Smilin’ Jack: The Classic Aviator

By Zack Mosley (Classic Comic Strips)

Here’s another forgotten birthday boy seriously in need of an archival revival…

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

It’s virtually impossible for us to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no social media or television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most poor or middle-income folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers.

“The Funnies” were the most common and an almost communal 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 came mutants and hybrids like Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs. Comedic when it began in 1924, it gradually moved from mock-heroics to light-action and became a full-blown, rip-roaring adventure series with the introduction of prototype swashbuckler Captain Easy in 1929.

From there it wasn’t such a leap to full-on blockbusters like Tarzan (which began on January 7th 1929) and Buck Rogers (the same day); both were adaptations of pre-existing prose properties, but the majority of drama strips that followed were original productions.

The tidal-wave began in the early 1930s when an explosion of action and drama strips (tastefully tailored for a family audience and fondly recalled as “Thud and Blunder” yarns) were launched with astounding frequency and rapidity. Not only strips but entire genres were created in that decade which still impact on not just today’s comicbooks but all our popular fiction. Still most common, however, were general feel-good humour strips with an occasional child-oriented fantasy.

Arguably the most popular of the new adventure genres was the Aviator serial. With air speed, distance and endurance records bring broken every day, travelling air-circuses barnstorming across rural America and real-life heroes such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart plastered all over the front pages and in movie newsreels, it wasn’t difficult to grasp the potential of comics-pages analogues.

The first was Tailspin Tommy – by Glenn Chaffin & Hal Forrest – the story of boy pilot Tommy Tompkins. It ran from May 21st 1928 (almost exactly one year after Lindbergh’s epic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis) until 1942, and was swiftly followed by both Lester J Maitland & Dick Calkins Skyroads and John Terry’s Scorchy Smith (see Scorchy Smith: Partners in Danger) 1930 -1961. Close on their high-flying heels came such late-arriving classics as Flyin’ Jenny, Buz Sawyer and even Steve Canyon.

Zack Mosley was an enterprising young cartoonist who assisted Calkins on both Skyroads and the legendary Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. He was also a keenly dedicated pilot and flying enthusiast, and when he heard that Captain Joe Patterson (influential editor of the Chicago Tribune) was taking lessons, Zack swiftly pitched a series to the kingmaker of comic strips.

On the Wing debuted as a Sunday page on October 1st 1933, but the name never gelled and with the December 31st episode the series was more snappily re-titled Smilin’ Jack. Apparently, Moseley was surreptitiously known as “Smiling Zack” around the Tribune office…

The page steadily gained interest and syndication subscribers and, on June 15th 1936, was augmented by a monochrome daily strip.

Jack Martin was a nervous student pilot, and the series originally played safe by vacillating between comedy and hairsbreadth thrills as he and his fellow sky novices and unqualified pilots learned the ropes. Never a top-tier series, Smilin’ Jack nevertheless always delivered terrific entertainment to the masses, moving and morphing with the times into a romance, war-feature, crime thriller (complete with Dick Tracy style villains) and even a family soap opera.

More importantly, the strip progressed in real time and when it closed on 1st April 1973, Jack was a twice-married air veteran with a grown son and a full cast of romantic dalliances in tow. It wasn’t lack of popularity that ended it either. At 67 years of age, Mosley wanted to spend his final years in the air, not crouched over a drawing board…

This fabulous (and shamefully scarce) collection gathers a delightful selection of rousing romps, beginning with that name-changing first episode from December 31st 1933, before concentrating on some classic sequences from the roaring thirties.

Meet here or be reintroduced to Jack, comedy foil Rufus Jimpson (a hillbilly mechanic), eye-candy air hostess and love interest Dixie Lee (subject of an extended romantic triangle), Latin spitfire (the curvy sort, not the fighter plane kind) Bonita Caliente and numerous spies, thugs, imbecilic passengers, South American revolutionaries and even a foreign Legion of the Skies with an eerily prescient stiff-necked Prussian flyer named Von Bosch whose type would soon be plastered all over the strips and comic books after WWII broke out…

This kind of strip is, I suspect and fear, an acquired taste today like Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder or George Cukor films, requiring the contribution of a little bit of intellectual and historical concentration from the reader, but the effort is absolutely worth it, and if this kind of stuff is good enough for the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg it’s perfectly good enough for you and me…

A grand adventure and one you should undertake at your leisure…
© 1989, 2009 Chicago Tribune Syndicate. All Rights Reserved. (I’m going on best evidence here: if somebody else actually owns the rights now, let me know and I’ll happily amend the entry).

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

Amongst the many cartoon and comics anniversaries this year there are household names still with us (albeit in exceedingly altered forms) and tragically masterpieces of the form that have faded from popular memory, even though their influence remains in every panel we might peruse…

Modern comics evolved from newspaper gag and comic strips. These pictorial features were, until relatively recently, utterly ubiquitous and hugely popular with the public and highly prized 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 strip 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 of adventures and exploits.

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 – evolved a thoroughly entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting on April 21st 1924, Washington Tubbs II was a comedic gag-a-day vehicle not much different from family favourite Harold Teen (by Crane’s friend and contemporary Carl Ed).

When it premiered in 1924, Tubbs was a diminutive and ambitious young shop-clerk, but gradually the strip moved into mock-heroics, then through cosy, non-confrontational action, only 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 evermore exotic and thrill-packed, the globe-trotting little dynamo clearly needed a sidekick who could believably handle the strenuous combat side of things, and thus – in the middle of a European-set war yarn – Wash 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 bluff, two-fisted, surly, comprehensively capable, utterly dependable, down-on-his-luck “Southern Gen’leman” was something not seen before in comics: a raw, square-jawed hunk played completely straight rather than as 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 groundbreaking new Tarzan Sunday page.

Tubbs and Easy were as exotic and thrilling as the Ape-Man, but rattled along like the surreal and 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 instead a full-colour Sunday page dedicated to his increasingly popular hero-for-hire.

Captain Easy debuted on 30th July 1933 (happy 85th Cap!), in wild and woolly escapades set before his first fateful rendezvous with Tubbs.

This first sublime archival 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 then infiltrates a hidden citadel it heralded the beginning of a rollercoaster romp with sword-wielding Mongols, sultry houris, helpless dancing girls, fabulous beasts and wicked bandits. The heady, intoxicating dramatic brew captivated 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 and influence of Crane’s pages can be seen in so many strips since; especially the works of near-contemporaries such 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 controlling 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 aviation adventure strip Buz Sawyer.

At the end of the initial 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’ opened on 21st January 1934, depicting the occidental hero bankrupted in saving the beautiful Rose Petal from the auction block: a chivalrous gesture leading to war with the rival city of Kashno, and a brutally hilarious encounter with South Sea pirates…

In an era where ethnic stereotyping and casual racism were commonplace and acceptable – if not actually mandatory – the introduction of a vile and unscrupulous Yank as the exploitative villain was and remains a surprising delight.

Rambling Jack is every inch the greedy “ugly American” of later, more informed decades, 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 their path…

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 comics fiction, with Easy recruiting comedy stooge ’Arry Pippy, a demobbed cockney British Army cook, to help him explore a drowned city lost for centuries in a hidden inland sea, and one he had he had spotted from the air only through sheer chance.

However, simply to get there the pair must trek through wild jungles, survive blowpipe-wielding cannibals and the greatest threat our valiant rogue has ever faced…

If I’ve given the impression that this has all been grim-‘n’-gritty turmoil and tension thus far, please forgive me: Roy Crane was an utterly irrepressible gag-man and his enchanting chapter-play 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 inarguably blazed the trail for all of them.

Using a deep-sea diver’s suit, Easy and ‘Arry 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. Typically, when the cannibals attack those dredged up 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 sorceress and her faithful cannibals come after him, leading to a brutal, murderous conclusion…

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

This tale 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 focus of Heyloff’s vengeance, and the sum total 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 14½ by 10½ inches, or 210 x 140 mm 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 plus a fascinating feature explaining how pages were coloured in those long-ago days before computers…

This is primal comics storytelling of the very highest quality: unforgettable, spectacular and utterly irresistible. These tales rank alongside the best of Hergé, Tezuka and Kirby, and led inexorably to the greatest 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.

Willie and Joe: the WWII Years

By Bill Mauldin, edited by Todd DePastino (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-838-1 (HB)                                978-1-60699-439-9 (PB)

During World War II a talented, ambitious young man named William Henry “Bill” Mauldin (29/10/1921 – 22/01/2003) fought “Over There” with the 45th Division of the United States Infantry as well as many other fine units of the army. He learned to hate war and love his brother soldiers – and the American fighting man loved him back.

During his time in the service he produced civilian cartoons for the Oklahoma City Times and The Oklahoman, and intimately effective and authentic material for his Company periodical, 45th Division News, as well as Yank and Stars and Stripes: the US Armed Forces newspapers. Soon after, his cartoons were being reproduced in newspapers across Europe and America.

They mostly featured two slovenly “dogfaces” (a term he popularised) giving their trenchant and laconic view of the war from the muddied tip of the pointiest of Sharp Ends. Willie and Joe, much to the dismay of the brassbound, spit-and-polish military martinets and diplomatic doctrinaires, became the unshakable, everlasting image of the American soldier: continually revealed in all ways and manners the upper echelons of the army would prefer remained top secret.

Willie and Joe even became the subject of two films (Up Front – 1951 and Back at the Front – 1952) whilst Willie made the cover of Time Magazine in 1945, when 23-year old Mauldin won his first Pulitzer Prize.

In 1945 a collection of his drawings, accompanied by a powerfully understated and heartfelt documentary essay, was published by Henry Holt and Co. Up Front was a sensation, telling the American public about the experiences of their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands in a way no historian would or did. A biography, Back Home, followed in 1947.

Mauldin’s anti-war, anti-Idiots-in-Charge-of-War views became increasingly unpopular during the Cold War and despite being a War Hero his increasingly political cartoon work fell out of favour and those efforts are the subject of companion volume Willie & Joe: Back Home. Mauldin left the business to become a journalist and illustrator.

He was a film actor for a while (appearing in Red Badge of Courage with Audie Murphy, among other movies); a war correspondent during the Korean War and – after an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 1956 – finally returned to newspaper cartooning in 1958.

He retired in 1991 after a long, glittering and award-studded career. Mauldin only drew Willie and Joe four times in that entire period (for an article on the “New Army” in Life magazine; for the funerals of “Soldier’s Generals” Omar Bradley and George C. Marshall; and to eulogize Milton Caniff). His fondest wish had been to kill the iconic dogfaces off on the final day of World War II, but Stars and Stripes vetoed it.

The Willie and Joe cartoons and characters are some of the most enduring and honest symbols of all military history. Every Veterans Day in Peanuts, from1969 to 1999, fellow veteran Charles Schulz had Snoopy turn up at Mauldin’s house to drink Root Beers and tell war stories with an old pal.

When you read Sgt. Rock you’re looking at Mauldin’s legacy, and Archie Goodwin even drafted the shabby professionals for a couple of classy guest-shots in Star-Spangled War Stories (see Showcase Presents the Unknown Soldier).

This immense mostly monochrome compendium (with some very rare colour and sepia items) comes in hardback, softcover and even as an eBook: collecting all Mauldin’s known wartime cartoons and featuring not only the iconic dog-face duo, but also the drawings, illustrations, sketches and gags that led, over 8 years of army life, to their creation.

