Too Soon?: Famous/Infamous Faces 1995-2010

By Drew Friedman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN 13: 978-1-60699-537-6

Technically, this isn’t a graphic novel or trade collection, it’s a picture book – but it is an absolutely stunning one, collecting some of the best and most trenchantly funny illustrations by a contender for the title of America’s Greatest Living Caricaturist in a lavish, full-colour hardback.

Drew Friedman began drawing commercially in the late 1970s. His meticulous, stippled monochrome satirical and socially biting cartoons of celebrities – and the rare comic strip – appearing in RAW, Screw, High Times, Weirdo, Comical Funnies, Heavy Metal, National Lampoon and the Holy of Holies MAD Magazine.

Gradually he moved into the publishing mainstream, and the phizzogs and foibles of the Rich and Famous gathered here are culled from a number of eclectic sources including Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, GQ Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Village Voice, Mojo, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times, The Weekly Standard, Blab!, Maximum Golf and even the gun-totin’ sports organ Field & Stream among many others – an hilarious cavalcade of covers and spot illustrations by a master of the graphic ideal moment.

After a funny and extremely informative potted history the mostly painted (but with occasional pen, wash, tone and even charcoal examples), staggeringly cruel, cutting and insightful images are unleashed, beginning with a section covering political and business highflyers.

The period 1995 to 2010 turned up an unenviable horde of risible leaders and manipulative malcontents and included here are 107 cartoon snapshots of such luminaries as the Clintons, Monica Lewinsky, Helmut Kohl, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Al Gore, Ross Perot, Sarah Palin, “Mayor Mike” Bloomberg, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Dick Cheney and many other domestic demagogues as well as such international ideologues as Tony Blair, Yasser Arafat, Mother Theresa, Jacques Chirac and Osama Bin Laden among many others.

The second section deals with Showbiz types ancient and modern, an includes a couple of astonishingly grand panoramic gatefold fold outs amidst the 140+ illustrations featuring super-stars and should-have-beens from sports, music, acting, the media and that nebulous twilight world of people who are famous without actually doing or achieving anything.

The roster includes Tiny Tim, Dean Martin, Sinatra, John Lennon, Michael Jackson (lots of him at various stages of his life-long metamorphosis), Tommy Lee, Madonna, Fred MacMurray, Judy Garland, Jackie Chan, Bob Dylan, Brando, De Niro, Woody Allen, Stallone, Will Smith, Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson, Jack Nicholson and so many others. The volume also includes some book and CD covers and private commissions, and also a fresh selection of the artist’s favourite artistic subjects: sideshow freaks and obscure Jewish and vintage comedians.

Friedman is a master craftsman who can draw and paint with breathtaking power, and his work is intrinsically funny. It’s relatively simple to make Blair, Bush or Bin Laden look like buffoons but try it with Rod Serling, Marilyn Manson, Mother Theresa or Salman Rushdie…

His caricatures are powerful, resonant and joyful, but without ever really descending to the level of graphic malice preferred by such luminaries as Ralph Steadman or Gerald Scarfe. Too Soon? is a book for art lovers, celebrity stalkers and anyone who enjoys a pretty, good laugh.

© 2006 Drew Friedman. All Rights Reserved.

You can see sample pages on the arts website

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: the First Jewish Superhero

By Thomas Andrae, Mel Gordon, Jerome Siegel & Joe Shuster (Feral House)
ISBN: 978-1-932595-78-9

The comics industry owes an unpayable debt to two Jewish kids from Cleveland who were in the right place at the right time and were able to translate their enthusiasm and heartfelt affection for beloved influences and delight in a new medium into a brand new genre which took the world by storm.

Writer Jerome Siegel and artist Joe Shuster were a jobbing cartoonist team just breaking into the brand new but ailing comic-book business with strips such as ‘Henri Duval’, ‘Doctor Occult’ and ‘Slam Bradley’ when they rejigged a constantly rejected newspaper strip concept into the greatest sensation of the Age.

Superman captivated depression-era audiences and within a year had become the vanguard of a genre and an industry. In those early days the feature was both whimsical and bombastic, as much a gag strip as an adventure serial, and it was clear the inspired whiz kids were wedded to laughs just as much as any wish-fulfilling empowerment fantasies.

Siegel and Shuster were not well-served by their publishers and by 1946 no longer worked for National Periodicals (today’s DC Comics). In fact they were in acrimonious litigation which led to the originators losing all rights to their creation and suffered years of ill-treatment until an artist-led campaign at the time of the 1978 Superman movie shamed the company into a belated reversal and financial package (consisting mostly of having their names returned to the character’s logo and company medical benefits).

Before this however the pair produced an abortive “Last Hurrah”: another unique character based on early influences, but one who sadly did not catch the public’s attention in those post war years when the first super-heroic age was ending. Based broadly on Danny Kaye, Funnyman was a stand-up comedian who dressed as a clown and used comedy gimmicks to battle criminals, super-villains and aliens: first in six issues of his own comic-book and then as a Daily and Sunday newspaper strip.

A complete antithesis to the Man of Steel, Larry Davis was a total insider, no orphan or immigrant, wealthy, successful, accepted and revered by society but who chose to become a ridiculous outsider, fighting for not the common good but because it gave him a thrill nothing else could match. The series was light, beautifully audacious, tremendous fun and sunk like a concrete-filled whoopee cushion.

Here social historians Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon re-examine the strip in the much broader context of Jewish Identity and racial character, (especially as it applies to Jewish-Americans), and make some fascinating observations and postulates. Following an intriguing preface by author, writer, editor and comics historian Danny Fingeroth this book dissects the history and psychology of the Judaic experience in a compelling series of astoundingly illustrated essays gathered under the umbrellas of Gordon’s ‘The Farblondjet Superhero and his Cultural Origins’ and Andrae’s ‘The Jewish Superhero’.

