Century 21 volume 1: Adventure in the 21st Century


By various (Reynolds and Hearn)
ISBN: 978-1-905287-93-2

After years of subtle manoeuvring and outright begging, some of the greatest strips in British comics history are finally available in glossy high-quality colour compilations selected by dedicated devotee Chris Bentley and with the blessing of Gerry Anderson (who provides a fascinating and informative introduction) himself.

TV Century 21 (the unwieldy “Century” was eventually dropped) was modeled after a newspaper – albeit from 100 years into the future – and this shared conceit carried the avid readers into a multimedia wonderland as television and reading matter fed off each other. The incredible comics adventures were supplemented with stills taken from the TV shows (and later, films) and photos also graced the text features and fillers which added to the unity of one of the industry’s first “Shared Universe” products,

Number #1 launched on January 23rd 1965, instantly capturing the hearts and minds of millions of children in the 1960s, and further proving to British comics editors the unfailingly profitable relationship between television shows and healthy sales.

Filled with high quality art and features, printed in gleaming photogravure, TV21 featured such strips as Fireball XL5, Supercar and Stingray. In a bizarre attempt to be topical the allegorically Soviet state of Bereznik constantly plotted against the World Government (for which read “The West”) in a futuristic Cold War to augment the aliens, aquatic civilizations and common crooks and disasters that threatened the general well-being of the populace. Even the BBC’s TV “tomorrows” were represented by a full-colour strip starring The Daleks.

Although Thunderbirds did not premiere on TV until September (with Frank Bellamy’s incredible strip joining the line-up in January 1966) Lady Penelope and Parker had an earlier debut to set the scene, and eventually the aristocratic super-spy won her own top-class photogravure magazine in January 1996. And as Anderson’s newest creations launched into super-marionated life, their comics exploits filtered into TV21 and even their own titles.

A complete and chronological archive would be unfeasible so this book has gathered a variety of complete adventures from the various serials, beginning with the Fireball XL5 epic ‘The Astran Assassination’, by Alan Fennell, Mike Noble, Eric Eden and Ron Embleton which originally appeared in issues #15-26 (May-July 2065) wherein an alien envoy attempting to forestall an intergalactic border war was murdered on Earth and Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol, aided by Lady Penelope and Troy Tempest (ooh! Crossover!) must find the killer before Earth is sucked into disaster!

Next up is a classic Thundebirds romp from Scott Goodall and Frank Bellamy. ‘Chain’ Reaction’ ran in TV21 and TV Tornado #227-234, May -July 2069) wherein the Tracy boys had to stop an out of control 50,000 ton space freighter from impacting in the middle of San Francisco – and that’s just the start of an epic calamity that threatened to destroy the entire Pacific Rim!

Anderson’s stalwart submarine heroes from the Good Ship Stingray were pitted against a bizarre and malevolent spectre in the eerie mystery ‘The Haunting of Station 17’ by Fennell and Embleton (from issues #23-30, June-August 2065) whilst Captain Scarlet is represented here by the beautiful if unconventional ‘The Football King’ by Howard Elson and Mike Noble from TV21 and TV Tornado #194-195 (October 2068). This full colour cover story reverted to monochrome grey-tones for its interior pages, but the real oddity was the genre blending as the indestructible Spectrum agent had to protect a soccer-mad Bedouin potentate by joining his personal football team.

Lady Penelope foiled a Bereznik plot to destroy Unity City from a secret Australian base in ‘The Luveniam Affair’ (by Fennel and Frank Langford from issues #36-42 of her own magazine, September-November 1966) whilst her pals from International Rescue had to conquer ‘The Devil’s Crag’ to rescue a lost schoolboy (Fennell and Bellamy, TV21 #184-187, July-August 2068); a spectacular visual extravaganza that belies its deceptively simple plot.

Developed from the 1966 film Thunderbirds Are Go! the crew of Space Exploration vehicle Zero X had an auspicious and entertaining run of their own adventures in TV21, as this superb yarn by Angus P Allan and Mike Noble demonstrates. ‘Planet of Bones’ (TV21 and TV Tornado #218-224, March-May 2069) found the team in rip-roaring action on a world of deadly skeletal dinosaurs!

‘Superjunk’ from TV Century 21 #72-81(June-August 2066) pitted the Stingray team against futuristic Chinese pirates in a cracking tale by Dennis Hopper and Ron’s brother Gerry Embleton, whilst unsung genius Brian Lewis illustrated ‘Starburst’; a classy black and white thriller by Alan Fennell (from Thunderbirds Extra, March 1966) that found the heroes ranging from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to the icy depths of interplanetary space to save a pair of dying astronauts.

This first incredible volume concludes with ‘Leviathan’, a glorious Captain Scarlet saga by writers Allan and Goodall with black-and-white and colour art from Mike Noble, Don Harley and Frank Bellamy (from TV21 #185-189, August 2068) which sees Cloudbase crashing into the sea, Mysteron agent Captain Black captured and the World Navy’s greatest super-ship threatened by resurrected Nazi U-Boats!

Crisp, imaginative writing, great characters and some of the very best science-fiction art of all time make this a must-have book for just about anybody with a sense of adventure and love of comics. It doesn’t get better than this.

Artwork © A.P. Films (Merchandising) Ltd/Century 21 Publishing Ltd 1965-1969. Published under license from Anderson Entertainment Ltd 2009. All Rights Reserved.

Fred Basset 2008


By Michael Martin with Arran Graham (Orion Books)
ISBN: 978-0-7528-9385-3

What’s your favourite biscuit? Do you only eat one sort or do you find that different occasions, different beverages or times of day dictate a little variety: some situation-appropriate flavours?

