Yoko Tsuno volume 9: The Forge of Vulcan


By Roger Leloup (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-197-6 (Album PB)

The uncannily edgy yet excessively accessible European exploits of Japanese scientific adventurer Yoko Tsuno began first began gracing the pages of Le Journal de Spirou in September 1970 and are still going strong.

The explosive, eye-popping, expansively globe-girdling, multi award-winning series was devised by Roger Leloup, another hugely talented Belgian who worked as one of Hergé’s assistants on the Adventures of Tintin strip before striking out on his own.

Compellingly told, superbly imaginative but always solidly placed in hyper-realistic settings sporting utterly authentic and unshakeably believable technology, these illustrated epics were at the vanguard of a wave of strips starring smart, competent and brave female protagonists which revolutionised Continental comics from the last third of the 20th century onwards and are as potently empowering now as they ever were.

The initial Spirou stories ‘Hold-up en hi-fi’, ‘La belle et la bête’ and ‘Cap 351’ were introductory vignettes before the formidable Miss Tsuno and her always awestruck and overwhelmed male comrades truly hit their stride with premier extended saga Le trio de l’étrange which began serialisation with the May 13th 1971 issue.

That epic of extraterrestrial intrigue was the first of 30 European albums, with this one was first serialised in 1973 (Spirou #1819-1840) before being released the same year as La forge de Vulcain. A spectacular earth-shaking rollercoaster romp, it was chronologically the third album and reached us as Cinebook’s ninth translated chronicle.

It all begins when Yoko spots a TV report of a disaster on an oil rig near Martinique and realises the drill has impacted and penetrated the same strange material – “vitreous, luminous and ultra-magnetic” – that was a basic building material of the subterranean aliens known as the Vineans

Those ancient wanderers had been secretly hibernating deep within the earth for hundreds of thousands of years until she, TV producer Vic Van Steen and his frivolous cameraman pal Pol Paris encountered them to set the lost race on a new path…

Now the Vineans seem to be at the heart of a burgeoning ecological catastrophe of cataclysmic proportions, and none too soon Yoko and the lads are winging their way to the Caribbean. Upon landing, they waste no time in bluffing their way into the offices of oil company Forex, aided by a few mementoes of their under-earth adventure.

They are, however, about to be unceremoniously ejected when news comes that the soon-to-explode rig has encountered a new problem: a strange craft, unlike any ever seen, trapped in the rig’s legs even as inexplicable seismic distortions propagate, creating an area of meteorological instability.

Yoko convinces the manager she has prior experience in matters like these and is promptly jetting over in a helicopter. Of course, she had to stow away first…

Before long she is valiantly prying a live Vinean and his scout vessel out of a boiling gusher of mud and has discerned the true scale of the threat. The rig’s drill has intercepted a Vinean magma tunnel – used in their construction projects – which has strayed too close to the oil field, triggering a potential geological time-bomb…

Thankfully the crisis has brought forth an unexpected benefit too as old friend and benevolent alien scientist Khanyarrives to take charge. The forthright technologist already has a plan but needs her old surface allies’ assistance to carry it out. Soon Yoko, Pol and Vic are abandoning the incredulous rig engineers and heading back under earth where an unpleasant surprise is awaiting them.

The Vineans had slept in huge, manufactured caverns for almost half a million years, but since recently reviving, internecine strife has entered the lives of the blue-skinned colonist/refugees.

In The Curious Trio, ambitious militaristic throwback Karpan made a play to seize power from the vast electronic complex known as The Centre which regulated the lives of the colonists. The blustering bully was ultimately frustrated by Khany and her newfound surface pals but now – thanks to humanity’s underground atomic testing – has returned to prominence amongst his terrified people and set in motion a dangerous scheme to destroy Earth’s civilisation and conquer the survivors.

Subverting a plan to divert magma and grow a new continent for the Vineans to occupy, Karpan wants to use the colossal magma-shifting technology to drown the surface world. Khany and her followers were already attempting to scuttle the scheme, but now grim fortune and the humans’ drill have damaged the super-engineered magma-tubes, a drastic solution is necessary to save the planet both species occupy from exploding like a cosmic firecracker…

Naturally Yoko has a plan, but this one depends as much on luck as her scientific ingenuity and martial arts prowess as she tries to mould lava like plasticine and thwart Karpan’s globally suicidal schemes…

As always, the most potent asset of these breathtaking dramas is the staggeringly detailed draughtsmanship, which benefits from Leloup’s diligent research and meticulous attention to detail, honed through years of working on Tintin.

Possibly the most frenetic and visually spectacular of all her adventures, The Forge of Vulcan is a relentless, rocket-paced race to doom or salvation that will appeal to any fan of blockbuster action fantasy.
Original edition © Dupuis, 1973, 1979 by Roger Leloup. All rights reserved. English translation 2014 © Cinebook Ltd.

Yakari volume 17: The Snow Bird


By Derib & Job, coloured by Dominique and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-460-1 (Album PB)

Children’s magazine Le Crapaud à lunettes was founded in 1964 by Swiss journalist André Jobin who then wrote for it under the pseudonym Job. Three years later he hired fellow French-Swiss artist Claude de Ribaupierre AKA “Derib”. The illustrator had launched his own career as an assistant at Studio Peyo (home of Les Schtroumpfs), working on Smurfs strips for venerable weekly Le Journal de Spirou. Together they created the splendid Adventures of the Owl Pythagore before striking pure comics gold a few years later with their next collaboration.

Derib – equally au fait with enticing, comically dynamic “Marcinelle” cartoon style yarns and devastatingly compelling meta-realistic action illustrated action epics – went on to become one of the Continent’s most prolific and revered creators. It’s a crime that groundbreaking strips such as Celui-qui-est-né-deux-fois, Jo (the first comic ever published dealing with AIDS), Pour toi, Sandra and La Grande Saga Indienne) haven’t been translated into English yet, but we still patiently wait in hope and anticipation…

Many of Derib’s stunning works over the decades feature his cherished Western themes; magnificent geographical backdrops and epic landscapes. Yakari is considered by fans and critics to be the strip which first led him to deserved mega-stardom.

Debuting in 1969, Yakari follows the life of a young Oglala Lakota boy on the Great Plains; set sometime after the introduction of horses by the Conquistadores but before the coming of modern Europeans.

The series – which has generated two separate TV cartoon series and a movie release – has achieved 40th albums: a testament to the strip’s evergreen vitality and the brilliance of its creators, even though originator Job has moved on and Frenchman Joris Chamblain has assumed the writer’s role from 2016.

Overflowing with gentle whimsy and heady compassion, young Yakari enjoys a largely bucolic existence: at one with nature and generally free from privation or strife. For the sake of our delectation, however, the ever-changing seasons are punctuated with the odd crisis, generally resolved without fuss, fame or fanfare by a little lad who is smart, brave… and can – thanks to the boon of his totem guide the Great Eagle – converse with all animals …

Originally released in 1992, L’osieau de niege was the 18th European album, but – as always with the best books – the content and set-up are both stunningly simple and effectively timeless, affording new readers total enjoyment with a minimum of familiarity or foreknowledge required…

This time, the little wonder willingly yields focus to human companion Rainbow as the kids idly play at the debilitating heights of the summer. They are confined to one of the capacious rawhide tipis thanks to a sudden deluge when the storm suddenly picks up the entire tent – floor and all – and whisks them away into the sky…

The tipi heads steadily north at high altitude and eventually lands in frozen tundra where old pal and mystic spirit rabbit Nanabozho is waiting. He’s summoned them for fun and adventure…

Rapt in wonder, the little girl soon befriends a lemming and saves him from a hunting snowy owl before she and Yakari are separated. A long search for each other finds them exhausted and baffled as the sun never goes down…

After a long nap on the too-bright plains, Yakari has a long chat with the giant owl and joins an army of lemmings as they cross a stream. Rainbow, meanwhile, is caught in a similar migration, but the reindeer she’s wandered into are far larger and determined. Before long she’s been carried with them and dumped in a raging river. Thankfully, the owl is soaring above and drags her out before she can drown…

Reunited at last, the little wanderers seek out their tipi, and befriend a herd of musk oxen just as a snap snowstorm hits. Not only do the mighty beasts warm them until it passes, but they’re quite protective when a hungry and inquisitive pack of wolves considers them as the next meal…

When Nanabozho pops up again, the general consensus is that it might be time to return, but as the tipi takes off, the kids realise they have a stowaway…

Exotically enticing, deviously educational and wildly entertaining, this cheery travelogue of natural wonders allows Derib & Job full rein to display their astounding and compelling narrative virtuosity: a glorious graphic tour de force capturing the appealing courage of our diminutive heroes, and a visually stunning, seductively smart and happily heart-warming saga to delight young and old alike.

