Krazy & Ignatz 1943-1944: “He Nods in Quiescent Siesta”


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-932-6 (TPB)

In a field positively brimming with magnificent and eternally evergreen achievements, Krazy Kat is – for most cartoon cognoscenti – the pinnacle of pictorial narrative innovation: a singular and hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry and elevated itself to the level of a treasure of world literature.

Krazy & Ignatz, as it is dubbed in these gloriously addictive archival Fantagraphics tomes, is a creation which must always be appreciated on its own terms. Over the decades the strip developed a unique language – simultaneously visual and verbal – whilst delineating the immeasurable variety of human experience, foibles and peccadilloes with unfaltering warmth and understanding… and without ever offending anybody. Baffled millions, perhaps, but offended… no.

It certainly went over the heads and around the hearts of far more than a few, but Krazy Kat was never a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people: those who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex, multi-layered verbal and cartoon whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is still the closest thing to pure poesy narrative art has ever produced.

George Joseph Herriman (August 22, 1880-April 25, 1944) was already a successful cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse who’d been noodling about at the edges of his domestic comedy strip The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs graduated to their own feature. Mildly intoxicating and gently scene-stealing, Krazy Kat subsequently debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on Oct 28th 1913 and – by sheer dint of the overbearing publishing magnate’s enrapt adoration and direct influence and interference – gradually and inexorably spread throughout his vast stable of papers.

Although Hearst and a host of the period’s artistic and literary intelligentsia (such as Frank Capra, e.e. Cummings, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and more) adored the strip, many local and regional editors did not; taking every potentially career-ending opportunity to drop it from those circulation-crucial comics sections designed to entice joe public and the general populace.

Eventually the feature found its true home and sanctuary in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s papers. Protected there by the publisher’s unshakable patronage and enhanced with the cachet of enticing colour, Kat & Ko. flourished unhampered by editorial interference or fleeting fashion, running generally unmolested until Herriman’s death on April 25th 1944.

This final collection covers the final days of the feature as Herriman succumbed slowly and painfully to cirrhosis caused by Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Eschewing the standard policy of finding a substitute to carry on the strip, Hearst decreed that Krazy Kat would die with its creator and sole ambassador.

It was no real sacrifice to profit, but the culmination to years of grand tribute to unique mastery. The strip had declined in syndication for years. By the 1930s it was featured in only 35 papers, but despite that the publisher – acting more as renaissance-era artistic patron than hard-bitten businessman – refused Herriman’s every earnest request that his salary be reduced to fit his dwindling circulation. In 1935 Hearst responded to the requests by promoting the feature to the full-page, full-colour glory it enjoyed until the end.

The epic’s basic premise is simple: Krazy is an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive and romantic feline, hopelessly in love with Ignatz Mouse; a venal everyman, rude, crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous.

Ignatz is a truly, proudly unreconstructed male and early forerunner of the men’s rights movement: drinking, stealing, fighting, conniving, constantly neglecting his wife and innumerable children and always responding to Krazy’s genteel advances by clobbering the Kat with a well-aimed brick. These he obtains singly or in bulk from noted local brick-maker Kolin Kelly. The smitten kitten apparently always misidentifies these gritty gifts as tokens of equally recondite affection showered upon him in the manner of Cupid’s fabled arrows…

By the time of these tales it’s not even a response, except perhaps a conditioned one: the mouse still spends most of his time, energy and ingenuity in launching missiles at the mild moggy’s bonce. He can’t help himself, and Krazy’s day is bleak and unfulfilled if the hoped-for assault doesn’t happen. However, in these concluding episodes even that fiery warped passion has somewhat cooled: often attempted in perfunctory manner and frequently resulting in failure: just like any loving couple in their twilight years together…

The final critical element completing an anthropomorphic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp: utterly besotted with Krazy, professionally aware of the Mouse’s true nature, yet hamstrung by his own amorous timidity and sense of honour from permanently removing his devilish rival for the foolish feline’s affections. Krazy is, of course, blithely oblivious to the perennially “Friend-Zoned” Pupp’s dolorous dilemma…

Secondarily populating an ever-mutable stage are a big supporting cast of inspired bit players such as terrifying deliverer of unplanned babies Joe Stork; unsavoury huckster Don Kiyoti, hobo Bum Bill Bee, portal-packing Door Mouse, self-aggrandizing Walter Cephus Austridge, inscrutable, barely intelligible Chinese mallard Mock Duck, dozy Joe Turtil and snoopy sagacious fowl Mrs. Kwakk Wakk, plus a host of other audacious animal crackers all equally capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features.

The exotic, quixotic episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Coconino (patterned on the artist’s vacation retreat in Coconino County, Arizona) where surreal playfulness and the fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscape are perhaps the most important member of the cast.

The strips themselves are a masterful mélange of unique experimental art, cunningly designed, wildly expressionistic and strongly referencing Navajo art forms whilst graphically utilising sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully evocative lettering and language. This last is particularly effective in these later tales: alliterative, phonetically, onomatopoeically joyous with a compelling musical force and delicious whimsy (“goldin moom bims” or “there is a heppy lend, furfur away…”).

Yet for all our high-fallutin’ intellectualism, these comic adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerily idiosyncratic, outrageously hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous, violent slapstick. Kids of any age will delight in them as much as any pompous old git like me and you…

There’s been a wealth of Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the strip was first rediscovered by a better-educated, open-minded and far more accepting generation. This bittersweet final chapter covers all the strips from 1943 to the middle of 1944 in a comfortably hefty (231 x 305 mm) softcover edition – and is also available as a suitably serene digital edition.

With far fewer strips to catalogue, this edition is bulked up with a veritable treasure trove of unique artefacts: plenty of candid photos, personal correspondence, vast stores of original strip art and many astounding examples of Herriman’s personalised gifts and commissions (gorgeous hand-coloured artworks featuring the cast and settings), as well as a section on the rare merchandising tie-ins and unofficial bootleg items.

Tribute, commentary and analysis is provided by Bill Blackbeard’s final Introduction ‘The Tragedy of a Man with an Absent Mind’ and Jeet Heer and Michael Tisserand’s heavily-illustrated essay ‘Herriman’s Last Days (or, All Kats are Gray in the Dark)’ offering superb analysis of the unique talent celebrated herein. This inevitably leads to those superb cartoons, resuming with January 3rd 1943 and a tumultuous exchanging of gifts between cast regulars…

Due to the author’s declining health and perhaps the several personal tragedies that afflicted him in later life, the story atmosphere is mostly ruminatory and philosophical. It is also tinged with topical anxieties as World War II touches even the distant hills and mesas of Coconino. The trials of torrid triangular romance still play out as painfully and hilariously ever, but are balanced by more considered gags. Oblique references to the real world abound: a tortoise named Tank shambles about, Krazy is castigated for growing pretty flowers in the Victory Garden, and Ignatz is perforce compelled to handle bricks on a rationed, time-shared basis…

The usual parade of hucksters and conmen still abound, but pell-mell action, devious schemes and frantic chase gradually give way to comfortable chats and the occasional debate before inevitably concluding at the jail house…

Ignatz endures regular incarcerations and numerous forms of exile and social confinement, but with Krazy aiding and abetting, these sanctions seldom result in a reduction of cerebral contusions, whereas the plague of travelling conjurors, unemployed magicians and shady clairvoyants still make life hard for the hard-pressed constabulary and the gullible fools they target. Perhaps because of Herriman’s own vintage, many regular characters share a greater appreciation of infirmity and loss of drive, often reflected in the reduction of Krazy to a bit player in many strips.

Pupp suffers with his age, repeatedly trying labour-saving new policing appliances such as electrically booby-trapped or glue-drenched bricks and termites trained to chew on fired clay, and as a steady stream of displaced royals from conquered lands set up in the desert paradise and the phenomenon of zoot-suiters manifests, the forces of law and order seem harder-pressed every day.

Aged busybody Mrs Kwakk Wakk further expands her role of wise old crone and sarcastic Greek Chorus; confirming her status as a leading player. She has a mean and spiteful beak on her too, and whilst laconic vagabonds such as Bum Bill Bee continue their scams and schemes, the primary cast-members seem inclined to sit back and let them all get on with it……

Welcomingly as ever, there is still a solid dependence on the strange landscapes and eccentric flora for humorous or inspiration or simple aesthetic gratification, while all manner of weather and terrain play a large part in inducing anxiety, bewilderment and hilarity. As arthritis, increasing migraines and age took some of the artist’s physical dexterity, it seemed to liberate his eyes and compositional sensibilities. The later strips are astounding sleek graphic exemplars of cunning design and hue on which the regulars play out their final lines…

The wonderment concludes with ore unearthed artistic treasures and one last instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page’, providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed.

Herriman’s epochal classic is a stupendous and joyous monument to gleeful whimsy: in all the arenas of Art and Literature there has never been anything like these strips which have inspired comics creators and auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, dance, animation and music, whilst fulfilling its basic function: engendering delight and delectation in generations of wonder-starved fans.

If, however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this astounding compendium is a most accessible way to do so.

© 2008, 2015 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 5: Wha’s a Jeep?


By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-404-7 (HB)

Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester, Illinois on 8th December 1894. His father was a handyman and Elzie’s early life was filled with the types of solid, earnest blue-collar jobs that typified his generation of cartoonists. The younger Segar worked as a decorator and house-painter and played drums, accompanying vaudeville acts at the local theatre. When the town got a movie house, he played for the silent films, absorbing the staging, timing and narrative tricks from the close observation of the screen that would become his greatest assets as a cartoonist. It was while working as the film projectionist, aged 18, he decided to become a cartoonist and tell his own stories.

Like so many others of that “can-do” era, Segar studied art via mail, in this case W.L. Evans’ cartooning correspondence course out of Cleveland, Ohio (from where Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster would launch Superman upon the world), before gravitating to Chicago where he was “discovered” by Richard F. Outcault – arguably the inventor of newspaper comic strips with The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown.

