T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Classics volume 4


By Wally Wood, Steve Skeates, Ralph Reese, Dan Adkins, Ogden Whitney, Chic Stone Mike Sekowsky, George Tuska, John Giunta, Frank Giacoia & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-084-1(TPB) eISBN: 978-1-62302-611-0

The meteoric lifespan and output of Tower Comics is one of the key creative moments in American comicbook history. The brief, bombastic saga of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves was a benchmark of quality and sheer bravura fun for fans of both the then-still-reawakening superhero genre and that era’s spy-chic obsession.

In the early 1960s, the Bond movie franchise was going from strength to strength, with blazing action and heady glamour utterly transforming the formerly low-key espionage genre. The buzz was infectious: soon Men like Flint and Matt Helm were carving out their own piece of the action as television shanghaied the entire bandwagon with Danger Man and the irresistible Man from U.N.C.L.E. – premiering in September 1964 – bringing the whole shtick inescapably into living rooms across the planet.

Archie Comics editor Harry Shorten was commissioned to create a line of characters for a new distribution-chain funded publishing outfit – Tower Comics. He brought in creative maverick Wally Wood, who sensibly called on some of the biggest names in the industry to produce material in the broad range of genres the company demanded (there was magnificent anthology war-comic Fight the Enemy and wholesome youth-comedy Tippy Teen as well as T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and its spin-offs Undersea Agent, Dynamo and NoMan).

Samm Schwartz & Dan DeCarlo handled the funny stuff – which outlasted everything else – whilst Wood, Larry Ivie, Len Brown, Bill Pearson, Steve Skeates, Dan Adkins, Russ Jones, Gil Kane and Ralph Reese contributed scripts for themselves and the industry’s other top talents to illustrate on the interlinked adventure series.

With a ravenous appetite for super-spies and costumed heroes growing in comic-book popularity and amongst the general public, the idea of blending the two concepts seemed inescapable…

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 appeared with no fanfare or pre-publicity on newsstands in August 1965 (with a cover off-sale date of November). Better yet, all Tower titles were in the beloved-but-rarely-seen 80-page Giant format, offering a huge amount of irresistible action and drama in every issue.

All that being said, these tales would not be so revered if they hadn’t been so superbly crafted. As well as Wood, the art accompanying the compelling, subtly more mature stories was by some of the greatest talents in comics: Reed Crandall, Gil Kane, George Tuska, Mike Sekowsky, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, Frank Giacoia, John Giunta, Steve Ditko and others.

This fourth fabulous compilation compiles and collates T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #11, Dynamo #3 and includes both issues of second spin-off No-Man – all originally released between November 1966 and March 1967 – with the incomparably cool concept and characters going from strength to strength and a spirit of eccentric experimentation and raucous low comedy slipping in to sweeten the pot…

For those who came in late: When brilliant Professor Emil Jennings was attacked by the forces of the mysterious Warlord, the savant perished. Happily, UN troops salvaged some of his greatest inventions, including a belt that increased the density of the wearer’s body until it became as hard as steel, a cloak of invisibility and a brain-amplifier helmet…

The prototypes were divided between several agents to create a unit of super-operatives to counter increasingly bold attacks of multiple global terror threats such as the aforementioned Warlord.

First chosen was affable, honest but far from brilliant file clerk Len Brown who was, to everyone’s surprise, assigned the belt and codename Dynamo. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent NoMan was once decrepit Dr. Anthony Dunn who chose to have his mind transferred into an android body and was then gifted with the invisibility cape. If his artificial body was destroyed Dunn’s consciousness could transfer to another android body. As long as he had a spare ready, he could never die…

Indomitable operative Guy Gilbert of crack Mission: Impossible style T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad was asked to beta-test an experimental super-speed suit. As gung-ho Lightning, he was proud to do so, even if every activation of the hyper-acceleration gimmick shortened his life-span…

After the death of telepathic agent Menthor, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. bigwigs created a new – flying – agent. Worryingly, the only operative capable of piloting the heavily-armed aerial warsuit was unscrupulous former mercenary Craig Lawson. Although ruthlessly effective, his attitude continues to give cause for concern …

The super-science spookshow resumes – in both paperback and digital formats – with the November 1966 debut issue of a second spin-off title. NoMan #1 was another sterling selection of superspy sagas with most of the writer credits once again an unresolved secret lost to posterity…

However, we know Gil Kane & Paul Reinman tackled the art for ‘Fingers of Fate’ as a robbery spree seems to implicate famed personages and celebrities in crimes they could not have committed. The trail of the real culprits leads the android agent to India to scotch a scheme to discredit global fingerprinting databases…

John Giunta illustrates ‘Secret in the Sky’ as NoMan battles criminal genius The Gnome after the diminutive demon seizes control of the world’s weather, after which Lightning foils ‘The Warp Wizard’s Master Plan’ (scripted by Steve Skeates with art from Chic Stone), when the teleporting bandit devises a seemingly unbeatable new weapon…

Subtly entrancing art veteran Ogden Whitney limns NoMan as the android agent is ‘Trapped in the Past’ by aliens and remains to render the tragedy of ‘The Good Subterranean’ who tried to reform despite a wave of human intolerance…

Next up is T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #11 (March 1967) which opens with the team’s top agent in big trouble and replaced by a deadly duplicate. ‘The Death of Dynamo’ (art by Dan Adkins & Wood) sees criminal society S.P.I.D.E.R. almost succeed but for one crucial oversight…

Steve Skeates, Mike Sekowsky & Frank Giacoia the detail ‘Lightning vs The Vortex’, pitting T.H.U.N.D.E.R.’s super-speedster against a wily crook with the – stolen – power to create tornados before immortal android NoMan escapes ‘The Trap’ set by telepathic tyrant The King and saves Humanity from mental enslavement in a terse thriller by Skeates & Giunta.

Drama gives way to sly whimsy in ‘Understudy for Dynamo’ (illustrated by Stone) wherein T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent Dan Atkins – AKA Dynamite – is tapped to wear the power-inducing Thunderbelt until Dynamo recovers from exhaustion and pneumonia. Sadly, the substitute is keen but not so able…

The anthological exploits conclude with another quirky outing for winged wonder Raven written and illustrated by legendary craftsman Manny Stallman. ‘The Case of Jacob Einhorn’ finds robot-obsessed Mayven the Poet hired to kill a celebrated Nazi-hunter before he can expose escaped war criminals to the UN. Determined to stop her is a former mercenary who can still learn a few things about being a hero…

A star from the get-go, Dynamo quickly won his own giant-sized solo title. With a March 1967 cover-date, issue #3 kicked off with the husky hero spectacularly battling an alien invasion inside T.H.U.N.D.E.R. HQ that quickly escalates to endanger the entire city. Illustrated by Stone, Wood & Adkins, ‘The Unseen Enemy’ is a potent blockbuster yarn that promises an unmissable return match…

Ralph Reese scripted hilarious romp ‘Bad Day for Leonard Brown’ for Stone to draw as the simplistic hunky he-man hero falls foul of regular girlfriend Alice, sultry fellow agents Diana Dawn and Kitten Kane as well as steely sex siren Iron Maiden all whilst diligently trying to keep a new laser weapon out of the hands of diabolical demagogue Demo

Stone sticks around to limn Dynamo’s battle against middle eastern despot Phyllis Tyne, as the strongman is forced to reprise ‘The Feats of Samson’ after which Paul Reinman renders a sham marriage to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent Kitten which exposes S.P.I.D.E.R.’s high crimes in the oil industry and leads to ‘Honeymoon or High Noon?’

