all his legendary skill the scar-faced Ronin of the O.R. learns a salutary lesson from ‘Needle’

‘Granny’ is a heart-rending depiction of family ingratitude and the power of obligations with Black Jack almost reduced to a subsidiary role whilst ‘The Ballad of the Killer Whale’ is a bleak peek into the tragic doctor’s early life that mixes dark reality with fairytale delights. A moment of kindness between two strangers and a catastrophic gas main explosion leads the lone doctor into a fragile truce with the police inspector who has arrested him for practising without a licence in the intriguing ‘To Each his Own’ but the resolute misanthrope within the ronin resurfaces when he is trapped in a new super-skyscraper’s ‘Emergency Shelter’ with a band of top financiers and social leaders. Anybody not read Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm?

‘Dirtjacked’ finds Black Jack trapped with a busload of kids in a collapsed tunnel under a mountain and forced to make an impossible decision. What’s truly terrifying is the apparent ease with which makes it…

‘Where art Thou, Friend?’ is another lesson in brotherhood and the effects of racism as more of the solitary surgeon’s past is revealed. When the boy Kuro’o suffered a horrendous accident, it necessitated vast reconstructive surgery and an extreme skin-grafts (as a result, the scarred, patchwork boy was mercilessly abused by his classmates for years). His schools friends were asked by the great surgeon Dr. Honma to donate small portions of skin for grafting but only the ostracised “mixed blood” boy Takashi was willing to endure the pain and loss of perfect skin.

Now Kuro’o has grown into Black Jack, and he has one final chance to see what became of the outcast who changed his life…

In ‘Kidnapping’ the outlaw is operating on the President of a Third World Republic when his little girl Pinoko is snatched by terrorists who demand that he stops… or else. As a Samurai of Surgery his code won’t allow him to comply with their orders; but can there possibly be a third alternative?

‘Assembly Line Care’ is a well-aimed pop at cut-rate, efficiency-driven medical care in a hospital operating on absolute time-and-motion principles. Yet even with all these inbuilt efficiencies Fukuroku Hospital is in a profits down-spiral. Their solution is to declare war on Black Jack, but when the Hospital Director’s daughter in run over does he have the courage of his conveyor-belt convictions or will he come crawling…?

When a dedicated young salary-man clears Black Jack of trumped-up charges in ‘Helping Each Other’ the renegade doctor acknowledges an eternal debt of honour, but soon has ample opportunity to repay it when the man’s bosses frame him for embezzlement and order him to commit suicide to save the company’s “Face.” When he refuses the Director’s help him along – until Black Jack intervenes….

‘Stradivarius’ finds a jet-full of travellers crashed in the Arctic, among them the World’s greatest violinist and the planet’s greatest outlaw surgeon. In a place where frostbite can take your fingers in an instant how could anybody risk their talents and their lives hunting for a lost violin? This compelling tale of obsession is followed by a bittersweet comedy as ‘Pinoko’s Challenge’ sees the semi-artificial lass risk her dignity – and life – to get a proper education.

Urban terrorism takes centre stage in ‘Hospital Jack’ as masked thugs invade and capture an entire medical centre, but in the explosive aftermath Black Jack must complete a complex operation without any power or light!

This incredible volume of startling emergency cases concludes with the introduction of an occasionally recurring character ‘The Blind Acupuncturist,’ whose entire way of life revolts the mercenary rationalist Black Jack. That doesn’t prevent him from learning another hard-won lesson about arrogance and rash judgement, however…

If you’re a lover of medical dramas you’ll never have seen anything quite like this before, and if you’re a fan of comics or manga… well, neither will you. Superbly gripping, subtly engaging and utterly absorbing: just take one of these and see how you see in the morning…

This book is printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.

© 2008 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2008 by Camelia Nieh and Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Black Jack volume 1

By Osamu Tezuka, translated by by Camelia Nieh (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1934287-27-9

There aren’t many Names in comics. Lots of creators; multi-disciplined or single focussed, who have contributed to the body of the art form, but we don’t have many Global Presences whose contribution have affected generations of readers and aspirants all over the World, like a Mozart or Michelangelo or Shakespeare. There’s just Hergé and Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka was born in Qsaka Prefecture on 3rd November 1928, and as a child suffered from a severe illness that made his arms swell. The doctor who cured him inspired him to study medicine, and although Osamu began his professional drawing career while at university, he persevered with his studies and qualified as a doctor too. Facing a career crossroads, his mother advised him to do the thing that made him happiest. He never practiced as a healer but the world was gifted with such classic cartoon masterpieces as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro-boy), Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Adolf and literally hundreds of other graphic narratives. Along the way Tezuka incidentally pioneered, if not created, the Japanese anime industry.

