The Boy Commandos by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby volume 2

By Joe Simon & Jack Kirby with various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5817-7

Just as the Golden Age of comics was kicking off, two young men with big hopes met up and began a decades-long association that was always intensely creative, immensely productive and spectacularly in tune with popular tastes.

Joe Simon was a sharp-minded, talented gentleman with five years hard-earned experience in “real” publishing. He had worked from the bottom up to art director on a succession of small newspapers such as the Rochester Journal American, Syracuse Herald and Syracuse Journal American before moving to New York City and a life of freelancing as an illustrator and art/photo retoucher.

With comicbooks exploding onto every newsstand, Simon – with a recommendation from his boss – joined Lloyd Jacquet’s pioneering comics production “shop” Funnies Inc.: generating strips and characters for a number of publishing houses eager to cash in on the success of Action Comics and its groundbreaking star attraction Superman.

Within days Simon created The Fiery Mask for Martin Goodman of Timely (now Marvel) Comics and met young Jacob Kurtzberg, a cartoonist and animator just hitting his explosive, imaginative stride with The Blue Beetle for the Fox Feature Syndicate.

Together Simon & Kurtzberg (who went through a battalion of pen-names before settling on Jack Kirby) enjoyed stunning creative empathy and synergy which galvanized an already electric neo-industry with a vast catalogue of features and even genres.

At rocket-pace they produced the influential Blue Bolt, drew Captain Marvel Adventures #1 and, after Martin Goodman appointed Simon editor at Timely, invented a host of iconic characters such as Red Raven, Marvel Boy, Hurricane, The Vision, The Young Allies and a rather popular guy named Captain America.

When Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations, Simon & Kirby promptly jumped ship to industry leader National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a mighty chequebook. Initially an uncomfortable fit and bursting with ideas the cautious company were not comfortable with, the pair were handed two failing strips to play with until they found their creative feet.

Soon after establishing themselves with The Sandman and Manhunter, the dynamic duo were left to their own devices and – returning to the “Kid Gang” genre they pioneered with Young Allies at Timely – drafted a unique juvenile Foreign Legion entitled The Boy Commandos.

The young warriors initially shared the spotlight with Batman in flagship publication Detective Comics but before long their solo title would frequently number amongst the company’s top three sellers…

Boy Commandos was such a soaring success – frequently cited as the biggest-selling American comicbook in the world at that time – that the editors, knowing the Draft was lurking, green-lighted the completion of a wealth of extra material to lay away for the dreadful moment their star creators were called up.

With their talented studio team, S&K produced so much four-colour magic in a such a phenomenally short time that Publisher Jack Liebowitz eventually suggested they retool some of it into adventures of a second kid gang… and thus was born The Newsboy Legion (and their super-heroic mentor The Guardian)…

Those guys we’ll get back to another time but today let’s applaud this splendidly sturdy second full-colour hardback (and eBook) compilation, re-presenting further exploits of the courageous and internationally diverse Young Lions from Detective Comics #74-83 and 85, World’s Finest Comics#10-13 and Boy Commandos #3-5.

Spanning April 1943 to March 1944, these tales comprise a superb salvo of stunning combat classics, bombastic blockbusters and cunning comedy capers that were at once fervently patriotic morale-boosters, rousing action-adventures and potent satirical swipes and jibes by creators who were never afraid to show that good and evil could never simply be just “Us & Them”…

We never learned how American Captain Rip Carter got to command a British Commando unit nor why he was allowed to take a quartet of war-orphans with him on a never-ending succession of deadly sorties into “Festung Europa”, North Africa, the Pacific or Indo-Chinese theatres of war. All we had to do was realise that cockney urchin Alfy Twidgett, French lad Andre Chavard (originally dubbed “Pierre” before being unobtrusively renamed), little Dutch boy Jan Haasen and rough, tough lout Brooklyn were fighting the battles we would, if we only adults had given us a chance…

Following a scholarly and incisive appraisal from publisher John Morrow in his Introduction ‘Don’t Sit Out This War!’, the vintage thrills and spills commence with a spectacular reintroduction to the team as only S & K could craft it: a masterpiece of patriotic fervour and frustration entitled ‘The Trial of Captain Carter’ from Detective Comics #74 April 1943.

A truly tense drama, it sees the bold Captain risk disgrace and worse to cover up for a soldier under his command in a tale packed with tension and spectacle after which the heroes then challenged prejudices with the tale of a pacifist Scots farmer and the extraordinary events that led to his becoming a ‘Double for Death’ (Detective #75).

An astoundingly popular hit combo, the kids were also a fixture in premier all-star anthology World’s Finest Comics too. From #10 (Summer 1943), ‘Message to Murmansk’ sees the juvenile terrors endure the hardships of convoy duty to Russia, and destroying a U-Boat base in Norway to prove to the Allies’ Red comrades hat they have not been forgotten…

The seemingly insatiable demand for fresh stories was partly assuaged by a quarterly solo title with Boy Commandos #3 (Summer 1943) offering a fabulous tranche of tales, beginning with ‘A Film from the Front …Uncensored’. Here, puny but fervent newsreel cameraman Spud Mattson goes far above and beyond his normal duties on a doomed mission to Greece…

From the start the yarns were strangely exotic and bizarrely multi-layered, adding a stratum of myth making and frequently sheer fantasy to the grim and grisly backdrop of a war fought from the underdog’s position. A perfect example is ‘War Album No. 1 – The Siege of Troy’ wherein the squad are transposed root and branch to the Trojan War where abducting scoundrel Paris is a dead ringer for Adolf Hitler. He suffers ignominious defeat there and then too…

Broad comedy leavens the turmoil of conflict in ‘Cyril Thwaites Rides Again, or, The Recruiting Sergeant Should Have Looked Twice!’ as a pompous and vainglorious weedy braggart is afforded the chance to change and determine the course of the war before a deadly faceless nemesis resurfaces in ‘The Return of Agent Axis’ only to be defeated and finally exposed by rip and the lads…

Detective Comics #76 (June 1943) afforded a guest-packed foray back to the USA as the Sandman & Sandy and the Newsboy Legion – with their masked Guardian – unite with a new gang of Kid Commandos to rescue Rip and Co. when they are kidnapped by Nazi spies planning ‘The Invasion of America’.

James Hilton’s Shangri-La is heavily referenced in ‘The Valley of Destiny’ (Detective #77) when super-advanced monks judge the worth and philosophy of the warring sides in the global conflict. The despicable but cunning Nazis seem to have the upper hand over the Boy Commandos but eventually everyone’s true nature is revealed…

Sheer dynamic bravado carries the tale from #78 as the team invade the heart of Europe to aid the German resistance and the broadcasters of ‘Freedom Station’

World’s Finest Comics #11 (Fall 1943) then find the globetrotting kids in Tunisia to winkle out diehard holdouts from Rommel’s defeated Afrika Korps in ‘Sand Dunes of Death!’ before Boy Commandos #4 (Fall 1943) offers a bold new kind of adventure in a book-length saga entitled ‘The Invasion of Europe!’.

‘Chapter One: Flames at Dawn!’ opens with the famous squad pre-empting D-Day in brutally prophetic fashion, blasting their way onto the beaches of France only to be separated from the main force and each other…

‘Chapter Two: Brooklyn Revere’s Ride!’ offers astounding drama and heartbreaking tragedy as the American warrior attempts to warn a French village and the Allied forces of a devasting German counter-offensive whilst ‘Chapter Three: The Madman of Mt. Cloud!’ finds Alfie sheltered by a brave matron before infiltrating a gothic asylum used by both the oppressors and the Resistance to extract secrets…

Apparently killed in a parachute drop, Dutch boy Jan links up with a trio of youthful freedom fighters led by a vengeful girl. ‘Chapter Four: Toinette the Terrible!’ sees them rescue the now-captured Boy Commandos before ‘Chapter Five: West Meets East’ drops into prose mode to detail the brief encounter between the kids and a very lost band of Russian aviators.

