Steel Commando: Full Metal Warfare

By Frank S. Pepper, Alex Henderson, Vince Wernham & various (Rebellion)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-681-0 (Digest PB)

UK comics readers have always loved robots. A veritable battalion of bronzed (ironed, steeled, coppered, etc.) Brit-built battlebots and Caledonian comedic constructions have graced our strips since the earliest of times. Surely, every old kid fondly remembers amazing artificial all-stars such as Brassneck, the Juggernaut from Planet Z, Rebbel Robot, Klanky, Robot Archie, the Iron Teacher, the Smasher, the Iron Major, Mr. Syrius Thrice or any of the host of mechanoid marvels populating the pages of 2000AD.

Our fascination remains strong and entices all ages, as recently seen in new junior star Freddy from the Phoenix’s Mega Robo Bros – 21st century Britain’s response to the mighty Astro Boy

This dinky, mostly monochrome paperback and digital digest collects strips from Thunder (specifically, 17th October 1970 to 27th February 1971); Lion & Thunder (20th March 1970-16th December 1972); Valiant & Lion (25th May- 22ndJune 1974) and further fun material from Thunder Annual 1972, 1973 and 1974, reviving classic comedy combat capers in a beloved favourite theme: war robots who aren’t what they’re cracked up to be…

In 1970 grand marshal of English comics Frank S. Pepper (Rockfist Rogan; Roy of the Rovers; Captain Condor; Dan Dare; Jet-Ace Logan; The Spellbinder and countless others) first mixed slapstick humour, war stories and fantasy in the cheekily wry exploits of a WWII British secret weapon with a mind of his own and a handy habit of crushing enemy schemes…

During WWII, shiftless slacker ErnieExcused BootsBates is accorded the dubious accolade of “the laziest soldier in the British Army”, but as seen in the first episode from Pepper and illustrators Alex Henderson, becomes the most important individual ever to be called up…

While the slob is stuck spud-bashing on a secret British base, he encounters a hulking metal monster called the Mark 1 Indestructible Robot. The super-strong, humanoid tank is fully expected to win the war, but nobody can make it work…

However, when it blunders into the kitchens, Ernie orders it to stop and it happily – and quite chattily – complies. It’s a feat no one else can copy. Still unable to find the programming fault, the top brass negotiates and compels the slacker into become the war machine’s handler. Unluckily and all too soon and for newly promoted Lance-Corporal Bates, that means a few extra treats, but also personally visiting every battle hot-spot the military can think of, such as a French coastal radar base where the Steel Commando strikes terror into the hearts of the horrified Hun…

The tone of the times was frequently appallingly racist by today’s standards – but no more so than such still-popular TV shows like Dad’s Army – and over the weeks to come, dodgy Ernie and his mighty metal mate faced countless ill-prepared enemies and the bonkers bureaucracy of the British Army in short complete and satisfying episodes. Channelling the post-Sixties era of working-class whimsical irony, and discontented but laconic world-weariness, this strip places an unstoppable force for change in the hands of an Andy Capp style shirker who can’t even be bothered to exploit the power he has beyond securing permission to don comfortable footwear (plimsolls and flipflops)…

Illustrated by Henderson and Vince Wernham, the unlikely duo perpetually faced enemy action in Europe, Africa and the Pacific, whilst failing to dodge unwelcome duties (like playing on the base football team or PT exercises) with stoic reluctance and applied anarchy. All the while though – and despite recurring brain glitches – the odd couple always triumphed: destroying enemy bases, sinking ships, learning (almost) to fly, wrecking trains and whatever else the boffins and generals could think of to test their terrible toy. They even outsmarted German scientists who captured the Commando to jump-start their own Nazi robot project and a truly daft Allied enterprise to create a superior, officer-class British droid – the appalling “Metal Major”…

As weeks passed, however, Ernie began to gel as the archetypal “little man” at war with authority. Always agitating for his pal to be treated as human, he made the boffins teach their creation to read, and even successfully won regular home leave for the Steel Commando. It didn’t go well when they got back to Blighty, but at least they got what all soldiers deserved…

Many episodes see the heroes dealing with temporary malfunctions such as robotic deafness, becoming super-magnetic, falling in love (with a railway station weighing machine) or parenthood (don’t ask, just read!) and even Ernie losing his voice to toffee, but always emphasising the burdens of the lowly, charming absurdity and excessive cartoon action.

However, tastes change quickly in weekly comics and even the perennial guilty pleasures of manic situation, comedy accents and mass carnage ultimately palled. Thus, following 29 complete weekly episodes is a truly deranged sequence of five team-ups between ‘Captain Hurricane and Steel Commando’ which finds the disturbingly “outspoken” (you can say culturally dismissive and jingoistic if you want) super-strong Marine commando a not-so-friendly rival of the mechanical marvel.

These come from Valiant & Lion (25th May-22nd June 1974) and find hyper-aggressive Hurricane frantically attempting to outmatch the Steel Substitute as they are despatched against a German army in retreat. …

Filling out the collection are three longer tales from assorted Annuals, beginning with a rescue mission to an Italian town where “our boys” are battling German soldiers and their own haughtily useless commanding officer.

Next up is a sly tale wherein an upgrade accidentally infests and afflicts the Commando with a Nazi boffin’s pre-recorded personality before everything winds up with a full-colour romp seeing old Ironsides getting soused on super-fuel and drunkenly attacking Nazi super-tanks well out of his league…

The colour section also includes the multihued covers for Thunder Annual 1973, Lion Holiday Special 1974, and Lion Annual 1977: a wondrous window onto simpler times that still offer fascinating fun for the cautiously prepared reader. Why not sign up for a few classic encounters?
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 2019 Rebellion Publishing Ltd.

