Sundiata, the Lion of Mali – a Legend of Africa

Retold by Will Eisner (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-332-6(HB)  978-1-56163-340-1(TPB)

It’s pretty much accepted today that Will Eisner was one of the pivotal creators who shaped the American comicbook industry, with most – but not sadly, all – of his works more or less permanently in print – as they should be.

Active and compellingly creative until his death in 2005, Eisner was the consummate storysmith and although his true legacy is making comics acceptable fare for adult Americans, his mastery and appeal spanned the range of human age and he was always as adept at beguiling the young as he was enchanting their elders…

William Erwin Eisner was born on March 6th 1906 in Brooklyn and grew up in the ghettos. They never left him. After time served inventing much of the visual semantics, semiotics and syllabary of the medium he dubbed “Sequential Art” in strips, comicbooks, newspaper premiums and instructional comics, he then invented the mainstream graphic novel, bringing maturity, acceptability and public recognition to English language comics.

From 1936 to 1938 he worked as a jobbing cartoonist in the comics production hothouse known as the Eisner-Eiger Shop, creating strips for both domestic US and foreign markets. Using the pen-name Willis B. Rensie, he created and drew opening instalments for a huge variety of characters ranging from funny animal to historical sagas,

Westerns, Detectives, aviation action thrillers… and superheroes – lots of superheroes …

In 1940 Everett “Busy” Arnold, head honcho of the superbly impressive Quality Comics outfit, invited Eisner to take on a new challenge. The Register-Tribune newspaper syndicate wanted a 16-page weekly comicbook insert for the Sunday editions and Eisner jumped at the opportunity, creating three series which would initially be handled by him before two of them were delegated to supremely talented assistants. Bob Powell inherited Mr. Mystic and distaff detective Lady Luckfell into the capable hands of Nick Cardy (then still Nicholas Viscardi) and later the inimitable Klaus Nordling.

Eisner kept the lead feature for his own, and over the next twelve years The Spirit became the most impressive, innovative, imitated and talked-about strip in the business. However, by 1952 Eisner had more or less abandoned it for more challenging and certainly more profitable commercial, instructional and educational strips. He worked extensively for the US military in manuals and magazines like Army Motors and P*S, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, generally leaving comicbooks behind.

After too long away from his natural story-telling arena, Eisner creatively returned to the ghettos of Brooklyn where he was born and capped a glittering career by inventing the mainstream graphic novel for America, bringing maturity, acceptability and public recognition to English language comics. After that he just kept on going…

In 1978 a collection of four original short stories in strip form were released as a single book: A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories. All four centred around 55 Dropsie Avenue, a 1930’s Bronx tenement, housing poor Jewish and immigrant families. It changed the American perception of cartoon strips forever. Eisner wrote and drew a further 20 comics masterworks, opening the door for all other comics creators to escape the funnybook and anodyne strip ghettos of superheroes, funny animals, juvenilia and “family-friendly” entertainment. At one stroke comics grew up.

Eisner was constantly pushing the boundaries of his craft, honing his skills not just on the Spirit but with years of educational and promotional material. In A Contract With God he moved into unexplored territory with truly sophisticated, mature themes worthy of Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald, using pictorial fiction as documentary exploration of social experience.

If Jack Kirby was the American comicbook’s most influential artist, Will Eisner remains undoubtedly its most venerated and exceptional storyteller. Contemporaries originating from strikingly similar Jewish backgrounds, each used comic arts to escape from their own tenements, achieving varying degrees of acclaim and success, and eventually settling upon a theme to colour all their later works. For Kirby it was the Cosmos, what Man would find there, and how humanity would transcend its origins in The Ultimate Outward Escape. Will Eisner went Home, went Inward and went Back, concentrating on Man as he was and still is…

Naturally that would make him a brilliant choice to illustrate primal folktales and creation myths from our collective past. This stunning, slim yet over-sized tome (288 x 224mm) again proves his uncanny skill in exhibiting the basic drives and passions of humanity as he lyrically recounts a key myth of West Africa. Although I can’t find it in any digital editions, at least it’s still widely available in print formats…

The historical Sundiata Keita brought the Mandinka People out of bondage and founded the Mali Empire in the 13thcentury AD. He is still celebrated as a staple of the oral tradition handed down by the tribal historians, bards and praise-singers known as “Griots”.

Rendered in a moody, brooding wash of sullen reds, misty greys and dried out earth-tones, the tale begins; narrated by the Great Gray Rock, foundation stone of the world.

Once only the beasts were masters of Africa, but when people came, they sought to rule the land. The newcomers consulted the ghosts of Good and soon became the masters of the beasts and the land.

However, Evil ghosts also lurked. Once ambitious, greedy Sumanguru, King of Sasso had conquered all he could see, he still seethed with dissatisfaction, and the Gray Rock of Evil accosted him…

Sasso was a poor, arid country and when the wicked stone offered the king dark magical powers to conquer all the surrounding lands, Sumanguru eagerly accepted. Soon all the neighbouring nations were smouldering ruins as Sasso warriors and their mad lord’s control of the elements demolished all resistance.

Still Sumanguru was not content and, when a trader brought news of a rich, fertile land settled by peaceful gentle people, the king wanted to rule them too. The unctuous merchant also related how Nare Famakan, wise king of Mali, had recently passed away, leaving eight youthful healthy sons and a ninth who was weak and lame…

Ignoring the rock of Evil’s advice to beware the “frog prince”, Sumanguru led his mighty armies against Mali, unaware the double-dealing trader – denied a reward due to the mad king’s parsimony – had warned the nine princes that warriors of Sasso were coming.

Lame little Sundiata also wished to defend his land, but his brothers laughed and told him to stay home, trusting to their superior tactics to repel the invasion. Indeed, their plans were effective, and the battle seemed to go their way… until Sumanguru summoned an eldritch wind to destroy the army of Mali and added the defeated land to his possessions.

Gloating, he mocked Sundiata but, ignoring the advice of the Gray Rock of Evil, foolishly allowed the frog prince to live…

As unstoppable, insatiable Sumanguru ravaged every tribe and nation, an aged shaman showed Sundiata how to overcome his physical shortcomings. Years passed and the boy learned the ways of the forests, growing tall and mighty. Now a man, he prepared for vengeance and when Sumanguru heard and tried to have him killed, he fled and rallied an army of liberation.

On the eve of battle an uncle revealed Sumanguru’s one mystic weakness to Sundiata and the stage was set for a spectacular and climactic final confrontation before, as will always happen, Evil inevitably betrayed itself…

Although there might be something a little disquieting about an old Jewish white guy appropriating and retelling African myths and legends, this is an epic and intensely moving, all-ages fable re-crafted by a master storyteller: one well-versed in exploring the classic themes of literature and human endeavour, whilst always adding a sparkle and sheen of his own to the most ancient and familiar of tales.