Yakari is one of the most unfailingly absorbing all-ages strips ever conceived and should be in every home, right beside Tintin, Uncle Scrooge, Asterix and The Moomins.
Original edition © Derib + Job – Editions du Lombard (Dargaud- Lombard s. a.) 2000. English translation 2019 © Cinebook Ltd.

Red Range: A Wild West Adventure


By Joe R. Lansdale, Sam Glanzman & various (It’s Alive!/IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-994-3 (HB)

Once upon a time, not that very long ago, nearly all of popular fiction was obsessed with tales of Cowboys and Indians. As always happens with such periodic popular phenomena – for example the Swinging Sixties’ Superspy and Batmania booms or the recent trend for Vampire and/or Werewolf Boyfriends – there was a tremendous amount of momentary merit, lots of utter dross and a few irrefutable gems that would affect public tastes from then on.

Most importantly, once such surges have petered out, there’s generally a small cadre of frustrated devotees who mourn its passing and, on growing up, resolve to do something to venerate or even revive their lost and faded favourite fad…

Following World War II, the American family entertainment market – for which read comics, radio and the nascent but burgeoning television industry – became comprehensively enamoured of the clear-cut, simplistic sensibilities and easy, escapist solutions offered by the antiseptic anodyne branch of Tales of the Old West; already a firmly established favourite of paperback fiction, movie serials and feature films.

I’ve often pondered on how almost simultaneously a dark, bleak, nigh-nihilistic and oddly left-leaning Film Noir genre quietly blossomed alongside that wholesome revolution, seemingly for the cynical minority of entertainment intellectuals who somehow knew that returned veterans still hadn’t found a Land Fit for Heroes… but that’s a thought for another time and a different review.

Even though comic books embraced six-gun heroes from the very start – there were cowboy crusaders in the premier issues of both Action Comics and Marvel Comics – the post-war years saw a vast outpouring of anthology titles with new gun-slinging idols to replace the rapidly-dwindling supply of costumed Mystery Men, and true to formula, most of these pioneers ranged from transiently mediocre to outright appalling. And they were all white.

With every comics publisher turning hopeful eyes westward, it was natural that most of the historical figures would quickly find a home and of course facts counted little, as was always the case with cowboy literature…

Despite minor re-flowerings in the early 1970s and mid-1990s, for the longest time cowboy comics largely vanished from graphic pages: seemingly unable to command enough mainstream commercial support to survive the crushing competition of garish wonder-men and the furiously seductive future-scapes.

Europe and Britain heartily embraced the Sagebrush zeitgeist, producing some pretty impressive work, with France and Italy eventually making the genre their own by the end of the 1960s. They still make the best straight Western strips in the world…

Happily, however, an American revolution in comics retailing and print technologies at the end of the 20th century allowed fans to create and disseminate relatively inexpensive comic books of their own and – happier still – many of those fans are incredibly talented creators in other genres. A particularly impressive case in point is this captivating lost treasure originally published by independent, creator-led outfit Mojo Press.

The brainchild of Richard Klaw (publisher, reviewer, essayist, writer, historian and self-confessed geek maven), the little outfit published amazing and groundbreaking horror, fantasy, science fiction and Western graphic novels – plus some prose books – between 1994 and their much-lamented demise in 1999.

As revealed in Klaw’s informative Introduction ‘When Old is New and New Old’, Red Range was probably their most controversial release: an uncompromising adventure tale and deftly-disguised (a tad too much so, apparently) attack on contemporary racism and institutionalised bigotry, astoundingly couched as an ultra-violent cowboy revenge yarn.

Originally published in stark monochrome in 1999, Joe E. Lansdale & Sam Glanzman’s amazing unfinished odyssey was remastered and adapted to full-colour (courtesy of Jorge Blanco & Jok and letterer Douglas Potter) and given a new lease of life in this sublime hardcover/digital edition, just as America’s worst President seemed set to return the nation to those days of implicit supremacism, casual segregation and wealth-based Jim Crow laws…

A Word of Warning: if your sensibilities and senses are liable to freak out at profoundly yet historically accurate scenes of violence or repeated use of the “N” word as used by drawn representations of murdering racist bastards in white sheets, don’t buy this book. Actually, do buy it; just don’t whine that you weren’t warned…

Texas in the late 19th century: a band of Klansmen brutally torture a black family who have the temerity to buy land and plant crops. The ignorant butchers’ repugnant fun is mercilessly interrupted when a masked negro vigilante known as TheRed Mask attacks, killing many and driving off their leader Batiste.

The unlikely avenger is too late to save the parents, but takes their son Turon under his wing. As they ride to his hideout, the lone rider confides in his youthful new companion. Caleb Range’s story is appallingly similar to the boy’s own tragedy. It’s probably one repeated hundreds of times every day in America since the Black Man was first emancipated…

Back in town, Batiste recruits a specialist tracker and plenty more white men eager to teach “coloureds” their rightful place. Hunting down Red Mask, the bigot again underestimates his quarry’s determination and facility with weapons…

Angry, frustrated and humiliated, Batiste gathers yet more men and sets out to end his nemesis forever. Relentless pursuit leads into the desert wastes and straight out of any semblance of rationality as Caleb and Turon survive one more cataclysmic battle before falling into a lost world of ancient tribes and ravenous dinosaurs, with Batiste and his few surviving killers hard on their heels…

In this place however, it’s the so-superior white men who are seen as less than human by the indigenous inhabitants: nothing more than prey and provender. Regrettably, they hold pretty much the same opinion regarding Caleb and Turon, who quickly discover they might not just be lost in space but also time…

To Be Continued…

Vivid, shocking, staggeringly exciting, ferociously uncompromising and often outrageously, laugh-out-loud funny, Red Range has both message and moral, but never for a moment lets that stand in the way of telling a great story.

Adding value and enlightenment, this opening chapter in an extended saga is augmented by ‘Beneath the Valley of the Klan Busters: (A Sort of) Afterword by Stephen R. Bissette’ which offers historical and social context to the proceedings and inside gen on creators Lansdale & Glanzman, as well as a potted history of the role of black people in western movies from 1920s star-turn Bill Pickett to Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained.

The bonus goodies continue with a silent monochrome masterpiece of action and bleak, black humour. ‘I Could Eat a Horse!’ was first seen in Wild West Show (1996) with the artist displaying a firm grip of both killer slapstick and grim irony as Cowboy, Indian and other beasts go in search of a meal, before Bissette rides us into the sunset with an erudite and fascinating trip down memory lane for “Pop Culture Cowpokes and Carnosaurs” with ‘A Brief History of Cowboys & Dinosaurs’

These fresh looks at an overexposed idiom prove there’s still meat to found on those old bones, and cow-punching aficionados, fans of nostalgia-tainted comics and seekers of the wild and new alike can all be assured that there’s a selection of range-riding rollercoaster thrills and moody mysteries still lurking in those hills and on that horizon…
Red Range: A Wild West Adventure © 1999-2017 Joe R. Lansdale. “I Could Eat a Horse” © 2017 Sam Glanzman. “When Old is New and New Old” © 2017 Richard Klaw. “Beneath the Valley of the Klan Busters” and “A Brief History of Cowboys & Dinosaurs” © 2017 Stephen R. Bissette. All rights reserved.

Benny Breakiron volume 3: The Twelve Trials of Benny Breakiron


By Peyo, with Yvan Delporte & Walthéry, translated by Joe Johnson (Papercutz/NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-59707-492-6 (HB Album)

Pierre Culliford was born in Belgium in 1928 to a family of British origin living in the Schaerbeek district of Brussels. An admirer of the works of Hergé and American comics licensed to Le Journal de Mickey, Robinson and Hurrah!, he developed his own artistic skills but the war and family bereavement forced him to forgo further education and find work.

After time spent toiling as a cinema projectionist, in 1945 Culliford joined C.B.A. animation studios, where he met André Franquin, Morris and Eddy Paape. When the studio closed, he briefly studied at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts before moving full-time into graphic advertising. In his spare time, he began submitting comic strips to the burgeoning post-war comics publishers.