Bunny vs Monkey and the League of Doom!

By Jaimie Smart, with Sammy Borras (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-230-4 (TPB)

Bunny vs. Monkey has been a fixture of British comics phenomena The Phoenix since the very first issue in 2012: recounting a madcap vendetta gripping animal arch-enemies set amidst an idyllic arcadia masquerading as more-or-less mundane English woodlands.

Concocted with gleefully gentle mania by cartoonist, comics artist and novelist Jamie Smart (Fish Head Steve!; Looshkin; Flember), his trend-setting, mind-bending yarns have recently been retooled as graphic albums available in remastered, double-length digest editions such as this one. In case you’re wondering, the fabulous fun found here originally inhabited volumes 5 & 6, then entitled Destructo and Apocalypse

All the tail-biting tension and animal argy-bargey began after an obnoxious little beast popped up in the wake of a disastrous British space shot. Having crash-landed in Crinkle Woods – scant miles from his launch site – lab animal Monkey believed himself the rightful owner of a strange new world, despite sustained efforts of reasonable, sensible, genteel, contemplative Bunny to dissuade him. For all his patience, propriety and good breeding, the laid-back lepine just could not contain the incorrigible idiot ape, who was – and is – a rude, noise-loving, chaos-creating troublemaker…

The original collected volumes dispensed disaster-drenched doses of daftness in six-month courses of ill-treatment, but this new compilation covers Year Three from Winter to Winter as first enjoyed in Destructo and Other Ridiculous Stories! and Apocalypse and Other Surprising Stories!.

Here – with artistic assistance from Sammy Borras – the war of nerves and mega-weapons resumes and intensifies. The unruly assortment of odd critters littering and loitering around the bucolic paradise,p finally pick a side: shifting and twisting into bipartisan factionalism. They all seem to have forgotten that rapidly encroaching Hyoomanz are now well underway in building something called a “motorway” right through the sylvan glades and (apparently) unprotected parks…

It all resumes with tiny terror Monkey manifesting more mayhem and almost turning his own stomach inside out whilst attempting to weaponise some very nasty stuff he finds under his feet in ‘Gross!’

With snow on the ground Monkey finds a way to spoil the Great Sled-Off in ‘Tobog-Gone!’ and latterly sets back mammal-robot relations by picking on newcomer ‘Metal Steve 2!’, before a new menace manifests to worry the woodland folk in the dark guise of evil arch-villain ‘Destructo!’

When the weather clears up, Monkey’s Double-Barrelled Supercharged Snow-Cannon-Tank is suddenly deprived of ammo… until the pest repurposes his toy to fire chutney. Sadly, even this resultant chaos is insufficient to his comprehending ‘The Message!’

A brief and sudden return of evil genius ‘Skunky!’ only leads to disappointment, but his crazed influence remains to monsterize the ‘Pretty Flowers!’, whilst the debut of cyborg bounty hunter ‘Alan!’ (Armoured Locating Armadillo Network) threatens to destabilise the ongoing conflict until the big bully gets on the wrong side of gentle, peace-loving Pig’s ice cream…

Too much of the good life eventually slows down our friends so they convince eco-warrior Le Fox to help them ‘Get Fit!’just in time for the awful ape to celebrate (or desecrate) Easter by eating all ‘The Wrong Eggs!’

As Spring unfolds, the wee woodlanders face Skunky’s robotic Vulturaptors in ‘Terror from the Skies’, but when night falls, huge ‘Bobbles!’ from the sky spark fears of alien invasion…

The good guys then try to infiltrate ‘The Temple!’ (Skunky’s new high-tech citadel of evil), just in time for ‘The Audition!’ to join the musky mastermind’s new gang the League of Doom. Sadly, the only one making the grade is meek misfit Pig in his new gruesome guise of ‘Pigulus!’

History horrifically repeats itself when another crashed space capsule ejects an even more destructive newcomer in ‘The Evil Monkey!’ – which only incites the previous incumbent to up his aggravating game…

When the genteel inhabitants of the wood start enjoying ‘Picnics!’, they have no conception the day will end in chaos after Skunky’s escaped Grasshopalong induces the mechanic maverick to attempt recapture with his giant Tarsier…

Occasional ally Le Fox cultivates an air of mystery, but when the League of Doom unleashes a deadly custard assault his annoying old ‘Uncle Fox!’ soon proves to be the real superspy deal, just as Monkey’s latest property deal lands Bunny with an obnoxious ‘Bad Neighbour!’ in the form of musician Bert Warthog.

…But not for long…

When Skunky unleashes his devastating colossal De-Forester 9000, the unthinkable occurs as Bunny and Monkey declare ‘The Truce!’, leading to the mega-machine’s demise, but by the time brain-battered, bewildered former stuntman Action Beaver becomes ‘The Messenger!’ for the skunk’s poison letters, all bets are off again and it’s every critter for himself…

More mad science sees the launch of a weather station and an unseasonal snow barrage, but Skunky’s malignant fun is ruined after Weenie Squirrel demonstrates astounding piste pizazz in ‘Ski-Daddle!’, before a lost little skunk destabilises the wicked stinker. Thomas is unmoved by monster robots like the rampaging Octobosh and truly gets to the emotional soft side of his newfound ‘Uncle Skunky!’

Perhaps that episode is what prompts his invention of ‘The Truthometer!’, but when Skunky hears what the woodlanders actually think about him, he regrets ever thinking of it…

His Quantum Bibble Fobbulator also goes wrong, tearing ‘Wormholes!’ in the forest fabric, but the rustic residents make the best of the situation, whilst the skunk’s size-changing ray only makes his victims too tall to tackle in ‘The Embiggening!’

