Charley’s War Book IV: Blue’s Story

Charley’s War Book IV: Blue’s Story

By Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun (Titan Books)
ISBN: 1-84576-323-8 ISBN-13: 978-1-84576-323-7

The fourth instalment of the magnificent anti-war comic strip picks right up from the cliffhanging ending of the previous volume and shows the hairbreadth escape of boy-soldier Charley Bourne and his mum from the Silvertown munitions factory targeted by a Zeppelin bombing London, before launching into the experimental narrative of the eponymous ‘Blue’.

Writer Mills fully exercised his own political and creative agendas on this First World War series, and as his own commentary relates, was always amazed at what he got away with and what novelties his editors pulled him up on. Firstly, for a weekly war comic like Battle it was rare to allow the hero time away from the action, but here Charley spent the entire story on leave – although hardly safe or sound. Secondly, although unwittingly embroiled in the black market trade in new identities for deserters by his unscrupulous brother-in-law, the hero’s humanity compels him to side against the dictates of patriotism and duty.

Most importantly, whilst aiding the escape of Blue – an Englishman serving with the French Army in the living Hell of Verdun – the episodes become depictions of Blue’s War: A story within a story with the strip’s lead character reduced to an avid and appalled listener.

The horrors of Verdun (the longest single battle in history), related by a British rebel (based on the real-world ‘Monocled Mutineer’ Percy Toplis) wrapped in a tense flight from Military Police and the fearsome ‘Drag Man’ (a obsessive hunter of Deserters) through the eerie streets of a bombed out London, makes for one of the most sophisticated and adult dramas ever seen in fiction, let alone the pages of a kid’s war comic. It is compelling, emotionally draining and dauntingly earnest. But it works.

Lifted to dizzying heights of excellence by the phenomenal artwork of Joe Colquhoun, ‘Blue’s Story’ is a masterpiece of subversive outrage within the greater marvel that is Charley’s War. I pray it never becomes a film or TV series, but I’d bribe Ministers to get these wonderful books onto the National Curriculum.

© 2007 Egmont Magazines Ltd. All Rights Reserved

Stingray… Stand By for Action

(Stingray comic album volume 2)

Stingray… Stand By for Action
By Ron Embleton, with Steve Kite, written, edited and compiled by Alan Fennel (Ravette Books/Egmont)
ISBN: 1-85304-457-1

This album from the early 1990s (when Gerry Anderson’s unforgettable creations enjoyed a popular revival on TV and in comics publishing) reprints three unforgettable strip thrillers from the legendary weekly comic TV21. Launching in late January 1965, TV Century 21 (its full title – the unwieldy “Century” was eventually dropped) captured the hearts and minds of millions of children in the 1960s.

Filled with high quality art and features, printed in glossy photogravure, TV21 featured such strips as Fireball XL5, Lady Penelope (Frank Bellamy’s Thunderbirds did not begin until the second year of publication), Supercar and Stingray. Anderson’s epic submarine series featured a crack team of aquanauts pitted against a bizarre and malevolent plethora of beings who lived beneath the waves. The BBC were represented by a full-colour strip starring The Daleks.

Although the reproduction leaves something to be desired, ‘The Monster Jellyfish’, ‘Curse of the Crustavons’ and ‘the Atlanta Kidnap Affair’ – all written by Alan Fennell – are cracking fantasy rollercoaster rides full of action and drama and illustrated with captivating majesty by the incredible Ron Embleton.

He supplemented his lush colour palette and uncanny facility for capturing likenesses with photographic stills from the TV shows, and whether for expediency or artistic reasons the effect on impressionable young minds was electric. This made the strips “more real” then and the effect has not diminished with time. This is a superb treat for fans of all ages, and this series is also long overdue for a deluxe collected edition.

© 1992 ITC Entertainment Group Ltd. Licensed by Copyright Promotions Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Ronald Searle’s Non-Sexist Dictionary

Ronald Searle’s Non-Sexist Dictionary

By Ronald Searle (Souvenir Press)
ISBN: 0-285-62865-8

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

By transposing such terms as “Semen” with “Sewomen” or “Hymn” with “Herm” he can still make us pause and ponder, but the total immersion that his bridled insanity delivers in his illustrations reaches much deeper and lasts so much longer. You will laugh, (it’s impossible not to) but you will also grieve and yearn and burn in empathised frustration at the marvels in this lost ordinance in the Battle of the Sexes.

Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant stuff!

© 1988 Ronald Searle.

Thunderbirds… To the Rescue!

(THUNDERBIRDS COMIC ALBUM VOLUME 1)

Thunderbirds… To the Rescue!

By Frank Bellamy, with Steve Kite & Graham Bleathman, edited and compiled by Alan Fennel (Ravette Books/Egmont)
ISBN: 1-85304-406-7

Growing up in 1960’s England was the best of all possible worlds for a comic lover. As well as US imports you were treated to some frankly incredible weekly publications, and market bookstalls sold second-hand comics for at least a third of their cover price. We also had some of the greatest artists in the world working on some of the best licensed properties around. A perfect example is the TV – and especially Gerry Anderson properties – anthology comic TV Century 21.

This slim volume from the 1990s reprints three of the best adventures of the Band of Brothers from Tracy Island, illustrated by the incredible Frank Bellamy, and although the reproduction is rather poor (nothing available to modern printers seems able to fully reproduce the magical and luxuriant quality of photogravure printing, alas) ‘The Earthquake Maker’, ‘The Revolution’ and ‘The Big Freeze’ are Thunderbirds adventures in the classic manner.

Despite the colour inadequacies, the astounding design skill and sheer bravura of Bellamy’s rendering makes these tales of unnatural disasters, tensely written by Alan Fennell, as absorbing now as they were then. A collection was released in 2002, but we’re long overdue for a major treatment by a major publisher. Let’s hope it’s soon…

© 1991 ITC Entertainment Group Ltd. Licensed by Copyright Promotions Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament

Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament

By various (Knockabout)
ISBN: 0-86166-054-4

This cracking all-star oddment is actually still in print, unlike so many of the graphic novels and collections I recommend, but if you’re a devout Christian you be best advised to just jump to the next review. Originally released in 1987, it features a varied band of British creators adapting – with tongues firmly in cheeks – a selection of Biblical episodes, and the results are earnest, bitter and darkly funny.

‘Creation’ is the preserve of Arthur Ranson, whilst Donald Rooum explores Eden in ‘Gandalf’s Garden’ and Dave Gibbons puts a decidedly modernistic top-spin to the saga of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’. Alan Moore and Hunt Emerson examine ‘Leviticus’ (that would be the one with all those Commandments) whilst Neil Gaiman tackles ‘The Book of Judges’ accompanied by Mike Matthews (both the introduction and ‘The Tribe of Benjamin’), Julie Hollings (‘Jael and Sisera’), Peter Rigg (‘Jephthah and His Daughter’), Graham Higgins (‘Samson’) and Steve Gibson (‘Journey to Bethlehem’) and even finds time to produce ‘The Prophet Who Came to Dinner’ (From the Book of Kings) with long-time collaborator Dave McKean.

Closing the volume are Kim Deitch with ‘The Story of Job’, ‘Daddy Dear’ (from Ecclesiastes) by Carol Bennett and Julie Hollings and the incredibly graphic ‘A Miracle of Elisha’ (also from the Book of Kings) by the magnificent Brian Bolland.

Powerful and memorable, these interpretations won’t win any praise from Christian Fundamentalists but they are fierce, subtle and scholarly examinations of the Old Testament from passionate creators with something to say and an unholy desire to instruct. As free thinking adults you owe it to yourself to read these stories, but only in the spirit in which they were made.

© 1987 Knockabout Publications and the Artists and Writers. All Rights Reserved.

The Eagle Book of Cutaways

The Eagle Book of Cutaways

By L Ashwell Wood, edited by Denis Gifford (Webb & Bower)
ISBN: 0-86350-285-7

It seems inconceivable today, but one of the most popular features in the most popular comic of the 1950’s wasn’t a comic strip at all. When Eagle launched on April 14th 1950, it was a black and white, tabloid-sized periodical, combining strip and prose on good paper with a fuller-than-full-colour front, back and inner cover. The same high quality photo-gravure was used on the centre sheet; four more glorious colour pages for drab, grey, austere post-war Britain.

Across the very centre of those was a painted spread depicting ‘The New Gas Turbine-Electric Locomotive – The 18000’. That was a magnificent train with the engine and operating system exposed, pertinent points numbered and an explanatory block of text explaining all the details. Boys (and, I’m sure, girls) and their dads were transfixed and continued so for the next nine hundred and ninety issues. Each week a new technological marvel of the Space Age and an emergent Modern World would be painted in mind-boggling detail and breezy efficient clarity to captivate and fascinate the readers.