Graphic narrative is like that. The terrifying realties of We3 (ISBN: 1-84576-159-6), the social significance of Pride of Baghdad (ISBN: 1-84576-242-8) or Maus (978-0-14101-408-1), the flamboyant adventure of Bucky O’Hare (ASIN: B000E4SUCM), gently acerbic political radicalism of Donald Rooum’s Wildcat (ISBN: 0-900384-30-1) or pure fantasy of Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 (ISBN: 1-84576-660-1) all have their place but sometimes all you want or need is a quiet reassuring smile.

Fred Basset began in the Daily Mail on July 8th 1963, the brainchild of professional cartoonist Alexander S. Graham, and soon found a solid fan-base among the generally middle-class readership, many of whom must have identified with the minor daily tribulations of an unnamed young married couple and their avuncular if amusingly haughty pet dog, whose gallery-playing internal monologues – or chats with we observers behind the forth wall – amounted to a daily confirmation of what most pet-owners believed their hairy charges were capable of. Eventually the strip became a regular weekend delight too in the Mail on Sunday. How odd that such a quintessentially English Strip is based on the life-style of the Scottish middle class – or perhaps not…

Alex Graham was born in Scotland in 19 and educated at Dumfries Academy. His first professional sales occurred during World War II, and he thereafter created the strip Wee Hughie for the Dundee Weekly News in 1945, continuing it until 1970. In 1946 he also originated Our Bill and Briggs the Butler, before hitting the global big time with his four-footed raconteur, whom he based in large part upon his own faithful furry companion Frieda. Graham died in December 1991, having drawn over 9,000 strips, black and white and colour, and the strip was continued by his daughter Arran and cartoonist Michael Martin.

The strip has a huge worldwide following, especially in comics-friendly America, Australia and the Scandinavian countries. Known by such varied names as Wurzel in Germany, Lillo il Cane Saggio (Lillo the wise dog) in Italy, Lorang in Norway, Laban in Sweden in Sweden and bafflingly Retu, Pitko and Koiraskoira in Finland, the not-so humble hound even had his own animated TV show in 1976, produced by Bill Melendez Productions (famed for both the Peanuts/Charlie Brown and the Perishers cartoon shows) perfectly voiced by Lionel Jeffries.

Although Fred and his doggie comrades Jock, (a small black Scottish Terrier), Yorky (a Yorkshire Terrier) and, in latter years, Fifi (a saucy Poodle) are obviously immortal, the humans have gradually advanced into middle-ish age. By this year’s collection (the first Fred Basset Book was released in 1963, and ran to #45 in 1993 before becoming annuals such as the one nominally under discussion here, supplemented by a children’s book, a 25-year retrospective and a Bumper Book) they seem quite world-weary, but the situations remain comfortingly constant although a signature of Martin’s tenure is an increasing insertion of the annoyances of contemporary life such as sat navs, catch-phrases and celebrity culture.

So what’s the appeal?

The regular re-application of surreal whimsy to a stable environment has its own subtle satisfaction; and often the panel gags don’t even have a recognisable punch-line – what’s happening on a daily basis is often the cartoon equivalent of old cronies having a bit of a chinwag over the garden wall, a sharing of mutual experience with a dash of hyperbole and a smidgen of one-upmanship… You seldom burst out in a loud guffaw (although that’s not unknown) but you frequently think “Yes! Just like when…”

To those passionate intellectuals among us that might belittle the gag-features that run for decades delighting untold millions of readers I have one last suggestion. If this isn’t your cup of tea – don’t buy it.

There’s plenty who will, including those members of your own family who wouldn’t be caught dead reading your suggestions (and think you’re a trifle odd, besides)…

So, Fred Basset: Comic Strip Positive Reinforcement refreshingly unchanging and amusing. Who’s for a Custard Cream?
© Associated Newspapers plc 2008.

Drinky Crow’s Maakies Treasury


By Tony Millionaire (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-975-3

Cartoonists have far more than their share of individuals with a unique perspective on the world. Ronald Searle, Charles Addams, George Herriman, Gerald Scarfe, Rick Geary, Steve Bell, Berke Breathed, Ralph Steadman, Bill Watterson, Matt Groening, Gary Larson – the list is potentially endless. Perhaps it’s the power to create entire sculptured worlds coupled with the constant threat of vented spleen that so colours their work – whether they paint or draw.

Tony Millionaire clearly loves to draw and does it very, very well; referencing classical art, the best of children’s books and an eclectic mix of pioneer draughtsmen like George McManus, Rudolph Dirks, Cliff Sterrett, Frank Willard, Harold Gray as well as the aforementioned Herriman from comics with European engravings from the “legitimate” side of the ink-slinging biz.

As well as children’s books, Billy Hazlenuts and the most wonderful Sock Monkey, Millionaire produces a powerfully bizarre weekly strip entitled Maakies which delineates the absurdly rude and surreal adventures of an Irish monkey called Uncle Gabby and his fellow alcoholic nautical adventurer Drinky Crow. In the tradition of the earliest US newspaper strips each episode comes with a linked mini-strip running across the base of the tale. Nominally based in a nautical setting of 19th century sea-faring adventure, the darkly-comical instalments vary from staggeringly rude and crude to absolutely hysterical, with content and gags utterly unhindered by the bounds of taste and decency: penetratingly incisive, witty and even poignant. It’s his playground – if you don’t like it, leave…

Launching in February 1994 in The New York Press the strip is now widely syndicated in the US in alternative newspapers such as LA Weekly and The Stranger and abroad in comics magazines such as Linus and Rocky. There was even an animated series that ran on Time-Warner’s Adult Swim strand.