The rural riot the escalates with a frankly disturbing insight into the simian star’s softer side as he administers first aid to ailing Bunny and subsequently descends into megalomania as the truly terrifying ‘Nurse Monkey!’

Easing effortlessly into the middle of the year, ‘The Importance of Being Monkey’ layers on the intrigue as the human scientists who originally rocketed the simian sod – and his evil successor – into paradise come looking for their property – accidentally revealing a deeper plot and properly mad doctor in charge. At least, Monkey has finally been allowed to join the League of Doom…

The deployment of ‘Poop!’ bins outrages and baffles the woods-folk, leading to a disastrous attempt to excise the humans’ daft innovations, after which human child Elouise reclaims her old toy Metal Steve, unaware that Skunky’s “improvements” will soon lead to them all needing ‘A New Home’…

Careless and catastrophic piloting of cetacean construct ‘Wahey-Ell’ reveals Monkey’s astigmatism whilst a new sinister faction targets Bunny in ‘The Order of the Woods’ but events take a deeply disturbing turn when Skunky’s new submersible uncovers a fantastic sunken kingdom ‘Beneath the Waves’ and affable nutter ‘Super Action Beaver’ gets a handy superhero makeover, but nothing prepares the woodlanders for Monkey’s weaponisation of concrete in ‘Stone Cold’…

A beloved hero embraces his evil side in ‘The Crimson Gobbler!’ while Skunky initiates Monkey into the secrets of ‘The Destroy-o-torium’, but wickedness is not restricted to the League as Terence the evil Anti-Bunny cruelly meddles with his good twin’s downtime in ‘Bunny TV’. Having said that, there’s no substitute for the real thing as seen when ‘Monkey with a Flame Thrower’ depicts what happens when the meddler gats access to Skunky’s Cannon Barrel…

The truth behind the chaos and super-science mayhem is revealed in ‘An Important Message’, but as Le Fox leaves it with Weenie and Pig, it’s as good as lost before he’s finished speaking, leaving Skunky and Robot Steve to slice, dice and splice animal DNA and make mockery of nature in ‘Mixey-matosis’

As Autumn falls, Action Beaver’s inner monologue is explored in ‘Noises’ before Bunny learns never ever to go ‘Camping’ with Pig and Squirrel even as Skunky’s brilliance in stealing all Earth’s colours with ‘The Mono-Chromatron!’ founders on the rocks of sheer idiocy…

The grand design of sinister humans running MeanieCorp Laboratories, the origins of ultimate destroyer the Moshoggothand the truth about Monkey are then systematically exposed in a time-bending extended epic beginning with ‘The Last Broadcast’. The daft drama is expanded upon in ‘To Destinyyy’ and ‘Find the Monkey’ before a valiant defender risks everything to save the Woods, the world and all reality, beginning with ‘Sabotage’; navigating the alternate timeline terrors of ‘Monkey in Charge’ and closing in Winter as the sinister schemes and cosmic carnage affect the memories of those who barely survived in ‘Onwards to Skunky’…

It’s not all safe and fine yet, however, and a final sacrifice is called for as ‘The Monstrous Below’ liberates the Moshoggoth and activates a Reality Discombobulator. Thankfully,
‘Fantastic Le Fox’ is on hand and ensures there’s enough of creation left to carry on by ‘Remembering Friends’

Adding lustre and fun, this superb treat includes detailed instructions on How to Draw Action Beaver’ and ‘How to Draw Le Fox’, so, as well as beguiling your young ’uns with stories, you can use this book to teach them a trade…

The absolute acme of absurdist adventure, Bunny vs Monkey is weird wit, brilliant invention, potent sentiment and superb cartooning all in one eccentric package: providing irresistible joy for grown-ups of every vintage, even those who claim they only get it for their kids. This is the kind of comic parents beg kids to read to them. Is that you yet?
Text and illustrations © Jamie Smart 2021. All rights reserved.

War Stories Volume Two

By Garth Ennis, with David Lloyd, Cam Kennedy, Carlos Ezquerra, Gary Erskine & various (Avatar Press)
ISBN 978-1-59291-241-4 (TPB)

Garth Ennis understands the point of war stories. He knows they’ve never been about gratification, glorification or even justification. Tales of combat have always been a warning from the sharp end of history to the callow, impressionable and gullible.

Humans have never needed much reason to fight, but when nations do it, it’s usually because our leaders have failed us and need a means to make citizens eager to die and cover up failings of leadership. Stories of conflict recounted by those who have actually dodged bullets and seen comrades die generally have a different flavour to histories or the memoirs of great men, and precious few academics or national leaders have ever been diagnosed with PTSD…

Although never having endured the trials of soldiering, Ennis is an empathetic, imaginative and creative soul whose heart firmly beats in tune with the common man, and a devout aficionado of the (practically anti-war, politically-charged) British combat comics, strip and stories he read as a lad. It’s what distinguishes him as a major writer of mature-audience fiction with a distinct voice and two discrete senses of humour.

In 2004, he began exploiting his lifelong passion for the past and unique viewpoint in an occasional series of WWII one-shots for DC’s Vertigo imprint. The tales were graced by an impressive cast of illustrators assembled to produce some of their finest work.

The first 8 of these were collected in two volumes of War Stories from Vertigo/DC and again in 2015 via Avatar Press in both trade paperback and digital editions. They remain a true highpoint in the history of combat comics.

This second compilation – complete with a heartfelt Ennis Afterword (and commentary, detailing the historical events that formed the basis of these astounding fictionalised encounters), plus a bibliography of sources used to craft them – rounds out the original Vertigo run, prior to later volumes which collect tales crafted since then…

It all opens with the haunting and distressing ‘J for Jenny’, exploring the stresses of a British Bomber crew as they carry out their nightly missions. The plot is carried along via a bitter row between pilot and co-pilot who constantly debate the necessity of their task; one constantly bemoaning the horrendous cost to German civilians whilst the other gloats and glories in the death of each and every woman and child.