The senior artist introduced him around at the prestigious Chicago Herald. Still wet behind the ears, Segar’s first strip, Charley Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, debuted on 12th March 1916. In 1918 he married Myrtle Johnson and moved to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American to create Looping the Loop. Managing Editor William Curley saw a big future for Segar and promptly packed the newlyweds off to the Manhattan headquarters of the mighty King Features Syndicate.

Within a year Segar was producing Thimble Theatre, which launched December 19th 1919 in the New York Journal. In its earliest incarnation the strip was a pastiche/knock off of Movie features like Hairbreadth Harry and Midget Movies, with a repertory cast to act out comedies, melodramas, comedies, crime-stories, chases and especially comedies for huge daily audiences. The core cast included parental pillars Nana and Cole Oyl, lanky daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor and Olive’s plain and simple occasional boyfriend Horace Hamgravy (later just Ham Gravy).

In 1924, Segar created a second daily strip. The 5:15 was a surreal domestic comedy featuring weedy commuter and would-be inventor John Sappo and his formidable wife Myrtle (surely, no relation?).

A born storyteller, Segar had from the start an advantage even his beloved cinema couldn’t match. His brilliant ear for dialogue and accent shone out from his admittedly average melodrama adventure plots, adding lustre to stories and gags he always felt he hadn’t drawn well enough. After a decade or so – and just as cinema caught up with the introduction of “talkies” – he finally discovered a character whose unique sound and individual vocalisations blended with a fantastic, enthralling nature to create a literal superstar.

Popeye the sailor, brusque, incoherent, plug-ugly and stingingly sarcastic, shambled on stage midway through nautical adventure ‘Dice Island’, (on January 17th 1929: see E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam!”) and once his very minor part was played out, simply refused to leave. Within a year he was a regular and as the strip’s circulation skyrocketed, he became the star. Eventually, the strip title was changed to Popeye and all of the old gang except Olive were consigned to near-oblivion…

Popeye inspired Segar. The near decade of thrilling mystery-comedies which followed revolutionised the industry, laid the groundwork for the entire superhero genre (sadly, usually without the leavening underpinnings of his self-aware humour) and utterly captivated the whole wide world.

These superb oversized (almost 260 mm by 372mm) hardback collections are the ideal way of discovering or rediscovering Segar’s magical tales. Over and above the increasingly incredible tales from the daily and Sunday strips, this vibrantly enticing fifth volume also contains an insightful introductory essay from Richard Marschall – ‘Character and Personality in Thimble Theatre’ – a captivating article of the period (‘Segar’s Hobbies Put Punch in Popeye Comics’) reprinted from Modern Mechanix and Inventions, plus a fascinating end-piece covering assorted original art teasers editors used to promote upcoming tales in the magical days before television or viral ad campaigns.

The monochrome Monday to Saturday section opens this volume, (covering July 25th 1935-December 12th 1936), encompassing one-and-a-half major storylines, and begins with the eagerly-anticipated conclusion of ‘Popeye’s Ark’, wherein our bold sailor-man carries out an ambitious plan to set up his own country of Spinichovia. The incredible scheme is funded by misogynist millionaire Mr. Sphink who insists that the new country be absolutely without women, and Popeye goes along with it, recruiting a host of disaffected guys looking for a fresh start…

Soon however, the thousands of able-bodied men populating the country are starving for any kind of female companionship: – even Olive Oyl, currently exiled on an island of her own. Things get very strange when the lonely Spinichovians discover a tribe of mermaids frolicking off the coast, but romance is soon forgotten when Brutian despot King Zlobbo decides the new nation must be his in ‘War Clouds’.

To scout out potential opposition, Zlobbo dispatches enticing spy Miss Zexa Peal, but as the most beautiful woman in the country – and comprising 50% of Spinichova’s female population – she isn’t exactly inconspicuous…

When war breaks out, it results in Popeye’s greatest victory – with just a little excessively violent help from feisty “infink” baby Swee’ Pea

By the conclusion of that epic tale all the players have returned to America, just in time for the introduction of the star of this tome.

‘Eugene the Jeep’ debuted on March 20th 1936: a fantastic 4th dimensional beast with incredible powers that Olive and Wimpy use to get very rich, very quickly, only to lose it all betting on the wrong guy in another of Segar’s classic and hilarious set-piece boxing matches between Popeye and yet another barely-human pugilist…

These tales come from an astonishingly fertile period for the strip’s long history. On August 4th, Eugene was instrumental in kicking off another groundbreaking and memorable sequence as the entire ensemble cast took off on as haunted ship to undertake ‘The Search for Popeye’s Papa’.

When Popeye first appeared, he was a shocking anti-hero. The first Superman of comics was not a comfortable icon to idolise. A brute who thinks with his fists and doesn’t respect authority; uneducated, short-tempered, fickle (when hot tomatoes batted their eyelashes – or thereabouts – at him), a gambler and troublemaker, he wasn’t welcome in polite society… and he wouldn’t want to be.

Popeye was the ultimate working-class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, but with an innate and unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not. He was a joker who wants kids to be themselves, but not necessarily “good”, and a man who takes no guff from anyone.

Of course, as his popularity grew, he somewhat mellowed. He was always ready to defend the weak and had absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows. He was and will always be “the best of us”… but the shocking sense of unpredictability, danger and anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed by 1936 – so Segar brought it back again…

This memorably riotous tale introduced ancient, antisocial crusty reprobate Poopdeck Pappy and his diminutive hairy sidekick Pooky Jones during another fabulous voyage of discovery. The elder mariner was a rough, hard-bitten, grumpy brute quite prepared and even happy to cheat, steal or smack a woman around if she stepped out of line…

Once that old goat was firmly established, Segar set Popeye and Olive the Herculean task of ‘Civilizing Poppa’ which is where the monochrome adventures here conclude…

The full-colour Sunday pages in this volume span April 4th 1935 to September 13th 1936, and see the bizarrely entertaining Sappo (and mad scientist lodger Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle) supplemental strip gradually diminish to allow the Popeye feature even more room to excel and amaze.

Eventually Sappo became a cartooning tricks section allowing Segar to play graphic games with his readership. Popeye’s Cartoon Club also disappeared, as the focus inexorably shifted to Popeye and Co. in alternating one-off gag strips and extended sagas. However, the Sailor-Man had to fight for space with his mooching co-star J. Wellington Wimpy

When not beating the stuffing out of his opponents or kissing pretty girls, Popeye pursued his flighty, vacillating and irresolute Olive Oyl with exceptional verve, if little success, but his life was always made more complicated whenever the unflappable, so-corruptible and adorably contemptible Wimpy made an appearance.

The engaging Micawber-like coward, moocher and conman was first seen on 3rd May 1931 as an unnamed and decidedly partisan referee in one of Popeye’s regular boxing matches. The scurrilous but ever-so-polite oaf obviously struck a chord and Segar gradually made him a fixture. Eternally hungry, always eager to take a bribe and a cunning coiner of many immortal catchphrases such as “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” and “let’s you and him fight”, Wimpy was the perfect foil for a simple action hero and often stole the entire show.

Infinitely varying riffs on Olive’s peculiar romantic notions or Wimpy’s attempts to cadge food or money for food were irresistible to the adoring readership, but Segar wisely peppered the Sundays with longer episodic tales, such as the cast’s gold-prospecting venture to the inhospitable western desert of ‘Slither Creek’ (April 14th – August 25th 1935) and a sequel sequence wherein the temporarily wealthy but eternally starving Wimpy buys his own diner – the ultimate expression of blind optimism and sheer folly…

The uniquely sentimental monster Alice the Goon returned to the strip on February 23rd 1936, permanently switching allegiance and becoming nanny to rambunctious tyke Swee’ Pea. She was a cast regular by the end of April.

August 9th saw Eugene the Jeep make his Sunday debut, and a few demonstrations of the fanciful beast’s incredible powers to make money and cause chaos fill out this fifth fantastic tome…

There is more than one Popeye. If your first thought on hearing the name is an unintelligible, indomitable white-clad sailor always fighting a great big beardy-bloke and mainlining tinned spinach, that’s okay: the animated features have a brilliance and energy of their own (even the later, watered-down anodyne TV versions have some merit) and they are indeed based on the grizzled, crusty, foul-mouthed, bulletproof, golden-hearted old swab who shambled his way into Thimble Theatre and wouldn’t leave. But they are really only the tip of an incredible iceberg of satire, slapstick, virtue, vice and mind-boggling adventure…

There is more than one Popeye. Most of them are pretty good and some are truly excellent. Don’t you think it’s about time you sampled the original and very best?
© 2011 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2011 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

Asterix Omnibus volume 7: Asterix and the Soothsayer; Asterix in Corsica; Asterix and Caesar’s Gift


By Goscinny & Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Orion Books)
ISBN: 978-1-44400-835-7 (HB), 978-1-44400-836-4 (PB)

One of the most-read comics strips in the world, the collected chronicles of Asterix the Gaul have been translated into more than 100 languages since his debut in 1959, with animated and live-action movies, TV series, assorted games, toys and even a theme park outside Paris (Parc Astérix, unsurprisingly…) all stemming from his glorious exploits.

More than 325 million copies of Asterix’s many albums have sold worldwide, making his joint creators France’s bestselling international authors.

The doughty, potion-powered paragon of Gallic Insouciance was created by two grandmasters of comics: René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo. Although their inspirational collaborations ended with the death of the prolific scripter in 1977, the creative wonderment continued until relatively recently from Uderzo, assistants and ultimately his successors – albeit at a slightly reduced rate.

The wonderment works on multiple levels: ostensibly, younger readers revel in action-packed, lavishly illustrated comedic romps wherein sneaky, bullying baddies get their just deserts, whilst we more worldly readers enthuse over the dry, pun-filled, sly satire, especially as enhanced for English speakers by the brilliantly light touch of translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge, who played no small part in making the indomitable Gaul and his gallant companions so palatable to the Anglo-Saxon world.

