Corpse Talk: Queens & Kings and Other Royal Rotters


By Adam & Lisa Murphy (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-032-4

The educational power of comic strips has been long understood and acknowledged: if you can make the material memorably enjoyable, there is nothing that can’t be better taught with pictures. The obverse is also true: comics can make any topic or subject come alive… or at least – as here – outrageously, informatively undead…

The fabulous and effective conceit in Corpse Talk is that your scribbling, cartooning host Adam Murphy (ably abetted off-camera by Lisa Murphy) tracks down (or rather digs up) famous personages from the past: all serially exhumed for a chatty, cheeky This Was Your Life talk-show interview that – in Reithian terms – simultaneously “elucidates, educates and entertains”. It also often grosses one out, which is no bad thing for either a kids’ comic or a learning experience…

Another splendid album release culled from the annals of The Phoenix (courtesy of those fine saviours of weekly comics at David Fickling Books), this regally-themed recollection is dedicated to not-so-private audiences with a succession of famous, infamous and utterly unforgettable royal rogues and rapscallions in what would almost certainly not be their own words…

Catching up in order of date of demise, our fact-loving host begins these candid cartoon conferences by digging the dirt with ‘Ramesses II: Pharaoh of Egypt 1303 BCE – 1213 BCE’, who preferred to be called ‘Ramesses the Great’. Our intrepid interviewer incisively traces the “accomplishments” and gift for self-promotion of the dusty legend.

As always, each balmy biography is accompanied by a side feature examining a key aspect of their lives such as here with ‘How to Make a Mummy’ scrupulously and systematically revealing the secrets of interring the definitely departed, after which we refocus on the ancient orient to quiz ‘Qin Shi Huang Di: Chinese Emperor 259 BCE 210 BCE’ on his reign and once more sifts truth from centuries of post-mortem PR briefings.

Backing up the inquiry ‘The Emperor’s Tomb’ details the layout of the vast City of Death Qin was buried in, as well as the Palace of Shadows and its terracotta army and the treasures it guarded…

‘Cleopatra: Pharaoh of Egypt 69 BCE – 30 BCE’ then outlines her incredible life, whilst ‘Barging In’ examines her astounding gold sea-craft and how it brought her to the attention of back-up lover/sponsor Mark Anthony.

A thankfully thoroughly sanitised account of the sordid exploits of ‘Nero: Roman Emperor 37-68’ is backed up by an exploration of one of his feasts in ‘Café Nero’, after which ‘Justinian II: Byzantine Emperor 669-711’ explains how his guile and determination enabled him to rule, lose, recapture and retake control of the mighty late Roman Empire. The impenetrable defences of 8th century Constantinople are then dissected in ‘The Walled City’

As well as a bit about burned cakes, ‘Alfred the Great: King of Wessex 849-6899’ reveals the remarkable military and civilising feats of the learning-obsessed ruler and expands the knowledge base by defining the fractured kingdoms of ‘The Dark Island’ of Britain at the time.

The Norman conquest is unpicked from the (one-eyed) view of the losing contender in ‘Harold Godwinson: English King 1022-1066’ accompanied by an extended look at the historical source document in Born on the Bayeaux’ whilst the first English civil war is remembered by formable Angevin matriarch ‘Empress Matilda: English Queen 1102-1167’. This is followed by a detailed deconstruction of the sturdy castle defensive system in The Old Bailey’.

The Crusades are represented rival legends made real. First up is the admirable and noble ‘Saladin: Sultan of Egypt and Syria 1137-1193’, who is bolstered by a catalogue of Moslem contributions to global civilisation in Gifts of Genius’, after which the unhappy truth about ‘Richard the Lionheart: English King 1157-1199’ is laid bare. After debunking centuries of self-aggrandising myths The Siege of Acre’ then traces one of the crusaders’ few actual heroic exploits…

‘Moctezuma II: Aztec Emperor 1456-1520’ relates how his timidity and sense of self-preservation contributed to the destruction of his dominions at the hands of the conquistadores before ‘Temple of Doom’ takes us into the deepest inner workings of the bloodstained ziggurats dedicated to human sacrifice on an industrial scale…

The most complex and contentious period in British history is taken apart by the royals at the heart of it all when ‘Henry VIII: English King 1491-1547’ tries to give us his spin on events leading to the reformation and – following Full Tilt – a History of Jousting’‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ – consecutively Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), Anne Boleyn (1507-1536), Jane Seymour (1508-1537), Anne of Cleves (1525-1557), Catherine Howard (1523-1542) and Catherine Parr (1512-1548) – offer their side of the arguments and events.

Their revelations are augmented by a breakdown of the duties of a Queen’s faithful attendants in The Waiting Game’.

‘Charles II: English King 1630-1685’ relates how he came to power following the Second Civil War and backs up the personal reveries with A Memoir on Monarchy’ running down the changing role of rulers, before we cross the channel to hear how it all went wrong for France’s final female autocrat in ‘Marie Antoinette: French Queen 1755-1793’. Her fall from grace is abutted by a chilling lesson on the guillotine in Decapitation Stations’.

Contemporary cousin ‘Catherine the Great: Russian Empress 1729-1796’ managed to run things largely her own way, but as back-up Tsars in their Eyes’ shows, was plagued by a constant stream of pretenders, all claiming to be true, proper, better qualified and, yes, male contenders for her throne.

South African rebel and strategic genius ‘Shaka Zulu: Zulu King 1787-1828’, recounts how he literally created a mighty nation from nothing whilst The Battle of Isandlwana’ covers how his innovations were used to humiliate the overwhelmingly powerful British Army before the procession of pomp and circumstance closes with ‘Queen Victoria: English Queen 1819-1901’, accompanied by a phenomenally absorbing family tree, branching out and into every royal bloodline in Europe: a true Game of Thrones’

Clever, cheeky, outrageously funny and formidably factual throughout, Corpse Talk unyieldingly tackles history’s more tendentious moments whilst personalising the great, the grim and the good for coming generations.

It is also a fabulously fun read no parent or kid could possibly resist. Don’t take my word for it though, just ask any reader, royal-watcher or republican in waiting…
Text and illustrations © Adam & Lisa Murphy 2018. All rights reserved.

Corpse Talk: Queens & Kings will be released on 6th September 2018 and is available for pre-order now. Time to start thinking of Christmas Presents yet…?

Ronald Searle’s Non-Sexist Dictionary


By Ronald Searle (Souvenir Press)
ISBN: 978-0-28562-865-6

Britain has a fantastic and enviable history and tradition of excellence in the arts of graphic narrative and cartooning. Whether telling a complete story or simply making a point; much of the modern world’s most innovative, inspirational and trenchantly acerbic drawing has come from British pens powered by British hearts and minds.

If you’re quietly humming Rule Britannia or Jerusalem right now, pack it in. This is not the tone we want. I’m just stating a few facts.

Ronald Searle was one of a very gifted few (I’d number Ken Reid, Leo Baxendale, Murray Ball and Hunt Emerson among them) who can actually draw funny lines. No matter how little or how much they need to say, they can imbue the merest blot or scratch of ink with character, intent and wicked, wicked will.