As always, nothing is ever what it seems and the finale is a tribute to the creators’ skills and the unpredictable insanity of war itself. David Lloyd’s atmospheric meta-realistic art and colours powerfully underpin a tale few could do justice to.

With Cam Kennedy illustrating and Moose Baumann adding hues, the next yarn focuses on a ramshackle squad of hit-&-run specialists, dashing in under cover of darkness to blow up German airstrips and bases in the deserts of Africa. Apparently, this sort of tactic directly led to today’s Special Ops units and this unruly wild bunch certainly echo modern fiction’s image of beer-swilling, gung-ho nutters ready to fight and die, and always up for a bit of a giggle.

The breakneck action is laced with blackly ironic, slap-stick humour, but never permits the reader to long forget the deadly and permanent nature of the business at hand. Increasingly, conflict mars the relationship between battle-wearied team leader and his second in command: a death-or-glory obsessed Scot who likens the unit to the infallible, mythical bandit warlords his ancestors dubbed ‘The Reivers’

Baumann also colors ‘Condors’: set during the Spanish Civil war and the war-comic equivalent of a shaggy dog story. During a particularly hectic bout of fighting four combatants crawl into the same smoking crater to wait out the shelling. There’s an Englishman, an Irishman, a Spaniard and a German – two from each side of the conflict…

To pass the time they trade life stories and philosophies. This antisocial gathering feels the most authentic to what one might deem an authorial opinion, as motivation for fighting and killing are scrutinised through eyes and ears that have seen and heard all the explanations and reasons – and still judged them wanting.

Spaniard Carlos Ezquerra perfectly captures the camaraderie and insanity in his powerfully expressive renderings. This is an absolute gem of a story.

Final tale ‘Archangel’ closes the book on a lighter note, although the premise – based on actual missions of the convoy service – is one that hardly lends itself to easy reading.

Until the cracking of the Enigma code, every Trans-Atlantic shipment of materiel – especially to our Soviet allies – was practically defenceless against Axis submarine and bomber assault. One counter-scheme was to station a fighter plane on an accompanying vessel which would be launched to fend off airborne attacks. All well and good on paper…until you realise only obsolete planes could be spared for such service, and that once launched – by rocket catapult, no less – they could not land again, but had to ditch or aim for whatever dry land could be reached on whatever fuel remained.

It should also be noted that not all land was in friendly hands, either. This tale of an RAF misfit and his arctic odyssey is full of the ‘hapless prawn triumphant’ that typified vintage post-war British films and the meticulous artwork of Gary Erskine and colourist Paul Mounts lends credibility to a tale that sheer logic just can’t manage.

Ennis’s war works are always a labour of love, and his co-creators always excel themselves when illustrating them. Combine this with a genre that commands respect most comics just don’t get and you have a masterpiece of graphic fiction to even the most discerning library or bookshelf.
© 2015 Avatar Press. Afterword © 2015 Garth Ennis. WAR STORY: J FOR JENNY © 2015 Garth Ennis & David Lloyd. WAR STORY: THE REIVERS © 2015 Garth Ennis & Cam Kennedy. WAR STORY: CONDORS © 2015 Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra. WAR STORY: ARCHANGEL © 2015 Garth Ennis & Gary Erskine.

The Dancing Plague

By Gareth Brookes (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-910593-98-1 (PB)

Plagues, disasters and mysteries are, quite understandably, on everyone’s minds at the moment. What’s become clear over the last year is that we all react in different ways to something genuinely too big for mortals to cope with – especially those Idiots-In-Charge, universally elected almost everywhere by us idiots who aren’t…

For auteur extraordinaire Gareth Brookes, that annus horribilis of enforced confinement involved a deep delve back into history; to a strikingly different contagion that shook contemporary civilisation and tried the patience, initiative and abilities of the authorities.

It also gave him the perfect arena to examine other societal ills we haven’t cured or properly addressed – such as the role and treatment of women, the overwhelming disruptive and corrosive power of dogma and the perpetual inescapable corruption of those at the top by the very power they wield on our behalf.

Brookes is a capital-A artist, printmaker, textile creator and educator who learned his craft(s) at the Royal College of Art and who has subsequently appeared in ArtReview; Kus; The British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition and numerous classrooms and lecture theatres as inspirational teacher.

He began literally crafting comics in 2015 with an astounding, disturbing and hilarious epic entitled The Black Project and followed up two years later with an equally incisive take on perceptual disability – A Thousand Coloured Castles. His latest off-kilter gem harks back to a time far removed, but so-clearly beset with similar problems, demonstrating how humanity has barely changed in spite of the passing centuries, a massive shift in dominant worldview and what we’ll graciously call major advances in understanding of the universe and our place in it…

From the 11th century onward, Central European historians detail outbreaks of spontaneous, uncontrolled dancing – “choreomania” – which initially gripped and compelled women to prance and cavort without stopping. Causing great injury and always spreading to children, men and apparently, in some cases, livestock, these outbreaks were far beyond the ability of civic leaders, clergy or physicians to cure or even properly contain.

With instances cited all over the Holy Roman Empire from Saxony to Italy, the fictionalised tale here concentrates on the well-documented outbreak afflicting citizens of Strasbourg, Alsace (now France) in June 1518, which followed in the wake of a far more well-known pestilence – the Black Death.

