Commando: True Brit

Commando True Brit

By various (Carlton Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84442-121-3

DC Thomson is probably the most influential comics publisher in British history. The Beano and Dandy revolutionised children’s comedy comics, the newspaper strips Oor Wullie and The Broons (both created by the legendary 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.

In 1961 the company launched a half-sized title called Commando. Broadly the size of a paperback book, it had 68 pages per issue and an average of two panels a page. Each issue told a complete war story (usually of World War I or II – although all theatres of conflict have featured since) and told tasteful yet gripping stories of valour and heroism in 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 at the rate of eight every month.

This volume collects an even dozen of these mini-epics, selected by series editor George Low, and although much of the collection’s marketing concentrates on the 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 fine and compelling examples of 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 you’ll have to be content with the work itself, although the many fan-sites should be able to provide information for the dedicated researcher. So if you’re looking for a more British comics experience, well-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.

Let’s make it as traditional as watching The Great Escape on a bank holiday.

™ & © 2006 DC Thomson & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

High Command

The stories of Sir Winston Churchill and General Montgomery

High Command

By Frank Bellamy, scripts by Clifford Makins (Dragon’s Dream)
ISBN: 90-6332-901-6

Another shamefully neglected classic of British Comic Strip art is this wonderful biographical series that ran in Eagle from October 4th 1957 until September1958. Originally titled ‘The Happy Warrior,’ the prestigious full-page back cover feature was Bellamy’s first full colour strip. He followed with ‘Montgomery of Alamein’, delivering twice the punch and more revelatory design in two-page colour-spreads.

Churchill himself approved the early strips and was rumoured to have been consulted before the artist began the experimental layouts that transformed him from being merely a highly skilled representational draughtsman into the trailblazing innovator who revolutionized the comic page. He also began the explorations of the use of local and expressionistic colour palettes that would result in the extraordinary ‘Fraser of Africa’ (Eagle Classics: Fraser of Africa ISBN: 0-948248-32-7), ‘Heros the Spartan’ and the legendary ‘Thunderbirds’ strips.

The Churchill story, scripted by Clifford Makins, 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.

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) and 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.

Eagle Classics: Fraser of Africa

Eagle Classics: Frasier of Africa

By George Beardmore & Frank Bellamy (Hawk Books -1990)
ISBN: 0-948248-32-7

Frank Bellamy is one of British Comics’ greatest artists. In the all-too brief years of his career he produced magnificent and unforgettable visuals for Eagle, TV21, Radio Times (Doctor Who) and graduated to the Daily Mirror newspaper strip ‘Garth’ in 1969. He turned that long-running but lacklustre adventure strip into a magnificent masterpiece of fantasy, with eye-popping, mind-blowing black and white art that other artists were proud to boast they swiped from. After only 17 stories he died suddenly in 1976 and it’s absolutely criminal that his work isn’t in galleries, let alone in permanent collected book editions.

He was born in 1917 but didn’t begin comic strip work until 1953 – a strip for Mickey Mouse Weekly. From there he moved on to Hulton Press and drew strips starring Swiss Family Robinson, Robin Hood and King Arthur for Swift the “junior companion” to Eagle. In 1957 he moved on to the star title producing stand-out and innovative work on a variety features beginning with the biography of Winston Churchill.

‘The Happy Warrior’ was quickly followed by ‘Montgomery of Alamein’, ‘The Shepherd King – the story of David’, and ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’, from which he was promptly pulled only a few months in. As Peter Jackson took over the back page historical adventure, Bellamy was on his way to the Front Cover and the Future.

When Hulton were bought by Odhams Press there were soon irreconcilable differences between Frank Hampson and management. The creator of Dan Dare left his super-star creation (see the review for The Road of Courage ISBN: 90-6332-801-X for a fuller run-down of those events) and Bellamy was tapped as his replacement – although both Don Harley and Keith Watson were retained as his assistants.

For a year Bellamy produced Dan Dare, redesigning the entire look of the strip (at management’s request) before joyfully stepping down to fulfill a lifetime’s ambition.

For his entire life Frank Bellamy had been fascinated – almost obsessed – with Africa. When asked if he would like to draw a big game hunter strip he didn’t think twice. ‘Fraser of Africa’ debuted in August 1960, a single page every week in the prestigious full-colour centre section. George Beardmore wrote the three serials ‘Lost Safari’, ‘The Ivory Poachers’ and ‘The Slavers’ and Bellamy again surpassed himself by inventing a colour palette that burned with the dry, yellow heat of the Veldt. The strip became the readers’ favourite, knocking Dare from a position considered unassailable.