Mauldin produced most of his work for Regimental and Company newspapers whilst under fire: perfectly capturing the life and context of fellow soldiers – also under battlefield conditions – and gave a glimpse of that unique and bizarre existence to their families and civilians at large, despite constant military censorship and even face-to-face confrontations with Generals such as George Patton, who was perennially incensed at the image the cartoonist presented to the world.

Fortunately, Supreme Commander Eisenhower, if not an actual fan, at least recognised the strategic and morale value of Mauldin’s Star Spangled Banter and Up Front features with indomitable everymen Willie and Joe

This far removed in time, many of the pieces here might need historical context for modern readers and such is comprehensively provided by the notes section to the rear of the volume. Also included are unpublished pieces and pages, early cartoon works, and rare notes, drafts and sketches.

Most strips, composites and full-page gags, however, are sublimely transparent in their message and meaning: lampooning entrenched stupidity and cupidity, administrative inefficiency and sheer military bloody-mindedness whilst highlighting the miraculous perseverance and unquenchable determination of the ordinary guys to get the job done while defending their only inalienable right – to gripe and goof off whenever the brass weren’t around…

Moreover, Mauldin never patronises the civilians or demonises the enemy: the German and Italians are usually in the same dismal boat as “Our Boys” and only the war and its brass-bound conductors are worthy of his inky ire…

Let’s just hope that in these tense, “ten-seconds-to-doomsday” times the latest batch of brass-hats and political ass-hats keep that in mind and remember what’s always at stake here…

Alternating trenchant cynicism, moral outrage, gallows humour, absurdist observation, shared miseries, staggering sentimentality and the total shock and awe of still being alive every morning, this cartoon catalogue of the Last Just War is a truly breathtaking collection no fan, art-lover, historian or humanitarian can afford to miss.

…And it will make you cry and laugh out loud too.

With a fascinating biography of Mauldin that is as compelling as his art, the mordant wit and desperate camaraderie of his work is more important than ever in an age where increasingly cold and distanced leaders send ever-more innocent lambs to further foreign fields for slaughter. With this volume (and the aforementioned Willie & Joe: Back Home) we should finally be able to restore Mauldin and his works to the forefront of graphic consciousness, because tragically, his message is never going to be out of date…
© 2011 the Estate of William Mauldin. All right reserved.

Archie’s Christmas Classics (Archie Classics Series Volume 1)

By Frank Doyle, Harry Lucey, George Gladir, Dan DeCarlo, Bill Vigoda, Tom Moore, Bob White, Al Hartley, Stan Goldberg, Joe Edwards, Bob Bolling & various (Archie Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-879794-78-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: For All Those Who’ve Been Extra Good This Year… 9/10

As long-term readers might recall, my good lady wife and I have a family ritual we’re not ashamed to boast of or share with you. Every Christmas we barricade the doors, draw the shutters, stockpile munchies, stoke up the radiators and lazily subside with a huge pile of seasonal comics from yesteryear.

(Well, I do: she also insists on a few monumental feats of cleaning and shopping before manufacturing the world’s most glorious and stupefying meal to accompany my reading, gorging and – eventually, inevitably – snoring…

Oh, so much snoring!!!)

The irresistible trove of funnybook treasures generally comprises older DC’s, loads of Disney’s and some British annuals, but the vast preponderance is Archie Comics.

From the earliest days this American institution has quite literally “owned Christmas” through a fabulously funny, nostalgically charming, sentimental barrage of cannily-crafted stories capturing the spirit of the season through a range of cartoon stars from Archie to Veronica, Betty to Sabrina and Jughead to Santa himself…

For most of us, when we say “comicbooks” people’s thoughts turn to steroidal blokes, anthropomorphic animals and even women in garish tights hitting each other, bending lampposts and lobbing trees or cars about.

That or stark, nihilistic crime, horror or science fiction sagas aimed at an extremely mature and sophisticated readership of confirmed fans…

Throughout the decades though, other forms and genres have waxed and waned. One that has held its ground over the years – although almost completely migrated to television these days – is the genre of teen-comedy begun by and synonymous with a carrot topped, homely (at first just plain ugly) kid named Archie Andrews.

MLJ were a small publisher who jumped on the “mystery-man” bandwagon following the debut of Superman. In November 1939 they launched Blue Ribbon Comics, promptly following-up with Top-Notch and Pep Comics. Content was the standard blend of costumed heroes and two-fisted adventure strips, although Pep did make a little history with its first lead feature The Shield, who was the American industry’s first superhero to be clad in the flag (see America’s 1st Patriotic Hero: The Shield).

After initially revelling in the benefits of the Fights ‘N’ Tights game, Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit and John Goldwater (MLJ, duh!) spotted a gap in their blossoming market. In December 1941 their stable of costumed cavorters and two-fisted adventurers were gently nudged aside – just a fraction at first – by a wholesome, improbable and far-from-imposing new hero; an unremarkable (except, perhaps, for his teeth) teenager who would have ordinary adventures just like the readers, but with the laughs, good times, romance and slapstick emphasised.

Almost certainly inspired by the hugely popular Andy Hardy movies, Goldwater developed the concept of a youthful everyman protagonist and tasked writer Vic Bloom & artist Bob Montana with the job of making it work. Their precocious new notion premiered in Pep #22: a gap-toothed, freckle-faced, red-headed kid obsessed with impressing the pretty blonde girl next door.

An untitled 6-page tale introduced hapless boob Archie Andrews and wholesomely pretty Betty Cooper. The boy’s unconventional best friend and confidante Jughead Jones also debuted in the first story, as did idyllic small-town utopia Riverdale. It was a huge hit and by the winter of 1942 the kid and his pals won a title of their own.

Archie Comics #1 was MLJ’s first non-anthology magazine and with it began a slow transformation of the entire company. With the introduction of ultra-rich, raven-haired Veronica Lodge, all the pieces were in play for the industry’s second Genuine Phenomenon…

By 1946 the kids were in charge, so MLJ became Archie Comics, retiring most of its costumed characters years before the end of the Golden Age to become, to all intents and purposes, a publisher of family-friendly comedies. The hometown settings and perpetually fruitful premise of an Eternal Romantic Triangle – with girl-hating best bud Jughead Jones and scurrilous rival Reggie Mantle to test, duel and vex our boy in their own unique ways – the scenario was one that not only resonated with the readership but was infinitely fresh…

Archie’s success, like Superman’s, forced a change in content at every other publisher (except perhaps Gilberton’s Classics Illustrated) and led to a multi-media brand which encompasses TV, movies, newspaper strips, toys and merchandise, a chain of restaurants and, in the swinging sixties, a pop music sensation when Sugar, Sugar – from the animated TV cartoon – became a global pop smash. Clean and decent garage band “The Archies” has been a fixture of the comics ever since…

The Andrews boy is good-hearted, impetuous and lacking common sense, Betty his sensible, pretty girl next door who loves the ginger goof, and Veronica is rich, exotic and glamorous: only settling for our boy if there’s nobody better around. She might actually love him too, though. Archie, of course, is utterly unable to choose who or what he wants…

Unconventional, food-crazy Jughead is Mercutio to Archie’s Romeo, providing rationality and a reader’s voice, as well as being a powerful catalyst of events in his own right. That charming House of Luurve (and Annexe of Envy) has been the rock-solid foundation for seven decades of funnybook magic. Moreover, the concept is eternally self-renewing…

This eternal triangle has generated thousands of charming, raucous, gentle, frenetic, chiding and even heart-rending humorous dramas ranging from surreal wit to frantic slapstick, with the kids and a constantly expanding cast of friends… (boy genius Dilton Doily, genial giant jock Big Moose and aspiring comicbook cartoonist Chuck amongst many others) growing into an American institution and part of the nation’s cultural landscape.

The feature has thrived by constantly re-imagining its core archetypes; seamlessly adapting to the changing world outside its bright, flimsy pages, shamelessly co-opting youth, pop culture and fashion trends into its infallible mix of slapstick and young romance. Each and every social revolution has been painlessly assimilated into the mix and, over the decades, the company has confronted most social issues affecting youngsters in a manner always both even-handed and tasteful.

Constant addition of new characters such as African-American Chuck and his girlfriend Nancy, fashion-diva Ginger, Hispanic couple Frankie and Maria and spoiled home-wrecker-in-waiting Cheryl Blossom have contributed to a wide and appealingly broad-minded scenario. In 2010 Archie easily cleared the American industry’s final hurdle when openly gay Kevin Keller became an admirable advocate, capably tackling and dismantling the last major taboo in mainstream Kids’ comics.

One of the most effective tools in the company’s arsenal has been the never-failing appeal of seasonal and holiday traditions. In Riverdale it was always sunny enough to surf at the beach in summer and it always snowed at Christmas…

The Festive Season has never failed to produce great comics stories. DC especially have -since their earliest days – perennially and effectively embraced the magic of the holiday with a decades-long succession of stunning and sentimental Batman thrillers, as well as many other heroic team-ups incorporating Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Sgt. Rock and all the rest…

Archie also started early (1942) and kept on producing memorable year-end classics. The stories became so popular and eagerly anticipated that in 1954 the company created a specific oversized title – Archie’s Christmas Stocking – to cater to demand, even as it kept the winter months of its other periodicals stuffed with assorted tales of elves and snow and fine fellow-feeling…

Seasoned (see what I did there?) with covers and pin-ups, this splendidly appealing, full-colour celebration – recently re-released as an eBook – gathers a superb selection of Cool Yule extravaganzas from those end-of-year annuals and other sources.

Without preamble the jolly japes commence with a selection from Archie Giant Series #6: Archie’s Christmas Stocking 1959.

‘Slide Guide!’ by the irrepressible team of Frank Doyle & Harry Lucey highlights Reggie and Archie’s bid to out-do each other impresses a pack of youngsters of the danger of sledding, after which ‘Snow Mistake!’ (Doyle & Bill Vigoda) sees the rivals unite when Veronica dates another boy. Their scheme to set ever-enraged schoolmate Big Moose on the new kid goes agonisingly amiss though…

‘Fire Bugged’ (Doyle & Dan DeCarlo) then reveals how helpful Archie’s attempts to prove Christmas trees are a fire hazard enflames and enrages Ronnie’s dad, whilst ‘Come Onna My House’ (Doyle & Vigoda) details the minor spat of BFFs Betty and Veronica as they decide who will host Archie on Christmas morning…

Tom Moore reveals untrammelled greed in one-pager ‘Archie’s Pal Jughead in Shocking Stocking!’ before – following a racy Veronica the X-Mas elf pin-up – ‘Not Even a Moose’ (Doyle & Vigoda) leads off topical tales from Archie’s Christmas Stocking #10, 1961.

Here Reggie plays foolish pranks on the naïve giant and discovers the danger of telling people there is such a man as Santa whilst ‘Those Christmas Blues!’ (Bob White) sees Archie’s parents lament that they’ve been side-lined in favour of the girls in their boy’s life but have a wonderful surprise awaiting them…

Two half-pagers ‘A Head Start’ and ‘Reggie: Generous to a Fault’ segues into Betty and Veronica’s Coloring Page (not so engrossing if you’re reading the eBook edition!) after which a bad cold afflicts a close friend and causes a catastrophic case of Chinese Whispers in regard to gift-giving in ‘Archie’s Pal Jughead: “Code Three”’ (Doyle & Vigoda).