The former (and Farblondjet translates as “mixed up” or “lost”) probes ‘The Mystery of Jewish Humor’, ‘The Construct of Humor in Everyday Jewish Life’, ‘The Old Theories: ‘Laughter-Through-Tears’; ‘A Laughing People’; ‘Outside Observer’ and ‘The Badkhn Theory’ (Badkhn being performers hired to insult, offend and depress guests and celebrants at social gatherings such as weddings or funerals).

‘Characteristics of Modern Jewish Humor’ are subdivided and explored in ‘Aggression’, ‘The Yiddish Language’, ‘Self-Mockery’, ‘Inversion and Skepticism’, ‘Scatology’, ‘Gallows Humor’ and ‘Solipsism and Materialism’ and Gibson’s compelling, contextual  potted-history concludes with ‘American- Jewish Comedy Before 1947’ ( when Funnyman debuted) with ‘Weber and Fields’, ‘On the Boards’, ‘The Borscht Belt’, ‘Cartoons and Jokebooks’ and ‘Hollywood Talkies and Syndicated Radio’.

In ‘The Jewish Superhero’ Andrae examines Siegel and Shuster’s possible influences; everything from German expressionist cinema masterpiece ‘The Golem: How He Came into This World’ to the real-life strongman Sigmund Breitbart, a Polish Jew who astounded the world with his feats in the early 1920s. On his American tour he appeared in Cleveland in October 1923. Siegel, a local resident, would have been nine years old…

‘Funnyman, Jewish Masculinity and the Decline of the Superhero’ then explores the psychology and landscape of the medium through the careers and treatment of Siegel and Shuster in ‘The Birth of Funnyman’, ‘The Body Politic’, ‘The Schlemiel and the Tough Jew’, ‘The Decline of the Superhero’ and ‘Comic Book Noir’ before going on to recount the story of the newspaper strips in ‘The Funnyman Comic Strip’ and ‘Reggie Van Twerp’ (a last ditch attempt by the creators to resurrect their comic fortunes) before the inevitable ‘End Game’

So far this book has been a compulsive and hugely informative academic work, but in ‘Funnyman Comic Book Stories’ the resplendent fan fun really begins with a full colour section reproducing a selection of strips from the six issue run. ‘The Kute Knockout!’ (Funnyman #2, March 1948) pits the Hilarious Hero against a streetwalker robot built to seduce and rob Johns whilst ‘The Medieval Mirthquake’ (Funnyman #4, May 1948) propels the Comedy Crusader back to the time of Camelot. From the same issue comes ‘Leapin’ Lena’ as Funnyman tackles a female bandit who can jump like a kangaroo and #5 (July 1948) has him chasing a worrying new crime gimmick in ‘The Peculiar Pacifier’.

Also included are the striking covers of all six issues, the origin of Funnyman from #1, lots of splash pages and a selection of Shuster’s Superman art, but the most welcome benefit for collectors and collectors is a detailed précis of the entire run’s 20 tales.

The same consideration is offered for the newspaper strips. As well as similar synopses for the Sundays (12 adventures spanning October 31st 1948 to the end of October 1949) and the Dailies (another dozen larks beginning October 18th 1948 and ending September 17th 1949) there are 11 pages of full colour Sunday sections and the complete black and white ‘Adventure in Hollywood’ (December 20th to January 12th 1949) to adore and marvel over.

Like Funnyman this book is an odd duck. Whereas I would have loved to see the entire output gathered into one volume, what there is here is completely engrossing: a wonderful appreciation and compelling contextualization of genuine world-altering pioneers. This is a fabulous book with an appeal that ranges far beyond its possibly limited comic-fan audience.

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman © 2010 Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon. All rights reserved.

Norman Pettingill: Backwoods Humorist

Edited by Gary Groth, with an introduction by Robert Crumb (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-319-4

It’s a big planet and there are many places to hide an artistic prodigy. That’s never been more capably proved than in the case of Norman Pettingill, a lost hero of the workaday craft aesthetic who lived and died in Wisconsin, revelling in a backwoods life living off the land and supporting his family with personalised cartoons, jobbing art such as postcards and commercial signage, commissioned illustrations and simply stunning personal works: mostly natural scenes and reportage of the hunting and fishing community he lived in.

He worked in seclusion until his incredibly intense, ribald and frenetic postcard art was discovered by Robert Crumb who immediately reprinted them in his Underground Commix magazine Weirdo. These over-sized scenes were multi-layered, packed with hundreds of characters acting in micro-scenes and grotesquely raw and vulgar: like Hieronymus Bosch, Basil Wolverton and Leo Baxendale working all on the same page.

This superb book, rough and rustic with a wooden front cover, tells the life-story of this truly driven artist – who could no more stop drawing than breathe underwater. Self-taught and clearly besotted with the creative process, Pettingill was clearly not a man afraid to fill a page with extras, and the work gathered here, collected by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (a major conserver of folk art of the American mid-west) shows a true original equally at home drawing pictures to pay bills and making masterpieces because he couldn’t stop himself.

Gathered here are many of his astoundingly frantic, charmingly gruesome postcard tableaux, featuring hunters, boozers and what we’d call hillbillies but what Pettingill probably called the neighbours, as well as more intimate personal creations; family collages, gloriously entrancing pen and ink studies of the beasts and birds he lived amongst – and hunted – and even the doodles he adorned the envelopes of letters with.

His surreal, bawdy, raw concoctions mirrored and presaged the graphic license and social freedoms of the 1960s counterculture (although he really started his artistic journey twenty years  earlier) but even though his fans today include such iconoclastic cartoonists as Crumb and Johnny Ryan, Pettingill’s appeal is far wider than just grist for us pen-and-ink pushers.