Fraser the character is a man out of time. Contrary to modern assumptions, he was a man who loved animals, treated natives as full equals and had a distinctly 21st century ecological bent. For a Britain blithely rife with institutionalized racism, cheerfully promoting blood-sports and still wondering what happened to The Empire, Fraser’s startlingly ‘PC’ antics were a thrilling, exotic and salutary experience for us growing boys.

Notwithstanding the high quality of the stories, Fraser of Africa is a primarily an artistic landmark. The techniques of line and hatching, the sensitive, atmospheric colours, even the staging and layout of the pages, which would lead to the majestic ‘Heros the Spartan’ and eventually the bravura creativity displayed in the Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet strips for TV21, all were derived from the joyous stories of the Dark Continent.

Yet another one to add to “The Why Is This Not In Print?” Pile…

Fraser of Africa ©1990 Fleetway Publications. Compilation © 1990 Hawk Books.

The Road of Courage

The Road to Courage 

By Frank Hampson with Marcus Morris (Dragon’s Dream)
ISBN: 90-6332-801-X

The treatment of writers and artists in our business has historically been pretty appalling. That’s why the Comics Creators Guild exists (www.comicscreatorsguild.co.uk) under whose auspices you’re reading this page. This isn’t the place to discuss the situation that lead to Frank Hampson leaving the industry at the height of his powers, nor the shabby way he was dealt with. This is about the last work he produced for the magazine he will always be revered for.

Succinctly then: by creating Dan Dare Hampson revolutionised British comics. By the end of the 1950s he was a national treasure and hot property, leading to a highly seductive offer to leave Eagle and begin a new comic, Bulldog, for a rival company. Eagle founder Marcus Morris brokered a deal that kept Hampson with Eagle, allowing the publisher Edward Hulton to sell up to Odhams Press. Although promptly reneging on much of the deal, the new owners did allow Hampson to drop Dan Dare – a venture that was crippling the artist through overwork – to work on a proposed single page per week serial.

That strip was the lavish and beautiful ‘The Road of Courage – The Story of Jesus of Nazareth’. It was an obvious labour of love, scripted by fellow publishing pioneer Marcus Morris, the clergyman who had first come up with the concept of a high-quality, uplifting boy’s comics. Their swan song was to prove a magnificent, if troublesome, masterpiece of graphic narrative.

Designed to run for approximately one year and conclude in the Easter 1961 edition of the Eagle, the strip ran fifty-six instalments. From the announcement of a Census in Judaea to the evening of the first Easter Sunday when Jesus reappears to his disciples and sets them on their mission, readers marvelled at the brilliant depiction of battles and miracles. Although uplifting was the goal, neither creator forgot that boys want action and adventure in their comics. It highlighted events from the life of the Messiah in captivating colour and detail, although from a strongly traditional English perspective, so a little latitude might be necessary when reading with twenty-first century eyes. This slim large album is a vibrant testament to the dedication, power, and sheer artistry of Frank Hampson.

I can only assume that the religious content has held it back in contemporary artistic re-evaluations, because in terms of staging, drama and graphic-realism, only Don Lawrence’s Trigan Empire (and perhaps Storm) come anywhere near it for pictorial and narrative quality.

Meanwhile, over that turbulent year, Odhams became Longacre and by March 1961 had been bought by the Mirror Group to become I.P.C., and with each change came more indignity, chicanery and abuse. Hampson, a dedicated, hard-working professional, had completed his work in plenty of time and as the take-over knives were flashing, he took a two month vacation with his accumulated leave time. When he returned it was to blatant hostility and a legal action as the Mirror Group sued him for breach of contract and his next seven strip ideas. His hard-fought contract was terminated a full year early. (If you wish to know more about the story behind the story, look up The Lost Characters of Frank Hampson on your favourite search engine).

Most of the players in the drama are gone now, but the work remains, and I believe that the ultimate victory always belongs to the talented people who produce such memorable classics. So the sooner this glorious tale is back in print the better.

© I.P.C. Magazines Ltd 1981. All Rights Reserved.

Albion: Origins

Albion: Origins 

By various (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-000-X

Here’s another superb collection of British comic strips from the glory days of the 1960s courtesy of Titan Books, with thanks, I’m sure, to the profile-raising of the recent American Albion collection’s success (ISBN 1-84576-351-3).