During the Second World War he was a Japanese POW at the infamous Changi Prison. The second St Trinian’s cartoon was drawn in that hell-hole in 1944 and it survived along with his incredible war sketches to see print once peace broke out. Searle was a worker on the Siam-Burma Railroad (a story for another time and place) and risked his life daily both by making pictures and by keeping them.

His mordantly funny cartoons appeared in many places such as Punch, Lilliput, The Sunday Express, and other collections of his work include Hurrah for St. Trinian’s!, The Female Approach, Back to the Slaughterhouse, The Terror of St. Trinian’s, Souls in Torment, Merry England, etc., The St. Trinian’s Story, Which Way Did He Go? and Pardong m’sieur.

Searle’s work has influenced an uncountable number of other cartoonists too. His unique visualisation and darkly comic satirical cynicism in the St. Trinian’s drawings and the utterly captivating vision of boarding school life as embodied in the classically grotesque Nigel Molesworth (created with Geoffry Willans for Punch and released to enormous success as Down With Skool!, How to be Topp!, Whizz For Atomms! and Back in the Jug Agane) influenced generations of children and adults and even played its part in shaping our post-war national character and language.

And have I mentioned yet that his drawings are really, really funny?

Although perhaps a bit of a one-trick pony – and still readily available despite being despite being 30 years old – this sharp and immaculately depicted slice of satirical buffoonery still affords a chuckle or two, but the truly magical aspect of this book is the unforgettable collection of black and white cartoons delivered with stunning absurdist candour and the peculiarly tragic warmth that only Searle could instil with his seemingly wild yet clearly-considered linework.

By transposing such terms as “Semen” with “Sewomen” or “Hymn” with “Herm” he can still make us pause and ponder, but the total immersion that his bridled insanity delivers in his illustrations reaches much deeper and lasts so much longer.

You will laugh, (it’s impossible not to) but you will also grieve and yearn and burn in empathised frustration at the marvels in this lost supply of ordinance in the Battle of the Sexes.

Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant stuff! See for yourself, whatever side of the battle lines you cower behind…
© 1988 Ronald Searle.

Celeb


By Charles Peattie, Mark Warren & Russell Taylor (Private Eye/Corgi)
ISBN: 978-0-55213-858-1

In terms of taste, as in so many other arenas, our modern world seems to be determinedly heading for Heck in a hand-basket, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to cover a little lost gem of British cartooning delight that’s increasing re-relevant in these appalling days of fame campaigns, dodgy talent show democracy and overwhelming Celebritocracy.

Celeb was a strip which ran in that evergreen gadfly and cultural attack dog Private Eye. Created by Mark Warren and the team of Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor (who were simultaneously crafting the abortive first iteration of greed-glorifying mini-classic Alex for Robert Maxwell’s short-lived London Daily News), it began in May 1987.

For years credited to the pseudonymous “Ligger”, the pithy and hilarious episodes followed the day to day life of Swinging Sixties survivor and disgracefully declining rock-legend Gary Bloke as he dealt with a changing world, thinning hair, parenthood and inexorable middle age.

These days, with 24/7 reality shows, desperate Nonabees enduring career-resuscitating humiliations in locked houses and jungle clearings and a host of other self-inflicted, double-edged B-list exposé freak-shows everywhere on the interweb, the outrageous pronouncements and antics of Gary seem pretty tame, but in those days before Ozzy Osbourne became more famous for parenting and not singing whilst footballers’ performance off the field took precedence over goals scored on it, the sozzled, crass, befuddled, and pitifully pompous cocky cockney-boy-made-good was the very epitome of affably acceptable, ego-bloated, publicity-seeking, self-aggrandizing, drug-fuelled idiocy.

Within this collection from 1991 the legendary “Man of the Peeple” distributes kernels of his hard-won wisdom to the likes of Michael Parkinson, Terry Wogan, Clive James, Cilla Back, Ruby Wax, Barry Norman, Anne Diamond, Selena Scott, Michael Aspel and other interviewers of lesser longevity. Interspersing the almighty interviews, Gary tackles world poverty and the environment head-on (and with eyes tight shut), learns how to cope with those new-fangled rock videos, adapts to the needs of his burgeoning family and, of course, consumes a phenomenal quantity of recreational pharmaceuticals…

Including a selection of interviews from the Sunday Times (October 1989), The Sun (Wednesday August 3rd 1988) and candid shots of Gary with Bob Geldof and George Michael at Live Aid, the collection concludes with the infamous days during which Gary was dead of an overdose and met both God and Elvis. Also revealed is the sordid truth behind his numerous brushes with the law, leading to his 18-month stretch At Her Majesty’s Pleasure and subsequent key role in a terrible prison riot for better conditions and macrobiotic food…

The heady cocktail of drink, sex, drugs, money, sport, music, adoration and always-forgiven crassness is perhaps the reason so many folks are seduced by celebrity. If you want to see another side to the fame-game and have a hearty laugh into the bargain Gary Bloke is your man…
© 1991 Peattie, Taylor & Warren. All Rights Reserved.

Daily Mail Nipper Annual, 1940 Facsimile Edition


By Brian White (B&H Publications/White Crescent Press Ltd.)
ISBN: 978-0-90080-431-1

Return with me again to the early days of World War II and experience the charm and creativity of the English in the face of Hunnish disaster. Or perhaps I should say try and find this wonderful reproduction of one of the war years’ most popular strips, now all but forgotten.

Brian White first created this roguish charmer of a toddler in 1933 and he outlasted the Nazis by a good margin, and only put down his toys in 1947. However the bonny lad’s pantomimic antics – most strips were slapstick gags without dialogue – were loved by children and adults in equal measure. The feature ran in the Daily Mail and even with wartime restrictions annuals were a foregone conclusion. The public demanded it.

Brian “H.B.” White was born in Dunstable in 1902 and divided his artistic gifts between animation and cartooning for comics and papers. His other strip success included Dare-a-Day Danny and Little Tough Guy in Knockout, Keyhole Kate in Sparky, Plum Duffy in The Topper and Double Trouble for the London Evening Standard.

His film work was as impressive and far-reaching, beginning with cartoon short Jerry the Troublesome Tyke in 1925 and ending with the Halas & Batchelor team that created the landmark animated film Animal Farm in 1954.

HB died in 1984, but his work is timelessly accessible and deserves to be re-discovered.

Bold, vivid and ingenious, The Nipper Annuals were a part of British life for almost two generations but Wartime utility played its part in this splendidly revived edition.

As well as the superb bold line artwork, there are plenty of fascinating advertisements of the period for the grown-ups; dedicated pages for the kids to draw their own strips (ready-ruled with panels and borders – always the worst job, as any cartoonist will tell you!) and a handy calendar for 1940 – remember, Annuals were released around Christmas time and dated for the following year.

And to top it off the entire package also doubles as a colouring book! What Larks!

Kidding aside, this is a wonderful insight into our comic strip past by a legendary master craftsman. That it has such entertainment and socio-historical value is a blessed bonus, but the real treasure is the work itself. All credit to those responsible for re-releasing it, and I fervently wish more companies would make similar efforts to keep our cultural history accessible. I also want to see more, More, MORE!
© 1995 B&H Publications/White Crescent Press Ltd. (I presume.)

