Marble Cake

By Scott Jason Smith (Avery Hill Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-910395-47-9 (PB)

I might have mentioned once or twice that I read a lot of graphic novels. Some are awful, many are mediocre and the rest – good, noteworthy or just different from the mass, commercially-driven output of a global art and industry – I endeavour to share with you.

Some publishers make a proud policy of championing that last category (Top Shelf, NBM, Fantagraphics and others) and my favourite of those at the moment is British-based Avery Hill Publishing. I simply haven’t yet seen a duff or homogenised release from them yet. When this review copy plunked onto the mat, I realised that I still haven’t …

Scott Jason Smith hails from the seamy south side of London (as all the best folk do) and has quickly forged a solid reputation with his self-published comics and stories – like ‘Blossom the tall old lady’ and in collaborations with his mainstream-adjacent contemporaries in tomes such as 69 Love Songs Illustrated.

Scott is skilled in depicting people and mundane life and possesses a sharp sense of humour, honed by spending a lot of time listening to how ordinary folk talk. He knows what we all have in common and is extremely deft at using that as a means of building characters and constructing scenarios at once drearily familiar and subtly tweaked and twisted. This all adds a potent veracity to his particular brand of everyday adventuring which here seamlessly slips from a soap-operatic drama of the mundane or “Commedia dell’plebeia” to the suitably underplayed terrors of the Theatre of the Absurd as envisioned by Samuel Beckett or Daniel Clowes…

Marble Cake is his first novel-length tale and relates the intersecting moments of a bunch of strangers and casual near-acquaintances who all interact with till girl Tracy at the local Smartmart store. Her job leaves plenty of time to fantasize about what her customers do when she’s not around, but she really has no idea of what’s really going on. In fact, nobody does…

Life and death, joblessness and social standing, malice and sexual desire, ennui and intolerance, and especially hopelessness and general distrust tinge every real or imagined home-life Tracy ponders – even her own, but when genuine threat and mystery – such as a string of baffling disappearances – begin to grip the community, no one has any idea how to respond…

This compelling, pocket-sized (168 x 212 mm) paperback challenges notion of self-worth and universal rationality in a wry and acerbic manner that will intrigue and charm lovers of slice-of-life yarns and surreal storytelling who don’t mind doing a bit of the cerebral heavy lifting themselves.
© Scott Jason Smith 2019. All rights reserved.

The City

By James Herbert & Ian Miller (Pan Books)
ISBN13: 978-0-33032-471-7 (PB Album)

In the early 1990s, a number of British publishers – fired up by the massive mainstream sales of breakthrough sequential narratives such as Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Maus – dipped their corporate toes in the waters of graphic novel publication, with varying degrees of commercial and aesthetic success.

Macmillan, through its Pan Books imprint, was one that took it all very seriously and it’s a crying shame that they were not better rewarded for their bold efforts. Still and all, with the way the country and the world are going at present, a timely reissue couldn’t be more relevant…

This particular slim, apocalyptic tome built upon an already popular property. Horror author James Herbert began his extensive writing career with The Rats (1974) following up with sequels Lair in 1979 and Domain in 1984. Those three novels told of a post-Holocaust Britain where mutated giant Black Rats have risen as humanity declined. In The City (technically Herbert’s 17th book) – and more of an episode than a narrative – an armoured figure known as The Traveller fights his way into the devastated ruins of London.

The decimated Capital is now the undisputed kingdom of the rats and their truly monstrous queen, but the lone human is set irrevocably on a mission of murder, and he has a secret, personal purpose for going into the hellish ruins…

Dark, simplistic and terrifying, the story is elevated to nightmare heights and depths by the astonishing, grotesquely beautiful art of sculptor, painter, film-designer and illustrator Ian Miller (Ratspike, The Luck in the Head, Green Dog Trumpet, Magic: The Gathering). Armageddon has never been better realised, the skies have never looked uglier and the shabby remains and detritus of civilisations never more familiar. His mutants are appalling to see and his intense line-work and domineering colours will haunt you.

Horror is tough to write and nearly impossible to illustrate. This book manages to tell no real story and make it scarier every time you return to it. Let’s hope some sagacious publisher does so before it’s too late for us all…
©1994 James Herbert. Illustrations ©1994 Ian Miller. All Rights Reserved.

The Broons and Oor Wullie: The Roaring Forties

By R.D. Low & Dudley D. Watkins (DC Thomson)
ISBN: 978-0-85116-804-3 (HB)

The Broons is one of the longest running newspaper strips in British history, having run almost continuously in Scottish newspaper The Sunday Post since its delirious debut in the March 8th 1936 edition: the same issue which launched mischievous and equally unchanging wee laddie Oor Wullie.