Mary is an extraordinary girl gripped by revelations and visions: either a disruptive pawn of devils or the chosen mouthpiece of an outraged Lord and Saviour Jesus. Whatever the cause, she glimpses hidden truths and is compelled to expose the hypocrisy and corruption of high-ranking churchmen who betray their vows and faith. From near-death at her outraged and terrified father’s hands, to a truly unwise vocation as a nun who can’t stay silent, to abused wife and mother, Mary speaks out, steps out and is reviled and punished for it. Happily, something supernatural is keeping an eye on her…

Despite proof of miracles, rampant death, hunger and uncanny phenomena, Mary and her children abide and endure in acceptable normality until one day her drunken husband reports how he saw their neighbour Frau Troffea capering and hopping about in the street. What Mary sees is a woman pulled and bent by the gleefully malign ministrations of demons…

And so, another period of panic, intolerance and governmental ineptitude commences, with as usual tragic consequences for those at the bottom of the social hierarchy who get the chance to be scapegoated and gaslit yet again…

Episodically ducking and diving between 4th June 1500 and an Epilogue in March 1527, the grand dance unfolds and who knows where or how it will end?

Deeply unsettling, earthily, gloriously vulgar in the manner of the Boccaccio’s Decameron or unexpurgated Chaucer, outrageously witty and slyly admonitory, The Dancing Plague is rendered with (I’m assuming, positively therapeutic) mastery in invitingly multicoloured, multi-layered linework reminiscent of woodblock prints, generated by “pyrographics” (inscribed by heated drawing tools) and painstakingly-sewn embroidery. As I’ve said in previous reviews, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen and serves to form an equally unique narrative.

Preceded by a context-establishing Foreword by Anthony Bale – Professor of Medieval Studies, Birkbeck, University of London – providing all the factual background necessary to understand and enjoy this terpsichorean treat and details on two remarkable female historical figures whose lives inspired this yarn (sorry, I’m weak and couldn’t resist), this is another graphic triumph no fan of the medium or social redeemer should miss.
Text and images © 2021 Gareth Brookes. All rights reserved.

War Stories volume 1

By Garth Ennis, David Lloyd, Chris Weston, Gary Erskine, John Higgins & Dave Gibbons & various (Avatar Press)
ISBN 978-1-59291-238-4 (TPB)

Garth Ennis is a devout aficionado of the British combat comics, strip and stories he read as a lad. He’s also a major writer of mature-audience fiction with a distinct voice and two discrete senses of humour. In 2004, he demonstrated this lifelong affection for the past and his unique viewpoint in an occasional series of WWII one-shots for DC’s Vertigo imprint. The tales were graced by an impressive cast of illustrators assembled to produce some of their finest work.

The first four of these were collected a few years later in War Stories from Vertigo/DC and again in 2015 via Avatar Press in both trade paperback and digital editions. They remain a true highpoint in the history of combat comics, with this edition closed by Ennis’ Afterword, detailing the historical events that formed the basis of these astounding fictionalised encounters, plus a bibliography of sources used to craft them.

Kicking off the Big Show and limned by Chris Weston & Gary Erskine, “Johann’s Tiger” charts the retreat of a Panzer crew from both the Russians and their own Nazi Field Police, with their guilt-wracked commander urgently seeking Americans he can safely surrender to…

Set in 1944 and illustrated by John Higgins, the next mini saga sees raw English posh boy Second Lieutenant Ross join a combat unit of Ulstermen slogging their way through the supposedly “cushy” part of the war – namely the 20-month campaign to re-take Italy. It’s no picnic and mental health is not a priority, especially with the Nazis and booby traps and disparaging remarks in Parliament by Lady Astor who apparently deems their slow, bloody demise the work of “The D-Day Dodgers”

Dave Gibbons illuminates a thoroughly unconventional take on boots-on-the-ground America’s contribution in “The Screaming Eagles”, wherein a squad of weary G.I.s take an unsanctioned – and thoroughly debauched – furlough in a palatial chateau only recently abandoned by Nazi top brass. With time to decompress, minds turn to pleasure and peace, but the war isn’t that far away…

David Lloyd then closes this volume (the first of two) with the moody and moving “Nightingale”: Ennis’ painfully powerful tale of dishonour and redemption featuring a British Destroyer on escort duty and the sorry fate of those who chase death in the name of duty…

These are not tales for children. Due to Ennis’s immense skill as a scripter and his innate understanding of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances these stories strike home, and strike hard whether the author is aiming for gallows humour or lambasting Establishments always happy to send fodder to slaughter.

The visuals, from a brave band of Britain’s finest artists, are equally uncompromising: offering dangerous visions nobody should ever see except as a warning or in a nightmare. This is not glorious. This is madness made to stop future insanity and honour the lost.

These are the realest of people. This is war as I fear it actually is, and it makes bloody good reading.
© 2015 Avatar Press. Afterword © 2015 Garth Ennis. WAR STORY: JOHANN’S TIGER © 2015 Garth Ennis & Chris Weston. WAR STORY: D-DAY DODGERS © 2015 Garth Ennis & John Higgins. WAR STORY: SCREAMING EAGLES © 2015 Garth Ennis & Dave Gibbons. WAR STORY: NIGHTINGALE © 2015 Garth Ennis & David Lloyd.

Beano: Beanopedia

By Rachel Elliot, Hannah Baldwin, Rob Ward & various (Studio Press Books/D.C. Thomson)
ISBN: 978-1-7874-1-705-2 (HB)

Premiering on December 4th 1937, The Dandy broke the mould of traditional British comics’ antecedents by using word balloons and captions rather than narrative blocks of text under the sequential picture frames. A huge success, it was followed eight months later by The Beano – which launched on July 30th 1938. Together they utterly revolutionised the way children’s publications looked and, most importantly, how they were read.

Over the decades the “terrible twins” spawned a bevy of unforgettable and beloved household names who delighted countless avid and devoted readers, and the unmissable end of year celebrations were graced with bumper bonanzas of the comics’ weekly stars in extended stories in magnificent hardback annuals.