His first sale was in April 1946: Pied-Tendre, a tale of American Indians in Riquet, the comics supplement to the daily L’Occident newspaper. Further sales to other venues followed and in 1952 his knight Johan found a permanent spot in Le Journal de Spirou. Retitled Johan et Pirlout, the strip prospered and in 1958 introduced a strange bunch of blue woodland gnomes to the tale. They were called Les Schtroumpfs.

Culliford – by now using nom de plume Peyo – would gradually turn those adorable little mites (known to us and most of the world as The Smurfs) into an all-encompassing global empire, but before being sucked onto that relentless treadmill, he still found time to create a few other noteworthy strips such as the titanic tyke on view here today.

In 1960, Benoît Brisefer – AKA Benedict Ironbreaker and/or (in Dutch) Steven Sterk – debuted in Le Journal de Spirou #1183 (December 1960). With a few slyly added tips of the hat to Siegel & Shuster’s Superman, the wryly bucolic adventures celebrated a small boy with superhuman strength living in a generally quiet and unassuming little Belgian town.

Quiet, well-mannered, gentle and a little lonely, Benny just happens to be the mightiest boy on Earth; able to crush steel in his tiny hands, leap huge distances and run faster than a racing car. He is also generally immune to all physical harm, but his fatal and rather ubiquitous weakness is that all his strength deserts him whenever he catches a cold…

Benny never tries to conceal his abilities but somehow no adults ever catch on. They generally think he’s telling fibs or boasting, and whenever he tries to prove he can bend steel in his hands, the unlucky lad gets another case of the galloping sniffles…

Most kids avoid him. It’s hard to make friends or play games when a minor kick can pop a football like a balloon and a shrug can topple trees…

Well-past-it Brits of my age and vintage might remember the character from weekly comics in the 1960’s. As Tammy Tuff – The Strongest Boy on Earth – and later as Benny Breakiron and Steven Strong – our beret-wearing champion appeared in Giggle and other periodicals from 1967 onwards.

With Peyo’s little blue cash-cows taking up ever larger amounts of his concentration and time, other members of his studio assumed greater responsibilities for Benoît as the years passed. Willy Maltaite (“Will”), Gos, Yvan Delporte, François Walthéry and Albert Blesteau all pitched in and Jean Roba created many eye-catching Spirou covers, but by 1978 the demands of the Smurfs were all-consuming and all the studio’s other strips were retired.

You can’t keep a good super-junior down, though, and after Peyo’s death in 1992, his son Thierry Culliford and cartoonist Pascal Garray revived the strip, adding six more volumes to the eight generated by Peyo and his team between 1960 and 1978.

Thanks to the efforts of US publisher Papercutz, the first four of those gloriously genteel and outrageously engaging power fantasies are available to English-language readers – both as robust full-colour hardbacks and as all-purpose eBooks – and this third exploit begins in the sedate city of Vivejoie-la-Grande, where the kid goes about his solitary life, doing good deeds in secret and being as good a boy as he can….

During the annual fair, his elderly friend Monsieur Dussiflard meets an old chum from their days in a jazz band. In the course of catching up, they learn that another mutual pal has become emir of an Arabian kingdom. Long ago, he gave the members of the band a charter granting them rights to a piece of desert… one that is now worth billions in oil revenues…

Back then, the comrades thought it hilarious to scrupulously divide the precious paper into nine parts, but none of them ever threw way their scrap…

As the adults chat and Benny listens, dark deeds are underway. Dussiflard’s home is burgled, triggering a frantic race around the world, with our heroes one step behind a cunning mastermind who will baulk at nothing to secure the entire document and the riches it promises…

All over the globe, Little Benny performs a succession of incredible feats – each one completely missed by Dussiflard and his beleaguered Jazz men – to stymie the malevolent schemer, before arriving home to deal the villain his just desserts…

Fast-paced, wry and sporting a fine eye for the dafter side of super-heroics, this is another fabulously winning fantasy about childhood validation and agency, providing a wealth of action, thrills and chortles for lovers of incredible adventure and comics excellence.
© Peyo™ 2013 – licensed through Lafig Belgium. English translation © 2013 by Papercutz. All rights reserved.

The Bluecoats volute 5: Rumberley


By Willy Lambil & Raoul Cauvin, translated by Erica Jeffrey (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-108-2 (Album PB)

The myths and legends of the cinematic American West have fascinated Europeans virtually since the actual days of stagecoaches and gunslingers. Hergé and Moebius were passionate devotees and the wealth of stand-out Continental comics series ranges from Italy’s Tex Willer to such Franco-Belgian classics as Blueberry and tangential all-ages classics such as Yakari. Even colonial dramas such as Pioneers of the New World and Milo Manara & Hugo Pratt’s Indian Summer fit the broad-brimmed bill.

As devised by Louis “Salvé” Salvérius & Raoul Cauvin – who has scripted the first 64 best-selling volumes until his retirement in 2020 – Les Tuniques Bleues (The Bluecoats) debuted at the end of the 1960s, specifically created to replace Lucky Luke when the laconic maverick defected from weekly anthology Le Journal de Spirou to rival publication Pilote.

The substitute swiftly became one of the most popular bande dessinée series in Europe.

Salvé was a cartoonist of the Gallic big-foot/big-nose humour school, and when he died suddenly in 1972 his replacement, Willy “Lambil” Lambillotte slowly introduced a more realistic – but still overtly comedic – illustrative tone and manner. Lambil is Belgian, born in 1936 and, after studying Fine Art in college, joined publishing giant Dupuis in 1952 as a letterer.

Born in 1938, scripter Cauvin is also Belgian and before entering Dupuis’ animation department in 1960 studied Lithography. He soon discovered his true calling – comedy writing – and began a glittering and prolific career at Spirou. In addition to Bluecoats he scripted dozens of long-running, award winning series including Cédric, Les Femmes en Blanc and Agent 212: more than 240 separate albums. The Bluecoats alone has sold more than 15 million copies of its 65 (and counting) album sequence.

Our sorry, long-suffering protagonists are Sergeant Cornelius Chesterfield and Corporal Blutch; a pair of worthy fools in the manner of Laurel & Hardy: hapless, ill-starred US cavalrymen posted to the wild frontier and various key points of fabled America during the War Between the States.

The original format featured single-page gags set around an Indian-plagued Wild West fort, but from the second volume Du Nord au Sud, the sad-sack soldiers went back East to fight in the American Civil War (a tale was rewritten as 18thalbum Blue retro to describe how the chumps were drafted during the war). Every subsequent adventure, although often ranging far beyond America and taking in a lot of thoroughly researched history, is set within the timeframe of the Secession conflict.

Blutch is your run-of-the-mill, whinging little-man-in-the street: work-shy, mouthy, devious and especially critical of the army and its inept commanders. Ducking, diving, even deserting whenever he can, he’s you or me – except sometimes he’s quite smart and heroic if no other (easier) option is available.

Chesterfield is a big burly professional fighting man; a career soldier who has passionately bought into all the patriotism and esprit-de-corps of the Military. He is brave, never shirks his duty and wants to be a hero. He also loves his cynical little troll of a pal. They quarrel like a married couple, fight like brothers and simply cannot agree on the point and purpose of the horrendous war they are trapped in…

Rumberley was the fifth translated Cinebook album (chronologically the 15th European volume) and a far darker affair than usual. After a horrific battle, Union and Confederate forces are spent and exhausted, although the Blues have advanced far into the South as a result of the sustained slaughter. However, with dwindling food and little ammunition, the Generals opt to fall back and re-supply with fresh troops and munitions. The only problem is what to do with the wounded. After all, bringing them back to safety would only slow down the rearward advance. Then one bright, over-privileged spark has the notion of just billeting the unusable Union soldiers on the nearest – albeit enemy – town…

Amongst the dead and dying are grievously injured Chesterfield and war-crazy Captain Stark. Even Blutch is there, but his leg wound might be minor, self-inflicted or possibly utterly bogus…

Their reception by the women, children, aged and infirm of Rumberley is hostile to say the least, but the Union dregs have no place else to go and no strength left to leave anyway. Forcibly appropriating the livery stable as a field hospital, Blutch and Chesterfield aid the exhausted doctors and surgeons as best they can, but the simmering tensions and occasional assaults by the townsfolk indicates there is real trouble brewing and this kettle is about to boil over very soon…

And then the townsfolk start drifting away. Rumours spread that a Confederate force is approaching Rumberley. The doctors try to move their charges out, and Blutch finds himself in the uncanny position of staying behind as rearguard when Chesterfield decides to buy them time to get away…

When it comes, the battle is a bizarre affair. The Rebels are fit but have little ammunition so the Bluecoats give a good accounting of themselves, but are almost done for when Stark unexpectedly leads a life-saving cavalry charge of the Union wounded to save them. During the insane clash, town buildings are set afire and the citizens of Rumberley rush back to save their home and possessions.