Here we have four selections from the early careers of some of Britain’s weirdest comic strip heroes. Kelly’s Eye featured ordinary, decent chap Tim Kelly who possessed the mystical ‘Eye of Zoltec’, a gem that kept him free from all harm as long as held on to it. You won’t be surprised to discover that due to the demands of weekly boys adventures, Tim lost that infernal thing pretty darned often – and always at the most inopportune moment.

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

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

House of Dolman was a curious blend of super-spy and crime-buster strip from Tully and the utterly wonderful Eric Bradbury. Dolman’s cover was a shabby ventriloquist (I digress, but an awful lot of our heroes were tatty and unkempt – we had “Grunge” down pat decades before the Americans made a profit out of it!) who had built specialised robots which he disguised as puppets. Using these as his shock-troops he waged a dark and crazy war against the forces of evil.

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

Janus Stark was a fantastically innovative and successful strip. Created by Tully for the relaunch of Smash in 1969, the majority of the art was from Solano Lopez’s studio, and the eerie moodiness well suited this tale of a foundling who grew up in a grim orphanage only to become the greatest escapologist of the Victorian age. The Man with Rubber Bones also had his own ideas about Justice, and would joyously sort out those scoundrels the Law couldn’t or wouldn’t touch. A number of creators worked on this feature which survived until the downsizing of the publisher’s comics division in 1975 – and even beyond – as Stark escaped oblivion when the series was continued in France – even unto Stark’s eventual death and succession by his son. We however, get to see his earliest feats and I for one was left hungry for more. Encore!

The last spot in the book falls to the Spooky Master of the Unknown, Cursitor Doom. This series is the unquestioned masterpiece of Eric Bradbury – an artist who probably deserves that title as much as his visual creation. Ken Mennell, who usually invented characters for other writers to script, kept Doom for himself, and the result is a darkly brooding Gothic thriller quite unlike anything else in comics then or since. If pushed, I’ll liken it most to William Hope Hodgson’s “Karnacki the Ghost Breaker” novelettes – although that’s more for flavour than anything else and even that doesn’t really cover it.

Doom is a fat, bald, cape-wearing know-it-all who just happens to be humanity’s last ditch defence against the forces of darkness. With his strapping young assistant Angus McCraggan and Scarab – a trained (or was it, perhaps, something more…?) – Raven, he destroyed without mercy any threat to our wellbeing. Represented here is the ‘Dark Legion of Mardarax’ as a cohort of Roman Soldiers rampages across the countryside, intent on awaking an ancient and diabolical monstrosity from the outer Dark!

These tales are a thrill for me because I first read them when I was just an uncomprehending nipper. So it’s an even bigger thrill now to realise that despite all the age, wisdom, and sophistication I can now muster, that these strips really were – and are – as great if not better, than most of the comics I’ve seen in fifty-odd years of reading.

© 2005 IPC Media Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

THRRP!

THRRP! 

By Leo Baxendale (Knockabout Comics)
ISBN 0-86166-051-X

This somewhat lost classic is a gloriously gross, pantomimic splurt-fest of broken winds, dripping organs and broad, basic belly-laughs that depends less on narrative convention than on warped yet timeless juvenile invention to revel in the most lunatic slapstick to grace the music-hall or comic page since Leo Baxendale left mainstream comics.

Whilst not as groundbreaking as Little Plum, Minnie the Minx, The Bash Street Kids or the Three Bears, nor as subversive as his Wham, creations such as Eagle Eye, Junior Spy, George’s Germs or The Tiddlers, nor indeed, as outlandish as The Swots and the Blots or Grimly Feendish, nevertheless Spotty Dick and the truly repulsive inhabitants of Planet Urf unforgettably cavort through a cartoon-grotesque series of silent adventures that no grotty school-kid of any age could resist.

An absolute treat from a lost master of British tomfoolery. Lets get this back in print now!

© 1987 Leo Baxendale. All Rights Reserved.

Eagle Classics: Harris Tweed — Extra Special Agent

Harris Tweed 

By John Ryan (Hawk Books -1990)
ISBN: 0-948248-22-X

John Ryan is an artist and storyteller who straddles equally three distinct disciplines of graphic narrative, with equal qualitative, if not financial, success. The son of a diplomat, Ryan was born in 1921, served in Burma and India and after attending the Regent Street Polytechnic (1946-48) took up a post as assistant Art Master at Harrow School from 1948 to 1955. It was during this time that he began contributing strips to comics such as Girl and the legendary Eagle.