A joy not just for Eisner aficionados but all lovers of mythic heroism.
© 2002 Will Eisner. All rights reserved.

The James Bond Omnibus volume 001

By Ian Fleming adapted by Anthony Hern, Peter O’Donnell, Henry Gammidge & John McLusky (Titan Books)
ISBN: 987-1-84856-364-3 (TPB)

It’s sad to admit but there are very few British newspaper strips to challenge the influence and impact of classic daily and Sunday “funnies” from America, especially in the field of adventure fiction.

The 1930’s and 1940’s were particularly rich in popular, not to say iconic, creations. You would be hard-pressed to come up with home-grown household names to rival Popeye, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, let alone Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon, or the likes of Little Lulu, Blondie, Li’l Abner, Little Orphan Annie or Popeye and yes, I know I said him twice, but Elzie Segars’s Thimble Theatre was funny as well as thrilling, constantly innovative, and really, really good.

What strips can you recall to equal simple popularity let alone longevity or quality in Britain? Rupert Bear? Absolutely. Giles? Technically, yes. Nipper? Jane? The Perishers? Garth? Judge Dredd?

I’d like to hope so, but I doubt it. The Empire didn’t quite get it until it wasn’t an empire any more. There were certainly very many wonderful strips being produced: well-written and beautifully drawn, but that stubborn British reserve plus a completely different editorial view of the marketplace (which just didn’t consider strips an infallible, readership-attracting magnet, as our American cousins did) never seemed to be in the business of creating household names… until the 1950’s.

Something happened in ‘50s Britain – but I’m not going to waste any space here discussing it. It just did.

In a new spirit that seemed to crave excitement and accept the previously disregarded, comics (as well as all “mere” entertainment media from radio serials to paperback novels) got carried along on the wave. Just like television, periodicals such as The Eagle, the regenerated Dandy and Beano and girls’ comics in general all shifted into creative high gear …and so at last did newspapers.

And that means that I can happily extol the virtues of a graphic collection with proven crossover appeal for a change. The first 007 novel Casino Royale was published in 1953 and was subsequently serialised – after much dithering and nervousness on behalf of author Fleming – as a strip in the Daily Express from 1958. It was the start of a beguiling run of novel and short story adaptations scripted by Anthony Hern, Henry Gammidge, Peter O’Donnell and Kingsley Amis before Jim Lawrence, a jobbing writer for American features (who had previously scripted the aforementioned Buck Rogers) came aboard on The Man With the Golden Gun to complete the transfer of the Fleming canon to strip format. Thereafter he was invited to create new adventures, which he did until the strip’s demise in 1983.

The art on the feature was always of the highest standard. Initially John McLusky handled the illustration until 1966’s conclusion of You Only Live Twice and, although perhaps lacking in flash or verve, the workmanlike clarity of his drawing easily handled an astonishing variety of locales, technical set-ups and sheer immensity of cast members, whilst satisfying the then-novel directive of advancing a plot daily whilst ending each episode on a cliff-hanging “hook” every time.

He was succeeded by Yaroslav Horak, who debuted on Man with the Golden Gun, offering a looser, edgier style, at once more cinematic and with a closer attention to camera angle and frenzied action that seemed to typify the high-octane 1960’s. Horak illustrated 26 complete adventures until 1977 when The Daily Express axed the Bond feature (with a still-running adventure suddenly switching to The Sunday Express from January 30th until conclusion on May 22nd).

Later adventures had no UK presence at all, only appearing in syndication in European papers. This state of affairs continued until 1981 when British paper The Daily Star revived the feature with ‘Doomcrack’.

Titan Books re-assembled those scarce-seen tales – a heady brew of adventure, sex, intrigue and death – into addictively accessible monochrome Omnibus Editions, (sadly not available digitally at the present) wherein a dedicated band of creators on top form prove how the world’s greatest agent never rests in his mission to keep us all free, safe, shaken, stirred and thoroughly entertained…

In this premier no-nonsense paperback gem adapting 11 of Fleming’s best, the frantic derring-do and dark, deadly diplomacy commences with ‘Casino Royale’ as British operative Bond is ordered to gamble with and bankrupt Le Chiffre, a communist agent who has insanely embezzled away his Soviet masters’ operating capital.

The moodily compelling tale of tension that results depicts torture and violent death as well as oppressively suspenseful scenes of graphic gambling: heady stuff for newspaper readers of 1958, when it first ran.

Without pausing for breath or a fresh martini the Bond briefing segues straight into ‘Live and Let Die’ which sees 007 and US agent Felix Leiter tackle Mr. Big, another scurrilous commie agent, a devious genius who rules the Harlem underworld through superstition, voodoo and brutal force before, ‘Moonraker’ details the attempt by ex-Nazi officer Hugo Drax to drop a guided missile on London: a task made far simpler since the maniac has infiltrated the British aristocracy…

These newspaper strips come from a period when dependable John McLusky was developing a less formal approach, before going on to produce some of his best work. ‘Casino Royale; was the opening strip in a near 25-year run, and the somewhat muted artwork shows an artist still not completely comfortable with his task.

It was adapted and scripted by Anthony Hern, who had won the author’s approval after writing condensed prose versions of the novels for the Daily Express. Live and Let Die and Moonraker were both adapted by Henry Gammidge.

As McLusky settled in for the long haul, he warmed to the potentialities of the job with cracking tales of Cold-War intrigue and fast, dangerous living set in a multitude of exotic locales, providing here a welcome return to public gaze of some of the most influential – and exciting – comic strips in British history.

The adaptation of ‘Diamonds are Forever’ pits Bond against an insidious gang of diamond smuggling criminals, in an explosive if uncomplicated all-action romp before shifting into terse, low-key thriller ‘From Russia With Love’ (both courtesy of Gammidge & McLusky). The artist hit a creative peak with ‘Dr No’ perhaps because of the sparkling script from Peter O’Donnell (before he sloped off to create the amazing Modesty Blaise) with Bond returning to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of two operatives and stumbling upon a plot to sabotage the American rocketry program.

These stories come from an age at once less jaded but more worldly; a place and time where the readers lived daily with the very real threat of instant annihilation. As such, the easy approachability of the material is a credit to the creators.

‘Goldfinger’ faithfully adapts Fleming’s novel of the world’s most ambitious bullion robbery, so if you’re only familiar with the film version there will be a few things you’ve not seen before. The action fairly rockets along and the tense suspense is high throughout this signature tale.