Able to speak to the hearts and minds of children and adults equally, Tezuka’s work can range from the charming to the disturbing and even terrifying. In 1973 he turned his storyteller’s heart to the realm of medicine and created Burakku Jakku, a lone wolf surgeon living outside society’s boundaries and rules: a scarred and seemingly heartless mercenary who could work miracles for the right price but also a deeply human wounded soul who made his surgical magic from behind icy walls of cool indifference and casual hostility – think Silas Marner before the moppet turns up or Ebenezer Scrooge before bedtime; except Black Jack never, ever gets soft and cuddly.

This long overdue series of translated, collected adventures begins with the frankly startling yarn ‘Is There a Doctor?’ wherein the joyriding son of the richest man in the world is critically injured. The boy’s ruthless father forces Black Jack to perform a full body transplant on an unwilling victim… but the super-surgeon still manages to turn the tables on the vile plutocrat…

Each story is self-contained over about 20 pages, and the second ‘The First Storm of Spring’ tells the eerie, poignant story of a young girl whose corneal transplant has gone strangely awry. Can the handsome boy she keeps seeing possibly be the ghostly original owner of the eye, and if so what was he truly like…

With ‘Teratoid Cystoma’ the series solidly enters into fantasy territory whilst ramping up the medical authenticity. Tezuka chose to draw in a highly stylised, “Big-foot” manner (he was the acknowledged inventor of the Manga Big-Eyes artistic device) but with increasing dependence on surgical and anatomical veracity, his innate ability to render anatomy and organs realistically truly came to the fore.

A teratonous cystoma occurs when twins are conceived but one of the embryos fails to cohere. Undifferentiated portions of one twin, a limb or organ grows within and nourished by the other. As the surviving twin matures the enclosed “spare parts” start distend the body appearing like a cyst or growth.

For the sake of narrative – and possibly to just plain freak you out – in this story a famous personage wishing total discretion required the Ronin Doctor to remove a huge growth from her. (Many Japanese have an unhealthy prejudice against physical imperfection, as seen by their decades of “ambivalent” treatment towards the atomic bomb survivors – for more see our review of Barefoot Gen vol. 3 Life after the Bomb or search engine “the Hibakusha“).

The mystery patient’s problem is exacerbated because whenever other surgeons have tried to operate they have been debilitated by a telepathic assault from the growth! Overcoming incredible resistance Black Jack succeeds, removing a fully-formed brain and nervous system. Ignoring the disgust of the patient and doctors he builds an artificial body for the stunted, sentient remnants; and calls her Pinoko.

‘The Face Sore’ combines Japanese legends of the Jinmenso (intelligent, garrulous tumours) with cases of disfiguring carbuncles and rashes to produce a very scary modern horror story – and by modern I mean without a happy ending…

Pinoko, looking like a little girl (whether she’s a year old or eighteen is a running gag throughout the series) has meanwhile become Black Jack’s secretary/major domo and gadfly. In ‘Sometimes Like Pearls’ she opens a unique parcel addressed to him which leads to some invaluable back-story as the solitary surgeon travels to see his great teacher and learns one final lesson…

‘Confluence’ provides a little twisted romance as the medical maverick loses out on a chance at love when he undertakes a radical procedure to save a young woman from uterine cancer, whilst in ‘The Painting is Dead!’ an artist caught in a nuclear test endures a full brain transplant just to be able to finish his painting condemning the atomic warmongers.

‘Star, Magnitude Six’ exposes the pompous venality and arrant cronyism, not to mention entrenched stupidity, of hospitals’ hierarchical hegemonies in a tale satisfyingly reminiscent of Steve Ditko’s H series and J series of polemical objectivist parables (see the Ditko Collection vol. 1) whilst the ruthless outlaw surgeon meets his female counterpart in the bittersweet ‘Black Queen.’

‘U-18 Knew’ moves us into pure science fiction territory when the unlicensed doctor is hired by an American medical facility to operate on a vast medical computer that has achieved real sentience, leading to some telling questions about who – and what – defines “humanity.”

An annoying sidebar I feel compelled to add here: For many years broad, purely visual racial stereotypes were common “shorthand” in Japanese comics – and ours, and everybody else’s. They crop up here, but please remember that even at the time this story originated from this was in no way a charged image; Tezuka’s depictions of native Japanese were just as broad and expressionistic. A simple reading of the text should dispel any notions of racism: but if you can’t get past these decades old images, just put the book down. Don’t buy it. It’s your loss.