Since continuity usually plays second fiddle to the wide range of inventive ideas, the strips can be read in almost any order and the debauched drunkenness, manic uber-violence, acerbic view of sexuality and deep core of existentialist angst (like Ingmar Bergman writing gags for Benny Hill) still finds a welcome with Slackers, Laggards, the un-Christian and all those scurrilous, hopeless Generations after X. Millionaire often surrenders a episode to fellow cartoonists to “do their own thing”.

If you’re not easily shock-able this is a fantastic and rewarding strip, one of the most constantly creative and entertaining on the market today, and this wonderful re-collection, gathering the material previously released in the out-of-print books When We Were Very Maakies, The House at Maakies Corner and Der Struwwelmaakies.

If you’re not a fan of Maakies this is the perfect tool to make you one; and if you’re already converted it’s the perfect gift for someone that ain’t…
© 2009 Tony Millionaire. All Rights Reserved.

The Best of Simon and Kirby


By Joe Simon, Jack Kirby and various (Titan Books)
ISBN13: 978-1-84576-931-4

There’s a glorious wealth of Jack Kirby material around at the moment and this astounding collection of his collaborations with fellow industry pioneer Joe Simon is a gigantic box of delights that perfectly illustrates the depth and scope of their influence and innovation by reprinting the merest fraction of their output over nearly two decades.

Divided into key genres, supplemented by informative features from that ever-engaging writer and comics historian Mark Evanier, this striking compendium leads with The Heroes. reprinting in eye-popping colour ‘Captain America and the Riddle of the Red Skull’ from the landmark first issue (March 1941), and an untitled adventure of the Golden Age Vision from Marvel Mystery Comics #14 (December 1940).

From S&K’s incredible war-time tenure at National/DC comes ‘The Villain From Valhalla!’, a Sandman yarn first seen in Adventure Comics #75 (June 1942), followed by the origin of the incredible Stuntman in ‘Killer in the Big Top’ (Stuntman Comics #1, April 1946). ‘Assignment: Find the King of the Crime Syndicate’ is a raucous romp from their spoof patriotic hero Fighting American (#2, June 1954) and this section ends with a tale from Adventures of the Fly #1(August, 1959) entitled ‘Come into My Parlor’. Each text section is copiously illustrated and classic covers for each genre further sweeten the pot…

Way out Science Fiction follows, represented here by Solar Patrol in ‘The Tree Men of Uranus’: a Joe Simon solo production from  Silver Streak Comics #2 (January, 1940), the eponymous hero from Blue Bolt Comics #4 (September, 1940) and the magnificently spooky short ‘The Thing on Sputnik 4’ (Race for the Moon #2, September 1958).

War and Adventure highlights some of their most passionate yet largely unappreciated material. Boy Commandos often outsold Superman and Batman during World War II, and the moody ‘Satan Wears a Swastika’ from the first issue of their own title (Winter, 1942) clearly shows why, whilst the nuclear armageddon depicted in ‘The Duke of Broadway: My City is No More’ (Black Cat Comics #5, April 1947) set the bar for all others creators.

Simon and Kirby famously invented the romance comic genre and in The Birth of Romance we can see why the things took off so explosively, if not why all their imitators so timidly bowdlerized their own efforts. ‘Weddin’ at Red Rock’ from Western Love # 1, July 1949, is a raw, wild tale of obsessive passion, whilst ‘The Savage in Me’ (Young Romance Comics #22, June 1950) easily stands up against the best melodramas Hollywood was then producing.

Crime Drama uses three tales from 1947 (at the birth of the trend that led, with horror stories, to the instigation of the Comics Code Authority) to show how the dynamic visual flair of the ex-ghetto kids raised work like ‘Trapping New England’s Chain Murderer!’ (Headline Comics #24, May), the infamous Ma Barker story ‘Mother of Crime’ (Real Clue Crime Comics Vol. 2 #4, June) and ‘The Case Against Scarface’ (Justice Traps the Guilty #1, October) far above most of the avalanche of material all those decent folk and politicians railed against.

The Great Western features some of S&K’s most revered characters with ‘Apache Justice!’ from The Kid Cowboys of Boy’s Ranch #2 (December 1950), a spectacular spread ‘Remember the Alamo!’ from issue #5 and a captivating tale ‘Doom Town!’ starring the masked hero Bulls Eye from the fourth issue of his own short-lived title (February 1955).

Oh! The Horror! holds some especially impressive work, including ‘The Scorn of the Faceless People’ (Black Magic Vol. 1 #2, December 1950), the haunting ‘Up There!’ from #13 (confusingly also numbered as Vol. 2 #7, June 1952) and the remarkable ‘The Woman in the Tower!’ from The Strange World of Your Dreams #3 (November 1952).

Less well known are the forays into Sick Humor as seen here with ‘A Rainy Day with House-Date Harry’ (My Date #4, January 1948), the utterly wonderful parody strip ‘20,000 Lugs under the Sea’ originally seen in From Here to Insanity #11 (August 1955) and a couple of solo pieces from Simon. ‘Lenny Bruce’ and the editorial page are both from satire magazine Sick (Vol. 1 #2, 1960) and readily display the design and literary panache as well as artistic virtuosity he brought to the partnership.

With an extensive but far from complete checklist (talk about impossible tasks!) this tremendous hardcover is a worthy, welcome start towards acknowledging the debt our art-form owes these two unique creators. Now let’s have some more please…

© 2009 Joseph H. Simon and the Estate of Jack Kirby. All other material is © and TM the respective owner and holders and used with permission. All Rights Reserved.