(Moi, I still rejoice in a perfectly produced “Paf!” to the phizzog as much as any painfully potent procession of puns or sardonic satirical sideswipe…)

The stories were set on Uderzo’s beloved Brittany coast, where a small village of warriors and their families resisted every effort of the Roman Empire to complete the conquest of Gaul, or alternately, anywhere in the Ancient World, circa 50 BCE, as the Gallic Gentlemen wandered the multifarious provinces of the Empire and even beyond its generally-secure borders…

When the heroes were playing at home, the Romans, unable to defeat this last bastion of Gallic insouciance, resorted to a policy of containment. Thus, the little seaside hamlet is permanently hemmed in by the heavily fortified garrisons of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.

The truculent Gauls don’t care: they daily defy the world’s greatest military machine simply by going about their everyday affairs, protected by the magic potion of resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits of the diminutive dynamo and his simplistic, supercharged best friend…

Firmly established as a global brand and premium French export by the mid-1960s, Asterix the Gaul continued to grow in quality as Goscinny & Uderzo toiled ever onward, crafting further fabulous sagas; building a stunning legacy of graphic excellence and storytelling gold.

Le Devin was the 19th serialised epic, originally running in Pilote #652-673 throughout 1972, first translated into English album Asterix and the Soothsayer in 1975, and begins ominously whilst the village’s venerable mystic protector Getafix is away at his annual Druiding conference.

During a torrential storm, a nefarious soothsayer named Prolix turns up seeking shelter. His dark predictions instantly spread disharmony amongst the hospitable, hot-headed, painfully superstitious and credulous Gaulish stalwarts… except for level-headed, canny little Asterix.

As Prolix leaves, Chief’s wife Impedimenta sneaks after him, keen on a personal prediction, and the crafty charlatan soon discovers he’s on to a good thing and profitably cushy number…

Before long the entire village is under the soothsayer’s grimy thumb, but when he vanishes the ladies of the village accuse Asterix of driving him away.

In actuality, the unsavoury sage has been arrested by the Romans who have standing orders to deal harshly with all non-Roman prognosticators and troublemakers. Wily Prolix barters for his life with Centurion Arteriosclerosus, who sees a way to end his Indomitable Gaul problem by using the obviously fraudulent fortune-teller as a wedge to drive out the obstreperous resistors. Prolix returns to the village uttering a doom-laden pronouncement: the place has been cursed by the Gods and a pestilential stench will precede plague. Inevitable death will be their fate if they remain…

Panicked, the gullible Gauls head for the beach and take refuge on an off-shore island – all that is, except for Asterix, Obelix and chivalrous canine companion Dogmatix

With the Romans at last in possession of the village – and all Gaul finally conquered – the bold last rebels make their plans until Getafix returns. On his arrival the three men and a dog embark on an elaborate scheme to take back their home and teach their foolish fellows a much-needed lesson.

Concocting a stunningly malodorous vapour which drives the occupiers from the village, the druid convinces the Romans that Prolix is a real soothsayer and ambitious Arteriosclerosus sees a chance to become the next Caesar. Increasingly baffled, conman Prolix begins to believe his predictions are real…

After dressing down the refugee Gauls, Getafix leads them back to their beloved homes where the incensed and wiser villagers top up on magic potion before rushing off to teach the invaders – and Prolix – a much needed lesson. On this occasion, Impedimenta and the village women accompany their men, determined to expiate their embarrassing gullibility with a little cathartic violence of their own…

This delightfully arch and acerbic attack on gullibility and superstition is a splendid and long-overdue chance to see the minor characters play to their strengths and weaknesses, with Asterix and Obelix almost relegated to walk-on parts…

First translated two years earlier in England but chronologically following on from The Soothsayer in the original French serialisations, Astérix en Corse (Pilote #687-708, in 1973) was the 20th adventure and the best-selling French-language album of the series.

Another globe-trotting yarn, it begins with the Romans of the four occupying garrisons “deploying for manoeuvres” to avoid having to deal with Gauls’ painfully exuberant celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of Gergovia. Unfortunately for Centurion Hippotamus and his men, they are delayed by the arrival of a party from Praetor Perfidius, Governor of Corsica, escorting a dangerous prisoner into exile. They are all still in Totorum when the high-spirited villagers (and many guest-star friends from previous tales) arrive, keen for a punch-up and a little annoyed that all the other Roman camps are deserted…

When the dust settles and the groans of pain subside, Asterix discovers and liberates the prisoner Boneywasawarriorwayayix and invites him back to the village for a slap-up feed. Over boar and beer, the Gauls hear how Perfidius had the popular Corsican leader exiled to prevent him revealing how the Praetor has been over-taxing the people and embezzling the gold for himself instead of sending it to Caesar in Rome.

Corsica is officially the most troublesome spot in the Empire and the exile is determined to return and expose the hated Governor, so proud, haughty Boneywasawarriorwayayix is delighted when Asterix and Obelix – with faithful canine companion Dogmatix – determine to help him sneak back to his fiercely over-fortified and contained island (most volumes of this album have a map of Corsica instead of the traditional Gaulish village, and the tiny nation contains four towns and forty-six Roman camps)…

Hilariously obtaining passage on the pirate ship of Redbeard, the voyagers soon find themselves on the island – but by no means unnoticed…

Soon the dissolute and lazy soldiery are hunting the heroes as they make their way inland to the exile’s home village to rally the populace, whilst in the city of Aleria Perfidius reckons the jig is up and prepares to flee with his ill-gotten gains…

Attempting to rally the natives, Boneywasawarriorwayayix comes up against the age-old dilemma: most Corsicans are involved in centuries-long vendettas and would much rather fight each other – at least when they’re not taking a siesta – than unite to attack the invaders. However, eventually – and almost too late – a determined band of warriors march on Aleria. Perfidius has been secretly loading his loot onto a ship, but when his soldiers discover the riches, they realise their leader is planning to abandon them to the fiercely furious Corsicans – at least if overtaxed diplomatic Asterix can keep the natives from killing each other first…

Asterix travel epics are always packed with captivating historical titbits, soupcons of healthy cynicism, singularly surreal situations and amazingly addictive but generally consequence-free action, always illustrated in a magically enticing manner.

Stuffed with sly pokes and good-natured trans-national teasing of perceived (and generally treasured) national characteristics; celebrating the terrifying power of Corsican cheeses and liberally served up with raucous hi-jinks and fast-paced action, this is another magical titbit of all-ages entertainment.

In 1974 Le Cadeau de César was the first tale to be published as a complete album prior to being serialised, with British translation Asterix and Caesar’s Gift appearing in 1977. The saga begins in Rome where two 20-year veteran legionaries drunkenly celebrate being honourably discharged. Tremensdelirious and Egganlettus eagerly look forward to being given their service reward: a parcel of land each.

Unfortunately, Tremensdelirious is overheard disparaging Caesar, but the sardonically cruel Emperor does not punish the old soldier or even withhold his pension. In fact, he gives the veteran a lovely portion of the Gaulish coast in Armorica: all he has to do is shift a few recalcitrant Gauls from their village on his new small holding…

A drunk but not a fool, the old soldier knows his fate is sealed and soon trades his dispensation to Lutetian inn-keeper Orthopaedix to settle his outstanding and prodigious bar-bill…

The first that the Indomitable Gauls know of this is when Orthopaedix, wife Angina and daughter Influenza roll up in their cart and try to take possession. After some hilarity the villagers go back about their business and the inn-keeper is left to suffer the fury of his wife at the uprooting of the family to a barbaric hovel where nobody acknowledges their claim.

No stranger to such a tongue-lashing, Chief Vitalstatistix takes pity on Orthopaedix, offering to let them stay and open an inn in the hamlet, but the standoffish villagers are angered by Angina’s superior airs and a riot breaks out on opening night…

The world-weary publican is ready to quit, but now humiliated Angina is in a status duel with Impedimenta and, determined to stay, forces Orthopaedix to challenge Vitalstatistix for the post of village Chief. As the campaign to win the support of the always-argumentative villagers intensifies, all manner of shoddy tactics, dubious lobbying and outright bribery takes place, with each party frantically trying to curry political favour from the fickle but extremely astute potential voters who know the value of their own support…

Meanwhile, simple, gentle, oafish Obelix has fallen under the spell of the lovely Influenza, and she leads him on cruelly to help out her mother’s naked ambition, leading to a clash with his best friend. Only Asterix seems aware that the discord could well be the death of the village and lead to Caesar’s ultimate triumph and before long the waters are further muddied when elderly Lothario Geriatrix declares himself a third party, splitting the potential vote even further.

The political crisis reaches boiling point when Tremensdelirious turns up, demanding his land-grant back: after all it’s illegal to sell them to Gauls, and Orthopaedix has no say in the matter…

When the ex-legionary turns violent, Asterix steps in to save the day and the old sot is driven off at sword-point. He doesn’t go far – only to the garrison of Laudanum where old comrade Egganlettus has re-enlisted – and together they blackmail Centurion Tonsillitus into attacking the Gauls to uphold Roman law and get back that “official” pension land which is every soldier’s right…

That kind of military intervention usually ends disastrously, but this time the village is hopelessly divided by political intrigue and backstabbing and even Asterix cannot unite them against their real and common foe. It seems that the Gauls must lose everything until Orthopaedix makes a supreme sacrifice to save the day…

Brittle, barbed and devilishly sharp, this outrageous political thriller and satire on modern electioneering is as pertinent and punchy as it ever was, proving once again that these Gallic graphic masterpieces are perfect comics which everyone should read over and over again.
© 1972-1974 Goscinny/Uderzo. Revised English translation © 2004 Hachette. All rights reserved.

Fifty Freakin’ Years with the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers


By Gilbert Shelton & various (Knockabout Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-86166-261-6 (TPB)

Because you’re all decent, deity-fearing, upstanding citizens you’re probably utterly unaware of the extensive sub-culture which has grown up around the recreational abuse of narcotic pharmaceuticals – and so, of course, am I – but it must be said: those counter-culture chaps certainly know how to craft a comic tale.