The ambitious and fanciful novel moves into finale mode for ‘Chapter Six: Bugle of the Brave!’ as the sacrifice of a true patriot unites his downtrodden countrymen in bloody rebellion against the Nazis before the stirring saga concludes with a speculative climax as ‘Chapter Seven: The Road to Berlin!’ carries the incensed and unstoppable forces of freedom to the gates of Berlin and a utopian future…

Over in Detective Comics #79 (September 1943) a short furlough ends when the boys find a dying Italian and learn of a scheme to murder all POWs. Before long a rescue is underway and when the team unite with ruthless Sicilian partisans ‘The Duce Gets a Hotfoot’

Scurrilous espionage at the heart of an English stately home reveals a shocking secret about ‘The Baronet of Bodkin Borders’ in Detective #80 whilst deadly vengeance informs a mission to Japanese-held Bataan in #81’s ‘Yankee Doodle Dynamite’. The mission is made the more memorable after Rip’s rascals meet a small band of American holdouts fighting a deadly guerrilla campaign behind the Tojo’s lines…

World’s Finest Comics #12 (Winter 1943-1944) finds the lads incognito in seemingly-neutral Switzerland to track down hidden Nazi loot but their ‘Golden Victory’ accidentally takes them all the way to Berlin and a most satisfactory face to face meeting with the Fuhrer…

Boy Commandos #5 (Winter 1943-1944) opens with ‘Assignment in Norway’ as Andre gets lost on a raid and meets two women pilots of the unsung Bomber Ferry Command. Together they expose a hidden base and inflict another crushing blow on the hard-pressed Boche.

Supernatural retribution infuses ‘A Town to Remember’ as a mysterious officer commandeers the team and guides them to Czechoslovakia and the razed area where the citizens of Lidice were exterminated. Is it merely to save the last desperate hostages or is there another reason for the ill-starred raid?

On leave in London, the lads encounter ‘The Mysterious Mr. Mulani’ and trail what they consider to be the most inept spy they’ve ever seen. What a surprise when the incredible truth is revealed…

In a compelling foreshadowing of their later supernatural mystery yarns, Simon & Kirby – and their unheralded team of assistants – then disclose the eerie antics of a deadly powerbroker whose bargains with numerous influential Germans all come due at the same time as the Boy Commandos close in in the chilling ‘Satan to See You!

A true treat for those in-the-know, Detective Comics #82 (December 1943) features ‘The Romance of Rip Carter’: the tale of an indomitable bomber that refused to be shot down until her mission was accomplished. The plane was the “Rosalind K” and Jack had been married to wife Roz since May 1942…

Detective #83 mixed laughs with action as the boys prowled London hunting nefarious spies and an escaped music hall ape which bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a certain American battle veteran. Sadly, when the curtain fell the villains’ downfall was ‘The Triumph of Cholly the Chimp’

World’s Finest Comics #12 (Winter 1943-1944) offered another Home Front saga as a stolen racehorse led the lads to a ruthless criminal gang, heartfelt tragedy and ‘A Wreath for Sir Edgar of Wimpledowne’, before Detective #85 (issue #84 being a non-S&K fill-in by Joe Samachson & Louis Cazeneuve and not included here) brings the memorable missions to a close with ‘Curtain Call for Action’. Here the insidious Agent Axis returns yet again, taking over a touring USO show for the troops and attempting to substitute a Gestapo doppelganger for the army’s top general until Rip and the boys get stuck in…

Although I’ve rightly concentrated on the named stars, it’s important to remember – especially in these more enlightened times still plagued with the genuine horror of children forcibly swept up in war they have no stake in – that the Boy Commandos, even in their most ferociously fabulous exploits, were symbols as much as combatants, usually augmented by huge teams of proper soldiers doing most of the actual killing.

It’s not much of a comfort but at least it showed Simon & Kirby were not simply caught up in a Big Idea without considering all the implications…

Bombastic, blockbusting and astoundingly appetising, these superb fantasies from the last “Good War” are a spectacular example of comics giants at their most creative. No true believer or dedicated comics aficionado should miss this classic collection.
© 1943, 1944, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.


By Charles Peattie, Mark Warren & Russell Taylor (Private Eye/Corgi)
ISBN: 978-0-55213-858-1

In terms of taste, as in so many other arenas, our modern world seems to be determinedly heading for Heck in a hand-basket, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to cover a little lost gem of British cartooning delight that’s increasing re-relevant in these appalling days of fame campaigns, dodgy talent show democracy and overwhelming Celebritocracy.

Celeb was a strip which ran in that evergreen gadfly and cultural attack dog Private Eye. Created by Mark Warren and the team of Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor (who were simultaneously crafting the abortive first iteration of greed-glorifying mini-classic Alex for Robert Maxwell’s short-lived London Daily News), it began in May 1987.

For years credited to the pseudonymous “Ligger”, the pithy and hilarious episodes followed the day to day life of Swinging Sixties survivor and disgracefully declining rock-legend Gary Bloke as he dealt with a changing world, thinning hair, parenthood and inexorable middle age.

These days, with 24/7 reality shows, desperate Nonabees enduring career-resuscitating humiliations in locked houses and jungle clearings and a host of other self-inflicted, double-edged B-list exposé freak-shows everywhere on the interweb, the outrageous pronouncements and antics of Gary seem pretty tame, but in those days before Ozzy Osbourne became more famous for parenting and not singing whilst footballers’ performance off the field took precedence over goals scored on it, the sozzled, crass, befuddled, and pitifully pompous cocky cockney-boy-made-good was the very epitome of affably acceptable, ego-bloated, publicity-seeking, self-aggrandizing, drug-fuelled idiocy.

Within this collection from 1991 the legendary “Man of the Peeple” distributes kernels of his hard-won wisdom to the likes of Michael Parkinson, Terry Wogan, Clive James, Cilla Back, Ruby Wax, Barry Norman, Anne Diamond, Selena Scott, Michael Aspel and other interviewers of lesser longevity. Interspersing the almighty interviews, Gary tackles world poverty and the environment head-on (and with eyes tight shut), learns how to cope with those new-fangled rock videos, adapts to the needs of his burgeoning family and, of course, consumes a phenomenal quantity of recreational pharmaceuticals…

Including a selection of interviews from the Sunday Times (October 1989), The Sun (Wednesday August 3rd 1988) and candid shots of Gary with Bob Geldof and George Michael at Live Aid, the collection concludes with the infamous days during which Gary was dead of an overdose and met both God and Elvis. Also revealed is the sordid truth behind his numerous brushes with the law, leading to his 18-month stretch At Her Majesty’s Pleasure and subsequent key role in a terrible prison riot for better conditions and macrobiotic food…

The heady cocktail of drink, sex, drugs, money, sport, music, adoration and always-forgiven crassness is perhaps the reason so many folks are seduced by celebrity. If you want to see another side to the fame-game and have a hearty laugh into the bargain Gary Bloke is your man…
© 1991 Peattie, Taylor & Warren. All Rights Reserved.

Daily Mail Nipper Annual, 1940 Facsimile Edition

By Brian White (B&H Publications/White Crescent Press Ltd.)
ISBN: 978-0-90080-431-1

Return with me again to the early days of World War II and experience the charm and creativity of the English in the face of Hunnish disaster. Or perhaps I should say try and find this wonderful reproduction of one of the war years’ most popular strips, now all but forgotten.

Brian White first created this roguish charmer of a toddler in 1933 and he outlasted the Nazis by a good margin, and only put down his toys in 1947. However the bonny lad’s pantomimic antics – most strips were slapstick gags without dialogue – were loved by children and adults in equal measure. The feature ran in the Daily Mail and even with wartime restrictions annuals were a foregone conclusion. The public demanded it.

Brian “H.B.” White was born in Dunstable in 1902 and divided his artistic gifts between animation and cartooning for comics and papers. His other strip success included Dare-a-Day Danny and Little Tough Guy in Knockout, Keyhole Kate in Sparky, Plum Duffy in The Topper and Double Trouble for the London Evening Standard.

His film work was as impressive and far-reaching, beginning with cartoon short Jerry the Troublesome Tyke in 1925 and ending with the Halas & Batchelor team that created the landmark animated film Animal Farm in 1954.