Archie’s job as guardian of the year’s presents results in a catastrophic mess in ‘Gift Collection’ after which Betty and Veronica experience a just comeuppance for calling the boys slobs in ‘Do No Evil’ (Doyle & DeCarlo: Archie Giant Series #6: Archie’s Christmas Stocking 1959)

Following a suitably seasonal Mr. Weatherbee Pin-up Page and Jughead single-page gag ‘More Pull than Talent!’, Archie and Reggie clash over a present for Veronica in ‘Go for Broke’ (from Archie Giant Series #4: Archie’s Christmas Stocking 1957) after which ‘Boxed In’ sees the red-headed fool outsmart himself in his quest for the perfect present…

Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica: ‘R is for Rooked’ (DeCarlo from Archie Comics Digest #3, December1973) sees reluctant go-between Jughead botch a spy mission to find out what Ronnie’s buying Archie whilst ‘Black Book Bonanza’ (same guy, same source) discloses how Moose comes to believe he’s now one of Santa’s official helpers…

Skulduggery and intrigue inform Doyle & Bob White’s ‘A Christmas Tale’ (Life with Archie #33, January 1965) as Ronnie promises a month of dating exclusivity to whomever chops down the biggest charity Christmas Tree. When Archie and Jughead team up to ensure the Andrews boy wins, Betty and Reggie unite to scotch their plans…

Archie Giant Series #150: Archie’s Christmas Stocking January 1968 supplies single page Veronica gag ‘Prize Surprise’ (by George Gladir & Al Hartley), leads into ‘Treed’ (Doyle & Hartley) as mystic Xmas elf Jingles helps Archie survive Reggie’s latest campaign of Christmas terror after which Archie and the Gang Make their Christmas Wish’ (Hartley) and

Christmas Pin-up (DeCarlo) bring us to ‘Wanted: Santa Claus’ (Life with Archie #26, February 1969) with Mr. Weatherbee in a turmoil because he thinks the Andrew’s boy has usurped his annual role as the school Kris Kringle…

A ‘Merry Christmas Dear Reader’ ensemble pin-up leads into sentimental tearjerker ‘It’s Not the Gift’ as Archie saves a young kid from a tragic Christmas before Doyle, Lucey & Mario Acquaviva reveal how garage-band The Archies appal and offend the older generation with their ‘Ode to Santa’ (from Laugh Comics #215 February 1969) after which Archie Giant Series #150 provides DeCarlo’s ‘Christmas Fashions for Betty and Veronica’.

‘Temptation’ (Doyle, Lucey & Chic Stone; Archie #232 February 1974) then proves Jughead very wise indeed after he argues that even Reggie can’t resist the good feelings of Christmas and – following an Archie Pin-up ‘Shopper Comes a Cropper’ (Gladir, Lucey & Stone) finds Archie in the same old bind after double-booking Christmas shopping with both Betty and Ronnie…

Doyle, DeCarlo & Rudy Lapick examine the bleaker side of the season in ‘The Greatest Gift’ (Life with Archie #154, February 1975) as the gang befriend a lonely and embittered old shopkeeper, whilst – after a Lucey Archie’s Coloring Page – Betty and Ronnie declare war on each other’s trimming and decorating taste in ‘Tree Spree’ (Archie Giant Series #242: Archie’s Christmas Love-In: January 1976).

‘Spirit Sprite’ (Archie Giant Series #454: Archie’s Christmas Love-In: January 1977) sees the Riverdale kids working to get Jughead and Big Ethel together under the mistletoe before Betty and Archie overcome exorbitant prices and circumvent ‘Tree Travail’ with a public display of seasonal cheer whilst Mr. Lodge counters his own financial worries by joining Santa’s ‘Aid Parade’

Wrapping up the festivities is prose yarn “Christmas Jeer” (Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica #16; January 1955) as the friendly rivals’ clash over duplicate dresses threatens to derail the big Christmas party…

These are joyously effective and entertaining tales for young and old alike, crafted by some of Santa’s most talented Helpers, epitomising the magic of the Season and celebrating the perfect wonder of timeless all-ages storytelling. What kind of Grinch could not want this book in their kids’ stocking (from where it can most easily be borrowed)?
© 2011 Archie Comics Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Steve Ditko Archives volume 2: Unexplored Worlds

By Steve Ditko & various, edited by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-289-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Immaculate Yule Yarn-Spinning… 9/10

Once upon a time the anthological title of short stand-alone stories was the sole staple of the comicbook profession, where the plan was to deliver as much variety as possible to the reader. Sadly, that particular vehicle of expression seems all but lost to us today…

Steve Ditko is one of our industry’s greatest talents and one of America’s least lauded. His fervent desire to just get on with his job and to tell stories the best way he can – whilst the noblest of aspirations – has always been a minor consideration or even stumbling block for the commercial interests which for so long controlled all comics production and still exert an overwhelming influence upon the mainstream bulk of comicbook output.

Before his time at Marvel, young Ditko perfected his craft creating short sharp yarns for a variety of companies and it’s an undeniable joy today to be able to look at this work from such an innocent time when he was just breaking into the industry: tirelessly honing his craft with genre tales for whichever publisher would have him, utterly free from the interference of intrusive editors.

This superb full-colour series of hardback collections (also available as digital editions) has reprinted those early efforts (all of them here are from 1956-1957) with material produced after the draconian, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority sanitised the industry following Senate Hearings and a public witch-hunt.

Most are wonderfully baroque and bizarre supernatural or science fantasy stories, but there are also examples of Westerns, Crime and Humour: cunningly presented in the order he completed and sold them rather than the more logical but far-less-revealing chronological release dates. Moreover, they are all helpfully annotated with a purchase number to indicate approximately when they were actually drawn – even the brace of tales done for Stan Lee’s pre-Marvel Atlas company.

Sadly, there’s no indication of how many (if any) were actually written by the moody master…

This second sublime selection reprints another heaping helping of his ever-more impressive works: most of it courtesy of the surprisingly liberal (at least in its trust of its employees’ creative instincts) sweat-shop publisher Charlton Comics.

And whilst we’re being technically accurate, it’s also important to reiterate that the cited publication dates of these stories have very little to do with when Ditko crafted them: as Charlton paid so little, the cheap, anthologically astute outfit had no problem in buying material it could leave on a shelf for months – if not years – until the right moment arrived to print. The work is assembled and runs here in the order Ditko submitted it, rather than when it reached the grubby sweaty paws of us readers…

Following an historically informative Introduction and passionate advocacy by Blake Bell, concentrating on Ditko’s near-death experience in 1954 (when the artist contracted tuberculosis) and subsequent absence and recovery, the evocatively eccentric excursions open with a monochrome meander into the realms of satire with the faux fable – we’d call it a mockumentary – ‘Starlight Starbright’ as first seen in From Here to Insanity (volume 3 #1 April 1956) before normal service resumes with financial fable ‘They’ll Be Some Changes Made’ (scripted by Carl Wessler from Atlas’ Journey Into Mystery #33, April 1956) wherein a petty-minded pauper builds a time machine to steal the fortune his ancestors squandered, whilst a crook seeking to exploit a mystic pool finds himself the victim of fate’s justice in ‘Those Who Vanish’ (Journey Into Mystery #38, September 1956 and again scripted by Wessler).

Almost – if not all – the Charlton material was scripted by the astoundingly fast and prolific Joe Gill at this time, and records are spotty at best so let’s assume his collaboration on all the material here beginning with ‘The Man Who Could Never Be Killed’ from Strange Suspense Stories #31, published in February 1957. This tale of a circus performer with an incredible ethereal secret segues into ‘Adrift in Space’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #8 June 1958) wherein a veteran starship captain pushes his weary crew over the edge whereas ‘The King of Planetoid X’ – from the previous MoUW (February) details a crisis of conscience for a benevolent and ultimately wise potentate…

The cover of Strange Suspense Stories #31 (February 1957) leads into ‘The Gloomy One’ as a misery-loving alien intruder is destroyed by simple human joy before the cover to Out of This World #5 September 1957 heralds that issue’s ‘The Man Who Stepped Out of a Cloud’ and an alien whose abduction plans only seem sinister in intent…

Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 (October 1957) tells the story of a young ‘Stowaway’ who finds fulfilment aboard a harshly-run space ship after which the cover for Out of This World #3 (March 1957) leads to an apparent extraterrestrial paradise for weary star-men in ‘What Happened?’

Next up is a tale from one of Charlton’s earliest star characters. The title came from a radio show that Charlton licensed the rights to, with the lead/host/narrator acting more as voyeur than active participant. “The Mysterious Traveler” spoke directly to camera, asking readers for opinion and judgement as he shared a selection of funny, sad, scary and wondrous human-interest yarns, all tinged with a hint of the weird or supernatural. When rendered by Ditko, whose storytelling mastery, page design and full, lavish brushwork were just beginning to come into its mature full range, the contents of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler were always exotic and esoteric and utterly mesmerising…

From issue #2, February 1957, ‘What Wilbur Saw’ reveals the reward bestowed on a poverty-stricken country bumpkin who witnessed a modern-day miracle after which Out of This World #3 provides a cautionary tale of atomic mutation in ‘The Supermen’

The eerie cover to Out of This World #4 (June 1957) leads to a chilling encounter for two stranded sailors who briefly board the ‘Flying Dutchman’ and Strange Suspense Stories #32’s cover (May 1957) dabbles in magic art when a collector is victimised by a thief who foolishly stumbles into ‘A World of His Own’. From the same issue comes a salutary parable concerning a rich practical joker who goes too far before succumbing to ‘The Last Laugh’, after which ‘Mystery Planet’ (Strange Suspense Stories #36, March 1958) offers a dash of interplanetary derring-do as a valiant agent Bryan Bodine and his comely associate Nedra confounds an intergalactic pirate piloting a planet-eating weapon against Earth!

A similarly bold defender then saves ‘The Conquered Earth’ from alien subjugation (Out of This World #4, June 1957) whilst in ‘Assignment Treason’ (Outer Space #18. August 1958) the clean-cut hero goes undercover to save earth from the predatory Master of Space whilst in Out of This World #8 (May 1958) ‘The Secret of Capt. X’ reveals that the inimical alien tyrant threatening humanity is not what he seems to be…

The cover to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #3 (April 1957) gives way to a trio of fantastic thrillers beginning with ‘The Strange Guests of Tsaurus’ as an alien paradise proves to be anything but and ‘A World Where I Was King’ sees a clumsy janitor catapulted into a wondrous realm where he wins a kingdom he doesn’t want. Diverting slightly, Fightin’ Army #20 (May 1957) provides a comedic interlude as a civil war soldier finds himself constantly indebted to ‘Gavin’s Stupid Mule’ before ‘A Forgotten World’ wraps up the MoUW #3 contributions with a scary tale of invasion from the Earth’s core…

‘The Cheapest Steak in Nome’ turns out to be defrosted from something that died millions of years ago in a light-hearted yarn from Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #7 (February 1958) after which the cover to MoUW #4 (July 1957) precedes more icy antediluvian preservations found in the ‘Valley in the Mist’ whilst the cover to Strange Suspense Stories #33 (August 1957) leads into a bizarre corporate outreach project as the ‘Director of the Board’ attempts to go where no other exploitative capitalist has gone before…

It’s back to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #3 for a brush with the mythological in ‘They Didn’t Believe Him’ before ‘Forever and Ever’ (Strange Suspense Stories #33) reveals an unforeseen downside to immortality and Out of This World #3 sees a stranger share ‘My Secret’ with ordinary folk despite – or because – of a scurrilous blackmailer…

cover Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 October 1957

‘A Dreamer’s World’ from Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5 (October 1957) follows the chilling cover thereof as a test pilot hits his aerial limit and discovers a whole new existence, before Unusual Tales #7 (May 1957) traces the tragic path of ‘The Man Who Could See Tomorrow’ whilst the cover of Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #4 (August 1957) opens a mini-feast of the voyeur’s voyages beginning with that issue’s ‘The Desert’ a saga of polar privation and survival.

Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #3 (May 1957) offers the appropriate cover and a ‘Secret Mission’ for a spy parachuted into Prague after which TotMT #4 offers ‘Escape’ for an unemployed pilot dragged into a gun-running scam in a south American lost world; ‘Test of a Man’ sees a cruel animal trainer receive his just deserts and ‘Operation Blacksnake’ grittily reveals American venality in the ever-expanding Arabian oil trade…

Returning to Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #5, ‘The Mirage’ torments an escaped convict who thinks he’s escaped his fate whilst Texas Rangers in Action #8 (July 1957) sees a ruthless rancher crushed by the weight of his own wicked actions in ‘The Only One’, after which the stunning covers to Unusual Tales #6 and 7 (February and May 1957) lead into our final vignette ‘The Man Who Painted on Air’: exposing and thwarting a unique talent to preserve humanity and make a few bucks on the side…

This sturdily capacious volume has episodes that terrify, amaze, amuse and enthral: utter delights of fantasy fiction with lean, plots and stripped-down dialogue that let the art set the tone, push the emotions and tell the tale, from times when a story could end sadly as well as happily and only wonderment was on the agenda, hidden or otherwise.

These stories display the sharp wit and contained comedic energy which made so many Spider-Man/J. Jonah Jameson confrontations an unforgettable treat half a decade later, and this is another cracking collection not only superb in its own right but as a telling tribute to the genius of one of the art-form’s greatest stylists.

This is something every serious comics fans would happily kill or die or be lost in time for…
Unexplored Worlds: The Steve Ditko Archive Vol. 2. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2010 Blake Bell. All rights reserved.

Asterix and the Chariot Race

By Jean-Yves Ferri & Didier Conrad, colored by Thierry Mébarki and translated by Adriana Hunter (Orion Books)
ISBN: 978-1-5101-0401-3 (HB)                    eISBN: 978-1-5101-0402-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Celebrate the Season in Classical Style… 9/10

Asterix debuted in 1959 and has since become part of the fabric of French life. His exploits have touched billions of people all around the world for five and a half decades and for almost all of that time his astounding adventures were the sole preserve of originators Rene Goscinny and/or Albert Uderzo.

After nearly 15 years dissemination as weekly serials (subsequently collected into book-length compilations), in 1974 the 21st saga – Asterix and Caesar’s Gift – was the first to be released as a complete, original album prior to serialisation.

Thereafter each new tome became an eagerly anticipated, impatiently awaited treat for legions of devotees. The eager anxiety hasn’t diminished any even now that Uderzo’s handpicked replacements – scripter Jean-Yves Ferri (Fables Autonomes, La Retour à la terre) and illustrator Didier Conrad (Les Innomables, Le Piège Malais, Tatum) have taken up the creative role since his retirement in 2009.

Whether as an action-packed comedic romp with sneaky, bullying baddies getting their just deserts or as a sly and wicked satire for older-if-no-wiser heads, these new yarns are just as engrossing as the established canon.

As you already know, half of the intoxicating epics take place in various exotic locales throughout the Ancient World, whilst the alternating rest are set in and around Uderzo’s adored Brittany where, circa 50 BC, a little hamlet of cantankerous, proudly defiant warriors and their families resist every effort of the mighty Roman Empire to complete the conquest of Gaul.

Although the country is divided by the notional conquerors into provinces Celtica, Aquitania and Armorica, the very tip of the last named stubbornly refuses to be properly pacified. The otherwise dominant overlords, utterly unable to overrun this last bastion of Gallic insouciance, are reduced to a pointless policy of absolute containment – and yet the irksome Gauls come and go as they please.

Thus, a tiny seaside hamlet is permanently hemmed in by heavily fortified garrisons Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium, filled with veteran fighters who would rather be anywhere else on earth than there…

Their “prisoners” couldn’t care less; daily defying and frustrating the world’s greatest military machine by uncaringly going about their everyday affairs, bolstered by magic potion brewed by resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits and strategic aplomb of diminutive dynamo Asterix and his simplistic, supercharged best friend Obelix

Astérix et la Transitalique was released on October 17th 2017, and simultaneously or soon after hurtled off the shelves of many nations as Asterix and the Chariot Race – or whatever the local language equivalent of the many nations addicted to these epics might be…

This time the narrative horsepower comes from sport, and as always there is a healthy helping of satirical lampooning of current affairs, administrative, political and regional and nationalistic…

Before this away game eventually takes in all of Italy it opens bombastically in the Roman Senate where shifty political chancer Lactus Bifidus is fiercely challenged about the appalling state of the Empire’s roads. Yes, they all still lead to Rome, but their maintenance is a major issue riddled with potholes that are a public disgrace and hazard to safe navigation…

Roused from a sneaky slumber and thinking too fast, the overly-defensive corrupt bureaucrat instantly declares a grand chariot race to span all of Italy and thereby prove the perfection of the byways under his management.

His big mistake is publicly declaring his magnificent trans-Italian rally open to “all the peoples of the known world”…

As a seething Julius Caesar is quick to point out in private, a competition spanning the entire Italic Peninsula is liable to stir up subject races and even other Italian cities if it’s won by anyone but a purebred Roman Citizen.

The Emperors then advises Lactus that it’s now the Senator’s sole responsibility to guarantee no barbarian crosses the finish line first…

In Gaul, the residents of a certain indomitable village are rowdily enjoying themselves at a huge market festival. Amidst the tooth pullers, weapons-sellers, fortune tellers and other vendors, one canny salesman spies an easy mark and lumbers gullible giant Obelix with a flashy racing chariot.

The superhuman simpleton’s friends soon cease their good-natured teasing at his foolish purchase after the announcement of the great Trans-Italic Race is read out and Chief Vitalstatistix agrees that it would be nice to bother the Romans on their own turf for a change…

Soon Asterix, Obelix and canine companion Dogmatix are off on those bumpy deplorable roads and heading for the border. From Modica they will pit themselves against a horde of teams hungry for victory as they chase down to the “boot of Italy” to the finish line at Neapolis under the grumbling fire mountain Vesuvius…

Most of their competitors seem decent enough folk, but amongst the racers from Breton, Lusitania, Kush, Liguria, Calabria and other desolate points of the Empire, Asterix notes a few teams to watch closely: the devious Cimbri, the rowdy Normans and Sarmatians but most especially the Roman squad and their always-masked, unbeaten charioteer Coronavirus…

There’s something not quite right about him…

And then, with wealthy sponsors Lupus Garum (the Fermented Fish-gut Sauce of Champions!) adjudicating every stage of the contest the valiant Aurigae (you know that means charioteers, right?) are off!

Spoofing sporting corruption, the ephemeral venalities of corporate sponsorship and the sordid power of petty nationalism, this rocket-paced rollercoaster ride is awash with sneaky plots, dirty tricks and rapid switches of allegiance; providing plenty of thrills and spills to garnish the madcap chase to the finish line, and even incorporates spacious room for plenty of twists, turns and deliciously doled-out just deserts.

With Asterix and Obelix at their most disingenuously heroic and charming, this unbeatable Race of the Century is furiously funny and hilariously jam-packed with and timeless jibes and cracking contemporary swipes, plus an enchanting double-surprise ending. Asterix and the Chariot Race is a sure win and another triumphant addition to the mythic canon for laugh-seekers in general and all devotees of comics.
© 2017 Les Éditions Albert René. English translation: © 2017 Les Éditions Albert René. All rights reserved.

Betsy and Me

By Jack Cole & Dwight Parks (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-156097-878-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Classic Madcap Mirth and Melodrama… 9/10

Jack Cole was one of the most uniquely gifted talents of American comics’ Golden Age. Before moving into mature magazine and gag markets he originated landmark tales in horror, true crime, war, adventure and especially superhero comicbooks, and his incredible humour-hero Plastic Man remains an unsurpassed benchmark of screwball costumed hi-jinks: frequently copied but never equalled. It was a glittering career of distinction which Cole was clearly embarrassed by and unhappy with.

Without doubt – and despite his other triumphal comicbook innovations such as The Comet, Silver Streak, Daredevil, The Claw, Death Patrol, Midnight, Quicksilver, The Barker, and a uniquely twisted and phenomenally popular take on the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest contribution and lasting creation was zany Malleable Marvel Plastic Man who (with indispensable sidekick/gadfly Woozy Winks) quickly grew from a minor back-up character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the era.

In 1954 Cole quit comics for the lucrative and prestigious field of magazine cartooning, swiftly becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour gags and stunningly saucy pictures began regularly running in Playboy from the fifth issue.

Cole eventually moved into the lofty realms of newspaper strips and, in 1958, achieved his life-long ambition by launching a syndicated newspaper strip, the domestic comedy Betsy and Me which began publication on Monday May 26th. Something about reaching the cartoonist’s Promised Land clearly did not meet with the infamously private Cole’s expectations and, on August 13th 1958, at the peak of his prowess and success, he took his own life.

The reasons – although highly speculated upon ever since – remain unknown.

The strip was handed to commercial cartoonist Dwight Parks who continued it until the editorial decision was made to end it. The last daily was published on Saturday, December 27th.

That great loss to the future of the industry and artform has for years clouded a greater truth: whatever his demons, Jack Cole was a master of comedy and narrative art in all its forms and Betsy and Me was, in its own niche, every bit as great as his glamour illustration and comicbook endeavours.

This mostly monochrome paperback – also available digitally – collects those long-lost newspaper efforts in a welcoming package which begins with the captivating solicitation page designed to entice new papers to buy the strip.

Then biography, history, context and analysis come courtesy of historian R. C. Harvey’s introductory essay ‘The Last of Jack Cole: His Life and Art and Why They Both Ended with Betsy and Me’. The heavily illustrated article also offers possible insights into Cole’s motivations, state of mind and possible reasons for suicide, before this superb collection of what should have been Cole’s greatest legacy opens…

Utilising a stripped-down minimalist style that was the astute acme of its time, this domestic comedy is recounted as a fireside tale by homely working stiff Chester B. Tibbit. He recalls and reminisces with unseen readers who daily learn of his romancing of and marriage to Betsy, his downtrodden life as a floorwalker at the Meyers department store and plodding climb up the ladder of middle class aspiration.