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers first appeared in Texas local paper The Rag, shambling out of the gradually burgeoning Underground Commix counter-culture wave in 1968. They jumped to Berkeley Print Mint’s Feds ‘n’ Heads, and New York tabloid The East Village Other before creator Gilbert Shelton and a few friends moved to California and founded their own San Francisco based Rip Off Press in 1969.

This effective collective continued to maximise the madness as the hilarious antics of the “Freaks” (a contemporary term for lazy, dirty, drug-taking hippy folks) captured the imagination of the open-minded portions of America and the world.

In 1971, they published the first compilation: The Collected Adventures of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers – which has been in print all around the planet ever since – and soon assorted underground magazines and college papers were joined by the heady likes of Rip Off Comix, High Times and Playboy (as well as numerous foreign periodicals) in featuring the addictive adventures of Freewheelin’ Franklin, Phineas T. Freakears and Fat Freddy Freekowtski (and his cat): siblings in sybaritic self-indulgence.

Always written by Shelton and, from 1974 illustrated by Dave Sheridan (until his death in 1982) and latterly Paul Mavrides and others, the disjointed strips (sorry; drug-humour is just irresistible…) combined canny satirical cynicism, surreal situations, scatological sauciness and an astounding grasp of human nature in brilliantly comedic episodes that cannot fail to amuse anyone with a mature sense of humour.

All the strips have been collected in various formats (in Britain by the equally fine and fabulous folks of Knockabout Comics) and have been happily absorbed by vast generations of fans – most of whom wouldn’t read any other comic.

Despite the hippy-dippy antecedents and stoner presentiments, Shelton is irrefutably a consummate professional and born storymaker. His ideas are always enchantingly fresh yet deviously skewed, the dialogue is permanently spot-on and his pacing perfect. The stories, whether half-page fillers, short vignettes or full-blown sagas, start strong and relentlessly build to spectacular – and often wildly outrageous, hallucinogenic yet narrative-appropriate – climaxes.

And they’re so very, very funny.

Without Shelton and the Freaks, the whole sub-genre of slacker/stoner movies, from Cheech and Chong’s assorted escapades to Dude, Where’s My Car? and all the rest – good, bad or indifferent – wouldn’t exist. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to you…

Freewheelin’ Franklin is the tough, street-savvy one who can pull the chicks best, Phineas T. is a wildly romantic, educated and dangerous (to himself) intellectual, whilst Fat Freddy is you and me; weak-willed, greedy, not so smart, vastly put upon by an uncaring universe but oddly charming (you wish…)

One last point: despite the vast panoply of drugs imbibed, both real and invented, the Freaks don’t ever do heroin – which should tell you something…

This commemorative paperback album – now also available digitally – celebrates the trio’s astounding popularity and longevity, opening with a little look back in astonishment via Shelton’s Introduction ‘Fifty Freakin’ Years’ which offers fascinating historical insights and context in an Authorised History that wonderfully shares and captures the tone of those times, augmented by commentary, sketches, posters and found art, candid photos and loads of wry reflections.

Combining classic tales with 28 pages of new material by Shelton, plus loving spoofs and parodies from select cartoonists, the parade of seditious smut and filth opens with full-colour fiasco ‘Phineas Becomes a Suicide Bomber’, wherein the sensitive soul seeks to impress a rabble-rousing feminist icon and accidentally disrupts a glitzy convocation of smug one-percenters…

A pin-up of ‘Flora & Fawna the Jailbait Twins’ (don’t fret; these drawings admit they’re actually over 18 and only look younger…) is followed by more uproarious mayhem when one of our heroes is mugged by kids. Not at all overreacting, ‘Franklin got his Gun!’ when he stumbles into a right wing (aren’t they all?) Gun Show and accidentally triggers a bloodbath…

Following a transcendental moment from 2013 when ‘Mr. Natural meets Fat Freddy’, eternal quester Freekowtski goes on an all-out quest for enlightenment in the hilariously blasphemous ‘Fat Freddy Gets Religion’ revealing the holy power of alcohol – specifically ‘Tall Toad’ beer…

First seen in 2009, ‘The Adventures of the Fabulous Fat Freddy’ combines his search for love and understanding with an unsuspected appreciation of great art before diverting to a beguiling illustrated prose anecdote about storytelling from Shelton.

A selection of homages spoof and parodies follow, beginning with ‘Geek Brothers!’ by Jay Lynch from Bijou Funnies, backed up in stark monochrome by ‘The Feminine Furry-Legged Freek! Sisters’ and its accompanying bottom strip ‘Fat Frieda’s Ass’; both courtesy of Willy Murphy & Ted Richards from The National Lampoon Book of Comical Funnies.

In living colour, the cover of Shelton tribute book Fabuleux Furieux! is followed by Hunt Emerson’s parody ‘Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ as seen within it, preceding original strip ‘Scotland Yardie vs the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ by Bobby Joseph & Joseph Samuels.

Unused art for a Flash animation, ‘The Fabulous Furry Freak Brother’s Strut March’ opens a selection of found art and commissioned works, including 2008 art by Shelton for the 40th Anniversary of comic phenomenon Lambiek; Freak Brothers bank notes; illustrations of Mort Walker’s Comic Strip Lexicon, an Amsterdam Street Scene, Armadillo Rodeo, Street Freaks, poster for a Paris music store and more.

Other stuff includes personalised birthday cards, posters, film festival graphics and covers, sticker art, excerpts from Shelton’s Motoring Tips series, a tribute page to the many artistic co-contributors who added to the grubby lustre of the Freaks over the First Fifty Years and much, much more.

Anarchically sardonic and splendidly ludicrous, the madcap slapstick of the Freak Brothers is always an irresistible and joyously innocent tonic for the blues and this book – available in paperback and digital editions – should be a compulsory experience for any fan of the comics medium. However, if you’re still worried about the content, which is definitely habit-forming, simply read but don’t inhale…
© 2017 Gilbert Shelton. All rights reserved.

Tiny Titans: The First Rule of Pet Club…


By Art Baltazar & Franco with Geoff Johns & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2892-7 (TPB)

DC’s Cartoon Network imprint was a potent and fun bastion of children’s comics in America and consolidated the link between TV and 2D fun and thrills with stunning interpretations of such television landmarks as Ben 10, Scooby Doo, Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory and others. The comics line also produced some truly exceptional material based on TV iterations of their proprietary characters such as Legion of Super Heroes, Batman: Brave and the Bold and Krypto the Super Dog as well as original material like Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! which was merely indistinguishable in tone and content.

Perhaps the imprint’s finest release was a series ostensibly aimed at early readers but which quickly became a firm favourite of older fans – and a multi-award winner too.

Superbly mirroring the magical wonderland inside a child’s head where everything is happily mixed up together, Tiny Titans became a sublime nostalgia-weaponised antidote to continuity cops and slavish fan-boy quibbling by reducing the vast cast of the Teen Titans animated series, the greater boutique of mainstream comicbooks and, eventually, the entire DC Universe to little kids and their parents/guardians in the wholesome kindergarten environment of Sidekick City Elementary School.

It’s a scenario spring-loaded with in-jokes, sight-gags and beloved yet gently mocked paraphernalia of generations of strip readers and screen-watchers….

Collecting issues #19-25 (spanning October 2009 – April 2010) of the magically madcap and infinitely addictive all-ages mini-masterpiece, this fourth volume begins on a romantic note with Deep in Like.

Art Baltazar and co-creator Franco (Aureliani) mastered a witty, bemusingly charming style of storytelling that just happily rolls along, with assorted characters getting by, trying to make sense of the great big world and just coincidentally having “Adventures in Awesomeness”. The method generally involves stringing together smaller incidents and moments into an overall themed portmanteau tale and it works astoundingly well.

After a handy and as-standard identifying roll-call page, ‘Imagine Me and You…’ finds scary blob Plasmus and tiny winged Bumblebee brighten up each other’s drab day, before a similar cupid moment affects the Brain and M’sieu Mallah even as diligent Robin (accompanied by faithful Bat-hound Ace) finds his earnest attempts to finish his homework disturbed by a succession of pesky young ladies including Starfire, Batgirl and Duella all caught up in a ‘Like Triangle’.

‘Dates’ sees Bumblebee and Plasmus inadvertently causing chaos during an afternoon movie monster mash – and even the ‘Intermission’ – after which a sly sight gag for us oldies highlights the company’s many Wonder Girls in ‘Jump Rope’.

The hallowed anthropoid obsession of DC is highlighted in ‘New Recruits’ when Beast Boy chairs a meeting of the Titans Ape Club before regular feature The Kroc Files depicts ultimate butler Alfred, roguish reptilian star Kroc and Plasmus each demonstrating ‘How to Enjoy a Lollipop’ in their own signature manner…

The issue closes with a word puzzle whilst the next promises to disclose The Hole Truth about Raven: beginning with a daybreak disaster at ‘Home with the Trigons’. Raven’s dad is an antlered, crimson trans-dimensional devil-lord – and a teacher at Sidekick Elementary – so when he oversleeps, his sorceress scion gets him to work on time by simply opening a few wormholes.

Of course, leaving those dimensional doors around is just asking for trouble…

Meanwhile it’s washday at Wayne Manor, but Alfred won’t let Robin, Beast Boy or Aqualad go down ‘To the Batcave’. Sadly, even the dapper domestic can’t withstand united pester-power and eventually gives in… and learns to regret it…

Following a perplexing maze game-page, the All Pet Club Issue! launches as Starfire and mean sister Blackfire write home for their beloved critters Silky and Poopu, so that they can go to the oh-so-secret social event, whilst can-do kid Cyborg actually builds himself a brace of chrome companions in ‘Pet-Tronics’

With ‘Club Hoppin’’, the entire school gathers with their uniquely compatible pets and interview some potential new members – specifically tongue-tied and thunderstruck Captain Marvel Junior and his fuzzy pal Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny. With so many members, the club then has to find roomier quarters, leading to a painful tryst for Beast Boy and Terra in ‘Meanwhile, on the Moon…’

There’s a brilliant vacuum-packed bonus pin-up of the Tiny Titans in space from Franco before Hot Dogs, Titans, & Stretchy Guys! finds the kids back on solid ground and wrapped up with the DCU’s many flexible fellows as ‘Offspring into Action’ introduces Plastic Man’s excitably boisterous bonny boy.