And then something strange happens: the killing stops and Blues, Greys and civilians work together to save rather than destroy…

This is a hugely amusing anti-war saga targeting younger, less world-weary audiences. Historically authentic, and always in good taste despite an uncompromising portrayal of violence, the attitudes expressed by our down-to-earth pair never make battle anything but arrant folly and, like the hilarious yet insanely tragic war-memoirs of Spike Milligan, these are comedic tales whose very humour makes the occasional moments of shocking verity doubly powerful and hard-hitting.

Funny, thrilling, beautifully realised and eminently readable, Bluecoats is the sort of war-story and Western which appeals to the best, not worst, of the human spirit.
© Dupuis 1979 by Lambil & Cauvin. English translation © 2011 Cinebook Ltd. All rights reserved.

Freddy Vs School


By Neill Cameron (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-143-7 (PB)

Great characters are hard to pin down in the modern-multi-media world – even if they’re relatively new. Here’s a delightful and extremely entertaining sideways move for a favourite comics character – oddly, from ultra-modern full-colour cartoon pages to the hoary hallowed traditions and trappings of illustrated prose…

Neill Cameron (Tamsin of the Deep, How to Make Awesome Comics, Pirates of Pangea) has charmed and enthralled kids of all ages with another serial originating in the picture-perfect pages of wonderful weekly The Phoenix. This one is the Mega-Robo Brothers, set in a charmingly inclusive and diverse futuristic London (at least 3 months from now…) and featuring a pair of marvellous metal-&-plastic paladins who are not like other kids – no matter how much they try…

Now he’s a stalwart of proper literature, let’s dip into this superb romp in the grand manner of Just William or Billy Bunter thanks to the smaller of those rather unique lads…

Welcome to the Future!

In a London much cooler than ours Alex Sharma and his younger brother Freddy are (mostly) typical kids: boisterous, fractious, always arguing, but devoted to each other and not too bothered that they’re adopted. It’s no big deal for them that they were constructed by mysterious Dr. Roboticus (before he vanished from all human knowledge) and are considered by those in the know as the most powerful robots on Earth.

That includes Mum and Dad, but though Mr Sharma may be just your average working guy, it’s clear Mum is a bit extraordinary herself. As renowned boffin Dr. Nita Sharma, she harbours some surprising secrets of her own, and occasionally allows her boys to be super-secret agents for R.A.I.D. (Robotics Analysis Intelligence and Defence).

It’s enough for the digital duo that Mum and Dad love them, even though the boys are a bit more of a handful than most kids. They live as normal a life as possible; going to school, making friends, putting up with bullies and hating homework: it’s all part of the Mega Robo Routine combining boring lessons, fun with friends, playing games, watching TV and training in the covert combat caverns under R.A.I.D. HQ…

When occasion demands, the lads undertake missions, but mostly it’s just home, games, homework and School. At least that’s how it seems to Freddy: a typical, excitable 10-year-old (well, except for the built-in super-strength, flight rockets and lasers). Alex may be at the age when self-doubt and anxiety begin to manifest, but Freddy is insufferably exuberant and over-confident. And that’s where the trouble starts today…

Some kids just find themselves at the centre of unfortunate events, even without a suite of onboard tactical weaponry, and it all begins with another fraught parent-teacher conference between Deputy Head Mr. Javid and Freddy’s Mum. As usual it involves an unfortunate use of the metal boy’s unique gifts, subsequent destruction of property and trauma for the staff, but this time the repercussions are severe. Cash-strapped and at the end of his tether, Mr Javid imposes a draconian Code of Conduct forbidding students from using Super-strength, Booster Rockets or Lasers on school property. Obviously, it’s not a sanction that affects every pupil, and Mum is offended but, in the end, really wants her sons to grow up in a social environment and not be excluded or home-schooled…

Sadly, Freddy is wilful and easily led, especially by his best friend Fernando. He also hates boring learning and loves excitement. Dr. Sharma calls him an “instigator”, and hopes the influence of sporty Anisha or quietly studious new boy Riyad will have a calming effect on her son. She has no idea of the trouble lurking, hulking bully Henrik is planning, or the devasting consequences that will result from Freddy’s inability to do what he’s told…

Stuffed with monochrome cartoons and bouncy graphics, this is unmissable entertainment for kids of all ages and vintage: a splendidly traditional school days comedy romp, amped up on sci fi and superhero riffs and carrying a powerful message that no one is beyond saving. Freddy vs School is wonderful adventure for younger readers and one you’ll adore too.
Text and illustrations © Neill Cameron 2021. All rights reserved.

Freddy vs School will be published on 7th January 2021 and is available for pre-order now

Merry Christmas, One and All

In keeping with my self-imposed Holiday tradition here’s another pick of British Annuals selected not just for nostalgia’s sake but because it’s my house and my rules…

After decades when only American comics and memorabilia were considered collectable or worthy, the resurgence of interest in home-grown material means there’s lots more of this stuff available and if you’re lucky enough to stumble across a vintage volume or modern facsimile, I hope my words convince you to expand your comfort zone and try something old yet new…

Still topping my Xmas wish-list is further collections from fans and publishers who have begun to rescue this magical material from print limbo in (affordable) new collections…

Great writing and art is rotting in boxes and attics or the archives of publishing houses, when it needs to be back in the hands of readers once again. As the tastes of the reading public have never been broader and since a selective sampling of our popular heritage will always appeal to some part of the mass consumer base, let’s all continue rewarding publishers for their efforts and prove that there’s money to be made from these glorious examples of our communal childhood.

Look and Learn Book 1964
By various (Fleetway)
No ISBN

One of the most missed of publishing traditions in this country is the educational comic. From the features in legendary icon The Eagle to the small explosion of factual and socially responsible boys’ and girls’ papers in the late 1950s, to the heady go-getting heydays of the 1960s and 1970s, Britain had a healthy sub-culture of kids’ periodicals that informed, instructed and revealed – and don’t even get me started on sports comics!

Amongst many others, Speed & Power, World of Wonder, Tell Me Why and the greatest of them all, Look and Learn, spent weeks over decades making things clear and bringing the marvels of the world to our childish but avid attentions. Moreover, when we had no screens of our own, it was all accomplished with wit, style and – thanks to the quality of the illustrators involved – astonishing beauty and clarity.

Look and Learn launched on 20th January 1962, the brainchild of Fleetway Publications Director of Juvenile Publications Leonard Matthews, and executed by Editor David Stone (almost instantly replaced by John Sanders), Sub-Editor Freddie Lidstone and Art Director Jack Parker.

For twenty years and 1049 issues. the comic delighted children by bringing the marvels of the universe to their doors, and became one of the county’s most popular children’s weeklies. Naturally, there were many spin-off tomes such as The Look and Learn Book of 1001 Questions and Answers, Look and Learn Book of Wonders of Nature, Look and Learn Book of Pets and Look and Learn Young Scientist, as well as the totally engrossing Christmas treat The Look and Learn Book.

Selected simply because it has a lovely and inclusive painted cover, this volume – released for Christmas 1963 (as with almost all UK Annuals they were forward-dated) is a prime example of a lost form. Within this168-heavy-stock-paged hardback are 49 fascinating features on all aspects of human endeavour and natural wonder from And in the beginning there was FIRE, Let’s Look at Canada, How this Book was Printed, It’s On the Map!, The Muscle Menders, When Man Goes to Mars, Every Carpet Tells a Story, The Charm of Canterbury, Puzzle Pix, Art Gallery in an Album, Photo Know-How, The Queen’s Bodyguard, Why Do Camels Have Humps? and dozens more articles, all cannily designed to beguile, enthral and above all else, inspire young minds.

Lavishly illustrated with photographs, diagrams, infographics, and paintings and drawings by some of the world’s greatest commercial artists including such luminaries as Ron and Gerry Embleton, Don Lawrence, Helen Haywood, Ron Turner, Ken Evans, Angus McBride, Severino Baraldi, Graham Coton, Ralph Bruce, Cecil Langley Doughty and many others, these books were an utter delight for hungry minds to devour whilst the turkey and Christmas pudding were slowly digested…

Earlier editions such as this one also valued literary entertainment and hands-on activity: providing illustrated extracts from classic books (as here with ‘Midshipman Easy Goes to Sea’ by Captain Frederick Marryat and illuminated poems ‘The Fall of Ratisbon’ by Robert Browning and William Wordsworth’s ‘An Evening Walk’) and hobby crafts as seen in a vast and detailed section on ‘How to build Model Boats’ – complete with plans and blueprints.