HB died in 1984, but his work is timelessly accessible and deserves to be re-discovered.

Bold, vivid and ingenious, The Nipper Annuals were a part of British life for almost two generations but Wartime utility played its part in this splendidly revived edition.

As well as the superb bold line artwork, there are plenty of fascinating advertisements of the period for the grown-ups; dedicated pages for the kids to draw their own strips (ready-ruled with panels and borders – always the worst job, as any cartoonist will tell you!) and a handy calendar for 1940 – remember, Annuals were released around Christmas time and dated for the following year.

And to top it off the entire package also doubles as a colouring book! What Larks!

Kidding aside, this is a wonderful insight into our comic strip past by a legendary master craftsman. That it has such entertainment and socio-historical value is a blessed bonus, but the real treasure is the work itself. All credit to those responsible for re-releasing it, and I fervently wish more companies would make similar efforts to keep our cultural history accessible. I also want to see more, More, MORE!
© 1995 B&H Publications/White Crescent Press Ltd. (I presume.)

Casey Ruggles: The Marchioness of Grofnek

By Warren Tufts (Western Winds Productions)

The newspaper strip Casey Ruggles – a Saga of the West used Western motifs and scenarios to tell a broad range of stories stretching from shoot-‘em-up dramas to comedy yarns and even the occasional horror story.

The strip debuted in 1949, a centenary tribute to the California Gold Rush, and its ever-capable hero was a dynamic ex-cavalry sergeant and sometime US Marshal making his way to that promised land to find his fortune (this was the narrative engine of both features until 1950 where daily and Sunday strips divided into separate tales), meeting historical personages like Millard Fillmore, William Fargo, Jean Lafitte and Kit Carson in gripping two-fisted action-adventures.

Warren Tufts was a phenomenally talented illustrator and storyteller born too late. He is best remembered now – if at all – for creating two of the most beautiful western comics strips of all time: Ruggles and the elegiac, iconic Lance.

Sadly, Tufts began his career at a time when the glory days of newspaper syndicated strips were gradually giving way to the television age and ostensibly free family home entertainment. Had he been working scant years earlier in adventure’s Golden Age he would undoubtedly be a household name – at least in comics fans’ homes.

Born in Fresno, California on Christmas Day 1925, Tufts was a superb, meticulous draughtsman with an uncanny grasp of character, a wicked sense of storytelling and a great ear for dialogue whose art was effective and grandiose in the representational manner, favourably compared to both Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and the best of Alex Raymond.

On May 22nd 1949 he began Ruggles as a full-colour Sunday page and supplemented it with a black and white daily strip on September 19th of that year.

Tufts worked for the United Features Syndicate, owners of such popular strips as Fritzi Ritz and L’il Abner, and his lavish, expansive tales were crisply told and highly engaging, but – a compulsive perfectionist – he regularly worked 80-hour weeks at the drawing board and often missed deadlines. This led him to use many assistants such as Al Plastino, Rueben Moreira and Edmund Good. Established veterans Nick Cardy and Alex Toth also spent time working as “ghosts” on the series.

Due to a falling-out with his syndicate Tufts left his first wonderful western creation in 1954 and Al Carreño continued the feature until its demise in October 1955. The departure came when TV producers wanted to turn the strip into a weekly television show but apparently United Features baulked, suggesting the show would harm the popularity of the strip.

During a year spent creating the political satire feature Lone Spaceman Tufts formed his own syndicate for his next and greatest project, Lance (probably the last great full page Sunday strip and another series crying out for an archival collection). He then moved peripherally into comic-books, working extensively for West Coast outfit Dell/Gold Key, illustrating various westerns and cowboy TV show tie-ins like Wagon Train, Korak son of Tarzan, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan as well as a long run on the Pink Panther comicbook.

Eventually he quit drawing completely, working as an actor, voice-actor and eventually in animation on such shows as Challenge of the Super Friends.

Tufts had a lifelong passion for flying, even designing and building his own planes. In 1982 whilst piloting one, he crashed and was killed.

During the early 1980s, the Pacific Comics Club collected many “lost strip classics”, including six volumes (to my knowledge) of Casey Ruggles adventures. This fourth stupendous monochrome tome (approximately 15 x 10 inches, or 381 x 254 mm) contains stories that highlighted Tufts’ splendid grasp of irony and love of comedy…

The first, however, is a stirring and chilling cowboy thriller featuring a legendary Western figure return of an old foe. ‘A Real Nice Guy’ originally ran from 5th January to 23rd February 1953, and found Ruggles and old scout Christopher “Kit” Carson heading towards Shasta City in a deadly snowstorm just as a devoted and loving wife murders the sheriff to free her murderous husband from the brand new Jail. As the blizzard hits hard the fugitives take refuge in a line-shack also sheltering Carson and Ruggles…

When the storm subsides the killers steal the heroes’ guns, horses, boots and even Carson’s trousers to combat the cold, leaving them to die as they flee for warmer climes. However the determined lawmen break free and track the pair through horrific polar conditions in a tense and deadly race to survive before the next lethal ice storm strikes…

The second adventure jumps from fraught life and death to something far more serious as ‘The Marchioness of Grofnek’ arrives in Shasta in all her resplendent Eastern European glory. With her comes an army of nobles, pots of cash and jewels and a burning desire to marry again…

This surreal and hilariously wry yarn ran from February 24th to 11th April and brilliantly depicted the true nature of friendship as Carson tried to get Ruggles hitched and the canny Marshall countered every ploy with one of his own…

The final tale in this stupendous monochrome collection is a marvellous slapstick wheeze which completely ignores the titular hero to feature the further exploits of a returning “villain”.

Running from 13th April – 23rd May 1953, ‘The Highwaymen’ marked the reappearance of Old Ancient. This guy was a grizzled dime-store owlhoot and wicked parody of silver screen cowboy William Boyd whose super-sanitized Hopalong Cassidy wowed generations of movie and TV viewers who might perhaps have been better served by picking up a history book instead.

The scofflaw cunningly offered to help out destitute blacksmith Cyril by teaching him the finer points of hold-ups, stage robbing and banditry. Of course the mouthy old coot had no chance of making a success of his criminal crash-course but did provide some of the most side-splitting cock-ups ever seen on a comics page.

Equal parts Keystone Cops, Destry Rides Again, Buster Keaton’s Go West and Carry on Cowboy, this delightfully fast-paced and razor-barbed spoof perfectly closes this charming, twice-lost comic strip treasure-trove…

Human intrigue and fallibility, bombastic action and a taste for the ludicrous reminiscent of John Ford or Raoul Walsh movies make Casey Ruggles the ideal western strip for the discerning modern audience. Westerns are a uniquely perfect vehicle for drama and comedy, and Casey Ruggles is one of the very best produced in America: easily a match for the generally superior European material like Tex, Comanche or Lieutenant Blueberry.

Surely the beautiful clean-cut lines, chiaroscuric flourishes and sheer artistic imagination and veracity of Warren Tufts can never be truly out of vogue? These great tales are desperately deserving of a wider following, and at a time when so many great strips are finally being revisited, I’m praying some canny publisher knows another good thing when he sees it…
© 1949, 1950, 1953 United Features Syndicate, Inc. Collection © 1981 Western Winds Productions. All Rights Reserved.

The Broons and Oor Wullie: Classic Strips from the 70s

By Tom Lavery, Morris Heggie, Leslie Stannage & various (DC Thomson)
ISBN: 978-1-84535-494-7

Published eternally in perfect tandem, The Broons and Oor Wullie are two of the longest running newspaper strips in British history, having appeared almost continuously in the Scottish Sunday Post since their dual debuts in the March 8th 1936 edition.

Both the boisterous boy and the gregariously engaging inner-city clan were co-created by writer and Editor Robert Duncan Low in conjunction with Dudley D. Watkins; a man who would become DC Thomson’s greatest – and signature – artist.

Three years later the strips began being collected in reprint editions as Seasonal Annuals; alternating stars and years right up to the present day and remaining best-sellers every single time.

Low (1895-1980) began at the publishing monolith as a journalist, rising to the post of Managing Editor of Children’s Publication and launching, between 1921 and 1933, the company’s “Big Five” story-papers for boys: Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur.

His next brilliant idea was the Fun Section: an 8-page pull-out comic strip supplement for Scottish national newspaper The Sunday Post. The illustrated accessory launched on 8th March 1936 and from the very outset The Broons and Oor Wullie were its unchallenged stars…

Low’s shrewdest move was to devise both strips as domestic comedies played out in the charismatic Scottish idiom and broad vernacular. Ably supported by features such as Auchentogle by Chic Gordon, Allan Morley’s Nero and Zero, Nosey Parker and other strips, they laid the groundwork for the company’s next great leap.

In December 1937 Low launched the DC Thomson’s first weekly pictorial comic. The Dandy was followed by The Beano in 1938 and early-reading title The Magic Comic the year after that.

War-time paper shortages and rationing sadly curtailed this burgeoning strip periodical revolution, and it was 1953 before the next wave of cartoon caper picture-papers appeared. The Topper started the ball rolling again (with Oor Wullie in the logo and masthead, but not included amongst the magazine’s regular roster) in the same year that Low & the great Ken Reid created Roger the Dodger for The Beano

Throughout this innovative period Low’s greatest advantage was his prolific illustrator Dudley Dexter Watkins, whose style, more than any other, shaped the look of DC Thompson’s comics output until the bombastic advent of Leo Baxendale shook things up in the mid-1950s. Watkins soldiered on in unassailable homely magnificence for decades, drawing some of the most lavishly lifelike and winningly hilarious strips in illustration history. He died at his drawing board on August 20th 1969. For all those astonishingly productive years, on top of his many assignments in DCT’s comics he had unflaggingly drawn a full captivating page each of Oor Wullie and The Broons every week, and his loss was a colossal blow to the company.

DC Thomson’s chiefs preferred to reprint old Watkins episodes of the strips in both the newspaper and the Annuals for seven years before a replacement was agreed upon. The Dandy reran Watkins’ Desperate Dan stories for twice that length of time.

An undeniable, rock-solid facet of Scots popular culture from the very start, the first Broons Annual (technically Bi-Annual) appeared in 1939, alternating with the first Oor Wullie book a year later (although, due to wartime paper restrictions, no annuals at all were published between 1943 and 1946). To this day, for millions of readers no year can truly end without them.

So What’s the Set Up?: The gregarious Brown family inhabit a tenement flat at 10 Glebe Street, in the timelessly metafictional Scottish industrial metropolis of Auchentogle (sometimes Auchenshoogle); a scenario based on the working class Auchenshuggle district of Glasgow.

As such it’s always been a character-rich environment and ideal setting in which to tell gags, relate events and fossilise the deepest and most reassuring cultural archetypes for sentimental Scots wherever in the world they might actually be residing.

And naturally, such a region is the perfect sounding board to portray all kinds of social, cultural and economic changes that come with every passing year…

The adamant, unswerving cornerstone of the Broon family feature is long-suffering, ever-understanding Maw, who puts up with cantankerous, cheap, know-it-all Paw, and their battalion of stay-at-home kids.

These always-underfoot worthies comprise hunky Joe, freakishly tall Hen (Henry), sturdy Daphne, classically gorgeous Maggie, brainy Horace, mischievous twins Eck and the unnamed “ither ane”, plus a wee toddling lassie referred to only and always as “The Bairn”.

Not officially in residence but always hanging around is sly, patriarchal buffoon Granpaw – a comedic gadfly who spends more time at Glebe Street than his own cottage; constantly attempting to impart his decades of out-of-date, hard-earned experience to the kids… but do they listen?

Offering regular breaks from inner-city turmoil and many chances to simultaneously sentimentalise, spoof and memorialise more traditional times, the family frequently repair to their But an’ Ben (a dilapidated rustic cottage in the Highlands) where they fall foul of the weather, the countryside and all its denizens: fish, fowl, farm-grown, temporary and touristic…

As previously stated, Oor Wullie also launched on March 8th 1936, with his own collected Annual compilations subsequently and unfailingly appearing in the even years.

The basic set-up is sublimely simply and eternally evergreen, featuring an imaginative, scruff with a weakness for mischief, talent for finding trouble and no hope of ever avoiding parental retribution when appropriate…

Wullie – AKA William MacCallum – is an archetypal good-hearted rascal with time on his hands who can usually be found sitting on an upturned bucket at the start and finish of his page-a-week exploits.

His regular cast includes Ma and Pa, local copper P.C. Murdoch, assorted teachers and other interfering adults who either lavish gifts or inflict opprobrium upon the little pest and an array of pals including Fat Boab, Soapy Joe Soutar, Wee Eck and others. As a grudging sign of changing times, in later volumes such as this, he’s occasionally caught in the company of fetching schoolgirls like Elizabeth and Primrose

A compilation in monochrome with some full-colour pages, Classic Strips from the 70s was released in 2012 as part of a concerted drive to keep earlier material available to fans new or old: a lavishly sturdy hardback (still readily available through internet vendors) but deviated somewhat from the norm in that rather than re-presenting exemplar strips from the decade, the book follows a rare experiment in continuity storytelling…

When, in 1976, the strip returned to new material following the Watkins reprint run, artist Tom Lavery (you might remember his run on The Numskulls) was given the daunting task of following the master on both The Broons and Oor Wullie.

He soldiered on until 1982, followed by John Polland, Bob Nixon, Ken H. Harrison and, currently, Peter Davidson. Sadly, the authors of the features are far harder to pin down now.

Although the Oor Wullie strips remained consistently episodic and broadly comedic affairs, a long-running plotline was introduced to the Broons with the debut of rugged, affable Dave McKay in 1977.

As the weeks went by, and despite a mixed bag of reactions from the clan and readership, Maggie Broon’s new boyfriend and his flash car became a fixture. An engagement was announced, a house was bought, unsuspected and potentially fractious connections to the prospective In-Laws were revealed and overcome before, in 1979, the countdown to a wedding began…

It was never to be. For reasons still undisclosed (both writer and artist were no longer around to ask at the time this book was released) Dave vanished between instalments and was never seen again.

Life slowly – but not too slowly – returned to what passes for normal in Glebe Street but thanks to writer editor Morris Heggie and illustrator Leslie Stannage, the 4-page ‘Wedding of the Year’ and ‘The Cooperative Ha’’ offers a Sliding Doors-style possible ending here. Ahh, closure…

The dramady is accompanied throughout by clever sidebar features including faux love letters and mementoes in a brace of ‘Be My Valentine!’ spreads; ‘And the Gifts Were Returned’ letters from Maggie; gag pages disclosing ‘The Funny Side of Auld Romantics’ and ‘Oor Wullie’s Wedding Invitation’ plus newspaper photo sections on other infamous weddings of the era and more…

The last half of the book returns to funny business as usual, with Daphne, Maggie, Hen and Joe back on the hunt for fresh romantic partners, while the rest of the family resume acting like the assorted brats they eternally are: squabbling, showing off, snaffling food and enduring embarrassing domestic, fashion and sporting culture shocks…

Following joke ensemble ‘The Funny Side of Seventies Romance’ the Broons are back about their business – referencing trending topics such as the movie Grease and timeless themes such as birthday blues, leaving the remainder of this titanic tome to an examination of being young in the seventies courtesy of Oor Wullie…

The nostalgic wonderment begins with a full-colour photomontage of the decade’s comics covers and a frankly disturbing fashion parade of the wee lad, Primrose, Fat Bob and Soapy Joe in the era’s more outrageous apparel. Then it’s back to basics with waggish behaviours: dodging school, playing pranks, avoiding haircuts, going on holiday, snaffling contraband grub, finagling snacks and trying loads of get-rich-quick schemes.

Careers attempted include artist, Red Indian (70s, remember? Different tastes, OK?), paperboy, sound recorder and much more…

Supplementing these strips are features such as a colour retrospective of Oor Wullie Annuals, photo-features ‘Faces of the 70s’, pop quiz ‘20 Scots Smashers! From the 70s’ and soccer celebration ‘Fitba Crazy!’ as well as a brace of vintage Funland Puzzle Pages.

Unchanged and always welcome are wry and weighted comparisons of the good old days with mere modernity, rib-tickling scenes of sledding and skating, stolen candies, Christmas revels, torn clothes, recycled comics, breakings into one’s own home, sparring school kids, ladies and lassies lost and found, harmless practical jokes and social scandals: stories always designed to take our collective mind off troubles abroad and at home, and for every thwarted romance or embarrassing fiasco, there’s an uproarious chase, riotous squabble and no-tears scrap for the little ‘uns and their should-know-better elders…

You’ll almost certainly being buying this oversized hardback tome second-hand, so if possible ensure that the tipped in premiums are present. These include a CD of 20 traditional wedding tunes played by a Pipe Band and Maggie Broon’s Wedding Planner pack…

Overflowing with all-ages fun, rambunctious homespun hilarity and deliriously domestic warmth, these examples of comedic certainty and convivial celebration are a sure cure for post-modern glums… and you can’t really have a happy summer holiday without them, can you?
The Broons and Oor Wullie ®© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. 2012.

Pogo: The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips Volume 1

By Walt Kelly (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-869-5

Walter Crawford Kelly Jr. was born in 1913 and started his cartooning career whilst still in High School, as both artist and reporter for the Bridgeport Post. In 1935, he moved to California and joined the Disney Studio, working on shorts and such features as Dumbo, Fantasia and Pinocchio until the infamous animator’s strike in 1941.

Refusing to take a side, Kelly moved back East and began drawing comicbooks – primarily for Dell Comics, who had the Disney funnybook license.

Despite his glorious work on such humanistic classics as the Our Gang movie spin-off, Kelly preferred anthropomorphic animal and children’s fantasy (see Walt Kelly’s Santa Claus Adventures) and created Albert the Alligator and Pogo Possum for Animal Comics #1 (December 1942). He sagaciously retained the copyrights in the ongoing tale of two Bayou critters and their young African-American pal Bumbazine. Although the black kid soon disappeared, the animal pals stayed on as stars until 1948 when Kelly became art editor and cartoonist for the hard hitting, left-leaning liberal newspaper The New York Star.

On October 4th 1948, Pogo, Albert and an ever-expanding cast began their careers in the funny pages, appearing six days a week until the periodical folded in January 1949.

Although a gently humorous kids feature, by the end of its run – reprinted in full at the back of this magnificent tome – the first glimmers of the increasingly barbed, boldly satirical masterpiece of velvet-pawed social commentary began to be seen…

This first of twelve volumes follows the ascent of the scintillating and vastly influential strip; don’t believe me, just listen to Gary Trudeau, Berke Breathed, Bill Watterson, Jeff McNally, Bill Holbrook, Mark O’Hare, Alan Moore, Jeff Smith and even Goscinny & Uderzo and our own Maurice Dodd & Dennis Collins, whose wonderful strip The Perishers owes more than a little to the sublime antics of the Okefenokee Swamp citizenry…

After the Star closed Pogo was picked up for mass distribution by the Post-Hall Syndicate and launched on May 16th 1949. A colour Sunday page debuted January 29th 1950 and both were produced simultaneously by Kelly until his death in 1973 (and beyond, courtesy of his talented wife and family…).

At its peak the strip appeared in 500 papers in 14 countries and the book collections which began in 1951 numbered nearly 50, collectively selling 30 million copies.

This volume includes all the Star strips, the Dailies from inception to December 30th 1950, and the Sundays – in a full colour section – from January 29th – December 31st 1950, plus a wealth of supplementary features including a Foreword from columnist Jimmy Breslin, an introduction by biographer Steve Thompson, a week-by-week highly detailed contents section, a useful guide ‘About the Sundays’ by Mark Evanier, and an invaluable context and historical notes feature ‘Swanp Talk’ by the amazing R.C. Harvey.

Kelly’s genius was the ability to beautifully, vivaciously draw comedic, tragic, pompous, sympathetic characters of any shape or breed and make them inescapably human and he used that gift to blend hard-hitting observation of our crimes, foibles and peccadilloes with rampaging whimsy, poesy and sheer exuberant joie de vivre.

The hairy, scaly, feathered, slimy folk depicted here are inescapably us, elevated by burlesque, slapstick, absurdism and all the glorious joys of wordplay from puns to malapropisms to raucous accent humour into a multi-layered hodge-podge of all-ages accessible delight.

In later volumes Kelly would set his bestial cast loose on such timid, defenceless victims as Senator Joe McCarthy, J.Edgar Hoover, the John Birch Society, Richard Nixon and the Ku Klux Clan, but he starts off small here, introducing the gently bemused Pogo, boisterous, happily ignorant Albert, dolorous Porkypine, obnoxious turtle Churchy La Femme, lugubrious hound Beauregard Bugleboy, carpet-bagging Seminole Sam Fox, pompous (not) know-it-all Howland Owl and a host of others in gags and extended epics ranging from assorted fishing trips, building an Adam Bomb, losing and finding other people’s children, electioneering, education, kidnapping, the evil influence of comicbooks, Baseball season, why folks shouldn’t eat each other, Western cow punchers, cows punching back, New Years Resolutions, public holidays and so much more…

The Sundays also began with one-off gags but soon evolved into convoluted and mesmeric continued sagas such as the search for the Fountain of Youth, building a school and keeping it filled, Albert being elected Queen of the Woodland by the elf-like forest fauns – and why that was ultimately a very bad thing indeed…

Timeless and magical, Pogo is a giant of world literature, not simply comics, and this magnificent edition should be the pride of every home’s bookshelf.

POGO Through the Wild Blue Wonder and all POGO images, including Walt Kelly’s signature © 2011 Okefenokee Glee & Perloo Inc. All other material © 2011 the respective creator and owner. All rights reserved.

Adventures of Tintin: Cigars of the Pharaoh

By Hergé & various; translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-803-1 (HB)                    : 978-1-40520-615-0 (PB)

By the time Georges Remi began Tintin’s fourth serialised adventure – in weekly instalments in Le Petit Vingtiéme from December 1932 to February 1934 and gathered in a collected volume by Casterman in 1934 – he was well on the way to mastery of his art but was still growing as a writer.

Although the periodical format meant that a certain degree of slapstick and seemingly directionless action was necessary to keep the attention of the reader, Remi (known the world over as Hergé) was evolving by leaps and bounds, mastering the ability to integrate these set-piece elements into the building of a complete narrative.

Cigars of the Pharaoh is stylistically much more of a fully-realised and craftily-designed thriller, with a solid plot underpinning all the episodic hi-jinks.

Following directly on from Tintin in America, here the valiant boy reporter is returning from Chicago on an oceangoing liner headed to Egypt. Here he and Snowy meet Sophocles Sarcophagus – the first in a string of absent-minded professors which would ultimately culminate in the outlandishly irascible yet lovable Cuthbert Calculus.

Dithering archaeologist Sarcophagus has divined an ancient mystery that is somehow connected to a ring of ruthless drug smugglers. Tintin memorably encounters bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson at this juncture, when narcotics are planted in his cabin, and a complex drama riotously unfolds as the lad and Sarcophagus discover a lost pyramid is not only the smuggler’s base but the foundation for a much darker game – the overthrow of nations!

Hergé introduced many other recurring and supporting characters in this tale. As well as the shambling policemen, there is the villainous seaman Captain Allan, globe-girdling small-trader Oliveira da Figueira and oily movie mogul Roberto Rastapopoulos, who would all figure strongly in later stories.

The author was gearing up for the long creative haul, and thus began inserting plot-seeds that would only flower in future projects…

When Tintin’s relentless investigations take him to India, where the villains are attempting to topple a Maharajah trying to destroy the Opium poppy industry, the plucky lad befriends the potentate and thwarts the plan of a crazed Fakir. This villain frequently employs a drug called Rajaijah, which permanently drives men mad, and is also somehow connected to the Egyptian gang.

The contemporary version of this tale was revised by Hergé in 1955, and sharp-eyed fans will spot a few apparent anachronisms, but the more open-minded will be able to unashamedly wallow in a timeless comedy-thriller of exotic intrigue and breakneck action.

Although the mystery of the Cigars of the Pharaoh ends satisfactorily with a climactic duel in the rugged and picturesque hill-country, the threat and relevance of Rajaijah would not be resolved until Hergé’s next tale, and his first masterpiece…

It’s hard to imagine that comics as marvellous as these still haven’t found their way onto everybody’s bookshelf, but if you are one of this underprivileged underclass, this lush series of hardback collections is a very satisfying way of rectifying that sorry situation. So why haven’t you..?
The Cigars of the Pharaoh: artwork © 1955, 1983 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1971 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Atomic Age Sundays volume 1: 1949-1953

By Alvin Schwartz, Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye (IDW/DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-262-3

It’s indisputable that the American comicbook industry – if it existed at all – would have been an utterly unrecognisable thing without Superman. Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster’s bold and unprecedented invention was fervidly adopted by a desperate and joy-starved generation and quite literally gave birth to a genre if not an actual art form.

He was also shamelessly copied and adapted by many inspired writers and artists for numerous publishers, spawning an incomprehensible army of imitators and variations within three years of his summer 1938 debut.

The intoxicating blend of breakneck, breathtaking action and triumphal wish-fulfilment which epitomised the early Man of Steel soon grew to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, socially reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy, whimsical comedy and, once the war in Europe and the East also engulfed America, patriotic relevance for a host of gods, heroes and monsters, all dedicated to profit through exuberant, eye-popping excess and vigorous dashing derring-do.

In comicbook terms Superman was master of the world. Moreover, whilst transforming and dictating the shape of the fledgling funnybook industry, the Man of Tomorrow relentlessly expanded into all areas of the entertainment media.

Although we all think of the Cleveland boys’ iconic invention as the epitome and acme of comicbook creation, the truth is that very soon after his debut in Action Comics #1 the Man of Steel became a fictional multimedia monolith in the same league as Popeye, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Mickey Mouse.

Diehard comics fans regard our purest and most powerful icons in primarily graphic narrative terms, but the likes of Batman, Spider-Man, Black Panther, The Avengers and all their hyperkinetic kind long ago outgrew their four-colour origins and are now fully mythologized modern media creatures, instantly familiar in mass markets across all platforms and age ranges…

Far more people have viewed or heard the Man of Steel than have ever read his comicbooks. His globally syndicated newspaper strips alone reached untold millions, and by the time his 20th anniversary rolled around at the very start of what we know as the Silver Age of Comics, he had been a thrice-weekly radio serial regular and starred in a series of astounding animated cartoons, as well as two films and a novel by George Lowther.

Superman was a perennial sure-fire success for toy, game, puzzle and apparel manufacturers and had just ended his first smash live-action television serial. In his future were three more shows (Superboy, Lois & Clark and Smallville), a stage musical, a franchise of blockbuster movies and an almost seamless succession of games, bubblegum cards and TV cartoons beginning with The New Adventures of Superman in 1966 and continuing ever since. Even his superdog Krypto got in on the small-screen act…

However, during his formative years the small screen was simply an expensive novelty so the Action Ace achieved true mass market fame through a different medium: one not that far removed from his print origins.

Although pretty much a spent force these days, for the majority of the last century the newspaper comic strip was the Holy Grail that all American cartoonists and graphic narrative storytellers hungered for. Syndicated across the country – and frequently the planet – it was seen by millions, if not billions, of readers and generally accepted as a more mature and sophisticated form of literature than comic-books. It also paid far better.

And rightly so: some of the most enduring and entertaining characters and concepts of all time were created to lure readers from one particular paper to another and many of them grew to be part of a global culture.

Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, Charlie Brown and so many more escaped humble and tawdry newsprint origins to become meta-real: existing in the minds of earthlings from Albuquerque to Zanzibar.

Some still do…

Even so, it was always something of a risky double-edged sword when a comicbook character became so popular that it swam against the tide (after all weren’t the funny-books invented just to reprint strips in cheap accessible form?) to became actual mass-entertainment – and often global – syndicated serial strips.

Superman was the first original comicbook character to make that leap – about six months after as he exploded out of Action Comics – but only a few have ever successfully followed. Wonder Woman, Batman (eventually) and groundbreaking teen icon Archie Andrews made the jump in the 1940s with only a handful such as Spider-Man, Howard the Duck and Conan the Barbarian having done so since.

The daily Superman newspaper comic strip launched on 16th January 1939, supplemented by a full-colour Sunday page from November 5th of that year. Originally crafted by such luminaries as Siegel & Shuster and their studio (Paul Cassidy, Leo Nowak, Dennis Neville, John Sikela, Ed Dobrotka, Paul J. Lauretta & Wayne Boring), the mammoth task soon required the additional talents of Jack Burnley and writers Whitney Ellsworth, Jack Schiff & Alvin Schwartz.

The McClure Syndicate feature ran continuously from 1939 until May 1966, appearing at its peak in more than 300 daily and 90 Sunday newspapers; boasting a combined readership of more than 20 million. For most of the post war years Boring & Stan Kaye illustrated the spectacular Sundays (eventually supplemented by artists Win Mortimer and Curt Swan). The majority of the strips – from 1944 to 1958 – were written by still largely unsung scribe Alvin Schwartz.

Born in 1916, Schwartz was an early maestro of comicbooks, writing for Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel and many other titles and companies. Whilst handling the Superman strip he also freelanced on Wonder Woman and other superheroes as well as genre titles such as Tomahawk, Buzzy, A Date with Judy and House of Mystery.

After numerous clashes with new superman Editor Mort Weisinger, Schwartz quit comics for commercial writing, selling novels and essays, and latterly, documentaries and docudramas for the National Film Board of Canada. He also worked miracles in advertising and market research, developing selling techniques such as psychographics and typological identification and was a member of the advisory committee to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. He died in 2011.

After too many years wallowing in obscurity most of Superman’s newspaper strip exploits are at last available to aficionados and the curious newcomer in tomes such as this compiled under the auspices of the Library of American Comics.

Showcasing Schwartz and artist Wayne Boring in their purest prime, these Sundays (numbered as pages #521 to #698 and collectively spanning October 23rd 1949 to March 15th 1953) feature a nigh-omnipotent Man of Steel in domestically-framed and curated tales of emotional dilemmas and pedestrian criminality rather than a parade of muscle-flexing bombast, with humour, wit and satire comfortably replacing non-stop angst and bludgeoning action.

Following an affable appreciation of the creators and the times in ‘An Introduction’ by Mark Waid, ‘A Wayne Boring Gallery’ provides a tantalising selection of Superman and Action Comics covers from the period before the weekly wonderment commences in all its vibrant glory.

Sadly, the serials are untitled, so you’ll just have to manage with my meagre synopses of the individual yarns…

Kicking things off is a charming fantasy as the Metropolis Marvel is temporarily stranded in Arthurian Britain after a US government time travel experiment goes awry. Whilst living in the past he befriends and helps out court magician Merlin: an old duffer whose conjuring tricks aren’t fooling anyone anymore…

The first new story of 1950 begins on February 12th and details how swindler Joseph Porter cons the Man of Steel into taking his place and clearing up his problems with the cops and the numerous gulled victims. This includes a hilarious spoofing sequence as Superman plays un-matchmaker to a scandalously-affianced hillbilly ingenue that will delight fans of Li’l Abner

The extended tale opening on May 28th offers another timeless human-interest drama given a super-powered spin as two aging robber barons recall their regulation-free heydays before embarking on a ruthless wager to see who will get “anything they wish for” first.