A heartrendingly powerful tale of determination sees a young polio victim almost fail a sponsored walk until an enigmatic stranger with a scarred face bullies, abuses and provokes him to finish. It also provides more clues to Black Jack’s past in ‘The Legs of an Ant’ and this first superb volume concludes with ‘Two Loves’ as a van driver deprives the greatest sushi artist in the world of his arm and his dreams when he runs him over. The lengths to which the driver goes to make amends are truly staggering… but sometimes Fate just seems to hate certain people…

One thing should always be remembered when reading these stories: despite all the scientific detail, all the frighteningly accurate terminology and trappings. Black Jack isn’t medical fiction; it is an exploration of morality with medicine raised to the level of magic… or perhaps duelling.

This is a saga of personal combat, with the lone gunfighter battling hugely oppressive counter-forces (the Law, the System, himself) to win just one more victory: medicine as mythology, experiences by Ronin with a Gladstone bag.

Elements of rationalism, science-fiction, kitchen sink drama, spiritualism and even the supernatural appear in this sage of Japanese Magical Realism that rivals the works of writers like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. But overall these are dramatic, highly addictive tales of heroism; and one that that will stay with you forever.

This book is printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format.

© 2008 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2008 by Camelia Nieh and Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase presents Green Lantern volume 2

By John Broome, Gardner Fox, Gil Kane & various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1264-3

As the Emerald Crusader entered his fourth year (which is how this second superb collection, reprinting issues #18 to 38 of the Silver Age series kicks off) the concept of the superhero was firmly reestablished among the buying public and there was no shortage of gaudily clad competition. The better books survived by having something a little “extra”. With Green Lantern that was primarily the superb scripts of John Broome and Gardner Fox and the astounding drawing of Gil Kane, whose dynamic anatomy and deft page design was maturing with every page he drew, but the concept itself was also a provider of boundless opportunity.

Other heroes had extraterrestrial, other-dimensional and even trans-temporal adventures, but the valiant champion of this series was also a cop: a lawman working for the biggest police force in the entire universe. As such his support team was necessarily composed of some the brightest talents in American comics. Green Lantern #18 (January 1963) led with ‘The World of Perilous Traps!’ by John Broome, regular penciller Gil Kane and inker Joe Giella who teamed to produce another cracking, fast paced thriller featuring the renegade GL Sinestro, whilst Mike Sekowsky penciled Kane’s layouts for the intriguing ‘Green Lantern Vs. Power Ring’ as Broome engineered a startling duel when hobo Bill Baggett took control of the Green Ring, necessitating a literal battle of wills for it power.

Green Lantern #19 saw the return of ultra-nationalist villain Sonar in ‘The Defeat of Green Lantern!’ (Broome, Kane & Giella) a high-energy cosmic duel nicely counter-pointed by the whimsical crime-caper ‘The Trail of the Horse-and-Buggy Bandits!’ by the same team, wherein a little old lady’s crossed phone line led the Emerald Gladiator into conflict with a passel of canny crooks. Issue #20 ‘Parasite Planet Peril!’ by Broome, Kane and Murphy Anderson reunited GL with the Flash in a full-length epic to foil a plot to kidnap human geniuses.

One of the DCU’s greatest menaces debuted in #21’s ‘The Man who Mastered Magnetism’. Broome created a world-beater in the duel-personality villain Doctor Polaris for Kane and Giella to draw, whilst ‘Hal Jordan Betrays Green Lantern!’ is the kind of action-packed, clever puzzle-yarn that Gardner Fox always excelled at, especially with Anderson’s stellar inks to lift the art to a delightful high.

Fox also scripted the return of diabolical futurist villain Hector Hammond in ‘Master of the Power Ring!’ (Giella inks) whilst Broome turned his hand to a human-interest story with the Anderson-inked ‘Dual Masquerade of the Jordan Brothers!’ as GL played matchmaker, trying to convince his future sister-in-law that her intended was in fact Green Lantern!

‘Threat of the Tattooed Man!’ kicked off #23, the first all-Fox scripted issue and the start of Giella’s tenure as sole inker, as the Ring-Slinger tackled a common thief who lucked into the eerie power to animate his skin-ink and ‘The Green Lantern Disasters’ took the hero off-world to rescue missing comrade Xax of Xaos, a insect member of the GL Corps. Issue #25 featured the first appearance of ‘The Shark that Hunted Human Prey!’ (Broome) wherein an atomic accident evolved the ocean’s deadliest predator into a psychic fear-feeder whilst ‘The Strange World Named Green Lantern!’ (Broome again) found the Emerald Crusader trapped on a sentient and lonely planet that craved his constant presence…

Green Lantern #25 featured Fox’s full-length thriller ‘War of the Weapon Wizards!‘ as GL fell foul of the lethally persistent Sonar and his silent partner-in-crime Hector Hammond, whilst Hal Jordan’s girlfriend Carol Ferris once more transformed into an alien queen determined to beat him into marital submission in ‘Star Sapphire unmasks Green Lantern!’– a witty cracker from Fox who also scripted the superb ‘World Within the Power Ring!’ as the hero battled an extraterrestrial sorcerer imprisoned within his ring by his deceased predecessor!