The issue ends with another lighthearted romp for Wally Wood’s cartoon alter ego as wily Agent William “Weed” Wylie tries to quell a South American revolution sponsored by rival cabals S.P.I.D.E.R. and Red Star. Drawn by George Tuska, ‘Weed Vs T.H.U.N.D.E.R.’ results in the scrawny pragmatist punching way above his weight when the villains co-opt the super-agents with mindbending gases…

This volume closes with the contents of NoMan #2 (March 1967) as Whitney illustrates ‘Dynamo vs NoMan’ – wherein Spider technologist Doctor Cyber usurps control of the Invisible Agent’s legion of android bodies – and follow-up thrill ‘The Weird Case of the Kiss of Death’ as a reincarnated Egyptian queen sustains her immortal life by consuming life force. Not, however, one enclosed in a plastic body…

Skeates & Stone then detail how battle-wounded Lightning loses his memory of a hidden S.P.I.D.E.R. stronghold in ‘The Web Tightens’ before Whitney returns for ‘Target NoMan’ as hidden organisation Reconquer schemes to resurrect the most evil man in history, before the espionage excitement pauses with Skeates & Whitney’s ‘A Quick Change of Mind’. Here a madman pillages scientists’ mentalities in pursuit of the ultimate weapon, only to fail thanks to the ultimate secret agent…

With stories all shaded in favour of fast pace, sparse dialogue, explosive action and big breathtaking visuals, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was decades ahead of its time and certainly informed everything in Fights ‘n’ Tights comics which came after it. These are truly timeless comic classics which improve with every reading, so do yourself a favour and add these landmark super-sagas to your collection.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Classics volume 4 © 2014 Radiant Assets, LLC. All rights reserved.

Barnaby volume 1: 1942-1943


By Crockett Johnson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-522-8 (HB)

This is one of those books that’s worthy of two reviews, so if you’re in a hurry…
Buy Barnaby now – it’s one of the most wonderful strips of all time and this superb hardcover compilation – and its digitised equivalent – has lots of fascinating extras. If you harbour any yearnings for the lost joys of childish glee and simpler, more clear-cut world-ending crises, you would be crazy to miss this book…

However, if you’re still here and need a little more time to decide…
As long ago as August 2007 I started whining that one of the greatest comic strips of all time was criminally out of print and in desperate need of a major deluxe re-issue. So – as if by the magic of a fine Panatella… Cushlamocree! – Fantagraphics came to my rescue…

Today’s newspapers – those that still cling on by an ink-stained fingernail – have precious few continuity drama or adventure strips. Indeed, if a paper has any strips, as opposed to single panel editorial cartoons at all, chances are they will be of the episodic variety typified by Jim Davis’ Garfield or Scott Adams’ Dilbert – or reruns of old favourites like Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts.

You can describe most of these as single-idea pieces with a set-up, delivery and punch-line, rendered in sparse, pared-down-to-basics drawing style. In that they’re nothing new. Narrative impetus comes from the unchanging characters themselves, and a building of gag-upon-gag in extended themes. The advantage to the newspaper was obvious. If readers liked a strip it encouraged them to buy the paper. If one missed a day or two, they could 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 “funny” – comedic or otherwise – was a crucial circulation builder and preserver, 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, liberal New York tabloid PM (a later iteration of which – The New York Star – debuted Walt Kelly’s wonderful Pogo) began running a new, sweet strip for kids which was the most whimsically addicting, socially seditious and ferociously smart satire since the creation of Al Capp’s Li’l Abner – another complete innocent left to the mercy of scurrilous worldly influences…

The outlandish 4-panel Daily, by Crockett Johnson, was the brainchild of a man 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 had spent much of his working life as a commercial artist, Editor and Art Director.

Born in New York City and raised in the outer borough 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) Leisk 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 that 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 hard-back book collections, talk of a Radio show (in 1946 it was adapted as a stage play), 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 checking the paper because the undisputed, unsavoury star of the show was a scurrilous if fanciful amalgam of them both…

Not since George Herriman’s Krazy Kat had a scrap 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 – from 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.

This splendid collection opens with a hearty appreciation from Chris Ware in the Foreword before cartoonist and historian Jeet Heer provides a critical appraisal in ‘Barnaby and American Clear Line Cartooning’, after which the captivating yarn-spinning takes us from April 20th 1942 to December 31st 1943.

There’s even more elucidatory content after that, though, as education scholar and Professor of English Philip Nel provides a fact-filled, picture-packed ‘Afterword: Crockett Johnson and the Invention of Barnaby’; Dorothy Parker’s original ‘Mash Note to Crockett Johnson’ is reprinted in full, and 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’

The real meat begins with the strip itself and starts when ‘Mr. O’Malley Arrives’. This ran from 20th to 29th April 1942, setting the ball rolling as a little boy wishes one night for a Fairy Godmother and something strange and disreputable falls in through his window…

Barnaby Baxter is a smart, ingenuous and scrupulously honest pre-schooler (4-year-old to you) whose 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 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 – 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 whenever O’Malley has been around – Barnaby’s father and mother adamantly refuse to believe in the ungainly, insalubrious sprite, whose continued presence hopelessly complicates the sweet boy’s life. The poor parents’ greatest abiding fear is that Barnaby is cursed with Too Much Imagination…

In fact, this entire glorious confection is about our relationship to 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.

Despite looking like a fraud – he never uses his magic and always wields one of Dad’s stolen cigars as a substitute wand – O’Malley is the real deal: he’s just incredibly lazy, greedy, arrogant and inept. He does – sort of – grant Barnaby’s wish though, as his midnight travels in the sky trigger a full air raid alert in ‘Mr. O’Malley Takes Flight’ (30th April-14th May)…

‘Mr. O’Malley’s Mishaps’ (15th-28th May) offer further insights into the obese elf’s character – or lack of same – as Barnaby continually fails to convince his folks of his newfound companion’s existence, before the bestiary expands into a topical full-length adventure when the little guys stumble into a genuine Nazi plot with supernatural overtones in the hilariously outrageous ‘O’Malley vs. Ogre’ – which ran from 29th May through 31st August.

‘Mr. O’Malley’s Malady’ (1st – 11th September) deals with the airborne oaf’s brief bout of amnesia, even as Mum and Dad, believing their boy is acting up, take him to a child psychologist. However, ‘The Doctor’s Analysis’ (12th – 24thSeptember) doesn’t help…

The war’s effect on the Home Front is an integral part of the strip and ‘Pop vs. Mr. O’Malley’ (25th September – 6thOctober) and ‘The Test Blackout’ (7th – 16th October) see Mr. Baxter become chief Civil Defense Coordinator despite – not because of – the winged interloper, but not without suffering the usual personal humiliation.

There is plenty to go around and, when ‘The Invisible McSnoyd’ (17th – 31st October) turns up, O’Malley gets it all.

The Brooklyn Leprechaun, although unseen, is O’Malley’s personal gadfly: continually barracking, offering harsh, ribald counterpoints and home truths to the Godfather’s self-laudatory pronouncements, and in ‘The Pot of Gold’ (2nd – 20thNovember) perpetually taunting and tempting JJ to provide a treasure trove of laughs…

When Barnaby wins a scrap-metal finding competition and is feted on radio, O’Malley co-opts ‘The Big Broadcast’ (21st – 28th November) and brings chaos to the airwaves, but once again Mr. Baxter won’t believe his senses. Dad’s situation only worsens after ‘The New Neighbors’ (30th November – 16th December) move in and little Jane Shultz also starts candidly reporting Mr. O’Malley’s deeds and misadventures…

Barnaby’s faith is only near-shaken when the Fairy Fool’s constant prevarications and procrastination mean Dad Baxter’s Christmas present arrives late. The Godfather did accidentally destroy an animal shelter in the process, so ‘Pop is Given a Dog’ (17th – 30th December) which brings a happy resolution of sorts…

A perfect indication of the wry humour that peppered the feature can be seen in ‘The Dog Can Talk’ – which ran from 31stDecember 1942 to 17th January 1943. New pooch Gorgon can indeed converse – but never when the parents are around, and only then with such overwhelming dullness that everybody listening wishes him as mute as all other mutts…

Playing in an old abandoned house (don’t you miss those days when kids could wander off for hours, unsupervised by eagle-eyed, anxious parents – or were even able to walk further than the length of a garden?) serves to introduce Barnaby and Jane to ‘Gus, the Ghost’ (18th January to February 4th) which in turn involves the entire ensemble with ration-busting thieves after they uncover ‘The Hot Coffee Ring’ (5th – 27th February). Barnaby is again hailed a public hero and credit to his neighbourhood, even as poor Dad stands back and stares, nonplussed and incredulous…

As Johnson continually expanded his gently bizarre cast of Gremlins, Ogres, Ghosts, Policemen, Spies, Black Marketeers, Talking Dogs and even Little Girls, all of whom can see O’Malley, the unyieldingly faithful little lad’s parents are always too busy and too certain that the Fairy Godfather and all his ilk are unhealthy, unwanted, juvenile fabrications.

With such a simple yet flexible formula Johnson made pure cartoon magic. ‘The Ghostwriter Moves In’ (1st – 11th March) finds Gus reluctantly relocating to the Baxter abode, where he is even less happy to be cajoled into typing out O’Malley’s odious memoirs and organising ‘The Testimonial Dinner’ (12th March – 2nd April) for the swell-headed sprite at the Elves, Leprechauns, Gnomes, and Little Men’s Chowder & Marching Society clubhouse and pool hall…

With the nation urged to plant food crops, ‘Barnaby’s Garden’ (3rd – 16th April) debuts as a another fine example of the things O’Malley is (not) expert in, whilst ‘O’Malley and the Lion’ (17th April – 17th May) finds the innocent waif offering sanctuary to a hirsute circus star even as his conniving, cheroot-chewing cherub contemplates his own “return” to showbiz, after which ‘Atlas, the Giant’ (18th May – 3rd June) wanders into the serial. At only 2-feet tall, the pint-sized colossus is not that impressive… until he gets out his slide-rule to demonstrate that he is, in fact, a mental giant…

‘Gorgon’s Father’ (4th June – 10th July) turns up to cause contretemps and consternation before disappearing again, after which Barnaby and Jane are packed off to ‘Mrs. Krump’s Kiddie Kamp’ (12th July – 13th September) for vacation rest and the company of normal children.

Sadly, although the wise matron and her assistant never glimpse O’Malley and Gus, all the other tykes and inmates are more than happy to associate with them…

Once the kids arrive back in Queens – Johnson had set the series in the streets where he’d grown up – the Fairy Fool is showing off his “mechanical aptitude” on a parked car with its engine wastefully running and breaks the idling getaway car just in time to foil a robbery…

Implausibly overnight he becomes an unseen and reclusive ‘Man of the Hour’ (14th – 18th September) before preposterously translating that cachet into a political career by accidentally becoming a patsy for a corrupt political machine in ‘O’Malley for Congress!’ (20th September – 8th October).

This strand gave staunchly socialist cynic Johnson ample opportunity to ferociously lampoon the electoral system, the pundits and even the public. Without spending money, campaigning – or even being seen – the pompous pixie wins ‘The Election’ (9th October – 12th November) and actually becomes ‘Congressman O’Malley’ (13th – 23rd November), with Barnaby’s parents perpetually assuring their boy that this guy was not “his” Fairy Godfather’…

The outrageous satire only intensified once ‘The O’Malley Committee’ (24th November – 27th December 1943) began its work – by investigating Santa Claus – despite the newest, shortest Congressman in the House never actually turning up to do a day’s work…

Raucous, riotous sublimely surreal and adorably absurd, the untrammelled, razor-sharp whimsy of the strip is instantly captivating, and the laconic charm of the writing well-nigh irresistible, but the lasting legacy of this ground-breaking feature 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, always self-contained encounters built on the previous episode without needing to re-reference it, and offered three to four times as much text as its contemporaries. It’s a sign of the author’s ability that the extra wordage is 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.

He managed this miracle by type-setting 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 the device also allowed him to maintain an easy, elegant, effective balance of black and white which makes 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 book 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. These 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, Barnaby was an absolute panacea to the horrors without ever ignoring or escaping them.

For far too long, Barnaby was a lost masterpiece. It is influential, ground-breaking and a shining classic of the form. It is also warm, comforting and outrageously hilarious. You are all 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 You and a brief biography of Johnson, this big book of joy will be a welcome addition to 21st century bookshelves – especially yours…
Barnaby and all its images © 2013 the Estate of Ruth Kraus. Supplemental material © 2013 its respective creators and owners.

Liberty Meadows: Sundays Book One


By Frank Cho (Image/Monkey Boy Press)
ISBN: 978-1-60706-564-7 (HB)

It’s ALMOST too late to concoct a suitable St Valentine’s Day extravaganza worthy of the one who puts up with you, so let todays review serve to remind you that not only is love strange but it can also tolerate an incredible amount of unsavoury behaviour – it just shouldn’t have to…

Like many wonderful modern comics strips, Liberty Meadows grew out of a prototype college newspaper incarnation: specifically, the University of Maryland (College Park) student periodical The Diamondback.

Back then the strip was called University² but it still revealed the warped genius and stunning graphic virtuosity of native Marylander Frank Cho. As a syndicated strip Liberty Meadows launched on March 31st 1997, running until December 30th 2001. It also enjoyed a respectable run as a comic book released through Insight Studios.

The strip which won a hoard of awards before going on hiatus (hey, if Bloom County can come back after decades, so long as the artist’s still alive, I’m keeping the faith for this and Calvin & Hobbes), is a whimsical masterpiece of comedy appealing to anyone afflicted with a love of pop culture, wistfulness, slacker-ness and unrequited passions. This first hardcover (or digital) compilation of full-colour Sunday strips cover the first three years and is saucily appreciated by Cho’s great pal and confederate Mike McSwiggin in his Introduction.

What’s it About, I hear you enquire? Easier asked than answered…

Exhibiting elements of the aforementioned Berkely Breathed’s magnum about Opus, and cheekily pilfering and channelling every comicbook, TV, movie and trash culture icon you might imagine, the episodes occur in and around the animal sanctuary of Liberty Meadows and generally revolve around the ever-so-patient animal psychologist Brandy Carter as she blithely tries to circumvent her innate hottie-ness and get on with her job.

The major obstacles to this simple ambition include not just human impediments such as shyly adoring vet Frank Melisch, clumsily dangerous janitor Tony, sanctuary owner Julius, and Brandy’s super sexy roommate Jen (she’s a rocket scientist who loves to toy with men…) but also the scene-stealing frequently obnoxious smart alec talking animals such as midget circus bear Ralph, literally sexist pig Dean, hypochondriac frog Leslie, innocent waif – and duck – Truman, mute dachshund Oscar, OCD-suffering raccoon Mike, Khan the catfish and an evil cow dubbed The Cow

Further turning this small word upside down are conspiracy-theorist and local barkeep Al, Brandy’s ex Roger, her parents (say no more), and a couple of duplicates from a mirror universe: Evil Brandy and Alternate Frank

You’ll thank me for not giving away any of the 138 beautifully rendered, seditiously surreal gags, but I will push my luck by stating Cho insinuates himself into proceedings on a regular basis (as forth-wall busting chimpanzee Monkey Boy) and warning you to watch out for low flying dinosaurs, wandering daydreams, outbursts of 3-D, and constant outbreaks of strip and movie spoofs such as Prince Valium, Mighty Shmoe Pong, Jungle Gym and Flush Gordon

Frank Cho is a very funny guy and also one of the best dramatic illustrators in the business, so you’ll also appreciate the spiffy Sketch Gallery featuring pencils, inks, roughs and some delicious images of Brandy as your favourite female superheroes.

Magnificently redolent of (and proudly swiping from) Walt Kelly, Dave Stevens, Frank Frazetta, Barry Windsor-Smith, Michelangelo (not the turtle), and others of their prestigious ilk as the gag demands, Cho’s blend of anthropomorphic anarchy, sublimely lavish glamour illustration and devilish wit means this is a timeless treat and treatise on love you simply must see…
™ and © 2012 Frank Cho, Monkey Boy Press. All rights reserved.

The Phantom – The Complete Series: The Charlton Years Volume One


By Dick Wood, Steve Skeates, Bill Harris, D. J. Arneson, Jim Aparo, Frank McLaughlin, Pat Boyette, Bill Lignante & various (Hermes Press)
ISBN: 978-1-61345-006-2 (HB)

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 all 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…

Lee Falk created the Jungle Avenger at the request of his syndicate employers who were already making history, public headway and loads of money with his first strip sensation Mandrake the Magician, and although technically not the first ever costumed hero 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.

He debuted on February 17th 1936 in an extended sequence pitting him against a global confederation of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood. Falk wrote and drew the daily strip for the first two weeks before handing over the illustration side to artist Ray Moore. A hugely successful Sunday feature began in May 1939.

For such a long-lived and 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).

Various companies have tried 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.

But, even if it were only of historical value (or just printed for Australians), surely “Kit Walker” is worthy of a definitive chronological compendium series?

Happily, his comic book adventures have fared slightly better – at least in recent times…

From November 1962 through July 1966 all new adventures were published by West Coast giant Gold Key Comics after which King Features Syndicate dabbled with a comicbook line of their biggest stars – including Popeye, Flash Gordon, Mandrake and The Phantom – between 1966 and 1967. When they gave up the ghost, plucky dependable, cheap Charlton Comics were there to pick up the slack…

The Phantom was no stranger to funnybooks, having been featured since the Golden Age in titles such as Feature Book and Harvey Hits, but only as reformatted newspaper strip reprints. The Gold Key exploits were tailored to a big page and a young readership, a model King maintained for their own run but which was tweaked when Charlton took over the license.

This splendid full-cover hardcover – or eBook for the modern minded – gathers the contents of The Phantom #30-38 (originally released between February 1969 and June 1970) and opens with an erudite Introduction from Christopher Irving relating all you need to know about ‘The Phantom and Charlton Comics’, illustrated by the first of many pages of original art by Jim Aparo.

As with previous publishers, the majority of the stories are scripted by Dick Wood (with some contributions from Bill Harris and Charlton mainstay Steve Skeates) but the big attraction here is a large body of illustration by up-&-coming superstar Jim Aparo in his last work for CC before moving to DC…

Opening the Charlton archive is a brace of thrilling escapades by Dick Wood and Frank McLaughlin (with possibly some inking assistance from Sal Trapani?) beginning with ‘The Secret of the Golden Ransom’ as Julie – sister of the Ghost Who Walks – again dons the purple long-johns to secretly save her brother from a devilish trap, after which the ‘The Living Legend’ sees the jungle guardian put the fear of god into an western-educated tribesman who no longer believes in ghosts…

Issue #31 sees an epic full-length tale by Wood and Aparo as ‘The Phantom of Shang-Ri-La’ finds the hero on a rescue mission to the fabled Valley of the Sun to save his best friend from devious crooks masquerading as benevolent immortals…

Following more original art, #32’s ‘The Pharaoh Phantom’ takes the masked marvel to Egypt and an impossible confrontation with a freshly-revived mummy who claims to be the original and genuine Ghost Who Walks…

Pat Boyette & Nick Alascia limn Wood’s lead story in The Phantom #33 as ‘The Curse of Kallai’ exposes an ancient mystery wherein an Indian death cult returns to plunder Africa, claiming an earlier Phantom was their bound and sworn ally, after which Steve Skeates & Aparo detail how a young native boy is pivotal in reversing ‘The Phantom’s Death’

Using the nom de plume Norm Dipluhm, D. J. Arneson scripts a brace of tales for Aparo in #34 beginning with ‘The Cliff Kingdom’ as the Phantom destroys a tribe hunting low flying aircraft before going on to defeat the far-fromxsupernatural menace dubbed ‘The Giant Ape of Tawth’

Veteran team Bill Harris & Bill Lignante return in #35 to reveal the sinister secret of ‘The Ghost Tribe’ plundering and slave-taking in Bengali, but not before the Phantom infiltrates the marauders’ inner circle and is ‘Trapped’ in an almost inescapable situation. Almost…

Dipluhm & Aparo open #36 with ‘The River That Never Ends’ as the Phantom is drawn into a subterranean underworld whilst battling merciless modern pirates, and close with a pithy smuggling yarn as the spectral avenger intercepts some ‘Very Special Timber’ to punish a very ingenious evildoer…

In #37 the format changes to shorter stories beginning with ‘Bandar Betrayers’ as a strange blossom warps the minds of the Phantom’s greatest friends and allies whilst ‘Skyjack’ sees him undercover as Kit Walker, flying to America when his plane is attacked by a fanatic, and a last exploit sees him back in Africa as a new commander for the private jungle police force is almost compelled to ‘Disband the Patrol’

Wrapping up these volatile verdant voyages, #38 starts on ‘The Dying Ground’ as rogue hunters trap the hero in hopes of learning the location of the fable Elephant’s Graveyard before a crisis of conscience and capability is countered by uncanny natural phenomena in ‘The Phantom’s New Faith’ after which Jungle Patrol intel allows The Phantom to save his ever-so-patient intended bride Diana Palmer from murderous art-thieves setting ‘The Trap’

Packed with original art by Aparo, this is another riveting, nostalgia-drenched triumph: straightforward, captivating rollicking action-adventure that has always been the staple of comics fiction.

If that sounds like a good time to you, this is a traditional action-fest you must not miss…
The Phantom® © 1969-1970 and 2012 King Features Syndicate, Inc. ® Hearst Holdings, Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Peanuts Dell Archive


By Charles M. Schulz, Jim Sasseville, Dale Hale, Tony Pocrnick & various (KaBOOM!)
ISBN: 978-1-68415-255-1 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-64144-117-9

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal. Cartoonist Charles Monroe “Sparky” (forever dubbed thus by an uncle who saw young Charlie reading Billy DeBeck’s strip Barney Google: that hero’s horse was called “Spark Plug”). Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for half a century, producing 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, and have ever since his departure. Attendant book collections, a merchandising mountain and television spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire.

In case you came in late – and from Mars – our focus (we just can’t call him “star” or “hero”) is everyman loser Charlie Brown who, with increasingly high-maintenance, fanciful mutt Snoopy, is at odds with a bombastic and mercurial supporting cast hanging out doing kid things with disturbingly mature psychological overtones…

The gags and tales centre on play, pranks, sports, playing musical instruments, teasing each other, making baffled observations about the incomprehensible world and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups. The ferocious unpredictability and wilfulness of seasonal weather often impacts on these peewee performers, too…

You won’t find many adults in the mix – which includes Mean Girl (let’s call her “forthright”) Violet, prodigy Schroeder, “world’s greatest fussbudget” Lucy, her strange baby brother Linus and dirt-magnet “Pig-Pen” all adding signature twists to the mirth – because this is essentially a kids’ world.

Charlie Brown has settled into existential angst and is resigned to his role as eternal loser: singled out by fate and the relentless diabolical wilfulness of Lucy who sharpens her spiteful verve on everyone around her. Her preferred target is always the round-headed kid though: mocking his attempts to fly a kite, kicking away his football and perpetually reminding him face-to-face how rubbish he is…

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

By that time, rapid-fire raucous slapstick gags were riding side-by-side with surreal, edgy, psychologically barbed introspection, crushing judgements and deep ruminations in a world where kids – and certain animals – were the only actors. The relationships were increasingly deep, complex and absorbing…

None of that is really the point. Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, and 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. It also became a multimedia merchandising bonanza for Schulz and the United Features Syndicate, generating toys, games, books, TV shows, apparel and even comic books. These days there’s even an educational institution, The Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, from which a goodly portion of the archival contributions in this wonderful hardback/digital compilation originate…

Just how and why the comic book versions differ from the strip is explored with incisive and analytical vigour in Derrick Bang’s (of CMS M&RC) Introduction ‘Peanuts in Comic Books’ revealing how, in the early 1950s, reprints in St. John and, later, Dell Comics titles such as Tip Top Comics and United Comics gradually gave way to original back-up material in Fritzi Ritz, Nancy and others.