The Broons and Oor Wullie: Classic Strips from the 70s


By Tom Lavery, Morris Heggie, Leslie Stannage & various (DC Thomson)
ISBN: 978-1-84535-494-7

Published eternally in perfect tandem, The Broons and Oor Wullie are two of the longest running newspaper strips in British history, having appeared almost continuously in the Scottish Sunday Post since their dual debuts in the March 8th 1936 edition.

Both the boisterous boy and the gregariously engaging inner-city clan were co-created by writer and Editor Robert Duncan Low in conjunction with Dudley D. Watkins; a man who would become DC Thomson’s greatest – and signature – artist.

Three years later the strips began being collected in reprint editions as Seasonal Annuals; alternating stars and years right up to the present day and remaining best-sellers every single time.

Low (1895-1980) began at the publishing monolith as a journalist, rising to the post of Managing Editor of Children’s Publication and launching, between 1921 and 1933, the company’s “Big Five” story-papers for boys: Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur.

His next brilliant idea was the Fun Section: an 8-page pull-out comic strip supplement for Scottish national newspaper The Sunday Post. The illustrated accessory launched on 8th March 1936 and from the very outset The Broons and Oor Wullie were its unchallenged stars…

Low’s shrewdest move was to devise both strips as domestic comedies played out in the charismatic Scottish idiom and broad vernacular. Ably supported by features such as Auchentogle by Chic Gordon, Allan Morley’s Nero and Zero, Nosey Parker and other strips, they laid the groundwork for the company’s next great leap.

In December 1937 Low launched the DC Thomson’s first weekly pictorial comic. The Dandy was followed by The Beano in 1938 and early-reading title The Magic Comic the year after that.

War-time paper shortages and rationing sadly curtailed this burgeoning strip periodical revolution, and it was 1953 before the next wave of cartoon caper picture-papers appeared. The Topper started the ball rolling again (with Oor Wullie in the logo and masthead, but not included amongst the magazine’s regular roster) in the same year that Low & the great Ken Reid created Roger the Dodger for The Beano

Throughout this innovative period Low’s greatest advantage was his prolific illustrator Dudley Dexter Watkins, whose style, more than any other, shaped the look of DC Thompson’s comics output until the bombastic advent of Leo Baxendale shook things up in the mid-1950s. Watkins soldiered on in unassailable homely magnificence for decades, drawing some of the most lavishly lifelike and winningly hilarious strips in illustration history. He died at his drawing board on August 20th 1969. For all those astonishingly productive years, on top of his many assignments in DCT’s comics he had unflaggingly drawn a full captivating page each of Oor Wullie and The Broons every week, and his loss was a colossal blow to the company.

DC Thomson’s chiefs preferred to reprint old Watkins episodes of the strips in both the newspaper and the Annuals for seven years before a replacement was agreed upon. The Dandy reran Watkins’ Desperate Dan stories for twice that length of time.

An undeniable, rock-solid facet of Scots popular culture from the very start, the first Broons Annual (technically Bi-Annual) appeared in 1939, alternating with the first Oor Wullie book a year later (although, due to wartime paper restrictions, no annuals at all were published between 1943 and 1946). To this day, for millions of readers no year can truly end without them.

So What’s the Set Up?: The gregarious Brown family inhabit a tenement flat at 10 Glebe Street, in the timelessly metafictional Scottish industrial metropolis of Auchentogle (sometimes Auchenshoogle); a scenario based on the working class Auchenshuggle district of Glasgow.

As such it’s always been a character-rich environment and ideal setting in which to tell gags, relate events and fossilise the deepest and most reassuring cultural archetypes for sentimental Scots wherever in the world they might actually be residing.

And naturally, such a region is the perfect sounding board to portray all kinds of social, cultural and economic changes that come with every passing year…

The adamant, unswerving cornerstone of the Broon family feature is long-suffering, ever-understanding Maw, who puts up with cantankerous, cheap, know-it-all Paw, and their battalion of stay-at-home kids.

These always-underfoot worthies comprise hunky Joe, freakishly tall Hen (Henry), sturdy Daphne, classically gorgeous Maggie, brainy Horace, mischievous twins Eck and the unnamed “ither ane”, plus a wee toddling lassie referred to only and always as “The Bairn”.

Not officially in residence but always hanging around is sly, patriarchal buffoon Granpaw – a comedic gadfly who spends more time at Glebe Street than his own cottage; constantly attempting to impart his decades of out-of-date, hard-earned experience to the kids… but do they listen?

Offering regular breaks from inner-city turmoil and many chances to simultaneously sentimentalise, spoof and memorialise more traditional times, the family frequently repair to their But an’ Ben (a dilapidated rustic cottage in the Highlands) where they fall foul of the weather, the countryside and all its denizens: fish, fowl, farm-grown, temporary and touristic…

As previously stated, Oor Wullie also launched on March 8th 1936, with his own collected Annual compilations subsequently and unfailingly appearing in the even years.

The basic set-up is sublimely simply and eternally evergreen, featuring an imaginative, scruff with a weakness for mischief, talent for finding trouble and no hope of ever avoiding parental retribution when appropriate…

Wullie – AKA William MacCallum – is an archetypal good-hearted rascal with time on his hands who can usually be found sitting on an upturned bucket at the start and finish of his page-a-week exploits.

His regular cast includes Ma and Pa, local copper P.C. Murdoch, assorted teachers and other interfering adults who either lavish gifts or inflict opprobrium upon the little pest and an array of pals including Fat Boab, Soapy Joe Soutar, Wee Eck and others. As a grudging sign of changing times, in later volumes such as this, he’s occasionally caught in the company of fetching schoolgirls like Elizabeth and Primrose

A compilation in monochrome with some full-colour pages, Classic Strips from the 70s was released in 2012 as part of a concerted drive to keep earlier material available to fans new or old: a lavishly sturdy hardback (still readily available through internet vendors) but deviated somewhat from the norm in that rather than re-presenting exemplar strips from the decade, the book follows a rare experiment in continuity storytelling…

When, in 1976, the strip returned to new material following the Watkins reprint run, artist Tom Lavery (you might remember his run on The Numskulls) was given the daunting task of following the master on both The Broons and Oor Wullie.

He soldiered on until 1982, followed by John Polland, Bob Nixon, Ken H. Harrison and, currently, Peter Davidson. Sadly, the authors of the features are far harder to pin down now.

Although the Oor Wullie strips remained consistently episodic and broadly comedic affairs, a long-running plotline was introduced to the Broons with the debut of rugged, affable Dave McKay in 1977.

As the weeks went by, and despite a mixed bag of reactions from the clan and readership, Maggie Broon’s new boyfriend and his flash car became a fixture. An engagement was announced, a house was bought, unsuspected and potentially fractious connections to the prospective In-Laws were revealed and overcome before, in 1979, the countdown to a wedding began…

It was never to be. For reasons still undisclosed (both writer and artist were no longer around to ask at the time this book was released) Dave vanished between instalments and was never seen again.