Fox’s super-scientific crime thriller ‘Mystery of the Deserted City!’ led in issue #27 whilst Broome charmed and alarmed with ‘The Amazing Transformation of Horace Tolliver!’, as Hal learned a lesson in who to help – and how. No prizes for guessing who – or what – menace returned in #28’s ‘The Shark Goes on the Prowl Again!’, but big applause if you can solve the puzzle of ‘The House that Fought Green Lantern’, both engaging romps courtesy of writer Fox whilst Broome added to his tally of memorable villain creations with the debut of Black Hand – the Cliché Criminal – who misappropriated a portion of GL’s power in ‘Half a Green Lantern is Better than None!’ as well as scripting a brilliant alien invader tale in ‘This World is Mine!’

This issue, #29, is doubly memorable as not only does it feature a rare – for the times – Justice League cameo (soon to be inevitable – if not interminable – as comics continuity became an unstoppable force in all companies’ output) but also because the incredibly talented Sid Greene became the regular inker.

Issue #30 featured two more Broome tales; the dinosaur attack thriller ‘The Tunnel through Time!’ and a compelling epic of duty and love as Katma Tui, who replaced the renegade Sinestro learned ‘Once a Green Lantern… Always a Green Lantern!’ The same writer also provided the baffling mystery ‘Power Rings for Sale!’ and the tense Jordan Brothers thriller ‘Pay Up – or Blow Up!’ whilst Fox handled all of #32, the tantalizing crime caper ‘Green Lantern’s Wedding Day!’ and the trans-galactic Battle Royale ‘Power Battery Peril!’

Nefarious villain Dr. Light decided to pick off his enemies one by after his defeat in Justice League of America #12 (see Showcase presents Justice League of America volume 1). His attempts in various member’s home titles reached GL with #33, but here too he got a damned good thrashing in ‘Wizard of the Light Wave Weapons!’, whereas the thugs in the back-up yarn, as well as giving artist Gil Kane another excuse to show his love of and facility with movie gangster caricatures, came far to close to ending the Emerald Gladiator’s life in ‘The Disarming of Green Lantern!’

Fox had by this time become lead writer and indeed wrote all the remaining stories in this volume. ‘Three-Way Attack against Green Lantern!’ in #34 was another full-length cosmic extravaganza as Hector Hammond discovered the secrets of the Guardians and launched an all-out assault on our hero, whilst both scripts in #35; costumed villain drama ‘Prisoner of the Golden Mask!’ and brain-swop spy-saga ‘The Eagle Crusader of Earth!’ looked much closer to home for their abundance of thrills, chills and spills.

GL #36 cover-featured the captivatingly bizarre ‘Secret of the Power-Ringed Robot!’ (how can you resist a tale that is tag-lined “I’ve been turned into a robot… and didn’t even know it!”?) and followed that all-action conundrum with the incredible tale of Dorine Clay; a young lady who was the last hope of her race against the machinations of the dread alien Headmen in ‘Green Lantern’s Explosive Week-End!’

Physical combat had been gradually overtaking ring magic in the pages of the series and #27’s ‘The Spies who “Owned” Green Lantern!’ despite being a twist-heavy drama of espionage and intrigue was no exception, whilst the second story ‘The Plot to Conquer the Universe!’ pitted the Emerald Crusader against Evil Star, a foe both immortal and invulnerable, which gave the hero plenty of reasons to lash out in spectacular, eye-popping manner.

Green Lantern teamed with fellow corpsman Tomar Re to battle ‘The Menace of the Atomic Changeling!’ in a brilliant science fiction escapade and the issue (#38 if you’re still counting) as well as this terrific volume concludes with ‘The Elixir of Immortality!’ as criminal mastermind Keith Kenyon absorbed a gold-based serum to become a veritable superman. He might have been immune to Ring Energy (which can’t affect anything yellow, as eny Fule kno) but eventually our hero’s flashing fists brought him low – a fact he never forgot on the many occasions he returned as the merciless master criminal Goldface…

The increasingly vast scope of these tales would become a cornerstone of the greater DC Universe and the incredibly animated, dynamic art of Gil Kane transformed how action comics were drawn. These stories changed comics storytelling forever and they’re still some of the most entertaining and mesmerising reads in all superhero fiction. What more do you need to know…?

© 1963, 1964, 1965, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Essential Spider-Man volume 3

By Stan Lee, John Romita & various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-0658-8

The rise and rise of the wondrous web-spinner continued and even increased pace as the 1960s progressed, and by the time of the tales in this third spectacular volume of black and white reprints (collecting the contents of Amazing Spider-Man #44-68) Peter Parker and friends were on the way to being household names as well as the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia.