As WWII progressed, rationing of paper and ink forced the “children’s papers” into an alternating fortnightly schedule: on September 6th 1941, only The Dandy was published. A week later just The Beano appeared. The rascally rapscallions only returned to normal weekly editions on 30th July 1949. Although The Dandy closed up in 2012, The Beano has soldiered on, amusing generations of glad gigglers and fuelling a minor industry in TV adaptations, toys, games, food, apparel, “how to” books and so much more.

August 28, 2019 saw the landmark 4,000th issue and it’s still going strong. That’s a lot of years and countless pranks, japes, dodges, menacings and all, so last year this cheery tome was released: a vibrant dossier of pertinent info on the current status and occupants of kids’ comedy Ground Zero…

Aimed at the younger end of the market and offering all the facts and pictures any devotee could dream of, this slight-but-detailed tour around Beanotown offers tips and hints, insiders’ insights and intimate introductions to all the funny folk living there.

The indispensable hardback guide opens with a welcoming ‘Visitors’ Guide’ hosted by Dennis the Menace and cunning canine collaborator Gnasher, detailing the top nine points of civic pride and interest, backed up by vivid advice on ‘How to get here (and how to leave)’, ‘Weird ways to travel’, ‘How to completely escape’ and ‘How to find your way around’

A major portion of this guide features the lowdown on the town’s most notable inhabitants rendered as brief text, fact files, descriptive key quotes and a game. Of course, the first subjects are ‘The Menace Family’: Dennis, baby sister Bea, parents, Gran, pets and pesky archenemies, all supplemented by ‘Dennis’ Most Impressive Pranks’ and (cousin) ‘Minnie’s Most Magnificent Minxes’.

Minnie the Minx then similarly introduces her lot in ‘The Makepeace Family’, before a broad barrage of pages covers ‘The Bash Street Kids’ individually and collectively, with sections on the war-weary staff, ‘The Bash Street Pups’, the history of ‘Bash Street School’ and its ancestor institution ‘Horrible Hall’ and tips on ‘How to rule Bash Street School’

Posh, privileged foes of all fun ‘The Brown Family’ are examined next from sneaky Walter to his greedy, ambitious parents Wilbur and Muriel, after which shorter files give us the facts on lesser stars ‘Peter “Pieface” Shepard’, sporty ‘JJ’, ‘Billy Whizz’, ‘Betty and the Yeti’ and wheelchair wonder/girl gadget-boffin ‘Rubidium von Screwtop (Rubi)’.

Secret philanthropist and truly-decent rich kid ‘Lord Snooty’ has survived relatively unscathed since the comic’s earliest days and his profile neatly segues into the home set-up of Roger the Dodger in ‘The Dawson Family’ files and the kids’ garage band ‘The Dinmakers’, after which (relatively) recent arrivals ‘Dangerous Dan’ and ‘Tricky Dicky’ precede a large section on ‘Eric Wimp (Bananaman)’ which includes a rundown on ‘Bananaman’s Fiendish Foes’.

Unlucky lad ‘Calamity James’ is followed by the Numskulls ‘Lurking Unseen’ lead to a self-help section detailing ‘How to be a Top Beanotown Resident’ and sharing ‘Beanotown Friendship’ rituals, leading to a rundown of ‘Beanotown’s History’, ‘Where to Go’, ‘What to Do’ and graphic lectures on ‘Sport and Leisure’ with a few helpful scenes to visit, after which‘Wildlife’ sets a thrilling agenda and ‘Baby Minder’ suggests individuals every parent should have on speed dial…

Moving on to the end of our tour, ‘Beanotown’s Secrets’ lists unmissable sites you might have overlooked while ‘Perfect Pranks’ suggest some anarchic homework for later, rounded up lists of ‘Where Not to Go for Help’ and ‘Where to Go for Help’.

And because it’s not a proper day out without one, this lovely tome concludes with a ‘Beanotown Quiz’ immediately followed by the ‘Answers’

Slick, sleek, jolly and amazingly compelling, this is a perfect delight to bolster any kid’s introduction or re-submersion in a truly British icon.
A Beano Studios Product © D.C. Thomson Ltd 2020

“The Beano” ® © and associated characters ™© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd 2007. All Rights Reserved.

The Steel Claw: Invisible Man

By Ken Bulmer & Jesús Blasco (Rebellion)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-906-4 (TPB)

One of the most fondly-remembered British strips of all time is the startlingly beautiful Steel Claw. From 1962 to 1973the stunningly gifted Jesús Blasco and his small studio of family members thrilled the nation’s children, illustrating the angst-filled adventures of scientist, adventurer, secret agent and even costumed superhero Louis Crandell.

The majority of the character’s career was scripted by comic veteran Tom Tully, but initially follows the premise of HG Wells’ original unseen adversary as prolific science fiction novelist Ken Bulmer devises a modern spin on the Invisible Man

Another stunning salvo of baby boomer nostalgia from Rebellion’s Treasury of British Comics strand, this first collection is available in paperback and digital editions. The Steel Claw: Invisible Man gathers material from timeless weekly anthology Valiant, spanning 6th October 1962 to 21st September 1963 and stories from the Valiant Annual 1965 and 1966.

Following an Introduction from Paul Grist, the tense drama begins with our eventual hero debuting as a rather surly assistant to the venerable Professor Barringer, working to create a germ-destroying ray.

Crandell is an embittered man, possibly due to having lost his right hand in a lab accident. After his recovery and itsreplacement with a steel prosthetic he is back at work when the prof’s device explodes. Crandell receives a monumental electric shock and is bathed in radiation from the ray-device which, rather than killing him, renders him totally transparent. Although he doesn’t stay unseen forever, this bodily mutation is permanent. Electric shocks cause all but his metal hand to disappear.