Both the boisterous boy and the gregariously engaging working-class family were co-created by journalist, writer and editor Robert Duncan Low in conjunction with DC Thomson’s greatest artist Dudley D. Watkins. Moreover, once the strips began to be collected in reprint editions as Seasonal Annuals, those books became as much a Yule tradition as plum pudding or shortbread.

Low (1895-1980) began at DC Thomson 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.

In 1936 his landmark notion was the “Fun Section”: an 8-page pull-out comic strip supplement for national newspaper The Sunday Post. This illustrated accessory launched on 8th March and from the outset The Broons and Oor Wullie were the headliners…

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

After some devious devising in December 1937 Low launched the first DC Thomson weekly comic. The Dandy was followed by The Beano in 1938 and early-reading title The Magic Comic in 1939.

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

Low’s greatest advantage in the early days was his prolific illustrator Dudley Dexter Watkins, whose style – more than any other – shaped the look and form of DC Thompson’s comics output, until the bombastic advent of Leo Baxendale shook things up in the mid-1950s.

Watkins (1907-1969) had started life in Manchester and Nottingham as an artistic prodigy before entering Glasgow College of Art in 1924. Before too long he was advised to get a job at expanding, Dundee-based DCT, where a 6-month trial illustrating prose boys’ stories led to comic strip specials and some original cartoon creations.

Percy Vere and His Trying Tricks and Wandering Willie, The Wily Explorer made him a dead cert for both lead strips in the Sunday Post’s new Fun Section. Without missing a beat, Watkins quickly added The Dandy’s Desperate Dan to his weekly workload in 1937, and The Beano’s placidly outrageous Lord Snooty seven months later.

Watkins soldiered on in unassailable triumph for decades, drawing some of the most lavishly lifelike and winningly hilarious strips in comics history. He died at his drawing board on August 20th 1969.

For every week of all those astonishingly productive years, he had unflaggingly crafted a full captivating page each of Oor Wullie and The Broons, and his loss was a colossal blow to the company.

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

An undeniable, rock-solid facet of Scots popular culture from the start, the first Broons Annual (technically Bi-Annual due to wartime paper rationing) had appeared in 1939, alternating with Oor Wullie – although, due to those same resource restrictions, no annuals were published between 1943 and 1946 – and for millions of readers a year cannot truly end without them.

So What’s the Set Up?: the multigenerational Broon family inhabit a tenement flat at 10 Glebe Street, in the timelessly metafictional Scottish industrial everytown of Auchentogle (sometimes Auchenshoogle); based in large part on the working class Glasgow district of Auchenshuggle. As such, it’s an 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.

As is always the case, the adamant, unswerving cornerstone of any family feature is long-suffering, understanding Maw, who puts up with cantankerous, cheap, know-it-all Paw, and a battalion of stay-at-home kids comprising hunky Joe, freakishly tall Hen (Henry), sturdy Daphne, pretty Maggie, brainy Horace, mischievous twins Eck and the unnamed “ither ane” plus a wee toddler referred to only as “The Bairn”.

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

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

As previously stated, Oor Wullie also debuted on 8th March 1936 with his collected Christmas Annuals appearing in the even years.

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

Wullie – AKA William MacCallum – is an archetypal young rascal with time on his hands and 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, long-suffering local bobby P.C. Murdoch, assorted teachers and other interfering adults who either lavish gifts or inflict opprobrium upon the little pest and his pals Fat Bob, Soapy Joe Soutar, Wee Eck and others…

The Roaring Forties was released in 2002 as part of a concerted drive to keep earlier material available to fans: a lavish hardback compilation (sadly not yet available digitally) which proffers a tantalising selection of strips from 1940-1949, covering every aspect of contemporary existence except a rather obvious one.

Although for half the book World War II was a brutal fact of life, it barely encroached upon the characters’ lives except perhaps in the unexplained occasional shortages of toys, sweets and other scrummy comestibles…

The parade of celtic mirth begins with – and is regularly broken up by – a number of atmospheric photo-features such as a celebration of film stars of the period in ‘A Nicht at the Picters’ (in three glamour-studded showings) and ‘Cartoon Capers’, which reproduces a wealth of one-off gag panels from The Sunday Post by such luminaries as Carmichael, Eric Cook, Campbell and Housley, whilst ‘Whit’s in The Sunday Post Today?’ gathers a selection of the era’s daftest news items.

The endless escapades of the strip stars comprise the usual subject-matter: gleeful goofs, family frolics and gloriously slapstick shenanigans. Whether it’s a visit with family or just trying to keep pace with the wee terror, highlights include plumbing disasters, fireplace fiascos, food foolishness, dating dilemmas, appliance atrocities, fashion freak-outs, exercise exploits and childish pranks by young and old alike…

Punctuated by editorial extras, such as ‘Correction Corner’ – offering an intriguing look into the strips’ creative process – and ‘Dinnae Mention the War’ which reprints a selection of morale-boosting ads and items, are rib-tickling scenes of sledding and skating, stolen candies, torn clothes, recycled comics, visiting circuses, practical jokes, and social gaffes: stories intended to take the nation’s collective mind off troubles abroad, and for every thwarted romance of poor Daphne and Maggie or embarrassing fiasco focussed on Paw’s cussedness, there’s an uproarious chase, riotous squabble and no-tears scrap for the little ‘uns.