In ‘Just Playing and Bouncing’ Bumblebee spends some time with the diminutive Atoms Family but loses control of their Teeny-Weeny, Super Duper Bouncy Ball and accidentally gets Plastic Man, Offspring, Elongated Man and Elastic Lad all wound up before helplessly watching it bowl over Principal Slade and Coach Lobo in ‘Coffee Dog Latte’.

Thankfully, Robin has exactly the right gimmick in his utility belt to set things straight, but can’t stay since he’s en route to his Bird Scouts meeting. Here potential new members Hot Spot and Flamebird are trying out for Hawk, Dove, Raven and Talon. Distressingly, when shiny Golden Eagle turns up, the girls want to make him the new leader…

The semi-regular ‘Epilogue’ page often supplies one more punch-line to cap each themed issue and this one leads directly into a convoluted and confounding Elastic Four pin-up/cover which in turn precedes a spookily uproarious tale of Bats, Bunnies, and Penguins in the Batcave! Oh My!...

It all begins in ‘Ice to Meet Ya!’ when Wayne Manor’s extraordinarily large penguin population get into a turf war with the house rabbits, displacing the Batcave’s regular inhabitants in ‘Driving Me Batty’. The conflict escalates in ‘All in the Batman Family’ before Robin gets a rather stern admonition from his senior partner to put things right or else…

Happily, ever-so-cute and capable Batgirl is willing to lend a hand – but (unfortunately) so too are the kids she’s baby-sitting (Tim and Jason: you’ll either get that or you won’t, bat-fans) and impishly infuriating Batmite

With even Batcow helping out, things soon start calming down, but ‘Meanwhile, at the Titans’ Treehouse…’ not all of the fugitive Bat-bats have heard the good news…

Once your ribs have stopped hurting you can then enjoy a Tiny Titans Aw Yeah Pin-up by Franco before The All Small Issue! starts with assorted big kids accidentally drinking ‘Milk! Milk!’ from the Atoms’ fridge and shrinking away to nearly nothing.

Good thing the Atomic nippers think to call their dad, who’s with fellow dwindlers Ant, Molecule and substitute Atoms Adam and Ryan (another in-continuity howler targeting dedicated fans) for a Team Nucleus meeting…

That compressive cow-juice causes more trouble in the ‘Epilogue’ before a Blue Beetle puzzle clears the mind prior in advance of an outrageous ending in Superboy Returns! in a fairly cosmic crossover – with additional scripting by Geoff Johns.

When Conner Kent shows up, all the girls are really impressed and distracted, whilst across town Speedy is trading a lot of junk he shouldn’t be touching to Mr. Johns’ Sidekick City Pawn Shop and Bubblegum Emporium in ‘Brightest Day in the Afternoon!’

When Starfire and Stargirl then buy the seven different coloured “mood rings” from the shop, they and BFFs Duella, Batgirl, Wonder Girl, Terra and Shelly, are turned into Green, Red, Yellow, Orange, Blue, Violet and Indigo Lanterns!

Soon, the Tiny Titans are up in the air again and annoying the Guardians of the Universe and their Green Lantern Corps.

It all ends well though, first in an Emerald ‘Epilogue’ and a lavish pin-up of a passel of pistachio-painted interplanetary peace-keepers…

Available in trade paperback and digital formats and despite being ostensibly aimed at super-juniors and TV kids, these wonderful, wacky yarns – which marvellously marry the heart and spirit of such classic strips as Peanuts and The Perishers with something uniquely mired and marinated in pure comic-bookery – are deliciously hilarious tales no self-respecting fun-fan should miss: accessible, entertaining, and wickedly intoxicating. Go mellow out with some kids’ stuff, now, okay?
© 2009, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Lucky Luke volume 16 – The Black Hills


By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Luke Spear (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-83-0 (PB Album)

Doughty but dependable cowboy champion Lucky Luke is a rangy, good-natured do-gooder able to “draw faster than his own shadow”. He amiably roams the fabulously mythic Old West, enjoying light-hearted adventures on his rather sarcastic know-it-all wonder-horse Jolly Jumper. The taciturn nomad constantly interacts with a host of historical and legendary figures as well as even odder folk…

His unceasing exploits over 7 decades years have made him one of the best-selling comic characters in Europe – if not the world – generating upwards of 85 individual albums and sales totalling in excess of 300 million in 30 languages… so far…

That renown has led to a mountain of spin-off toys, computer games, animated cartoons, a plethora of TV shows and live-action movies and even commemorative exhibitions. No theme park yet but who knows when…?

The brainchild of Belgian animator, illustrator and cartoonist Maurice de Bévère (“Morris”) and first seen in Le Journal de Spirou’s seasonal Annual L’Almanach Spirou 1947, Luke sprang to laconic life in 1946, before ambling into his first weekly adventure ‘Arizona 1880’ on December 7th 1946.

Working solo until 1955, Morris produced nine albums of affectionate sagebrush spoofery before teaming with old pal and fellow trans-American tourist Rene Goscinny, who became regular wordsmith as Luke attained dizzying, legendary, heights starting with Des rails sur la Prairie (Rails on the Prairie). This began serialisation in Spirou on August 25th 1955.

In 1967, the six-gun straight-shooter switched sides, joining Goscinny’s own magazine Pilote with ‘La Diligence’ (The Stagecoach). Goscinny co-created 45 albums with Morris before his untimely death, from whence Morris soldiered on both singly and with fresh collaborators.

Morris died in 2001, having drawn fully 70 adventures, plus numerous spin-off sagas crafted with Achdé, Laurent Gerra, Benacquista & Pennac, Xavier Fauche, Jean Léturgie, Jacques Pessis and others, all taking their own shot at the venerable vigilante…

Lucky Luke has previous in this country too, having first pseudonymously amused and enthralled British readers during the late 1950s, syndicated to weekly anthology Film Fun. He later rode back into comics-town in 1967 for comedy weekly Giggle, where he used the nom de plume Buck Bingo.

In each of these venues – as well as many attempts to follow the English-language album successes of Tintin and Asterix – Luke laconically puffed on a trademark roll-up cigarette which hung insouciantly and almost permanently from his lip. However, in 1983 Morris – amidst pained howls and muted mutterings of “political correctness gone mad” – deftly substituted a piece of straw for the much-travelled dog-end, thereby garnering for himself an official tip of the hat from the World Health Organization. For historical veracity, that tatty dog-end has been assiduously restored for this particular tale and indeed all of Cinebook’s fare – at least on the interior pages…

The Kent-based publisher is the most successful in bringing Lucky Luke to our shores and shelves, and it’s clearly no big deal for today’s readership as we’re at 73 translated books and still going strong.

Les collines noires was Morris & Goscinny’s 12th collaboration, originally serialised in 1963 (and the 21st album release in 1971): a tale of epic exploration and devious skulduggery that begins in Washington DC as a senate proposal to invite settlers into the untrammelled wilderness of the Cheyenne-infested Wyoming territory is provisionally passed despite the ardent proselytizing of passionate Senator Orwell Stormwind.

The measure is, however, made contingent upon a full scientific expedition and feasibility study of the region. All they need is a skilled guide to lead and defend the assessing team of cityfied scientists… someone tough, brave and extremely capable…

As Lucky Luke prepares for the expedition – consisting of utterly unprepared, naive and aging Professors Simeon Gurgle (Biology), Ira Doublelap (Geology), Darryl Bundlofjoy (Geometry) and Gustav Frankenbaum (Anthropology) – he is unaware that certain wealthy parties are taking steps to ensure that the expedition comes to a nasty end…

The trek west begins – and almost immediately concludes – with a lengthy and eventful rail journey with shady gunman Bull Bullets commencing a cunning campaign of sabotage. He has not reckoned on the perspicacity of Luke…

When framing the boffins for heinous crimes fails, the owlhoot steals the train, but even wrecking the “Iron Horse” proves insufficient to halt the convoy as the researchers take stagecoaches, other wheeled overland vehicles and even dabble painfully with horseback in their determined progression to the fabled and deadly Black Hills…

By the time they reach the Great Plains of the Midwest, Bull is running out of ploys and simply subcontracts to local killer the Nebraska Kid, but the plan to kill the ancient sages in highly-suspect duels comes a cropper at the first hurdle when old Frankenbaum reveals some unsuspected but still handy skills gained during his student days in Vienna…

Against all odds, the bumbling boffins make it to the edge of civilisation and open their appraisal of the terra incognita of Wyoming, forcing Bull Bullets to take direct action. His schemes to incite the Cheyenne to bloody slaughter don’t go the way he intended, though. The quartet of wise men – with the covert aid of Lucky – soon have the Indians on side and providing a full explanation of who and why their expedition has been targeted by villains unknown…

This is another perfect all-ages confection by unparalleled comics masters, affording an enticing glimpse into a unique genre for today’s readers who might well have missed the romantic allure of an all-pervasive Wild West that never was…
© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1971 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics. English translation © 2009 Cinebook Ltd.

Krazy & Ignatz 1941-1942: “A Ragout of Raspberries”


By George Herriman, edited by Bill Blackbeard (Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 978-1-56097-887-9

In a field positively brimming with magnificent and eternally evergreen achievements, the strip Krazy Kat is – for most cartoon cognoscenti – the pinnacle of pictorial narrative innovation; a singular and hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry and elevated itself to the level of a treasure of world literature.

Krazy and Ignatz, as it is dubbed in these gloriously addictive commemorative tomes from Fantagraphics, is a creation which must be appreciated on its own terms. Over the decades the strip developed a unique language – simultaneously visual and verbal – whilst exploring the immeasurable variety of human experience, foibles and peccadilloes with unfaltering warmth and understanding… and without ever offending anybody. Baffled millions, perhaps, but offended… no.