Supermen: the First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941


By various, edited by Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-971-5

Long the bastion of the arcane, historic, esoteric and the just plain interesting arenas of the comic book marketplace, Fantagraphics Books fully enters the Fights ‘n’ Tights Game with this magnificent collection of (mostly) superhero tales from the very dawn of the American comic-book industry. Supermen gathers together a selection of stalwarts by names legendary and seminal from the period 1936-1941, combining 9 stunning covers, many interior ads (for further beguiling characters and publications) and twenty full stories of exotic heroes and Mystery-Men from a time when there was no genre, only untapped potential…

After Jonathan Lethem’s introduction the wonderment begins with a two page instalment of Dr. Mystic, the Occult Detective by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, from Comics Magazine #1, May 1936, which after a selection of covers leads into ‘Murder by Proxy’ an adventure of The Clock, by George E. Brenner, from Detective Picture Stories #5 (April, 1937). The Clock has the distinction of being the first masked comic-book hero whereas Dan Hastings by Dan Fitch and Fred Guardineer is accounted the first continuing science fiction hero in comic books, with this appearance from Star Comics #5, 1937.

Dirk the Demon is a boy hero by young Bill Everett, from Amazing Mystery Funnies vol.2 #3 (March 1939), closely followed by a tale of the Flame from Wonderworld Comics #7 (November 1939) by Will Eisner and Lou Fine using the pen-name Basil Berold, whilst super-magician Yarko the Great first appeared in Wonderworld Comics #8, written and drawn by Eisner.

The unique Dick Briefer is represented hereby the Rex Dexter of Mars episode from Mystery Men Comics #4 (November 1939) and Jack Kirby makes his first appearance, working as Michael Griffiths on a tale of Cosmic Carson for the May 1940 issue of Science Comics (#4).

The work of troubled maestro Fletcher Hanks was lost to posterity until recently rediscovered by comics’ intelligentsia in such magazines as Raw! and his woefully short career in comic-books is represented here by two pieces. The first of these is the stunningly surreal and forceful Stardust, the Super Wizard from Fantastic Comics #12, (November 1940). From Pep Comics #3, in April of the same year comes a turning point in the brutal career of Jack Cole’s murderous superhero The Comet, followed by Al Bryant’s monster-hunting vigilante Fero, Planet Detective, (Planet Comics #5, May 1940) and the second Hanks offering, pseudonymously working as Barclay Flagg, is the truly bizarre Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle from Jungle Comics #4 (April 1940).

Big Shot Comics combined reprints of established newspaper strips with original characters and material. From the first issue in May 1940 comes another Mandrake inspired crusader, Marvello, Monarch of Magicians by Gardner Fox and Fred Guardineer and a plainclothes mystery-man named Tony Trent who fought crime by putting on a hideous mask and calling himself The Face, also written by Fox and drawn by the wonderful Mart Bailey working together as “Michael Blake”. The other major all-new star of Big Shot was the fabulous blend of Batman, G-8 and Doc Savage called Skyman, and this yarn by “Paul Dean” (Fox and Ogden Whitney) is a real cracker.

Jack Cole returns as Ralph Johns to tell a tale of super-speedster Silver Streak (Silver Streak Comics #4, May 1940) which is followed by one of the most famous tales of this era as a daring hero battled the God of Hate in #7’s ‘Daredevil Battles the Claw’ (from January 1941).

The legendary Basil Wolverton is represented here by the cover of Target Comics #7 and a startling story of Spacehawk, Superhuman Enemy of Crime from issue #11, (December 1940) whilst icy hero Sub-Zero stopped crime cold in an episode from Blue Bolt #5, courtesy of rising star Bill Everett, before the pictorial magic concludes with an episode of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s incredible Blue Bolt fantasy strip from the tenth issue of the magazine that bore his name (cover-dated the same month as another S&K classic entitled Captain America)…

Augmented by comprehensive background notes on the contents of this treasury of thrills, Supermen is a perfect primer for anyone seeking an introduction to the Golden Age, as well as a delightful journey for long-time fans. I’m sure there’s very little here that most of us have seen before, and as a way of preserving these popular treasures for a greater posterity it is a timely start. Much, much more, please…

All stories are public domain but the specific restored images and design are © 2009 Fantagraphics Books.

Boody: the Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers


Edited by Craig Yoe (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-961-6

The one true invention of American Comic-books is undoubtedly the super-hero, but the pervasiveness of that almighty icon has prevented the wider world from discerning what the readers, fans and collectors have always known, even if they choose nowadays to disregard: the fact that our masters and artisans have always been just as effective and creative in established genres such as crime, horror, westerns and especially comedy.

A perfect exemplar of that fact has finally had his first long overdue retrospective in this fabulous if unstructured collection from Fantagraphics: Gordon “Boody” Rogers.

Born in 1904 he began his drawing career in the 1920s after studying at the Cartoon Academy of the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the Chicago Institute. At this time he palled around with Harold Gray, Frank Engli, Chester Gould, and Tex Avery among many other talented art-stars in waiting. When his roommate Zack Mosely began his long-lived aviator strip Smilin’ Jack in 1933, Rogers was his assistant from day one. As a jobbing cartoonist he also worked for such magazines as Life, Judge, Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post on syndicated features and gag strips like ‘Deadwood Gulch’ and ‘Possum Holler’

He was a major contributor to ‘The Funnies’ the very first comic book, published in 1936 (there’s a fascinating example, ‘Rattlesnake Pete’, from this landmark leading off the compilation) before developing his own newspaper strip ‘Sparky Watts’ in early 1939 which he wrote and drew until America joined the war, at which point he enlisted.

On his return he revived Sparky (a physical superman, sans costume, whose wild and wacky adventures were at once a spoof of the ubiquitous mystery men and a snappy, surreal satire on the American Way) for Columbia Comics and created a number of other properties, all in the comedy, teen and gag genres that rose in popularity as the costumed heroes diminished. Obviously seeing another sea-change coming, Rogers retired from the industry at age 48 to open a small chain of art shops in Arizona. He passed away in 1996.