With snobs to deflate, bullies to crush, duels to fight, chips to scoff, games to win and rowdy animals (from cats to cows) to avoid at all costs, the timeless gentle humour and gently self-deprecating, inclusive fun and frolics make these superbly crafted strips an endlessly entertaining serving of superbly nostalgic an unmissable treat.

So why not return to a time of local blacksmiths and coalmen, best china and full employment, neighbours you knew by first names and trousers that always fell apart or were chewed by goats? There are even occasional crossovers to marvel at here, with Wullie and Granpaw Broon striving to outdo each other in the adorable reprobate stakes…

Packed with all-ages fun, rambunctious slapstick hilarity and comfortably domestic warmth, these unchanging examples of happy certainty and convivial celebration of a mythic lost life and time are a sure cure for post-modern glums…
© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. 2002.

The Misadventures of Jane

By Norman Pett & J.H.G. (“Don”) Freeman (Titian Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-167-0 (HB)

Once upon a time, Jane was one of the most important and well-regarded comic strips in British, if not World, history. It debuted on December 5th 1932 as Jane’s Journal: or The Diary of a Bright Young Thing: a frothy, frivolous gag-a-day strip in the Daily Mirror, created by (then) freelance cartoonist Norman Pett.

Originally a nonsensical comedic vehicle, it consisted of a series of panels with cursive script embedded within to simulate a diary page. It switched to more formal strip frames and balloons in late 1938, when scripter Don Freeman came on board and Mirror Group supremo Harry Guy Bartholomew was looking to renovate the serial for a more adventure- and escape-hungry audience. It was also felt that a continuity feature such as Freeman’s other strip Pip, Squeak and Wilfred would keep readers coming back; as if Jane’s inevitable – if usually unplanned – bouts of near nudity wouldn’t…

Jane’s secret was skin. Even before war broke out there were torn skirts and lost blouses aplenty, but once the shooting started and Jane became an operative for British Intelligence, her clothes came off with terrifying regularity and machine gun rapidity. She even went topless when the Blitz was at its worst.

Pett drew the strip with verve and style, imparting a uniquely English family feel: a joyous lewdness-free innocence and total lack of tawdriness. The artist worked from models and life, famously using first his wife, his secretary Betty Burton, and editorial assistant Doris Keay but most famously actress and model Chrystabel Leighton-Porter – until May 1948 when Pett left for another newspaper and another clothing-challenged comic star…

His art assistant Michael Hubbard assumed full control of the feature (prior to that he had drawn backgrounds and mere male characters), and carried the series – increasingly a safe, flesh-free soap-opera and less a racy glamour strip – to its conclusion on October 10th 1959.

This Titan Books collection added the saucy secret weapon to their growing arsenal of classic British comics and strips, and paid Jane the respect she deserved with a snappy black and white hardcover collection, complete with colour inserts.

Following a fascinating and informative article taken from Canadian paper The Maple Leaf (which disseminated her adventures to returning ANZAC servicemen), Jane’s last two war stories (running from May 1944 to June 1945) are reprinted in their entirety, beginning with ‘N.A.A.F.I, Say Die!’, wherein the hapless but ever-so-effective intelligence agent is posted to a British Army base where somebody’s wagging tongue is letting pre “D-Day” secrets out. Naturally (very au naturally), only Jane and her new sidekick and best friend Dinah Tate can stop the rot…

This is promptly followed by ‘Behind the Front’ wherein Jane and Dinah invade the continent, tracking down spies, collaborators and boyfriends in Paris before joining a ENSA concert party, and accidentally invading Germany just as the Russians arrive…

As you’d expect, the comedy is based on classic Music Hall fundamentals with plenty of drama and action right out of the patriotic and comedy cinema of the day – but if you’ve ever seen Will Hay, Alistair Sim or Arthur Askey at their peak you’ll know that’s no bad thing – and this bombastic book also contains loads of rare goodies to drool over.

Jane was so popular that there were three glamour/style books called Jane’s Journal for which Pett produced many full-colour pin-ups, paintings and general cheese-cake illustration. From these lost gems, this tome includes ‘The Perfect Model’, a strip “revealing” how the artist met his muse Chrystabel Leighton-Porter; ‘Caravanseraglio!’, an 8-page strip starring Jane and erring, recurring boyfriend Georgie Porgie plus 15 pages of the very best partially and un-draped Jane pin-ups.

