Dashiell Hammett’s Secret Agent X-9

By Dashiell Hammett, Leslie Charteris and Alex Raymond (iPL)
ISBN: 0-930330-5-6-995

If you’re a fan of crime and adventure fiction or in any way familiar with the 1930’s the names Dashiell Hammett, Leslie Charteris and Alex Raymond will be ones you know. What you might not be so aware of is their brief shared endeavour on one of the most respected and beloved of American newspaper strips.

In the 1930’s the power of newspaper strips to capture and hold vast audiences was unsurpassed (see The Adventurous Decade for further details). When the revolutionary Dick Tracy launched in 1931 for the Chicago Tribune-News Syndicate, it caused a sensation, and gritty, two-fisted crime-busting heroes became the order of the day. Publishers Syndicate released Dan Dunn, Secret Operative 48 as a response in 1933, and the usually quick-acting William Randolph Hearst was forced to respond from the back foot.

He ordered Joe Connelly, head of King Features, to produce their own He-Man G-Man, and to spare no expense. That meant pursuing America’s most popular mystery writer, who luckily for them spent money like water.

Despite having just released his fifth novel The Thin Man (following The Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key), being a regular and popular contributor to Pulps such as Black Mask and having recently established himself as a major Hollywood screenwriter, the ex-Pinkerton detective was a hard-living firebrand who lived “a life on the edge” and could always use more money.

The artist was to be, after a casting call that included Will (Red Barry) Gould and major illustrator Russell Patterson, a young man named Alexander Raymond, who since working as an assistant on such popular strips as Tillie the Toiler, Blondie and Tim Tyler’s Luck, had just been signed by Hearst to produce a new Sunday strip to challenge the science fiction blockbuster Buck Rogers. As well as his own Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim, Raymond would illustrate one of the most high-profile crime strips of the decade.

Secret Agent X-9 launched as a daily strip on January 22nd 1934 and ran until 10th February 1996 having been handled by some of the biggest and most talented names in comics (including a succession of writers using the King Features house nom de plume Robert Storm), artists Charles Flanders, Mel Graff – who renamed him “Secret Agent Corrigan”, Bob Lubbers, Archie Goodwin, Al Williamson and George Evans.

The hero himself was based in large part on Hammett’s first creation “The Continental Op”, who debuted in 1923 and starred in both Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, but there are also powerful touches of Sam Spade and Nick Charles (hero of but not ever ‘The Thin Man’) in the first year of continuities which introduce the ruthless, relentless detective/quasi-official agent of a nameless Federal organisation dedicated and driven to crushing America’s foes and protecting the innocent.

This collection of the first few tumultuous years begins with ‘You’re the Top’: an introductory tale of a criminal mastermind who uses murder and extortion to undermine society – a fairly common plot elevated to near genius by the sharp plotting and dialogue of Hammett, who was allowed to build the tale and unleash narrative twists at his preferred pace. This first saga took seven breathtaking months to unfold, with Raymond’s clean beautiful lines depicting victims and vamps, the highest of society and lowest of dregs and a frankly startling bodycount…

This was followed by ‘The Mystery of the Silent Guns’ wherein the anonymous X-9 comes to the rescue of a kidnapped millionaire industrialist, a breakneck thriller that ranges from the big city to the wild wide-open prairies and features a spectacular mid-air duel of guns and parachutes.

Although his work was impressive, Hammett’s lifestyle and attitude were a continuing problem for Connelly. Deadlines were missed and it was clear that the writer was bored and losing all interest in the strip. At some unspecified stage of ‘The Martyn Case’ Hammett left King Features with Raymond and unnamed writers concluded the tale of young Jill Martyn, a pawn in a custody battle between rich aunt and dissolute, destitute mother. Of course it’s not just a legal struggle once beatings, abduction and machine guns enter the equation…

Hammett plotted ‘The Torch Case Case’ but again other diverse hands brought the tale to fruition, in a smooth a sexy drama that found X-9 joining the FBI to crack a counterfeiting case. It was April 20th 1935. The next two cases, ‘The Iron Claw Case’ and ‘The Egyptian Jewel Case’ were both written by in-house scripters and for at least part of the first tale the art was “ghosted” (probably by Austin Briggs), whilst a major relaunch of the strip, which never really caught on with the general public, was undertaken.

Casting around for another major name the syndicate decided on British writer Leslie Charteris whose roguish 1928 creation Simon Templar: The Saint (in Meet – the Tiger!) had been followed by 14 immensely popular sequels by the time King Features invited him to assume control of X-9 (he wrote another 36 saint sagas between 1936 and 1978) and was poised to take America by storm thanks to a series of B-Movies starring his affable anti-hero.

Charteris added a kind of suave, capable malice to the character that any fan of James Bond will instantly recognise, but he also produced all but a handful of stories before moving on. This book concludes with his first, and the only one which Alex Raymond drew before he too left – to concentrate of the increasingly successful Flash Gordon.

‘The Fixer’ began on November 25th 1935, and saw the anonymous operative hunting down a criminal quartermaster who provided hardware and supplies for the underworld; a fast-paced whodunit stuffed with sleazy thugs and hot dames that literally rockets to an explosive conclusion.

These early tales of crime-busting and gangsters may not have satisfied Citizen Hearst’s ambitions but they were strong enough to fuel more than five decades of captivating action-packed adventure. This little known collection, produced by an academic publisher, proves (to me at least, and you if you can track down a copy) that the time has never been better for a new and complete chronological collection of this legendary strip.
Story and art © 1983 King Features Syndicate, Ltd. All other material © 1983 International Polygonics, Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Definitive Prince Valiant Companion

Compiled by Brian M. