The Phantom: The Complete Newspaper Dailies volume 1 1936-1937


By Lee Falk & Ray Moore: introduction by Ron Goulart (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-932563-41-5 (HB)

There are plenty of comics-significant anniversaries this year, and this guy is probably right at the top of the birthday cake.

For such a long-lived, influential series, in terms of compendia or graphic novel collections, The Phantom has been very poorly served by the English language market (except in Australia where he has always been accorded the status of a pop culture god).

Numerous companies have sought to collect the strips – one of the longest continually running adventure serials in publishing history – but in no systematic or chronological order and never with any sustained success. At least the former issue began to be rectified with this initial curated collection from Archival specialists Hermes Press…

This particular edition is a lovely large hardback (albeit also available in digital formats), printed in landscape format, displaying two days strip per page in black and white with ancillary features and articles in dazzling colour where required.

Born Leon Harrison Gross, Lee Falk created the Jungle Avenger at the request of his King Features Syndicate employers who were already making history, public headway and loads of money with his first strip sensation Mandrake the Magician. Although technically not the first ever costumed champion in comics, The Phantom became the prototype paladin to wear a skin-tight body-stocking and the first to have a mask with opaque eye-slits…

The Ghost Who Walks debuted on February 17th 1936 in an extended sequence pitting him against an ancient global confederation of pirates. Falk wrote and drew the daily strip for the first two weeks before handing over illustration to artist Ray Moore. A spectacular and hugely influential Sunday feature began in May 1939.

In a text feature stuffed with sumptuous visual goodies like movie posters; covers for comics, Feature and Little Big Books plus merchandise, Ron Goulart’s eruditely enticing ‘Introduction: Enter the Ghost Who Walks’ tells all you need to know about the character’s creation before the vintage magic begins with ‘Chapter 1: The Singh Brotherhood’.

American adventurer Diane Palmer returns to the USA by sea, carrying a most valuable secret making her the target of mobsters, society ne’er-do-wells and exotic cultists. Thankfully, she seems to have an enigmatic guardian angel who calls himself  “the Phantom”…

As successive attacks and assaults endanger the dashing debutante, she learns that an ancient brotherhood of ruthless piratical thieves wants her secret, but that they have been opposed for centuries by one man…

Kidnapped and held hostage at the bottom of the sea, she is saved by the mystery man who falls in love and eventually shares his incredible history with her…

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates, and – washing ashore on the African coast – swore on the skull of his murdered father to dedicate his life and that of his descendants to destroying all pirates and criminals. The Phantom fights crime and injustice from a base deep in the jungles of Bengali, and throughout Africa is known as the “Ghost Who Walks”.

His unchanging appearance and unswerving war against injustice have led to him being considered an immortal avenger by the credulous and the wicked. Down the decades, one hero after another has fought and died in an unbroken family line, and the latest wearer of the mask, indistinguishable from the first, continues the never-ending battle. And he’s looking to propagate the line…

In the meantime, however, there’s the slight problem of Emperor of Evil Kabai Singh and his superstitious armies to deal with…

‘Chapter 2: The Sky Band’ (originally published from 9th November 1936 to April 10th 1937) finds the mystery avenger caught in love’s old game as a potential rival for Diana’s affections materialises in the rather stuffy form of career soldier Captain Meville Horton – an honourable man who sadly knows when he’s outmatched, unwanted and in the way. Mistakenly determined to do the right thing too, The Phantom concentrates on destroying a squadron of thieving aviators targeting the burgeoning sky clipper trade: airborne bandits raiding passenger planes and airships throughout the orient.

His initial efforts lead to the Phantom’s arrest: implicated in the sky pirates’ crimes, before escaping from police custody with the aid of his devoted pygmy witch doctor Guran and faithful Bandar tribe allies, he’s soon hot on the trail of the real mastermind…

On infiltrating their base, he discovers the airborne brigands are all women, and that his manly charms have driven a lethal wedge between the deadly commander and her ambitious second in command Sala

A patient plaything of the manic Baroness, The Phantom eventually turns the tide not by force but by exerting his masculine wiles upon the hot-blooded – if psychopathic – harridan, unaware until too late that his own beloved, true-blue Diana is watching. When she sets a trap for the Sky Band, it triggers civil war in the gang, a brutal clash with the British military and the seemingly end of our hero, triggering Diana’s despondent decision to return alone to America…

‘Chapter 3: The Diamond Hunters’ opened on April 12th 1936 and revealed how the best laid plans can go awry…

In Llongo territory, white prospectors Smiley and Hill unearth rich diamond fields but cannot convince or induce local tribes to grant them mineral rights to the gems they consider worthless. Like most native Africans, they are content to live comfortably under the “Phantom’s Peace” and it takes all the miners’ guile – including kidnapping a neighbouring chief’s daughter and framing the Llongo; gunrunning and claiming the Ghost Who Walks has died – to set the natives at each other’s throats. Recovering from wounds, the Phantom is slow to act, but when he does his actions are decisive and unforgettable…

With the plot foiled and peace restored, Smiley flees, only to encounter a returned Diana who has acted on news that her man still lives. Seeing a chance for revenge and profit, Smiley kidnaps “the Phantom’s girl”; provoking his being shunned by all who live in the region, a deadly pursuit and a spectacular last-minute rescue. Smiley’s biggest and last mistake is reaching the coast and joining up with a band of seagoing pirates…

At least he is the catalyst for Diana and The Ghost finally addressing their romantic issues….

To Be Continued…

‘Afterword: For Those Who Came in Late…’ then sees editor Ed Rhoades offer his own thoughts on the strip’s achievements and accomplishments.

Stuffed with chases, assorted fights, torture, blood & thunder antics, daredevil stunts and many a misapprehension – police and government authorities clearly having a hard time believing a pistol-packing masked man with a pet wolf might not be a bad egg – this a pure gripping excitement that still packs a punch and quite a few sly laughs. …

© 2010 King Features Syndicate, Inc.: ® Hearst Holdings, Inc.; reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

 

Dick Tracy: The Collins Casefiles volume 1


By Max Allan Collins & Rick Fletcher (Checker Books)
ISBN: 978-0-97416-642-1 (TPB)

Time for another anniversary celebration. Here’s a superb collection crying out for revival in either physical or digital forms. Time to agitate against the publishing powers-that-be, I think…

All in all, comics have a pretty good track record for creating household names. We could play the game of picking the most well-known fictional characters on Earth – usually topped by Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, Superman, Batman and Tarzan – and supplement the list with Popeye, Blondie, Charlie Brown, Tintin, Spider-Man, Garfield, and – not so much now, but once definitely – Dick Tracy

At the height of the Great Depression cartoonist Chester Gould sought fresh strip ideas. The story goes that as a decent guy incensed by the exploits of gangsters like Al Capone – who monopolised the front pages of contemporary newspapers – the scribbler settled upon the only way a normal man could fight thugs: Passion and Public Opinion…

Raised in Oklahoma, Gould was a Chicago resident and hated seeing his home town in the grip of such wicked men, with far too many honest citizens beguiled by the gangsters’ charisma. He decided to pictorially get it off his chest with a procedural crime thriller that championed the ordinary cops who protected civilisation.

He took his proposal – “Plainclothes Tracy” – to legendary newspaperman and strips Svengali Captain Joseph Patterson, whose golden touch had already blessed strips like The Gumps, Gasoline Alley, Little Orphan Annie, Winnie Winkle,Smilin’ Jack, Moon Mullins and Terry and the Pirates among others. Casting his gifted eye on the work, Patterson renamed the hero Dick Tracy, also revising his love interest into steady, steadfast girlfriend Tess Truehart.

The series launched on October 4th 1931 through Patterson’s Chicago Tribune Syndicate and quickly grew into a monumental hit, with all the attendant media and merchandising hoopla that follows. Amidst toys, games, movies, serials, animated features, TV shows et al, the strip soldiered on, influencing generations of creators and entertaining millions of fans. Gould unfailingly wrote and drew the strip for decades until retirement in 1977.

The legendary lawman was a landmark creation who influenced not simply comics but the entirety of American popular fiction. Its signature use of baroque villains, outrageous crimes and fiendish death-traps pollinated the work of numerous strips (most notably Batman), shows and movies since then, whilst the indomitable Tracy’s studied, measured use – and startlingly accurate predictions – of crimefighting technology and techniques gave the world a taste of cop thrillers, police procedurals and forensic mysteries such as CSI decades before the current fascination took hold.

As with many creators in it for the long haul, the revolutionary 1960s were a harsh time for established cartoonists. Along with Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon, Gould’s grizzled gangbuster especially foundered in a social climate of radical change where popular slogans included “Never trust anybody over 21” and “Smash the Establishment”.

The strip’s momentum faltered, perhaps as much from the move towards science fiction (Tracy moved into space and the character Moon Maid was introduced) and even more improbable, Bond-movie style villains as any perceived “old-fashioned” attitudes. Even the introduction of more minority and women characters and hippie cop Groovy Groovecouldn’t stop the rot. However, the feature soldiered on regardless…

Max Allen Collins is a hugely prolific and best-selling author of both graphic novels (Road to Perdition, CSI, Mike Mist, Ms. Tree) and prose thriller series featuring crime-creations Nathan Heller, Quarry, Nolan, Mallory, Krista Larson and a veritable pantheon of others. When Gould retired from the Tracy strip, the young author (nearly 30!) won the prestigious role as scripter, promptly taking the series back to its roots for a breathtaking 11-year run, ably assisted by Gould as consultant even as his chief artistic assistant Rick Fletcher was promoted to full illustrator.

This criminally scarce but splendidly enthralling monochrome paperback compilation opens with publisher Mark Thompson’s informative Introduction ‘Flatfoot’, and offers a frankly startling ‘Dick Tracy Timeline’ listing the series achievements and innovations from 1931 to 1988 even before the captivating Cops-&-Robbers clashes recommence with Collin’s inaugural adventure.

Angeltop’s Last Stand’ (3rd January-March 12th 1978) rapidly sidelined all the fantastical science fiction trappings (Tracy’s adopted son Junior had previously married lunar princess Moon Maid) whilst reviving grittily ultra-violent suspense as old friend Vitamin Flintheart is targeted for assassination.

With the senior detective’s assistants Sam Catchem and Lizz Worthington on the case, it’s soon clear the assault is part of a plan to make Tracy suffer. Solid investigation turns up two suspects, relatives of old – and expired – enemies Flattop Jonesand The Brow confirming familial revenge is the motive…

Sadly, the Police Department’s resources are inadequate to prevent aggrieved daughter Angeltop Jones and the new Browfrom abducting Tracy. Tragically for the vengeful felons, the grizzled crimebuster might be old but he’s still inventive and indomitable, and a cataclysmic confrontation leads to a fatal conflagration at the place of Flattop’s demise…

The next tale features an original Gould villain making a surprise comeback in the ‘Return of Haf-and-Haf’ (March 13th-June 11th) as maniac murderer Tulza Tuzon – whose left profile had been hideously scarred with acid – is released from the asylum, rehabilitated by modern psychology and groundbreaking plastic surgery…

Of course, only his face was fixed and the fiend quickly tries to murder ex-fiancée Zelda – who had betrayed him to the cops a decade previously. Tracy is on hand to save her life but unable to prevent her from enacting grisly retribution on her attacker, leaving Tuzon woefully in need of fresh cosmetic repair.

The unscrupulous surgeon who fixed him on the State’s dime wants a huge amount of clandestine cash to repeat the procedure and the stage is soon set for doom and tragedy on a Shakespearean scale…

This first Collins collection concludes with an epic minor classic that harked back to Tracy’s first published case. ‘Big Boy’s Revenge’ – AKA ‘Big Boy’s Open Contract’ – ran from 12th June 1978 to January 2nd 1979) detailing the unexpected return of the thinly-disguised Al Capone analogue Tracy had sent to prison at the very start of his career.

Decades later Big Boy, still a member of the crime syndicate known as The Apparatus, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and wants to take with him the cop first who brought him down…

Ignoring and indeed eventually warring with the other Apparatus chiefs, the dying Don puts a $1,000,000 contract on Tracy’s head and lies back to watch the fireworks as a horde of hitmen and women zero in on the blithely unaware Senior Detective…

The resulting collateral damage costs the hero one of his nearest and dearest, removes most of the strip’s accumulated sci fi trappings and firmly resets the scenario in the grim and gritty world of contemporary crime. The Good Guys triumph in the end but the cost is shockingly high for a family strip…

Dick Tracy has always been a fantastically readable feature and this potent return to first principles is a terrific way to ease yourself into his stark, no-nonsense, Tough-Love, Hard Justice world.

Comics just don’t get better than this…
© Checker Book Publishing Group 2003, an authorized collection of works © Tribune Media Services, 1978, 1979. All characters and distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of Tribune Media Services. All rights reserved.

The Complete Peanuts volume 6: 1961-1962


By Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-672-1 (HB) 978-1-60699-949-3 (PB)

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal. Cartoonist Charles M Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical surreal epic for half a century: 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000. He died from the complications of cancer the day before his last strip was published…

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Attendant book collections, a merchandising mountain and television spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire.

None of that matters. Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived: proving cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punchlines.

Following Diana Krall’s Foreword – discussing past times and secular humanism – the timeless times of play, peril and psychoanalysis resume as ever in marvellous monochrome, with more character introductions, plot advancements and the creation of even more traditions we all revere to this day…

As ever our focus is quintessential inspirational loser Charlie Brown who, with increasingly fanciful high-maintenance mutt Snoopy, remains at odds with a bombastic, mercurial supporting cast, all hanging out doing kid stuff.

As always, daily gags centre on playing, musical moments, pranks, and a seasonal selection of sports; teasing, making baffled observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups. However, with this tome, the themes and tropes that define the series (especially in the wake of all those animated TV specials) become mantra-like and endlessly variable.

Mean girl Violet, prodigy Schroeder, self-taught psychoanalyst and world dictator-in-waiting Lucy, her off-kilter little brother Linus and dirt-magnet “Pig-Pen” are fixtures perfectly honed to generate joke-routines and gag-sequences around their own foibles, but now another clutch of new disruptive players join the mob.

Moreover, Charlie Brown’s existential responsibility for baby sister Sally expands crushingly as she grows and he assumes the mantle of dumber, yet protective, big brother…

Resigned – almost – to being an eternal loser singled out by fate, Charlie is helpless in the clutches of relentless Lucy who monetises her spiteful verve via a 5¢ walk-in psychoanalysis booth – ensuring that whether at play, in sports, flying his kite or just brooding, the round-headed kid truly endures the trials of the damned…

Perpetually sabotaged, and facing face-to-face abuse from all females in his life. Charlie Brown now endures a fresh hell in the form of smug attention-seeking Frieda who demands constant approval for her “naturally curly hair” and champions the cause of shallow good looks over substance. Even noble Snoopy is threatened, as the newcomer drags – literally – her boneless, functionally inert – but still essentially Feline – cat Faron into places where cats just don’t belong!

Other notable events include a sinister escalation in the Blanket war as Lucy sadistically seeks ways to decouple Linus from the fabric comforter that sustains him in the worst of times…

Moreover, when she isn’t stealing, slicing, mutilating, interring or otherwise assaulting the cloth, Snoopy is there to fight the tormented kid for it. And worst of all, Linus is afflicted with the compulsion to collect things and diagnosed with a need to wear eyeglasses. Oh, the humanity…!

The bizarre beagle increases his strange development in all ways. Other than his extended Cold War duel for possession of the cherished comfort blanket, the manic mutt must adapt to that darn cat, but still finds time to philosophise, eat, dance like a dervish, stand on his head, converse with falling leaves, play with sprinklers, befriend birds, eat more, brave the elements and coin a bucketload of new slogans like “Happiness is a piece of fudge caught on the first bounce”…

The Sunday page had debuted on January 6th 1952; a standard half-page slot offering more measured fare than 4-panel dailies. Thwarted ambition, sporting failures, explosive frustration – much of it kite-related – and Snoopy’s inner life became the strip’s signature denouements as these weekend wonders afforded Schulz room to be at his most visually imaginative, whimsical and weird…

Particular moments to relish this time involve the increasingly defined and sharply-edged romantic triangle of Lucy, Schroeder and Beethoven; Sally’s extended performance anxiety over starting kindergarten; Linus discovering the magic of a library card; the satisfaction of shoelace-tying; more “pencil-pal” communications; snow-games, rain, hiccups, stargazing ruminations; cooking gaffes; television, and grandeur and weirdness of Autumn.

There’s also slow-maturing madness through the first converts to the cult of The Great Pumpkin and the dread power of romance manifests with the return of Linus’ unattainable schoolteacher/inamorata Miss Othmar

To wrap it all up, Gary Groth celebrates and deconstructs the man and his work in ‘Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000’whilst a copious ‘Index’ offers instant access to favourite scenes you’d like to see again….

Readily available in hardcover, paperback and digital editions, this volume ensures total enjoyment: comedy gold and social glue metamorphosing into an epic of spellbinding graphic mastery that still adds joy to billions of lives, and continues to make new fans and devotees long after its maker’s passing.
The Complete Peanuts: 1961-1962 (volume Six) © 2006, 2014 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. The Foreword is © 2006, Diana Krall. “Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000” © 2006 Gary Groth. All rights reserved.

Batman: Tales of the Demon


By Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Dick Giordano, Michael Golden, Don Newton & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1401299439 (HB)

After three seasons the overwhelmingly successful Batman TV show ended in March, 1968. Clocking up 120 episodes plus a theatrical-release movie since its premiere on January 12, 1966 it had triggered a global furore of “Batmania” fomenting hysteria for all things costumed, zany and mystery-mannish.

Once the series foundered and crashed, global fascination with “camp” superheroes burst as quickly as it had boomed, and the Caped Crusader was left to a hard core of dedicated fans and followers who hoped they might now have “their” hero back.

For comic book editor Julius Schwartz – who had tried to keep the most ludicrous excesses of the show off his pages whilst still cashing in on his global popularity – the solution was simple: ditch the tired shtick, gimmicks and gaudy paraphernalia and bring Batman back to basics, solving baffling mysteries and facing life-threatening perils.

That also meant phasing out the boy sidekick. Although the college freshman Teen Wonder would pop back for the occasional guest-shot yarn, this monument to comics ingenuity and narrative brilliance features him only sporadically. Robin had finally spread his wings and flown the nest for a solo back-up slot in Detective Comics, alternating with TV-derived newcomer Batgirl.

This themed collection re-presents some of the key clashes between the Gotham Guardian and immortal mastermind eco-activist Ra’s al Ghul – a contemporary and more acceptable visual embodiment of the classic inscrutable foreign devil as typified in a less forgiving age as the Yellow Peril or Dr. Fu Manchu. This kind of alien archetype permeates fiction as an overwhelmingly powerful villain symbol, although the character’s Arabic origins, neutral at the time, seem to embody a different kind of ethnic bogeyman in today’s post 9/11 world. These legendary tales and supplementary material come from Batman #232, 235, 240, 242-244; DC Special Series #15; Detective Comics #411, 485, 489-490; Limited Collector’s Edition C-51; and Saga of Ra’s al Ghul #1-4.

The concept of a villain who has the best interests of the planet at heart is not a new one, but Ra’s Al Ghul, whose avowed intent is to reduce teeming humanity to viable levels and save the world from our poison, hit a chord in the 1970s – a period where ecological issues first came to the attention of the young. It was a rare kid who didn’t find a note of sense in what the Demon’s Head planned. I wonder how the latest crop of youthful would-be planet-savers feel about him?

Background and more is discussed in screenwriter Sam Hamm’s recycled 1991 Introduction to that year’s landmark graphic novel compilation of this saga, before the timeless contest of indomitable wills begins with a seminal story from Detective Comics #411. ‘Into the Den of the Death-Dealers’ was written by Denny O’Neil, illustrated by the great Bob Brown, and inked by Dick Giordano, featuring the sinister League of Assassins and introducing exotic mystery woman Talia.

Neal Adams & Dick Giordano joined O’Neil for Batman #232’s ‘Daughter of the Demon’: a signature high-point of the entire Batman canon. It details an exotic chase and mystery yarn drawing an increasingly Dark Knight from Gotham’s concrete canyons to the Himalayas in search of hostages Robin and Talia. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t read this much reprinted tale, I’m not going to spoil the joy that awaits you…

Batman #235 sees penciller Irv Novick join regulars O’Neil & Giordano for ‘Swamp Sinister’, a tale of bio-hazard and double cross affording some early insights into the true character of Talia and her ruthless sire. The same creative team sets the scene for the groundbreaking “series-within-a-series” soon to follow when ‘Vengeance for a Dead Man’ (Batman #240) has Batman uncover one of Ra’s Al Ghul’s less worthy and more grisly projects. As a result, open war begins between Batman and the Demon…

Batman #242-244 and an epilogue from #245 (still-infuriatingly absent from this supposedly definitive collection) formed an extended saga and was taken out of normal DC continuity. It promised what was to be the final confrontation between two opposing ideals. Novick pencilled first episode ‘Bruce Wayne – Rest in Peace!’ wherein Batman gathers a small team of allies – including still-active-today underworld insider Matches Malone – to destroy the Demon forever. Adams returned with second chapter ‘The Lazarus Pit’, which offered titanic action, rollercoaster drama and what seemed to we consumers of the day to be a brilliant conclusion to the epic. But with the last three pages the rug was pulled out from under us and the saga continued!

How sad for modern fans with so many sources of information today: the chances of creators genuinely surprising devoted readers are almost non-existent, but in the faraway 1970s we had no idea what to expect from #244 when ‘The Demon Lives Again!’ hit shops and newsstands.

In a classic confrontation, Batman ultimately triumphs and Ra’s Al Ghul disappeared for years. He was considered by DC as a special villain and not one to be diluted through overuse. How times change…

By 1978 the company was experimenting with formats and genres in a time of poor comic sales. Part of that drive was an irregular anthology entitled DC Special Series and from the all-Batman #15 comes an oddly enticing gem scripted by O’Neil and drawn by a talented young newcomer called Michael Golden, with inks from the ubiquitous Dick Giordano.

‘I Now Pronounce you Batman and Wife’ is a stylish, pacy thriller that anticipates the 1980s sea-change in comics storytelling, but its most interesting aspect is the plot maguffin which later inspired a trilogy of graphic novels in the 1990s and today’s Damien Wayne/Robin.

September 1979 brought another key multi-part epic, represented here by Detective Comics #485, 489 and 490. Although picky me still wishes that all parts were included, the truncated version here suffers no significant loss of narrative flow as Batman is dragged into a civil war for leadership of the Al Ghul organization between the Demon and the aged oriental super-assassin the Sensei – whom older fans will know as the villain behind the murder of aerialist Boston Brand and birth of Deadman.

O’Neil, Don Newton & Dan Adkins open proceedings in ‘The Vengeance Vow!’ as a long-standing member of the Batman Family is murdered, drawing Batman into battle with deadly mind-controlled martial artist Bronze Tiger. After thwarting the Sensei’s schemes for months, the saga cataclysmically concludes in ‘Where Strike the Assassins!’ and ‘Requiem for a Martyr!’

Whilst perhaps not as powerful as the O’Neil/Novick/Adams/Giordano run, this serial is a stirring thriller with a satisfactory denouement, elevated to dizzying heights by the magnificent artwork of Don & Adkins. Newton’s Batman could well have become the definitive 1980s look, but the artist’s tragically early death in 1984 cut short what should have been a superlative and stellar career.

In recent years, Ra’s Al Ghul has become Just Another Bat-Foe: familiarity indeed breeding mediocrity, if not contempt. But these unique tales from a unique era are comics at their very best in this definitive archival landmark.

Adding lustre to proceedings is a gallery of pertinent covers taken from early trade paperback collections. Brian Stelfreeze produced a brace of stunners with 1991’s Batman: Tales of the Demon TPB in editions for DC Comics and Warner Books; Adams created the potent image used on this very edition in a wraparound treat gracing Limited Collector’s Edition C-51 (August 1977) whilst Jerry Bingham & Dick Giordano and Adams & Rudy Nebres delivered a quartet of covers for Saga of Ra’s al Ghul #1-4 (January-April 1988). Also included here are an Afterword by Denny O’Neil and John Wells’ ‘The Saga of the Demon’s Head’ detailing the later schemes of the eternal thorn in humanity’s skin…

With the game-changing classics in this volume, Batman finally returned to the commercial and critical top flight he had deserved and enjoyed in the 1940s: reviving and expanding upon his original conception as a remorseless, relentless avenger of injustice. The next few years would see the hero rise to unparalleled heights of quality so stay tuned: the very best is just around the corner… that dark, dark corner…
© 1971, 1972, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1988, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Complete Peanuts volume 5: 1959 to 1960


By Charles M. Schulz (Canongate Books/Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84767-149-3 (Canongate HB) 978-1-60699-921-9 (Fantagraphics PB)

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal.

Cartoonist Charles M Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical surreal epic for half a century: 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000. He died from the complications of cancer the day before his last strip was published…

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Attendant book collections, a merchandising mountain and television spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire.

None of that matters. Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived: proving cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punchlines.

Following a Foreword of fun and frank shared reminiscences between editor Gary Groth and mega star Whoopi Goldberg, the timeless times of play, peril and psychoanalysis resume as ever in marvellous monochrome, but this time major changes are in motion as the feature enters its true glory days …

Our focus is quintessential inspirational loser Charlie Brown who, with increasingly high-maintenance, fanciful mutt Snoopy, remains at odds with a bombastic, mercurial supporting cast, all hanging out doing kid stuff.

As always, daily gags centre on playing, pranks, and a seasonal selection of sports; musical moments, teasing, making baffled observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups. However, with this tome, the themes and tropes that define the series (especially in the wake of all those animated TV specials) are truly bedded in.

Mean girl Violet, prodigy Schroeder, “world’s greatest fussbudget” Lucy and her off-kilter little brother Linus and dirt-magnet “Pig-Pen” are fixtures sufficiently fleshed out and personified to generate jokes and sequences around their own foibles, but a new disruptive force is introduced. The existential angst of Charlie Brown is magnified by more responsibility with the coming of his new baby sister Sally

Resigned to his role as eternal loser and singled out by fate and the relentless, diabolical Lucy – who now intensifies and monetises her spiteful verve with a 5¢ walk-in psychoanalysis booth – the round-headed kid really endures the trials of Job from now on. His attempts to fly a kite or kick a football are perpetually sabotaged, and he faces from all the females in his life constant face-to-face reminders of how rubbish he is. Can this new one in his own house be any different?

Other notable events include the first instances of Linus’ doomed relationships: primarily with alternative mythical entity The Great Pumpkin, but also unattainable, equally unseen schoolteacher/inamorata Miss Othmar

Wonder beagle Snoopy increases his strange development in all ways. His extended Cold War duel for possession of Linus’ cherished comfort blanket escalates but the manic mutt also finds time to philosophise, dance like a dervish and battle City Hall to save his doghouse from a proposed Freeway Bypass…

The Sunday page had debuted on January 6th 1952; a standard half-page slot offering more measured fare than 4-panel dailies. Both thwarted ambition and explosive frustration became part of the strip’s signature denouements as these weekend wonders gave the auteur room to be at his most visually imaginative, whimsical and weird…

By 1959, rapid-fire raucous slapstick gags were riding side-by-side with increasingly abstract, obscure, edgy, psychologically barbed introspections: deep ruminations in a world where kids and animals were the only actors. The relationships are now deep, complex and absorbing but there was still room and time for pure artistic expression. The “Clouds” page for Sunday August 14th was instantly revered by readers and cited by Schulz as his all-time personal favourite.

Sheer exuberance and a spontaneous tendency to barrack perceived failure or weakness at any provocation remains a trusted standby, supported by sporting crises, loneliness, the difficulties of learning to read and wearing long pants, plus a growing attention to issues of motherhood.

Particular moments to relish here involve Snoopy’s muzzle-pugilism; Charlie Brown’s “pencil-pal”; snow-games, rain, cooking gaffes; television, the dread power of romance and grandeur and weirdness of Autumn: all while offering more examples of Schroeder’s eternal love affair of Beethoven and inability to discern Lucy’s far-from-apparent attractions.

The general trends for all the kids being beguiled by stargazing, waxing philosophical at the heavens’ splendour and enduring St. Valentines’ Day traumas continues and there’s even a sighting of Lucy’s softer side. This collection features the first incidence of a minor phenomenon springing from the April 25th daily which first disclosed that “Happiness is a warm puppy…”

To wrap it all up, Gary Groth celebrates and deconstructs the man and his work in ‘Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000’whilst a copious ‘Index’ offers instant access to favourite scenes you’d like to see again….

Readily available in hardcover, paperback and digital editions, this volume offers a rare example of a masterpiece in motion: comedy gold and social glue metamorphosing into an epic of spellbinding graphic mastery that remains part of the fabric of billions of lives, and which continues to make new fans and devotees long after its maker’s passing.
The Complete Peanuts: 1959-1960 (volume 5) © 2006 United Features Syndicate, Inc. The Foreword is © 2006 Whoopi Goldberg. “Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000” © 2006 Gary Groth. All rights reserved.

Jim – Jim Woodring’s Notorious Autojournal


By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-752-9 (HB)

There are a few uniquely gifted and driven comics creators who simply defy categorisation or even description. There’s a pantheon of artisans: Kirby, Ditko, Hergé, Eisner, Clowes, Meskin, Millionaire and a few others who bring something utterly personal and universally effective to their work just beyond the reviewer’s skills (mine certainly) to elucidate, encapsulate or convey. They are perfect in their own way and so emphatically wonderful that no collection of praise and analysis can do them justice.

You just have to read the stuff yourself.

Arguably at the top of that distinguished heap of graphic glitterati is Jim Woodring. It’s a position he has maintained for years and clearly appears capable of holding for generations to come.

Woodring’s work has always been challenging, funny, spiritual, grotesque, philosophical, heartbreaking, beautiful and extremely scary. Moreover, even after reading that sentence you will still be absolutely unprepared for what awaits the first time you encounter any of his books – and even more so if you’ve already seen everything he’s created.

Cartoonist, animator, fine artist, toy-maker and artistic Renaissance man, Woodring’s eccentric output has delighted far too small and select an audience since his first mini-comics forays in 1980.

The reader may have avidly adored his groundbreaking, oneirically autobiographical Fantagraphics magazine Jim (1986 and cherry-picked for this collection) or its notional spin-off series Frank (of which Weathercraft won The Stranger 2010 Genius Award for Literature whilst 2018’s Poochytown marked Woodring’s last Frank foray to date). Perhaps it was Tantalizing Stories, Seeing Things or more mainstream features like his Star Wars and Aliens tales for Dark Horse Comics that hit home but, always, there is never anything but surprise waiting when his next story appears…

An accomplished storytelling technician these days, Woodring grows rather than constructs solidly surreal, abstractly authentic, wildly rational, primal cartoon universes, wherein his meticulous, clean-lined, sturdily ethereal, mannered blend of woodblock prints, R. Crumb landscapes, expressionist Dreamscapes, religious art and monstrous phantasmagoria all live and play …and often eat each other.

His stories follow a logical, progressional narrative – often a surging, non-stop chase from one insane invention to the next – layered with multiple levels of meaning yet totally devoid of speech or words, boldly assuming the intense involvement of the reader will participate and complete the creative circuit.

Such was not always the case and this superbly sumptuous oversized (292 x 228mm) hardcover compilation (also available digitally) gathers earlier formative and breakthrough efforts in colour and monochrome: offering the very best of his strips, paintings, poems and stories from JIM and other (sadly unnamed) sources between 1980 and 1996.

This compulsive collection also includes a new 24-page strip starring the artist’s hulking, bewhiskered, aggressively paranoid, dream-plagued family man/cartoonist alter ego, cementing his reputation as a master of subconscious exploration, surreal self-expression and slyly ironic comedic excoriation – and it’s still almost impossible to describe.

You really, really, really have to dive in and discover for yourself…

Packed with hallucinatory spot-images and JIM cover illustrations, the furtive fruits of Woodring’s ever-present dream-recording “autojournal” are prefaced by a beguiling and informative ‘Author’s Note’ before the wonderment begins with ‘Jim #1 in its entirety’: the complete contents of his very first self-published fanzine from 1980.

