Catalyst


By Asia Alfasi, Charlotte Bailey, Jason Chuang, Dominique Duong, Catherine Anyango Grünewald, Shuning Ji, Pris Lemons, Sonia Leong, Calico N.M., Tyrell Osborne & Woodrow Phoenix, edited by Ayoola Solarin (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-91142-402-7 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Heartfelt, Fantastic, Full-on and Unmissable… 8/10

At its best, the comics biz is companionable, collegiate, welcoming and wonderfully supportive. We all like to help each other along, especially if the end result is more and better stories for all. That even extends to the publishing and managerial arena, as seen here with this anthology of tales resulting from SelfMadeHero’s 2021 Graphic Anthology Programme, which was set up to tutor and mentor emergent talent from diverse backgrounds. The first intake were all people of colour and the broadest range of backgrounds and life experience.

As explained in the introductory Editor and Publisher’s Letter by Ayoola Solarin & Emma Hayley preceding 11 extremely enthralling pictorial yarns, this tome results from a 12-week training course, for which seven participants and their assigned mentors produced many 8-page graphic short stories based on a specific theme: “Catalyst”.

The phenomenally far-ranging works are subdivided into ‘Dissolution’, ‘Reaction’ and ‘Repercussion’, with the entire catalogue of imaginative wonders bookended by extensive biographies of the creators, mentors and Editorial Team.

Dissolution opens with a chilling view of the potential pitfalls of video conferencing in Catherine Anyango Grünewald’s ‘The Host’, after which Shuning Ji reveals horrors hidden in ‘The Camera’ and Jason Chuang offers a disturbing view of public transport interactions in truly disturbing vignette ‘The Guessing Game’.

Tyrell Osborne then wraps up the openers with a quiet stroll through a very off-kilter London and some introspective dilemmas satisfactorily solved in ‘Same Tall Tale’

Under the aegis of Reaction, Pris Lemons indulges some internal investigation in party tale ‘Orbital Decay’ whilst Sonia Leong shares her love of manga and search for creative camaraderie and approval in ‘Just Like Me’. Calico N.M. then whimsically explores natal wonders and fantastic beasts in ‘Because I’ve Got All Of You’ before we move on to final revelations in Repercussion.

Dominique Duong sets the ball rolling as ‘One Small Thing’ chillingly exposes the monster within, before Asia Alfasi beguiles with an Arabian tale of traditional versus hereditary storytelling gifts in ‘Happily Never After’ after which Charlotte Bailey amazes and amuses with a mesmerising love affair and marriage of ultimate opposites in ‘Cetea & Clay’.

Concluding on a true high, the small sagas cease with ‘Convolute’ by the inimitable Woodrow Phoenix, revealing how the true saviours and secret stars of the 1960s space race was a team of seamstresses led by forgotten black hero Hazel Fellows

Offering a hand up or a way in is something we can all do, and the rewards are enormous and never-ending. When it also results in superb storytelling and the first full flexing of creative mettle its practically a civil duty to encourage more.

Do that. Buy this.
All stories and artwork © their respective creators. All rights reserved.

Sour Pickles


By Clio Isadora (Avery Hill Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-910395-63-9 (TPB)
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Peep at How the Other Half Works… 8/10

There are countless reasons to draw and even more to tell stories. For an increasing number of talented folk the primary motivations are curiosity and therapy. When combined with ruthless honesty, creative boldness and a sense of whimsy the results can be instructional for the author, and hugely entertaining for those of us privileged to be coming along for the ride.

Clio Isadora has drawn remorselessly but with sublime care and attention on her rather extraordinary life for her risograph minicomics such as Damp Candy, Soiled Fantasies, Is It Vague in Other Dimensions? and others, and in her first full graphic novel, takes those shared observations to a new level of humour and poignancy by revisiting her final year as a student at prestigious Central St Martins art school.

Like most slice-of-life sagas – no matter how well or judiciously curated – the true joy is in experiencing it unfold, so the précis portion of this review is deliberately meagre…

Pickles Yin doesn’t have the financial resources of her rich, posh, fancy art school classmates. She’s got by so far on talent, drive, hard work, bursaries, frazzled nerves, frantic overreactions and few true friends. Now the final year and big show are looming and beyond that the gaping unknowns of adult life and a career.