Life slowly – but not too slowly – returned to what passes for normal in Glebe Street but thanks to writer editor Morris Heggie and illustrator Leslie Stannage, the 4-page ‘Wedding of the Year’ and ‘The Cooperative Ha’’ offers a Sliding Doors-style possible ending here. Ahh, closure…

The dramady is accompanied throughout by clever sidebar features including faux love letters and mementoes in a brace of ‘Be My Valentine!’ spreads; ‘And the Gifts Were Returned’ letters from Maggie; gag pages disclosing ‘The Funny Side of Auld Romantics’ and ‘Oor Wullie’s Wedding Invitation’ plus newspaper photo sections on other infamous weddings of the era and more…

The last half of the book returns to funny business as usual, with Daphne, Maggie, Hen and Joe back on the hunt for fresh romantic partners, while the rest of the family resume acting like the assorted brats they eternally are: squabbling, showing off, snaffling food and enduring embarrassing domestic, fashion and sporting culture shocks…

Following joke ensemble ‘The Funny Side of Seventies Romance’ the Broons are back about their business – referencing trending topics such as the movie Grease and timeless themes such as birthday blues, leaving the remainder of this titanic tome to an examination of being young in the seventies courtesy of Oor Wullie…

The nostalgic wonderment begins with a full-colour photomontage of the decade’s comics covers and a frankly disturbing fashion parade of the wee lad, Primrose, Fat Bob and Soapy Joe in the era’s more outrageous apparel. Then it’s back to basics with waggish behaviours: dodging school, playing pranks, avoiding haircuts, going on holiday, snaffling contraband grub, finagling snacks and trying loads of get-rich-quick schemes.

Careers attempted include artist, Red Indian (70s, remember? Different tastes, OK?), paperboy, sound recorder and much more…

Supplementing these strips are features such as a colour retrospective of Oor Wullie Annuals, photo-features ‘Faces of the 70s’, pop quiz ‘20 Scots Smashers! From the 70s’ and soccer celebration ‘Fitba Crazy!’ as well as a brace of vintage Funland Puzzle Pages.

Unchanged and always welcome are wry and weighted comparisons of the good old days with mere modernity, rib-tickling scenes of sledding and skating, stolen candies, Christmas revels, torn clothes, recycled comics, breakings into one’s own home, sparring school kids, ladies and lassies lost and found, harmless practical jokes and social scandals: stories always designed to take our collective mind off troubles abroad and at home, and for every thwarted romance or embarrassing fiasco, there’s an uproarious chase, riotous squabble and no-tears scrap for the little ‘uns and their should-know-better elders…

You’ll almost certainly being buying this oversized hardback tome second-hand, so if possible ensure that the tipped in premiums are present. These include a CD of 20 traditional wedding tunes played by a Pipe Band and Maggie Broon’s Wedding Planner pack…

Overflowing with all-ages fun, rambunctious homespun hilarity and deliriously domestic warmth, these examples of comedic certainty and convivial celebration are a sure cure for post-modern glums… and you can’t really have a happy summer holiday without them, can you?
The Broons and Oor Wullie ®© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. 2012.

Albion: Origins


By Tom Tully, Scott Goodall, Ken Mennell, Solano Lopez, Eric Bradbury & various (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-172-1

Here’s a truly superb collection of British comic strips from the glory days of the 1960s courtesy of Titan Books and originally released to support and cash in on the profile-raising American Albion miniseries and collection.

In this stunning, non-nonsense monochrome hardback are four complete early exploits of some of Britain’s weirdest comic strip heroes.

Kelly’s Eye featured ordinary, thoroughly decent chap Tim Kelly who came into possession of the mystical “Eye of Zoltec”: a fist-sized gem that kept him free from all harm… as long as held on to it.

You won’t be surprised to discover that, due to the demands of weekly boys’ adventures, Tim lost, dropped, misplaced and was nefariously deprived of that infernal talisman pretty darned often – and always at the most inopportune moment…

The moody and compelling artwork of Argentinean Francisco Solano Lopez was the prime asset of this series, with the story reprinted here being about a Seminole Indian uprising threatening modern Florida. Complete with eerie evil witch doctor, supernatural overtones from a demonic drum and consumer America imperilled, this story is a classic. Tom Tully & Scott Goodall were the usual scripters for this little gem of a series.

And yes, due to the pressure of these weekly deadlines, occasionally fill-in artists had to pinch-hit in most British strip-series every now and then. Such was the breakneck pacing though, that us kids hardly even noticed and I doubt you will either. Still. If you are eagle-eyed, you might spot such luminaries as Reg Bunn, Felix Carrion, Carlos Cruz, Franc Fuentesman, and Geoff Campion in this volume. But you probably won’t…

House of Dolman was a curious and inexplicably absorbing blend of super-spy and crime-buster strip from Tully and utterly wonderful master illustrator Eric Bradbury. Dolman’s cover was as a shabby ventriloquist (I digress, but an awful lot of “our” heroes were tatty and unkempt – we had “Grunge” down pat decades before the Americans made a profit out of it!) who designed and constructed an army of specialised robots which he disguised as his puppets.

Using these as his shock-troops, the enigmatic Dolman waged a dark and crazy war against the forces of evil…

Featured here are a number of his complete 4-page thrillers wherein he defeats high-tech kidnappers, rascally protection racketeers, weapons thieves, blackmailers and the sinister forces of arch super-criminal ‘The Hawk’.

Janus Stark was a fantastically innovative and successful strip. Created by Tully for the relaunch of Smash in 1969, the majority of the art was from Solano Lopez’s studio, providing an aura of eerie, grimy veracity well suited to this tale of a foundling who grew up in a grim orphanage only to become the greatest escapologist of the Victorian age.

The Man with Rubber Bones also had his own ideas about retribution and justice and would joyously sort out those scoundrels the Law couldn’t or wouldn’t touch. A number of creators worked on this feature, which survived until the downsizing of the publisher’s comics division in 1975 – and even beyond – since Stark escaped oblivion by emigration.

When the series ended in Britain it was continued in French publications – even unto Stark’s eventual death and succession by his son. Here though, we get to see his earliest feats and I for one was left hungry for more. Encore!

The last spot in this sturdy hardback treasury falls to the Spooky Master of the Unknown Cursitor Doom. This series is the unquestioned masterpiece of Eric Bradbury – an artist who probably deserves that title as much as his visual creation.

Writer Ken Mennell, who usually invented characters for other writers to script, kept Doom for himself and the result is a darkly brooding Gothic thriller quite unlike anything else in comics then or since. If pushed, I’ll liken it most to William Hope Hodgson’s Karnacki the Ghost Breaker novelettes – although that’s more for flavour than anything else and even that doesn’t really cover it.

Doom is a fat, bald, cape-wearing foul-tempered know-it-all who just happens to be humanity’s last-ditch defence against the forces of darkness. With his strapping and rugged young assistant Angus McCraggan and Scarab, a trained raven (or is it, perhaps, something more?), Cursitor crushed without mercy any threat to humanity’s wellbeing.