It did go over the heads and around the hearts of far more than a few, but Krazy Kat was never a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people: those who simply won’t or can’t appreciate the complex, multi-layered verbal and cartoon whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is still the closest thing to pure poesy that narrative art has ever produced.

Herriman was already a successful cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse who had been noodling about at the edges of his outrageous domestic comedy strip The Dingbat Family/The Family Upstairs graduated to their own feature. Mildly intoxicating and gently scene-stealing, Krazy Kat subsequently debuted in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal on Oct 28th 1913 and – largely by dint of the publishing magnate’s enrapt adoration and overpowering direct influence and interference – gradually and inexorably spread throughout his vast stable of papers.

Although Hearst and a host of the period’s artistic and literary intelligentsia (such as Frank Capra, e.e. Cummings, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and Jack Kerouac) all adored the strip, many local and regional editors did not; taking every potentially career-ending opportunity to drop it from the populace-beguiling comics section.

Eventually the feature found its true home and sanctuary in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s papers. Protected there by the publisher’s doctrinaire patronage and enhanced with the cachet of enticing colour, Kat & Ko. flourished unharmed by editorial interference or fleeting fashion, running generally unmolested until Herriman’s death in April 1944.

The saga’s basic premise is simple: Krazy is an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive and romantic feline, hopelessly in love with Ignatz Mouse; a venal everyman, rude, crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous.

Ignatz is a truly, proudly unreconstructed male and early forerunner of the men’s rights movement: drinking, stealing, fighting, conniving, constantly neglecting his wife and innumerable children and always responding to Krazy’s genteel advances by clobbering the Kat with a well-aimed brick. These he obtains singly or in bulk from noted local brick-maker Kolin Kelly.

Moreover, by the time of these tales it’s not even a response, except perhaps a conditioned one: the mouse spends all his time, energy and ingenuity in heaving missiles at the mild moggy’s bonce. He can’t help himself, and Krazy’s day is bleak and unfulfilled if the hoped-for assault doesn’t happen, but at least in this volume, the brick is supplemented by other projectiles for the sake of variety…

The smitten kitten always misidentifies (or does he?) these gritty gifts as tokens of equally recondite affection showered upon him in the manner of Cupid’s fabled arrows…

The final crucial element completing an anthropomorphic eternal triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp: completely besotted with Krazy, professionally aware of the Mouse’s true nature, yet hamstrung by his own amorous timidity and sense of honour from permanently removing his devilish rival for the foolish feline’s affections. Krazy is, of course, blithely oblivious to the perennially “Friend-Zoned” Pupp’s dolorous dilemma…

Secondarily populating the ever-mutable stage are a stunning supporting cast of inspired bit players such as terrifying deliverer of unplanned babies Joe Stork; unsavoury huckster Don Kiyoti, hobo Bum Bill Bee, social climbing busybody Pauline Parrot, portal-packing Door Mouse, self-aggrandizing Walter Cephus Austridge, inscrutable, barely intelligible Chinese mallard Mock Duck, dozy Joe Turtil and the increasingly ubiquitous sagacious fowl Mrs. Kwakk Wakk, plus a host of other audacious animal crackers all equally capable of stealing the limelight and even supporting their own features.

The exotic, quixotic episodes occur in and around the Painted Desert environs of Coconino (patterned on the artist’s vacation retreat in Coconino County, Arizona) where surreal playfulness and the fluid ambiguity of the flora and landscape are perhaps the most important member of the cast.

The strips themselves are a masterful mélange of unique experimental art, cunningly designed, wildly expressionistic and strongly referencing Navajo art forms whilst graphically utilising sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully evocative lettering and language. This last is particularly effective in these later tales: alliterative, phonetically and even onomatopoeically joyous with a compelling musical force and delicious whimsy (“…stomms an’ momsooms, gales an’ tie fooms…” or “octo pusses an’ pinkwins”).

Yet for all that high-fallutin’ intellectualism, these comic adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerily idiosyncratic, astonishingly hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous, violent slapstick. Kids of any age will delight in them as much as any pompous old git like me and you…

Sometimes Herriman even eschewed his mystical mumblings and arcane argots for the simply sublime grace of a supremely entertaining silent gag in the manner of his beloved Keystone Cops

There’s been a wealth of Krazy Kat collections since the late 1970s when the strip was first rediscovered by a better-educated, open-minded and far more accepting generation. This delirious tome covers all the strips from 1937-1938 in a comfortably hefty (231 x 305 mm) softcover edition – and is also available as a madly mystical digital edition.

Preceded by candid photos, original art and examples of some of Herriman’s personalised gifts and commissions (hand-coloured artworks featuring the cast and settings), the splendid pictorial carnival is bolstered by Jeet Heer’s superb analysis of the unique voice of the strip as cited above. This comes in his erudite Introduction ‘Kat Got Your Tongue: Where George Herriman’s Language Came From’ after which the jocularity resumes with January 15th 1941 – with the hues provided by professional separators rather than Herriman.

Within this jubilant journal of passions thwarted, the torrid triangular drama plays out as winningly as ever, but with emphasis shifting more to the varied minor cast members. The usual parade of hucksters and conmen return, but the eternally triangular clashes and confusions – although still a constant – are not the satisfying punchlines they used to be, but rather provide a comforting continuity as the world subtly changes and the Second World War begins to slowly shade the strip and affect the characters…

As well as his semi-permanent incarcerations, Ignatz endures numerous forms of exile and social confinement, but with Krazy aiding and abetting, these sanctions seldom result in a reduction of cerebral contusions and the plague of travelling conjurors, unemployed magicians and shady clairvoyants still make life hard for the hard-pressed constabulary and the gullible fools they target…

As always, the mouse’s continual search for his ammunition of choice leads to many brick-based acquisition and delivery gags but has widened his scope to encompass munition of materials other than clay and shapes more aerodynamic and enticing than bulky rectangles. Perhaps because of Herriman’s own vintage, many characters share a greater appreciation of infirmity and loss of focus, reflected in the reduction of Krazy to a bit player in many of the strips.

Pupp suffers from double vision on occasion and repeatedly tests labour-saving new policing appliances – such as stilts and periscopes – while Colin Kelly moves away from artisanal brick-baking to conveyor-belt mass production. Ignatz tries to bolster his fading energies through unlikely herbal additives – such as spinach – and the entire township (including buildings) suffer protracted bouts of polka-dottedness after the arrival of a dalmatian “koach kanine”. Joe Stork starts using robot planes to deliver his dread bundles of natal joy and responsibility, Ignatz’s much abused wife Magnesia starts her long-delayed resistance and emancipation, and everybody in town can’t seem to get enough sleep…

The ever-changing skies remain a source of wonder and bewilderment with oddly-shaped stellar phenomena abounding, and the Prof from Coconino’s Museum of Palaeontology, Archaeology and Such unearths primeval precursors to our cartoon cast, while modern times are acknowledged through myriad permutations and adaptations to Ignatz’s home-from-home the county jail.

Aged busybody Mrs Kwakk Wakk expands her role of wise old crone and sarcastic Greek Chorus; upping her status from bit-player to full-on supporting cast. She has a mean and spiteful beak on her too, whilst laconic vagabond Bum Bill Bee shares his regal origins (a whole bunch of them, in fact) with the hoi polloi in town…

The town barber stokes the flames of passion and reshapes the grizzled heads of many ardent swains seeking to curry the favours of vivacious, exotic new schoolteacher Miss Mimi who is, as everybody is painfully aware, French…

A different form of double vision taxes the Kat’s composure in doses of mirror madness and episodes of powdered katnip overindulgence offer a nosy edge of conspiracy to proceedings, but doesn’t too much curtail Krazy’s efforts in horticulture, nourishing korn and other useful vegetable crops…

The tone of the strips subtly changes from October 1941 with the introduction of Pupp’s mechanised Listening Post. Spying was always a major interest for all citizens, as was stargazing and gossip. Now however, with war clouds forming in the real world, an edge of gloomy but absurdist satire could be detected in many strips, such as when Kelly cuts off the mouse’s brick supply due to clay – like paper, rubber and gasoline – being officially afforded new status as a Military Priority Material…

There’s a marked increasing in winking around town, although those in the know codify the practice as “nictating” and some citizens – such as the pelicans and Mr. Kenga Roo – are subjected to increased stop-&-search indignities too: what with them being born to conceal bricks and brick-tossers…

At least, the traditional fishing, water sports, driving and parlous and participatory state of the burgeoning local theatre scene remain hot topics too…

And, welcomingly as ever, there is still a solid dependence on the strange landscapes and eccentric flora (including a mass ingress of elephants, snakes and worms) for humorous inspiration, while all manner of weather and terrain play a large part in inducing anxiety, bewilderment and hilarity.

This penultimate collection is again supplied with an erudite and instructional ‘Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page’, providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed.

Herriman’s epochal classic is a stupendous and joyous monument to gleeful whimsy: in all the arenas of Art and Literature there has never been anything like these strips which have inspired comics creators and auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, dance, animation and music, whilst fulfilling its basic function: engendering delight and delectation in generations of wonder-starved fans.

If, however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this astounding compendium is a most accessible way to do so.
© 2008, 2015 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Omnibus 6: Asterix in Switzerland, The Mansions of the Gods, Asterix & the Laurel Wreath


By Goscinny & Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Orion Books)
ISBN: 978-1-44400-489-2 (HB), 978-1-44400-491-5 (PB)

One of the most-read comics strips in the world, the collected chronicles of Asterix the Gaul have been translated into more than 100 languages since his debut in 1959, with animated and live-action movies, TV series, assorted games, toys and even a theme park outside Paris (Parc Astérix, unsurprisingly…) all stemming from his glorious exploits.

More than 325 million copies of 34 Asterix books have sold worldwide, making his joint creators France’s bestselling international authors.