Boody Rogers’ style of work is far more amenable to a British audience reared on Desperate Dan, Pansy Potter and the unrestrained genius of Ken Reid or Leo Baxendale than the rather anodyne fare of post-war America. His wild perambulations and freewheeling style of gag-upon-gag narrative often skirted bounds of taste (as all great humour should) and his influence, as much as Basil Wolverton and EC Comics, can be clearly seen throughout the Underground Comix revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

The material collected here all comes from Sparky Watts, Babe, Dudley and the anthology title Big Shot Comics and the years 1948-1950. Although to my mind inadequately referenced (I’d love to know which stories appeared exactly when and where), the broad range of tales perfectly illustrates the kind of manic energy and absurdist invention typified by the “Screwball comedies” of the thirties and the madcap pace of the teen movement as immortalised by Bob Montana’s Archie, with arcane dialogue, quick-fire set-ups and punch-lines building one upon another. Rather than being dated, these works – at least to this old coot – have great resonance with the youth culture of today.

They’re also beautifully drawn and a total hoot.

Babe (“the Amazon of the Ozarks”) was a rustic and rambunctious take on Li’l Abner; a physically perfect hottie no man could resist – or beat –  who appeared in Big Shot and Sparky Watts Comics as well as eleven issues of her own title. Following her premiere appearance, we’re also treated to ‘Hideout’ as movie heartthrob Clark Sable tries to escape the onerous attentions of his fans by masquerading as Babe’s dowager cousin Fanny, ‘the Secret of Lighting Juice Tea’ reveals the origins of the hillbilly lass’ rude health, ‘Mrs. Gooseflesh’ is a murderous lady-wrestler who met Babe in the Canvas ring, and ‘the Mysterious Case of Mystery Mountain!’ recounts the peculiarly fetishistic lives of Ozark centaurs living on top of an isolated plateau. Fans in the know will be intrigued to discover that Bondage artist Eric Stanton began his drawing career as Rogers’ assistant…

Jasper Fudd is a prim and prudish, dim-witted yokel who unexpectedly goes to college where he discovers he can run like the wind – given the right motivation – and this was decades before Forest Gump’s mum ever got her first box of chocolates, whilst Dudley, the Prince of Prance is a excellent – if now bewildering – example of the teen oriented strip that spread like measles in the post-war years. Following the Archie/Andy Hardy model, every publisher chased the older kid market with impenetrable tales of Sock-Hops, Jalopies, music that parents couldn’t stand, young love and obnoxious siblings. Gosharootie, how things have changed…

Sparky Watts is the undisputed star, an affable everyman with amazing powers who always seems to be getting into scrapes. He doesn’t fight crime, but empowered by Cosmic Rays which tend to shrink him to microscopic sizes when they fade, he often found himself in strange places meeting the most peculiar creatures, aided (although that’s not really the correct term) by his assistant Slap Happy and the eminent Doc Static.

As well as 10 issues of his own title and the 1943 one-shot Columbia Comics, Boody’s Sparky appeared in Big Shot from #14 (June 1941) through #42, and again from #77-104, whilst other, lesser lights handled the strip during Roger’s war service. The six episodes included here are all from the post-war period but wonderfully display the surreal punch and eye for visual characterisation that exemplified Roger’s work.

This comfortingly substantial tome is a wonderful introduction to a comics master who never disappointed, working in a genre most comics fans won’t even be aware of these days. That’s their loss: don’t let it be yours…

All stories are public domain but the specific restored images and design are © 2009 Fantagraphics Books. All Rights Reserved.

Blackhawk Archives Volume 1


By Will Eisner, Chuck Cuidera, Reed Crandall & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-700-8

The early days of the American comicbook industry were awash with both opportunity and talent and these factors also coincided with a vast population hungry for cheap entertainment. Comics had no fans or collectors; only a large market-place open to all varied aspects of yarn-spinning and tale-telling. Thus, even though loudly isolationist and more than six months away from active inclusion in World War II, creators like Will Eisner and publishers like Everett M. (better known as “Busy”) Arnold felt that Americans were ready for the themed anthology title Military Comics.

Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.

Military Comics #1 launched on May 30th 1941 (with an August off-sale or cover-date) and included in its gritty, two-fisted line-up Death Patrol by Jack Cole, Miss America, Fred Guardineer’s Blue Tracer, X of the Underground, the Yankee Eagle, Q-Boat, Shot and Shell, Archie Atkins and Loops and Banks by “Bud Ernest” (actually aviation-nut and unsung comics genius Bob Powell), but none of the strips, not even Cole’s surreal and suicidal team of hell-bent fliers, had the instant cachet and sheer appeal of Eisner and Powell’s “Foreign Legion of the Air” led by the charismatic Dark Knight known only as Blackhawk.

Chuck Cuidera, already famed for creating The Blue Beetle for Fox, drew ‘the Origin of Blackhawk’ for the first issue, wherein a lone pilot fighting the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 was shot down by Nazi Ace Von Tepp, who then went on to bomb the farmhouse sheltering the pilot’s family. Rising from his plane’s wreckage the distraught pilot vows vengeance…

Two years later, with the Nazis in control of most of Europe Von Tepp’s unassailable position is threatened by a mysterious paramilitary squadron of unbeatable fliers, dedicated to crushing injustice and smashing the Axis war-machine…

Eisner wrote the first four Blackhawk episodes and Cuidera stayed aboard until issue #11 – although the artist would return in later years. Many of the stories were originally untitled but have been conveniently characterized with such stirring designations as issue #2’s ‘The Coward Dies Twice’ wherein the team – “the last free men of the conquered countries” offer a deserter from a Spitfire Squadron a chance to redeem himself…

The easy mix of patriotism, adventure and slapstick was magnified by the inclusion of Chop-Chop in ‘The Doomed Squadron’: a comedy Chinaman painful to see through modern eyes, but a stock type considered almost as mandatory as a heroic leading man in those dark days, and not just in comics. At least the man was a brave and formidable fighter both on the ground and in a plane.