The move from apartment to house, the trepidatious purchase of consumer benchmarks such as white goods and even an automobile (in the most generous sense of the term), and the inevitable addition of a child are all gradually covered in a manner most wry and deliciously sardonic. All the laughs stem from an old cartoonist’s trick: the rose-tinted self-deluding narrative says one thing whilst the pictures tell the grim sordid truth, even when Chester can’t see it himself…

His admired and adored bosses are bullying martinets, his friends are shallow, fair-weather self-servers, Betsy isn’t a quiet, obedient little woman and his son is…

Well, the truth is that infant Farley actually is a genius: rude, brusque, impatient and utterly beyond the intellectual capabilities of his terrified, long-suffering parents. Even from his earliest moments in the crib the kid is the smartest one in the house – and that includes financially and emotionally…

The strips follow the traditional developmental path of courtship, marriage, home-making and child-rearing but always Cole’s needle-sharp social observations and uncontrollable whimsy are seditiously at work. At Meyers’ the infant blackmails his father’s superiors so they stop picking on the little nebbish and when Farley starts school he organises a student revolt…

The toddler even masters judo to protect his bewildered guardians from marauding criminals and spars continually with mooching, predatory Gus, a confirmed bachelor always hanging around Betsy with attentions that are clear to everyone but Chester…

Over the course of the summer of 1958 Betsy and Me steadily grew in quality, scope and popularity. When Cole died on August 13th he had submitted strips for a full month ahead. His last daily ran on September 7th and the final Sunday on September 21st.

Dwight Parks took over and whereas the pared-down artistic style remained, the uneasy edgy satire was lost in favour of more comfortable themes such as the new house being a broken-down money pit, interfering neighbours, kindergarten woes, dieting and “keeping up with the Joneses”: the stuff of TV sitcoms such as I Love Lucy

Critics have debated ever since Cole’s passing about whether, given time, Betsy and Me (or even a successor strip) would have cemented the brilliant raconteur as a master of all forms of graphic narrative or whether he had finally overreached himself. We’ll never know, but at least you can read what remains and judge for yourself.

And you really should.
© 2007 Fantagraphics Books. Text © 2007 R. C. Harvey.

Spirou and Fantasio volume 13: Z is for Zorglub

By André Franquin, with Jidéhem & Greg, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-362-8

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Masterful Madcap Mirth and Melodrama… 9/10

Spirou (which translates as both “squirrel” and “mischievous” in the Walloon language) was created by French cartoonist François Robert Velter using his pen-name Rob-Vel for Belgian publisher Éditions Dupuis in direct response to the phenomenal success of Hergé’s Tintin over at rival outfit Casterman.

Soon-to-be legendary weekly comic Spirou launched on April 21st 1938 with a rival red-headed lad as lead feature in an anthology which bears his name to this day.

The eponymous young hero was originally a plucky bellboy/lift operator employed in the Moustique Hotel – a sly reference to the publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique – whose improbable adventures with pet squirrel Spip gradually evolved into high-flying, far-reaching and surreal comedy dramas.

Spirou and his chums have spearheaded the magazine for most of its life, with a phalanx of truly impressive creators carrying on Velter’s work, beginning with his wife Blanche “Davine” Dumoulin who took over the strip when her husband enlisted in 1939. She was assisted by Belgian artist Luc Lafnet until 1943 when Dupuis purchased all rights to the property, after which comic-strip prodigy Joseph Gillain (“Jijé”) took the helm.

In 1946 Jijé’s assistant André Franquin assumed the creative reins, gradually ditching the well-seasoned short gag vignettes in favour of epic adventure serials. He also expanded the cast, introducing a broad band of engaging regulars and eventually creating phenomenally popular magic animal Marsupilami to the mix.

First seen in Spirou et les héritiers in 1952, the elastic-tailed anthropoid eventually spun-off into his own strip series; becoming also a star of screen, plush-toy store, console games and albums. Franquin continued concocting increasingly fantastic tales and spellbinding Spirou sagas until his resignation in 1969.

He was followed by Jean-Claude Fournier who updated the feature over the course of nine stirring adventures which tapped into the rebellious, relevant zeitgeist of the times: offering tales of environmental concern, nuclear energy, drug cartels and repressive regimes.

By the 1980s the series seemed outdated and without direction: three different creative teams alternated on the feature, until it was overhauled and revitalised by Philippe Vandevelde (writing as Tome) and artist Jean-Richard Geurts AKA Janry, who adapted, referenced and in many ways returned to the beloved Franquin era.

Their sterling efforts revived the floundering feature’s fortunes and resulted in fourteen wonderful albums between 1984 and 1998. As the strip diversified into parallel strands (Spirou’s Childhood/Little Spirou and guest-creator specials A Spirou Story By…) the team on the core feature were succeeded by Jean-David Morvan & José-Luis Munuera. In 2010 Yoann & Vehlmann took over the never-ending procession of amazing adventures…

Cinebook have been publishing Spirou & Fantasio’s exploits since 2009, alternating between Tome & Janry’s superb reinterpretations of Franquin and earlier efforts from the great man himself.

André Franquin was born in Etterbeek, Belgium on January 3rd 1924. Drawing from an early age, he only began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943. When war forced the school’s closure a year later, he found work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels. There he met Maurice de Bévère (Lucky Luke creator “Morris”), Pierre Culliford (Peyo, creator of The Smurfs) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945 – with the exception of Peyo – they all signed on with Dupuis and Franquin began a career as a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator; producing covers for Le Moustique and Scouting magazine Plein Jeu.

In those early days Franquin and Morris were tutored by Jijé – the chief illustrator at Spirou. He turned the youngsters and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite AKA Will (Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, Le jardin des désirs) into a smooth creative bullpen known as La bande des quatre or “Gang of Four”.

They later reshaped and revolutionised Belgian comics with their prolific and engaging “Marcinelle school” style of graphic storytelling…

Jijé handed Franquin all responsibilities for the flagship strip part-way through Spirou et la maison préfabriquée, (Spirou #427, June 20th 1946). The new guy ran with it for two decades; enlarging the scope and horizons until it became purely his own. Almost every week fans would meet startling new characters such as staunch comrade and rival Fantasio or crackpot inventor and Merlin of mushroom mechanics the Count of Champignac

Spirou and Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, travelling to dangerously exotic places, uncovering crimes, exploring the fantastic and clashing with a coterie of exotic arch-enemies such as Fantasio’s rascally cousin Zantafio and the star of this particular tale, the maddest of scientists Zorglub.

In a splendid example of good practise, Franquin mentored his own band of apprentice cartoonists during the 1950s. These included Jean Roba (La Ribambelle, Boule et Bill), Jidéhem (Sophie, Starter, Gaston Lagaffe) and Greg (Bruno Brazil, Bernard Prince, Achille Talon, Zig et Puce), who all worked with him on Spirou et Fantasio over the years.

In 1955 contractual conflicts with Dupuis droved Franquin to sign up with rival outfit Casterman for Tintin magazine. Here he collaborated with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the raucous gag strip Modeste et Pompon.

Although Franquin soon patched things up with Dupuis and returned to Spirou – subsequently co-creating Gaston Lagaffe in 1957 (and Cinebook’s latest translated comedy star under the oddly inelegant title of Gomer Goof – and coming soon to a review near you!) Franquin was now contractually obliged to carry on his Tintin work too…

From 1959 on, co-writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem increasingly assisted Franquin but by 1969 the artist had reached his limit and resigned.

His later creations include fantasy series Isabelle, illustration sequence Monsters and bleak adult conceptual series Idées Noires, but his greatest creation – and one he retained all rights to upon his departure – is Marsupilami.

Plagued in later life by bouts of depression, Franquin passed away on January 5th 1997. His legacy remains; a vast body of work which reshaped the landscape of European comics.

Z comme Zorglub was originally serialised in Spirou #1096-1136 between 1959-1960 before being released on the continent in 1961 as the 15th hardcover album.

This outrageous Bond Movie-flavoured sci fi rollercoaster ride begins as an oddly oblivious but extremely sturdy gentleman determinedly delivers a package to the home of our heroes. It looks like a hairdryer, but when vainglorious Fantasio tries it on his own unruly locks, the device plunges him into a coma.

In a panic, Spirou dashes for help and misses the next stage: a mind-controlled Fantasio leaving the house and getting into a remote-controlled car…

It isn’t very well remote-controlled however, and after a calamitous chase through the city crashes into a shop. A little later, baffled, angry and with a badly mangled foot, Fantasio angrily discharges himself from hospital, swearing vengeance on he knows not whom, but the hidden mastermind has not yet finished with the dauntless duo…

Spirou is the next and more successful victim of the mind-warping mystery villain, and the plan quickly becomes clearer: the evil predator is called Zorglub and he doesn’t care about the journalists. He’s simply using the adventurers to get at their inspirational acquaintance: mushroom-mad boffin Count Champignac…

When informed of the situation the sagacious tinkerer is not surprised, he remembers what Zorglub was like when they were at school together…

The enormity of the plot soon becomes clear when megalomaniacal Zorglub confronts his old chum at his mushroom-laden chateau in the generally placid hamlet of Champignac-in-the-Sticks. The wicked mastermind has conceived a grand plan. He will conquer Earth and dominate the solar system but first he requires just a little technical assistance from the Count.

Zorglub cannot believe or accept Champignac’s unflinching refusal…

And thus begins an escalating duel of intellects and war of nerves and inventions as the smug madman tries ploy after ploy to force the Count’s compliance: capturing Fantasio, turning the Champignac-in-the-Sticks citizens into a rampaging mob hungry for blood and even creating an army of mind-warped “zorglmen” to pilot his incredible war machines against the Count and his doughty defenders…

The maniac is, however, caught completely off guard when Spirou, Spip and the Marsupilami enact a bold and rather rash counter offensive with Champignac, just as Zorglub triggers his grand plan and sends his fleet of rockets hurtling towards the Moon!

The end is a sudden, shocking, twist-laden comeuppance but the good guys have not seen the last of Zorglub…

Fast-paced, compellingly convoluted and perfectly blending helter-skelter excitement with keen suspense and outrageous slapstick humour, Z if for Zorglub is a terrific romp to delight devotees of easy-going adventure.

Stuffed with an astounding array of astonishing hi-tech spoofery, riotous chases and gazillions of sight gags and verbal ripostes, this exultant escapade is a fabulous fiesta of angst-free action and thrills. Readily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with beguiling style and seductive élan, this is pure cartoon gold, truly deserving of reaching the widest audience possible.

Buy it for you, get another for the kids and give copies to all your friends…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1961 by Franquin, Jidéhem & Greg. All rights reserved. English translation 2016 © Cinebook Ltd.

Sabrina the Teenage Witch: The Complete Collection volume 1 1962-1972

By George Gladir, Frank Doyle, Dick Malmgren, Al Hartley, Joe Edwards, Dan DeCarlo, Rudy Lapick, Vince DeCarlo, Bob White, Bill Kresse, Bill Vigoda, Mario Acquaviva, Jimmy DeCarlo, Chic Stone, Bill Yoshida, Stan Goldberg, Jon D’Agostino, Gus LeMoine, Harry Lucey, Marty Epp, Bob Bolling, Joe Sinnott & various (Archie Comic Publications)
ISBN: 978-1-936975-94-5

Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch debuted in Archie’s Mad House #22 (October 1962), created by George Gladir & Dan DeCarlo as a throwaway character in the gag anthology which was simply one more venue for comics’ undisputed kings of kids comedy. She soon proved popular enough to become a regular in the burgeoning cast surrounding the core stars Archie Andrews, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge and Jughead Jones.

By 1969 the comely enchantress had grown popular enough to win her own animated Filmation TV series (just like Archie and Josie and the Pussycats) and graduated to a lead feature in Archie’s TV Laugh Out before finally winning her own title in 1971.

The first volume ran 77 issues from 1971 to 1983 and, when a hugely successful live action TV series launched in 1996, an adapted comicbook iteration followed in 1997. That version folded in 1999 after a further 32 issues.