Unlike almost everyone else she knows, though, Pickles can’t rely on the buffers and comfort zone of parents, money and connections if she fails. Or even decide on what kind of job she wants if she gets through the year. She’s drowning and floundering and in a panic, when her pal Radish suggests what would help her get by and even the odds is some pharmaceutical enhancement…

Witty, fraught, heartwarming and quite frankly a bit scary – my days in art school in the heyday of Punk were filled with fun, excess, budding pop stars and a complete dearth of career pressure – Sour Pickles is a fabulously wry and subtle examination of mental health, the unexpected legacies of parental prejudices and the crushing pressure of modern living.

Recommended for anybody wondering about the “road not taken”…
© Clio Isadora, 2021

White Death


By Robbie Morrison & Charlie Adlard (Image Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-632151-42-1 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Unmissable and Unforgettable… 9/10

More than a century after the conflict ended, the First World War still has a terrifying grip on public consciousness and remains culturally relevant.

For years I’ve been declaring that Charley’s War is the best story about the Great War ever created but while I remain convinced of that fact, there are plenty of strong contenders for the title and it’s always worth seeking out fresh viewpoints and visualisations. This particular moody masterpiece originally emerged as kind of transcontinental self-published venture by writer Robbie Morrison (Nikolai Dante; Judge Dredd; Doctor Who; Batman) and illustrator Charlie Adlard (Judge Dredd; X Files; Astronauts in Trouble; Batman; The Walking Dead) who initially crafted the international bestseller under the guise of Les Cartoonistes Dangereux in 1998.

It was subsequently rereleased in 2002 by AiT/Planet Lar before becoming this luxurious hardback and digital tome in 2014. It presents a stunning and moving saga of a largely overlooked theatre of that conflict and offers in addition commentary; biographies; a short vignette created as a prelude to the main story and used as a promotional device in French comics magazine Bo Dois, plus a feature detailing the process from original script to finished art. This last is a particularly fascinating inclusion as illustrator Adlard devised a whole new way of delivering comics narrative for the story…

The tale itself is simple and straightforward: based on truly horrific events during what was known as “the White War” and fully contextualised in Morrison’s introductory notes.

It’s 1916 and on the Italian Front, the war against the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (allied with Germany) is as stalled, tedious and horrifically murderous as the trench warfare in France and Belgium, even though it’s being fought across the Alighieri plateau in the mountains of Trentino.

Added to the usual horrors of the conflict are crushing cold, constant mist, fog and snow and the extreme likelihood of being crushed and smothered once the bright sparks shelling each other realise they can also trigger avalanches just by aiming a little bit higher…

Into this mess trudges new recruit Pietro Aquasanta. He grew up in these mountains, but sees little to engender fond feelings or happy memories. Firstly, his status is suspect since he used to soldier for the other side, thanks to the Empire’s conscription policies and the Allies’ habit of taking absolutely anybody – even enemy combatants – who can point a gun.

Secondly, even though he’s now an Italian fighting for his homeland, most of Aquasanta’s comrades are fools, the generals are callous idiots and his immediate superior – sergeant major Orsini – is a fanatical war-loving bastard who will do anything to keep the killing going. Still and all, even solitary outsiders like Pietro can’t help seeking companionship when life is so visibly brief and death looms over everything like a million-ton white shroud…

And as the campaign progresses the turncoat advances simply by not dying…

Leavened through mordant trench humour (I guess the clue is in the name), peppered with painfully human moments of tragedy or unwavering friendship and capturing the numbing horror of ceaseless struggle against the elements, environment, other humans and one’s own self-destructive demons, White Death is a compelling comics classic to be savoured and shared.
© 2014 Robbie Morrison & Charlie Adlard. All rights reserved.

Jinx Freeze


By Hurk (Avery Hill Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-910395-59-2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Cunning Conundrum of Cartoon Classicism … 8/10

Human beings are powerfully prone to the potent seductions of the past. Nostalgia used to be classed as a sickness. Go’wan, look it up, I dares ya…

Even more overwhelming in some folk – usually the most creative sorts – is a Puckish drive to celebrate the past through good-natured mockery and clever spoofing: what the beloved Kenneth Williams referred to as “messing about”…

Pictorially active since the turn of the century – this one, just to be clear – (Lord) Hurk is local born and bred – literally and geographically to me but culturally and societally to anybody growing up British in the last sixty years and reared on too much television, tabloid publishing and comics. He and has contributed to comics projects all over the globe. Now that your interests are piqued, you might want to check out 2016’s Ready for Pop, and work done for The Fancy Butcher, The Comix Reader, Italy’s Puck, Slovenia’s Stripburger, Off Life, Your Days Are Numbered, Hive, and The Mammoth Book of Skulls.