With his fondly cynical, wry observation and piercingly incisive eye Norman Pettingill became a societal camera onto a time and place in rural and even wild America that we seldom see nowadays: a warmly honest raconteur, part of a tradition that includes and spans the fierce and gentle ranges from Garrison Keillor’s elegiac (and positively local) Lake Wobegon tales to the razor-edged self-examination of the Southern kinfolk typified by the gagsters of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour: a purely American humour by and for the ordinary guy.

This first retrospective of Pettingill’s art is stuffed with more than a hundred of his most telling monochrome pieces and will appeal to cartoon-lovers and people watchers equally.

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Individual contributions © 2010 their authors. Unless otherwise noted all photography and art © 2010 John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Art from the collections of Glenn Bray, R. Crumb and Jim Pink © 2010 the estate of Norman Pettingill.

Early Barefootz

By Howard Cruse (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-052-1

Howard Cruse’s remarkable cartooning career has spanned decades and encompassed a number of key moments in American history and social advancement.

Beginning as a Hippy-trippy, counter-culture, Underground Comix star with beautifully drawn, witty, funny (not always the same thing in those days – or these, come to think of it) strips, evolving over the years into a powerful voice for change in both sexual and race politics through such superb features as Wendel culminating in his masterful Stuck Rubber Baby – an examination of oppression, tolerance and freedom in 1950s America. Since then he has worked on other writer’s work, illustrating an adaptation of Jeanne E. Shaffer’s The Swimmer With a Rope In His Teeth.

Born in 1944 the son of a Baptist Minister in Birmingham, Alabama, Cruse grew up amid the smouldering intolerance of the region’s segregationist regime, an atmosphere that affected him on a primal level. He escaped to Birmingham-Southern College to study Drama in the late ‘60s, graduating and winning a Shubert Playwriting Fellowship to Penn State University.

Campus life there never really suited him and he dropped out in 1969. Returning to the South he joined a loose crowd of fellow Birmingham Bohemians which allowed him to blossom as a creator and by 1971 was drawing a spectacular procession of strips for an increasingly hungry and growing crowd of eager admirers.

Whilst working for a local TV station as both designer and children’s show performer he created a kid’s newspaper strip about talking squirrels, Tops & Button, still finding time to craft the utterly whimsical and bizarre tales of a romantic quadrangle starring a very nice young man and his troublesome friends for the more discerning college crowd he still mingled with. The strips appeared in a variety of college newspapers and periodicals

He was “discovered” by publishing impresario Denis Kitchen in 1972 who began presenting Barefootz to a far broader audience in such Underground publications as Snarf, Bizarre Sex, Dope Comix and Commies From Mars from his Kitchen Sink Enterprises outfit.

Kitchen also hired Cruse to work on an ambitious co-production with rising powerhouse Marvel Comics, attempting to bring a bowdlerised version of the counter-culture’s cartoon stars and sensibilities to the mainstream via the Comix Book – a newsstand magazine. It only ran to a half-dozen issues and although deemed a failure it provided the notionally more wholesome and genteel Barefootz with a larger audience and yet more avid fans…

As well as an actor, designer, art-director and teacher, Cruse’s work has appeared in Playboy, The Village Voice, Heavy Metal, Artforum International, The Advocate and Starlog among countless others, and the tireless storyman found the time and resources to self-publish Barefootz Funnies, two comic collections of his addictively whimsical strip in 1973.

Here in this fascinatingly written memoir of those salad days Cruse movingly recounts those early triumphs and re-presents the strips that began it all, covering 1970-73, and although he has moved on to weightier material since (especially on Gay and Race issues) these splendidly whacky and deliriously charming adventures still stand among his most evergreen creations.

So here, for your consideration and delectation are the gathered exploits and ruminations of thoughtful, Nice Young Man Barefootz, his way-out friend and confidante Headrack, sexually aggressive and very forceful gal-pal Dolly and Glory: the frog-manifesting “Thing Under the Bed”, aided and abetted by an ever-changing cast of erudite cockroaches who share his apartment.

As well as the history and Cruse’s reflections, this terrific compilation includes in stunning and meticulous monochrome a selection of Tops & Button gag-panels, ‘The Head Strip’, early strips from campus journal The Crimson-White and The Alternate, syndicated Barefootz from Service Strips, Kitchen Sink single-pagers and the longer stories, ‘Tussy Come Back’, ‘Hint and Run’, ‘Cream of the Genes’, ‘It All Fits’, ‘Suffering Celeste’, the Paperman strips and ‘The Eclipse’, – a classic and unflinchingly engaging treat for any comics fan and grown-up dreamer.

For further information check out and track down this and all his other brilliant creations – before Glory turns you into a frog…
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1977 & 1987, 1990 Howard Cruse. All rights reserved.

The Classic Pin-Up Art of Jack Cole

By Jack Cole, edited by Alex Chun (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-284-5

Jack Cole was one of the most uniquely gifted talents of American Comics’ Golden Age, crafting landmark tales in horror, true crime, war, adventure and especially superhero genres. His incredible humour-hero Plastic Man remains an unsurpassed benchmark of screwball costumed Hi-jinks: frequently copied but never equalled. As the Golden Age faded, Cole could see the writing on the wall and famously jumped into gag and glamour cartooning, becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour saucy pictures began running in Playboy with the fifth issue.

Ever-restless, Cole eventually moved into the lofty realms of newspaper strips and in May 1958, achieved a life-long ambition by launching the syndicated domestic comedy Betsy and Me. On August 13th 1958, at the moment of his biggest break he took his own life.

The unexplained reasons for his death are not as important as the triumphs of Cole’s artistic life and this captivating paperback (reprinting a rare hardback compilation from 2004) provides a fascinating insight into a transitional moment in his artistic development.