Most of them were crafted by the marvellous L Ashwell Wood (of whom precious little is known; for what there is you should go to Steve Holland’s wonderful and informative Bear Alley website) and although not a new concept, they have become part of the shared psyche of British comic fandom. Ever since then, the fascinating allure of cutaway drawings has bewitched readers, from TV21 to 2000AD and every comic in between.

This grand book reproduces 46 of the very best, from that aforementioned wonder of the rails through other trains and boats and planes and even to that Marvel of a future Age, Dan Dare’s rocket-ship Anastasia (originally revealed on February 7th 1958). This book commands some pretty terrifying prices – and even though I’m prepared to say that it’s worth it, the best solution would be for some enterprising history or popular culture publisher to get the thing back into print immediately – if not sooner.

Illustrations © 1988 Fleetway Publications/Syndication International. All Rights Reserved.

The Situation is Hopeless

The Situation is Hopeless

By Ronald Searle (Penguin Books)
ISBN: 0-1400-6312-9

Sometimes there is simply no need for complex story-telling. Just occasionally the graphic narrative only needs a title and the talents of an artistic phenomenon to convey not just a story, not only shades of depth and texture but also, most magically, the pure emotion of a situation made real with line and colour.

Ronald Searle, expatriate caricaturist and commentator, has been making pictorial wonders for decades. His surreal and abstract grotesques have been charming generations whilst he either makes telling points or just makes us want to laugh until we burst.

This slim collection of full colour animal drawings, criminally out-of-print (but mercifully readily available and inexpensive from a number of internet-based retailers) is one of his dark, sardonic and manic best.

Featuring such visual delights as ‘Imbecile rodent confident that it has a foolproof claim against the Disney Organization’, ‘Loquacious parrot convinced that it is teaching man a basic vocabulary’, ‘Aggressive chicken applying Kung Fu to a Peking Duck’ and ‘Baby seal under the impression that clubs are centres of social activity’ these thirty-two masterpieces of edgy madcappery could make a brick laugh out loud.

© 1980 Ronald Searle. All Rights Reserved.

Firkin Collection

Firkin Collection

By Hunt Emerson & Tym Manley (Knockabout)
ISBN: 0-861661443

Once again the adult magazine industry has provided a comic strip classic, and this time it’s in the scraggy form of a black and white cat. Running for more than twenty years in the top-selling Fiesta, Firkin (more correctly “that Firkin Cat…”) has observed and commentated, advised and mocked the frankly insane mating habits of Homo (not so very) Sapiens.

In two page instalments the wise and ignoble Moggy has lectured the horny and lovelorn, touching upon every aspect of sexuality in an unbroken string of hilarious, grotesque, bawdy and baroque strips from the fevered minds of writer Tym Manley and cartoon Renaissance Man Hunt Emerson.

For the detail-minded, Firkin is the office mouser of adult photographers and has therefore seen it all – although he’s also been a secret agent, superhero and everything else in between, too. Rude, crude, unbelievably vulgar and pant-wettingly funny, these strips are an international hit too, being translated into eight languages. If you’re an open-minded and amusable grown-up these cat’s tales are an addictive treat and hold the secret of the truest love of all…

© 1981-2000, 2007 Hunt Emerson & Tym Manley. All Rights Reserved.

Pow! Annual

<i>Pow!</i> Annual

By various (Odhams Books)
SBN: 60039607X

This quirky item is one of my fondest childhood memories and quite inspirational in directing my career path, and as well as being still a surprisingly qualitative read I can now see it as a bizarre and desperate little experiment. By the end of the 1960s DC Thomson had finally overtaken the monolithic comics publishing giant that had been created by Alfred Harmsworth at the beginning of the twentieth century. By absorbing rivals such as Eagle’s Hulton Press, Fleetway/Odhams/IPC had stayed at the forefront of sales and by latching onto every fad they had kept their material contemporary, if not fresh, but the writing was on the wall.

The comedy strip was on the rise and action anthologies were finding it hard to keep readers attention. By 1970 when this annual was released the trend generated by the success of the Batman TV show was dying, so why release a book of all-new superhero strips in a title very much associated with comedy features and cheap Marvel Comics reprints? A last ditch attempt to revive the genre? Perhaps a cheap means of using up inventory?

I don’t know and I don’t care. What they produced was a wonderful capsule of fanboy delight, stuffed with thrills, colourful characters and a distinctly cool, underplayed stylishness, devoid of the brash histrionics of American comic books.