Jane’s war record is frankly astounding. As a morale booster she was reckoned worth more than divisions of infantry and her exploits were cited in Parliament and discussed with actual seriousness by Eisenhower and Churchill. Legend has it that The Daily Mirror’s Editor was among the few who knew the date of D-Day so as to co-ordinate her exploits with the Normandy landings.

In 1944, on the day she went full frontal, the American Service newspaper Roundup (provided to US soldiers) went with the headline “JANE GIVES ALL” and the sub-heading “YOU CAN ALL GO HOME NOW”. Chrystabel Leighton-Porter toured as Jane in a services revue – she stripped for the boys – during the war and in 1949 starred in the film The Adventures of Jane.

Although the product of simpler, less enlightened, and indubitably more hazardous, times, the charming, thrilling, innocently saucy adventures of Jane, patient but dedicated beau Georgie Porgie and especially her intrepid Dachshund Count Fritz Von Pumpernickel are incontestable landmarks of the art-form, not simply for their impact but also for the plain and simple reason that they are superbly drawn and huge fun to read.

After years of neglect, don’t let’s waste the opportunity to keep such a historical icon in our lives. You should find this book, buy your friends this book, and most importantly, agitate to have her entire splendid run reprinted in more books like this one. Do your duty, lads and lassies…
Jane © 2009 MGN Ltd/Mirrorpix. All Rights Reserved.

Commando: True Brit

By Many & various (DC Thomson/Carlton Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84442-121-3 (HB)

DC Thomson is probably the most influential comics publisher in British history. The Beano and Dandy revolutionised children’s comedy comics, newspaper strips Oor Wullie and The Broons (both created by writer Editor R. D. Low and legendary artist Dudley D. Watkins) have become a genetic marker for Scottishness and the uniquely British “ordinary hero” grew from the prose-packed pages of Adventure, Rover, Wizard, Skipper and Hotspur.

After decades of deft consumer-led publication for youngsters, in 1961 the company launched a digest-sized paperback title dubbed Commando. Broadly the size of a paperback book, it boasted 68 pages per issue and an average of two panels a page for its single stand-alone adventure tale, as well as the venerable British extras of themed information pages.

Not to belabour the point, but each issue told a complete war story (usually of World War I or II – although all theatres of conflict have featured since), a true rarity for British comics which usually ran action and thriller material in one or two-page instalments over many weeks. The sagas were tasteful yet gripping yarns of valour and heroism: stark black and white dramas which came charged with grit and authenticity. The full painted covers made them look more like novels than comics and they were a huge and instant success. They’re still being published today and are even available in digital editions.

This lovely volume comes from 2006, gathering an even dozen mini-epics selected by series editor George Low, and, although much of the collection’s original marketing concentrated on the baser nostalgic element by exhorting the reader to remember dashing about the playground shouting “Achtung” or “Donner und Blitzen” and saluting like Storm-troopers, these tales – subtitled “The Toughest 12 Commando Books Ever” are exemplary and compelling examples of dramatic comic storytelling.

Because of company policy these tales are all uncredited, (and I’d rather not prove my vast ignorance by guessing who did what), so unless you feel like consulting the numerous online sites devoted to the material, you’ll have to be content with the work itself, and that in itself is reward enough. So in this anniversary week, if you’re looking for a more homegrown comics experience, superbly-written and wonderfully illustrated, check out ‘Guns on the Peak’, ‘The Fighting Few’, ‘Bright Blade of Courage’, ‘The Haunted Jungle’, ‘Tiger in the Tail’, ‘The Specialists’, ‘Mighty Midget’, ‘VLR: Very Long Range’, ‘Flak Fever’, ‘Fight or Die!’, ‘Fearless Freddy’ and ‘Another Tight Spot…’ in this brilliant compilation.
™ & © 2006 DC Thomson & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

High Command – The stories of Sir Winston Churchill and General Montgomery

By Frank Bellamy & Clifford Makins (Dragon’s Dream)
ISBN: 978-9-06332-901-3 (PB)

Inexcusably absent as we commemorate the achievements and sacrifices of earlier generations are these twin neglected classics of British comic strip art, crafted by one of the world’s most talented narrative illustrators. These wonderful biographical series originally ran in The Eagle: the most influential comic of post-war Britain, which launched on April 14th 1950, to astound readers weekly until 26th April 1969.

It was the brainchild of a Southport vicar, the Reverend Marcus Morris, who was at that time concerned over the detrimental effects of American comicbooks on British children. He posited a good, solid, thoroughly decent Christian-inspired antidote and sought out like-minded creators. After jobbing around a dummy to many British publishers for over a year with little success, he eventually found an unlikely home at Hulton Press, a company that produced adult general interest magazines such as Lilliput and Picture Post.

The result was a huge hit spawning clones Swift, Robin and Girl (targeting other demographic sectors of the children’s market), as well as radio series, books, toys and all other sorts of merchandising.