When Cole began his move from comic-books into the “adult world” of cartooning, he adopted the nom-de-plume “Jake” whilst he honed his dormant gag-skills (sequential narrative being so far removed from the “quintessential moment” illustration needed for a single picture telling an entire story). Working in beautiful ink and wash creations he began submitting to the cheaper end men’s magazines: ubiquitous little throwaway digests with titles such as Romp, Stare, Joker, Laugh Riot and Breezy, packed with photos of saucy vixens like Betty Page and her cheesecake ilk – and lots and lots of debatably risqué gags.

Nor was he the only artist making the pilgrimage: other funnybook stars on the move included Bill Ward, Jefferson Machamer, Dan DeCarlo, Bill Wenzel and Basil Wolverton.

This charmingly innocent compendium of Lush Ladies, Willing Wantons, Savvy Sirens, Naive Nymphs (always stunningly beautiful women) collects his 100 or so published sales, divided into Line Art, Washes and an astounding selection of Originals – images shot from the actual artwork and not printed pages, revealing all the detail and unedited work a budding creator could need or desire.

This beguiling glimpse into a major artist’s processes and the sexual mores of an entire generation are an intoxicating treat and that the work is still utterly addictive is a treasure beyond compare.

© 2004, 2010 Fantagraphics Books All right reserved.

Bad Habits

By Norman Dog (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 0-86719-329-8/ ISBN-13: 978-0867193299

I haven’t reviewed a straight cartoon book in a dog’s age, so here’s a rare but still readily acquirable item from an outrageous comedy original and pen-pushing veteran who’s still making America laugh-out-loud – the cooler bits anyway – with his sly, cynical and fabulously skewed outlook and observations on the Human Condition and the Things We Don’t Know Yet..

Cultural commentator Norman Dog may or may not be Raymond Larrett (it’s complicated – that’s why better carbon-based life forms than you or I invented search engines). A West Coast cartoonist whose legendary – he would say “interminable” – strip has run in the East Bay Express since 1981, Dog has been capturing with laconic brilliance the bizarre panorama of modern life for all to see and disagree with…

Describing his slick, modern and excessively hip observations on Real Americans as “Comication”, Dog has been making us foreigners, Pinko Subversive Intellectuals and other weirdoes giggle and think with every exposed home secret or shared cultural reference and seems determined not to stop.

This early volume, collecting the budding best of the strip includes ‘Let’s all go… Dance Crazy!’, ‘I Was Satan’s Plaything!’, ‘The Enchanted Toothbrush’, ‘Celebrity Breakfasts!’, ‘Suicide Hotline’, ‘The Missing Father’, ‘Hey, Stupid!’, ‘Curse of the Mysterious Horror!’, ‘A Perfectly Typical Tuesday Evening at Home With Jane and Walter’, ‘Hints for Aliens’, ‘The Punk Romance’, ‘Giant Crawling Brain!’, ‘Modern Physics for Morons’, ‘Space Sluts’ amongst literally some others and delivers high-octane, occasionally lowbrow doses of premeditated mirth in devastating, delicious, full-page monochrome pastiches of a dozen different graphic styles.

Dog/Larrett, whose work has appeared in Raw Magazine, Spin, Nickelodeon Magazine, Weirdo, Anarchy Comics, The Nation and even some other places and publications, is long overdue for a big, bold book collection, but until then, converts can catch his latest full-colour efforts in the elucidatory The 37 Cartoons You Should Read Before You Die if they so wish.

Enough Soft-Sell: go read something funny…
© 1983, 1984, 1990 Norman Dog. All rights reserved.

Black Jack volume 10

By Osamu Tezuka (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-934287-74-3

In a creative career that produced over 700 hundred different series and more than 150,000 pages (many of them only now finally becoming available to people who can’t read Japanese), Osamu Tezuka captivated generations of readers across the world with tales of history, fantasy, romance and startling adventure. Perhaps his most intriguing creation is Black Jack, an underground surgeon who overcame horrendous childhood injuries and, despite carrying many scars within and without, roams the globe, curing anybody who can pay his deliberately daunting, exorbitant prices – usually cash, but sometimes in more exotic or metaphysical coin.

He is the ultimate loner, except for Pinoko, a little girl he literally built from the organic scraps of an early case. Unlicensed by any medical board on Earth, he holds himself to the highest ethical standards possible… his own. All the troubles and wonders of this world can be found in medical dramas, and here elements of rationalism, science-fiction, kitchen sink drama, spiritualism, criminality, crushing sentimentality and shining human frailty are woven into an epic of Magical Realism to rival the works of Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez.

Black Jack is at once a lone wolf hero, troubled genius, passionate outsider and amoral humanitarian combining the indomitable will of Doc Savage with the intellect of Sherlock Holmes and ambivalent, intuitive drive of Dr. Gregory House. Hideously scarred, viciously spurning all human comfort, the unlicensed mercenary medic endures public condemnation and professional scorn, as he continually confronts the cutting edges of medicine and reality.

His esteemed creator Osamu Tezuka was born in Qsaka Prefecture on 3rd November 1928, and as a child suffered from a severe illness. The doctor who cured him inspired him to study medicine, and although the cartoonist began his professional drawing career while at university, he persevered with his studies and qualified as a doctor too.

Facing a career crossroads, Tezuka’s mother advised him to do the thing that made him happiest. He never practiced medicine but the world was gifted with such classic cartoon masterpieces as Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro-boy), Kimba the White Lion, Buddha, Adolf and literally hundreds of other graphic narratives. Along the way Tezuka incidentally pioneered, if not actually invented, the Japanese anime industry.