Within these pages lurked ‘Magno, Man of Magnetism’, ‘Aquavenger’, ‘Mr. Tomorrow: Criminal of the Future’, The Hunter and the Hunted’, ‘Electro’ (no relation to the Marvel villain – other than the high-voltage shtick), The fascinating ‘Esper Commandos’, ‘Marksman’, ‘The Phantom’ (again no relation to the US crime-fighter), the monstrous ‘Norstad of the Deep’ and the crusading ‘Time Rider’, purportedly all created by Alan Hebden and illustrated in alternating full colour (painted) and half-colour (black and magenta) sections by IPC’s European stable of artists. I’m not sure, but I think there’s some Massimo Belardinelli, Carlos Cruz and lots from that prolific bunch at the Giolitti studio.

These are all great little adventures, beautifully illustrated and singularly British in tone, even though most of the characters are American – or aliens (and no, that’s not necessarily the same thing) that easily withstand a critical rereading today, but the most important thing was the inspiring joy of these one-off wannabes. They certainly prompted me to fill sketchbook after sketchbook and determined that I would neither be a “brain surgeon or a bloke wot goes down sewers in gumboots”. This great little tome gave me that critical push towards the fame and fortune I now enjoy!

© 1970 The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.

The Beano Book 1971

The Beano Book 1971

By various (DC Thomson & Co., Ltd.)
No ISBN

For many British fans Christmas means The Beano Book (although Scots worldwide have a pretty fair claim that the season belongs to them with collections of The Broons and Oor Wullie making every December 25th magical) and I’ve chosen this particular edition as another epitome of my personal holiday memories. As usual my knowledge of the creators involved is woefully inadequate but I’m going to hazard a few guesses in the hope that someone with better knowledge will correct me when I err.

In this little cracker are a number of David Sutherland’s Biffo the Bear strips as well as his Bash Street Kids and even a smashing action-adventure of boy super-hero Billy the Cat (I wonder if the editors distributed strips to artists in alphabetical order?). There are whirlwind tales of “fastest boy on Earth” Billy Whizz drawn by Malcolm Judge. Paddy Brennan worked as a dramatic artist for decades on General Jumbo (the heroic boy who radio-controlled an army of robot toys) and the Q-Bikes, a team of young adventurers with technologically advanced push-bikes. In this volume they trade in two wheels for four, and become the Q-Karts for an Australian adventure, whilst the aforementioned General captures a team of safecrackers in his home town.

These annuals were traditionally produced in the wonderful “half-colour” that many British publishers used to keep costs down. This was done by printing sections of the books with only two plates, such as blue/Cyan and red/Magenta: The versatility and palette range this provided was astounding. Even now this technique screams “Holidays” to me and my contemporaries.

Some of the Dennis the Menace strips are possibly drawn by original creator Davy Law, but are most likely the work of his style-chameleon replacement David Sutherland. They all feature his charismatic new co-star ‘Gnasher’, too. The woefully un-PC but astoundingly funny Little Plum strips are by Ronald Spencer, I think, as are The Nibblers; an anarchic gang – and weren’t they all in The Beano? – of mice.

The 3 Bears segments are by Bob McGrath whilst Lord Snooty (one of the longest running strips in the comic’s history – a record only recently overtaken by Dennis) is the work of Robert Nixon, as is the Roger the Dodger Family Album section. There are short romps with Pups Parade (or the Bash Street Pups – the unlovely pets of those unlovely kids) by Gordon Bell and exemplar of Girl Power Minnie the Minx gets her own 16 page mini-book in this annual – and who could stop her? – courtesy of the wonderful Jim Petrie, but I’ll admit to being totally stumped by Swinging Jungle Jim a frantic boy-Tarzan strip that has sunk without trace since those faraway times.

Topped off with activity and gag-pages, this is a tremendously fun book, and even in the absence of the legendary creators such as Dudley Watkins, Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid and with a small but noticeable decline in the mayhem and anarchy quotas, there’s still so much merriment on offer I can’t believe this book is thirty seven years old. If ever anything needed to be issued as commemorative collections it’s DC Thomson annuals…

Divorcing the sheer quality of this brilliant book from nostalgia is a healthy exercise, but I’m perfectly happy to simply wallow – even today – in the magical emotions this ‘almost-colourful’ annual still stirs. It’s a good solid laugh-and-thrill-packed read, from a magical time (I was in my final year of primary school and a beloved, spoiled and precocious little snot with not a care in the world) and turning those stiffened two-colour pages is always an unmatchable Christmas experience.

© 1970 DC Thomson & Co., Ltd.