Jinx Freeze is his first full-colour solo vehicle, channelling his wildly freewheeling targeted whimsy in the manner of Dan Clowes and Peter Bagge, whilst referencing such outré past entertainments as Scales of Justice, Prisoner: Cellblock H and Emergency Ward 10, lost minor “celebrities” such as Thora Hird, Parsley the Lion and Edgar Lustgarten!, fab and groovy movies, arcane music references and a wealth of cartooning styles.

The entire farrago is delivered in devilishly enticing micro-instalments patterned on the varied pages of British anthology comics like Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid-era Smash! and Pow! Hurk tracks the progress of a broad and bizarre cast of good guys, bad guys, femme fatales, mad scientists and other oddly-familiar brand-new archetypes in a seditiously wry Pop Culture medley enrobed in and masquerading as a cunning murder mystery.

Somewhere in time there is chaos on the plutocratic playground of the Riviera. A portion of a golden statue on loan from the prestigious Gurgleheim Museum has been shamefully pilfered, sparking a manic race to recover it embroiling all manner of unique individuals on every side of the Law. As the chase unfolds the scenario expands into psychedelic psychodrama amidst the baffling environs of The Great Exhibition of 11851 where alien ploys, criminal blags and sinister, uncanny enigmas entwine and overlap for frontrunners Marge Large, Riviera Chief of Police Dick Bosse, Modern Tahzrn, King Gianthead Fighter Policeman 0.X, The Thor Gang Four, King of Poetry, Danny Kildare the Space Priest and less reliable champions: all competitively hunting for the prize and glory…

A delightful “easter-egg”-laden tribute to the good old days, pirated from television, print media and blurred memories, this is a sublimely entertaining romp you must not miss.
© Hurk, 2021.

Methods of Dyeing


By B. Mure (Avery Hill Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-910395-62-2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Mesmerising Magnum Opus Actively Unfolding Before Your Very Eyes… 8/10

Most forms of fiction depend on strong memorable characters and heaping helpings of tension, suspense and of action to hold the attention. You need to be really good and quite brave to try anything outside those often-infantile parameters. B. Mure is that good.

The Nottingham based artist and storyteller’s other notable work to date is the remarkable webcomic Boy Comics. You should check that out too.

In 2018, B. Mure pulled together threads and ideas from years of planning, dreaming and doodling, to begin building an epic fantasy saga. It started with Original Graphic Novel Ismyre, introducing a strange ancient city of song and tired wonders, unsettled by magical eco-terrorists and weaponised flora, where a sculptor’s works inspired and moved the strangest of folk. This magical city was entering a period of “interesting times”…

That was closely followed by sequel Terrible Means, which seemingly had very little to do with the protagonists of the first, but instead took readers back to a time when wizardly green rebels Niklas, Henriett and Emlyn were simply researchers whose studies divined a growing imbalance in the natural ecosystem…

The Tower in the Sea focused in on a different point in time and tale, providing a fresh approach to what is shaping up to be a vast and expansively multi-layered saga.

Contemporary Ismyre is more dictatorship than civil metropolis, and for years gifted children were spirited away from it by a clique of outlaw magicians and taken to a hidden island to be schooled in magical arts. That haven of learning was not proof against intrigue and plots, however, and before long unscholarly events upset lots of apple carts…

Now, fourth volume Methods of Dyeing returns us to the Big City, but sticks to educational themes and macabre mysteries as potential scandal rocks staid and stolid Ismyre University. Mere moments before the delivery of a much heralded lecture, visiting Professor Detlef of rival city-state Belsithan is murdered. The renowned botanist, textile expert and master dyer was discovered in bushes just outside the lecture hall…

The event manifests the usual journalistic scavengers, but both the Chief of Police and University Dean are suspiciously keen to shut down sordid speculation and all enquiries as rapidly as possible.

All hope of that outcome ends with the arrival of a forceful and enigmatic detective from Belsithan. She quickly assumes jurisdiction and begins to make herself extremely unwelcome in every stratum of college and city life. Her diligent, persistent investigations uncover plenty of secrets and suspects as well as possible motive: Detlef had accommodated the beliefs of the Eco-anarchist movement increasingly disrupting Ismyre’s economy and politics…

However, as the detective zeroes in on the truth, her own big secret is about to be exposed…

The word “tapestry” is one much overused but it really fits the gradual unpeeling of layers comprising the history of Ismyre: beautiful images coming together, small self-contained stories unfolding depending upon where you start from, yet all part of a greater whole, promising more and clearer revelations further ahead. You must read all these books but (so far) it really doesn’t matter where you start from. So, it might as well be here, right?