Re-presented here is the ‘Dark Legion of Mardarax’ wherein a cohort of Roman soldiers extracted from the mists of antiquity rampages across the British countryside, intent on awaking an ancient and diabolical monstrosity from the outer Dark!

Perhaps these tales are a thrill for me because I first read them when I was just an uncomprehending nipper, but I don’t think so. It’s a tremendous thrill now to realise that despite all the age, wisdom, and sophistication I can now muster, that these strips really were – and are – as great if not better, than most of the comics I’ve seen in fifty-plus years of reading. Don’t take my word for it: track down this book and see if you’re not as hungrily avid for more of the same…
© 2005 IPC Media Ltd. All rights reserved.

Doctor Who Graphic Novel #1: The Iron Legion


Illustrated by Dave Gibbons and scripted by Pat Mills, John Wagner & Steve Moore (Panini Books)
ISBN: 978-1-904159-37-7

The British love comic strips and they love celebrity and they love “Characters.” The history of our homegrown graphic narrative has a peculiarly disproportionate amount of radio comedians, Variety stars and film icons and television actors: such disparate legends as Charlie Chaplin, Flanagan & Allen, Shirley Eaton (“The Modern Miss”), Arthur Askey, Winifred Atwell, Max Bygraves, Jimmy Edwards, Charlie Drake and so many more long forgotten.

As well adored and adapted were actual shows and properties such as Whacko!, ITMA, Our Gang (a British version of the Hal Roach film sensation by Dudley Watkins ran in The Dandy as well as the American comicbook series by Walt Kelly), Old Mother Riley, Supercar, Thunderbirds, Pinky and Perky, The Clangers and literally hundreds more.

Hugely popular anthology comics such as Radio Fun, Film Fun, TV Fun, Look-In, TV Tornado, TV Comic and Countdown translated our viewing and listening favourites into pictorial joy every week, and it was a pretty poor star or show that couldn’t parley the day job into a licensed comic property…

Doctor Who premiered on black-&-white televisions across Britain on November 23rd 1963 with the first episode of ‘An Unearthly Child’. In 1964 his decades-long association with TV Comic began: issue #674 offered the premier instalment of ‘The Klepton Parasites’.

On 11th October 1979 (although adhering to the US off-sale cover-dating system so it says 17th), Marvel’s UK subsidiary launched Doctor Who Weekly. It became a monthly magazine in September 1980 (#44) and has been with us – under various names – ever since. All of which only goes to prove that the Time Lord is a comic hero with an impressive pedigree.

Panini’s UK division is in the ongoing process of collecting every strip from its archive in a uniform series of over-sized graphic albums, each concentrating on a particular incarnation (those in the know refer to them as “regenerations”) of the deathless wanderer. This particular tome was the very first, gathering 36 weekly monochrome strips from the first 38 weeks, all drawn, inked and lettered by International Treasure Dave Gibbons and published between 11th October 1979 and July 3rd 1980.

In fact, the Doctor Who stories were amongst the last regular comics work the artist created for the British market before being scooped up by the Americans as part of the early 1980s “British Invasion”.

All that and more is covered in the comprehensive ‘Dave Gibbons Interview’ conducted by Alan Woollcombe which precedes the frantic tales plucked from the annals of history featuring the Fourth Doctor (AKA Tom Baker). Thanks to the skills of writers Pat Mills & John Wagner (who plotted the yarns together but alternated as solo-scripters for completed stories) and latterly Steve Moore, the adventuresome episodes combine thrills, fights and scares with a suitable degree of surreal humour and whimsical Anglophilic cultural nonsense…

The cosmic comics carnage kicks off with a ‘The Iron Legion’ (originally seen in Doctor Who Weekly #1-8: 11th October to December 5th 1979) with Mills providing dialogue as the wandering Time Lord lands in a contemporary English village just as it is attacked by robot soldiers from a parallel plane where the Roman Empire never fell.

Taken as a prisoner across the dimensional divide, The Doctor faces formidable opposition from the tyrannical mechanical General Ironicus, bratty boy-Emperor Adolphus and his terrifying mother Juno.

However, as the gob-smacked Gallifreyan strives to survive the worst trials and tribulations the all-conquering empire can throw at him, he realises that there is an even greater evil controlling the toga-draped elite: immortal alien devil Magog and his arcane brethren The Malevilus.

Escape is no longer the issue: The Doctor needs to stop a ghastly scheme to enslave and consume the entire universe…

Wagner did the typing for next serial ‘City of the Damned’ (DWW #9-16: 12th December 1979 – January 30th 1980) as our hero attempts to enjoy a little downtime in placid Benidorm but instead ends up in grim metropolis Zombos, where all emotion has been outlawed and the citizens submit to mind-altering procedures to keep the all-pervasive state sound and stable.

Captured by the passionless Moderators, The Doctor is only saved from surgically-induced emotional lobotomy by daring – possibly deranged – rebels fighting to restore feeling to the People.

When one of their number unleashes a doomsday bio-weapon that thrives on the lack of emotion, the Time Lord and his ZEPO (Zom Emotional People’s Organisation) allies. The immortal wanderer has to think – and feel – fast to save the population and restore feeling to the endangered masses…

The next two tales were fill-ins and our ongoing saga resumes with the strip from #19 as, still searching for a seaside retreat, The TARDIS next dumps the increasingly harried Doctor in the English town of Blackcastle. The BBC news is full of denials that a starship has crashed into the local steelworks, but schoolgirl Sharon Davies and her friend Fudge know better. After all, they have already befriended ‘The Star Beast’ (February 20th – April 9th) that was hiding in the wreckage and promised to hide it from its enemies…

The Doctor has already met them but believes he’s successfully escaped the contingent of Wrarth Warriors. He is blissfully unaware that they have implanted a devasting bomb in his stomach for the moment he finally meets their elusive prey Beep the Meep

Even after escaping that near-death experience, the gullible Gallifreyan is unaware of quite who and what’s he’s dealing with in a devious tale where no-one and nothing are quite what they seem…

And to make things even more complicated, by the time the stardust settles, Sharon has moved into the TARDIS as his latest companion…

The Mills & Wagner stories – originally created as prospective TV adventures – conclude in deep space and an indeterminate future as The Doctor and Sharon encounter space truckers Joe Bean and Babe, servicing the colony worlds of the New Earth System. What nobody knows at this stage is that the planets are under attack by highly infectious lycanthropic horrors dubbed ‘The Dogs of Doom’ (DWW #27-34: 10th April – June 5th).

As the creatures ravage the young planets, eradication seems certain, and doubly so once the infected Doctor discerns that the werewolves are merely tools of his greatest enemies – the Daleks!

This stunning, sterling trade paperback concludes with the first story by veteran British comics stalwart Steve Moore and the threat of ‘The Time Witch’ (DWW #197-202: June 12th to 3rd July).