An incredible huge number of soon-to-be prominent creative figures in many arenas of media worked on the weekly, and although Dan Dare is deservedly revered as the star, many other strips were as popular at the time, many even rivalling the lead in quality and entertainment value. As was the trend of the times, the content combined fact with fiction, stressing learning and discernment equally with adventure, thrills and fun…

At its peak, The Eagle sold close to a million copies a week, but eventually changing tastes and a game of “musical owners” killed the title. In 1960, Hulton sold out to comics megalith Odhams, who then became Longacre Press. A year later they were bought by The Daily Mirror Group who evolved into IPC. And so it goes in publishing…

In cost-cutting exercises, many later issues carried (relatively) cheap and oh-so-trendy Marvel Comics reprints rather than British originated material. It took time, but the Yankee cultural Invaders won out in the end…

With the April 26th 1969 issue Eagle was merged into Lion, eventually disappearing altogether. Successive generations have revived the prestigious glamour-soaked title, but never its success.

From its glorious Reithian heyday (“Educate, Elucidate and Entertain”) comes a brace of brief biographical serials devoted to two men who were crucial to the war effort that had imperilled the readership’s forebears, originally collected into a classy album by Dragons Dream in 1981.

The first half was reprinted in 2014 as slim scarcely seen paperback The Happy Warrior: The Life Story of Sir Winston Churchill as Told Through the Eagle Comic of the 1950’s (ISBN: 978-1-90650-990-3) with a scholarly commentary from Richard M. Langworth CBE, but we’re long overdue for the combined volume to resurface (you will never know the effort involved in not just saying “the Full Monty” there…)

In High Command, however, we can devour the life story of Sir Winston Churchill and the quiet general (both scripted by Clifford Makins), beginning with the icon of Bulldog Spirit. Originally titled The Happy Warrior, the prestigious full-page back cover feature (running from October 4th 1957 until September1958) was Frank Bellamy’s first full colour strip. He followed up with Montgomery of Alamein (volume 13, #10-27, spanning March 10th to 7th July 1962), delivering twice the punch and more revelatory design in two-page colour-spreads that utterly spellbound readers, whether they were war-fans or not…

Churchill himself approved the early strips and was rumoured to have been consulted before the artist began the experimental layouts that elevated Bellamy from being merely a highly skilled representational draughtsman into the trailblazing innovator who revolutionized the comic page.

The tireless experimenter also began the explorations of the use of local and expressionistic colour palettes that would result in the extraordinary Fraser of Africa, Heros the Spartan and the deservedly legendary Thunderbirds strips.

The Churchill story follows the great man from his early days at Eton through military service in Cuba as a war correspondent, and into politics. Although a large proportion deals with World War II – and in a spectacular, tense and thrilling manner – the subtler skill Bellamy displays in depicting the transition of dynamic, handsome man of action into burly political heavyweight over the weeks is impressive and astonishing. It should be mentioned, though, that this collection doesn’t reproduce the climactic, triumphal last page, a portrait that is half-pin-up, half summation and all hagiography.

Bernard Law Montgomery’s graphic biography benefited from Bellamy’s newfound expertise in two ways. Firstly, the page count was doubled, and the artist capitalized on this by producing groundbreaking double page spreads that worked across gutters (the white spaces that divide the pictures). This allowed him to craft even more startling page and panel designs.

Secondly, Bellamy had now become extremely proficient in both staging the script and creating mood with colour. This strip is pictorial poetry in motion.

Makins doesn’t hang about either. Taking only three episodes to get from school days in Hammersmith, army service in India and promotion to Brigade Major by the end of the Great War, Monty’s WWII achievements are given full play, allowing Bellamy to create an awesome display of action-packed war comics over the remaining fifteen double-paged episodes. There really hasn’t been anything to match this level of quality and sophistication in combat comics before or since.

If you strain you might detect a tinge of post-war triumphalism in the scripts, but these accounts are historically accurate and phenomenally stirring to look at. If you love comic art you should hunt these down, or at least pray that somebody, somewhere has the sense to reprint this work.
© 1981 Dragon’s Dream B.V. ©1981 I.P.C. Magazines Ltd.

Stabbed in the Front – Post-War General Elections through Political Cartoons

By Dr. Alan Mumford (Centre for the Study of Cartoons & Caricature, U of K, Canterbury)
ISBN: 978-1-90267-120-8

True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else” – Clarence Darrow

From its earliest inception cartooning has been used to sell: initially ideas or values but eventually actual products too. In newspapers, magazines and especially comicbooks the sheer power of narrative with its ability to create emotional affinities has been linked to the creation of unforgettable images and characters. When those stories affect the daily lives of generations of readers, the force that they can apply in a commercial or social arena is almost irresistible…

In Britain the cartoonist has held a bizarrely precarious position of power for centuries: the deftly designed bombastic broadside or savagely surgical satirical slice instantly capable of ridiculing, exposing and always deflating the powerfully elevated and apparently untouchable with a simple shaped-charge of scandalous wit and crushingly clear, universally understandable visual metaphor.