The only limitations imposed are their imaginations and financial resources and before long Superman is hard-pressed to keep collateral casualties to a minimum…

One of the few antagonists to transfer from the funnybooks to the Funnies pages was fifth dimensional prankster Mr. Mxyztplk who popped back to our third dimension and took instant umbrage to an arrogant Earth educator. Dr. Flipendale had the temerity to declare the imp a mass delusion and refused to believe or even acknowledge the escalating chaos his pronouncements triggered…

Strip #573 (October 22nd) offers a different take on the classic secret identity crisis when Clark is exposed as an invulnerable man to all of Metropolis. Although gangsters are convinced, Lois Lane is not, claiming the underworld is perpetrating a frame-up…

That yarn takes us to the end of the year and 1951 opens on January 7th with a tale of suspicion and injustice as Clark heads back to childhood hometown Smallville to celebrate Superboy Week and encounters a young man nursing an ancient grudge.

When a poison pen and rumour campaign looks set to spoil the festivities, the hero’s investigations uncover a betrayed child, a framed, murdered father and nefarious clandestine misdeeds carried out by corporate rogues in the Boy of Steel’s name…

Another identity crisis bedevils Clark beginning on April 1st 1951. Here a killer’s case of mistaken identity seemingly exposes the reporter as super-strong and bulletproof. Surely, he must be the indomitable Man of Steel in disguise?

Not according to Professor Pinberry who believes the hapless scribe has been accidentally exposed to his new superpower ray machine, Clark is happy to grasp at the fortuitous alibi but trouble mounts after the public demands to see the machine in action again and the city’s biggest mobster goes after the gadget to make himself Superman’s equal…

Strip #609 starts the next quirky exploit on July 1st as old duffer Salem Cooley comes to Metropolis and enjoys the most miraculous winning streak in history. Even Superman’s astounding powers can’t keep up with the string of happy circumstances, fortuitously profitable accidents and close shaves. Everybody wants to be the old coot’s pal, so who then is behind the constant assassination attempts on superstitious Salem and what reward could possibly tempt anyone to challenge the luckiest man alive?

A new serial opens on September 9th as Superman agrees to write Daily Planet articles about some of his previous exploits to benefit crime prevention charities. However, when the capers he cites are restaged by mysterious malefactors the city soon turns against the Man of Tomorrow and it takes all his super-wits to uncover the mastermind behind it all and stop one of the boldest crimes in the city’s history…

To lure a crime boss out, Superman agrees to be absent from Metropolis for a few weeks in the next adventure (running from November 18th 1951 to January 13th 1952). However, when a poverty-struck boy succumbs to disease and depression, the Man of Might decides to return and act undercover, inspiring the kid’s recovery by granting wishes made on a “magic wand”.

That task becomes increasingly difficult after crooks get hold of the stick and the invisible hero has to play along to sustain little Teddy’s recuperation…

From January 20th Superman plays guardian angel to former wastrel and drunken playboy Reggie de Peyster who swears he’s a reformed character. Nobody but Superman realises the trust fund brat is sincere and all the appalling and shameful scandals he’s currently implicated in are being manufactured to cut the heir out of a vast inheritance…

Lois Lane takes centre stage in the tale opening on April 6th as, after months of being sidelined, the daring reporter quits her job to find a career offering some real excitement. She’s soon the assistant to private detective Mike Crain, catching crooks and bodyguarding glamourous stars, but the work seems dull and pedestrian. Of course, Lois is utterly oblivious to the fact that Superman is secretly intervening in his patriarchal efforts to get her back where she belongs. Ah, different times, eh?

When maverick Hollywood producer/director Hans Bower arrives in Metropolis, (June 29th he promptly declares Clark Kent to be his latest mega-sensational super-star. A force of nature unable to take “no” for an answer, he soon has the bewildered reporter helming his next box office blockbuster but as shooting progresses Superman uncovers a covert agenda and shocking secret behind the mogul’s extraordinary actions.

Uncanny crime is the order of the day from September 21st when bizarre illusions plague Metropolis and scientist Dr. Wagonrod accuses Superman of perpetrating hoaxes and staging crises due to an undiagnosed split personality. The truth is far more devious than that, though…

Concluding this first Atomic Age collection, from November 30th 1952 to March 15th 1953, readers were avidly watching the skies as an alien capsule fell to Earth and disgorged a succession of alien bio-weapons to test humanity. The Man of Steel was hard-pressed to defeat the army of bizarre beasts but did have one immeasurable advantage: the sage advice and input of life-long science fiction fan Sedgwick Ripple

The Atomic Age Superman: – Sunday Pages 1949-1953! is the first of three huge (312 x 245 mm), lavish, high-end hardback collections starring the Man of Steel and a welcome addition to the superb commemorative series of Library of American Comics which has preserved and re-presented in luxurious splendour such landmark strips as Li’l Abner, Tarzan, Rip Kirby, Polly and her Pals and many of the abovementioned cartoon icons.

It’s an unimaginable joy to see these “lost” Superman stories again, offering a far more measured, domesticated and comforting side of one of America’s most unique contributions to world culture. It’s also a pure delight to see some of the most engaging yesterdays of the Man of Tomorrow. Join me and see for yourself…
© 2015 DC Comics. All rights reserved. SUPERMAN and all related characters and elements are trademarks of DC Comics.

Sky Masters of the Space Force: The Complete Dailies

By Jack Kirby, Dick & Dave Wood, Wally Wood & Dick Ayers (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-61345-129-8

Sky Masters of the Space Force was – and remains – a beautiful and eminently readable newspaper strip but one with a chequered and troubled back-story. How much so you can discover for yourself when you buy the book.

Even ever-upbeat and inspirational comics mega-creator Jack Kirby spent decades trying to forget the grief caused by his foray into the newspaper strip market during the height of the Space Race before finally relenting in his twilight years and giving his blessing to collections and reprints such as this one from Hermes Press.

I’m glad that he did because the collected work is one of his greatest achievements, even with the incredible format restraints of one tier of tiny panels per day, and a solitary page every Sunday. More than 50 years later this hard-science space adventure is still the business!

And that’s despite the acrimonious legal manoeuvrings that poisoned the process of creating the strip from start to finish. That can of worms you can you can read for yourself in Daniel Herman’s forthright ‘Introduction: Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, and Sky Masters’ which precedes the astronautical adventures contained herein…

Just for context though: against a backdrop of international and ideological rivalry turned white-hot when the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik in 1957, the staid George Matthew Adams newspaper syndicate decided to finally enter the 20th century with a newspaper feature about space.

After approaching a reluctant DC Comics (then known as National Periodicals Publications) a deal was brokered. The project was steered by editor Jack Schiff and he convinced Jack Kirby, inker Wally Wood (later to be replaced by Dick Ayers) and scripters/brothers Dick and Dave Wood (no relation to Wally), to begin bringing the conquest of the cosmos into our lives via an all-American astronaut, his trusty team of stalwart comrades and the philanthropic largesse of the newly-minted US Space Force…

The daily strip launched on September 8th 1958 and ran until February 25th 1961; a scant few months before Alan Shepherd became in reality the first American in Space on May 5th.

The Sunday colour page told its five extended tales (The Atom Horse, Project Darkside, Mister Lunivac, Jumbo Jones and The Yogi Spaceman) in a separate continuity running from February 8th 1959 until 14th February 1960. They are sadly not included in this superb monochrome hardback archival collection, but at least that gives us fans something to look forward to…

This tense, terse and startlingly suspenseful foray into a historical future begins with ‘The First Man in Space’ (September 8th – November 21st 1958) as Major Schuyler “Sky” Masters becomes the second man in space. Romantically involved with Holly Martin, he is hurled into orbit to rescue her astronaut father after the bold pioneer encounters something too horrible to contemplate in the pitiless reaches above Earth…

The human tragedy and ever-impinging fear of the unknown of that moody tale informs all the following stories and as Holly Martin’s feisty brother Danny and burly Sgt. Riot join the cast (who do they remind me of?) for ‘Sabotage’ (22nd November – 7th March 1959), the quintessential components of all great comics teams are in place.

In this second encounter the stage expands enormously and a member of the vast Space Force contingent sinks into derangement: convinced that the colonization of the void and abandonment of Mother Earth is an unholy abomination.