Very little of it was by Schulz – although he did contribute lots of covers – but rather were ghosted by hand-picked associates like Jim Sasseville, who ably aped “Sparky” Schulz and kept the little cast in character and on message in strips in Fritzi Ritz, Nancy, Tip Top, Nancy and Sluggo,

Sasseville wrote and drew all of the Peanuts try-out issue (Four Color #878, February 1958). Schulz contributed heavily to the second FC Peanuts (#969; February 1959) with Dale Hale and Tony Pocrnick handling subsequent back-up tales and third Four Color tester #1015 (August/October 1959).

The fourth became Peanuts #4: a title that ran for 13 issues, ending in July 1962. By then Dell staff artists and writers were generating the stories and the overall quality was nothing to brag about… although Schulz was drawing the covers, at least.

In terms of calibre and standards, the 75 comic tales here – beginning with the very first by Schulz from Nancy #146, September 1957 to the anonymous last – are all quite enjoyable and some are truly exceptional: such as ‘The Mani-Cure’(Tip Top #211, November 1957/January 1958 by Sasseville) or Dale Hale’s untitled treatise on keeping secrets from Tip Top #217 (May/July 1959).

Admittedly, true fans might have trouble with later yarns as the kids face an amok robot or dare the terrors of an old haunted house, but in the main this collection is a splendid peek at a little known cranny of the franchise and there is the joy of all those lost gems from Sparky to carry the day…

And where else are you going to see the kids in stories you haven’t read yet… you Blockhead!?
Peanuts Dell Archive all contents unless otherwise specified © 2005 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. All rights reserved.

Dandy and Beano: The Comics at Christmas


By many and various (D.D. Thomson & Co, Ltd.)
ISBN: 978-0-85116-636-0 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Evergreen Seasonal Traditions Celebrated and Ideal Last-Minute Gifts… 10/10

DC Thompson’s publications have always played a big part in Britain’s Christmas festivities, so let’s revel in the Good Old Days of comics and look at what their publications have offered to celebrate the season via a lovingly curated accumulation of Scotland’s greatest cartoon stars and artisans…

Released in 1997 as part of the DC Thomson’s Sixtieth Anniversary celebrations for their children’s periodicals division – which has more than any other shaped the psyche of generations of kids – this splendidly oversized (297 x 206mm) and exceedingly jolly 144 page hardback compilation justifiably glories in the incredible wealth of ebullient creativity that paraded through the flimsy colourful pages of The Beano and The Dandy during the days and weeks of December from 1937 to the end of the century.

Admittedly the book needed some careful editing and paste-up additions whilst editorially explaining for younger or more socially evolved readers the subtle changes in attitude that have occurred over more than half a century, to tone down or expurgate a few of the more egregious terms that wouldn’t sit well with 21st century sensibilities, but otherwise this is a superb cartoon commemoration of a time and state of mind that means so much to us all.

It’s also an exquisitely evergreen tribute to cartoon storytelling at its best…

The shape and structure of British kids’ cartoon reading owes a huge debt to writer/editor Robert Duncan Low (1895-1980) who was probably DC Thomson’s greatest creative find. Low began at the publishing monolith as a journalist, rising to the post of Managing Editor of Children’s Publications where he conceived and launched (between 1921 and 1933) the company’s “Big Five” story-papers for boys. Those rip-roaring illustrated prose periodicals comprised Adventure, The Rover, The Wizard, The Skipper and The Hotspur.

In 1936 his next brilliant idea was The Fun Section: an 8-page pull-out supplement for Scottish national newspaper The Sunday Post consisting of comic strips. The illustrated accessory premiered on 8th March and from the very outset The Broons and Oor Wullie – both rendered by the incomparable Dudley Watkinswere its unchallenged stars…

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 a year after that.

War-time paper shortages and rationing sadly curtailed this strip periodical revolution, and it was 1953 before the next wave of cartoon caper picture-papers. To supplement Beano and Dandy, the ball started rolling again with The Topper, closely followed by a host of new titles such as Beezer and Sparky to augment the expanding post-war line.

Every kid who grew up reading comics has their own personal nostalgia-filled nirvana, and DC Thomson have always sagely left that choice to us whilst striving to keep all eras alive with the carefully-tooled collectors’ albums like this one.

These have all the appeal and panache of coffee-table art books; gathering material from nearly eight decades of publishing – including oodles of original art reproductions – but rather than just tantalising and frustrating incomplete extracts, here the reader gets complete stories starring immortal characters from comics and Christmas Annuals past…

Until it folded and was reborn as a digital publication on 4th December 2012, The Dandy was the third-longest running comic in the world (behind Italy’s Il Giornalino – launched in 1924 – and America’s Detective Comics in March 1937). Premiering on December 4th 1937, it broke the mould of traditional British predecessors by using word balloons and captions rather than narrative blocks of text under the sequential picture frames.

A monster success, it was followed eight months later by The Beano – which launched on July 30th 1938 – and together they completely revolutionised the way children’s publications looked and, most importantly, how they were read.

Over the decades the “terrible twins” spawned a bevy of unforgettable and beloved household names who delighted generations of avid and devoted readers, and end of year celebrations were blessed with extraordinary efforts in the weeklies as well as bumper bonanzas of the comics’ stars breathtakingly glamorous hardback annuals.

As WWII progressed rationing of paper and ink forced the “children’s papers” into an alternating fortnightly schedule: on September 6th 1941, only The Dandy was published. A week later just The Beano appeared. They only returned to normal weekly editions on 30th July 1949, and during the conflict the Annuals alternated years too.

This superb celebration of Celtic creativity is packed literally cover-to-cover with brilliant strips. The fun starts on the inside front with a riotous party scene featuring all the assorted favourites, illustrated by indisputable key man Dudley D. Watkins, followed by Korky the Cat frontispiece (by James Crichton?), and bombastic title page with western superman Desperate Dan standing in for Santa.

An introductory spread follows, re-presenting a manic Davey Law Dennis the Menace Christmas episode from the 1960s, as well as a quartet of Beano Christmas cards from the same decade, presaging a host of seasonally-themed comic strip offerings beginning with Dandy’s Dirty Dick (by Eric Roberts) and guest star stuffed ‘Xmas Shopping with Biffo the Bear’ (probably David Sutherland) and Minnie the Minx (Jim Petrie) impatiently ransacking the house for her prezzies from the 1960s.

This book offers a selection of Christmas week front pages, beginning with The Beano #169, (cover-dated December 20th1941) featuring Reg Carter’s obstreperous ostrich Big Eggo getting well-deserved revenge via Xmas lights during a blackout, after which Colonel Crackpot’s Circus by Malcolm Judge and Sutherland’s Bash Street Kids frolic as a prelude to robot schoolboy Brassneck (by Bill Holroyd) demonstrating the meaning of the season in a savvy spin on A Christmas Carol

Robert Nixon – or maybe Ron Spencer – detail how Indian scamp Little Plum gets a tree for the tribe whilst Ken Reid’s wild west rogue Bing-Bang Benny scores a free dinner from his worst enemies, before the triumphs of Roger the Dodgerare encapsulated in a multifarious montage of strips by Ken Reid, Barrie Appleby, Gordon Bell and others.