For this method of concept transmission, literacy or lack of education is no barrier. As the Catholic Church proved millennia ago with the Stations of the Cross, stained glass windows and a pantheon of idealised saints, a picture is absolutely worth a thousand words…

More so than work, sport, religion, fighting or even sex, politics has always been the very grist that feeds the pictorial gadfly’s mill. This gloriously informative book (sponsored by the marvellous Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature, University of Kent at Canterbury), offers a fantastic overview of political adaptability and cultural life as Britain moved from Empire to mere Nationhood in the latter half of the 20th century, examined through General Elections and the wealth of cunningly contrived images and pictorial iconography they provoked and inspired. It’s one of my favourite things ever and crucially in need of updating and re-release…

After an effusive Foreword by professional politician and celebrated cartoon aficionado (the Rt. Hon.) Lord Kenneth Baker of Dorking, author Alan Mumford – a specialist in management training – covers the basic semiology and working vocabulary of the medium in his copious Introduction.

Designating definitions and terms for his splendid treatise, he subdivides the territory into ‘Origins’, ‘Criteria for Selection’, ‘Newspapers and Magazines’, ‘The Longevity of Political Cartoonists’, ‘References, Symbols and Metaphors’, ‘The Impact of Cartoons on General Elections’ and ‘Savagery in Political Cartoons’ as a very effective foundation course in how to best contextualise and appreciate the plethora of carefully crafted mass-market messages which follow.

The format is extremely ergonomic and effective. Thus, Philip Zec’s iconic cartoon and caption/slogan “Here You Are. Don’t Lose it Again!” begins the Great Endeavour with historical background in The Run-up to the General Election of 1945, followed by Election Issues and the 1945 Campaign, Major Personalities of the 1945 General Election, Results of… and finally a nominated “Cartoonist of the Election” whose work most captured the spirit of, or affected the outcome of, a particular contest.

This methodology then proceeds to efficiently and comprehensively recreate the tone of each time, augmented whenever possible by a personal interview or remembrance from one of the campaigners involved. These telling vignettes include contributions from Frank Pakenham/Lord Longford, Barbara Castle, Edward Heath, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Kenneth Baker again, Jim Callaghan, Jim Prior, Margaret Thatcher, David Steel, Norman Tebbit, John Major and Tony Blair

Each fact-packed, picture-filled chapter then dissects every succeeding campaign: 1950’s tame ‘Consolidation not Adventure’ which resulted in Labour and Clement Attlee’s second victory by the narrowest – practically unworkable – of margins, Churchill’s resurgence in 1951 as ‘The Grand Old Man Returns’ and a slow steady decline in fortunes and growth of a New Politics as Anthony Eden’s star rose for the 1955 General Election when ‘The Crown Prince Takes Over’

In an era of international unrest Harold McMillan eventually rose to become Tory top gun and in 1959 was ‘Supermac Triumphant’, but domestic troubles – race, unionism and the always struggling economy – wore away his energies. In a minor coup, he was ousted and Sir Alec Douglas Home took over mid-term, consequently losing to glib, charismatic new Labour leader Harold Wilson.

This entire era is one of aged and infirm Big Beasts passing away suddenly with too many lesser lights to succeed them; further complicated by both Labour and Conservative parties rent by infighting and jockeying for position with wannabe upstarts such as the Liberals cruising the room looking to pick up what scraps they could (so it’s not a new thing, OK?).

In 1966 “Labour Government Works” took Labour to a second term but social turmoil in the country, with unions demands spiralling out of control, enabled Edward Heath to lead the Conservatives into the most dangerous and turbulent decade in modern British history. The General Election of 1970 proved ‘Wilson Complacent, Heath Persistent’

There were two General Elections in 1974.

A massive ongoing crisis in industrial relations and the growing racial tension caused by maverick Tory Enoch Powell’s continual cries to “end Immigration or face rivers of blood in the streets” forced Prime Minister Heath to ask in February ‘Who Governs Britain?’ He was informed by the disaffected electorate “Not you, mate.”

Even though Wilson and Labour were returned to power, the majority was miniscule and by October the people were compelled to do it all again and ‘Vote for Peace and Quiet’.

Although he’d again narrowly led them to victory, Wilson’s time was done and he abruptly resigned in 1976 to be replaced by deputy Jim Callaghan.

Heath too was reduced to the ranks and relegated to the Tory Back Benches, replaced by a rising star from Finchley. As Britain staggered under terrifying economic woes in 1979, Callaghan called an election and lost to Margaret Thatcher who had famously said “No Woman in My Time” would ever be Prime Minister. I think that was the last time she ever admitted to being wrong…

Despite horrifying and sustained assaults on the fabric of British society – and great unpopularity – she enjoyed two more election victories: in 1983 “The Longest Suicide Note in History” and again in 1987 as ‘Thatcher Moves Forward’ before finally being turned on by her own bullied and harried Cabinet.