Equally able to speak to the hearts and minds of children and adults, Osamu Tezuka’s work ranges from the charming to the disturbing, even terrifying. In 1973 he turned his storyteller’s eye to his past college studies and created Burakku Jakku, a lone-wolf doctor living beyond society’s boundaries and rules:  a heartless mercenary miracle-worker for the right price yet still a deeply human if wounded soul who works his surgical wizardry from behind icy walls of cool indifference and casual hostility…

This tenth volume begins with ‘Avina’s Isle’ a fantastic doomed romance as a pearl diving South Sea native risks everything to marry his princess, utterly unaware of the sinister forces arrayed against him. There are some injuries no scalpel or suture can remedy…

‘The Mask Chosen’ is a revelatory tale of vengeance that cuts to the heart of Black Jack’s frightful past as the surgeon’s missing father emerges after decades with an outrageous request, whilst ‘Revenge is My Life’ shows a different side to Man’s basest instinct in a passionate, convoluted story which sees the Surgical Samurai go to superhuman lengths to repair a shattered woman with every reason to hate him.

Possibly the most moving Black Jack story yet translated, ‘Unfinished House’ reveals why a man with all the cash that the rogue doctor has earned still lives in a ramshackle hovel, a powerful tale of debts honoured and obligations met. ‘Strangers at Sea’ is a tense nautical crime drama mystically transformed by the expansive, all-encompassing, uncompromising love Dolphins display for mankind. Bring tissues: many tissues.

‘Pinoko Returns’ stars the doctor’s big-hearted little assistant who adopts a thieving conman, only to suddenly disappear without trace. Black Jack, the man with no emotions, must weigh his heart’s greatest desire against the slimmest chance of finding his pestiferous creation…

Years before drug mules became a common storytelling Maguffin ‘The Man Who Threw Up Capsules’ used the phenomenon to weave a complex tale of corrupt family practitioners and the price paid for social prestige, whilst ‘Flesh And Blood’ returns Black Jack to his dying father’s side and introduces a sister he never knew he had. Of course it cannot end well…

‘Burglary’ shows the power and weakness of utter devotion as the Super Surgeon is asked to reconstruct the unique prosthetic limbs of a total amputee. But who would steal such intensely personal items and why does Lady Jane not want her arms and legs back? ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ is a much less disturbing story: a cool, cynical caper starring a young, idealistic doctor hired by a rich old man to check the infamous medical maverick’s work. It seems the billionaire paid Black Jack a fortune to implant billions in gems inside his failing body, and now he needs to know if the notoriously greedy mercenary medic did so or just kept the loot for himself…

In Hawaii Black Jack survives a ‘Hot Night’ when an unlovable Vietnam veteran requests his expertise after he nearly killed for the third time, ‘Ransom’ sees an incomprehensible relationship blossom between a vicious kidnapper and his victim whilst ‘Mannequin and Officer’ is a story that could only happen in Japan, as a cop develops a peculiar affection for a traffic dummy. Luckily Black Jack owes him a favour…

‘Playing Doctor’ ends this volume on a high and happy note as a school bully and his favourite victim join forces to cure a little girl. Bu then, she has never met the real Black Jack…

One thing should always be remembered when reading these stories: despite all the scientific detail, all the frighteningly accurate terminology and trappings, Black Jack isn’t medical fiction; it’s an exploration of ethics and morality with medicine raised to the level of magic… or perhaps duelling. This is an epic of personal combats, a lone gunfighter battling hugely oppressive counter-forces (the Law, the System, casual human cruelty, himself) to win just one more victory: medicine as mythology, won by a Ronin with a fast car and a Gladstone bag.

Thrilling, charming, bitterly insightful and overwhelmingly moving, these addictive magical stories of a medical wizard in a cruel, corrupt and ultimately unknowable universe will shake all your preconceptions of what storytelling can be…

This book is printed in the Japanese right to left, back to front format, and also contains an excerpt from the forthcoming new edition of Osamu Tezuka’s landmark graphic biography Buddha.

© 2009 by Tezuka Productions. Translation © 2009 Vertical, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 1

By Roy Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-161-9

Modern comics evolved from newspaper comic strips, and these pictorial features were until relatively recently utterly ubiquitous and hugely popular with the public – and highly valued by publishers who used them as an irresistible sales weapon to guarantee and increase circulation and profits.

It’s virtually impossible for us to today to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America (and the wider world) from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were the most common recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality.

From the very start humour was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics”, and from these gag and stunt beginnings – a blend of silent movie slapstick, outrageous fantasy and the vaudeville shows – came a thoroughly entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting on April 21st 1924 Washington Tubbs II was a comedic gag-a-day strip not much different from family favourite Harold Teen (by Crane’s friend and contemporary Carl Ed). Tubbs was a diminutive, ambitious young shop clerk when it began in 1924, but gradually the strip moved into mock-heroics, then through light action to become a full-blown, light-hearted, rip-roaring adventure series with the introduction of ancestral he-man and prototype moody swashbuckler Captain Easy in the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

As the tales became more exotic and thrill-packed the globe-trotting little dynamo clearly needed a sidekick who could believably handle the combat side of things, and thus in the middle of a European war Tubbs liberated a mysterious fellow American from a jail cell and history was made. Before long the mismatched pair were travelling companions, hunting treasure, fighting thugs and rescuing a bevy of startlingly comely maidens in distress…

The two-fisted, bluff, completely capable and utterly dependable, down-on-his-luck “Southern Gentleman” was something not seen before in comics, a raw, square-jawed hunk played straight rather than the buffoon or music hall foil of such classic serials as Hairsbreadth Harry or Desperate Desmond. Moreover Crane’s seductively simple blend of cartoon exuberance and design was a far more accessible and powerful medium for action story-telling than the somewhat static illustrative style favoured by artists like Hal Foster: just beginning to make waves on the new Tarzan Sunday page.