‘Desert Death’ took the team to Suez for the first of many memorable Arabian adventures as Nazi agitators attempted to foment a revolution among the tribesmen that would destroy the British. This tale was also notable for the introduction of a type of sexy siren beloved of Eisner and Quality Comics that would populate the strip until DC bought the property in 1957. There was also a secret map of Blackhawk Island, mysterious base of the ebon-clad freedom fighters.

With issue #5 Dick French assumed the writing role and ‘Scavengers of Doom’ tells a biting tale of battlefield looters allied to a Nazi mastermind setting an inescapable trap for the heroic fliers. More importantly French began to provide distinct and discrete characters for the previously anonymous minor players. In #6 the rapidly gelling team joined the frantic hunt for a germ weapon the Gestapo were desperate to possess in the spectacular alpine adventure ‘The Vial of Death’ whilst #7 (the first issue released after America joined the War – although the stories had not yet caught up to reality) found the boys prowling the Mongolian Steppe on horseback to thwart ‘The Return of Genghis Khan’.

‘The Sunken Island of Death’ from #8 was a striking maritime romp as the warring powers battled to possess an island freshly risen from the Atlantic depths strategically equidistant between The US, Britain and Festung Europa (that’s what the Nazis called the fortress they had made of mainland Europe). Although complete in itself it was also the first of an experimental, thematic three-part saga that stretched the way comics stories were told.

There were many melodramatic touches that made the Blackhawks so memorable in the eyes of a wide-eyed populace of thrill-hungry kids. There was the cool, black leather uniforms and peaked caps. The unique – but real – Grumman F5F-1 Skyrocket planes they flew from their secret island base and their eerie battle-cry “Hawkaaaaa!” But perhaps the oddest idiosyncrasy to modern readers was that they had their own song which André, Stanislaus, Olaf, Chuck, Hendrickson and Chop-Chop would sing as they dived into battle. And just to be informative and inclusive the music and lyrics were published in this issue and are re-presented here – just remember this is written for seven really tough guys to sing while dodging bullets…

Military #9 led with ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ as the team discovered that a fallen comrade did not actually die but was hideously disfigured saving them, whilst the next issue’s tale ‘Trapped in the Devil’s Oven’ was another desert adventure which focused on the new science of plastic surgery and restored said hero to full fighting trim. Issue #11, Cuidera’s last, saw the squadron turn their attention to Japan – as reality caught up with publishing schedules. Intriguingly, ‘Fury in the Philippines’ starts quietly with the entire team calmly discussing carrying on against the Nazis or switching their attentions to the Pacific Theatre of Operations, until comedy relief Chop-Chop sways the debaters with an impassioned stand. Though inarguably an offensive stereotype visually, the Chinese warrior was often given the best lines and most memorable actions. A subversive attempt to shake up those hide-bound prejudices, perhaps?

Notwithstanding, the resultant mission against the Japanese fleet was a cataclysmic Battle Royale, full of the kind of vicarious pay-back that demoralized Americans needed to see.

‘The Curse of Xanukhara’ added fantasy elements to the gritty mix of blood and iron as the team’s hunt for a stolen code book led them to occupied Borneo and even Tokyo; a classy espionage thriller that marked the start of a superlative run of thrillers illustrated by the incredible Reed Crandall. The artist’s realistic line and the graceful poise of his work – especially on exotic femmes fatale and trustworthy Girls-next-door – made his strips an absolute joy to behold.

‘Blackhawk vs. The Butcher’ (#13, November 1942) written by new regular scripter Bill Woolfolk returned the team to Nazi territory as a fleeing Countess turned the team’s attention to the most sadistic Gauleiter (Nazi regional leader in charge of a conquered territory) in the German Army. What follows is a spectacular saga of justice and righteous vengeance, whilst ‘Tondeleyo’ was a different kind of thriller as an exotic siren used her almost unholy allure to turn the entire team against each other.

The quasi-supernatural overtones held firm in the stirring ‘Men Who Never Came Back’ when the team travelled to India to foil a Japanese plot, in a portmanteau tale narrated by three witches, Trouble Terror and Mystery, eerily presaging the EC horror classics that would cement Crandall’s artistic reputation more than a decade later.

‘Blackhawk vs. the Fox’ pitted the heroes against a Nazi strategic wizard (a clear reference to the epic victories of Erwin Rommel) in the burning sands of Libya, one of the most authentic battle tales in the canon, and this volume concludes with a racy tale of vengeance and tragedy as Japanese traitor Yoshi uses her wiles to punish the military government of Nippon, with Blackhawk as her unwitting tool in ‘The Golden Bell of Soong-Toy!’

These stories were produced at a pivotal moment in both comics and world history, a blend of weary sophistication and glorious, juvenile bravado. Like the best movies of the time, Casablanca, Foreign Correspondent, Freedom Radio, Captain of the Clouds, The Day Will Dawn, The First of the Few, In Which we Serve and all the rest with their understated, overblown way of accepting duty and loss, these rousing tales of the miracles that good men can do are some of the Golden Age’s finest moments. In fact these are some of the best comics stories of their time and I sincerely wish DC had proceeded with further collections. And so will you…

© 1941-1942, 2001 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN


By Lee Falk and Fred Fredericks (Tempo Books)
ISBN: 0-448-16473-6

Regarded by many as the first American superhero, Mandrake the Magician debuted on 11th June 1934 (although creator Lee Falk had first tried to sell the strip a decade previously) illustrated with effective understatement by the superb Phil Davis.