Dudley D. Watkins illuminates Desperate Dan’s attempts to enjoy a white Christmas and Davey Law details similar catastrophic capers for Dennis the Menace before Watkins reveals how the upper class live in a party favour from Beanostarring Lord Snooty and his Pals, after which ‘Jimmy and his Grockle’ – a kind of Doberman dragon – reap the reward for wrecking other folks’ presents. Illustrated by James Clark, the feature stems from Dandy in 1938, recycled from prose “Boys Paper” The Rover (where it was “Jimmy Johnson’s Grockle” in 1932).

Holroyd’s The Tricks of Screwy Driver (a junior handyman inventor of variable efficacy – especially in the holiday season) gives way to a Biffo front cover strip (from Beano #649; December 25th 1954) before the Bash Street Kids destroy the school concert and 1940s feudal adventurer Danny Longlegs (Watkins) delays his voyage East to share the Yule festival with an embattled knight.

A montage of Beano B-stars including Sammy Shrinko, Have-a-go-Joe, Little Nell and Peter Pell, The Magic Lollipops, Maxi’s Taxis and Rip Van Wink compliments a triptych of ‘40’s Dandy strips Freddy the Fearless Fly (Allan Morley), Hair Oil Hal (by John Brown) and Sam Fair’s Meddlesome Matty to ease us into a section concentrating on gluttony and the big blowout as seen in Eric Robert’s hospital ward feast Ginger’s Super Jeep, Basil Blackaller’s Hairy Dan’s saga of a stolen plum pudding and The McTickles (Vic Neill) salutary tale of an escaped Haggis.

A classic Korky the Cat Christmas yarn segues neatly into a Ken Reid fantasy romp starring Ali Ha-Ha and the 40 Thieves, after which The Smasher (Hugh Morren?) fights for his right to party as prelude to a look at a wartime classic.

Sam Fair was in always excoriating top form with the superbly manic Addie and Hermy – slapstick assaults on Adolf Hitler and Hermann Wilhelm Göring/Goering – and the selection here helped counter Home Front austerity by punfully positing how bad the German High Command were having it…

Football mad Ball Boy (Judge) and a vintage Desperate Dan strip lead to more Watkins wonderment in a double-length revel in Lord Snooty castle (and no, the topper-wearing posh boy was never the pattern for a certain over-privileged Tory lounging lizard!!! It’s just an uncannily creepy coincidence cum laude and example of life imitating art), before Colonel Crackpot’s Circus stages an encore and Billy Whizz (Malcolm Judge) finds time to attend many nosh-ups in one short day…

Odd couple Big Head and Thick Head (Reid again) work far too hard for their places at the youth club bash whereas the ever-ravenous Three Bears (Bob McGrath) literally fall into a festive feast but eternal loser Calamity James (Tom Paterson) loses out yet again, unlike Law’s Corporal Clott who manages to become a hero to his comrades by getting rid of Grinch-like Colonel Grumbly

A 1940’s Biffo extravaganza starring the entire Beano cast takes us neatly into a rousing comedy romp starring wonderful Eric Roberts’ immortal rascal-conman Winker Watson, who saves his chums from being stuck at school over the holidays in a full-length fable…

What’s Christmas without loot? A host of comics stars weigh in on presents in a section that begins with the cover of The Dandy #358 (December 20th 1947) as Korky’s greed is aptly rewarded, before John Sherwood’s dreamer Les Pretend(He’s Round the Bend!) wakes up frustrated, Dennis the Menace turns unwanted gifts into offensive weapons and – from December 1950 – Hugh McNeil’s Pansy Potter, the Strongman’s Daughter gives Santa Claus an uncomfortable helping hand…

From 1987, Appleby’s unlovable infants Cuddles and Dimples wreck another Christmas before Desperate Dawg (by George Martin from 1973) uses canine ingenuity to pimp that legendary sleigh whilst Roger the Dodger outsmarts himself but still comes up trumps in the gift department.

Lassie-like wonder dog Black Bob was popular enough to support his own book series in the 1950s (illustrated by Jack Prout) and here traditionally rendered Black Bob the Dandy Wonder Christmas dog sees the hairy paragon raise the flagging spirits of a ward full of ailing bairns before Charles Grigg’s Prince Whoopee (Your Pal from the Palace and a strip that could be revived instantly for today’s more cynical, satire-saturated market) learns the downside of childish pranks, after which a tantalising photo feature on assorted Beano and Dandy figurines leads to a montage of ancient robot romps starring with Tin-Can Tommy, the Clockwork Boy (by the Dinelli Brothers and Sam Fair), featuring the mechanical misfit as well as his brother Babe and tin cat Clanky.

An extended Xmas excursion for Minnie the Minx and vintage larks with Keyhole Kate (Allan Morley), Gordon Bell’s Pup’s Parade starring the Bash Street Dogs and George Martin’s Sunny Boy – in Santa’s Grotto – bring us to another brilliant cover spread: this one for The Dandy #204, from December 27th 1941, with Korky losing out after trying to outsmart Santa…

A rare prose yuletide yarn starring sagacious moggy Sooty Solomon shares space with a Christmas comic caper concerning Raggy Muffin the Dandy Dog, after which Pleasant Presents presents a gaggle of want’s lists from the comics characters before the animal antics resume with doses of doggerel clipped from annual feature Korky’s Christmas Greeting and a lengthy yarn starring Gnasher and his pal Dennis the Menace.

Stocking stuffing and tree trimming occupy Roger the Dodger and Tom, Dick and Sally (Dave Jenner?) but Roy Nixon’s Ivy the Terrible is all about the packages before focus shifts to excerpts from other times of year beginning with Prince Whoopee’s bath day, Billy Whizz on ‘Shoesday’ and the April Fool’s Day cover for The Dandy #70, from 1939.

Following on ‘Sports Day’ is celebrated on the cover of Beano #465 (June 16th 1951) and Desperate Dan turns April 1stinto April dooms day before similarly wrecking Easter, Pancake Day and Bonfire Night in a mini marathon of smashing strips.

Equally tough and disastrously well-meaning, Pansy Potter in Wonderland makes herself persona non grata with fairy tale folk after which Lord Snooty and his Pals’ good deed results in a catastrophic ‘Biff-day’ and Dennis the Menace discover the joy of graffiti on ‘“Mark-it” day’.

The section concludes with a Big Eggo Beano cover (#321; November 1st 1947) on a windy day, allowing pint-sized dreamer Wonder Boy to aspire to Santa’s job whilst Billy Whizz gets a job in the old boy’s grotto and Bully Beef and Chips (Jimmy Hughes) inevitably clash at a party before Watkins delights in depicting Jimmy and his Magic Patch as the lad with a ticket to anywhere stumbles into a north pole plot to burgle Saint Nick.

Desperate Dan’s plans to play Santa are sabotaged by his niece and nephew before Sandy Calder’s acrobatic schoolboy avenger Billy the Cat stalks and brings to justice a thief who steals all the silver from Burnham Academy… and still gets back in time for the school Xmas party.

George Martin’s school master Jammy Mr. Sammy uses his phenomenal luck to deal with pranksters and thugs before Winker Watson fosters a festive feud between his teachers and a local police training college; Nixon’s Grandpa gets Gnomework at a local grotto and Ron Spencer’s bonny bouncing bandit Babyface Finlayson gets locked up to get stuffed, even as The Jocks and the Geordies go to war over sharing an Xmas party, courtesy of the unique Jimmy Hughes.

Hurtling towards the Eighth Day of Christmas, the last strips here focus on a Ha-Ha-Happy New Year! with a classic Korky confrontation, a harsh Hogmanay hash-up starring Corporal Clott and a frankly disturbing exploit of animal excess and conspicuous consumption from 1940s Bamboo Town as limned by Charlie Gordon.