Before Earth formed, psychic adept Brimo was imprisoned in a timeless cell for misusing her powers. From her crystal cage she saw galaxies rise and fall and raged to be free…

That joyous moment occurred when the dashing time meddler’s TARDIS accidentally interfaced with a blank universe, freeing her and granting her the power to reshape reality. Unfortunately for her, The Doctor realised that those conditions applied to anybody trapped in that unformed region, and in a battle of wills and imagination his brain was second to none…

Sheer effusive delight from start to finish, this is a splendid book for casual readers, a fine shelf addition for dedicated fans of the show and a perfect opportunity to cross-promote our particular art-form to anyone minded to give comics another shot…
All Doctor Who material © BBCtv. Doctor Who, the Tardis, Dalek word and device mark and all logos are trademarks of the British Broadcasting Corporation and are used under licence. Dalek device mark © BBC/Terry Nation 1963.All other material © its individual creators and owners. Published 2004 by Panini. All rights reserved.

Miracleman Book One: A Dream of Flying


By the Original Writer, Mick Anglo, Garry Leach, Alan Davis, Don Lawrence, Steve Dillon, Mick Austin, Paul Neary & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5462-4 (HB)

I got my start in comics as the most junior of juniors on a rather iconoclastic and sensational magazine named Warrior. It was an incredible learning experience but producing arguably Britain’s most influential comic magazine was a tense, fraught, high energy, cauldron-like existence for all involved and some of those comrades-in-arms barely talk to each other these days.

That’s part of the story behind the fact that the incredible author of most of the stories in this premier compilation doesn’t want his name anywhere near it.

As that’s the case I’m happy to respect his wishes. It is a shame, though, as this is a work which changed the shape and nature of superhero comics forever, even if during the latter days of it in Warrior, we all thought the bloody strip was cursed…

If you’re interested in rumour, speculation and divided perspectives on ancient history, there are plenty of places online to visit for other information, but today let’s just discuss one of the very best superhero stories ever crafted…

This book is available in a variety of formats and although some of the back-up contents might vary in essence it is a lavish, remastered full re-presentation of the original Marvelman saga A Dream of Flying; stuffed with extra story content and page after page of lush behind-the-scenes material, production art and more.

Just in case you weren’t aware: the hero of this tome was originally created by jobbing artist and comics packager Mick Anglo for publisher L. Miller and Son in 1954 to replace a line of extremely popular British weekly monochrome reprints starring the Marvel Family as originally generated by US outfit Fawcett.

When a decade-long legal dispute between Fawcett and National/DC arguing copyright infringement ended just as the superhero trend nosedived in America, the defendant simply closed down most of its comics line. Overnight this act deprived British – and other foreign clients’ – firms of one of their most popular reprint strands.

In a feat of slippery brilliance, Anglo rapidly retooled defunct Yank heroes Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel Junior and Mary Marvel into Marvelman, Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, subsequently detailing their simplistic, charming adventures until 1963, when falling sales and changing tastes finally caught up with them all and they vanished into comicbook limbo.

In 1982 the characters and concepts were picked up by Dez Skinn for his proposed new independent and proudly British venture and quite soon magic was being created again…

The second end began when a certain US comics publisher started suing Warrior for using the word “Marvel” even though when Marvelman was created they were still calling themselves “Atlas”. (No, of course I’m over it now…)

An inescapable truism of modern life is that money trumps fact every time…

This compelling volume opens with ‘Prologue 1956: The Invaders from the Future’ (originally created by Anglo and the great Don Lawrence but subtly tweaked by our unnamed “original writer”) as a scene-setting foretaste of what might have been before the deconstructionist main event opens.

In that idealised past epoch, invulnerable time-travellers from 1981 are beaten back by the intrepid trio of superheroes before the real story begins in the drab, humdrum and utterly ordinary world of Thatcherite Britain, circa 1982…

Over-the-hill freelance journalist Mike Moran is plagued by ‘A Dream of Flying’ (illustrated by Garry Leach) as a godlike gleaming superman before being blown up by atom bombs…

This morning, however, he can’t let it stop him getting to the opening of the new atomic power station at Larksmere, even if his concentration is ruined by another of his crippling headaches and the agonising frustration of a word he’s forgotten lurking just beyond the tip of his tongue…

The press launch is an unmitigated disaster. When a band of terrorists attack the site, Mike collapses and while he’s being dragged off something happens. That word comes back to him and, in a catastrophic salvo of heat and light and noise, he transforms into the creature of his dreams before comprehensively dealing with the gunmen and flying off into space…

In ‘Legends’ the glittering paragon returns to Mike’s wife and attempts to explain the impossible events and his restored memories of being a superhero in Fifties Britain. Liz Moran cannot help but laugh at the canon of ridiculous absurdities this incredible creature spouts even if to all intents and purposes he is her husband. After all, if his restored memories are correct, why has nobody ever heard of him?

To augment the drama (and pad out the comicbooks this compilation is taken from), ‘Miracleman Behind the Scenes’ devotes space to pages offering a wealth of pre-production work: sketches, design roughs, pencilled panels and complete original art, colour-indications, pertinent ads, pin-ups and covers by Leach.

These are supplemented by ‘Kimota! The Secret Origin of Mick Anglo’s Marvelman’ by British comics historian and journalist Mike Conroy, and ‘Mick on Mick’ sees Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada interviewing Mick Anglo before a brace of the veteran’s strips (from Marvelman #25, February 3rd 1954) reveal what all the post-war fuss was about.

‘Marvelman and the Atomic Bomber’ finds precocious newsboy Micky Moran on the trail of deadly spies after which ‘Marvelman and the Stolen Radium’ has the Atomic Warrior foiling dastardly bandits led by Professor Hatz and saving England from fatal contamination…

Further vintage thrills materialise in ‘The Stolen Reflections’ (Marvelman #32, March 24th 1954) when mad scientist Gargunza builds a machine to animate mirror images…

Returning to modern times and full colour, aging Mike’s insane situation is exacerbated next morning ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’. Technological guru and self-made billionaire John Bates calls out of the blue and Mike suddenly remembers the amiable little lad with superpowers who was his jolly sidekick before being caught in the same atomic blast that eradicated his own memories.

After he and Liz visit the unctuous mogul, Mike realises with horror that his fawning junior partner never changed back to human but has been slowly using his gifts to dominate the world for the last eighteen years…

Rumbled, Bates ferociously attacks in ‘Dragons’, using abilities which have grown and evolved in two decades of constant if covert use to beat the recently returned Miracleman near to death. However, the horrific super-duel is abruptly curtailed by a sudden jump into what we thought back then would be the near-future…

Warrior #4 was sold as a summer special in August 1982. It led with a bold fill-in set three years into the story time-line. The editorial long-term plan had been to create a “Justice League” of Warrior characters and ‘The Yesterday Gambit’ – with art by Steve Dillon, Alan Davis & Paul Neary – starred two of them in an interlude from their final battle with an ultimate nemesis.

The complex plot involved trans-dimensional teleporting alien samurai Aza Chorn (as yet unintroduced) who ferried Miracleman through time to battle himself at different stages of his career. The expended energies of the cataclysmic combats would be harvested by the gallant Warpsmith to use against their unstoppable future foe…

The ‘Miracleman Behind the Scenes’ offers more pre-production work: sketches, designs for Bates, complete original art, and covers by Leach, supplemented by ‘A Short History of British Comics’ by Mike Conroy plus a brace of 1950s classics.