Following that is ‘Risico’ as 007 is tasked with stopping a heroin smuggling gang whose motive is not profit but social destabilisation. Next is ‘From a View to a Kill’, a traditional and low-key Cold War thriller with Bond on the trail of a gang who have been stealing state secrets by ambushing military dispatch riders…

In the Roger Moore film incarnation Risico was folded into ‘For Your Eyes Only’ but here you get the real deal with a faithful adaptation of Fleming’s short story, wherein Bond is given a mission of revenge and assassination. Set in Jamaica with Nazi war-criminal Von Hammerstein as culprit and target for the man with a licence to kill, it is a solid piece of dramatic fiction that once again bears little similarity to the celluloid adventure.

The volume concludes with the then-controversial ‘Thunderball’ adaptation. That particular tale was savagely censored and curtailed at the behest of Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express. Five days of continuity were excised but what remains is still pretty engrossing comic fare and at least some effort was made to wrap up the storyline before the strip ended. In case you can’t recall: When Bond is sent on enforced medical leave, he stumbles into a deadly plot to steal nuclear weapons by a new subversive organisation calling itself Spectre

These grand stories are a must for not only aficionados of Bond but for all thriller fans, as an example of truly gripping adventure uncluttered by superficial razzamatazz. Get back to basics, and remember that classic style is never out of fashion.

All strips are © Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/Express Newspapers Ltd 1987. James Bond and 007 are ™Danjaq LLC used under license from Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Graphic Canon volume 2: From “Kubla Khan” to the Brontë Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray

By many and various, edited by Russ Kick (Seven Stories)
ISBN: 978-1-60980-378-0 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A “Worthy” Present That’s Actually a Joy to Receive and Devour… 10/10

Once upon a time in the English-speaking world, nobody clever, educated or in any way grown-up liked comics. Now we’re an accredited really and truly art form and spectacular books like this can be appreciated…

The Graphic Canon is an astounding literary and art project instigated by legendary editor, publisher, anthologist and modern Renaissance Man Russ Kick, which endeavours to interpret the world’s great books through the eyes of masters of crusading sequential narrative in an eye-opening synthesis of modes and styles.

The project is divided into three periods, roughly equating with the birth of literature and its evolution up to the rise of the modern novel. Debut volume From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons covers literature from ancient times to the end of the 1700s in stories and poetry, and this sequel edition takes us up to the end of the 19thcentury and the rise of mass-market fiction and (nigh) universal literacy…

Much of the material for the project has been taken from already extant or ongoing projects: as editor Russ Kick explains in his Introduction, it was the realisation that so many creative individuals were attempting to publish their own graphic responses to global heritage literature that led him to initiate this mammoth project in the first place…

Rather than simply converting the stories, the artists involved have enjoyed the freedom to respond to texts in their own way, producing graphics – narrative or otherwise, monochrome or something else, sequential or not – to accompany, augment or even offset the words before them and the result is simply staggering…

Make no mistake: this is not a simple bowdlerising “prose to strip” exercise like generations of Classics Illustratedcomics, and you won’t pass any tests on the basis of what you see here. Moreover, these images will make you want to re-read the texts you know and hunger for the ones you haven’t got around to yet. You will of a certainty marvel at the infinite variety of the artistic responses the canonical works inspired.

Available in mammoth paperback and digital formats, each piece here is preceded by an informative commentary page by Kick, and the wonderment is presaged by a barrage of micro-comic ‘Three Panel Reviews’ by Lisa Brown (specifically Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities; Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter) before Alice Duke sets the ball properly rolling with a stunning painted interpretation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’.

National treasure Hunt Emerson has already wonderfully and hilariously adapted the poet’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and here loans ‘Part the Second’ to this tome wherein the foolish sailor realises why he shouldn’t have shot that damn sea bird…

Straight text-&-picture juxtapositions by Aidan Koch of William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’, lead to a formal and most mannerly adaption in ‘A Selection from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: Chapter 2’ by Huxley King with designer Terrence King, after which George Gordon, Lord Byron reminds us ‘She Walks in Beauty’, courtesy of David Lasky.

The period poesy corner continues and briefly concludes with Percy Bysshe Shelley and ‘Ozymandias’ as interpreted by Anthony Ventura, William Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ via a futuristic vision from PMurphy before enjoying another Hunt Emerson gem re-examining John Keats’ ‘O Solitude’

The novel makes its first appearance here with a gothic classic as Jason Cobley & Declan Shalvey precis a key moment from Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ after which, a selection of Fairy Tales begins with text-heavy original extracts from ‘The Valiant Little Tailor’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘Little Snow White’ by the Brothers Grimm, all deliriously illuminated by S. Clay Wilson.

The Grimm kids’ stuff then translates to comic strip form as Shawn Cheng adapts ‘How Six Made Good in the World’before Neil Cohn pictorializes Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ and William Blake’s own words and images are combined to bring to life ‘Jerusalem: The Emancipation of the Giant Albion’.

‘The Confessions of Nat Turner’ is a contemporary account of a southern slave rising as narrated, prior to his execution, by Turner himself to lawyer Thomas R. Gray, adapted by controversial artist John Pierard, whilst Lance Tooks devilishly tackles a lost classic by Mary Shelley in ‘The Mortal Immortal’ before another tranche of Fairy Tales commences with more original text limned by S. Clay Wilson.

Here Hans Christian Andersen is represented by ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘The Nightingale’ and ‘The Little Match Girl’ after which Ellen Lindner presents ‘Rondeau (Jenny Kiss’d Me)’ as first conciev’d and craft’d by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

Hysterical history cartoonist Kevin Dixon concocts a beautifully bonkers snippet from Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’, a delightful prelude to a dose of Victorian nonsense as seen in Hunt Emerson’s depiction of Edward Lear’s ‘The Jumblies’ and Sanya Glisic’s bombastic treatment of a selection from Heinrich Hoffman’s moralizing cautionary tales collection Der Struwwelpeter: specifically ‘Struwwelpeter: the Story of Shock-Headed Peter’, ‘The Story of the Inky Book’ ‘The Story of the Man that went out Shooting’ and ‘The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb’.

Literary giant Edgar Allen Poe is celebrated in a haunting Poe Montage by Gris Grimly and fuller adaptations such as‘The Raven’ by Yien Yap as well as original text extracts from ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Raven’, ‘The Bells’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ – all grotesquely illustrated by Maxon Crumb – before we switch themes and tone for Elizabeth Watasin to open a Brontë section with stylish interpretation of Charlotte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, whilst Tim Fish adapts Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, after which Ali J in one image encapsulates Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and Matt Kish offers a post-futurist and quite disturbing vision of Herman Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick’

John Porcellino offers a compelling and effective cartoon analogue of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ after which Walt Whitman is addressed through two vastly different depiction of ‘Leaves of Grass’: one by Tara Seibel’s and Dave Morice’s cheeky ‘Leaves of Grass: The Adventures of Walt Whitman’.