The doughty, potion-powered paragon of Gallic Insouciance was created by two grandmasters of comics: René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo. Although their inspirational collaborations ended with the death of the prolific scripter in 1977, the creative wonderment continued until relatively recently from Uderzo, assistants and ultimately his successors – albeit at a slightly reduced rate.

The wonderment works on multiple levels: ostensibly, younger readers revel in action-packed, lavishly illustrated comedic romps wherein sneaky, bullying baddies get their just deserts, whilst we more worldly readers enthuse over the dry, pun-filled, sly satire, especially as enhanced for English speakers by the brilliantly light touch of translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge, who played no small part in making the indomitable Gaul and his gallant companions so palatable to the Anglo-Saxon world.

(Moi, I still rejoice in a perfectly produced “Paf!” to the phizzog as much as any painfully potent procession of puns or sardonic satirical sideswipe…)

The stories were set on Uderzo’s beloved Brittany coast, where a small village of warriors and their families resisted every effort of the Roman Empire to complete the conquest of Gaul, or alternately, anywhere in the Ancient World, circa 50 BCE, as the Gallic Gentlemen wandered the multifarious provinces of the Empire and even beyond its generally-secure borders…

When the heroes were playing at home, the Romans, unable to defeat this last bastion of Gallic insouciance, resorted to a policy of containment. Thus, the little seaside hamlet is permanently hemmed in by the heavily fortified garrisons of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.

The Gauls don’t care: they daily defy the world’s greatest military machine simply by going about their everyday affairs, protected by the magic potion of resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits of the diminutive dynamo and his simplistic, supercharged best friend…

Firmly established as a global brand and premium French export by the mid-1960s, Asterix the Gaul continued to grow in quality as Goscinny & Uderzo toiled ever onward, crafting further fabulous sagas; building a stunning legacy of graphic excellence and storytelling gold. Moreover, following the civil unrest and nigh-revolution in French society following the Paris riots of 1968, the tales began to increasingly show signs of trenchant satire and more directed social commentary…

As Astérix chez les Helvètes was the 16th serialised saga, originally running in Pilote #557-578 throughout 1970 and first translated into English as Asterix in Switzerland in 1973. It opens with the attempted murder of Roman official Quaestor Vexatius Sinusitus; dispatched to Gaul to audit the corrupt, embezzling and utterly decadent Governor Varius Flavus.

The poisoning only fails due to the efforts of Getafix, but to keep the Roman alive – and further thwart Flavus – the sage needs a rare flower which only grows in the mountains of neighbouring country Helvetia (and that’s Switzerland, mein kinder). Always keen for a road trip, Asterix and Obelix quickly volunteer to fetch the fabled “silver star” or Edelweiss …

With Sinusitus sheltered in the village of the indomitable Gauls, Flavus’ only hope is to stop the happy voyagers. To that end he sends his most unscrupulous man to warn the equally repugnant and devious Curius Odus, Governor of Helvetia, to stop the Gauls at all costs…

Asterix and Obelix cannily avoid Roman sabotage plots, beat up many, many thugs and bullies, whilst marvelling at the quirkiness of their newfound Helvetian friends, with their mania for cleanliness, passion for melted cheese, yodelling, tidy, solicitous brand of medical treatments, cultured beverages, cultivated villages, lakes and banks and their fruit-based archery training programs for the young…

Although a far darker tale than most previous escapades, all the familiar gentle spoofing of national characteristics, cartoon action and hilarious lampoonery is incorporated into this splendid and beautifully rendered yarn. The search for the silver-star is, of course ultimately successful, despite an entire battalion of troops racing up a mountain after them, with a stunning alpine climax and an exceptionally different kind of ending…

 

Translated that same year was Le Domaine des Dieux (from Pilote #591-612, in 1971) wherein Caesar, determined to eradicate the last remnant of Gaulish resistance, tries to win by social planning and cultural imperialism. To that end he plans to cut down the great forest which surrounds the village and build a new town of lavish Roman apartments in the stylish, modern Roman manner: The Mansions of the Gods

Whiz kid architect Squaronthehypotenus leads the project, but his immigrant army of slave labourers soon founders when boar-loving Obelix strenuously objects to having his favourite hunting preserve torn down and paved over…

However, the massed might of Rome is insurmountable, and eventually many mighty oaks are felled. To counter this Getafix simply grows instant new ones whilst Asterix shares his magic potion with the increasingly fed up slaves…

This stalemate is only overcome when the wily Gauls seemingly surrender and allow the “Mansions of the Gods” to be built and stocked with middle-class colonists from Rome. After a rapid bump in trade as the villagers become tourist-trappers, the complacent property developers make their greatest mistake and rent an apartment to the Gaul’s uniquely gifted bard Cacofonix, leading to a rapid exodus of tenants and an inevitable and breathtaking final clash with the garrison of Aquarium, who had moved into the luxurious vacant apartments…

Drenched in trenchant observation of and jibes at the industrial relations conflicts, the then runaway speculation in new developments in France and the inexorable growth of “planning blight” (still painfully relevant today anywhere in the industrialised world), this tremendously effective satire is packed with gags and action and displays artist Uderzo’s sublime gift for caricature and parody – especially in the wonderful spoofs of real estate advertising campaigns…

 

Also debuting in Pilote, Les Lauriers de César came from issues #621-642, in 1971 and was given the fabulous Bell/Hockridge treatment in 1974 to become Asterix and the Laurel Wreath. It begins in Rome where Asterix and Obelix are arguing…

During a visit to Chief Vitalstatistix’s wealthy, snobbish and city-dwelling brother-in-law Homeopathix, the crusty old warrior gets too drunk and boasts that he can get something which all the merchant’s money cannot buy – a stew seasoned with Caesar’s fabled wreath of office.

Sober now and in dire danger of eternal embarrassment as well as the unflinching approbation of his sharp-tongued wife Impedimenta, the Chief has no option but to allow his two best men – the larger of whom had drunkenly egged him on at the family gathering and then volunteered to fetch the leafy headpiece – to travel to the heart of Caesar’s power and attempt the impossible…

At least Asterix knows it’s impossible; Obelix is quite happy to storm the Imperial Palace and just grab the wreath…

Luckily, reason prevails and the wily little warrior determines their only chance is infiltration, to which end Asterix sells them both as slaves. Unfortunately, they are bought by the wrong Roman. Osseus Humerus is an innocuous Patrician with a troublesome family, but as Asterix tries every trick to get their unsuspecting owner to return them to the Slave Auctioneer, he only endears himself even more to his very satisfied customer. So much so in fact, that Humerus entrusts them with a message to be delivered to Caesar himself.

Jealous major-domo Goldendelicius then accuses them of planning assassination and the heroes are locked in the dungeons – leaving them complete access to the entire palace…

Before long, the indomitable duo are wreaking havoc in the Imperial Court and playing hob with the usually predictable proceedings in the Arena of the Circus Maximus.

Seemingly untouchable, but no nearer the Laurel Wreath, the despondent Gauls finally seize their chance when they encounter again the recently promoted Goldendelicius. Rewarded by Caesar, the major-domo now holds a position of great responsibility: holder of the triumphal floral arrangement at Caesar’s next public engagement…

Sharp and deeply intriguing, this comedy of errors is spectacularly illustrated by Uderzo at the very top of his game, whilst Goscinny’s dry, wry script seamlessly rockets from slapstick set-piece to penetrating observational comedy and magnificently engaging adventure, with our unlikely heroes inevitably, happily victorious in every instance. Just as it should be…

Asterix epics are always packed with captivating historical titbits, soupcons of healthy cynicism, singularly surreal situations and amazingly addictive but generally consequence-free action, illustrated in a magically enticing manner. These are perfect comics that everyone should read over and over again.
© 1970, 1972-3 Goscinny/Uderzo. Revised English translation © 2004 Hachette. All rights reserved.

He Done Her Wrong


By Milt Gross (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-694-3(TPB)

The power of comics comes not just from wedding text to image but also in the power of illustration. You can have comics without words but if you leave the letters and subtract the pictures what you have is just… a book…

Milt Gross (March 4th 1895-November 29th 1953) was a trailblazing pioneer in both cartooning and the wider arena of popular comedy, specialising in vernacular while refining and popularising Yiddish folk humour and slang into a certified American export to world culture: “Yinglish”. You should really look him up…

Gross was also an early adept in the animation field, bringing his cartoon characters to silent life in numerous short filler features for John R. Bray Studious, Universal and MGM. Far too few of his many books are in print now, but happily, this astounding landmark is one of them and is even available in assorted eBook formats.

He left his mark in comics too, working for William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper chain on numerous syndicated strips including Dave’s Delicatessen, Banana Oil, Pete the Pooch, Count Screwloose from Tooloose, Babbling Brooks, Otto and Blotto, The Meanest Man, Draw Your Own Conclusion, I Did It and I’m Glad! and That’s My Pop! (which was promptly adapted into a radio show).

He Done Her Wrong (The Great American Novel and Not a Word in It – No Music, Too) was released in 1930, lampooning and cashing in on a notable trend of those troubled times: wordless novels. These woodcut-crafted parables derived from the German Expressionist art movement, and offered (generally left-leaning) pictorial epigrams and   studies addressing social injustice. The first was Belgian Frans Masereel’s 25 Images of a Man’s Passion in 1918, and 11 years later American Lynd Ward followed suit with God’s Man. Among the many emulatory efforts it inspired (such as Giacomo Patri’s White Collar) was this broad spoof of silent movie thrillers such as The Perils of Pauline, pitched perfectly for pathos, bathos and hilarity…

A facsimile edition released in 2005 by Fantagraphics, this paperback/digital edition is a complete unabridged restoration – which means the re-inclusion of some images, depictions and scenes that might appear a little controversial to modern sensibilities. It also offers a fascinating picture-packed Introduction by Craig Yoe (devoted friend and patron of all comics vintage and fabulous) and closing Appreciation by eminent cartoonist, writer and editor Paul Karasik.