‘The Birth of Marvelman’ (Marvelman #65, November 1st 1954) was the eagerly-anticipated origin tale of how reclusive astro-scientist Guntag Barghelt first gifted plucky young Micky Moran with the greatest power in the universe, after which issue #102 (July 30th 1955) saw a newly-minted boy hero rescuing innocent kids unjustly accused of being juvenile delinquents in ‘Introducing Kid Marvelman’

The appalling supra-normal duel of metahuman gods resumes next: spectacularly devastating much of London. Pencilled by Alan Davis and inked by Leach, ‘Fallen Angels, Forgotten Thunder’ emphasises the true horror of para-powered combat and only ends when the smugly overconfident former Kid Miracleman accidentally defeats himself…

The first inklings of the incredible truth begin to emerge in ‘Secret Identity’ (Davis & Leach) as Sir Dennis Archer of mothballed, clandestine organisation “The Spookshow” despatches his top assassin to find and sanction a threat he’s long-believed eradicated in a flash of atomic fire decades past.

Mike and Liz meanwhile head for Dartmoor to test Miracleman’s abilities in private.

Their marriage has suffered since the initial transformation, especially as Mike insists he and his alter-ego are two different people and Miracleman has got Liz pregnant after his own fruitless years of trying…

Davis fully took over the art chores with ‘Blue Murder’ as Archer’s highly capable investigator/hitman Evelyn Cream tracks down and brilliantly takes out Moran with a minimum of fuss…

Following Mick Austin’s award-winning cover to Warrior #7, ‘We Are Warpsmiths!’ reintroduces the hero’s prospective alien allies through covers, sketches and design roughs, culminating with the stranger creatures’ initial storyline as first seen in Warrior #9 and 10.

Reproduced here in captivating full colour and showcasing the bizarre and exotic realms the militaristic peacekeepers are sworn to defend, ‘Cold War, Cold Warrior’ sees a family group of stellar sentinels critically overreact to a suspected incursion into their protectorate…

The unending, extended conflict with their cosmic antithesis The Qys results in constant, deadly politicking and here innocent kids and two members of their own Warpsmith cadre are sacrificed to expediency and a greater agenda…

By the advent of ‘Out of the Dark’ (first seen in Warrior #9, January 1983) the enigmatic killer Cream has inexplicably switched sides, aiding Miracleman as he seeks out the truth of his origins in a top-secret military bunker which contains deadly defences, another – lesser – superhuman and more. The human resources prove as nothing to the sparkling juggernaut in their midst but the Spookshow has one last card to play: a deformed and inadequate leftover superhuman dubbed Big Ben

‘Inside Story’ reveals at last what happened when British Intelligence happened upon the find of an epoch and how they foolishly sought outside assistance to utilise it. Tragically, that single misjudgement led to a catalogue of others…

Soon Miracleman understands how recovered and reverse-engineered alien DNA techniques, cruel and callous genetic experimentation and the paranoia of one deranged, debauched scientist who grew supermen and programmed them to compliance using comicbook fantasies led to his current predicament in culminating chapter ‘Zarathustra’

To Be Continued…

The remainder of this stunning collection is rounded out with tantalising snippets from Warrior’s then-gestating shared universe, beginning with ‘Saturday Morning Pictures’ – illustrated by Davis as a framing device in the Marvelman Special – which originally featured a number of classic, remastered Anglo-era adventures and a fascinating peek into what might have been…

The nomadic multiplanar policemen called Warpsmiths reappear in ‘Ghostdance’ (originally published in A1 #1, October 1989) in a direct continuation of the first saga, as the surviving dutiful sentinels grieve and move on in their own uniquely inexplicable manner…

This last is accompanied by more ‘Miracleman Behind the Scenes’ material from Leach, tracing the development of the Warpsmiths and augmented by a selection of house ads, even more original art pages and found background material.

Wrapping things up is a stunning gallery of covers and variants by Leach, Davis, Austin, Joe Quesada, Danny Miki, Richard Isanove, John Cassady, Paul Mounts, Leinil Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, Laura Martin, Skottie Young, Mark Buckingham, D’Israeli, Jerome Opena, Dean White, Steve Oliff, Neal Adams, Frank Martin, Mark Farmer, Arthur Adams, Peter Steigerwald, Mike Perkins, Andy Troy, Mike McKone, Paulo Rivera, Mike Deodato, Rain Beredo, J.G Jones, Javier Rodriguez, John Tyler Christopher, Gerald Parel and Bryan Hitch, generated for Marvel’s 2013 relaunch of the property.

One of the greatest superhero comics sagas ever. There’s simply nothing else to say…
© 2014 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Darkie’s Mob: The Secret War of Joe Darkie


By John Wagner & Mike Weston (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-442-8

Britain has always had a solid tradition for top-notch comic strips about the Second World War but the material produced by one radically different publication in the 1970s and 1980s surpassed all previous efforts and has been acknowledged as having transformed the entire art form.

Battle was one of the last great British weekly anthologies: a combat-themed anthology comic which began as Battle Picture Weekly on 8th March 1975 and, through absorption, merger and re-branding became Battle Picture Weekly & Valiant, Battle Action, Battle, Battle Action Force and ultimately Battle Storm Force before itself being combined with the too-prestigious-to-cancel Eagle on January 23rd 1988.

Over 673 gore-soaked, epithet-stuffed, adrenaline-drenched issues, the contents of the blistering periodical gouged its way into the bloodthirsty hearts of a generation, consequently producing some of the best and most influential war stories ever. These include Major Eazy, D-Day Dawson, The Bootneck Boy, Johnny Red, HMS Nightshade, Rat Pack, Fighter from the Sky, Hold Hill 109, Fighting Mann, Death Squad!, Panzer G-Man, Joe Two Beans, The Sarge (star-artist Mike Western’s other best work ever), Hellman of Hammer Force and the stunning and iconic Charley’s War among many others.

The list of talented contributors was equally impressive: writers Pat Mills, John Wagner, Steve McManus, Mark Andrew, Gerry Finley-Day, Tom Tully, Eric & Alan Hebden, with art from Colin Page, Pat Wright, Giralt, Carlos Ezquerra, Geoff Campion, Jim Watson, Mike Western, Joe Colquhoun, Carlos Pino, John Cooper, Mike Dorey, Cam Kennedy and more.

One of the most harrowing and memorable series during that reign of blood and honour was an innovative saga of group obsession and personal vengeance set in the green hell of Burma in the months following the Japanese invasion and rout of the entrenched British Empire in Spring 1942.

As delivered by John Wagner & Mike Western, Darkie’s Mob is a phenomenally – and deservedly – well-regarded classic of the genre, wherein a mysterious maniac adopts and subverts a lost, broken, demoralised and doomed squad of British soldiers. His intent is to on use them to punish the Japanese in ways no normal man could imagine…

This glorious oversized monochrome hardback compilation collects the entire uncompromising saga – which originally ran from 14th August 1976 to 18th June 1977 – in a deluxe edition which also contains a comprehensive cover gallery and ‘Dead Men Walking’: an effusive introduction by unabashed fan and occasional war-writer Garth Ennis.