The Marvel merriment begins with the return of a tragedy-drenched old foe as Stan Lee and John Romita reintroduced biologist Curt Conners in #44’s (Jan 1967) ‘Where Crawls the Lizard!’ The deadly reptilian marauder threatened Humanity itself and it took all of the wall-crawler’s resourcefulness to stop him in the concluding ‘Spidey Smashes Out!’

Issue #46 introduced an all-new menace in the form of seismic super-thief ‘The Sinister Shocker!’ whilst ‘In the Hands of the Hunter!’ brought back a fighting mad Kraven to menace the family of Peter Parker’s friend Harry Osborn. Apparently the obsessive big-game hunter had entered into a contract with Harry’s father (the super-villain Green Goblin until a psychotic break turned him into a traumatised amnesiac) and now he wanted paying off…

Luckily Spider-Man was on hand to dissuade him, but it’s interesting to note that at this time the student life and soap-opera sub-plots became increasingly important to the mix, with glamour girls Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy (superbly delineated by the masterful Romita) as well as former bully Flash Thompson and the Osborns getting as much or more “page-time” as Aunt May or the Daily Bugle staff, who had previously monopolised the non-costumed portions of the ongoing saga.

Amazing Spider-Man #48 introduced Blackie Drago a ruthless thug who shared a prison cell with one of the wall-crawler’s oldest foes. At death’s door the ailing super-villain revealed his technological secrets, enabling Drago to escape and master ‘The Wings of the Vulture!’ Younger, faster, tougher the new Vulture defeated Spider-Man and in #49’s ‘From the Depths of Defeat!’ battled Kraven the Hunter until a reinvigorated arachnid stepped in the thrash them both.

Issue #50 introduced one of Marvel’s greatest villains in the first of a three part yarn that saw the beginnings of romance between Parker and Gwen Stacy and the death of a cast member, re-established Spidey’s war on cheap thugs and common criminals (a key component of the hero’s appeal was that no criminal was too small for him to bother with) and saw a crisis of conscience force him to quit in ‘Spider-Man No More!’ only to return and be trapped ‘In the Clutches of… the Kingpin!’ before tragically triumphing in ‘To Die a Hero!’ This gang-busting triptych saw Romita relinquish the inking of his art to Mike Esposito (moonlighting from DC as Mickey DeMeo).

Another multi-part saga began in #53 with ‘Enter: Dr. Octopus’ as the many-tentacled madman tried to steal a devastating new piece of technology, but after being soundly defeated the madman went into hiding as a lodger at Aunt May’s house in ‘The Tentacles and the Trap!’, regrouped and succeeded in ‘Doc Ock Wins!’ and even convinced a mind-wiped Spider-Man to join him before the astonishing conclusion in ‘Disaster!’

Shell-shocked and amnesiac, Spider-Man was lost in New York in #57 (with lay-outs by Romita, pencils from the reassuring reliable Don Heck and inking by DeMeo) until he clashed with Marvel’s own Tarzan clone in ‘The Coming of Ka-Zar!’ whilst in the follow-up ‘To Kill a Spider-Man!’ vengeance-crazed roboticist Professor Smythe convinced J. Jonah Jameson to finance another mechanical Spider-Slayer…

In Amazing Spider-Man #59 the hero returned his attention to sinister street-crime in ‘The Brand of the Brainwasher!’ as a new mob-mastermind began to take control of the city by mind-controlling city leaders and prominent cops – including Gwen Stacy’s dad. The drama continued as the mastermind was revealed to be one of Spidey’s old foes in ‘O, Bitter Victory!’ before the concluding part ‘What a Tangled Web We Weave…!’ saw our hero save the day but still stagger away more victim than victor…

‘Make Way for …Medusa!’ in #62 is a fresh change-of-pace yarn as the wall-crawler stumbled into combat with the formidable Inhuman due to the machinations of a Madison Avenue ad man, whilst ‘Wings in the Night!’ in #63 saw the old Vulture return to crush his usurper Blackie Drago, and then take on Spidey for dessert. The awesome aerial angst concluded with ‘The Vultures Prey’ which led to another art-change (from Heck and DeMeo to the sumptuous heavy lines of Jim Mooney) in #65 as Spider-Man was arrested and had to engineer ‘The Impossible Escape!’ from a Manhattan prison, foiling as mass jailbreak along the way.