Tinges of literary modernism coincide with John Pierard’s hallucinatory adaptation of Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s ‘The Hasheesh Eater’ after which Michael Keller & Nicolle Rager Fuller lavishly and magnificently illuminate and interpret Chapter 4 from Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ (or if you’re a pedant like me On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) and Seth Tobocman re-delivers former slave, equal rights advocate and freedom fighter Frederick Douglass’ thoughts on the Nature of Power from ‘The Message from Mount Misery’.

More exploration of social justice issues comes via Tara Seibel’s lengthy treatment of portions of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’, before Dame Darcy leads off a brace of entries celebrating Emily Dickinson with ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’. Diana Evans then responds visually to ‘I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed’, before Corinne Mucha adapts Gustave Flaubert’s Letter to George Sand ‘Dear Master’ and Darcy returns to delineate a wild interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass’ and Eran Cantrell compellingly details his monstrous epic ‘Jabberwocky’.

Such is the impact of Carroll (AKA Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) – on artists and creators, if not the entire wider world – that a host of submissions led to the ‘Alice Gallery’ that follows, with inclusions by Alice and Mad Bill Carman, Kim Deitch, John Coulthart, May Ann Licudine, Andrea Femerstrand, Olga Lopata, Natalie Shau, Emerson Tung, Peter Kuper, John Ottinger, David W. Tripp, Christopher Panzer, Jasmine Becket-Griffith and Molly Kiely: all letting their imaginations run wild and proving the infinite power of a good book…

Another one such is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, starkly and paranoically envisioned here by Kako, before Molly Keilly delivers details from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s long-forbidden classic ‘Venus in Furs’ and Arthur Rimbaud’s pioneering drama ‘The Drunken Boat’ is adapted by Julian Peters…

Shifting to more sedate climes and themes, Megan Kelso deliciously delves into George Elliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ before Carroll pops up again, thanks to Mahendra Singh’s treatment of The Hunting of the Snark in ‘Fit the Second: The Bellman’s Speech’, before Ellen Lindner channels Leo Tolstoy with stylish extracts from ‘Anna Karenina’ whilst J. Ben Moss offers a key moment from Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’

Laurence Gane & Piero impressively summarize Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ in a sequence of short, sharp graphic lectures after which we enter the first moments of modernity with the accent on suspense and terror as Danusia Schejbal & Andrzej Klimowski open Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, whilst Sandy Jimenez effectively and chillingly recounts Ambrose Bierce’s ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ before John Coulthart epically and experimentally ends our literary excursions by uniquely adapting Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’.

Wrapping up the elucidatory experience are background, context and suggestions in ‘Further Reading’ from Jordyn Ostroff, regarding all the works contained herein, a full list of ‘Contributors’, details of ‘Credits and Permissions’ and an ‘Index to Volume 2’.

Although no replacement for actually reading as much of the source material as you can find, this astonishing agglomeration of visual interpretations is a magnificent achievement and one every fan of the comics medium should see: a staggering blend of imperishable thoughts and words wedded to and springing from sublimely experimental pictures.

This type of venture is just what our art form needs to grow beyond our largely self-imposed ghetto, and anything done this well with so much heart and joy simply has to be rewarded.
© 2012 Russ Kick. All work © individual owners and copyright holders and used with permission. All rights reserved.

Batman Begins – the Movie and Other Tales of the Dark Knight

By Scott Beatty, Denny O’Neil, Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, Bill Willingham, Kilian Plunkett, Dick Giordano, Rick Burchett, Scott McDaniel, Tom Fowler & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0440-2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Blockbuster Bat Fun… 8/10

It looks like I’m just destined to be wrong. Do you remember flared jeans, or even bell-bottoms? From which time? As the 1970s gasped to a close I said that we’d never see those again. Horribly, tragically, I was wrong.

I was seven when the Batman TV show first aired, and I loved it. By the time I was nine I had learned the word ‘travesty’ and loathed the show with a passion. When it was all over and the “Camp” fallout had faded from my beloved comics, giving way to the likes of Frank Robbins, Denny O’Neil and the iconoclastic Neal Adams, I was in seventh heaven and praised pantheons of deities that I should never see ‘Batmania’ again. I was, of course, doubly wrong.

The Caped Crusader reconquered the world in 1989 and only the increasing imbecility of its movie sequels stopped that particular multimedia juggernaut. Now there’s a been a whole new sequence of films (some not half-bad – though that’s beside the point) spin-offs and a new iteration beyond that beckons. Each of these cinematic milestones generated its own host of print (and latterly, digital) tie in Bat Products.

Originally released in 2005, this crafty marriage of an inevitable “Official Movie Adaptation” of Batman Begins with a well-considered selection of thematically similar stories is one of the best I can recall and a nice prospect if you’re looking for a great read or ideal gift option…

The lead feature – creditably handled by Scott Beatty on script with Kilian Plunkett & Serge LaPointe illustrating – is an intensely readable reworking of the myth, so much so that I was able, for once, to stifle the small, shrill and incessant comic-fan voice that always screams “why do they keep mucking about with this?”, and “why isn’t the comic version good enough for those movie morons?”

I do, however, still question the modern hang-up with having to start from origin stories at all. Was Star Wars: A New Hope a relative flop because we didn’t know how Darth Vader got Laryngitis? Which Bond movie tells us how he got to be so mean and sardonic? Why can’t film-makers assume that an audience can deduce motivation without a brand-spanking-new road-map every time? Although to be painfully honest, most modern comics seem to be afflicted with this bug too…

Could it be that it’s simply a cheap way of adding weight to the villain du jour, who can then become a Motivating Force in the Birth of the Hero? Said baddies this time out are the Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul, but I’m not going to speak any more about the cinema or plot of a movie that’s already being superseded by this generation’s Gotham Guardian. Batman fans will have already passed judgement…

Accompanying the filmic iteration, and following a pin-up by Ruben Procopio, is ‘The Man Who Falls’ by the aforementioned O’Neil and veteran Bat-artist Dick Giordano and taken from Secret Origins of the World’s Greatest Heroes. This is a skilful, engaging comics retooling of the so-pliable natal legend, created to address the media mania around the 1989 movie.

Hard on its heels and prefaced by a pin-up courtesy of Bill Sienkiewicz comes one of the better stories of recent vintage. ‘Air Time’ is by Greg Rucka, Rick Burchett & Rodney Ramos from Detective Comics #757 in 2001. It’s a taut countdown thriller that in many ways presages the style adopted for the wonderful procedural series Gotham Central.