On April 14th 1950, Britain’s grey, post-war gloom was partially lifted with the first issue of a new comic that literally shone with light and colour. Avid children were soon understandably enraptured with the gloss and dazzle of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, a charismatic star-turn venerated to this day. The Eagle was a tabloid sized paper with full photogravure colour inserts alternating with text and a range of other comic features. Tabloid is a big page and you can get a lot of material onto each page. Deep within, on the bottom third of a monochrome page, was an eight panel strip entitled Captain Pugwash, the story of a Bad Buccaneer and the many sticky ends which nearly befell him. Ryan’s quirky, spiky style also lent itself to the numerous spot illustrations required every week.

Pugwash, his harridan of a wife and the useless, lazy crew of the Black Pig ran until issue 19 when the feature disappeared. This was no real hardship as Ryan had been writing and illustrating Harris Tweed – Extra Special Agent which began as a full page (tabloid, remember, with an average of twenty panels a page, per week!) in the Eagle #16. Tweed ran for three years as a full page until 1953 when it dropped to a half page strip and was repositioned as a purely comedic venture. For our purposes and those of the book under review it’s those first three years we’re thinking of.

Tweed was a bluff and blundering caricature of the “military Big Brass” Ryan had encountered during the war, who, with a young, never-to-be-named assistant known only as ‘Boy’, solved mysteries and captured villains to general popular acclaim. Thrilling and macabre adventure blended seamlessly with a cheerful schoolboy low comedy in these strips, since Tweed was in fact that most British of archetypes, a bit of a twit and a bit of a sham.

His totally undeserved reputation as detective and crime fighter par excellence, and his good-hearted yet smug arrogance – as exemplified by the likes of Bulldog Drummond, Dick Barton – Special Agent or Sexton Blake somehow endeared him to a young public that would in later years take to its heart Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army and, more pointedly perhaps, Peter Sellers’ numerous film outings as Inspector Clouseau.

Ryan’s art in these strips is particularly noteworthy. Deep moody blacks and intense sharp inking creates a mood of fever-dream intensity. There are nuances of underground cartoons of more than a decade later, and much of the inevitable ‘lurking horror’ atmosphere found in the best works of Basil Wolverton. Ryan knew what kids liked and he delivered it by the cartload.

When Ryan moved into the budding arena of animated television cartoons he developed a new system for producing cheap, high quality animations to a tight deadline. He began by reworking Captain Pugwash into more than fifty episodes (screening from 1958 on) for the BBC, keeping the adventure milieu, but replacing the shrewish wife with the tried-and-true boy assistant. Tom the Cabin Boy is the only competent member of the crew, instantly affirming to the rapt, young audience that grown-ups are fools and kids do, in fact, rule. He also drew a weekly Pugwash strip for the Radio Times for eight years. Ryan went on to produce a number of animated series including Mary, Mungo and Midge and Sir Prancelot as well as adaptations of some of his forty-plus children’s books. A few years ago an all-new Computer-based Pugwash animated TV series began.

In 1956 the indefatigable old cartoon sea-dog became the first of a huge run of children’s books produced by Ryan. At last count there were 14 Pugwash tales, 12 Ark Stories, and a number of other series. Ryan has worked whenever and wherever he wanted to in the comic world and eventually the books and the strips began to cross-fertilise.

The first Pugwash is very traditional in format with blocks of text and single illustrations that illuminate a particular moment. But by the publication of Pugwash the Smuggler entire sequences are lavishly painted comic strips, with as many as eight panels on one page, complete with word balloons. A fitting circularity to his careers and a nice treat for us old-fashioned comic drones.

We don’t have that many multi-discipline successes in comics, go and find out why we should celebrate one who did it all, did it first and did it very, very well.

Harris Tweed ©1990 Fleetway Publications. Compilation © 1990 Hawk Books.

The Children’s Annual

The Children’s Annual 

By Alan Clark (Boxtree)
ISBN 10: 1-85283-212-9

The comic has been with us a long time now and debate still continues about where, when and exactly what constitutes the first of these artefacts to truly earn the title. There’s a lot less debate about the children’s annual, a particularly British institution and one that continues – albeit in a severely limited manner – to this day.

It’s a rare person indeed who never received a colourful card covered compendium on Christmas morning, full of stories and comic-strips and usually featuring the seasonal antics of their favourite characters, whether from comics such as Beano, Dandy, Lion, Eagle and their ilk, or television, film or radio franchises or personalities such as Dr Who, Star Wars, TV21, Radio Fun or Arthur Askey. There were even sports annuals and beautifully illustrated commemorative editions of the fact and general knowledge comics such as Look and Learn, and special events such as the always glorious Rupert Annuals.