The best political cartooning comes from outrage, and the Tory administrations of the 1980’s provided one bloated, bile-filled easy mark after another. Just look at TV’s Spitting Image which grew fat and healthy off that government’s peccadilloes, indignities and iniquities (as well as Reagan’s America and the Royal Family) in just the way that millions of unemployed and disenfranchised workers, students and pensioners didn’t. The election cartoons reproduced here from that period come from a largely Tory Press, and whilst contextualised and accurate don’t approach the level of venom she engendered in certain sections.

For a more balanced view one should also see Plunder Woman Must Go! by Alan Hardman, Drain Pig and the Glow Boys in Critical Mess, You are Maggie Thatcher: a Dole-Playing Game or even Father Kissmass and Mother Claws by Bel Mooney & Gerald Scarfe, not to mention any collection of the excoriating Steve Bell’s If…

In 1992, the only thing stopping a Labour landslide was the party itself, which had so dissolved into factional infighting and ideological naval-gazing that not even the fiery oratory of Welsh Wizard Neil Kinnock could pull them together. Once again, however, the newspapers claimed the credit when Tory consensus/concession leader John Major pulled off a surprising ‘Triumph of the Soapbox?’

That Labour Landslide had to wait until 1997 and the ‘Teeth and Sleaze’ of Tony Blair (although at that time we all thought the latter term only applied to corrupt Tory MPs selling parliamentary time and attention to business interests) which brings this incredibly appealing tome to a close. I said it before and I’m saying it again: since then a whole lot has happened and I think its long past time for a new, revised and updated edition…

As well as making addictively accessible over half a century of venal demagoguery, hard work, murky manipulations, honest good intentions and the efforts of many men and women moved in equal parts by dedication and chicanery, this oversized monochrome tome is also literally stuffed with the best work some of the very best cartoonists ever to work in these Sceptred Isles.

The art, imagination, passion and vitriol of Abu, Steve Bell, Peter Brookes, Dave Brown, Michael Cummings, Eccles, Emmwood, Stanley Franklin, George Gale, Nick Garland, the Davids Gaskill and Ghilchik, Les Gibbard, Charles Griffin, Graham High, Leslie Illingworth, Jak, John Jensen, Jon, Kal, David Low, Mac, Mahood, Norman Mansbridge, Sidney Moon, Bill Papas, Chris Riddell, Paul Rigby, Rodger, Stephen Roth, Martin Rowson, Willie Rushton, Peter Schrank, Ernest Shepard, Ralph Steadman, Sidney Strube, Trog, Vicky, Keith Waite, Zec and Zoke are timeless examples of the political pictorialist’s uncanny power and, as signs of the times, form a surprising effecting gestalt of the never happy nation’s feeling and character…

None of that actually matters now, since these cartoons have performed the task they were intended for: shaping the thoughts and intentions of generations of voters. That they have also stood the test of time and remain as beloved relics of a lethal art form is true testament to their power and passion, but – to be honest and whatever your political complexion – isn’t it just a guilty pleasure to see a really great villain get one more good kicking?

Stuffed with astounding images, fascinating lost ephemera and mouth-watering tastes of comic art no fan could resist, this colossal collection is a beautiful piece of cartoon history that will delight and tantalise all who read it… and it’s still readily available through the University of Kent’s website…
© 2001. Text © 2001 Alan Mumford. All illustrations © their respective holders or owners. All rights reserved.

The Steel Claw: The Vanishing Man


By Ken Bulmer & Jesús Blasco (Titan Books)

ISBN: 978-1-84576-156-1 (HB)

So, I’ve just pulled an all-nighter to finish my latest book by deadline—an obsessive point of pride with me that will kill me someday soon—and I’m buzzing like a bucket of angry bees. So, too tired to sleep yet, I reach for one of my favourite books to mellow out and wonder again why the hell hasn’t this been rereleased or made available digitally. And why no follow-up releases? Surely, sheer quality must count for something?

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

Initially written by science fiction novelist Ken Bulmer, the majority of the character’s career was scripted by comic veteran Tom Tully.

Our eventual hero began as the assistant to the venerable Professor Barringer, working to create a germdestroying ray. Crandell is an embittered man, probably due to having lost his right hand, which has been replaced with a steel prosthetic. When the prof’s device explodes, Crandell receives a monumental electric shock which, rather than killing him, renders him invisible. Although he doesn’t stay unseen forever, this bodily transformation is permanent. Electric shocks cause all but his steel hand to disappear.

Kids, don’t try this at home!