With the internet and TV, I suppose their like is unnecessary and irrelevant, but nostalgia aside, the glorious pictures in these volumes alone make them worth the effort of acquisition, and I defy any child of any age to not be sucked into the magic of learning stuff in such lively, lovely style…
© Fleetway Publications Ltd 1963. All Rights Reserved.

Hotspur Book for Boys 1975
By Many & various (DC Thomson)
Retroactively awarded ISBN: 978-0-85116-077-1

If you grew up British any time after 1960 and read comics, you probably cast your eye occasionally – if not indeed fanatically – over DC Thompson’s venerable standby The Victor.
The Dundee based publisher has long been a mainstay of British popular reading and arguably the most influential force in our comics industry. Its strong editorial stance and savvy creativity is responsible for a huge number of household names over many decades, through newspapers, magazines, books and especially its comics and prose-heavy “story-papers” for Girls and Boys.

That last category – comprising Adventure, Rover, Wizard, Skipper and Hotspur – pretty much-faded out at the end of the 1950s when the readership voted overwhelming with their pocket money in favour of primarily strip-based entertainments…

The last of those venerable all-prose story-papers wasn’t dormant for long. Cover-dated 24th October 1959, Hotspur the comic seamlessly replaced the prose stalwart (which had run from 2nd September 1933 to October 17th 1959) as a (mostly) pictorial serial package, running for 1110 weekly issues until finally folding into Victor with the January 24th1981 edition. It was very much the company’s weird and wonderful repository, like a general interest magazine for kids but with strange and exotic leanings. It was always heavy on bizarre situations and splendidly esoteric superheroes. Hostspur Annuals ran from 1966 to 1992 and were an unmissable fact of many a boy’s Yule loot…

This particular example hit the shops in September 1974, and behind that Ian Kennedy (?) cover opened with a two-coloured fact frontispiece exploring ‘Oil from under the Sea – the Finders’. The feature is mirrored at the end with ‘Oil from under the Sea – the Keepers’.

‘The Black Sapper’ was reformed criminal turned globetrotting troubleshooter: a brilliant engineer who built a mighty mechanical Worm-ship ship to travel beneath the Earth. He transferred to Hotspur from The Beezer, and was illustrated by Jack Glass, Keith Shone and Terry Patrick, who here details how the adventurer extinguishes an Arabian oil fire and scotches a sinister plot to usurp the king, after which we’re clued in on industrial ‘Deep Sea Fishing’.

Combining football and nautical adventure, comedy yarn ‘The Rust Bucket Rovers’ (John Richardson art?) sees soccer-crazed Pacific islanders contending with a multinational crew to clear a cargo, after which hearty spoof ‘Grizzly Grant’(Mike Dorey, or perhaps CD Bagnall) finds a junior Mountie and his ursine assistant battle frontier crime.

Tank commander ‘Blake of the Ironfists’ (Peter Sutherland?) then wins a major engagement in WWII Africa, leading to Dorey’s ‘Willie the Winner’ entering yet more contests with hilarious outcomes, before a 1941 naval blockade is overcome by doughty British mariners in ‘HMS Dent – the Deadly Decoy’.

The secrets of ‘Coastal Fishing’ segue into more mirth as motor racing pioneers ‘Spick and Spanner’ compete on a snowbound course in the Italian Alps after which veteran star ‘Iron Teacher’ and his handler Special Agent Jake Toddtackle an evil hypnotist with designs on a circus.

The history of ballooning in ‘Up, Up and Away!’ neatly proceeds into Great War saga ‘Hasket’s Battle Basket’, after which ‘Last of the Warriors’ sees a Cheyenne cavalry scout solving a murder mystery before slapstick oaf ‘Ossie the Outlaw’ proves again that for him crime does not pay…

After aviation pioneer ‘Skyscraper Kidd’ crashes his flying machine on a desert island and thinks his way home, time-displaced highwayman ‘Nick Jolly’ (and his robot flying horse) do their best to make Christmas unforgettable at a ski resort and mega department store in a rousing romp from Ron Smith whilst ‘Parker’s Barkers’ sees the rundown pooches of a local kennel humiliate the elite racers of the local dog track

Fact feature ‘The King of the Tankers’ leads into Z-Cars spoof ‘The Voice of the Panda’ before serious drama returns as football star ‘Cracker Jackson’ takes some sage advice to get over his psychological barriers. After learning all about ‘The World’s Biggest Shovel’, it’s back to desert islands where castaway WWII survivors ‘Thudd and Blunder’ deal with a native uprising in a manner simply not acceptable to today’s audiences.

Stealing the show is Ron Smith’s captivatingly odd teen hero ‘Red Star Robinson’ who – with the invaluable assistance of his android butler Mr. Syrius Thrice – thwarts The Spider’s plan to steal England’s crown jewels, after which ‘Heavyweights’ details a selection of massive transport options before the fun wraps up in anarchic hilarity as clod-footed ‘Dim Dan the Boobyguard’ (Dorey?) tries escorting his own boss to a crucial meeting and everybody else pays the price for his eager ineptitude…

Divorcing the sheer variety of content and entertainment quality of this book from simple nostalgia may be a healthy exercise but it’s almost impossible. I’m perfectly happy to luxuriously wallow in the potent emotions this annual still stirs. It’s a fabulous read from a magical time and turning those stiffened two-colour pages is always an unmatchable Christmas experience… happily one still relatively easy to find these days.

You should try it…
© DC Thomson & Co., Ltd., 1974.

Hurricane Annual 1969
By Many & various (Fleetway)
SBN: 900376-04-X

From the late 1950s and increasingly through the 1960s, Scotland’s DC Thomson steadily overtook their London-based competitors – monolithic comics publishing giant Amalgamated Press.

Created by Alfred Harmsworth at the beginning of the twentieth century, AP perpetually sought to regain lost ground, and the sheer variety of material the southerners unleashed as commercial countermeasures offered incredible vistas in adventure and – thanks to the defection of Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid to the enemy – eventually found a wealth of anarchic comedy material to challenge the likes of the Bash Street Kids, Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and their unruly ilk.

During the latter end of that period the Batman TV show sent the entire world superhero-crazy. Amalgamated had almost finished absorbing all its other rivals such as The Eagle’s Hulton Press to form Fleetway/Odhams/IPC and were about to incorporate American superheroes into their heady brew of weekly thrills.

Once the biggest player in children’s comics, Amalgamated had stayed at the forefront of sales by latching onto every fad: keeping their material contemporary, if not strictly fresh. The all-consuming company began reprinting the early successes of Marvel comics for a few years; feeding on the growing fashion for US style adventure which had largely supplanted the rather tired True-Blue Brit style of Dan Dare or DC Thompson’s Wolf of Kabul.

Even though sales of all British comics were generally – and in some cases, drastically -declining, the 1960s were a period of intense and impressive innovation with publishers embracing new sensibilities; constantly trying new types of character and tales. At this time Valiant and its stable-mate Lion were the Boys’ Adventure big guns (although nothing could touch DC Thomson’s Beano and Dandy in the comedy arena).

Hurricane was an impressive-looking upgrade that began during that period of expansion and counterattack, apparently conceived in response to DCT’s action weekly Hornet. It launched the week of February 29th 1964 and ran for 63 issues, but was revamped three times during that period before ultimately being merged into companion paper Tiger.

It carried a superbly varied roster of features in that that time, including two (and a half) stars who survived its extinction. Racing driver Skid Solo and comedy superman Typhoon Tracy as well as Sgt Rock – Paratrooper… but not for so long for him…

There was heavy dependence on European and South American artists initially, among them Mario Capaldi, Nevio Zeccara, Georgio Trevisan, Renato Polese and Lino Landolfi, some of whom lasted into the Annuals. As with so many titles, although the comics might quickly fade, Christmas Annuals sustained their presence for years after Hurricane seasonal specials were produced for every year from 1965 to 1974…

Following a tried-&-true formula, this book – published in 1968 – offers comics adventures, prose stories, fact-features, and funnies and puzzles, kicking off with visual vexations in ‘Fantastic – but True!’ before western star Drago joins an embattled cavalry troop in staving off an invasion from Mexico (no, really!) in duo-hued thriller ‘The Gun that Saved the West’ – possibly illustrated by Renato Polese.