KReasons’ (Batman #604, 2002), by Ed Brubaker & Scott McDaniel, revisits Batman’s origins in a tale seeking to redefine his relationship to inimical amour Catwoman, before the volume concludes with the brilliant ’Urban Legend’ from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #168.

In a grim and unsettling tale of frailties, Tom Fowler illustrates a wickedly sharp Bill Willingham script stuffed with the dark humour and skewed sensibilities that made his Fables stories such a joy for grown-ups who love comics.

This is a smart package for any casual reader the films might send our way, with a strong thematic underpinning. In an era of streaming and ultra-rapid home release, I’m increasingly unsure of the merit of comic adaptations, but if you are into such things it’s probably best they’re done well, like here…
© 1989, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Casper the Friendly Ghost Classics

By Sid Jacobson, Warren Kremer, Howie Post, Ernie Colón & various (American Mythology)
ISBN: 978-1-94520-509-5 (TMB)

Once upon a time the American comicbook for younger readers was totally dominated by Dell/Gold Key – with numerous Movie, TV and Disney licenses – and Harvey Comics. The latter had begun in the 1941 when Brookwood Publications sold its comicbook licenses for Green Hornet and Joe Palooka to entrepreneur Alfred Harvey. Hiring his brothers Robert B. and Leon, the new publisher began making impressive inroads into a burgeoning new industry.

For its first nine years the company combined conventional genres with some licensed properties in a bid for the general market, but from 1950 onwards devoted an ever-greater proportion of its resources to a portfolio of wholesome, kid-friendly characters for early readers and all-ages fans of gentle comedy.

Back in the late 1940s, the perspicacious Harvey Brothers had struck a deal with Famous Studios/Paramount Pictures to produce strips starring movie animation stars Little Audrey, Baby Huey, Herman and Katnip and Casper, the Friendly Ghost to supplement their newspaper comics stars such as Blondie and Dagwood, Mutt and Jeff and Sad Sack. Eventually the publishers minted original wholly-owned stars like Little Dot, Little Lotta and Richie Rich to cement their position as the kids’ comicbook company.

Even though Harvey consistently and persistently tried to maintain their strands in mainstream genres such as horror, science fiction, western, war and superheroes (producing some of the very best “forgotten classics” of the era such as Stuntman, Black Cat and Captain 3-D), it was always the junior titles that made the most money.

In 1959 the Harvey’s bought the controlling rights to their own Famous Studios characters just in time for the 1960s boom in children’s television cartoons. The result was a stunning selection of superb young reader comics starring Casper, Spooky the Tuff Little Ghost, Nightmare, The Ghostly Trio, Stumbo, Wendy, the Good Little Witch and Hot Stuff, the Little Devil: all bolstered and popularised by “free-to-air” weekly Harveytoons TV shows.

It was a new Golden Age for child-appropriate funny books that lasted until declining morals, the inexorable rise of “cost-free” television, growing games saturation and rising print costs finally forced Harvey to bow out in 1982 when company founder Alfred Harvey retired.

That gloriously evergreen archive of material has regularly resurfaced in assorted print revivals since then. This latest attempt to recapture the glory days comes from licensing specialists American Mythology, who also count Underdog, Pink Panther, Three Stooges and many other properties in their ever-expanding catalogue of comics gems.

Available in trade paperback and digitally, Casper the Friendly Ghost Classics gathers a timelessly wonderful wealth of reprint material to delight youngsters but, quite frankly, the reproduction is rushed and a bit shoddy, and there’s precious little creator information to satisfy older readers who might want to share these fragments of their own childhoods with children or grandkids.

Don’t get me wrong, this a wonderful and long-overdue collection of magical stories, but it – and the people who crafted those original gems – deserve to be treated with a little respect and a little due diligence in future volumes would definitely pay dividends. I’ve included my guesses where I’m able, but writers are harder to identify, so the likes of Ralph Newman, Lennie Herman and Sid Couchey only get a mention here, not on the tales they may or may not have penned…

This economical, no-nonsense affair could stand a few editorial extras and a little more care and attention to reproduction values and creator credits, but is nonetheless a delightful package of charming yarns and gloriously timeless 1-page gags displaying the sheer ingenuity and wit of its originators.

One such solo jape opens proceedings with our happy dead boy and his witch friend Wendy foiling the scary intentions of their relentlessly fear-inducing relatives, before the sweet little spirit decides to visit less noisome kinfolk in ‘Booed Relations’, ‘Educated Ghosts’ and ‘The Mysterious Helper’ (illustrated by the legendary Warren Kremer and originally from giant-sized Casper’s Ghostland #15, October 1962).

Of course, the extended expired family are all equally dedicated to scaring the living out of their wits…

Following a 1-page telephonic boo-duel starring Tuff Little Ghost Spooky, Hot Stuff the Little Devil visits and evicts ‘The Monsters of Creepwood Castle’, scoring ‘A Clean Sweep’ of horrors (from Hot Stuff the Little Devil #72 June 1966, with art, I suspect, by the astounding Ernie Colon).

The Ghostly Trio get a page to harass assorted woodland wildlife before Casper returns in fourth-wall bending yarn ‘Real Gone’ (Casper’s Ghostland #31 August 1966, by Stan Kay & Kremer I think). After an invisible menace bullies assorted forest folk Casper investigates and leaves his own reality to sort out unpleasant, out-of-control artist Pete Pencil who’s messing about in ‘Uncomic Book’. Before long ‘The Honeymoon is Over’ and the friendly ghost is heading back where he belongs…

The Good Little Witch gets some limelight of her own in ‘Flattery Works’, teaching her mean aunts the benefits of niceness before Spooky’s next vignette sees him using a garden hose to maximise his scare tactics, after which talking horse Nightmare (the Galloping Ghost) visits a human theatre and wants to become ‘The Actress’ (Casper and Nightmare #20 June 1969, with art by Marty Taras?)

From that same issue, Casper then visits ‘Puzzleland’, enduring a ‘Dog-Gone Dilemma’ and offering illustrator Kremer plenty of opportunity to display his graphic virtuosity whilst the see-through star is engaged in ‘Baffling the Baffler’

Courtesy of Colon, Hot Stuff visits ‘Dreamland’ to cure his recurrent nightmares before Wendy has a brief but good-natured duel with an artist and Casper drops in on a ‘School for Fools’ (The Friendly Ghost Casper #112, December 1967): learning lots that the students somehow cannot…

The Ghostly Trio lose a battle with a mean dark cloud before Spooky solos again in ‘Nobody Hoid a Woid’ – an exercise in restraint utterly wasted – before Casper strives against a bizarre vandal in ‘The Scribbling Menace’, ‘Erasers for Sale’ and ‘Trouble Erased’ (Casper’s Ghostland #80, September 1974).