Volume 3 – simply entitled Sabrina – was based on new TV show Sabrina the Animated Series. This ran for 37 issues from 2000 to 2002 before a back-to-basics reboot saw the comicbook revert to Sabrina the Teenage Witch with #38, carefully blending elements of all the previous print and TV versions.

A creature of seemingly infinite variation and variety, the mystic maid continued in this vein until 2004 and issue #57 wherein, acting on the global popularity of Japanese comics, the company boldly switched format and transformed the series into a manga-style high school comedy-romance in the classic Shōjo manner.

A more recent version abandoned whimsy altogether and depicted Sabrina as a vile and seductive force of evil (see Chilling Adventures of Sabrina)

This no-frills massively monochrome trade paperback (or digital download) gathers and represents all her appearances – even cameos on the covers of other Archie titles – from that crucial first decade and kicks off with an informative and educational Introduction courtesy of Editor-in-Chief Victor Gorelick before chronologically unleashing the wonderment in a year-by-year cavalcade of magic mystery and mirth.

Clearly referencing Kim Novak as seen in the movie Bell, Book and Candle, ‘Presenting Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ (by George Gladir, Dan DeCarlo, Rudy Lapick & Vince DeCarlo from Archie’s Mad House #22) debuted a sultry seductress with a wicked edge prankishly preying on mortals at the behest of Head Witch Della, whilst secretly hankering for the plebeian joys of dating…

Leading off the next year’s chapter, the creative team reunited for Archie’s Mad House #24 (February 1963), with ‘Monster Section’ depicting Sabrina bewitching boys the way mortal girls always have, whilst ‘Witch Pitch’ sees the young beguiler ordered to ensorcel the High School hockey team… with mixed results…

Archie’s Mad House #25 (April) focuses on the supernatural clan’s mission to destroy human romances. In ‘Sister Sorceress’ Della orders Sabrina to split up dating duo Hal and Wanda – with catastrophic results – before ‘Jinx Minx’ (AMH #26, June) finds Sabrina going too far with a love potion at a school dance…

Bob White’s Archie’s Mad House #27 cover (August 1963) leads into #28’s ‘Tennis Menace’ (inked by Marty Epp) with Sabrina’s attempts to enrapture a rich lad going infuriatingly awry. AMH #30 (December) offers pin-up ‘Teen-Age Section’ drawn by Joe Edwards, with Sabrina comparing historical ways of charming boys with modern mortal methods…

The 1964 material opens with a love potion pin-up ‘Teen Section’ by Edwards (from Archie’s Mad House #31, February) before Gladir & Edwards’ ‘Ronald the Rubber Boy Meets Sabrina the Witch Queen’ finds the magic miss disastrously swapping abilities with an elastic-boned pal.

Issue #36 (October, by Edwards) sees her failing to jinx her friends’ recreational evening in ‘Bowled Over’, after which (AMH #37, December) Gladir is reunited with Dan & Vince DeCarlo for a spot of ‘Double Trouble’ as gruesome Aunt Hilda tries to fix Sabrina’s appalling human countenance, only to become her unwilling twin…

In 1965 Sabrina’s only appearance was in a Harry Lucey-limned ad for Archie’s Mad House Annual, whereas the following year saw her triumphant return with illustrator Bill Kresse handling Gladir’s scripts for ‘Lulu of a Boo-Boo’ (Archie’s Mad House #45, February 1966). Here the witch-girl’s attempts to join the In Crowd constantly misfire whilst ‘Beach Party Smarty’ (#48, August) confirms this new trend as her spells to capture a hunky lad go badly wrong…

For ‘Go-Go Gaga’ (AMH #49, September) Gladir & Kresse pit the bonny bewitcher against a greedy entrepreneur planning to fleece school kids in his over-priced dance hall, whilst in #50 ‘Rival Reversal’ finds her failing to conjure a date and ‘Tragic Magic’ proves even sorcery can’t keep a teen’s room clean…

Art team Bill Vigoda & Mario Acquaviva join Gladir for 1967’s first tale. ‘London Lore’ (Archie’s Mad House #52, February) with Sabrina transporting new boyfriend Donald to the heart of the Swinging Scene but ill-equip him for debilitating culture-shock, after which ‘School Scamp’ (Gladir and Dan, Jimmy & Vince DeCarlo, from AMH #53, April) again proves magic has no place in human education…

In issue #55 Gladir, Dan DeCarlo & Lapick reveal how Sabrina’s wishing to help is a doubly dangerous proposition in ‘Speed Deed’ whilst in #58 (December and illustrated by Chic Stone & Bill Yoshida) the trend for ultra-skinny fashion models leads to a little shapeshifting in ‘Wile Style’

1968 opens with Gladir, Stone & Yoshida exploring the down side of slot-car racing in ‘Teeny-Weeny Boppers’ (AMH #59, February) after which ‘Past Blast’ (#63, September by Gladir, Stan Goldberg, Jon D’Agostino & Yoshida) sees the mystic maid time-travel in search of Marie Antoinette, Pocahontas and Salem sorceress Hester.

The year wraps up with ‘Light Delight’ (Gladir, White, Acquaviva & Yoshida: Archie’s Mad House #65, December) as Sabrina’s aunts Hilda and Zelda try more modern modes of witchly transport…

With the advent of Sabrina on television, the end of 1969 saw a sudden leap in her comics appearances to capitalise on the exposure and resulted in a retitling of her home funnybook.

Again crafted by Gladir, White, Acquaviva & Yoshida, ‘Glower Power’ comes from Mad House Ma-Ad Jokes #70 (September) with Sabrina duelling another teen mage before the cover of Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #1 (December: rendered by Dick Malmgren & D’Agostino) leads into ‘Super Duper Party Pooper’ and the instant materialisation of a new sitcom lifestyle for the jinxing juvenile.

Sabrina yearns to be a typical High School girl. She lives in suburban seclusion with Hilda and Zelda and Uncle Ambrose. She has a pet cat – Salem – and is tentatively “seeing” childhood pal Harvey Kinkle. The cute but clueless boy reciprocates the affection but is far too scared to rock the boat by acting on his own desires.

He has no idea that his old chum is actually a supernatural being…

This opening sally depicts what happens when surly Hilda takes umbrage at the antics of Archie and his pals when they come over for a visit, whilst ‘Great Celestial Sparks’ (pencilled by Gus LeMoine) reveals what lengths witches go to when afflicted with hiccups…

A full-on goggle-box sensation, Sabrina blossomed in 1970, beginning with a little flying practice in ‘Broom Zoom’, boyfriend trouble in ‘Hex Vex’, fortune-telling foolishness in ‘Hard Card’, amulet antics in ‘Witch Pitch’, and kitchen conjurings in ‘Generation Gap’: all by Gladir, LeMoine, D’Agostino & Yoshida from Mad House Ma-Ad Jokes #72 (January).

The issue also offered sporting spoofs in ‘Bowl Roll’ (drawn by Dan DeCarlo).

The so-busy cover of Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #2 (March 1970) segues into Gladir, Dan D, Lapick & Yoshida’s ‘A Plug for The Band’ with Sabrina briefly joining The Archies’ pop group, whilst LeMoine contributes a brace of half-page gags ‘Sassy Lassy’ and ‘Food Mood’ and limns ‘That Ol’ Black Magic’ wherein the winsome witch’s gifts cause misery to all her new friends in Riverdale…

Dan DeCarlo & Lapick’s June cover for Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #3 leads into Malmgren-scripted ‘Double Date’ with hapless Harvey causing chaos at home until Ambrose finds a potential putrid paramour for Aunt Hilda.

Dan D & Lapick then launch an occasional series on stage magic in the first of many ‘Sabrina Tricks’ pages, before single-pagers ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’, ‘The Hand Sandwich’, ‘The Sampler’, ‘Never on Sundae’ and ‘Finger Licken Good’ reveal a growing divide between house-proud Hilda and accident-prone, ever-ravenous Harvey.

Interspersed with three more ‘Sabrina Tricks’ pages, the mystic mayhem continues with mini-epic ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ (Malmgren, LeMoine, D’Agostino & Yoshida) as our witch girl disastrously attempts to make Jughead Jones more amenable to Big Ethel’s romantic overtures.

Then the food fiascos resume with the LeMoine-limned ‘Good and Bad’ as Sabrina’s every good intention is accidentally twisted to bedevil her human pals

Taken from Mad House Glads #74 (August 1970), Gladir & LeMoine’s half-page chemistry gag ‘Strange Session’ is oddly balanced by the painterly ‘Blight Sight’ of long-forgotten never-was Bippy the Hippy, but we’re back on track and at the beach for Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #4 (September, Gladir, Vigoda, Lapick & Yoshida).

In ‘To Catch a Thief’ Sabrina again assists Ethel in pinning down the elusive and love-shy Jughead, and rounding out the issue are single page pranks ‘Beddy Bye Time’ (DeCarlo & Lapick), another ‘Sabrina Tricks’ lesson and seaside folly ‘In the Bag’ from LeMoine & D’Agostino.

ATVL-O #5 (November) then offers up Gladir, Vigoda & Stone’s ‘I’ll Bite’ as Sabrina’s hungry schoolfriends learn the perils of raiding Hilda’s fridge and Gladir, DeCarlo & Lapick’s ‘Hex Vex’ as Della storms in, demanding tardy Sabrina fulfil her monthly quota of bad deeds…

Sabrina is an atypical witch: living in the mundane world and assiduously passing herself off as normal and 1971 opens with DeCarlo & Lapick’s cover for Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #6 (February) and ‘Match Maker’ by Frank Doyle, Harry Lucey & Marty Epp as Hilda tries to get rid of Harvey by making him irresistible to Betty & Veronica. No way that can go wrong…

Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch’ (Gladir, LeMoine, D’Agostino & Yoshida) then uses her powers openly with some kids and learns a trick even ancient crone Hilda cannot fathom. Bolstered by a ‘Sabrina Tricks’ page, ‘Carry On, Aunt Hilda’ (Malmgren, LeMoine & Lapick) hilariously depicts lucky stars shielding Harvey from the wrath of irascible Aunt Hilda…

Bowing to popular demand, the eldritch ingenue finally starred in her own title from April 1971. Dan DeCarlo & Lapick’s cover for Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch #1 hinted at much mystic mirth and mayhem which began with ‘Strange Love’ (Doyle, Dan D & Lapick), revealing the star’s jealous response to seeing Harvey with another girl. This is supplemented by ‘Sabrina and Salem’s Catty Quiz’ before hippy warlock Sylvester comes out of the woodwork to upset Hilda’s sedate life in ‘Mission Impossible’ (Malmgren, LeMoine & D’Agostino).

Another ‘Sabrina Puzzle’ neatly moves us to Doyle, Dan D & Lapick’s ‘An Uncle’s Monkey’ with Harvey and a pet chimpanzee pushing Hilda to the limits of patience and sanity…

The cover of Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #7 (May) precedes a long yarn by Doyle, Bob Bolling & D’Agostino as ‘Archie’s TV Celebrities’ (the animated Archies, Sabrina and Josie and the Pussycats) star in ‘For the Birds’ with a proposed open-air concert threatened by the protests of a bunch of old ornithology buffs.