What lies between those essays is a stunning masterclass in comedy staging, gag timing, magnificent caricaturing and timeless melodrama, delivered as a succession of silent pantomimic pages. It all begins after a hearty trustworthy young woodsman, trapper and prospector falls in love with a virtuous barroom singer. True love is thwarted by a dirty villain who swindles the hero and absconds to New York with his heartbroken, “abandoned” ingenue.

As hero and victim both fall foul of the lures of the big bad city, and vice mounts unstoppably in the woman’s benighted life, the hero overcomes every obstacle to find his lover, battling his way from the wilderness into truly savage civilisation where he will set things right no matter what the cost…

It all works out in the end, of course, but only after an astoundingly convoluted course of action, buckets of tears, some vengeance and forgiveness… and plenty of near-misses and lethally close calls. That sounds like a great thriller – and it is – but Gross played it strictly for laughs, and made a tale to rank with the best of his closest contemporary comedy peers: Charley Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

He Done Her Wrong is a superb yarn and perfect picture into a world that only seems simpler and less complicated than today, and if you love classics stories you should “Dun’t Esk” and just buy it…
He Done Her Wrong © 2005 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved. Introduction © 2005 Craig Yoe. An Appreciation © 2005 Paul Karasik.

Asterix Omnibus volume 5: Asterix and the Cauldron, Asterix in Spain & Asterix and the Roman Agent


By Goscinny & Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Orion Books)
ISBNs: 978-1-44400-488-5 (HB); 978-1-44400-490-8 (PB)

One of the most-read comics series in the world, the collected chronicles of Asterix the Gaul have been translated into more than 100 languages since his debut in 1959, with animated and live-action movies, TV series, assorted games, toys and even a theme park outside Paris (Parc Astérix, if you’re planning a trip…) spinning off from his hilarious exploits.

More than 325 million copies of 34 Asterix books have sold worldwide, making his joint creators France’s bestselling international authors.

The diminutive, doughty potion-powered champion of Gallic Pride was created by two of the art form’s greatest proponents, writer René Goscinny & illustrator Albert Uderzo and although their inspirational collaborations ended in 1977 with the death of the prolific scripter, the creative wonderment still continued until relatively recently from Uderzo and assistants – albeit at a slightly reduced rate.

The wonderment works on multiple levels: ostensibly, younger readers revel in the action-packed, lavishly illustrated comedic romps where sneaky, bullying baddies get their just deserts whilst we more worldly readers enthuse over the dry, pun-filled, sly satire, especially as enhanced for English speakers by the brilliantly light touch of translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge, who played no small part in making the indomitable Gaul and his gallant companions so palatable to the Anglo-Saxon world. (Me, I still delight in a divinely delivered “Paff!” as much as any painfully potent pun or dryly searing jibe…)

The stories were set on Uderzo’s beloved Brittany coast, where a small village of warriors and their families resisted every effort of the Roman Empire to complete the conquest of Gaul, or alternately, anywhere in the Ancient World, circa 50BC, as the Gallic Gentlemen wandered the fantastic lands of the Empire and beyond…

When the heroes were playing at home, the Romans, unable to defeat this last bastion of Gallic insouciance, resorted to a policy of containment. Thus, the little seaside hamlet is permanently hemmed in by the heavily fortified garrisons of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.

The Gauls don’t care: they daily defy the world’s greatest military machine simply by going about their everyday affairs, protected by the magic potion of resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits of the rather diminutive dynamo and his simplistic, supercharged best friend…

Firmly established as a global brand and premium French export by the mid-1960s, Asterix the Gaul continued to grow in quality as Goscinny & Uderzo toiled ever onward, crafting further fabulous sagas; building a stunning legacy of graphic excellence and storytelling gold.

Asterix and the Cauldron was the 13th saga, originally running in Pilote #469-491 throughout 1968 before being first translated into English in 1976.

It’s a convoluted tale of treachery, felony and dishonour as fellow Gaulish chieftain Whosemoralsarelastix – a cunning and conniving Roman collaborator – convinces the reluctant but big-hearted Vitalstatistix to guard the occupied cliff-top community’s treasury from Imperial tax collectors.

Despite knowing how untrustworthy the scoundrel is, Gaul must help Gaul and the rogue’s huge onion-soup cauldron, stuffed with his people’s golden Sestertii, is placed under the stewardship of the village’s greatest hero and most trustworthy warrior: Asterix.

However, that night, as a great inter-village feast is consumed, somebody cuts their way into the guard hut and steals the glittering contents of that mighty tureen. Of course, dodgy Whosemoralsarelastix wants his money back and the noble Vitalstatistix is honour-bound to replace the stolen horde and disgraced Asterix is banished until he can refill the empty cauldron with gold…

Trusty Obelix refuses to turn away from his friend and joins the quest, which first takes them to the garrison of Compendium, where the wily warrior intends to refill the empty churn with some of the gold the occupiers have been regularly collecting from Gauls.

Unfortunately, Caesar has been experiencing some cash-flow problems of his own and not only has he been rushing the takings to Rome, he hasn’t even paid his soldiers for months…

With disharmony, mutiny and strike action imminent among the legions, Asterix and Obelix realise they must look elsewhere for their loot.

Even their old acquaintances the pirates are cash-strapped – and all-too-soon traditionally thrashed – so the doughty duo must seek their fortune at the grand market in Condatum, briefly and disastrously becoming boar merchants, paid street boxers, actors and charioteers, before turning to crime and planning a bank robbery…

Even here our two just men fare badly. In desperation, they decide to rob Caesar’s tax collector, but Asterix discovers a strange thing. Not only has destitute Whosemoralsarelastix somehow paid his taxes, but the coins deposited smell of onion soup…

With realisation dawning, Asterix visits the cliff-dwelling villagers for a little chat and a mighty reckoning…

Rich with slapstick action and cutting commercial satire (for example the tax collector is a caricature of France’s then Finance Minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing), this hilarious crime caper is a glorious example of dry yet riotous adventure comedy.

Astérix en Hispanie promptly followed (during 1969 and in Pilote #498-519) in France and was translated into English as Asterix in Spain two years later. It recounts how a valiant group of Iberian warriors are similarly holding-out against Caesar’s total conquest of that proud nation.

Chief Huevos Y Bacon is the noble warrior leading the resistance, but when his haughty son Pepe is captured, all seems lost. Fearing reprisal or rescue, the Romans hastily despatch the hostage lad to the garrison at Totorum, under the oversight of brutish Spurius Brontosaurus. He has no idea what the “pacified” Gauls of the area are like and has his hands more than full contending with the appallingly behaved and inspirationally vicious young prince…

When his guards encounter Gauls in the great forest, they are easily overwhelmed by playful Obelix. Asterix takes Pepe back to the village where – following an ill-advised and painful attempt by Brontosaurus and the legion to reclaim him – our heroes decide to return him to his father.

Most pertinent and urgent in reaching this decision is the spoiled brat’s obnoxious behaviour…

Brontosaurus has pragmatically decided the kid is perfectly safe with the Gauls, and, unaware of their planned jaunt to Hispania, smugly returns to his post. Meanwhile, after their mandatory encounter with pirates, Asterix, Obelix and faithful mutt Dogmatix make their leisurely way through the scenic countryside (offering many trenchant asides regarding the then popular French passion for Spanish touring holidays), until a chance encounter in an inn reveals to the General Brontosaurus how close they are to undoing all his plans.

Venal but no coward, the Roman joins their excursion party, captures Asterix and steals the Gaul’s magic potion: planning to destroy Huevos Y Bacon’s resistance once and for all. However, Obelix, Pepe – and Dogmatix – have a plan to spectacularly save the day…

Full of good-natured nationalistic pokes and trans-national teasing, liberally served up with raucous hi-jinks and fast-paced action, this is another magical titbit of all-ages entertainment.

During 1970, Pilote #531-552 serialised La Zizanie. It translates as “strife”, but on making the jump to English in 1972, became the far less evocative Asterix and the Roman Agent. The tale featured more homeland insecurity as Caesar, under attack by the Roman Senate over the indomitable, unconquerable Gauls, deploys his greatest weapon: a double-edged sword named Tortuous Convolvulus, whose every word and gesture seems to stir ill-feeling and conflict in all who meet him.

Where Force of Arms has failed perhaps this living manifestation of disharmony and dissent might forever fracture the Gauls’ unshakable comradeship and solidarity with dose of Roman entente dis-cordiale

On the crossing, just two minutes with the conniving Convolvulus has the brotherhood of pirates at each other’s throats, and, even while discussing plan with Aquarium’s commander Felix Platypus, the agent’s unique gift sows dissonance and violence, so when he finally enters the village it’s not long before the high-spirited and fractious Gauls are at war with each other…

Women are cattily sniping at each other, traders are trading blows and even Asterix and Obelix are on the outs. But that’s not the worst of it: somehow the idea has gotten around that their sharp little champion has sold out to the Romans…

With unrest abounding and abundant, the Romans soon have the secret of the magic potion too (or do they?) but ingenious Convolvulus hasn’t reckoned on two things – the sheer dimness of Imperial troops and the invaluable power of true friendship – leaving Asterix and Obelix a way to overcome their differences, turn the tables and once more save the day.

At last, the agent provocateur is forced to realise that sometimes one can be too smart for one’s own good…

Brittle, barbed and devilishly sharp, this yarn was reputedly based on lingering ill-feeling following an internal power-struggle at Pilote which almost cost editor Goscinny his job. The original title for the tale transliterates as “The Ill-feeling” or “The Dissension”. Seen through the lens of 40 years of distance, however, all that can be seen now is stinging, clever, witty observational comedy and magnificently engaging adventure, and surely that’s what matters most?

Asterix sagas are always stuffed with captivating historical titbits, soupcons of healthy cynicism, singularly surreal situations and amazingly addictive action, illustrated in a magically enticing manner. These are perfect comics that everyone should read over and over again.
© 1968-1970 Goscinny/Uderzo. Revised English translation © 2004 Hachette. All rights reserved.