Sadly, this deliciously genteel, sublimely illustrated cosy murder-mystery is not available digitally yet, but that just means you can give physical copies to all your friends, suitably gift-wrapped and properly appreciated by the tactile senses as well as cerebral ones…

An anthropomorphic, luscious and compellingly realised world of wonder to savour and ponder over is waiting for you – and if you’re quick, you can exploit the publisher’s sagacious generosity by visiting the Avery Hill website and buying all four Ismyre books in one big sales bundle…
© 2021 B. Mure. All rights reserved.

Methods of Dyeing will be released on November 11th 2021 and is available for pre-order now.

Putin’s Russia – The Rise of a Dictator


By Darryl Cunningham (Myriad Editions)
ISBN: 978-1-912408-91-7 (TPB)

Artist and journalist Darryl Cunningham was born in 1960, lived a pretty British life (didn’t we all back then?) and graduated from Leeds College of Art. A regular on the Small Press scene of the 1990s, his early strips appeared in legendary paper-based venues such as Fast Fiction, Dead Trees, Inkling, Turn amongst many others. In 1998, he & Simon Gane crafted Meet John Dark for the much-missed Slab-O-Concrete outfit. It is still one of my favourite books of the era. You should track it down or agitate for a new edition.

Briefly putting comics on the backburner as the century ended, Cunningham worked on an acute care psychiatric ward: a period which informed 2011 graphic novel Psychiatric Tales, a revelatory inquiry into mental illness delivered as cartoon reportage.

When not crafting web comics for Forbidden Planet or working on his creations Uncle Bob Adventures, Super-Sam and John-of-the-Night or The Streets of San Diablo, he’s been steadily consolidating his position at the top of the field of graphic investigative reporting; specifically science history, economics and socio-political journalism through books such as Science Tales, Supercrash: How to Hijack the Global Economy, Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery, The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality and the Financial Crisis and Billionaires: The Lives of the Rich and Powerful.

His latest offering is his boldest yet, particularly as the subject of these investigations and revelations has a scary track record of suddenly outliving every critic, commentator, judge and denouncer. Of course, part of that murderous mystique also includes ludicrous gaffes, fumbles and cock-ups, so perhaps it’s a fair risk for a potential big reward…

Simply put, what’s on show here is another sublimely forensic and easily digestible dissection of one more major cause of global concern, in the form of a mediocre Soviet spy who became the biggest crook on Earth.

Cunningham methodically traces the path of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin from childhood in a St Petersburg (then Leningrad) communal apartment to the world’s most tasteless billionaire mancave (“Putin’s Palace” at Gelendzhik), translating dry facts and shocking atrocities into irrefutable, easily assimilated data snippets, tracing the Dictator-in-Chief’s cunning rise in the shadow of and on the coattails of far more flamboyant and unwise would-be leaders until suddenly he’s the last man standing…

A much-curated personal life is unmade and remeasured against a historical yardstick as the Soviet Union stumbles into oblivion: broken up and its riches redistributed by pirates and brigands in suits amongst a cabal of soon-to-be Oligarchs only marginally less unsavoury than their notional leader.

Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Sobchak and a flurry of Western appeasers and greedy bankers are all indicted for their failings as Putin climbed a greasy pole soaked in the blood of opponents, competitors and particularly journalists and critics. Especial attention is rightly paid to manufactured and proxy wars, terrorist acts and inept interventions; modern imperialism and global calamities, weaponized bigotry, harnessed ancient grudges and sheer unrelenting opportunism at every possible juncture. That’s a big bill to lay on one person, but the arguments are all there in black and white and magenta and green and…

You will also be sagely reminded of assassinations as acts of petty spite; western money laundering of a nation’s pilfered assets, the suborning of national leaders (and we’re not just talking about orange hairpiece #45, here!) and the sadly pathetic ongoing quest for validation of a self-described hard man…

A heady mix of cold fact, astute deduction and beguiling visualisation, this deft examination of a bandit who stole a nation and how at last his comeuppance is at hand is a delicious blend of revelation and confirmation, and Cunningham even has the courage to offer bold – and serious – suggestions on how to rectify the current state of affairs, all backed up with a vast and daunting list of References from print, media and other sources for everything cited in the book.