Educated at the fabled College of Magic in the Himalayas, the suave sorcerer roamed the world with his faithful African friend Lothar and his beautiful companion (and finally, in 1997, bride) Princess Narda of Cockaigne, solving crimes and fighting evil. Star of stage, screen (large and small), radio and a thousand forms of merchandising, Mandrake has always been one of the top guns of the comics powerhouse King Features Syndicate, but inexplicably has seldom had his past exploits collected or reprinted.

This mass-market paperback book from 1979 (the same year that an above-average TV pilot was aired) collects two adventures illustrated by Harold “Fred” Fredericks, who took over the art production when Davis died in 1965, and who assumed full creative duties when Falk himself passed on in 1999.

The first story (from 1976) recounts the mystic champion’s origin by way of introducing his twin brother Derek, who also grew up in the Secret College but uses his powers for tawdry self-gratification and selfish gain. The duel of the siblings was the first of many family battles which continue to this day.

The second tale sees author Falk – who also created the first Costumed hero in the guise of the Phantom – recycle one of his favourite plots as ‘Narda and the Sheik!’ finds one of the richest men in the world enraptured with the lovely princess – to the point of abducting and trying to marry her…

With a major movie lurking somewhere in production limbo this fabulous comicbook archetype looks set for a cultural revival of fortune, so let’s trust that his seventy-five year history is set for a definitive re-release soon.
© 1976, 1979, King Features Syndicate, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon 1949

Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon 1949

By Milton Caniff (Checker Book Publishing Group)
ISBN 0-9710249-1-X

The third collection in the daily travails of Milton Caniff’s post-war aviation adventurer covers the period from February 8th 1949 until February 18th 1950, which those fine people at Checker have subdivided into three episodes for your convenience.

‘Operation Snowflower’ leads off the excitement and originally ran (seven days a week, mind) until May 18th. It opens with Canyon and crew anxiously awaiting news of Happy Easter and the unscrupulous Cheetah who were last seen falling out of Canyon’s plane. However the arrival of ruthless millionairess Copper Calhoon soon distracts them all as she informs them that she now also owns the company which Canyon is working for.

As the post-revolutionary Chinese Republic began to flex its muscles in the build-up to the Korean War, the ever-contemporary Caniff began weaving the snippets of research and speculative news items he scrupulously collected into the grand story unfolding on his drawing board. Ever the patriot, his opinions and pro-“Free World” stance gives some of these strips a somewhat parochial if not outright jingoistic flavour, but as with all fiction viewed through the lens of time passed, context is everything.

Unlike his unpopular stance on Vietnam two decades later, this was not an issue that divided America. However the public and officials of the USA treated Communists and “Pinkos” within their own borders, the Red Menace of Russia and China was real, immediate, and actively working against Western Interests. The real talking point here is not the extent of a creator’s percieved paranoia, but rather the restraint which Caniff showed within his strip compared to what was going on in the world outside it.

Calhoon has Canyon flying uranium ores out of the rugged mountain country, and Red agents are agitating to get the raw materials for their own arms programs. The sabotage and unrest they’ve instigated have made the task dangerous and nearly impossible. As all the hard-bitten pilots continue their task Calhoon pressgangs young Reed Kimberly into becoming a companion for the locals’ mysterious ruler – “the Crag Hag”. Keeping the natives on-side is vital and the reluctant lad is nervous about his diplomatic role, but unbeknownst to all, the fearsome sounding Empress is actually a beautiful young teenager named Snow Flower, hungry to hear about the fabulous land of America, and desperate to see anyone her own age – especially boys!

The situation grows progressively worse as the Communist-backed rebels tighten their encirclement of the capital city of Damma. The fall is a foregone conclusion and Calhoon is making her escape plans whilst her men continue their ore flights out. As the city falls she is wounded, forcing Steve to fly her to safety on the last plane out. The Princess, Reed and the imposing Soldier-of-Fortune Dogie Hogan are forced to flee on foot, in a cracking sequence, pursued by the victorious and vicious rebels. When Canyon flies a rescue mission, only the heartbroken Kimberly awaits him. Snow Flower and Hogan have returned to the mountains to organise a resistance movement to fight the Communists.

‘Dragonflies’ follows, originally running from May 19th to October 9th. Steve and the recuperating Reed are cooling their heels, fretting about their total lack of cash or work, when the larger-than-life author and lecturer Romulus Brandywine commissions Steve to fly him around the highly volatile region on a research trip, accompanied by his secretary, the sassy and capable Summer Smith.

Whilst en route from India to the China coast their plane is forced down by Communist rebels, but after much intrigue and action they escape to become part of an anti-communist Foreign Legion of Pilots fighting a holding action against the seemingly unstoppable Red Hordes: The Dragonfly Squadron of the Western Chinese faction.

As if the ongoing conflict trapping the valiant fliers were not enough grief, Steve and Summer’s mutual attraction causes friction amongst the men, but when the hero finds himself once again in a last ditch siege, there’s a pleasant surprise in store as Happy Easter turns up, leading a division of anti-Red cavalry to – temporarily – save the day.