Tubbs and Easy were as exotic and thrilling as the Ape Man but rattled along like the tempestuous Popeye, full of vim, vigour and vinegar, as attested to by a close look at the early work of the would-be cartoonists who followed the strip with avid intensity: Floyd Gottfredson, Milton Caniff, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and especially young Joe Shuster…

After a couple of abortive attempts starring his little hero, Crane bowed to the inevitable and created a full colour Sunday page dedicated to his increasingly popular hero-for-hire. Captain Easy debuted on 30th July 1933, in wild and woolly escapades set before his fateful meeting with Tubbs,

This first volume begins with the soldier of fortune undertaking a mercenary mission for the Chinese government to spy on the city of ‘Gungshi.’ In the heyday of popular exploration and aviator exploits the bold solo flight over the Himalayas to Chinese Turkestan was stirring enough but when Easy infiltrated the hidden citadel it heralded the beginning of a rollercoaster romp with sword wielding Mongols, sultry Houris, helpless dancing girls, fabulous beasts and wicked bandits: captivating entire families across the planet, week after addictive week.

With an entire page and vibrant colours to play with, Crane’s imagination ran wild and his fabulous visual concoctions achieved a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art. The effect of the pages can be seen in so many strips since especially the works of such near-contemporaries as Hergé and giants in waiting like Charles Schulz.

These pages were a clearly as much of joy to create as to read. In fact, the cited reason for Crane surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les turner in 1937 was the NEA Syndicate abruptly demanding that all its strips be henceforward produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate them being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated. Crane just walked away, concentrating on the daily feature. In 1943 he left the Syndicate to create the pilot strip Buz Sawyer.

At the end of the blockbuster epic Easy is a hero to the people of Gungshi, if not the aristocracy, who plot to oust him via the subtlest of means. The second adventure ‘The Slave Girl’ began on 21st January 1934, and found the occidental hero bankrupted to save the beautiful Rose Petal from the auction block, a chivalrous gesture that led to war with the rival city of Kashno, and a brutally hilarious encounter with South Sea pirates…

In an era where ethic stereotyping and casual racism were acceptable if not mandatory, the introduction of a vile and unscrupulous yank as the exploitative villain was and is a surprising delight. Rambling Jack is every inch the ugly, greedy American and by contrasting Easy’s wholesome quest to make his fortune with the venal explorer’s rapacious ruthlessness, Crane makes a telling point for the folks back home. It also makes for great reading as Chinese bandits also enter the fray, determined to plunder both cities and everybody in-between…

With the help of a lost British aviator Easy is finally victorious, but on returning to his Chinese employers he spots something whilst flying over the Himalayas that radically alters his plans…

‘The Sunken City’ is an early masterpiece of pictorial fiction, as Easy recruits comedy stooge ‘arry Pippy, a demobbed cockney British Army cook, to help him explore a drowned city he had spotted from the air, lost for centuries in a hidden inland sea. However, simply to get there the pair must trek through wild jungles where they encounter blowpipe-wielding cannibals and the greatest threat the valiant rogue has ever faced…

If I’ve given the impression that this has all been grim and gritty turmoil and drama thus far, please forgive me: Roy Crane was a superbly irrepressible gag-man and this enchanting serial abounds with breezy light-hearted banter, hilarious situations and outright farce – a sure-fire formula modern cinema directors plunder to this day. Easy is the Indiana Jones, Flynn (the Librarian) Carsen and Jack (Romancing the Stone) Cotton of his day and clearly blazed a trail for all of them.

Using a deep sea diver’s suit the pair explore the piscine wonders and submerged grandeur of the lost city, encountering some of the most magical and fanciful sea beasts ever recorded in comics before literally striking gold, but when the cannibals attack their treasures are lost and Easy finds himself captive and betrothed to the most hideous witch hag imaginable…

Risking everything the desperate treasure-seekers make a break for it only to re-encounter ‘The Pirates’ (April 14th -July 7th 1935), but before they get too far the husband-hungry witch and her faithful cannibals come after him, leading to a brutal, murderous conclusion.

After years in the Orient Easy and Pippy have a hankering for less dangerous company and make their way to Constantinople and Europe, but trouble was never far from the mercenary and in ‘The Princess’ (14th July – December 1st 1935) his gentlemanly instincts compel him to rescue a beautiful woman from the unwelcome attentions of munitions magnate Count Heyloff, a gesture that embroiled the Captain in a manufactured war between two small nations.

This tale clearly addressed the contemporary American sentiment that another world conflict was brewing and it’s obvious that Crane’s opinion was the deeply held common conviction that the whole international unrest was the result of rich men’s greedy manipulations…

Dark, bittersweet and painfully foreboding this yarn sees Easy become the target of Heyloff’s vengeance and the entire air force for the tiny underdog nation of Nikkateena in their bitter struggle for survival against the equally-duped country of Woopsydasia. Crane kept the combat chronicle light but on occasion his true feelings showed through in some of the most trenchant anti-war art ever seen.

This superb hardback and colossal initial collection is the perfect means of discovering or rediscovering Crane’s rip-snorting, pulse-pounding, exotically racy adventure trailblazer. The huge pages in this volume (almost 14 ½ by 10½ inches or 21x14cm for the younger, metric crowd) also contain a fascinating and informative introductory biography of Crane by historian Jeet Heer, a glowing testimonial from Charles “Peanuts” Schulz, contemporary promotional material, extra drawings and sketches and a fascinating feature explaining how pages were coloured in those long-ago days before computers…

This is comics storytelling of the very highest quality: unforgettable, spectacular and utterly irresistible. These tales rank alongside her best of Hergé, Tezuka and Kirby and led irrefutably to the creations of all of them. Now that you have the chance to experience the strips that inspired the giants of our art form, how can you possibly resist?

Captain Easy Strips © 2010 United Features Syndicate, Inc. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons

Edited by Craig Yoe (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-150-3

You’ll hear a lot about the pen being mightier than the sword regarding this book, but sadly it’s just not true. Nothing stops determined governments, outraged religions and greedy rich bastards from sending the young and idealistic to their mass-produced deaths, especially those innocents who have any modicum of patriotism or sense of adventure.