Hot Stuff’s Grampa Blaze exhibits his hot temper and foul language in a sharp short strip before Spooky gets a present from Australia and suffers the woes of ‘The Wacky Come Back Stick’, after which Casper & Wendy remark ‘Wow! What a Whammy’ (The Friendly Ghost Casper #112, December 1967) when the witch girl’s awful aunts begin playing mystic pranks…

As Hot Stuff tries turning his trident into ‘The Magnetic Fork’ (Hot Stuff Sizzlers #10, November 1962) – with predictably painful results – Spooky is dreaming of a perfect Scare Raid and Wendy helps an unhappy hobo follow his dreams, before joining Casper in search of ‘The Prize!’ (Casper’s Ghostland #31 August 1966) hidden on a demon’s ship.

With the help of a living boy, this ‘Adventure on Ghastly Island’ leads to a suitably strange ‘Journey’s End’

Hot Stuff’s final appearance finds him aiding an archaeologist against tomb-robbers in ‘A Fortune in Fire’ before the spiritual shenanigans close with one last treat as Casper supernaturally scuppers a western bank raid…

For a worrisome while it looked like contemporary children’s comics would become extinct, but far-seeing outfits in the US and UK have thankfully engineered a robust revival in the marketplace that has seen ubiquitous ever-proliferating licensed product joined by brilliant original kids’ titles – just check out The Phoenix, Goldie Vance, Gotham Academy, Lumberjanes and many others, to see what I mean…

Nevertheless, it’s a boon that we have such timeless characters as Casper and Richie Rich to draw upon and draw kids in with, so compilations like this one belong on the shelves of every loving parent and even those still-contented, well-rested couples with only a confirmed twinkle in their eyes. This clutch of classic children’s tales is a fabulous mix of intoxicating nostalgia and exuberant entertainment readers of all ages cannot fail to love (but there’s still room for improvement, pretty please)…
© 2018 Classic Media LLC. Casper, its logos, names and related indicia are trademarks of and copyright by Classic Media LLC. All rights reserved.

Edgar Allen Poe: The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales of Horror

Adapted by Richard Corben & Rich Margopoulos (Catalan Communication/Del Rey)
ISBNs: Catalan signed hb 0-87416-013-8   Del Rey pb 978-0-34548-313-3

Richard Corben is one of America’s greatest proponents of graphic narrative: a multi-award-winning legendary animator, illustrator, publisher and cartoonist surfing the tumultuous wave of independent counterculture commix of the 1960s and 1970s to become a major force in pictorial storytelling with his own unmistakable style and vision. He is renowned for a mastery of airbrush and captivatingly excessive anatomical stylisation and infamous for delightfully wicked, darkly comedic horror and beguiling eroticism in his fantasy and science fiction tales. Corben is also an acclaimed and dedicated fan of the classics of gothic horror literature, so no season of Halloween reviews could be complete without invoking his name and at least some of his work.

Always garnering huge support and acclaim in Europe, he was regularly collected in luxurious albums even as he fell out of favour – and print – in his own country. This collection gathers a number of adaptations of works by Godfather of eerie fantasy Edgar Allan Poe, first seen in issues of Creepy magazine between 1974-1975 and in Pacific Comics’ A Corben Special in 1984.

This superb hardback Catalan collection (one of many long overdue for a definitive archival compilation) was re-released in softcover by prose publisher Del Rey Books in July 2005.

The terror commences with the moody monochrome madness of ‘The Oval Portrait’ (from Creepy #69, February 1975 and adapted by writer Rich Margopoulos, as were all the Warren originated stories here) wherein the wounded survivor of a duel breaks into an abandoned chateau to recover and falls under the sinister spell of a beguiling painting and seductive journal…

‘The Raven’ is a fully airbrushed, colour phantasmagoria from Creepy #67 (December 1974) which perfectly captures the oppressive majesty of the classic poem, as is the next macabre vignette wherein the focus shifts to ancient Greece and the inevitable approach of death amongst the warriors at a funeral: a wake tainted by an invisible ‘Shadow’ (Creepy #70 April, 1975).

The obvious and worthy star turn of this tome is the artist’s own adaptation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, created for the comicbook A Corben Special in May 1984 and here expanded and reformatted for the larger, squarer page of this European album.

Traveller Edgar Arnold is trapped in the bilious swamp where the ancestral seat of the ancient Usher clan is slowly dissolving into the mire that surrounds it.

The tainted blood of the melancholic master Roderick and his debauched clandestinely closeted, sumptuously seductive, deranged sister Madeline proves certain to extinguish the family long before the dank Earth reclaims the crumbling manse, but if it doesn’t Roderick is determined to expedite matters himself.

Madeline however, has other dreams and desires and is not above using her unique charms to win her objectives…

Corben – with the assistance of colourists Herb & Diana Arnold – perfectly captures the trenchant, doom-laden atmosphere, erotic charge and cataclysmic denouement of the original and this seminal, seductive work is undoubtedly one of the very best interpretations of this much-told and retold tale.

The artist’s sublime acumen in depicting humanity’s primal drives has never been better exemplified than with these immortal stories and this is a book no comics or horror fan should be without.
© 1974, 1975, 1984, 1985 1993 Richard Corben and Richard Margopoulos. All rights reserved.

Where’s My Cow?

By Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Melvyn Grant (Doubleday)
ISBN: 978-0-38560-937-1

Here’s a charming little thing. Not strictly a comic strip or a graphic novel, but rather a beautifully illustrated picture book. Originally a plot device from Thud!, one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld prose fantasy novels, until some bright spark wisely decided to manufacture the thing for real. They also pulled the same trick for The World of Poo, as seen in Snuff

What’s it all about?: Watch Commander Sam Vimes is the best copper in Anhk Morpork (the most unpleasant city in all fact and fiction), and his day job ranges from colourful to sheer hell. What makes worth living for him is to get home, kick off his boots and breastplate, and read his baby boy their favourite bedtime story – and do all the noises too.

And so can you if you get this wonderful book (sadly only available in hardback, not digital editions) which manages to be both an engaging, clever side-bar to the novels and also a superbly illustrated easy reader for the very young.

If you’re a fan of the Discworld you’ll want this, if you’re not, buy the novels and become one, and if you have small kids get them one of the prettiest picture books on the market. It’s the first sure step to getting them hooked on pictorial wonderment, and a darn fine thing besides.