‘The Worst Boy in the School’ – as illustrated by Geoffrey Whittam? – was a long-running boarding school saga enlivened by its star Duffy coming from Circus stock. Here the comedy chaos and espionage excitement stems from the boys trying to keep an escaped chimp and parrot secret from the Masters…

‘Two Fists Against the World!’ was a Regency-set strip featuring prize-fighter Jim Trim. Illustrated by Carlos Roume, this origin reprint sees how, in 1804, the husky orphan first sets out on his pugnacious path…

‘Casey and the Champ’ then details in strip form the last hurrah of a broken-down steam engine as prelude to a text feature of weird facts corralled here as ‘It Was the Way Out West’ feature. Truly gripping prose yarn ‘The Vanished Wreck’then recounts how a clever insurance scam is foiled by an inventive salvage crew, before Typhoon Tracy – Extra Special Agent stars in ‘Mad, Mad Mission’: baffling spies and American agents in equal measure with his blundering rescue of a kidnapped boffin. Switching back to prose, Rex Barton, Investigator of the Weird and Unknown foils a cunning robbery in ‘The Phantom Monks of Milborough’.

Following the comedy capers of ‘Rod the Odd Mod and ‘is old pal Pervy Vere’, pictorial history lesson ‘Into Battle with King-Sized Catapults!’ and ‘Safari Quiz’ segue into a thrilling prose sci-fi short illustrated by immaculate stylist Reg Bunn. ‘Hunt for the Human Time-Bomb!’ stars atomic accident survivors Ace Sutton and Flash Casey who use their abilities to walk through walls to avert imminent catastrophe, after which The Robot Builders (drawn by what looks like early Massimo Bellardinelli?) attend a New World symposium and experience ‘All the Fear of the Fair!’ when a giant mechanical brain goes haywire…

Masked cowboy ‘The Black Avenger’ then exposes a fake sheriff before we jump to luscious full-colour as the worst ship in the WWII navy again confounds the British Admiralty and escapes being broken up for parts in ‘HMS Outcast in the Big Scrap’. Geoff Campion’s unruly mob here stave off doom and dispersal by implausibly capturing an Italian super dreadnaught in the Mediterranean…

‘Defeat for the ‘Boy General’ – the True Story of Custer’s Last Stand’ gives a fairly jaundiced review of the cavalryman’s career (backed up by visuals from contemporary movie Custer of the West) whilst ‘War Under the Sea’ offers technical speculation on the development of the Oceans, ending the colour section and leading into monochrome soccer star Harry of the Hammers who wins his cup-tie after first foiling a robbery in prose piece ‘Mystery Marksman’

After gag magician ‘Marvo Brings the House Down’, Giovanni Ticci limns a sublime light-hearted ‘Sword for Hire’ romp starring Cavalier soldier-of-fortune Hugo Dinwiddie who pawns his blade but still manages to save the day against burglars and bandits, and racer Geoff Hart wins a war of wills and wheels in ‘Stock-Car Duel!’

Sport was a major fascination of publishers at this time and ‘Soccer Special by The Ref’ opens an extended section of pictorial mini-features comprised of ‘Cap-and-Cup Winners’, ‘Before they were Famous’, ‘Odd Things Happen in Soccer’ and ‘They Made Soccer History’, before full-on fantasy returns with cover-star ‘The Juggernaut from Planet Z’, who revisits his Earth chum Dr. Dan Morgan and foils alien invaders employing tectonic terror tactics.

Another outing for Rod the Odd Mod and ‘is old pal Pervy Vere brings us to prose fable ‘The Impostor Knight’, revealing how an affable blacksmith’s assistant wins a joust, augmented by fact-filled sidebar ‘Warriors in Armour’ before ‘Sgt. Rock – Special Air Service’ is assigned to destroy a Nazi fuel dump and ‘Typhoon Tracy Trouble-Shooter’ riotously ends a revolution far, far South of the Border in his own inimitable incompetent manner…

Mischievous moppet ‘Terrible Tich’ literally brings the house down and ‘Wild West Funmen’ offers a magazine of owlhoot hoots before the nostalgia-fest closes in spectacular style as Hugo Dinwiddie stalks a flamboyant highwayman and ends up as a ‘Courier for the King!’

Eclectic, wide-ranging and always of majestically high quality, this blend of fact, fiction, fun and thrills is a splendid evocation of lost days of joy and wonder. We may not be making books like this anymore but at least they’re still relatively easy to track down. Of course, what’s really needed is for some sagacious publisher to start re-issuing them…
© Fleetway Publications Ltd., 1968

The Complete Johnny Future


By Alf Wallace, Luis Bermejo & various (Rebellion Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-758-9 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Evergreen Wonderment and an Ideal Last-Minute Gift… 10/10

Until relatively recently, Britain never really had a handle on superheroes. Although every reader from the 1950s on can cite a particular favourite fantasy muscle-man or costumed champion – from Thunderbolt Jaxon to Morgyn the Mighty, or Gadget Man & Gimmick Kid to the Spider, Tri-Man and Phantom Viking to Red Star Robinson and Billy the Cat (& Katie!) – to have populated our pages, they all somehow ultimately lacked conviction. Well, almost all…

During the heady Swinging Sixties days of “Batmania”, just as Marvel Comics was first infiltrating our collective consciousness, a little-remembered strip graced the pages of a short-lived experimental title and the result was sheer, unbridled magic…

With Scotland’s DC Thomson steadily overtaking their London-based competitors – monolithic comics publishing giant Amalgamated Press – throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, the sheer variety of material the southerners unleashed to compete offered incredible vistas in adventure material. Thanks to the defection of Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid to Amalgamated, they also found a wealth of anarchic comedy material to challenge the likes of the Bash Street Kids, Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and their unruly ilk.

During that latter end of the period, the Batman TV show sent the entire world superhero crazy just as Amalgamated absorbed all its local rivals such as The Eagle’s Hulton Press to form Fleetway/Odhams and ultimately IPC.

Formerly the biggest player in children’s comics, Amalgamated Press (created by Alfred Harmsworth at the beginning of the 20th century) had stayed at the forefront of sales by latching onto every fad: keeping their material contemporary, if not always fresh or original. The all-consuming monolith had been reprinting the early successes of Marvel comics for a few years; feeding on a growing fashion for US-style adventure which had largely supplanted the rather tired True-Blue Brit style of Dan Dare or DCT’s Wolf of Kabul or the Tough of the Track. A key point at that time was that although both part of the Mirror Group, Fleetway and Odhams were deadly rivals…

“Power Comics” was a sub-brand used by Odhams to differentiate their periodicals – which contained reprinted American superhero material – from the greater company’s regular blend of sports, war, western adventure and gag comics such as Buster, Valiant, Lion or Tiger. During this time, the Power weeklies did much to popularise budding Marvel characters and their shared universe in this country, which was still poorly served by distribution of the actual American imports.

The line began with Wham! – but only after the comic was well-established. Originally created by newly-ensconced Leo Baxendale, it launched on June 20th 1964. At the start, the title was designed as a counter to The Beano, as was Smash! (which launched February 5th 1966), but the tone of times soon dictated the hiving off into a more distinctive imprint, which was augmented by the creation of little sister Pow!

Pow! launched with a cover date of January 31st 1967, combining home-grown funnies such as Mike Higgs’ The Cloak,Baxendale’s The Dolls of St Dominic’s, Reid’s Dare-a-Day Davy, Wee Willie Haggis: The Spy from Skye and British originated thrillers such as Jack Magic and The Python with the now ubiquitous resized US strips: in this case Spider-Man and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The next step was even bolder. Fantastic – and its sister paper Terrific – were notable for not reformatting or resizing the original US artwork whereas in Wham!, Pow! or Smash!, an entire 24-page yarn could be resized and squeezed into 10 or 11 pages, accompanied by British comedy and adventure strips.

These slick new periodicals – each with a dynamic back cover pin-up taken from Marvel Comics or created in-house by apprentice comics bods and future superstars Barry Windsor-Smith and Steve Parkhouse – reprinted US Superhero fare, supplemented by minimal amounts of UK originated filler and editorial.