The celebrity pals then tackle an instrument-stealing saboteur in ‘Sounds Crazy to Me’ (Malmgren, LeMoine & D’Agostino), after which Sabrina cameos on the cover of Jughead #192 (May, by Dan DeCarlo & Lapick) before heading for the cover of her own second issue (DeCarlo & Lapick, July). Within those pages Malmgren scripts ‘No Strings Attached’ as the Archies visit their bewitching buddy just as Hilda turns hapless Harvey into an axe-strumming rock god…

‘Witch Way is That’ sees Hilda quickly regret opening her house to Tuned In, Turned On, Dropped Out Cousin Bert, after which Malmgren, Lucey & Epp show Archie suffering the jibes and jokes of ‘The Court Jester’ Reggie – until Sabrina adds a little something extra to the Andrews boys’ basketball repertoire..

At this time the world was undergoing a revival of supernatural interest and gothic romance was The Coming Thing.

In a rather bold experiment, Sabrina was given a shot at a dramatic turn with Doyle, Bolling, Joe Sinnott & Yoshida cooking up ‘Death Waits at Dumesburry’: a relatively straight horror mystery with Sabrina battling a sinister maniac in a haunted castle she had inherited…

Rendered by LeMoine & D’Agostino, the cover of Jughead’s Jokes #24 (July 1971) brings us back to comedy central, as does their cover for Archie’s TV Laugh-Out #8 (August) and Malmgren’s charity bazaar-set tale ‘A Sweet Tooth’, with the winsome witch discovering that even her magic cannot make Veronica’s baked goods edible…

Dan DeCarlo’s cover for ‘Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch #3 (September) foreshadows a return to drama but in modern milieu as ‘House Breakers’ (Malmgren, DeCarlo & Lapick) finds Harvey and Sabrina stranded in an old dark mansion with spooks in situ, after which ‘Spellbinder’ (Doyle, Al) sees Hilda cringe and curse when human catastrophe Big Moose pays Sabrina a visit.

Hartley & D’Agostino fly solo on ‘Auntie Climax’ as irresistibility spells fly and both Archie and Hilda are caught in an amorous crossfire before Malmgren, Bolling & Lapick show our cast’s human side as Archie, Jughead and Sabrina intervene to help a juvenile thief caught in a poverty trap in ‘The Tooth Fairy’

A trio of DeCarlo & Lapick covers – Archie’s TV Laugh Out #9 (September), Archie’s Pals ‘n’ Gals #66 (October) and Sabrina the Teen-Age Witch #4 (October) lead into the teen thaumaturge’s fourth solo comicbook, where Doyle, Goldberg & D’Agostino set the cauldron bubbling with ‘Hex Marks the Spot’ as Aunts Hilda and Zelda nostalgically opine for their adventurous bad old days but something seems set on thwarting every spell they cast, after which ‘Which Witch is Right?’ (pencilled by LeMoine) finds obnoxious Reggie Mantle uncovering Sabrina’s sorcerous secrets.

Goldberg & Sinnott illustrate ‘Switch Witch’ as officious Della suspends Sabrina’s powers as a punishment and can’t understand why the girl is delirious instead of heartbroken whilst Hartley & Sinnott contribute a run of madcap one-pagers by Gladir & Malmgren Doyle with clue-packed titles such as ‘Out of Sight’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘The Teen Scene’, ‘So That’s Why’ and ‘Time to Retire’.

Wrapping up the issue is ‘The Storming of Casket Island’ by Doyle, LeMoine & D’Agostino, blending stormy sailing with sinister swindling skulduggery and menacing mystic retribution…

More covers follow: Archie #213 and Archie’s TV Laugh Out #10 (both November and by Dan DeCarlo & Lapick) and Archie’s Christmas Stocking #190 (Hartley & D’Agostino, December) which latter also contributes Hartley & Sinnott’s ‘Card Shark’, with Sabrina joining Archie and the gang to explore the point and purpose of seasonal greetings postings before DeCarlo & Lapick’s cover of Betty and Me #39 brings the momentous year to a close…

The last year covered in this titanic tome is 1972 and kicks off with DeCarlo & Lapick’s cover for Archie Annual #23, before their Sabrina’s Christmas Magic #196 cover (January) opens the book on a winter wonderland of seasonal sentiment. It all starts with ‘Hidden Claus’ (by featured team Hartley & Sinnott) as Sabrina ignores her aunt’s mockery and seeks out the real Father Christmas – just in time to help him with an existential and labour crisis…

‘Sabrina’s Wrap Session’ offers tips on gifting and packaging whilst ‘Hot Dog with Relish’ sees the witch woman zap Jughead’s mooching canine companion and make him a guy any girl could fall for.

Then Doyle, Goldberg & Sinnott concoct ‘The Spell of the Season’, depicting our troubled teen torn between embracing Christmas and wrecking it as any true witch should. Guess which side wins the emotional tug-of-war?

More handicraft secrets are shared in ‘Sabrina’s Instant Christmas Decorations’ before Hartley & Sinnott craft ‘Sabrina Asks… What Does Christmas Mean to You?’ and ‘Sabrina Answers Questions About Christmas’, after which cartoon storytelling resumes with ‘Mission Possible’ as Hilda and Zelda find their own inner Samaritans.

Despite a rather distressing (and misleading) title ‘Popcorn Poopsie’ reveals way of making tasty decorative snacks whilst ‘Sabrina’s Animal Crackers’ tells a tale of men turned to beasts before a yuletide ‘Sabrina Pin-Up’ and exercise feature ‘Sabrina Keeps in Christmas Trim’ returns us to the entertainment section.

An all Hartley affair, ‘Sabrina’s Witch Wisher’ examines what the vast cast would say if given one wish, after which Doyle, Goldberg & Sinnott conclude this mammoth meander down memory lane by revealing how an evil warlock was punished by becoming ‘A Tree Named Obadiah’. Now – decked out in lights and tinsel – he’s back and making mischief in Veronica’s house…

An epic, enticing and always enchanting experience, the classic adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch are sheer timeless comics delight that no true fan will ever grow out of…

© 1962-1972, 2017 Archie Comic Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents The Witching Hour volume 1

By Alex Toth, Bob Haney, George Kashdan, Ed Herron, Jack Miller, Carl Wessler, Dennis O’Neil, Steve Skeates, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, Jack Oleck, Mike Friedrich, Alan Riefe, Dave Kaler, Phil Seuling, Jack Phillips, Murray Boltinoff, Sergio Aragonés, Nick Cardy, Carmine Infantino, Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Mike Sekowsky, George Tuska, Wally Wood, Dick Giordano, Joe Orlando, Bob Brown, Gray Morrow, Murphy Anderson, Pat Boyette, Bill Draut, Howard Sherman, Howard Post, Jerry Grandenetti, John Celardo, Art Saaf, Jack Sparling, Michael Wm. Kaluta, José Delbo, Lee Elias, Sid Greene, Jeff Jones, Tony DeZuñiga, Bernie Wrightson, Jim Aparo, John Calnan & many & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-85768-196-6

American comicbooks started slowly until the creation of superheroes unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and invented a new genre. Implacably vested in the Second World War, the Overman swept all before him (and the far too occasional her) until the troops came home and more traditional genres supplanted the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Although new kids kept up the buying, much of the previous generation also retained their four-colour habit but increasingly sought older themes in the reading matter. The war years altered the psychology of the world, and as a more world-weary, cynical young public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything, their chosen forms of entertainment (film and prose as well as comics) reflected this. As well as Western, War and Crime comics, madcap escapist comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features were immediately resurgent, but gradually another periodic revival of spiritualism and interest in the supernatural led to a wave of increasingly impressive, evocative and even shocking horror comics.

There had been grisly, gory and supernatural stars before, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in mystery-man garb and trappings (The Spectre, Mr. Justice, Sgt. Spook, Frankenstein, The Heap, Dr. Fate and dozens of others), but these had been victims of circumstance: The Unknown acting as a power source for super-heroics. Now the focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken or control with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering the reader.

Almost every publisher jumped on an increasingly popular bandwagon, with B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launching the first regularly published horror comic in the Autumn of 1948 – although Adventures Into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon, who had released an impressive single issue entitled Eerie in January 1947 before launching a regular series in 1951.

By this time Classics Illustrated had already long-milked the literary end of the medium with adaptations of the Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

If we’re keeping score this was also the period in which Joe Simon & Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap and invented the Romance comic (Young Romance #1, September 1947), but they too saw the sales potential for spooky material, resulting in the seminal Black Magic (launched in 1950) and its boldly obscure psychological drama anthology companion Strange World of Your Dreams (1952).

The company that would become DC Comics eventually bowed to the inevitable, launching a comparatively straight-laced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

When the hysterical censorship scandal which led to witch-hunting hearings (feel free to type Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, April-June 1954 into your search engine at any time… you can do that because it’s still notionally a free country at time of writing) was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self-regulatory rules.

HoM and its sister title House of Secrets were dialled back into rationalistic, fantasy adventure vehicles, which nevertheless dominated the market until the 1960s when super-heroes (which had started to creep back after Julius Schwartz began the Silver Age of comics by reintroducing The Flash in Showcase #4, 1956) finally overtook them.

Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Atom and a slew of other costumed cavorters generated a gaudy global bubble of masked mavens which even forced dedicated anthology suspense titles to transform into super-character split-books.

However, nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and at the end of the 1960s the Silver Age superhero boom stalled and crashed, leading to the surviving publishers of the field agreeing to loosen their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics. Nobody much cared about gangster titles at that time but as the liberalisation coincided with another bump in global interest in all aspects of the supernatural, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.”

Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle Thrillers

With Tales of the Unexpected #105 and House of Mystery #174 National/DC switched to anthology horror material before creating an all-new title to further exploit the morbid fascination with all thingies fearsome and spooky (they even resurrected the cancelled House of Secrets in late 1969) for those heady days when it was okay – and profitable – to scare the heck out of little kids by making them laugh.

Edited until #14 by Dick Giordano, The Witching Hour first struck at the end of 1968 (with a February/March 1969 cover-date). From the outset it was an extremely experimental and intriguing beast and this amazingly economical Showcase Presents collection reprints the first 19 issues, completely covering the first three years as the fear fad grew to become the backbone of DC’s sales. It is perhaps the most talent-stuffed title of that entire period…

Hopefully, as DC continues its archival conversion of Silver Age classics into new full-colour and digital editions, this collection will be available too in all its gory hues and glory…

In this graphic grimoire the traditionally cool and creepy horror-hosts who introduce such spooky fare are three witches. Based as much on Macbeth as the ancient concept of Maiden, Mother and Crone this torrid trio constantly battled to outdo or out-gross each other in the telling of terror tales. Moreover, Cynthia, Mildred and Mordred – as well as shy monster man-servant Egor – were designed and usually delineated by master artist Alex Toth; making framing sequences between yarns as good as and sometimes better than the stories they brazenly bracket.

One minor quibble: records from the period are not complete and occasionally a creator is unknown, but this volume also sadly misattributes the artist too. I’ve attempted to correct the mistakes when I’m certain, but please be warned and beware – I’m not always right either…

Following a stunning Nick Cardy cover, Toth starts the ball rolling by introducing the sinister sisters and their ongoing contest before Dennis O’Neil & Pat Boyette relate the story of a time-travelling tap-dancer in ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’.

Toth then writes and illustrates a compelling period piece of peril in ‘Eternal Hour!’ and Jack Sparling relates the eerie fate of wave-obsessed Stanley’s search for ‘The Perfect Surf’.