Text © 2005 Terry Pratchett & Lyn Pratchett. All Rights Reserved.
Illustrations © 2005 Melvyn Grant. All Rights Reserved.W

Batman: The Brave and the Bold: Emerald Knight

By Landry Q. Walker, Sholly Fisch, Adam Schlagman, Robert Pope, Eric Jones, Carlo Barberi & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3143-9 (TPB)

The Brave and the Bold premiered in 1955 as an anthology adventure comic featuring short complete tales about a variety of period heroes: a format which mirrored that era’s filmic fascination with flamboyant if fanciful historical dramas. Devised and written by Bob Kanigher, issue #1 led with Roman epic Golden Gladiator, medieval mystery-man The Silent Knight and Joe Kubert’s now legendary Viking Prince. Soon the Gladiator was alternated with Robin Hood, but the adventure theme carried the title until the end of the decade when the burgeoning costumed character revival saw B&B transform into a try-out vehicle like Showcase.

Used to premiere concepts and characters such as Task Force X: The Suicide Squad, Cave Carson, Hawkman and Strange Sports Stories as well as the epochal Justice League of America, the comic soldiered on until issue #50 when it provided another innovative new direction which once again truly caught the public’s imagination.

That issue paired two superheroes – Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter – in a one-off team-up, and was followed by other ones: Aquaman and Hawkman in #51, WWII “Battle Stars” Sgt. Rock, Captain Cloud, Mme. Marie & the Haunted Tank in #52 and Atom & Flash in #53.

The next team-up – Robin, Aqualad and Kid Flash – quickly evolved into Teen Titans and after Metal Men/the Atom and Flash/Martian Manhunter appeared, a new hero debuted in #57-58: Metamorpho, the Element Man.

From then it was back to the increasingly popular superhero pairings with #59, and although no one realised it at the time, that particular conjunction – Batman with Green Lantern – would be particularly significant….

After a return engagement for the Teen Titans, two issues spotlighting Earth-2 champions Starman and Black Canary and Earth-1’s Wonder Woman with Supergirl, an indication of things to come came when Batman duelled hero/villain Eclipso in #64: an early acknowledgement of the brewing TV-induced mania mere months away.

Within two issues (following Flash/Doom Patrol and Metamorpho/Metal Men), B&B #67 saw the Caped Crusader take de facto control of the title and the lion’s share of the team-ups. With the late exception of #72 and 73 (Spectre/Flash and Aquaman/Atom) the comic was henceforth a place where Batman invited the rest of company’s heroic pantheon to come and play…

Decades later, the Batman Animated TV series masterminded by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini in the 1990s revolutionised the Dark Knight and subsequently led to some of the absolute best comicbook adventures in his seventy-year publishing history with the creation of the spin-off print title…

With constant funnybook iterations and tie-ins to a succession of TV cartoon series, Batman has remained popular and a sublime introducer of kids to the magical world of the printed page. One fun-filled incarnation was Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which gloriously celebrated the team up in both its all-ages small-screen and comicbook spin-off.

Shamelessly and magically plundering decades of continuity arcana in a profusion of alliances between the Dark Knight and DC’s other heroic creations, the show was supplemented by a cool kid’s periodical full of fun, verve and swashbuckling dash, cunningly crafted to appeal as much to the parents and grandparents as those fresh-faced neophyte kids…

This stellar trade paperback and digital collection re-presents issues #13, 14, 16, 18, 19 and 21 in an immensely entertaining package suitable for newcomers, fans and aficionados of all ages originally released between March and November 2010. Best of all, although not necessary to the reader’s enjoyment, a passing familiarity with the TV episodes will enhance the overall experience…

Following the format of the TV show, each tale opens with a brief vignette adventure before telling a longer tale. Issue #13 sees the Caped Crimebuster break a leg while working with Angel O’Day and Sam Simeon (the astonishingly daft but wonderful Angel & The Ape) and laid up for main feature ‘Night of the Batmen’ (by Sholly Fisch, Robert Pope & Scott McRae) as an army of (uninvited and unwelcome) heroic comrades – including Green Arrow, Plastic Man, Aquaman and Shazam!-powered Captain Marvel among others – impersonate the Dark Knight to keep Gotham safe from fiends such as Bane, Killer Croc, Penguin, Deadshot and Catwoman. However, when the Joker joins the party, it results in the real deal ending his recuperation early…

Crafted by Landry Q. Walker & Eric Jones, the next yarn opens with Bats and Plastic Man tackling the Scarecrow before the Gotham Gangbuster meets the Huntress. She is having trouble with a costumed crazy with a nasty obsession and ends up briefly ‘Captured by Mr. Camera!’

The same creative crew return for #16 as a battle with the Teen Titans against Nocturna hatches a sinister sub-plot in ‘Egg Hunt! or: The Evil of Egg Head!’ as the ovoid mastermind revives antediluvian elder god Y’ggphu Soggoth (offering a guilty treat for old fans of truly naff supervillains) and Batman needs the aid of Wonder Woman to scramble the scheme…

Batman: The Brave and the Bold #18 alters the format slightly with a brace of linked tales from Walker & Jones. ‘Life on Mars’ features Batman and Martian Manhunter J’onn J’onzz defeating the human extermination plans of super-psionic shapeshifting White Martian Ma’alefa’ak before a strangely off-kilter Dark Knight calls in mystic master Doctor Fate to diagnose and treat a case of possession in follow-up thriller ‘All in the Mind’

The last two yarns collected here both co-star Hal Jordan and other stalwarts of the Green Lantern Corps. From #19 and by Adam Schlagman, Carlo Barberi & Terry Beatty, ‘Emerald Knight’ details how the ring-slinger is captured by ultimate tech pirate Cyborg Superman and robotic Manhunters. Unable to prevail alone, Jordan temporarily bequeaths his power to Batman who lead his comrades in the Corps to victory, after which a brief interlude battling dinosaur gangsters beside the Lady Blackhawks leads to the Gotham Guardian and the fully-restored Jordan uniting to defeat ‘The Menace Known as Robert’. Another Walker & Jones production, this depicts the calamitous threat of a primordial alien horror invading Earth and the terrifying lengths Batman will go to save the world…

Despite being ostensibly aimed at TV-addicted kids, these mini-sagas are also wonderful, traditional comics thrillers no self-respecting fun-fan should miss: accessible, well-rendered yarns for the broadest range of excitement-seeking readers. This is a fabulously fun rollercoaster ride and confirms the now-seamless link between animated features and comicbooks. After all, it’s just adventure entertainment in the end; really unmissable entertainment…

What more do you need to know?
© 2010, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Mort: A Discworld Big Comic

By Terry Pratchett & Graham Higgins (VG Graphics/Gollancz)
ISBN: 978-0-57505-697-8 (HB)                    978-0-57505-699-2 (PB)

Us old codgers have always maintained that a good comic needs a good artist and this superb adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s fourth Discworld novel proves that point.

Just in case you’ve been living on another world: The Discworld is a flat planet supported on the backs of four elephants standing on the shell of a giant turtle swimming across the universe. Magic works there and the people are much too much like us.