Kids of all ages, do not try this at home!

Whether venal at heart or temporarily deranged, Crandell goes on a rampage of terror against society and destruction of property throughout Britain which culminates in an attempt to blow up New York City before he finally coming to his senses. Throughout Crandell’s outrages, Barringer is in guilt-fuelled pursuit, determined to save or stop his former friend…

The second adventure channels another classic (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), intriguingly pitting the Claw against his therapist, who – in an attempt to treat him – is also traumatically exposed to Barringer’s ray. Instead of permanent invisibility, Dr. Deutz develops the ability to transform himself into a bestial ape-man who malevolently turns to crime and frames Crandell for a series of spectacular robberies and rampages.

On the run and innocent for once, Crandell is saved by the intervention of Barringer’s niece Terry Gray. After weeks of beast-triggered catastrophe and panic in the streets, the Steel Claw is vindicated and proved a hero… of sorts…

Bulmer’s next tale changes location to the Bahamas as our star shifts from outlaw to hero. While recuperating on an inventor-friends yacht, Crandell is accidentally embroiled in a modern-day pirate’s attempt to hijack an undersea super-weapon system…

After would-be bullion bandit Sharkey and his nefarious gang steal the device and use it to capture a submarine, their convoluted scheme to rob an ocean liner falters when a steel fisted ghost starts picking them off one by one…

More than any other comics character, the Steel Claw was a barometer for reading fashions. Starting out as a Quatermass style science fiction cautionary tale, the strip mimicked the trends of the greater world, becoming a James Bond-style super-spy strip with Crandall eventually tricked out with outrageous gadgets, and latterly, a masked and costumed super-doer when TV-show-triggered “Batmania” gripped the nation and the world. When that bubble burst, he resorted to becoming a freelance adventurer, combating eerie menaces and vicious criminals. Before we head too far down that path however, his contributions to Valiant Annuals 1965 and 1966 (released Autumn 1964 and 1965 respectively) afford rather more constrained thrills and chills as Crandell defeats a gang using an electricity-supressing gadget to rob a blacked-out London and one year later aid the Metropolitan police force corral a bunch of apparently invisible bandits dubbed the Phantom Raiders

The thrills of the writing are engrossing enough, but the real star of this feature is the artwork. Blasco’s captivating classicist drawing, his moody staging and the sheer beauty of his subjects make this an absolute pleasure to look at. Buy it for the kids and read it too; this is a glorious book, and brace yourself for even better yet to come …
© 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966 & 2021 Rebellion Publishing IP Ltd. All Rights Reserved.


By Zara Slattery (Myriad Editions)
ISBN: 978-1-912408-66-5 (PB) eISBN: 978-1-912408-78-8

Since the pandemic struck, everyone’s notion of what terror looks and feels like has fundamentally changed. That has never been more apparent than in recent medical dramas and attains even more horrific poignancy when the story being told is true.

That’s certainly the case in this astounding autobiographical inner excursion from cartoonist, illustrator and educator Zara Slattery, who barely survived an inexplicable and escalating medical crisis in 2013 that forever changed her life and those of her husband and children.

As she battled for her life in the Intensive Care Unit of Brighton hospital – spending 15 days in a coma and months after in recovery – her overwhelmed man Dan and their kids began recording events in diaries. This was at the suggestion of the nurse in charge, whose own medical notes append the saga: written in ICU to update the critical patient of what was occurring for when – or if – she woke up…

All those disparate records were used by Slattery to craft an interlocking narrative of how life went on around her and act as a grounding touchstone for the other portions of this book. These sections are wildly delirious and hallucinogenic trials experienced by the comatose artist who recalls ceaseless, terrifying, guilt-&-shame flavoured trials and phantasms, possibly triggered by exterior events unconsciously absorbed as she lay dying…

Broken into day chapters spanning ‘Wednesday 22nd May’ to ‘Saturday 8th June’, the intimate excursion details how as Zara slowly succumbs to agonising infection; how Dan adapts to being a sole parent to children too smart to fool for long, and how a host of friends and relatives desperately rally round to wait out the crisis, retreating into comforting routine, platitudes and endless hope…

It’s easy – and painfully correct – to declare that a graphic narrative this intensely personal attains universal poignancy in these days of plague, but even if the last two years never happened, Coma would still be an incredible blend of prosaic everyday coping, paean to nurturing support and horrific hell-bound rollercoaster ride.

Its interweaving of matter-of-fact necessities with the blistering shock of comatose fever dreams powerfully unpicks cruel modern myths – such as any ailment can be defeated if the “victim” fights hard enough, or notions of “unfair” or “undeserved” illness – and focuses attention on where it belongs: on patients, suffering friends and despondent family helplessly watching from the side-lines and indomitable medical professionals prove themselves the world’s real heroes.

Mesmerising, compelling and potently understated, this pictorial memoir is unlike any graphic novel you’ve ever seen, but you know the cure for that, right?
© Zara Slattery 2021. All rights reserved.

Coma is schedule for release on May 13th 2021 and is available for pre-order now.

The Spider’s Syndicate of Crime

By Ted Cowan, Jerry Siegel & Reg Bunn (Rebellion)
ISBN 978-1-78108-905-7 (TPB)

I find myself in a genuine quandary here. When you set up to review something you need to always keep a weather eye on your critical criteria. The biggest danger when looking at certain comic collections is to make sure to remove the nostalgia-tinted spectacles of the excitable, uncritical scruffy little kid who adored and devoured the source material every week in the long ago and long-missed.