The psychotic special-effects mastermind returned seeking loot and vengeance in #66’s ‘The Madness of Mysterio!’ (by Romita, Heck and DeMeo) which ended in an all-out action-packed brawl (rendered by Romita and Mooney) entitled ‘To Squash a Spider!’ This volume closes with a small tale that acts as a prologue for a greater epic to come. In ‘Crisis on the Campus!’ scripter Lee tapped into the student unrest of the times in a clever tale of fantastic skulduggery. One of Peter Parker’s tutors was deciphering an ancient tablet, unaware that the Kingpin wanted it for the world-shaking secrets it held. And such a ruthless manipulator would have no qualms in fomenting a bloody riot to mask his theft of the artefact…

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 beautiful art, and making a dramatic virtue of the awkwardness, confusion and sense of powerlessness that most of the readership experienced daily, resulted in an irresistibly intoxicating read, delivered in addictive soap-opera instalments, but none of that would be relevant if the stories weren’t so compellingly entertaining. This book is Stan Lee’s Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak.

© 1967, 1968, 1969, 1998, 2009 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Me & Joe Priest

By Greg Potter & Ron Randall (DC Comics)
ISBN: 0-930289-04-8

In the 1980s graphic novels were still an unproven quantity in America and Big Guns DC and Marvel adopted a kind of scattershot, “suck it and see” attitude to content although all parties were seemingly decided on the now extinct (more’s the pity) 8½ by 11 inch page format.

Whereas the House of Ideas had a solid publishing plan that didn’t stray far from their usual periodical product DC looked to expand or overlap markets by creating niched imprints such as the Science Fiction Graphic Novel line (adapting classic short stories and novellas into highly experimental graphic narratives) and the plain old catch-all – if unimaginative – DC Graphic Novel Series. Often there’s not much discernible difference between the two.

In the near future the human race is stricken with mass sterility and descends into slow anarchy as Man prepares to die with as little dignity and grace as possible. America quickly devolves into semi-feudal chaos with small self-sustaining enclaves – think spaghetti Western meets Mad Max. In the desolate landscape of Arizona an itinerant priest wanders about ministering to the spiritual needs of the shell-shocked populace.

But Father Joseph St. Simone is on a rather unique “Mission from God”. As well as salving souls Joe is also creating hope. As the only fertile man in the world, he’s repopulating the planet one household at a time. If only all the husbands he’s cuckolded saw it that way…

Certainly the frankly demented cult of ex-clergy called the Order of Darkness doesn’t: they have liturgical ninjas roaming the landscape with orders to shoot him on sight. Lucky then that Joe has teamed up with the violently capable army deserter known as Lummox…

Fast paced, action-packed, laconic and breezily devil-may-care in execution (you’ll either love or loathe the literal Deus ex Machina ending) this strange blend of buddy-movie, comedy thriller and road-trip adventure was a genuine attempt to offer comic-book audiences something a little different from their usual fare. Moreover considering the plot maguffin and subject matter, it’s a lot less prurient and exploitative than you’d expect. Perhaps that’s why it failed to attract a following; inadequate nudity and not enough naughty bits…

Me and Joe Priest is a strange creature. More racy Western than high-tech extravaganza, this highly readable piece of eye-candy, clearly patterned on the European bande Dessinée model, sacrifices a lot of logic in favour of set-piece theatrics – but nevertheless pulls it all off with great aplomb. In all honesty, I can’t see why I like this book… but I do.

Why don’t you see if it calls to you?
© 1985 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Kelly Green volume 2: One, Two, Three… Die!

By Stan Drake & Leonard Starr (Dargaud International Publishing)
ISBN: 2-205-06952-7

The decades of creative expertise that marked the careers of strip veterans Stan Drake and Leonard Starr were rewarded by the one thing they had never achieved when they began their seminal crime-thriller for the European comics market: creative control. And blessed with that elusive prize they produced one of the most memorable women in comics: the frail, divinely human yet determinedly adamantine Kelly Green.

After the murder of her cop husband by his own superiors (Kelly Green: The Go-Between) the grieving and furious widow began a dubious career in the no-man’s land separating the law-abiding and felonious, aided by three of her husband’s reformed “cases”: con-man Spats Cavendish, thief Jimmy Delocke and colossal leg-breaker “Meathooks.”

In this tale however the job intersects disastrously with her private life as a new friend inadvertently draws her into a world of ruthless super-rich dynasties, blackmail, infidelity, exploitation and even serial murder. As this is a gripping mystery yarn of the “fair-play” variety I’ll avoid specifics so you can have a fair crack at deducing the killer, but I will offer this warning: you know those movies where a million people can die bloodily but your favourite actor and his dog will always escape unscathed? This isn’t one of those stories…

This spectacular thriller is powerful and uncompromising stuff, strictly for adults (and not just because of the casual nudity), falling into a rare category of crime-story in that it is unflinchingly character, not plot-driven, and delivered with all the skill and artistry that these two veteran storytellers can command.