The tale opens as a frenetically fast-paced mystery-thriller beginning in 1946 when Allied troops discover the blood-soaked combat journal of Private Richard Shortland, reported missing along with the rest of his platoon during the frantic retreat from the all-conquering Japanese.

The first entry and the opening initial episode are dated May 30th 1942 and describe a slow descent into the very heart of darkness…

Beaten and ready to die, the rag-tag remnants of the British Army are rescued from certain death by the uncompromising, unconventional and terrifyingly pitiless Captain Joe Darkie who strides out of the hostile Burmese verdure and instantly asserts an almost preternatural command over the weary warriors. The men are appalled by Darkie’s physical and emotional abuse of them and his terrifying treatment of an enemy patrol he encounters whilst leading them out of their predicament.

They’re even more shocked when they discover that he’s not heading for the safety of their lines but guiding them deeper into Japanese-held territory…

Thus begins a guerrilla war like no other, as Darkie moulds the soldiers – through brutal bullying and all manner of psychological ploys – into fanatics with only one purpose: hunting and killing the enemy.

In rapid snatches of events culled from Shortland’s account we discover that Darkie is a near-mythical night-terror to the invaders, a Kukri-wielding, poison-spitting demon happy to betray, exploit and expend his own men to slaughter his hated foes. He is equally well-known to the enslaved natives and ruthlessly at home in the alien world of the Burma jungles and swamps. What kind of experiences could transform a British Officer into such a ravening horror?

An answer of sorts quickly comes after Shortland intercepts a radio communication and discovers that the Army has no record of any soldier named Joe Darkie, but the dutiful diarist has no explanation of his own reasons for keeping the psycho-killer’s secret to himself…

For over a year the hellish crusade continued with the Mob striking everywhere like bloody ghosts; freeing prisoners, sabotaging Japanese bases, destroying engineering works and always killing in the most spectacular manner possible. Eventually after murdering generals, blowing up bridges and casually invading the most secure cities in the country, the Mob become the Empires’ most wanted men as both Britain and Japan hunt the rogue unit with equal vehemence and ferocity.

Darkie wants to kill and not even Allied orders will stop him…

The mob are gradually whittled away by death, insanity and fatigue as Darkie infects them with his hatred and nihilistic madness until all the once-human soldiers are nothing more than Jap-hating killing machines ready and willing to die just as long as they can take another son of Nippon to hell with them…

The descent culminates but doesn’t end with the shocking revelations of Darkie’s origins and secret in Shortland’s incredible entry for October 30th 1943, after which the inevitable end inexorably drew near…

This complete chronicle also includes a heavily illustrated prose tale from the 1990 Battle Holiday Special and I’m spoiling nobody’s fun by advising you all to read this bonus feature long before you arrive at the staggering conclusion…

A mention should be made of the language used here. Although a children’s comic – or perhaps because it was – the speech and interactions of the characters contains a strongly disparaging and colourful racial element.

Some of these terms are liable to cause offence to modern readers – but not nearly as much as any post-watershed TV show or your average school playground – so please try and remember the vintage and authorial directives in place when the stories were first released.

Battle exploded forever the cosy, safely nostalgic “we’ll all be alright in the end” tradition of British comics; ushering an ultra-realistic, class-savvy, gritty awareness of the true horror of military service and conflict, pounding home the message War is Hell.

With Darkie’s Mob Wagner and Western successfully and so horrifyingly showed us its truly ugly face and inescapable consequences.
Darkie’s Mob © 2011 Egmont UK Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Dead Men Walking © 2011 Garth Ennis.

The Golden Years of Adventure Stories


By various (DC Thomson & Co., Ltd.)
ISBN: 978-0851165271

Here’s a wonderful compilation commemorating the truly unique DC Thomson comic experience, concentrating on their many action and adventure serials. The Dundee based company has long been a mainstay of British popular reading and the strong editorial stance has informed a huge number of household names over the decades.

The main tenet of the Thomson adventure philosophy is a traditional, humanistic sense of decency. Runner Alf Tupper‘The Tough of the Track’ – might be a poor, rough, working class lad, competing in a world of privileged “Toffee-Nosed Swells”, but he excels for the sheer joy of sportsmanship, not for gain or glory.

There are no anti-heroes in the Thomson heroic stable, almost in direct opposition to the iconic, anarchic, mischief-makers of their humour comics.

British spy Bill Sampson may be the dreaded ‘Wolf of Kabul’ to the Afghan tribesmen he encounters with devoted assistant Chung (who will live forever as the wielder of the deadly “Clicky Ba” – that’s a cricket bat to you and me), but he’s still just an ordinary chap at heart, as are all the other characters spotlighted here. They’re just the sort of people ordinary kids should want to grow up into.

Heroes like Samson actually predate the company’s conversion of prose adventure fiction into comic strips – generally accepted as 1961, when the proliferation of TV sets among the perceived audience dictated the switch from words to pictures.

For many years previously, what children bought were boys’ or girls’ “papers”, packed with well-written text stories and the odd illustration and features page. Thomson held these over in titles such as Adventure until the end of the 1950s, but eventually succumbed to the inevitable, converting their pulp-stars into pictorial idols.

Wolf of Kabul, for instance, began in 1922, but was easily and successfully translated into a comic strip in the 1960s.

In this compendium are both prose stories and strips featuring some of Britain’s best loved and longest running heroes subdivided into categories that mirror the average schoolboy’s interests.

So thrill again, or catch the bug with such Schooldays sagas as The Red Circle School (1940s) and Kingsley Comp (1980s); the sporting triumphs of The Tough of the Track (1949-onwards), Wilson the mysterious Man in Black (The Truth About Wilson: 1943-onwards), or Gorgeous Gus (a millionaire – even before he became a footballer – who didn’t like to run but had an infallible shot).

You might prefer to peruse Cast, Hook and Strike, the story of Joe Dodd: an exceptional angler from the 1970s (yes, a fishing strip, and don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it).

Or perhaps your fancy will be caught by the War stories I Flew with Braddock, Code-name Warlord, and V for Vengeance, or the outrageous heroics of Morgyn the Mighty (Strongest Man in Africa), The Laughing Pirate, or The Hairy Sheriff (a cowboy ape).

And, as ever, Wolf of Kabul will capture your fancy and fulfil that desire to sample simpler times.

These tales, taken from the classic periodical publications Adventure, The Skipper, The Wizard and Rover, latterly supplemented by material from Hornet, Hotspur, Victor and Warlord, are accompanied and augmented by numerous glorious cover reproductions and feature pages, loaded with fun and shiny with nostalgia.

I only wish I could name all the creators responsible, but Thomson’s long-standing policy of creative anonymity means I’d be guessing too many times. I can only hope that future collected celebrations will include some belated acknowledgement of all the talented individuals who between them shaped the popular consciousness of generations, and made childhoods joyful, wondrous and thrilling.
© 1991 DC Thomson & Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.