However, after thoroughly scrutinising myself – no pleasant task, I assure you – I can honestly say that not only are the adventures of the macabre and malevolent Spider as engrossing and enjoyable as I remember but also will provide the newest and most contemporary reader with a huge hit of superb artwork, compelling, caper-style cops ‘n’ robbers fantasy and thrill-a-minute adventure. After all, the strip usually ran two (later three) pages per episode, so a lot had to happen in pretty short order.

Part of Rebellion’s Treasury of British Comics strand and available in paperback and digital editions, The Spider’s Syndicate of Crime is the opening salvo of what I hope is many welcome returnees. It gathers material from peerless weekly anthology Lion spanning June 26th 1965 to June 18th 1966 and that year’s Lion Annual which for laborious reasons is designated 1967.

What’s it all about? The Spider is a mysterious super-scientist whose goal is to be the greatest criminal of all time. As conceived by writer/editor Ted Cowan – who among many other venerable triumphs, also scripted Ginger Nutt, Paddy Payne, Adam Eterno, and created the much-revered Robot Archie strip – the flamboyantly wicked narcissist begins his public career by recruiting a crime specialists safecracker Roy Ordini and evil inventor Professor Pelham before attempting a massive gem-theft from a thinly veiled New York’s World Fair. It also introduces Gilmore and Trask, the two crack detectives cursed with the task of capturing the arachnid arch-villain.

A major factor in the eerily eccentric strip’s success and reason for the reverence with which it is held is the captivating – not to say downright creepy – artwork of William Reginald Bunn. His intensely hatched line-work is perfect for the towering establishing shots and chases, and nobody ever drew moodier webbing or more believable weird weapons and monsters.

Bunn was an absolute master of his field art whose work in comics – spanning 1949 to his death in 1971 – such as Robin Hood, Buck Jones, Black Hood, Captain Kid and Clip McCord – was much beloved. Once the industry found him, he was never without work. He died on the job and is still much missed.

Also scripted by Cowan, second adventure ‘The Return of the Spider’ sets the tone for the rest of the strip’s run as the unbelievably colossal vanity of the Spider is assaulted by a pretender to his title. The Mirror Man is a swaggering arrogant super-criminal who uses incredible optical illusions to carry out his crimes, and the Spider must crush him to keep the number one most wanted spot – and to satisfy his own vanity.

The pitifully outmatched Gilmore and Trask return to chase the Spider but must settle for his defeated rival after weeks of devious plotting, bold banditry and spectacular serialized thrills and chills.

“Dr. Mysterioso” is the first adventure by Jerry Siegel, who was forced to look elsewhere for work after an infamous falling out with DC Comics over the rights to the Man of Steel.

The aforementioned criminal scientist of the title here is another contender for the Spider’s crown and their extended battle – broken on repeated occasions by a crafty subplot wherein the mastermind’s treacherous, newly-expanded gang of thugs seek to abscond with his stockpiled loot whenever he appears to have been killed – is a retro/camp masterpiece of arcane dialogue, insane devices and rollercoaster antics.

By the time of the final serialised saga herein contained – ‘The Spider v. The Android Emperor’ – the page count was up to 4: packed with fabulous fantasy and increasingly surreal exploits as the Arachnid Archvillain battles the super science of a monster-making maniac who might have survived the sinking of Atlantis but somehow gets his fun from baiting and tormenting the self-styled king of crime. Big mistake…

The book concludes with a short yarn from the 1967 Lion Annual. ‘Cobra Island’ gives the artist a chance to show off his skills with brushes and washes as the piece was originally printed in the double-tone format (in this case black and red on white) which was a hallmark of British annuals.

It finds the mighty Spider and Pelham drawn to an exotic island where plantation workers are falling under the spell of a demonic lizard being… but all is not as it seems and the very real danger is more prosaic than paranormal…

Also offering an introduction from Paul Grist and full creator biographies, this initial collection confirms that the King is back at last and should find a home in every kid’s heart and mind, no matter how young they might be, or threaten to remain.

Bizarre, baroque and often simply bonkers, The Spider proves that although crime does not pay, it always provides a huge amount of white-knuckle fun…
© 1965, 1966, 1967 & 2021 Rebellion Publishing IP Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

All the Places in Between

By John Cei Douglas (Liminal 11)
ISBN: 978-1-912634-23-1 (PB)

We’re all been locked up in our own heads as much as in our homes recently, constantly in search of solutions to ease anxiety, however we can. Here then – in timely fashion and most serendipitously – is a sublime gem in the conceptual mould of Tove Janson, laced with oblique yet helpful ruminations on healing mindfulness and enjoyed as a voyage of genuine inner discovery.

Not only is the message calming and helpful – and delivered in beguiling imagery guaranteed to restore your weary disposition – but it also guarantees a solidly entertaining mystery journey helping to moderate your hunger for physical travel and fresh experience.

Crafted in dreamy, silent passages, All the Places in Between follows a pensive girl by a barren seashore as she fretfully, nervously but determinedly passes from ‘All the places we’ve been’ to ‘All the places we’re going’

On the way she meets her exact opposite and is cast ‘adrift’: occupying ‘the lighthouse’ before finding civilisation drowned and devastated. Time drags ‘between’ before isolation draws her to ‘the city’ where she finds ‘a companion’ to care for. Eventually that temporary relationship sunders, ‘buried’ in the wreckage of the world and dwarfed by insurmountable chasms and a ‘tsunami’ that brings resolution of sorts as ‘the lighthouse returns’, prompting a revelatory resolution in ‘space’

Not a book to summarise, but definitely one to look at and wonder, John Cei Douglas’ oneiric ramble is a calming and enticing trip we can all benefit and draw comfort from.

Filled with delightful human moments.
© 2020 John Cei Douglas. All rights reserved.

All the Places in Between is scheduled for release on April 29th 2021 and is available for pre-order now.