A master of silent expressive cartooning, Woodring’s playfully inventively fascination with and love of words and tale-making shines through in such laboriously hand-lettered, illustrated epigrammatic vignettes as ‘Lozenge’ and ‘Jim Today’, as well as witty iconographic concoctions like ‘Tales of Bears’ and ‘Troutcapper Hats’ before the premier strip saga details a doomed fishing trip in ‘Seafood Platter from Hell’, and a moment of early silent psychedelia reveals how ‘Two Children Inadvertently Kill an Agent of the Devil Through an Excess of Youthful High Spirits’

Another personal true story and painful brush with disability and imperfection is disclosed in ‘Invisible Hinge’ whilst ‘The Hour of the Kitten’ returns to distressed, disturbed prose before the first of many outrageous faux-ads offers indispensable conscience-pets ‘Niffers’, preceding another text-trek in ‘A Walk in the Foothills’.

Cats play a large part in these early strips and ‘Big Red’ is probably the cutest bloody-clawed, conscienceless killer you’ll ever meet whilst ‘Enough is Enough’ offers graphic pause before an ad for the home ‘Dreamcorder’ segues into a disturbing poster of rural excess in ‘A Lousy Show’.

‘Particular Mind’ provides a strip encapsulating relationships, hallucinations and life-drawing, after which the tempting services provided by ‘Jim’s Discipline Camp’ are counterbalanced by a paean to pharmacopoeia in ‘Good Medicine’.

More savage exploits of ‘Big Red’ lead to a commercial presentation in ‘This is the Meat (…That Changed Me, Dad!)’, whilst ‘Horse Sinister’ describes – in prose and pictures – another disturbing dream dilemma and ‘At the Old Estate’introduces a sophisticated loving couple whose wilderness paradise is forever altered by an unwelcome visitor’s incredible revelation. Thereafter, a worried young child describes how life changed after he found his parents’ ‘Dinosaur Cage’

The truly eccentric tale of ‘Li’l Rat’ (from a 1965 story by John Dorman) is followed by a visual feast of images from ‘Jim Book of the Dead’ and a surreal flyer for ‘Rolling Cabine’, after which ‘What the Left Hand Did’ captures in strip form the horrors of mutilation and malformation. The macabre tone-painting ‘Almost Home’ then leads to an epic strip of father and son fun beginning with ‘Let’s Play!’

Jim’s jaunt soon transports him to ‘Powerland’ where dad meets himself, whilst ‘Nidrian Gardner’ revisits a couple of suave swells whilst ‘Looty’ offers consumers a toy they just shouldn’t own…

‘The Hindu Marriage Game’ leads our unhappy bearded fool to a place where his lack of judgement can truly embarrass him, whilst ‘Quarry Story’ explores a debilitating recurring dream about the nature of artistic endeavour and ‘This House’explains how you can live life without ever going outside again – and how’s that for prophetic and timely?

The first inklings of the mature creator emerge in absurdist romp ‘The Birthday Party’ after which prose shaggy-dog story ‘The Reform of the Apple’ leads to a dark, distressing cartoon confrontation with doom on ‘The Stairs’, before largely monochrome meanderings give way to stunning full-colour surreal reveries in ‘Screechy Peachy’.

The radiant hues remain for galvanic image ‘Vher Umst Pknipfer?’ and pantomimic rollercoaster romp ‘Trosper’ after which bold black & white introspection resumes with a naked lady and a garrulous frog in ‘Dive Deep’.

A ghostly Hispanic condition of drunkenness haunts cruelly playful kids in ‘Pulque’ whilst little Max asks dad a leading question in ‘Echo’ and radio rebels Chip and Monk meet some girls and risk the wrath of civic authority with illegal broadcasting in ‘A Hometown Tale’, before an ideal wife has a bad-tempered off-day in ‘Obviously Not’.

As the years passed, many of Woodring’s later spiritual and graphic signature creatures slowly begun to appear in his strips. Old met new in ‘His Father Was a Great Machine’ wherein strident Jim has an encounter with a phantasmagorical thing, after which little Susan and a determined slug shaped up for an inevitable collision in the prose fable ‘When the Lobster Whistles on the Hill’.

Sheer whimsy informs ‘Cheap Work/Our Hero is a Bastard’ and the bizarre offerings of ‘Jimland Novelties’, whilst ‘The Smudge-Pot’ shows what all magazine letters pages should be like. ‘Pulque’ – in full colour strip mode – returns with a message for the dying before ‘Boyfriend of the Weather’ wraps up the surreal voyaging with a homey homily, and reproductions of Jim #1, volume 2 back cover and Jim #2, volume 2 cover bring this festival of freakish fun to the finale with style, aplomb and oodles of frosting…

Woodring’s work is not to everyone’s taste or sensibilities – otherwise why would I need to plug his work so earnestly – and, as ever, these astounding drawings have the perilous propensity of repeating like cucumber and making one jump long after the book has been put away, but the artist is an undisputed master of graphic narrative and an affirmed innovator always making new art to challenge us and himself.

He makes us love it and leaves us hungry for more, and these early offerings provide the perfect starter course for a full-bodied feast of fantasy…

Are you feeling peckish yet…?
© 2014 Jim Woodring. All rights reserved.

A Valentine for Charlie Brown


By Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699- (HB)

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most broadly accepted, since – after the characters made the jump to television – the little nippers become an integral part of the American mass cultural experience.

Charles M. Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for 50 years, publishing 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000. He died from the complications of cancer the day before his last strip was published…

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Attendant book collections, a merchandising mountain and TV spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire. That profitable sideline – one Schulz devoted barely any time to over the decades – is where this little gem originates from…

Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived by showing that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punchlines.

The usual focus of the feature (we just can’t call him “star” or “hero”) is everyman loser Charlie Brown who, with high-maintenance, fanciful mutt Snoopy, endures a bombastic and mercurial supporting cast who hang out doing kid things in a most introspective, self-absorbed manner.

The daily gags centred on playing (pranks, sports, musical instruments), teasing each other, making ill-informed observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups. The consistently expanding cast also includes mean girl Violet, child prodigy Schroeder, “world’s greatest fussbudget” Lucy Van Pelt, her other-worldly baby brother Linus and dirt-magnet “Pig-Pen”: each with a signature twist to the overall mirth quotient and sufficiently fleshed out and personified to generate jokes and sequences around their own foibles. As a whole, the kids tackled every aspect of human existence in a charming and witty manner, acting as cartoon therapists and graphic philosophical guides to the world that watched them.

Charlie Brown is settled into his existential angst and resigned to his role as eternal loser as if singled out by a gleeful Fate. It’s a set-up that remains timelessly funny and infinitely enduring…

Available in a child-friendly hardback and the usual digital formats, A Valentine for Charlie Brown offers a trio of extended vintage sequences revolving around further crushing the spirit of the saddest, yet most optimistic kid on Earth. All he wants is someone to love, but for many of us, it’s not that easy to find the one – or even anyone…

The tales are told in a series of monochrome panels (generally four to a page) and we open with ‘Valentine’s Vigil at the Mailbox’ as the perpetually anxious and responsibility-burdened Charlie anticipates a card or maybe more at this time of romantic intensity. Sadly, the mail is not an ally and most post goes to the hairy pal who truly does dote on him…

Of course, there’s always Linus to share thoughts with, sister Sally to show him up and Lucy to be… well Lucy…

Not that Van Pelt has much joy with her own chosen inamorata. Schroeder loves music and would do anything to be alone with his passion

A new year brings fresh hope as Charlie discovers ‘The Little Red-Haired Girl’, but even after burdening all his pals with his aspirations and disappointments, our gallant would-be swain painfully realises the course of true love never yadda, yadda, yadda…

Wrapping up the melancholy mirth is delicious change of pace ‘My Sweet Babboo’ which sees Sally set her cap for Linus with terrifying determination: an all-points pursuit to delight jaded older souls and simultaneously chill the heart of anybody with pet bunnies..

Sally and Linus take centre stage in this outrageous and inventive sequence but there’s still plenty of time for Charlie and the others to suffer their usual hang-ups, between marvelling at the dogged determination on show…

Timeless and evergreen, Charlie Brown’s existentialist travail and amorous aspirations have been delighting readers seemingly forever and clearly will not be stopping or superseded anytime soon. If you haven’t joined this club yet, why not sign up now?
A Valentine for Charlie Brown © 2015 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. All rights reserved.