Disaster-prone Dirty Dick shows Eric Roberts at his inspired best in a cautionary tale about resolutions first seen in 1963, allowing the Bash Street Kids and Grandpa to have the cacophonous last words in a brace of action-packed slapstick strips redolent of years more fun to come…

Sadly, none of the writers are named and precious few of the artists in this collection, but, as always, I’ve offered a best guess as to whom we should thank, and of course I would be so very happy if anybody could confirm or deny my suppositions. A marvel of nostalgia and timeless comics wonder, the true magic of this collection is the brilliant art and stories by a host of talents that have literally made Britons who they are today, and bravo to DC Thomson for letting them out to run amok once again.

This sturdy celebration of the company’s children’s periodicals division rightly revels in the incredible wealth of ebullient creativity that paraded through their back catalogue: jam-packed with some of the best written and most impressively drawn strips ever conceived: superbly timeless examples of cartoon storytelling at its best…
© D.C. Thomson & Co., Ltd. 1997. All rights reserved.

Tintin and the Picaros


By Hergé and Studios Hergé, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-823-9 (HB) 978-1-405206-35-8 (Album PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Great British Tradition of Belgian Origin. Gotta Get ‘Em All… 10/10

Georges Prosper Remi, AKA Hergé, created an eternal masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor, Roger Leloup and other supreme stylists of the Hergé Studio, he created 23 timeless yarns (initially serialised in instalments for a variety of newspaper periodicals) which have since grown beyond their pop culture roots to attain the status of High Art and international cultural icons.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi began working for conservative Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-esque editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A devoted boy scout, one year later the artist was producing his first strip series – The Adventures of Totor – for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine. By 1928 Remi was also in charge of producing the contents of the Le Vingtiéme Siécle weekly children’s supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

While he was illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette – written by the staff sports reporter – Wallez required his compliant creative cash-cow to concoct a new and contemporary adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who roamed the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

The rest is history…

Some of that history is quite dark: During the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, Le Vingtiéme Siécle was closed down and Hergé was compelled to move his supremely popular strip to daily newspaper Le Soir (Brussels’ most prominent French-language periodical, and thus appropriated and controlled by the Nazis).

He diligently toiled on for the duration, but following Belgium’s liberation was accused of collaboration and even of being a Nazi sympathiser. It took the intervention of Belgian Resistance war hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist through words and deeds.

Leblanc provided cash to create a new magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which he published and managed. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a huge weekly circulation, allowing Remi and his studio team to remaster past tales: excising material dictated by the Fascist invaders to ideologically shade the wartime adventures. The post-war modernising exercises also improved and updated the great tales, just in time for Tintin to become a global phenomenon, both in books and as an early star of animated TV adventure.

With the war over and his reputation restored, Hergé entered the most successful period of his artistic career. He had mastered his storytelling craft, possessed a dedicated audience eager for his every effort and was finally able to say exactly what he wanted in his work, free from fear or censure, if not his personal demons and declining health…

The greatest sign of this was not substantially in the comics tales – although Hergé continued to tinker with the form of his efforts – but rather in how long the gaps were between new exploits. The previous romp had finished serialisation in 1967 and was collected as an album in 1968. It was eight years before Tintin et les Picaros was simultaneously serialised in Belgium and France in Tintin-l’Hebdoptmiste magazine (from 16th September 1975 to April 13th 1976) but at least the inevitable book collection came out almost immediately upon completion in 1976.

Tintin and the Picaros is in all ways the concluding adventure, as many old characters and locales from previous tales make one final appearance. A partial sequel to The Broken Ear it finds Bianca Castafiore implausibly arrested for spying in Central American republic San Theodoros with Tintin, Haddock and Calculus eventually lured to her rescue.

Insidious Colonel Sponsz – last seen in The Calculus Affair – is the Bordurian Military Advisor to the Government of usurper General Tapioca, and has used his position to exact revenge on the intrepid band who humiliated him in his own land. When the Tintin and company escape into the jungles during a murder attempt they soon link up with their old comrade Alcazar, who now leads a band of Picaro guerrillas dedicated to restoring him to power.

South American revolutions were all the rage in the 1970s – even Woody Allen made one the subject of a movie – and Hergé’s cast had been involved with this one on and off since 1935. With the welcome return of anthropologist Doctor Ridgewell and the hysterical Arumbayas, and even an improbable action role (of sorts) for obnoxious insurance salesman and comedy foil Jolyon Wagg, the doughty band bring about the final downfall of Tapioca in a thrilling and bloodless coup during Carnival time, thanks to a hilarious comedy maguffin (initially targeting dipsomaniac Haddock) that turns out to be a brilliant piece of narrative misdirection by the author.

Sly, subtle, thrilling and warmly comforting, this tale was generally slated when first released but with the perspective of intervening decades can be seen as a most fitting place to end the Adventures of Tintin… but only until you pick up another volume and read them again – as you indubitably will.
Tintin and the Picaros: artwork © 1976 by Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1976 Egmont UK Limited. All rights reserved.

Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking


By Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-624-9 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Lost Treasures for the Nubbin-Sized Nostalgiacs… 9/10

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal, especially as, since the characters made the jump to television with the airing on December 9th 1965 of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the little nippers have become an integral part of the American Yule experience.

Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for fifty years. He published 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000 and 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. 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 centre on playing (pranks, sports, musical instruments), teasing each other, making ill-informed observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups. The cast also includes mean girl Violet, infant 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.

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

Available in a child-friendly hardback and digital formats, Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking re-presents two rare and seasonally-appropriate Peanuts offerings that will delight fans whilst offering a largely counter-capitalist spin to this time of year.

In 1962 Happiness is a Warm Puppy – a book of original Peanuts material – hit the national Best-Seller lists and stayed there for a year, prompting the author to create another. However, “Sparky” Schulz was a deeply religious man and was very concerned about reminding his readers of the true meaning of Christmas, not just developing another revenue stream.

When the opportunity arose, Schulz jumped at the chance to craft a mini-book premium that would be given away with the December 1963 issue of Good Housekeeping.

In the strips, Schulz always considered guileless innocent Linus as his spiritual spokesperson (we’d probably say “avatar” today), and in the booklet the blanket-lover leads the kids in examining the season and their unquestioned practise of leaving out their woollen loot-catchers with disarming candour and wry wit. The tale is told in a series of full-page, flat-colour illustrations balanced by a simple text block: the usual format for kids’ picture books.

The remainder of this archival treasure is a similarly-themed project from 1968: three years after the monster-hit TV special which had be retransmitted every December since its debut.

Here ‘The Christmas Story’ is also printed at one panel (with word balloons) per page, but when it was first seen in the December 1968 Woman’s Day magazine, the characters copped not only the cover but four full pages of the interior in a proper, respectable, prestigious comics section.

Overtly spiritual in tone, this tale sees Linus reading the nativity story from the Gospel of St. Luke to Snoopy, who then endures a baffling and thought-provoking alternate view of the season from arch bread-head Lucy…

Supplementing the well-meaning whimsy are informative background articles About “Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking”, About “The Christmas Story” and About the Author, adding historical context to the cartoon wonderment: a rare masterpiece of thoughtful comedy gold demonstrating Schulz’s spellbinding graphic mastery that how his kids have become part of the fabric of billions of lives.
Charlie Brown’s Christmas Stocking © 1963, 1968, 2013 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. All rights reserved.

Adventures of Tintin: Flight 714 to Sydney


By Hergé, Bob De Moor, Roger Leloup and others, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont UK/Methuen/Little Brown Books)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-821-5 (HB) 978-0-31635-837-8 (Album PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Great British Tradition of Belgian Origin. Gotta Get ‘Em All… 10/10

Georges Prosper Remi, AKA Hergé, created an eternal masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor, Roger Leloup and other supreme stylists of the Hergé Studio, he created 23 timeless yarns (initially serialised in instalments for a variety of newspaper periodicals) which have since grown beyond their pop culture roots to attain the status of High Art and international cultural icons.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi began working for conservative Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-esque editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A devoted boy scout, one year later the artist was producing his first strip series – The Adventures of Totor – for monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine. By 1928 Remi was in charge of producing the contents of the newspaper’s weekly children’s supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

While he was illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette – written by the staff sports reporter – Wallez required his compliant creative cash-cow to concoct a new and contemporary adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who roamed the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

The rest is history…

Some of that history is quite dark: During the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, Le Vingtiéme Siécle was closed down and Hergé was compelled to move his supremely popular strip to daily newspaper Le Soir (Brussels’ most prominent French-language periodical, and thus appropriated and controlled by the Nazis).