Comics have long been the most effective method of imparting information and eliciting reaction (that’s why assorted governments and militaries have used them for hard and soft propaganda over the last century and a half), and with Putin’s Russia you can see that force deployed against one of today’s greatest threats…
© Darryl Cunningham 2021. All rights reserved.

Putin’s Russia will be released on September 16th 2021 and is available for pre-order now.

Mega Robo Bros: Power Up and Mega Robo Bros: Double Threat



By Neill Cameron with Abby Bulmer & Lisa Murphy (David Fickling Books)
ISBNs: 978-1-78845-200-7 (Power Up PB) and 978-1-78845-232-8 (Double Threat PB)

Just like The Beano, Dandy and other perennial childhood treasures, weekly comic The Phoenix masterfully mixes hilarious comedy with enthralling adventure serials… sometimes in the same scintillating strip. Such I the case here, with the synthetic stars of these superbly remastered compilations: mega-magnificent sci fi frolics packed into full-colour volumes of high-octane comedy-action, with added activity pages to complete your entertainment experience. Everybody strapped in?

Plunging straight into the enchanting immersive experience, we open in a futuristic London on a Monday morning. Alexand his younger brother Freddie have missed the airbus for school and dad has to take them. It’s a uniquely Sharma-family catastrophe…

In most ways the boys are typical: boisterous, fractious kids, always arguing, but devoted to each other and not too bothered that they’re adopted. It’s also no big deal to them that they were created by the mysterious Dr. Roboticus before he vanished and are considered by those in the know as the most powerful robots on Earth.

For now, it’s enough that Mum and Dad love them, even though the Robo Bros are a bit more of a handful than most kids. They live as normal a life as possible; going to school, making friends, putting up with bullies and hating homework: it’s all part of their Mega Robo routine…

This week, though, things are a bit different. On Wednesday the lads meet Baroness Farooq of covert agency R.A.I.D. (Robotics Analysis Intelligence and Defence) who – despite being initially unimpressed – changes her mind after seeing what the lads do to her platoon of Destroyer Mechs – all while between singing rude songs, reading comics and squabbling with each other.

Thursday is even better. As a treat, the entire family goes to Robo World where Freddy rescues a trio of malfunctioning exhibits. The baby triceratops with dog-programming is ok, but the French-speaking deranged ape and gloomily existentialist penguin might be a handful in days to come. …and all because Mum was trying to explain how her sons’ sentience makes them different from other mechanoids…

Friday wasn’t so good. Alex had another one of his nightmares, of the time before they came to live with the Sharmas…

With the scene exquisitely set, the drama kicks into overdrive when a school visit to the museum offers a hidden menace constantly watching the boys an opportunity to create chaos by hacking all the exhibits. Even though Freddy and Alex use all their super-powers to set things right, it takes all of the Baroness’ astounding influence to hush up the incident. They are supposed to be getting as normal a childhood as possible, with friends and family aware that they’re artificial and sentient, but not that they are unstoppable weapons systems. Now some malign force seems determined to “out” the Robo Bros for unspecified but undoubtedly sinister purposes…

Even greater cloaking measures are necessary when the hidden enemy causes a sky-train crash. The boys very publicly prevent a disaster, but even they are starting to realise something big is up. It also confirms that and Mum is a bit extraordinary herself, even before Freddy overhears some disturbing news about another one of Dr. Roboticus’ other creations…

The crisis erupts after Gran takes Alex and Freddy to a Royal Street Party outside Buckingham Palace. When the hidden enemy hacks the giant robot guards and sets them loose on the Queen and her family, the wonder-bots have to save them on live TV beamed around the world. The secret is out…

With the entire world camped outside their quiet little house, Mum has R.A.I.D. restore the Mega Robo Status Quo by building a super-secret tunnel system in the cellar. It’s a big day all around: Farooq is finally convinced that Alex is at last ready to join the agency… after school and on weekends, of course…

Freddy is extremely peeved that that he’s not invited. The Baroness still considers him too young and immature. He soon proves it when Alex becomes a Mega Robo Secret Agent, compelling Freddy to at last confide in dad the real reason he’s acting up. He then has opportunity to redeem himself and save the day when their nemesis makes his move and Alex finds himself completely out of his depth. Then only Freddy can save the day… if anyone can…

Crafted by Neill Cameron (Tamsin of the Deep, How to Make Awesome Comics, Pirates of Pangea), this is an astonishingly engaging tale that rockets along, blending outrageous comedy with warmth, wit and incredible verve. This volume also includes copious files on all the characters and activity features ‘How to Draw Alex’ and ‘How to Draw Freddy’ plus hilarious strip-within-a-strip ‘The World According to Freddy!’.