Barnaby volume 2


By Crockett Johnson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-709-3 (HB)

This is one of those rare books worthy of two reviews. So, if you’re in a hurry…

Buy Barnaby now – it’s one of the five best comic strips of all time and this superb hardcover compilation has lots of fascinating extras. If you harbour any yearnings for the lost joys of childish wonder and the suspicious glee in catching out adults trying to pull a fast one, you would be crazy to miss this book…

However, if you’re still here and need a little more time to decide…

Today’s newspapers have precious few continuity drama or adventure strips. Indeed, if a paper has any strips – as opposed to single panel editorial cartoons – chances are they will be of the episodic variety typified by Jim Davis’ Garfield or Scott Adams’ Dilbert.

You might describe these as single-idea pieces with a set-up, delivery and punch-line, all rendered in a sparse, pared-down-to-basics drawing style. In that they’re nothing new and there’s nothing wrong any of that ilk on their own terms.

Narrative impetus comes from the unchanging characters themselves, and a building of gag-upon-gag in extended themes. The advantage to newspapers is obvious. If you like a strip it encourages you to buy the paper. If you miss a day or two, you can return fresh at any time having, in real terms, missed nothing.

Such was not always the case, especially in America. Once upon a time the daily “funnies” – comedic or otherwise – were crucial circulation builders and preservers, with lush, lavish and magnificently rendered fantasies or romances rubbing shoulders with thrilling, moody masterpieces of crime, war, sci-fi and everyday melodrama. Even the legion of humour strips actively strived to maintain an avid, devoted following.

And eventually there was Barnaby, which in so many ways bridged the gap between then and now.

On April 20th 1942, with America at war for the second time in 25 years, the liberal New York tabloid PM began running a new, sweet little kids’ strip which was also the most whimsically addicting, socially seditious and ferociously smart satire since the creation of Al Capp’s Li’l Abner – another utter innocent left to the mercy of venal and scurrilous worldly influences…

The outlandish 4-panel daily, by Crockett Johnson, was the product of a perfectionist who didn’t particularly care for comics, but who – according to celebrated strip historian Ron Goulart – just wanted steady employment…

David Johnson Leisk (October 20th 1906-July 11th 1975) was an ardent socialist, passionate anti-fascist, gifted artisan and brilliant designer who spent much of his working life as a commercial artist, Editor and Art Director. Born in New York City and raised in the outer wilds of Queens when it was still semi-rural – very near the slag heaps which would eventually house two New York World’s Fairs in Flushing Meadows – “Dave” studied art at Cooper Union (for the Advancement of Science and Art) and New York University before leaving early to support his widowed mother. This entailed embarking upon a hand-to-mouth career drawing and constructing department-store advertising.

He supplemented his income with occasional cartoons to magazines such as Collier’s before becoming an Art Editor at magazine publisher McGraw-Hill. He also began producing a moderately successful, “silent” strip called The Little Man with the Eyes.

Johnson had divorced his first wife in 1939 and moved out of the city to Connecticut, sharing an ocean-side home with student (and eventual bride) Ruth Krauss, always looking to create that steady something when, almost by accident, he devised a masterpiece of comics narrative. However, if his friend Charles Martin hadn’t seen a prototype Barnaby half-page lying around the house, the series might never have existed…

Happily, Martin hijacked the sample and parlayed it into a regular feature in prestigious highbrow leftist tabloid PM simply by showing the scrap to the paper’s Comics Editor Hannah Baker. Among her other finds was a strip by a cartoonist dubbed Dr. Seuss which would run contiguously in the same publication. Despite Johnson’s initial reticence, within a year Barnaby had become the new darling of the intelligentsia…

Soon there were book collections, talk of a Radio show (in 1946 it was adapted as a stage play), a quarterly magazine and rave reviews in Time, Newsweek and Life. The small but rabid fan-base ranged from politicians and the smart set such as President and First Lady Roosevelt, Vice-President Henry Wallace, Rockwell Kent, William Rose Benet and Lois Untermeyer to cool celebrities such as Duke Ellington, Dorothy Parker, W. C. Fields and even legendary New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. Of course, the last two might only have been checking the paper because the undisputed, unsavoury star of the strip was a scurrilous if fanciful amalgam of them both…

Not since George Herriman’s Krazy Kat had a piece of popular culture so infiltrated the halls of the mighty, whilst largely passing way over the heads of the masses and without troubling the Funnies sections of big circulation papers. Over its 10-year run (April 1942 to February 1952), Barnaby was only syndicated to 64 papers nationally, with a combined circulation of just over five and a half million, but it kept Crockett (a childhood nickname) and Ruth in relative comfort whilst America’s Great and Good constantly agitated on the kid’s behalf.

What more do you need to know?

One dark night a little boy wishes for a Fairy Godmother and something strange and disreputable falls in through his window…

Barnaby Baxter is a smart, ingenuous, scrupulously honest and rather literal pre-schooler (4 years old to you) and his ardent wish is to be an Air Raid Warden like his dad. Instead, he is “adopted” by a short, portly, pompous, mildly unsavoury and wholly discreditable windbag with pink pixie wings.

Jackeen J. O’Malley, card carrying-member of the Elves, Gnomes, Leprechauns and Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society – although he hasn’t paid his dues in years – unceremoniously installs himself as the lad’s Fairy Godfather. A lazier, more self-aggrandizing, mooching old glutton and probable soak (he certainly frequents taverns but only ever raids the Baxter’s icebox, pantry and humidor, never their drinks cabinet…) could not be found anywhere.

Due more to intransigence than evidence – there’s always plenty of physical proof, debris and fallout whenever O’Malley has been around – Barnaby’s mum and dad adamantly refuse to believe in the insalubrious sprite, whose continued presence hopelessly complicates the sweet boy’s life.

The poor doting parents’ abiding fear is that Barnaby is afflicted with Too Much Imagination…

At the end of the first volume O’Malley implausibly – and almost overnight – became an unseen and reclusive public Man of the Hour, preposterously translating that cachet into a political career by accidentally becoming a patsy for a vast and corrupt political machine. In even more unlikely circumstances O’Malley is then elected to Congress – which somehow doesn’t seem so fantastic any more…

This strand gave staunchly socialist cynic Johnson ample opportunity to ferociously lampoon the electoral system, the pundits and even the public. As usual Barnaby’s parents had to perpetually put down their boy: assertively assuring him that the O’Malley the grown-ups had elected was not a fat little man with pink wings…

Despite looking like a fraud – he’s almost never seen using his magic and always has one of Dad’s stolen panatela cigars as a substitute wand – J. J. O’Malley is the real deal: he’s just incredibly lazy, greedy, arrogant and inept. He does sort of grant Barnaby’s wishes though… but never in ways that might be wished for…

Once O’Malley has his foot in the door – or rather through the bedroom window – a succession of bizarre characters start sporadically turning up to baffle and bewilder Barnaby and Jane Shultz, the sensible little girl next door.

Even the boy’ new dog Gorgon is a remarkable oddity. The pooch can talk – but never when adults are around, and only then with such overwhelming dullness that everybody listening wishes him as mute as every other mutt…

The mythical oddballs and irregulars include timid ghost Gus, Atlas the Giant (a 2-foot tall, pint-sized colossus who is not that impressive until he gets out his slide-rule to demonstrate that he was, in truth, a mental Giant) and LauncelotMcSnoyd, an invisible Leprechaun and O’Malley’s personal gadfly: always offering harsh, ribald home truths and counterpoints to the Godfather’s self-laudatory pronouncements…

Johnson continually expanded his gently bizarre cast of gremlins, ogres, ghosts, policemen, Bankers, crooks, financiers and stranger personages – all of whom can see O’Malley – but the unyieldingly faithful little lad’s parents are always too busy and too certain the Fairy Godfather and all his ilk are unhealthy, unwanted, juvenile fabrications.

This second stupendous collection – available as a landscape hardback and in digital formats – opens with a hearty appreciation from Jules Feiffer in the Foreword before cartoonist, biographer and historian R. C. Harvey provides a critical appraisal in ‘Barnaby and the Power of Imagination’. The captivating yarn-spinning commences next, taking us from January 1st 1944 to December 31st 1945.