That’s bad enough, but after he is despatched as one of the six pathfinders constructing America’s first permanent orbiting space station, disaster is assured unless Sky can expose him and stop his deadly machinations…

Even as grim yet heady realism slowly grew into exuberant action and fantastic spectacle the strip moves into high dramatic gear as woman pilot (or “aviatrix”) ‘Mayday Shannon’ (9th March – 9th May) joins the squad. The Brass have high hopes that she will prove females can thrive in space too but didn’t reckon on her publicity-hungry greed and selfishness.

Luckily, the magnetic allure of the stars overcomes her bad side and Sky is on hand to deal with her ruthlessly unscrupulous manager…

A medical emergency tests the ingenuity of the dedicated spacers when project instigator and patriarch Doctor Royer is taken ill and Sky must ferry a surgeon to him in ‘To Save a Life’ (11th May – 10th June) after which the tireless Major and an unsuspected rival for Holly’s affections are stranded together on a New Guinea island of cannibals after losing control of ‘The Lost Capsule’, (11th June – 23rd September)…

During that heady meeting of ancient and modern cultures, inker and finisher Wally Wood was replaced by Dick Ayers (although the signatures remained “Kirby & Wood” for years more. Maybe the credit was for the writers?).

The incalculable terrors of space manifested with the next saga as ‘Alfie’ (24th September 1959 – 13th January 1960) carried the heroes of the New Frontier into the next decade. When young astronaut crewman Marek joins the orbiting space wheel he is soon periodically experiencing bizarre fits. Every four hours, for seven and a half minutes the young American seems to channel the personality of an aging East End cockney thief called Alfie Higgins. With the fear that it might be some kind of infectious space madness, Sky and Riot head for London to link up with Scotland Yard in a gripping mystery drama blending jewel robbery and murder with the eerie overtones of Dumas’ Corsican Cousins

The ever-present tensions of the Cold War and Space Race come to the fore in ‘Refugee’ (14th January – 19th February) as Sky and the US Space Force aid the most unlikely and improbable Soviet defector escape to the West…

Now a fully-trusted and dedicated member of the squad, Mayday Shannon returns to solve an astronaut’s romantic dilemma by arranging a ‘Wedding in Space’, (20th February – 20th April) before the true threat of the outer depths is tackled as Sky meets astronautical guru and maverick Martin Strickland. A tempestuous but invaluable asset of the Space program, the intellectual renegade has proof of alien life but won’t share the ‘Message from Space’ (21st April – 22nd June) unless the military and civil authorities give him carte blanche to act on humanity’s behalf…

Counterbalancing such speculative sci fi aspects, the penultimate adventure is very much Earthbound and grounded in contemporary science and economics. In ‘Weather Watchers’ (23rd June – 27th December) greedy capitalist entrepreneur Octavius Alexia realises he can make huge profits by scamming insurers if he has access to the advance weather predictions afforded by the growing web of satellites orbiting the world.

To secure that valuable information he targets Mayday with the latest in espionage technologies and a male honey trap named J. Mansfield Sparks III. It might have all gone his way too if the woman hadn’t been so smart and his hired gigolo had remained unencumbered by conscience…

The strip ended in a rather rushed and rapid manner with ‘The Young Astronaut’ (28th December 1960 – 25th February 1961) wherein a new recruit proved to be too good to be true. Excelling at every aspect of the harsh training, Frederick T. “Fission” Tate had ulterior motives for getting into space. Luckily, suspicious Major Masters was right beside him on that first flight into the Wide Black Yonder…

As well as these stellar tales of stellar wonder, this volume also contains an abundance of visual extras such as a numerous covers and samples of Kirby’s contemporary comicbook work and original art panels in a ‘Focus’ section, which almost compensates for the absence of the Sunday colour pages. Almost…

This compilation comprises a meteoric canon of wonderment that no red-blooded armchair adventurer could possibly resist, but quite honestly, I simply cannot be completely objective about Sky Masters.

I grew up during this time period and the “Conquest of Space” is as much a part of my sturdy yet creaky old bones as the lead in the paint, pipes and exhaust fumes my generation absorbed. That it is also thrilling, challenging and spectacularly drawn is almost irrelevant to me, but if any inducement is needed for you to seek this work out let it be that this is indisputably one of Kirby’s greatest accomplishments: engaging, challenging and truly lovely to look upon.

Now go enjoy it…
© 2017 Herman and Geer Communications, Inc. d/b/a Hermes Press. Introduction and Focus © 2017 Daniel Herman.

Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge: Back to the Klondike – Gladstone Comic Album #4

By Carl Barks (Gladstone)
ISBN: 978-0-94459-902-0

From the late 1940’s until the mid-1960s Carl Barks worked in productive seclusion writing and drawing a vast array of comedic adventure yarns for kids, creating a Duck Universe of memorable – and highly bankable – characters like Gladstone Gander (1948), The Beagle Boys (1951), Gyro Gearloose (1952) and Magica De Spell (1961) to augment the stable of cartoon actors from the Disney Studio.

His greatest creation was undoubtedly the crusty, energetic, paternalistic, money-mad gazillionaire Scrooge McDuck: the star of this show.

So potent were his creations that they fed back into Disney’s animation output itself, even though his brilliant comic work was done for licensing publisher Dell/Gold Key, and not directly for the studio.

Throughout this period, Barks was blissfully unaware that his work (uncredited by official policy, as was all Disney’s cartoon and comicbook output), had been singled out by a rabid and discerning public as being by “the Good Duck Artist.” When some of his most dedicated fans finally tracked him down, his belated celebrity began.

Gladstone Publishing began re-packaging Barks material – and a selection of other Disney comics strips – in the 1980s and kept on going until 2008. Since then cultural saviours Fantagraphics have begun reprinting all the Barks material in a series of snazzy hardcover compilations. Once they’ve done that I’ll start reviewing those but until then this still readily available paperback album is one of the very best you can still find…

Whilst producing all that landmark innovative material Barks was just a working guy, generating covers, illustrating other people’s scripts when necessary and contributing story and/or art to the burgeoning canon of Duck Lore.

This album is printed in the large European oversized format (278mm x 223mm) and features one of the best tales Barks ever told.

It’s taken from Four Color Comics #456 (September 1952 and technically the second full story to star the multimillionaire mallard). To further confuse matters, the Byzantine numbering system used by Dell also lists this issue as Uncle Scrooge #2.

‘Back to the Klondike’ is a rip-roaring yet deeply moving yarn, a brilliant comedy and even a bittersweet romance, which added huge depth to the character of the World’s Richest Duck, even whilst reiterating the superficial peccadilloes that make him such a memorable and engaging star.

Scrooge McDuck is old and getting forgetful: he can’t recall how much money he has seconds after he’s finished counting it, nor even where his traps to locate it are hidden. After one too many close shaves he finally shells out for a doctor who diagnoses “Blinkus of the Thinkus” and prescribes some pills to restore his scrupulous memory.

They work! Recalling a gold-strike he made 50 years previously, the old miser drags Donald Duck and his nephews to the Far North to recover the precious hoard cached and forgotten five decades ago, but as the journey progresses he also recalls the rough, tough life of a prospector and the saloon-girl who tried to cheat him of his find: Glittering Goldie O’Gilt

This superb yarn tells you everything you could ever need about the irascible oligarch. It’s the perfect character tale and rattles along like an express train, sad, happy, thrilling and funny by turns, and it’s supplemented in this book with a classic Gyro Gearloose tale from 1960.

‘Cave of the Winds’ is taken from Four Color Comics #1095, and finds Scrooge consulting the fabulously off-kilter feathered inventor on a perfect hiding place for the ever-increasing McDuck cash cache. The answer, sadly, is far from satisfactory…

The cartoon convolutions conclude with a short and punchy untitled tale from Uncle Scrooge #8 (1954) which has Scrooge run for City Treasurer – but without spending any money on expenses (or anything else)…

No matter what your age or temperament, if you’ve never experienced the captivating Carl Barks magic, you can discover “the Hans Christian Andersen of Comics” simply by applying yourself and your own purchasing power to any search engine. The rewards are there for the finding and far more valuable than mere money…
© 1987, 1960, 1954, 1953 The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.