He diligently toiled on for the duration, but following Belgium’s liberation was accused of collaboration and even of being a Nazi sympathiser. It took the intervention of Belgian Resistance war-hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist through words and deeds.

Leblanc provided cash to create a new magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which he published and managed. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a huge weekly circulation, allowing Remi and his studio team to remaster past tales: excising material dictated by the Fascist invaders to ideologically shade the wartime adventures. These modernising post-war exercises also generally improved and updated the great tales, just in time for Tintin to become a global phenomenon, both in books and as an early star of animated TV adventure.

With the war over and his reputation restored, Hergé entered the most successful period of his artistic career. He had mastered his storytelling craft, possessed a dedicated audience eager for his every effort and was finally able to say exactly what he wanted in his work, free from fear or censure, if not his personal demons and declining health…

The greatest sign of this was not substantially in the comics tales – although Hergé continued to tinker with the form of his efforts – but rather in how long the gaps were between new exploits. The last romp had finished serialisation in September 1962 and been collected as an album in 1963. Vol 714 pour Sydney began its weekly run in Le Journal de Tintin #936 – 27th September 1966 – and concluded in #997, cover-dated November 28th 1967. The inevitable book collection came in May 1968.

Flight 714 To Sydney appears to be a return to classic adventure, but conceals some ironic modernist twists, opening with our heroes hurriedly en route to Australia. During an intrigue-redolent stopover at Djakarta, Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus are inveigled (almost duped) into joining unconventional and somewhat unpleasant aviation tycoon Laszlo Carreidas on his personal supersonic prototype. The petty-minded multi-millionaire obviously has some ulterior design but cannot be dissuaded.

However, due to the type of coincidence that plagues our heroes, that plane has been targeted by the villainous outlaw Rastapopoulos whose gang hijack the aircraft and land it on a desolate Pacific island. The former criminal mastermind has a crazy scheme to siphon off Carreidas’ fortune but has lost a lot of his old sinister efficiency…

After many ploys and countermoves between the opposing forces, and with danger a constant companion, the prisoners escape the villain’s clutches only to discover that the Island is volcanic and conceals a fantastic ancient secret that dwarfs the threat of mere death and penury before escalating to a spectacular climax no reader will ever forget…

Although full of Hergé’s trademark slapstick humour, there is also a sly undercurrent of self-examination that highlights the intrinsic futility of the criminals’ acts. As time has passed, the murderous human monsters have all been exposed as foolish, posturing and largely ineffectual.

Nevertheless, the yarn is primarily an extremely effective, suspenseful action thriller with science fiction roots as the author plays with the multifarious strands of international research then in vogue which led to Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods and other lesser known tracts of cod science.

Once more the supernormal plays a large part in proceedings – but not as a malign force – and this time science and rationality, not the supernatural, are the basis of the wonderment. Flight 714 To Sydney is slick, compelling and astoundingly engaging: a true epic escapade no fan of fun could fail to adore.
Flight 714 To Sydney: artwork © 1968 Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1968 Egmont UK Limited. All rights reserved.

Adventures of Tintin: The Castafiore Emerald


By Hergé, Bob De Moor, Roger Leloup and others, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont UK)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-820-8(HB) 978-1-40520-632-7(Album PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Great British Tradition of Belgian Origin. Get ’Em All… 10/10

Georges Prosper Remi, known all over the world as Hergé, created a timeless masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and entourage of iconic associates.

Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and other supreme stylists of the Hergé Studio, he created 23 timeless yarns (initially serialised in instalments for a variety of newspaper periodicals) which have grown beyond their pop culture roots to attain the status of High Art.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi began working for conservative Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-esque editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A devoted boy scout, one year later the artist was producing his first strip series – The Adventures of Totor – for monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine. By 1928 Remi was in charge of producing the contents of the newspaper’s weekly children’s supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

While he was illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette written by the staff sports reporter – Wallez required his compliant creative cash-cow to concoct a new and contemporary adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who roamed the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

The rest is history…

Some of that history is quite dark: During the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, Le Vingtiéme Siécle was closed down and Hergé was compelled to move his supremely popular strip to daily newspaper Le Soir (Brussels’ most prominent French-language periodical, and thus appropriated and controlled by the Nazis).

He diligently toiled on for the duration, but following Belgium’s liberation was accused of collaboration and even of being a Nazi sympathiser. It took the intervention of Belgian Resistance war-hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist through words and deeds.

Leblanc provided cash to create a new magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which he published and managed. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a weekly circulation in the hundreds of thousands, which allowed Remi and his growing studio team to remaster past tales: excising material dictated by the Fascist occupiers and reluctantly added to ideologically shade the wartime adventures. These modernising post-war exercises also generally improved and updated the great tales, just in time for Tintin to become a global phenomenon.

With the war over and his reputation restored, Hergé entered the most successful period of his artistic career. He had mastered his storytelling craft, possessed a dedicated audience eager for his every effort and was finally able to say exactly what he wanted in his work, free from fear or censure.

Sadly, Hergé’s personal life was less satisfactory, but although plagued by physical and mental health problems, the travails only seemed to enhance his storytelling abilities…

Le Bijoux de la Castafiore was serialised in Le Journal de Tintin from 4th July 1961 to September 4th 1962 with the inevitable book collection released in 1963. For the first time, The English edition was published in the same years as its European original…

The Castafiore Emerald is quite a departure from the eerie bleak thriller that preceded it (Tintin in Tibet) and the general run of globetrotting tales. The resolution of that icy escapade seemed to have purged much of the turmoil and trauma from the artist’s psyche.

His production rate – but not the quality – slowed to a leisurely crawl as he became a world traveller himself, visiting America, Taiwan and many other places he had featured in the exploits of his immortal boy reporter. Fans would wait fifteen years for these last three adventures to be done.

When the blithely unstoppable operatic grand dame Bianca Castafiore imposes herself on Captain Haddock at Marlinspike Hall – complete with fawning entourage and a swarm of reporters in hot pursuit – she turns the place upside down, destroying the irascible mariner’s peace-of-mind.

A flighty force of nature claiming to crave isolation and quiet recuperation, the Diva floods Marlinspike with anxiety, just as Tintin and the Captain are attempting to win fair treatment for a roving band of gipsies (let’s call them Roma now, shall we?).

Much to the chagrin of the irascible mariner, when the pride of Castafiore’s fabulous jewels is stolen, events take a constantly escalating, surreal and particularly embarrassing turn before Tintin finally solves the case through calm, cool deduction.

Unlike the rest of the canon, this tale is restricted – like a drawing room mystery – to one locale: the impressive house and grounds inherited by Haddock as inhabited by a hilarious cast of regulars including acerbic, long-suffering butler Nestor and deranged genius Professor Calculus. It reads very much like an Alfred Hitchcock sparkling thriller from the 1950s: Light, airy, even frothy in places, with the emphasis always on laughs…

There are no real villains but plenty of diabolical happenstance generating slapstick action and wry humour while affording Hergé plenty of opportunities to take pot-shots at the media, Society – High and low – and even the then-pervasive and ever-growing phenomenon of television itself.

The tale was published in 1961. It would be five years until the next one.

At least you don’t have to wait: this comics masterpiece can – and should – be yours as soon as possible.
The Castafiore Emerald: artwork © 1963 by Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1963 Methuen & Co Ltd. All rights reserved.