There’s even more elucidatory content at the back after all those magic-filled pictures too, as education scholar and Professor of English Philip Nel provides a fact-filled, scene-setting, picture-packed ‘Afterword: O’Malley Takes Flight’and Max Lerner’s 1943 PM promo feature ‘Barnaby’s Progress’ is reprinted in full.

Nel also supplies strip-by-strip commentary and background in ‘The Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes, and Little Men’s Chowder & Marching Society: A Handy Pocket Guide’

However, what we all love is comics so let’s jump right in as the obese elf gets caught up in exhibiting his miniscule expertise in ‘The Manly Art of Self-Defense’ (running from 28th December 1943 to 19th January 1944), and follows Mr. Baxter’s purchase of a few items of exercise equipment.

Always with an eye to a fast buck, O’Malley organises a prize fight between poor gentle Gus and the obstreperous Brooklyn Leprechaun, all whilst delaying his long overdue return to the Capitol. The godfather is expert in delay and obfuscation but eventually, in a concatenation of curious circumstances, the Congressman buckles under pressure from both his human and fairy-folk constituents to push through a new hydroelectric project – in actuality two vastly different ones – and wings off to begin the process of funding ‘The O’Malley Dam’ (20th January – 22nd April)…

As the political bandwagon gets rolling, further hindered by Mr. Baxter and Barnaby visiting the Congressman’s never-occupied office in Washington DC, the flighty, easily distracted O’Malley takes it upon himself to inscribe the natural history of his people in ‘Pixie Anthropology’ (24th April-18th May), even as, back home, the Big Fight gets nearer and poor Gus continues to wilt under his punishing training regimen…

‘Mr. O’Malley, Efficiency Expert’ (19th May to 8th June), sees the Fairy Fool step in when overwork and worry laid Mr. Baxter low. The factory manager is pilloried by concerns over production targets, but whilst he is remanded to his sickbed, the flying figment busily “fixes” the crisis for him…

During that riotous sequence another oddball was introduced in the diminutive form of Gridley the Salamander: a “Fire Pixey” who can’t raise a spark, even if copiously supplied with matches and gasoline…

The under-worked winged windbag is a master of manipulation and ‘O’Malley and the Buried Treasure’ (9th June – 7thSeptember) has the airborne oaf inveigling invitations for the Baxters to the beachside cottage owned by Jane’s aunt. Once there, it isn’t long before avaricious imagination and a couple of old coins spawn a rabid goldrush amongst the adults who really should know better. This extended vacation also sees the first appearance of moisture-averse sovereign of the seas Davy Jones

Whilst the Congressman busily avoids work, his seat vanishes during boundary reorganisation, but – ever-undaunted – the pixilated political animal soldiers on, outrageously campaigning in the then-ongoing Presidential Election throughout the cruelly hilarious ‘O’Malley for Dewey’ (8th September – 8th November 1944)…

Newspaper strips always celebrated seasonal events and, after the wry satire of the race for power, whacky whimsy is highlighted with the advent of ‘Cousin Myles O’Malley’ (9th – 24th November). The puny Puritan pixie had come over on the Mayflower and is still trying to catch a turkey for his very first Thanksgiving Dinner. Naturally his take-charge, thoroughly modern relative is a huge (dis)advantage to his ongoing quest…

With Christmas fast approaching, an injudicious expression from Ma Baxter regarding a fur wrap sets Barnaby and his Fairy guardian on the trail of the fabled and fabulous, ferocious ermine beast and debuts ‘The O’Malley Fur Trading Post’(25th November 1944 to 27th January 1945).

Although legendary and mythical gnomish huntsman J. P. Orion fails to deliver, an unlucky band of fur thieves fall into the hunters’ traps and discover their latest haul missing. Before long, poor Mr. Baxter is looking at the chilling prospect of jail time for receiving stolen property…

With the global conflict clearly drawing to a close, Johnson threw himself into the debate of what the post-War world would be like. In a swingeing attack on the financial system and the greedy gullibility of professional money men, Barnaby – and most especially his conniving godfather – almost shatter the American commercial world in a cunning fable entitled ‘J.J. O’Malley, Wizard of Wall Street’ (29th January – 26th May)…

With America still reeling, the ever-unfolding hilarity offers an arcane twist as Mr. Baxter suffers more than the usual degree of personal humiliation and confusion when he takes Barnaby, Gorgon and Jane for a short walk and loses them in the littlest woods in America.

They have of course been led astray by O’Malley who accidentally dumps them on ‘Emmylou Schwartz, Licensed Witchcraft Practitioner’ (28th May – 3rd July). She has been in a very bad mood ever since the Salem Witch Trials…

As a result of this latest unhappy encounter and a shameful incident with a black cat, the dogmatic dog is hexed and becomes ‘Tongue-Tied Gorgon’ (4th – 10th July)… not that most people could ever tell…

When Barnaby’s Aunt Minerva writes a bestseller, O’Malley feels constrained to guide her budding career in ‘Belles Lettres’ (11th July – 17th August). The obnoxious elf is a little less keen when he discovers it’s only a cookbook, but perks up when it leads to Minerva being offered a newspaper column. Being an expert in this field too, O’Malley continues his behind-the-scenes support amidst ‘The Fourth Estate’ (18th August – 8th September), renewing his old acquaintance with impishly literal Printers Devil Shrdlu

Immune to O’Malley’s best efforts, Minerva remains a success and is soon looking for her own place. In ‘Real Estate’(10th September -10th October), Barnaby is helpless to prevent poor Gus being used by the godfather as a ghostly goad to convince a spiritualism-obsessed landlady to let to his aunt rather than a brace of conmen…

A perfect indication of the wry humour that peppered the feature can be seen in ‘Party Invitations’ – which ran from 11thto 20th October – as O’Malley attempts to supersede the usual turkey-and-fixin’s feast with a fashionable venison banquet – even though he can’t catch a deer and won’t be cooking it once it’s been butchered…

Congruent with that is the introduction of erudite aborigine ‘Howard the Sigahstaw Indian’ (22nd October – 23rdNovember) – who was just as inept in the hunting traditions of his forefathers – after which the festive preparations continue with ‘O’Malley’s Christmas List’ (24th November – 15th December) wherein the always-generous godfather discovers the miracle of store credit and goes gift shopping for everybody.

Never one to concentrate for long, he is briefly distracted by a guessing competition in ‘Bean-Counting’ (8th – 15thDecember): the prize of a home movie camera being the ideal gift for young Barnaby before this parade of monochrome cartoon marvels concludes with the dryly hilarious saga of ‘The Hangue Dogfood Telephone Quiz Program’ (17thDecember 1945-1st January 1946) wherein Gorgon’s reluctant answers to an advertising promotion again threaten to hurl the entire American business world into chaos…

Intellectually raucous, riotously, sublimely surreal and adorably absurd, the untrammelled, razor-sharp whimsy of the strip is instantly captivating, and the laconic charm of the writing is well-nigh irresistible, but the lasting legacy of this ground-breaking strip is the clean sparse line-work that reduces images to almost technical drawings, unwavering line-weights and solid swathes of black that define space and depth by practically eliminating it, without ever obscuring the fluid warmth and humanity of the characters. Almost every modern strip cartoon follows the principles laid down here by a man who purportedly disliked the medium…

The major difference between then and now should also be noted, however.

Johnson despised doing shoddy work, or short-changing his audience. On average, each of his daily encounters – always self-contained – built on the previous episode without needing to re-reference it, and contained three to four times as much text as its contemporaries. It’s a sign of the author’s ability that the extra wordage was never unnecessary, and often uniquely readable, blending storybook clarity, the snappy pace of “Screwball” comedy films and the contemporary rhythms and idiom of authors such as Damon Runyan and Dashiel Hammett.

He managed this miracle by typesetting the dialogue and pasting up the strips himself – primarily in Futura Medium Italic but with effective forays into other fonts for dramatic and comedic effect.

No sticky-beaked educational vigilante could claim Barnaby harmed children’s reading abilities by confusing the tykes with non-standard letter-forms (a charge levelled at comics as late as the turn of this century), and his efforts also allowed him to maintain an easy, elegant, effective balance of black and white, making the deliciously diagrammatic art light, airy and implausibly fresh and accessible.

During 1946-1947, Johnson surrendered the strip to friends as he pursued a career illustrating children’s books such as Constance J. Foster’s This Rich World: The Story of Money, but eventually he returned, crafting more magic until he retired Barnaby in 1952 to concentrate on books.