Fantastic #1 debuted with cover-date February 18th 1967 (but was first seen in newsagents on Saturday 11th), revealing the origin stories of Thor, Iron Man and the X-Men, but from the get-go, savvy tykes like me were as engrossed by a short adventure serial also included to fill out the page count. The Missing Link was beautifully drawn and over the following year (February 18th 1967 – February 3rd 1968) would become a truly unique reading experience…

The series began inauspiciously as a kind of homegrown Incredible Hulk knock off. Oddly, editor and writer Alfred “Alf” Wallace crafted for the filler a tone very similar to that adopted by Marvel’s own Green Goliath when he became a small screen star a decade later…

The illustrator was the astoundingly gifted Luis Bermejo Rojo, a star of Spanish comics forced to seek work abroad after the domestic market imploded in 1956. He became a prolific contributor to British strips, working on a succession of moody masterpieces such as the Human Guinea Pig, Mann of Battle, Pike Mason, Phantom Force Five and Heros the Spartan, in a variety of genres, appearing in Girls Crystal, Tina, Tarzan Weekly, Battle Picture Library, Thriller Picture Library The Eagle, Buster, Boys World, Tell Me Why, Look and Learn and many more. He finally achieved a modicum of deserved acclaim in the 1970s, after joining fellow studio mates José Ortiz, Esteban Maroto and Leopoldo Sanchez working on adult horror stories for Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella.

I’m a big kid helplessly enmired in nostalgia, but to me his greatest moments were the year spent drawing Johnny Future

The Missing Link – as the feature was entitled for the first 15 episodes – was disturbingly similar to TV’s Hulk of the 1970s. Superhumanly strong, tragically misunderstood, the strip combined human-scaled drama with lost world exoticism in the manner of King Kong, as can be see seen following Steve Holland’s incisive and informative Introduction ‘Welcome to the Future!’, when the drama opens in the wilds of Africa.

A bestial man-beast roams the veldt, swamps and mountains, until great white hunter Bull Belson comes to capture him, accompanied by secretary/photographer Lita Munro. The infamous tracker sees only profit in the mute beast, who, after much frustratingly destructive behaviour, is lured into captivity by an inexplicable attraction to Miss Munro…

To be fair, she has the brute’s interests at heart, attempting to befriend and teach the Link on the slow voyage back to England, but on reaching London Dock, the sideshow attraction is spooked by mocking labourers and breaks his bonds and cage…

Brutally rampaging across the city at the heart of the Swinging Sixties, the Link is soon being hunted by the army, but nobody realizes that beneath the bestial brow is a cunning brain. Hopping a freight train up north, he seeks refuge in an isolated government atomic research laboratory run by Dr. Viktor Kelso and is accidentally dosed with vast transformative radiation…

The unleashed uncanny forces jumpstart an evolutionary leap, turning the primitive beast into a perfect specimen of manhood, while simultaneously sparking a near-catastrophic meltdown in the machinery, which is only averted by the massive instinctive intellect of the new man. Arrested as a terrorist spy, the silent superman is very publicly tried in court and again encounters Lita.

Meanwhile, Kelso has deduced the true course of events. As the Link uses his prison time to educate himself in the ways of the world, the scientist works on a deadly super-weapon, prompting the Link to escape jail and clear his name. With his super-strength and massive mind, the task is easy but he still needs Lita to complete his plan…

The series cheerfully plundered the tone of the times and the drama seamlessly morphs into chilling science fiction tropes as Kelso’s device brings the nation to a literal standstill leaving only the evolved outsider to thwart a staggeringly ambitious scheme…

Set on a new heroic path, although still a hunted fugitive, the Link creates a civilian identity (John Foster) and a costumed persona just as Britain is assaulted by ‘The Animal Man’: a psionic dictator able to control all beasts and creatures. Incredibly, that includes recently ascendant Johnny Future, but the villain is defeated after overextending himself and accidentally awakening a primordial horror from Jurassic times…

In short order, Johnny Future tackles Dr. Jarra and his killer robot; a society of evil world-conquering scientists, invention-plundering shapeshifting aliens, prehistoric giants, and deranged science tyrant The Master.

Fully hitting his stride, the future man overcomes personality warping psychopath Mr. Opposite and defeats the Secret Society of Science’s top assassins ‘The Brain, The Brute and the Hunter’ before saving Earth from marauding living metal and defeating Dr. Plasto’s animated waxwork killers.

And that was that. Without warning the comic merged with sister publication Terrific and there was no more room for a purely British superhero. Here, however, there’s one more delight: a 14-page, full-colour complete adventure with Johnny battling diabolical primordial revenant Disastro, first seen in Fantastic Annual 1968, plus a colour pin-up from Fantastic #30 (September 9th 1967).

Interest in superheroes and fantasy in general were on the wane and British weeklies were diversifying. Some switched back to war, sports and adventure stories, whilst with comedy strips on the rise again, others became largely humour outlets. Johnny Future (available in comforting hardback and accessible digital formats) is a unique beast: a blend of British B-movie chic, with classic monster riffs seen through the same bleak but compelling lens that spawned Doctor Who and Quatermass: the social sci fi of John Wyndham trying on glamourous superhero schtick whilst blending the breakneck pace of a weekly serial with the chilling moodiness of kitchen sink crime dramas.

There was never anything like this before or since and if you love dark edges to your comics escapism you must have this amazing collection far sooner than tomorrow.
™ & © 1967, 1968, & 2020 Rebellion Publishing Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Set to Sea

By Drew Weing (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-368-2 (HB) 978-1-60699-771-0 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Alluring, Tantalising, Refreshing and Totally Satisfying Escapism… 10/10

Graphic novels have been around long enough now that certain subdivisions have developed.

Many are superhero sagas stuffed with visual Sturm & Drang, others canny crime capers, haunting horror stories or quirky comedies. Age and/or taste targeting and other demographics apply too, with some books intended for mature readers whilst others are designed to appeal mostly to youngsters.

Happily, there are still those others which defy simple categorisation: the heartfelt results of earnest, talented creators letting themselves go where their unfettered imaginative minds take them. Sometimes they’re simply a good strong tale, beautifully told and universally appealing.

Such a craftsman is Drew Weing (The Creepy Files of Margo Maloo), who first came to notice in 2010 with this subversively mesmerising tale of maritime fortitude.

Available in deliciously handy, pocket-sized hardback and softcover editions as well as digitally, it’s a true marvel that this tale never found a mass audience so here I am plugging it again. If there’s any justice this time – when we’re all marooned in our own homes – it will finally make him a household name amongst lovers of tall tales and comic treasures.

This beguiling, irresistibly stirring salty saga follows an indigent poet and aspiring barfly with a taste for maritime verse whose lack of true inspiration is dramatically cured after he is press-ganged aboard a Hong-Kong clipper and forcibly learns the true life of a globe-girdling sailor man.

Initially resistant to a life afloat, a terrifying brush with death and battle against rapacious pirates opens the poet’s eye, forcing him to accept the only life he could ever truly enjoy.

As the years and a myriad of exotically different lands pass by he even manages, whilst traversing the world for joyous, raucous decades, to satisfy his artistic leanings into the bargain and finally discern where his heart truly lies…

Magically circular in structure and beautifully drawn in a worshipful blend of Elzie Segar, traditional woodcut prints with, I suspect, a touch of Jeff Smith’s Bon  and Tony Millionaire’s wonderful confections (see Drinky Crow’s Maakies Treasury or any other collection of this truly bizarre strip), this superbly rough ‘n’ tumble monochrome epic collects the impressive original online comic into a salty, panel-per-page paean to the value of true experience over romantic fantasy, while proving a telling examination of the role of the arts in our lives.

A true graphic odyssey which any lover of a dream-life must see, this eternally fresh yet solid entertainment is a genuine “must read”.

Captain’s Orders…
© 2014 Drew Weing. All rights reserved.

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 2 1936-1937


By Roy Crane with Les Turner (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-391-0 (HB)

The comics industry evolved from newspaper strips and these circulation-boosting pictorial features were, until relatively recently, utterly ubiquitous, hugely popular with the public and regarded as invaluable by publishers who used them as an irresistible sales weapon to guarantee consumer loyalty, increase sales and ensure profits. Many a scribbler became a millionaire thanks to their ability to draw pictures and spin a yarn…

It’s virtually impossible for us to today to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America (and the wider world) from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were the most common recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality.

From the very start humour was paramount; that’s why we call them “Funnies” or “Comics”, after all. From these gag and stunt beginnings, blending silent movie slapstick, outrageous antics, fabulous fantasy and vaudeville shows, came a thoroughly unique entertainment hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting on April 21st 1924 Washington Tubbs II was a comedic gag-a-day strip not entirely dissimilar from confirmed family favourite Harold Teen (by Crane’s friend and contemporary Carl Ed).