Our own current situation proves that mankind is always far too ready to take up arms, and far too resistant to giving peace a chance, especially when a well-oiled publicity machine and mass unemployment gang up on the man and woman in the street. We’re all susceptible to the power of a marching beat played on fife and drum…

At least here among these 220 plus cartoons we see that rationalism or conscientious objectivity or pacifism or even self-interested isolationism are as versed in seductive arts as the power and passion of jingoism and war-fever.

All art, but most especially cartooning, has the power to bore deep into the soul, just as James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic Uncle Sam poster “Your Country Needs You” so effectively did to millions of young Americans during the Great War. How satisfying then to see his is the very first anti-war cartoon in this incredible collection of images focusing on the impassioned pleas of creators trying to avoid or at least reduce bloodshed.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons gathers a multitude of incredibly moving, thought-provoking, terrifying, but, I’m gutted to say, ultimately ineffective warnings, scoldings and pleas that may have moved millions of people, but never stopped or even gave pause to one single conflict.

The editors have divided these unforgettable pictures into a broad variety of categories and I should make it clear that not all the reasons for their creation were necessarily pacifistic: some of the most evocative drawings here are from creators who didn’t think War is Bad per se, but rather felt that the clash in question was none of their homeland’s business.

However with such chapters as Planet War, Man’s Inhumanity to Man, The Gods of War, Profiteers, Recruitment and Conscription, The Brass, The Grunts, Weapons of War, The Battle Rages On, The Long March, Famine, The Anthems of War, The Horrors of War, The Suffering, The Families and Children of War, The Aftermath, Victory Celebration, Medals, Disarmament, Resistance and Peace we see immensely talented people of varying beliefs respond on their own unique terms to organised slaughter, and for every tut-tut of the stay-at-homers there are a dozen from genuinely desperate and appalled artists who just want the horror to end.

With incisive examinations of shared symbology and recurring themes these black and white penmen have used their brains and talents in their strivings to win their point (there is also a fascinating section highlighting the impact and energy of the Colors of War) but the most intriguing aspect of this superb collection is the sheer renown and worth of the contributors. Among the 119 artists include (120 if you count Syd Hoff and his nom-de-plume “Redfield” as two separate artists) are Sir John Tenniel, Caran d’Ache, Bruce Bairnsfather, Herbert Block, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Ron Cobb, “Ding” Darling, Billy DeBeck, Jerry Robinson, Albrecht Dürer, Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, Rube Goldberg, Honore Daumier, Goya, George Grosz, Bill Mauldin, Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, Thomas Nast and most especially the incredibly driven Winsor McCay, (I’ve scandalously assumed that many of the older European draughtsmen won’t be that well known, despite their works being some of the most harrowing) and their efforts, although perhaps wasted on people willing to listen to reason anyway, are cruel and beautiful enough to make old cynics like me believe that this time, this time, somebody in power will actually do something to stop the madness.

A harsh and lovely book: buy it in the hope that one day Peace will be the Final Solution.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons and the digitally remastered public domain material are © 2009 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All rights reserved.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 4: Plunder Island

By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-169-5

There is more than one Popeye. If your first thought when you hear the name is the cheerful, indomitable sailor in full Naval whites always fighting a hulking great beardy-bloke and mainlining tinned spinach, that’s okay: The Fleischer Studios and Famous Films animated features have a brilliance and energy of their own (even the later, watered-down anodyne TV versions have some merit) and they are indeed based on the grizzled, crusty, foul-mouthed, bulletproof, golden-hearted old swab who shambled his way into the newspaper strip Thimble Theatre and simple wouldn’t leave. But they are really only the tip of an incredible iceberg of satire, slapstick, virtue, vice and mind-boggling adventure.

In the less than ten years Elzie Crisler Segar worked with Popeye, (from 17th January 19 1929, until the creator’s untimely death on 13th October 1938) he built an incredible meta-world of fabulous lands and locations, where unique characters undertook fantastic voyages and experienced big thrills as well as the small human dramas we’re all subject to: a saga both extraordinary and mundane, which could be hilarious or terrifying and was often both at the same time. For every trip to the rip-roaring Wild West or sunken kingdom there was a brawl between squabbling neighbours, spats between friends or disagreements between sweethearts – any and all usually settled with mightily swung fists.

Popeye is the first Superman of comics, but he was not a comfortable hero to idolise. A brute who thought with his fists and didn’t respect authority; uneducated, short-tempered, fickle (when hot tomatoes batted their eyelashes – or thereabouts – at him), a gambler and troublemaker, he wasn’t welcome in polite society…and he wouldn’t want to be. The sailor-man is the ultimate working class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, with an innate and unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not, a joker who wants kids to be themselves but not necessarily “good” and a man who takes no guff from anyone; always ready to defend the weak and with absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows. He was and will always be “the best of us”…

With this fourth magnificent hardcover collection of Segar’s comic masterpiece the Sunday Colour pages take precedence as for the first time ever his magnum opus ‘Plunder Island’ is reprinted in its full, unexpurgated totality. The selection here covers the period December 3rd 1933 to April 7th 1935, and the epitome of stirring sea-sagas takes up the first six months of that time (ending with the July15th 1934 installment). It all kicks off when Popeye’s old shipmate Salty Bill Barnacle invites him to go adventuring in search of fabled Plunder Island, land of stolen treasure, little suspecting that the ghastly Sea Hag has returned. With her new gang of deadly henchmen, including brutal Mister Skom and the monstrous Goon she kidnaps Professor Cringly – the aged scholar who knows the lost island’s location, and Popeye’s latest voyage is seemingly over before it has begun….