When Ruth graduated, she became a successful children’s writer and they collaborated on four tomes, The Carrot Seed (1945), How to Make an Earthquake, Is This You? and The Happy Egg, but these days Crockett Johnson is best known for his seven “Harold” books which began in 1955 with the captivating Harold and the Purple Crayon.

During a global war with heroes and villains aplenty, where no comic page could top the daily headlines for thrills, drama and heartbreak, this feature was an absolute panacea to the horrors without ever ignoring or escaping them. The entire glorious confection that is Barnaby is all about our relationship with imagination. This is not a strip about childhood fantasy. The theme here, beloved by both parents and children alike, is that grown-ups don’t listen to kids enough, and that they certainly don’t know everything.

For far too long Barnaby was a lost masterpiece. It is influential, ground-breaking and a shining classic of the form. You are all the poorer for not knowing it, and should move mountains to change that situation. I’m not kidding.

Liberally illustrated throughout with sketches, roughs, photos and advertising materials as well as Credits, Thank Yous and a brief biography of Johnson, this big hardback book of joy is a an indispensable addition to all bookshelves and collections – most especially yours…
Barnaby vol. 2 and all Barnaby images © 2014 the Estate of Ruth Krauss. Supplemental material © 2014 its respective creators and owners.

#SAD! – Doonesbury in the Time of Trump


By Gary Trudeau (Andres/McMeel)
ISBN: 978-1-4494-9864-7 (HB)

The thing about some buttheads when they’re down, is that the very worst of them are just so darned appealing if you feel like carrying on kicking…

Buh-bye, Donnie. Happy New Year.

As you hopefully saw yesterday, the most recent former POTUS has experienced a lengthy adversarial relationship with certain satirists and cartoonists over the years.

Doonesbury proceeds in real time and incorporates a vast, broad cast of regulars who have aged over the decades and through withering lampoonery as the strip references news, trends and causes célèbre of the moment. This had made cartoonist Trudeau a handsome raft of enemies through enlisting many real-world oafs and bugbears amongst his long-lived itinerary of returning characters. Generally, these flesh-&-blood interlopers are represented by an icon – such as a waffle for Bill Clinton, a lit bomb for Newt Gingrich or a Stetson (later a Roman helmet) for George W. Bush – but that’s not always the case.

One of the most vocal – if not necessarily intelligible – targets over the years has been Donald J. Trump – usually depicted as a decadent, fat and latterly smug and confused old white guy. This superb full-colour collection gathers some of the very best moments of jocularity covering the moments he actually began running for President, up until about two years into accidentally winning it…

It all begins with a Preface from Trudeau laying out the rules of satire as applied to the Orange in Chief before dividing into themed chapters starting with ‘The Gathering Storm’ in 2015 as the race for the Whitehouse commences, concentrating on minor peccadilloes such as blatant racism and intellectual (in)capacity, and offering a ground-floor “in” for TRUMP the Game

The plot sickens in ‘American Carnage’ as planet Earth learns the true force of twitter-storms and we all discover the value of facts, after which the cartoon range finder focuses on the ‘Team of Deplorables’ and encounters increasingly ‘Stormy Weather’ to bring this fabulously biting history to a close.

And remember, much of the baffling blather in these world balloons still originated with the big orange blowhard himself…

Hilarious, alarming, seditiously informative and gut-bustingly outrageous, #SAD! is another devastating tool of political instruction and character assessment any student of incipient Armageddon can enjoy, because it has loads and loads of really well rendered, easily comprehensible pictures in it.

As the countdown to a new old America goes on diminishing, feel free to buy this book as a warning for 2024. It’s the only real way to make your voice heard in a modern plutocratic democracy…
© 2018 G. B. Trudeau. All rights reserved.

Yuge! – 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump


By G. B Trudeau (Andrews and McMeel)
ISBN: 978-1-44948-133-9 (PB)

I’ve always considered myself the bigger man in most disputes: able to see the other side and above gloating. Turns out, I’m not…

According to someone currently looking for new accommodation somewhere over the Pond, Garry Trudeau is a “sleazeball” “third-rate talent” who draws “overrated” comic strip Doonesbury, which “very few people read.”

The target of the calumny (guess who might have to look that up?) lives in New York City with his wife Jane Pauley, who “has far more talent than he has.”

For those who prefer recorded facts to illiterate, made-up gibber-jabber from the terminally biased and proudly uninformed, Garry Trudeau converted his comic strip Bull Tales – which ran in the Yale University student newspaper Yale Daily News from 1968 to 1970 – into a satirically comedic commentary on politics and contemporary society. He then managed to make it one of the most popular syndicated strips in the world…

“Starring” an everyman liberal college grad, Doonesbury debuted on October 26th 1970, consequently getting to immortalise, lampoon and pass judgement on some of America’s least finest moments and personages; casting a jaundiced eye over domestic and global events, slyly converting them into wry, trenchant comedy gold. He is despised by many conservatives and im-moderates on the Right of America’s political spectrum…

Over the years, as well as amusing millions of folks over there and around the world, the strip has aroused the ire of plenty of political, sporting and media figures – you can call them celebrities if you’re so inclined – whilst winning for the cartoonist acclaim, fame and praise from some quite unlikely sectors of the society he perpetually regards with his gadfly’s eye.

Trudeau’s strip was the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning, and he was awarded Certificates of Achievement from the US Army for strips dealing with the first Gulf War.

In 1995 he won a Reuben Award from the National Cartoonists Society and in 2006 was given the US Army’s Commander’s Award for Public Service for strips about his character BD’s recovery following the loss of a leg in Iraq.

His Mental Health Research Advocacy Award came from the Yale School of Medicine for depiction of mental-health issues facing soldiers returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Doonesbury strip proceeds in real time and his large, broad cast of regulars has aged over the decades, whilst always interacting with the causes célèbres of the moment. As such, he has made a fair few enemies through enlisting many real-world oafs and bugbears amongst his long-lived itinerary of returning characters.

Generally, these flesh-&-blood interlopers are represented by an icon – such as a waffle for Bill Clinton, a lit bomb for Newt Gingrich or a Stetson (later a Roman helmet) for George W. Bush – but that’s not always the case.

One of the most vocal – but not necessarily intelligible – targets over the years has been Donald J. Trump (usually depicted as a decadent, fat old white guy) and this superb collection gathers most of the best moments of cartoon lampoonery from three decades of less than cordial interaction.

It all begins with a Preface describing a rather fractious relationship and just why “The Donald” had to become a semi-regular in a comedy feature. The not-so-moneyed-as-he’d-like-us-to-think bully has never been slow to react to any perceived criticism, and he and his lawyers first became acquainted with Doonesbury after Trump’s original timid “Kidding, I was only kidding!” dalliance with running for President in 1987.

That came to nothing, then but the big wind kept blowing and Trudeau kept pointing out a life of hubris, bad taste and excess played out on the screens and in the headlines of the Land of the Free.

Divided into discrete decades, Trudeau’s razor-sharp wit and crushing comedy critiques are re-presented here in full colour, spotlighting the vaulting ambition, sordid deals, shady landlord practises, tawdry hucksterism, serial misogyny, juvenile sexual bragging, grotesque bullying and blind narcissism of “the most unqualified candidate to ever aspire to the White House” over the numerous occasions he almost ran for office before perpetually bottling out at crunch time.

Capping all that cartoon japery is 2016 when he finally put other people’s money where his mouth was and found himself actually in contention for the most important job in the world… one even his own bewildered, terrified party faithful didn’t want him to have…

And the best of all is that Trudeau has had an unwitting collaborator for so much of this material. Most of the baffling blather in those world balloons coming out of cartoon Donald’s mouth originated with the big orange blowhard himself…

Outrageous, alarming, more informative than any cartoon collection has a right to be and side-splittingly funny, Yuge! is a devastating tool of political instruction and character assessment which even the most deplorable basket case can enjoy, because it has loads and loads of really good, simple to understand pictures in it.

Most of us in the rest of the world are breathing Yuge! sighs of relief with only 20 days until everything changes again, but we can still buy this book as a warning for 2024. It’s the only real way to make your voice heard in a modern plutocratic democracy…
™®© 2016 G. B. Trudeau. All rights reserved.