Tubbs was a diminutive, ambitious young shop clerk when the strip began, but gradually he moved into mock-heroics, then through harm-free action into full-blown, light-hearted rip-roaring adventures with the introduction of pioneering he-man, moody swashbuckling prototype Captain Easy in the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

As the tales became increasingly more exotic and thrill-drenched, the globe-trotting little dynamo clearly needed a sidekick who could believably handle the combat side of things, and thus in the middle of a European war Tubbs liberated a mysterious fellow American from a jail cell and history was made. Before long the mismatched pair were inseparable comrades; travelling the world, hunting treasure, fighting thugs and rescuing a bevy of startlingly comely maidens in distress…

The two-fisted, bluff, completely capable and utterly dependable, down-on-his-luck “Southern Gentleman” was something not seen before in comics, a raw, square-jawed hunk played straight rather than the buffoon or music hall foil of such classic serials as Hairsbreadth Harry or Desperate Desmond. Moreover, Crane’s seductively simple blend of cartoon exuberance and compelling page-design was a far more accessible and powerful medium for action story-telling than the static illustrative style favoured by artists like Hal Foster (just starting to make waves on the new Tarzan Sunday page).

While were thinking of Edgar Rice Burroughs, it’s difficult to re-read the phrase “Southern Gentleman” these days without pausing to consider how much of that term originally denoted chivalric do-gooder, rather than Defender of Slavery, to most readers. Frankly, I’m not sure Crane gave a moment’s thought to political or social implications, although his heroes never made a distinction between races and treated all characters equally, even back then. Their only motivations were getting rich honestly and helping folks in trouble. These stories come from a long time ago, so just read with a sense of historical perspective, please…

Tubbs and Easy were easily as exotic and thrilling as the Ape Man but rattled along like the tempestuous Popeye, full of vim, vigour and vinegar, as attested to by a close look at the early work of the would-be cartoonists who followed the strip with avid intensity: Floyd Gottfredson, Milton Caniff, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and especially young Joe Shuster

After a couple of abortive attempts starring his little hero, Crane bowed to the inevitable and created a full colour Sunday page dedicated to his increasingly popular hero-for-hire. Captain Easy debuted on 30th July 1933, in madcap, two-fisted exploits (originally) set before his fateful meeting with Tubbs.

Following a foreword from historian, archival publisher and critic Rick Norwood, ‘Stealing Color From Black and White’, a fascinating extended introduction by award-winning cartoonist Paul Pope and ‘Three Strip Monte ’– a brief history of Crane’s career gambles by legendary strip historian Bill Blackbeard – this second volume (of four) really begins with ‘Gold of the Frozen North’ as the dour, sour soldier of fortune reaches the chilly snow-swept mining boom-town of Bugaboo.

Exhausted after his part in the war between Nikkateena and Woopsydasia (as seen in Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 1) all Easy wanted was a meal and a bed, but his innate chivalry defending a bar-girl’s honour soon has him on the run from Nikky Eskota, the savage gang-boss who runs the town. Easy then compounds the error by helping beautiful Gizzy escape the brute’s amorous attentions before escorting her down the frozen river to trade her fathers’ diamonds.

Of course, the wicked thug dispatches an army of heavies to stop them…

This spectacular icy wilderness adventure ran from 8th December 1935 to 19th April 1936, after which ‘The Hook-Nosed Bandit’ (4th April -8th August 1936) finds the footloose paladin heading to the trouble-soaked nation of Hitaxia where his penchant for trouble soon brands him a wanted criminal fugitive and lands him in the midst of a civil war. As usual, a pretty girl is the immediate cause of his many woes and the method of his eventual escape… that and the advent of a bombastic new companion – unconventional millionaire inventor Mr. Belfry. With Easy and Belfry’s daughter languishing in a Hitaxian jail, the sagacious entrepreneur acts to end the crisis in unique manner with a handy shipment of pigs…

When the Belfrys return to America, Easy accompanies them, only to become embroiled in a whirlwind cops ‘n’ robbers thriller as mobsters and businessmen alike try to obtain by every means fair and foul ‘The Diamond Formula’ (16thAugust – 13th December 1936): the inventor’s new process for creating gems from coal or sugar…

After this wild and woolly Manhattan escapade, Crane opted for wholly different territory as Easy takes a mild-mannered old daydreamer from Belfry’s Gentleman’s Club on the Screwball comedy of ‘Dinwiddy’s Adventure’: a fast-paced rollercoaster romp of intrigue, suspense and multiple practical jokes, with a twist and turn on every gloriously rendered page, which was first published between 13th December 1936 and March 14th 1937…

The Club also provides the maguffin for ‘Lost at Sea’ (March 21st – May 9th 1937) as hen-pecked and harassed Benjamin Barton hired the laconic Southern Gentleman to engineer his escape from his ghastly social climbing wife and wastrel children. Barton even left them all his money: the rattled old goof simply wants peace and quiet… and perhaps a little fishing. Despite all Easy’s best efforts, he doesn’t get any of that…

Clearly on a roll with the emphasis on comedy, Crane then introduced one of his wackiest characters in ‘The King of Kleptomania’ (16th May – November 14th1937), as an audacious, freeloading, lazy, good-for-nothing hobo actually turns out to be Kron Prinz Hugo Maximillian von Hooten Tooten: audacious, freeloading, lazy, good-for-nothing spendthrift heir to a European nation who is paid by the Dictator of Kleptomania to stay away and not seek his rightful throne.

Saving the bum’s life in America only causes the lovable leech to attach himself to Easy, but after going through his bi-annual stipend of $25,000 in mere days, “Hoot” decides to welsh on his deal with the despot and take back his country. Against his better judgement and to his lasting regret, Captain Easy goes along for the ride and is soon knee deep in ineptitude, iniquity and revolution…

With the war over Easy is stranded in Ruritanian Europe and stumbles into an espionage plot culminating in a welcome reunion and ‘The Firing Squad’ (21st November 1937 – 15th May 1938). Framed and jailed again, Easy is to be shot so it’s lucky that the captain of the aforementioned executioners is long-lost pal Wash Tubbs!

Risking life and diminutive limb to save his old pal, Wash also rescues sultry spitfire Ruby Dallas, who promptly entangles them in her desperate tale of woe. Ruby was unfortunate enough to have witnessed a murder in America and has been on the run ever since. The killer was a prominent millionaire with too much to lose so he’s been hunting her ever since. Once the trio escape murderous cutthroats, slavers and assassins, they soon settle his hash…

When he began the Sunday page Crane’s creativity went into overdrive: an entire page and vibrant colours to play with clearly stirred his imagination and the results were wild visual concoctions which achieved a timeless immediacy and made each instalment a unified piece of sequential art. The effect of the pages can be seen in so many comic and strips since – even in the works of such near-contemporaries as Hergé and giants in waiting like Charles Schulz.

These pages were a clearly as much of joy to create as to read. In fact, the cited reason for Crane surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les Turner in 1937 was NEA Syndicate’s abrupt demand that all its strips be henceforward produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate them being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated. You can actually see the day that happened in this volume.

Whilst the basic drawing of Crane and Turner is practically indistinguishable, the moment when the layout and composition were shackled stands out like a painful sore thumb. Crane just walked away from his playground, concentrating on the daily feature, until in 1943 with contract expired, he left NEA to create the aviation adventure strip Buz Sawyer.

In this selection, Crane’s irrepressible humour comes perfectly into focus and this enchanting serial abounds with breezy light-hearted banter, hilarious situations and outright farce – a sure-fire formula modern cinema directors still plunder to this day.

Easy is Indiana Jones, Flynn (the Librarian) Carsen and Jack (Romancing the Stone) Cotton all at once and clearly set the benchmark for all of them.

This superb and colossal hardback collection is the perfect means of discovering or rediscovering Crane’s rip-snorting, pulse-pounding, exotically racy adventure trailblazer. The huge pages in this volume (almost 14 ½ by 10½ inches or 21x14cm for the younger, metric crowd) provide the perfect stage to absorb and enjoy the classic tale-telling of a master raconteur. The volumes are even still readily available from online retailers, but regrettably haven’t yet been digitised …

This is storytelling of impeccable quality: unforgettable, spectacular and utterly irresistible. These tales rank alongside the best of Hergé, Tezuka, Toth and Kirby and unarguably fed the imaginations of them all as he still does for today’s comics creators. Now that you have the chance to experience the strips that inspired the giants of our art form, how can you possibly resist?
Captain Easy strips © 2011 United Feature Syndicate, Inc. This edition © 2011 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.