‘Teammates’ began on October 10th 1949 and ran well into 1950 (although this book concludes with February 18th instalment). It introduces a possible rival and definite complication with the unwanted arrival of a new flier at the temporarily reprieved airbase. Doe Redwood is an air-ace who flew half-way around the world to join the fight, in a brand-new top-of-the-line fighter plane, infinitely superior to the crates the veterans use. But she’s a woman and therefore trouble…

No sooner has the dust settled from the traditional culture-clash, battle-of-the-sexes than Steve and Doe have to go undercover into Communist-held territory to liberate vitally needed parts and supplies. However the mission goes spectacularly wrong when they encounter and old friend and foe – svelte Soviet Submarine commander Captain Akoola – and her ward Convoy…

Exotic, frenetic, full of traditional values and as always, captivating in both word and picture, this is another old-fashioned, unreconstructed delight. Caniff was the master of the daily strip drama and he always will be.

© 2004, Checker Book Publishing Group, an authorized collection of works
© Ester Parsons Caniff Estate 1949, 1950. All characters and distinctive likenesses thereof are trademarks of the Ester Parsons Caniff Estate. All Rights Reserved.

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 1

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol 1

By Hergé (Egmont UK)
ISBN 10: 1-4052-2894-6
ISBN 13: 978-1-4052-2894-7

This lavish new series of editions collects the Adventures of Tintin in chronological order beginning with Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, which was one of the last to be released in English.

Georges Prosper Remi, known all over the world as Hergé, created a genuine masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and the Hergé Studio, he created twenty three splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art. Like Charles Dickens with the Mystery of Edwin Drood, he died while working, and Tintin and Alph-Art remains a volume without a conclusion, but still a fascinating examination – and a pictorial memorial of how the artist worked.

It’s only fair though, to ascribe a substantial proportion of credit to the many translators whose diligent contributions have enabled the series to be understood and beloved in 38 languages. The subtle, canny, witty and slyly funny English versions are the work of Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner.

On leaving school in 1925 he worked for the Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he seems to have fallen under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A dedicated boy-scout himself, Remi produced his first strip series The Adventures of Totor for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine the following year, and by 1928 he was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécle’s children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme. He was unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette, written by the staff sports reporter when Abbot Wallez asked him to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate the innovation into his own work. He would produce a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning on January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments in Le Petit Vingtiéme running until May 8th 1930.

The boy – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul, a soldier in the Belgian Army – and his dog Milou (‘Snowy’ to us Brits) reported back from the Godless Russias. The strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was the foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme.

Arriving in Russia the dog and his boy are subjected to a series of attacks and tricks in a vain attempt by the Soviets to prevent the truth of their economic progress, popular feeling and world aspirations being revealed to the Free World. In a progression of fights, chases, slapstick accidents and vain attempts to bribe and corrupt him, a hint of the capable, decent and resourceful hero can be seen.

As Tintin “gets away clean” in all manner of fast machines, lovingly rendered in a stylised meta-realistic manner not yet used for the human characters (an obvious forerunner of Hergé’s Ligne Clairé drawing style) and makes his way back across Europe to his rapturous welcome in Belgium the personalities of the characters move beyond action-ciphers towards the more fully realised universal boy-hero we all know today.

The strip itself is very much a work-in-progress, primitive both in narrative and artistic execution. But amidst the simplified line, hairsbreadth chases and simplistic anti-communistic polemic there is something… an intriguing hint of things to come.

Where the first tale is simple black and white, Tintin in the Congo is much more stylistically familiar to modern readers. This tale, which originally ran in Le Petit Vingtiéme from June 1930 until June 1931, was radically restructured in 1946 for release as a collected album, and later, a page featuring a Rhino, a hand-drill and a stick of dynamite was replaced with a much funnier scene.

Still hampered by his weekly, episodic format Tintin and Snowy take ship for The Belgian Congo where they perforce have many little adventures, but also uncover a plot by Al Capone to take control of Africa’s diamond trade. This revised version features a Tintin retrofitted for both artistic and commercial reasons. By 1946 there had been thirteen full adventures and the characters were fully developed. It was both logical and preferable that new readers be presented with a consistent vision. And as Hergé had grown as both author and artist the album editions gave him an opportunity to rectify some earlier decisions that he regretted.

When producing work for a perpetual deadline not only are you trapped by the urgent need to finish and move on, but you are imprisoned in the context of your own times. When ‘The Congo’ ran in 1930-1931, representations of ethnicities and more importantly the attitudes of a Belgium that was still a Colonial Power informed the text and probably influenced the Catholic newspaper that paid for the strip. In later years Hergé admitted to deeply regretting much of his early work, and took every opportunity to repair it.

A scene in which natives are taught that they are happy Belgians was gladly replaced with a maths lesson and many images and scenes were subtly altered to enhance the standing and image of native Africans. The recent controversy regarding ethnic depictions in historical comics (and remember this tale is seventy-seven years old) seems doubly cynical and politically self-serving when one considers that Hergé was rectifying what he saw as racial slurs in the 1940s whilst modern society only acknowledged there might be a problem less than thirty years ago. For every black African waving a spear and shield in this story there’s another in a suit, a uniform or tee shirt.

These two adventures might be faux-controversial but they are also highly readable, joyous, thrilling, exuberant and deeply informative for any fan of the comic strip medium. And although they can be read singly, since Hergé was an early proponent of extended continuity, the early tales are actually necessary reading if you want a better understanding of the Tintin masterpieces to come.

But I do have one wistful caveat…

Many older readers were exposed to these stories in gorgeous, brilliantly coloured, oversized editions – myself included – and I wish these lovely little hardbacks weren’t quite so little, and were a bit less muted in the colour reproduction. Nothing blows a kid away quite as much as turning a big page and seeing a great big superbly rendered image.

Still, these new editions do fit in a jacket pocket…

Tintin in the Land of the Soviets: artwork © 1999Editions Casterman, Paris& Tournai.
Text ©1999, 2007Casterman/Moulinsart. All Rights Reserved.
Tintin in the Congo: artwork © 1946, 1974 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai.
Text © 2005 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.