This, of course, makes it an ideal location for spleen-venting, satire, slapstick and social commentary…

Scripted by the so-very-much-missed author and brilliantly illustrated by Graham Higgins, it tells a complex and darkly witty tale of Death (big grim chap, carries a scythe, nobody gets his jokes, always has the last laugh) and hapless, literal-minded, sort-of-useless young oaf Mort, whom he hires as his apprentice.

Of course, that’s not all there is to it, with sub-plots including an orphaned princess and her dangerously ambitious guardian, Death’s vacation, the daughter he adopted and the mystery of his most peculiar servant Albert to season a very impressive spin on a very familiar myth.

Higgin’s light, dry touch adds volumes of texture to the mix, and his deft sense of timing and comedy pacing – reminiscent of Hunt Emerson – marvellously match Pratchett’s unmistakable, acerbic dialogue and plot.

Incomprehensibly unavailable digitally and only physically in editions from the last century, if you have to have adaptations of great novels, this is how they should be done.
Text © 1994 Terry and Lyn Pratchett. Illustrations © 1994 Graham Higgins. All Rights Reserved

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

By Bram Stoker & Fernando Fernández (Catalan Communications/Del Rey Books)
DLB: 18118-1984 (Catalan) ISBN: 978-0-34548-312-6 (Del Rey)

Here a gloriously OTT example of Anglo-European collaboration long overdue for reconsideration and another go-round. I don’t mean anything by it; I’m just saying…

Multi-disciplinary Spanish artist Fernando Fernández began working to help support his family at age 13 whilst still at High School. He graduated in 1956 and immediately began working for British and French comics publishers.

In 1958 his family relocated to Argentina and whilst there he added strips for El Gorrión, Tótem and Puño Fuerte to his ongoing European and British assignments for Valentina, Roxy and Marilyn.

In 1959 he returned to Spain to begin a long association with Fleetway Publications in London, producing mostly war and girls’ romance stories.

During the mid-1960’s he began to experiment with painting: selling book covers and illustrations to a number of clients, before again taking up comics work in 1970, creating a variety of strips (many of which found their way into US horror magazine Vampirella), the successful comedy feature ‘Mosca’ for Diario de Barcelona and educational strips for the publishing house Afha.

Increasingly expressive and experimental as the decade passed, Fernández produced ‘Cuba, 1898’ and ‘Círculos’ before, in 1980 beginning his science fiction spectacular Zora y los Hibernautas for the Spanish iteration of fantasy magazine 1984. It eventually made it into English in Heavy Metal magazine as Zora and the Hibernauts.

He then adapted this moody, Hammer Films-influenced version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the Spanish iteration of Creepy, before (working with Carlos Trillo) moving on to mediaeval fantasy thriller La Leyenda de las Cuatro Sombras , after which he created Argón, el Salvaje and a number of adaptations of Isaac Asimov tales in Firmado por: Isaac Asimov and Lucky Starr – Los Océanos de Venus.

His last comics work was Zodíaco begun in 1989, but mounting heart problems soon curtailed the series and he returned to painting and illustration. He passed away in August 2010, aged 70.

For his interpretation of the gothic masterpiece under review here, Fernández sidelined the expansive, experimental layouts and lavish page design that worked so effectively in Zora and the Hibernauts for a moodily classical and oppressively claustrophobic, traditional page construction, trusting to his staggering mastery of colour and form to carry his luxuriously mesmeric message of mystery, seduction and terror.

The story is undoubtedly a familiar one and the set pieces are all executed with astounding skill and confident aplomb as, in May 1897, English lawyer Jonathan Harker is lured to the wilds of Transylvania and horror beyond imagining wherein an ancient bloodsucking horror prepares to move to the pulsing heart of the modern world.

Leaving Harker to the tender mercies of his vampiric harem, Dracula travels by schooner to England, slaughtering every seaman aboard the S.S. Demeter and unleashing a reign of terror on the sedate and complacent British countryside…

Meanwhile, in the seat of Empire, Harker’s fiancée Mina Murray finds her flighty friend Lucy Westenra fading from troublesome dreams and an uncanny lethargy which none of her determined suitors, Dr. Jack Seward, Texan Quincy P. Morris and Arthur Holmwood – the future Lord Godalming – seem capable of dispelling…

As Harker struggles to survive in the Carpathians, in Britain, Seward’s deranged but impotent patient Renfield claims horrifying visions and becomes greatly agitated…

Dracula, although only freshly arrived in England, is already causing chaos and disaster, as well as constantly returning to the rapidly declining Lucy. His bestial bloodletting prompts her three beaux to summon famed Dutch physician Abraham Van Helsing to save her life and cure her increasing mania.

Harker survived his Transylvanian ordeal, and when nuns summoned Mina she rushed to Romania where she married him in a hasty ceremony to save his health and wits….

In London, Dracula renews his assaults and Lucy dies, only to be reborn as a predatory child-killing monster. After dispatching her to eternal rest, Van Helsing, Holmwood, Seward and Morris – joined by recently returned and much-altered Harker and his new bride – resolve to hunt down and destroy the ancient evil in their midst, following a chance encounter in a London street between the newlyweds and the astoundingly rejuvenated Count…

Dracula, however, has incredible forces and centuries of experience on his side and having tainted Mina with his blood-drinking curse flees back to his ancestral lands. Frantically, the mortal champions give chase, battling the elements, Dracula’s enslaved gypsy army and the monster’s horrific eldritch power in a race against time lest Mina finally succumb forever to his unholy influence…

Although the translation to English in the Catalan version is a little slapdash in places – a fact happily addressed in the 2005 re-release from Del Rey – the original does have the subtly enhanced benefit of richer colours, sturdier paper stock and a slightly larger page size (285 x 219mm as opposed to 274 x 211mm) which somehow makes the 1984 edition feel more substantial. This would all be irrelevant if a digital edition were available…

This breathtaking oft-retold yarn delivers fast paced, action-packed, staggeringly beautiful and astoundingly exciting thrills and chills in a most beguiling manner. Being Spanish, however, there’s perhaps the slightest hint of brooding machismo, if not subverted sexism, on display and – of course – plenty of heaving, gauze-filtered female nudity which might challenge modern sensibilities.

Nevertheless, what predominates in this Dracula is an overwhelming impression of unstoppable evil and impending doom.

There’s no sympathy for the devil here – this is a monster from Hell that all good men must oppose to their last breath and final drop of blood and sweat…

With an emphatic introduction (‘Dracula Lives!’) from noted comics historian Maurice Horn, this is a sublime treatment by a master craftsman that all dark-fearing, red- blooded fans will want to track down and savour.
© 1984, 2005 Fernando Fernández. All rights reserved.