Gathering a bunch of decidedly dubious Argonauts, including Wimpy, Rough-house, Geezil, and private cop G.B. Gritmore, Olive, Salty Bill and Popeye swiftly gave chase, but all seems hopeless until the Witch of the Seas makes her big mistake. She sends the Goon to take hostages, and when the beast returns with the indomitable Popeye and an inexplicably irresistible Wimpy, the latter’s heretofore unsuspected attractions promptly turns the gruesome heads of both the Hag and her Goon (who is apparently a rather decent – if homely – lady named Alice…)

Roller-Coaster adventure and riotous comedy have never been better blended than in this tale, but even when the victorious crew finally returned home the fun didn’t stop. Next we see the bitter aftermath and how the various heroes dispose of or lose the fabulous wealth they’ve won. Wimpy, for example, simply and rapidly eats his way through most of his, whilst Popeye once again gives his away, prompting his return to the world of extreme prize-fighting…

Baby Swee’pea made his Sunday debut on 28th October 1934 (after being introduced in a riotous sequence in the daily strip: see E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 3: “Let’s You and Him Fight”), becoming the focus of many outrageous gags once Popeye, Wimpy and Olive Oyl returned to their slapstick shtick, allowing the audience to decompress before the next big story…

The Sappo topper strip became even more imaginative in this period with Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle’s mad science exploits leading to ever crazier results and the regular breaking of the “fourth wall”. For the unprepared this was a strip that could regularly make your brain as well as your sides split…

The added extra feature ‘Funny Films’ (dioramic scenes through which continuous strips of cartooned “filmstrips” could be moved to create a home cinema) eventually gave way to the fascinatingly informative and entertaining ‘Popeye’s Cartoon Club’ which provided tips and encouragement to budding artists – and Segar’s approach and advice is as sound today as it ever was…

Just because he was setting the world alight with his innovative Sunday adventure serials and complete gag strips is no reason to suppose his daily feature suffered. In fact the breakneck pace seemed to inspire Segar, as in short order Popeye and his ever-expanding cast of clowns and reprobates rollicked through a memorable run of captivating tales.

The black and white dailies section here covers 11th December 1933 to 24th July 1934, and begins with the sailor-man moving to Puddleburg ‘The Laziest Town on Earth’ to run their local newspaper, accompanied by Swee’pea, Olive and Wimpy; giving the self-deprecating and wickedly trenchant Segar an opportunity to lampoon himself and his profession with the creation of B. Loony Bullony: World Famous Cartoonist…

When Olive inherits twenty million dollars, her marital prospects increase dramatically, but since one of the most ardent converts to her previously well-hidden charms is Mr. J. Wellington Wimpy, she soon realises that money isn’t everything in ‘Romances and Riches’ – especially after Popeye rescues debutante June Vanripple from drowning and becomes the unwilling toast of the “Sassiety Crowd”

This extended morality play on the evils and travails of wealth contains some of the funniest screwball comedy set-pieces of the entire 1930s (books, movies, strips, everything!) with such memorable moments as Popeye in drag (particularly a rather fetching ladies’ swimsuit), the elder Vanripple and the sailor in a wild-oat sowing contest and Olive as a singing, dancing movie star – complete with fake million dollar legs…

Another classic and beloved sequence is ‘Unifruit or White Savages’ where the shock of losing her loot sends Olive into the convulsive shock syndrome of Aspenitis and the cure is a therapeutic berry that only grows on the wacky island of Nazilia, deep in the territory of a lost tribe of hulking man-beasts…

The frantic antics and comedy continue when June and Mr. Vanripple ask Popeye to go west and crush the cowboy bandits plundering their gold mines in ‘Black Valley’ (and if you think drag is outrageous, check out Popeye in a tutu as a saloon dance-girl).

Fair warning though: this was an era where casual racial stereotyping was considered completely acceptable and a key part of cartooning. Segar sinned far less than most: his style was far more character-specific, and his personal delight was playing with accents and how folk spoke. George W. Geezil wasn’t merely a cheap Jewish stock figure of fun, but as fully rounded as any one of nearly fifty supporting cast members could be within the constrictions of page and panel count.

In ‘Black Valley’ Castor Oyl has a Negro manservant called Eclipse, who, although superficially little different in speech pattern and appearance from less-enlightened cartoonists’ portrayal of coloured people, played an active – if brief – role in proceedings. He wasn’t there for cheap easy laughs, but even so its clear Segar wasn’t comfortable with him and he wasn’t a permanent addition. He may be quite disquieting to you and I, but please try and recall the tone of the times and – even though there’s still a whole lot of prejudice still to be dealt with today – just how far we’ve come…

The old salt’s greatest “emeny” returned in another bombastic fantasy romp entitled ‘The Sea Hag’s Sister or The Pool of Youth’, wherein the vile villainess, her scurvy band of cutthroats and Alice the Goon tried to wrest control of a literal fountain of youth from her own sister and a 20, 000 year-old caveman, Toar. Unfortunately Popeye, Castor, Olive and Wimpy found themselves caught in the crossfire…

One less than wonderful “treat” can be experienced at the end of this volume: one that tormented the kids of all ages addicted to Popeye eighty years ago. ‘Popeye’s Ark’ was another spectacular six-month long adventure, wherein the sailorman decided to emulate the Biblical mariner who built “Nora’s Ark” and sail the seas in a giant vessel filled with beasts until he found the promised land of “Spinachova”. Sadly we all get to “enjoy” cliffhanging tension until the next installment as this sequence ends 12 weeks into the saga. Oh, the unrelenting tension of it all…

There is more than one Popeye: most of them are pretty good and some are truly excellent. Elzie Crisler Segar’s comic strip masterpiece features the very best of them all and you’d be crazy to deny it… or miss him.

© 2008 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2008 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.