Copies of all volumes are still readily available (if a little pricey), but true quality has no upper limit and there are still rumours of a full revival of the character soon. Perhaps you could wait…

But can you?
© 1983 Dargaud Editeur. All Right Reserved.

New Avengers: Illuminati

By Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Reed, Jim Cheung & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2436-8

The remodeling of the Avengers franchise continued and expanded with this tale (originally released as the five part miniseries New Avengers: Illuminati) wherein the intellectual and factional powerhouses of the Marvel Universe form a clandestine cabal to guide and dictate the future of the world.

Writers Bendis and Reed spin back to the end of the Kree-Skrull War (relatively recent in story-terms but the epic from Avengers #89-97 was first published in 1971-1972) as a battle between intergalactic rivals nearly destroyed our world. And here the story begins with Charles Xavier of the mutant X-Men, Black Bolt of the Inhumans, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Iron Man of the Avengers, the mystic Doctor Strange and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four materialize in the Skrull throne room to threaten the recently defeated emperor, warning him that no further attacks on Earth would be tolerated.

The confrontation leads to massive bloodshed (an attitudinal and moral shift that would appal older fans) before the earthlings are captured and intensively “studied” by the shape-shifting aliens. Although the humans eventually escape back to Earth the damage has been done; the Skrulls will never rest until our world is theirs and now they have a keen understanding of all types of Terran super-humanity…

Safe on Earth the elite star-chamber of champions resolve to meet whenever necessity dictates: the next recorded incidence being after the Thanos Quest/Infinity Gauntlet affair (1991 for us) as the heroes brave overwhelming terror and temptation whilst trying to put six gems which can control all of time, space and reality beyond harms reach. The third mission deals with the secret origin and final fate of the Beyonder (Secret Wars I and II – 1984-1986) whilst the fourth tale is a more intimate exploration as this disparate group of older men discuss love and loss whilst deciding the fate of Kree invader Marvel Boy who had declared open war against all of humanity.

The final chapter leads into and kicks off the publishing event Secret Invasion (2008). The cabal fragments when Iron Man reveals that Skrulls have replaced an unknown number of Earth’s super-humans as a direct result of their failed first mission. The shape-changing invaders are not only undetectable even to Professor X’s telepathy but they have also duplicated all the unique powers of their long-time adversaries…

The habit of strip-mining and in-filling the history of Marvel’s universe has had some high and low points in the past, but I’m happy to say this intriguing idea is one of the better ones, however a fairly good knowledge of the referenced material is predicated so if you’re a bit of a newbie, best be prepared for some confusing moments. For older fans, myself among them, the real shock is the casual abandonment of such abiding principles as “all life is sacred”: oddly, I always thought this was daft and impractical as a young reader, but seeing the obverse operating is disquieting: aren’t your heroes supposed to be better than you?

Still, this is a cracking good read, wonderfully illustrated by Jim Cheung with inkers Mark Morales, John Dell and David Meikis; cohesive enough that it can be read independently and satisfactorily without further reference to the greater Secret Invasion saga.

© 2007, 2008 Marvel Characters, Inc. Marvel Publishing, Inc., a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

100 Bullets: Hang Up on the Hang Low

By Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso (Vertigo)
ISBN: 1-84023-361-3

The best crime comic in decades oh-so-slowly begins transforming itself into the best conspiracy thriller in the business with this third volume (collecting issues 15-19# of the monthly comic book) as further hints about The Trust and their unique police squad The Minutemen slip out during the dark, bleak story of Louis “Loop” Hughes, a young street tough swiftly going the way of most of his class and race in the streets of Philadelphia… at least until the impeccable Agent Graves turns up with an untraceable gun, one hundred bullets and an ironclad guarantee of no repercussions.

Graves also knows exactly where Loop’s father has been for the embittered kid’s entire life, although he’s only telling about the last few years…

Curtis Hughes collects debts for one of the nastiest old loan-sharks in Philly. The broken down old leg-breaker has been around and seen it all, but he wasn’t expecting a street punk to stick one of those guns in his face – and certainly not the son he abandoned all those years ago.

Against the odds he reconciles with his son and starts teaching him business and life; but once family duty and work allegiances come into conflict, there’s only ever one outcome. And just how does Curtis know about Graves and the Minutemen?

This tense, bleak drama has as much resonance as The Wire and more punch than Goodfellas as it weaves a tragic tale of family, disillusionment and overwhelming necessity, and though readers of the original comic-books didn’t know it, laid much of the groundwork for the “Big Reveals” to come. Pay especial attention to the epilogue where Loop meets up with the brutal force of nature called “Lono”…

Astoundingly accessible and readable in its own right, this impressive, gripping yarn is another subtle step up on a path of intricate mystery and intrigue, and one no fiction-fan (grown-up, paid-up and immune to harsh language and rude behaviour) could resist… nor should you.