Alex and Freddy are utterly authentic boys, irrespective of their artificial origins, and their exploits strike exactly the right balance of future shock, family fun and bombastic superhero action to capture readers’ hearts and minds. With the right budget and producer what a movie this would make!

 

With additional colouring by Abby Bulmer & Lisa Murphy, second volume Mega Robo Bros: Double Threat sees the marvellous metal (and plastic) paladins return to share more of their awesome adventures and growing pains!

It’s still the Future!

In a London much cooler than ours, boisterous, fractious, argumentative, more-or-less typical kids Alex and Freddie are still devoted to each other and not much bothered that they’re adopted, recently became super-secret agents and that almost the entire world knows…

When occasion demands, they undertake missions for Baroness Farooq. They think it’s because they are infinitely smarter and more powerful than the Destroyer Mechs and other man-made minions she employs…

Moreover, Dad might be just be an average old guy, but Mum is a bit extraordinary too…

Life in the Sharma household is pretty normal. Freddie is insufferably exuberant and over-confident whilst Alex is approaching the age when self-doubt and anxiety start kicking in, but mostly it’s their parents’ other robot rescues that are a bit of a trial.

Baby triceratops Trikey with his dog-programming is ok, but French-speaking loony ape Monsieur Gorilla can be mighty confusing. Gloomily annoying, existentialist aquatic fowl Stupid Philosophy Penguin constantly quotes dead philosophers and makes people rapidly consider self-harm or manic mayhem …

Alex is getting a hard time from classmates Mira and Taia. They used to be best friends, but with all his extra-curricular activities, the girls are feeling neglected. Alex’s guilt turns to something far worse on Monday after a heated football match leads bully Jamal to make a startling accusation. But actually, how do we know if Alex is a Boy or a Girl…?

Deeply shaken, the startled hero naturally asks Mum and she’s never been more grateful for a sudden sneaky Surprise Giant Robot Attack that interrupts her answer…

Alex and Freddie are then called in by the Baroness, before jetting over to Aldgate Tube Station to battle a colossal driller-droid. Further investigation leads the lads and a R.A.I.D. science team deep, deep, deep into the abandoned transport tunnels beneath the city….

Here they encounter an army of rejected, rebuilt robots undertaking the bizarre agenda of a crazy bag-lady calling herself The Caretaker. When she abruptly loses control of her precious charges, all Hell breaks loose. During a massive fight, she escapes to an even more secret lair: an ongoing repair project with hidden ramifications that will have dire consequences for the bombastic boys and the entire world…

Freddie experiences Mum’s stern side when she takes him – kicking and screaming – clothes shopping, after which shameful incident, further mortification and emotional distress arrives as the price of fame is fully paid when Prettiest Girl in School Jamila finally notices Alex.

With his shiny head all turned around, he’s in no mood for Freddie’s jealous response: candid home videos posted on VuTube. The elder sibling’s even less chuffed when those postings go mega-viral, drawing some cruel comfort when Freddie’s celebrity bubble inevitably implodes in a most unfortunate manner…

Wrapping up with a spectacular big finish, the kids – and their surprisingly famous mum – are star guests at the massive London Robo Expo. After taking down obnoxious, fame-craving mech-makers Team Robotix in a gladiatorial contest, the lads understandably think the action portion of the entertainment has ended, only to see the Caretaker’s darkest secret burst in with mass-murder in mind…

The huge rampaging robot quickly reinforces all humanity’s fears and anxieties about sentient mechanicals, but as the Mega Robo Bros drive the belligerent Wolfram off, Alex realises with alarm that Mum knows far more about the rogue – and her own “sons” – than she’s ever let on…

Augmented by more character info-files on the players involved; activity features (an extended) ‘How to Draw Freddy’and ‘How to Draw Stupid Philosophy Penguin’ plus even-more outrageous ‘The World According to Freddy!’ strips, this is another exceedingly engaging romp which rockets along like an anti-gravity rollercoaster, blending mirth with warmth, wit and incredible verve. These books offer unmissable excitement for kids of all ages and vintage, and are true “must-have” items.
Text and illustrations © Neill Cameron 2021. All rights reserved.

Both Mega Robo Bros collections will be released on August 5th 2021 and are available for pre-order now.

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.