Whether venal or simply deranged, Crandell goes on a rampage of terror against society,culminating in an attempt to blow up New York City before finally coming to his senses. The second adventure in this astounding oversized hardback volume pits the Claw against his therapist, who in an attempt to treat him is also exposed to Barringer’s ray, becoming a bestial ape-man who frames Crandell for a series of spectacular crimes.

Bulmer’s final tale begins our star’s shift from outlaw to hero as the recuperating Crandell becomes involved in a modernday pirate’s scheme to hijack an undersea weapons system

More than any other, 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-like super-spy strip with Crandall tricked out with outrageous gadgets, and latterly a masked and costumed super-doer when Batmania gripped the nation. When that bubble burst, he resorted to becoming a freelance adventurer,combating eerie menaces and vicious criminals.

The thrills of the writing are engrossing enough, but the real star of this feature is the artwork. Blasco’s 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.

So, track it down and agitate for more of the same…

© 2005 IPC Media Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Mort: A Discworld Big Comic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El Mestizo

By Alan Hebden & Carlos Ezquerra (Rebellion Studios)
ISBN: 978-1-78108-657-5

The world lost one of its most lost revered and distinguished comics artists this year in the form of multinational super-star Carlos Ezquerra. Thankfully, his work lives on and even previously ignored early works are at last making their way onto bookshelves, with new collections such as this recent release from Rebellion’s superb and ever-expanding Treasury of British Comics.

Carlos Sanchez Ezquerra was born in Aragon on November 12th 1947. Growing up in Ibdes, in the Province of Zaragoza, he began his career illustrating war stories and westerns for Spain’s large but poorly-paying indigenous comics industry. In 1973 he got a British agent (Barry Coker: a former sub-editor on Super Detective Library who formed Bardon Press Features with Spanish artist Jorge Macabich) and joined a growing army of European and South American illustrators providing content for British weeklies, Specials and Annuals.

Carlos initially worked on Girls’ Periodicals like Valentine and Mirabelle and more cowboys for Pocket Western Library as well as assorted adventure strips for DC Thomson’s The Wizard. The work proved so regular that the Ezquerras upped sticks and migrated to Croydon…

In 1974 Pat Mills and John Wagner tapped him to work on IPCs new Battle Picture Weekly, where he drew (Gerry Finley-Day’s) Rat Pack, and later Major Eazy, scripted by Alan Hebden. In 1977 he was asked to design a new character called Judge Dredd for a proposed science fiction anthology. Due to creative disputes, Carlos left the project and went back to Battle to draw a gritty western named El Mestizo

As we all know, Carlos did return to 2000AD, drawing Dredd, dozens of spin-offs such as Al’s Baby, Strontium Dog (1978), Fiends of the Eastern Front (1980), Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat adaptations and key Dredd storylines such as the epic Apocalypse War and Necropolis.

Soon after Ezquerra was “discovered” by America and I’ll carry on the eulogy there when I review Just a Pilgrim or Preacher or some other mature reader material that really let the artist shine…

Carlos had moved to Andorra where he died of lung cancer on October 1st this year. His last published Dredd work appeared in 2000AD #2023 (March 2017), forty years after his first piece there…

Here, however, it’s time to appreciate him in his bold, bad-ass prime, detailing the brief but vivid exploits of a black hero in the wrongest of places at the most inconvenient of times…

El Mestizo debuted amidst a plethora of British-based war features and didn’t last long – June 4th to 17th September 1977 – with original author Alan Hebden giving you his take on why in a concise Introduction before the action begins.

Heavily leaning on Sergio Leone “spaghetti westerns”, the first starkly monochrome episode (of 16) introduces a half-black, half Mexican bounty hunting gunfighter who offers his formidable services to both the Union and Confederate sides in the early days of the War between the States.

Proficient with blades, pistols, long guns and a deadly bola, El Mestizo plays both sides while hunting truly evil men, whether they be Southern raiders, out of control Northern marauders, treacherous Indian scouts, an army of deserters from all sides organised by a crazy, vengeful femme fatale or even a demented physician seeking to end the war by releasing plague in Washington DC.

Along the way, the mercenary even finds time to pay off a few old scores from his days as a starved and beaten plantation slave…

Sadly, the feature was always a fish out of water and was killed before it could truly develop, but the artwork is staggeringly powerful and delivers the kind of cathartic punch that never gets old.

This stunning hardback (and eBook) package is another nostalgia-punch from Battle collecting a truly seminal experience and, hopefully forging a new, untrodden path for fans of the grittily compelling in search of a typically quirky British comics experience.

This recovered gem is one of the most memorable and enjoyable exploits in British comics: acerbic, action-packed and potently rendered: another superb example of what British and European sensibilities do best. Try it and see…
© 1977 & 2018 Rebellion Publishing IP Ltd. Black Max and all related characters, their distinctive likenesses and related elements are ™ Rebellion Publishing Ltd. All Rights Reserved.