Toth’s scary sisters then close out the premier issue (with, I suspect, additional inks from Neal Adams), but still find room for ‘Silk Gauze’, an informational page by persons unknown which first appeared in Tales Unexpected#126.

Although attributed to Toth, #2’s introductory episode is by his old Standard Comics stable-mate Mike Sekowsky (inked by Giordano) and leads into Sparling’s dream-chiller ‘Scream!’, after which young José Delbo delineates shocking period tale of slavery and vengeance ‘The Trip of Fools!’ before Sid Greene’s short ghost story ‘The Beat Goes On!’ and Sparling’s ‘Once Upon a Surprise Ending!’ end an issue regrettably short on writer credits.

Following another Sekowsky/Giordano intro, Toth & Vince Colletta illustrate Don Arneson’s medieval mood masterpiece ‘The Turn of the Wheel!’, whilst Alan Riefe & Sparling told a decidedly different ghost-story in ‘The Death Watch’, after which Steve Skeates & Bernie Wrightson reveal a very alterative fantasy hero in ‘…And in a Far-Off Land!’, followed by the first of a series of short prose vignettes: an anonymous fright-comedy entitled ‘Potion of Love’.

Toth illustrates the sisters’ ‘Witching Hour Welcome Wagon’ (a useful identifying rule of thumb for the uninitiated is that the master usually signed his work – and was allowed to…) after which new kid Gerard Conway spectrally scripted ‘A Matter of Conscience’ for art veterans Sparling & George Roussos. Another anonymous prose piece ‘If You Have Ghosts’ precedes a smashing yarn entitled ‘Disaster in a Jar’ by Riefe & Boyette and Conway scripts period witchfinder thriller ‘A Fistful of Fire’ for Delbo – a vastly underrated artist who was on the best form of his career at this time.

Toth’s Weird Sisters close out that issue and eerily, hilariously open #5 before Wrightson lavishly embellishes a nifty but uncredited (as is every script in this one) nautical nightmare ‘The Sole Survivor!’, followed by text-teaser ‘The Non-Believer!’ and Boyette’s stunning, clownish creep-feature ‘A Guy Can Die Laughing!’

Stanley Pitt & Giordano’s dating dilemma ‘The Computer Game’ was one of the first to explore that now-hoary plot., and after Toth signs off the witches, there’s an added one-page black-comedy bonus from Sid Greene with ‘My! How You’ve Grown!’

Sekowsky & Giordano limned Dave Kaler’s take on the sisters’ intro for The Witching Hour #6 after which a far darker horror debuts as ‘A Face in the Crowd!’ by Conway, Mike Roy & Mike Peppe, wherein Nazi war-criminal and concentration camp survivor meet in an American street; Marv Wolfman & Delbo described a tale of neighbourly intolerance in ‘The Doll Man!’ and ‘Treasure Hunt’ by Skeates, John Celardo & Giordano showed why greed isn’t always good. Also included were Conway’s prose tale ‘Train to Doom’, ‘Mad Menace’ – a half-page gag strip by John Costanza – and ‘Distortion!’; another Greene-limned one-pager.

Toth & Mike Friedrich were on spectacular form for #7’s intro and bridging sequences, whilst Bill Draut was compulsively effective in prison manhunt saga ‘The Big Break!’, whose scripter Steve Skeates also wrote modern-art murder-mystery ‘The Captive!’ for Roussos. Then Friedrich & Jack Abel advise a most individual baby to ‘Look Homeward, Angelo!’. Whilst text piece ‘Who Believes Ouija?’ and Jack Miller & Michael Wm. Kaluta’s gothically delicious ‘Trick or Treat’ round out the sinister sights in this issue.

Sergio Aragonés & Neal Adams provide the witch-bits for #8, bracketing their own satanically sardonic ‘Above and Beyond the Call of Duty!’, as well as ‘Three Day Home Trial!’ (Aragonés & Cardy) and staggeringly inventive ‘Computerr’ by that man again and Toth.

‘The Career Man’ is a witty but anonymous prose piece and the issue closes with a Twice Told Tale by Ron Whyte & Sparling, as an urban myth is revealed in ‘The Sign of the Hook!’

Toth & Draut began #9, after which Bob Brown & Murphy Anderson illustrate ghostly tale ‘The Long Road Home!’ and, after text story ‘The Dark Well’, peripatetic, post-apocalyptic, ironic occasional series ‘The Day after Doomsday’ (by Len Wein & Sparling) makes a welcome appearance.

Delbo delightfully delineates a terrifying tale of Old China in ‘The Last Straw’ and, after George Tuska takes over the Weird Sisters link-segments, a doomsday debacle closes the dramas with a ‘Trumpet Perilous!’ drawn by Sparling & Abel.

The witches opening issue #10 are once more by Toth & Draut, promptly followed by a magnificent illustration job by the great Gray Morrow on regrettably uncredited ‘A Warp in Time… Loses Everything!’ after which the all-word ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’ precedes Conway & Toth’s superb forbidden romance ‘Hold Softly, Hand of Death!’. Tuska handles the Sisters before Sparling’s faux-fact page ‘Realm of the Mystics’ ends this excursion into the outer dark.

Toth drew the intro and Jack Oleck’s ‘The Mark of the Witch’ (inked by Draut) in #11, whilst – following text-tale ‘Retired Undefeated!’ – Tuska inspirationally illustrates creepy chronal conundrum ‘The Sands of Time, the Snows of Death!’

The Witching Hour #12 is similarly blessed, as after a sinisterly sexy Skeates/Toth intro, the devilish duo then describe an horrific ‘Double Edge’ battle between witch-queens and valiant mortals, followed by a Machiavellian actor’s ‘Double Take’ (Skeates & Tuska) and a demonic duel and ‘Double Cross!’ by Skeates & Gil Kane. The ever-anonymous prose piece is the mordantly merry ‘The Dead Can’t Talk But…’

Giordano’s last issue as editor was #13, which opened in grand style as fellow comicbook hosts Cain, Abel and the Mad Mod Witch (from Houses of Mystery and Secrets and The Unexpected, respectively) attend ‘New Year’s Eve at the Witching Hour’ (illustrated by Neal Adams), followed by a marvellously experimental and effective psycho-thriller by Alan Gold & Gray Morrow entitled ‘The Maze’: a far more traditional but no less scary story ‘The Accursed Clay!’ (Miller, Sparling & Frank Giacoia) and the just plain strange tale of ‘The Rush-Hour Ride of Abner Pringle!’ by Wein & Delbo.

As an added treat the text token is ‘The Witching Hour Mistree’ by that shy but not retiring rogue Egor…

When veteran editor Murray Boltinoff assumed the reins with #14 (April-May 1971) an element of experimentalism was surrendered but the more conventional material was no less welcomed by the horror-hungry readership: more proof, if any were needed, that artistic endeavour and envelope-pushing aren’t to everybody’s taste.

George Tuska replaced Toth as regular illustrator of introductory and bridging sections, but otherwise most fright-seeking kids could hardly tell the difference.

The all-science fiction issue’s terror-tales open with a beautiful yet oddly-stilted yarn from Conway and Jeff Jones who explore the solitary burdens of ‘Fourteen Months’ in deep space, whilst ‘Which Witch is Which?’ (by Kaler and drawn by Stanley & Reg Pitt) depicts the comeuppance of an intergalactic Lothario.

As “Al Case”, Editor Boltinoff provides text feature ‘Dead Letter Office’ before the issue ends on a classic visual high note with ‘The Haunted House in Space!’ illustrated by the dream team of Al Williamson & Carlos Garzon.

After the usual grisly graphic girl-talk TWH #15 starts with a murder masterpiece from George Kashdan & Wally Wood revealing ‘Freddy is Another Name For Fear!’, after which Al Case scripts ‘End of a World’ before Phil Seuling & Gray Morrow steal the show with the fearsome fable of the ‘Bayou Witch’ and Case & Art Saaf ring down the curtain with ‘I Married a Witch!’

Issue #16 saw House of Mystery expand from 32 to 52 pages – as did all DC titles for the next couple of years – opening the doors for a superb period of new material and the best of the company’s prodigious archives to an appreciative, impressionable audience.

The mysterious magic began after Tuska’s punchy prelude with cautionary ‘Never Kill a Witch!’ by Carl Wessler, John Calnan & Bernie Case, after which Boltinoff – as Bill Dennehy – provides a slick, edgy reinterpretation of a classic fairytale for Morrow to lavishly limn in ‘The Spell of Sinner Ella!’, before switching back to his Case persona for the Tony DeZuñiga illustrated duelling drama ‘You Can’t Hide From Death’.

The classic reprints began with ‘The Wondrous Witch’s Cauldron’ (drawn by the legendary Lee Elias from House of Secrets #58), followed by a Joe Orlando illustrated, Charles King scripted text piece ‘Last Meal’ and Howie Post and Draut’s ghoulish period parable ‘The Curse of the Cat’ which both came originally from House of Mystery #177.

Kashdan & Heck open #17 with a modern magic myth in ‘This Little Witch Went to College’ after which a classic 1950’s fear-feature from Sensation Mystery Comics #109 saw Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella devastatingly depict the ‘Fingers of Fear!’ whilst from House of Secrets #46, Howard Sherman delineated ‘The Second Life of Simon Steele’. Dennehy, Calnan & Colletta provide a new yarn with an old moral in ‘The Corpse Who Carried Cash!’ before Wessler & mood-master Jerry Grandenetti fantastically finish the fear-fest with ‘The Man in the Cellar’.

The same team open #18 with ‘The Worm that Turned to Terror’, a schizophrenic slice of domestic hell followed by ‘The Diggers!’: a nasty, vengeful yarn from Bobs Haney and Brown with Giacoia inks that encompasses half a century of French war and regret.

Tales of the Unexpected #13 was the original source of both the Ed Herron/Jack Kirby conundrum ‘The Face Behind the Mask’ and the Herron/Cardy creepy-crime caper ‘I Was a Prisoner of the Supernatural’, after which modernity resumes with Jim Aparo’s ‘Hypnotic Eye’ and Kashdan, Calnan & Colletta’s cautionary tale ‘When Satan Comes Calling!’

The final issue in this superbly spooky compendium is The Witching Hour #19 which – after the customary Tuska drawn kaffeeklatsch with Mordred, Mildred and Cynthia – commences in a stylish, sparkling Jack Phillips & Grandenetti chiller ‘A Tomb for the Winning!’, swiftly followed by ‘The Four Threads of Doom’ (by anonymous & Cardy from Tales of the Unexpected #12) after which a different anonymous and Tuska provide a fresh new thriller in ‘Stop Beating, Heart! You’re Killing Me!’.

One final Cardy reprint ‘The Lamp That Changed People!’ (House of Mystery #20) follows before this wonderful debut volume of witchly wonderment concludes with Kashdan/Elias shocker ‘What Evil Haunts This House?’

These terror-tales captivated reading public and critics alike when they first appeared and it’s indisputable that the supernatural sector saved DC during one of the toughest downturns in comics publishing history. Now their blend of garish mordant mirth, classic horror scenarios and suspense set-pieces can most familiarly be seen in such shows and series as Dimension 404, Goosebumps, Horrible Histories, and their many imitators.

If you crave beautifully realised, tastefully gore-free sagas of tension and imagination, not to mention a huge supply of bad-taste, kid-friendly cartoon chaos, stay up past The Witching Hour as long and as often as you possibly can…
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