The history and development of this glorious holiday tradition are lovingly shared by the enthusiastic and erudite Alan Clark in this wonderful book. Never lapsing into too much detail, Clark introduces his subject, always lavishly illustrated, gives a taste and then moves on. His goal is always achieved. Once you’ve seen, you will want to see more. This kind of nostalgic paean is our industry’s best weapon in the fight to build sales, both of new material and back issues. When was the last time you bought something old or untried at a comic shop? Give your Nostalgia Vision a workout for a change, and if you’re still a little dubious a book like this should be your guide to tip the scales.

© 1988 Alan Clark.

The Steel Claw

The Steel Claw 

By Ken Bulmer & Jesús Blasco (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-156-1

One of the most fondly remembered British strips of all time is the startlingly beautiful Steel Claw. From 1962 to 1973 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 germ destroying 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. This change 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 coming to his senses. The second adventure 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 the character’s shift from outlaw to hero as the recuperating Crandell becomes involved in a modern day pirate’s scheme to hijack an undersea weapons system.

More than any other the Steel Claw was a barometer for reading fashion. 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 complete with outrageous gadgets, and a masked and costumed super-doer when Bat-mania gripped the nation, before 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.

© 2005 IPC Media Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The Spider

King of Crooks

King of Crooks (The Spider) 

By Jerry Siegel, Ted Cowan & Reg Bunn (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-000-X

REG BUNN (1905-1971) IS 2007 INDUCTEE INTO THE CCG HALL OF FAME
and a winner of a Comics Creators Guild Award for Outstanding Achievement.

I find myself in a genuine quandary here. When you set up to review something you need to always keep a weather eye on your critical criteria. The biggest danger when looking at comic collections is to make sure that the guy typing isn’t looking through the nostalgia-tinted spectacles of the excitable, uncritical scruffy little kid who adored and devoured the source material every week after – and often during – those long, dreary school days.

However, after thoroughly scrutinising myself, I can hand-on-heart, honestly say that not only are the adventures of the macabre and malevolent Spider as engrossing and enjoyable as I remember but also will provide the newest and most contemporary reader with a huge hit of superb artwork, compelling caper-style cops ‘n’ robbers fantasy and thrill-a-minute adventure. After all, the strip usually ran two pages per episode so a lot had to happen in pretty short order.

What’s it all about? The Spider is a mysterious super-scientist whose goal is to be the greatest criminal in the world. As conceived by Ted Cowan (who also created the much-revered Robot Archie strip – and kudos to Titan and Comic Historian Steve Holland for finally laying to rest the 40 year confusion that often gave that credit for the Spider’s creation to Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel in the lavish historical section of this grand hardback album) he begins his public career by gathering a small team of crime specialists before attempting a massive gem-theft from a thinly veiled New York’s World Fair. It also introduces Gilmore and Trask, the two crack detectives cursed with the task of capturing the arachnid arch-villain.

The second adventure, “The Return of the Spider”, also scripted by Cowan, sets the tone for the rest of the strip’s run as the unbelievably colossal vanity of the Spider is assaulted by a pretender to his title. The Mirror Man is a super-criminal who uses optical illusions to carry out his crimes, and the Spider has to crush him to keep the number one most wanted spot – and to satisfy his own vanity. The pitifully outmatched Gilmore and Trask return to chase the Spider but settle for his defeated rival.

“Dr. Mysterioso” is the first adventure by Jerry Siegel, who was forced to look elsewhere for work after an infamous falling out with DC Comics over the rights to Superman. The aforementioned criminal scientist was another contender for the Spider’s crown and their extended battle is a retro/camp masterpiece of arcane dialogue, insane devices and rollercoaster antics that showed again and again that although crime does not pay, it certainly provides a huge amount of white-knuckle fun.

The book concludes with a short reprint from the 1969 Lion Annual, entitled “The Red Baron”. Whilst not up to the standards of the regular strip the accent on straight action provides a welcome change to the Machiavellian skulduggery and cliff-hanger narrative.

A major factor in the strip’s success and reason for the reverence with which it is held is the captivating, not to say downright creepy, artwork of William Reginald Bunn. His strongly hatched line-work is perfect for the towering establishing shots and chases, and nobody ever drew moodier webbing. Bunn was an absolute master of black and white art whose work in comics was much beloved. Once the industry found him he was never without work. He died on the job in 1971 and is still much missed.

The Spider is back and should find a home in every kid’s heart and mind, no matter how young they might be, or threaten to remain.

© 2005 IPC Media Ltd. All Rights Reserved.