© 2000, 2001 Brian Azzarello and DC Comics.  All Rights Reserved.

Spider-Man 2099: Genesis – UK Edition

By Peter David, Rick Leonardi, Al Williamson and various (Marvel/Panini Publishing UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-428-7

At a time when Marvel’s product quality was at an all time low, and following a purported last minute dispute between the company and prodigal son John Byrne (who had re-invented himself by re-inventing Superman) the House of Ideas launched a whole new continuity strand with all new heroes (and franchise extensions) set more than a century into the future.

The world was corporate and dystopian, the scenarios were fantastical and the initial character-pool was predictable if not actually uninspired. A lot of the early material was by any critical yardstick sub-par. But then again there was also Spider-Man 2099.

Some analogue of the wall-crawler is always going to happen in any Marvel imprint (anybody remember Peter Porker, Spider-Ham?), and in those insane days of speculator-led markets (where greedy kids and adults dreamed of cornering the market in “Hot Issues” and becoming instant squillionaires) the early episodes were always going to be big sellers. What nobody expected was just how good those stories were to actually read…

Now the first ten issues are available in a fantastic and entertaining full colour collection.

In 2099 world governments are openly in the capacious pockets of huge multi-national corporations that permeate every aspect of society. All superheroes have been gone for decades although their legends still comfort the underclass living at the fringes – and below the feet – of the favoured ones who can survive in a society based on unchecked, rampant free-marker capitalism.

Miguel O’Hara is a brilliant young geneticist fast-tracked and swiftly rising through the ranks of Alchemax. He enjoys the privileges that his work in creating super-soldiers for the company. He loves solving problems. And now despite the interference of the salary-men and corporate drudges he’s forced to work with he’s on the verge of a major breakthrough: a technique to alter genetic make-up and even instantly combine it with DNA from other organisms…

But after a demonstration goes grotesquely awry the arrogant scientist makes a big mistake when he tells his boss that he’s going to quit. Unwilling to lose such a valuable asset CEO Tyler Stone poisons O’Hara with the most addictive drug in existence – one only available from Alchemax – to keep him loyal.

Desperate, furious and still convinced he knows best the young scientist tries to use his genetic modifier to reset his physiology and purge the addiction from his cells. However one of the lab assistants he used to bully sees a chance for some payback and sabotages the attempt, adding spider DNA to the matrix…

Fast-paced and riotously tongue-in-cheek scripts from Peter David kept the series readable but the biggest asset to Spider-Man 2099 and the greatest factor in its initial success was undoubtedly the fluid design mastery and captivating rollercoaster pencilling of Rick Leonardi wedded to the legendary Al Williamson’s fine ink lines. The art just jumps off the pages at you.

After the eponymous origin issue, #2’s ‘Nothing Ventured…’, which introduced cyborg bounty hunter Venture, and the concluding chapter ‘Nothing Gained’, which saw him soundly defeat the company hired gun, the early editorial policy downplaying “super-villains” resulted in yet another hi-tech Corporate raider in ‘The Specialist’ and ‘Blood Oath’ (issues #4 and 5) going to any length to uncover the secrets of the first costumed adventurer since the mythic “Age of Heroes” ended.

In issue #6 the hero’s Pyrrhic victory leaves him wounded in the dank shanty-zone far beneath the giant skyscrapers of the productive citizens. Spider-Man has to survive ‘Downtown’, encountering an unsuspected underclass of discarded humanity, but soon falls foul of its top predator (and first super-villain) Vulture 2099 in #7’s ‘Wing and a Prayer’ and the concluding ‘Flight of Fancy’. Kelley Jones and Mark McKenna substituted for Leonardi and Williamson in #9’s ‘Home Again, Home Again’ as the reluctant hero finds himself the latest Idée Fixe of celebrity imitators – or are they John the Baptists for a brand new religion?

All through the stories a strong family cast including younger brother Gabe, girl friend Dana, annoying mother and plain-crazy personal computer Lyla have added drama and scintillating laughs in complex and enthralling sub-plots, but in the last tale of this collection ‘Mother’s Day’ they all take centre-stage as we get a peak into the childhood that made Miguel O’Hara the man he is. His reaffirmation of purpose at the end of the book closes this superb lost gem on a merry high and promises great things to come.

It’s not often that Marvel’s output reached this kind of quality after the mid-1980s, especially with a character and setting that didn’t demand prior knowledge of an entire continuity. For sheer enthusiastic enjoyment and old-fashioned Marvel Magic you simply need to step into this particular future…

© 1992, 1993, 2009 Marvel Entertainment Inc. and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.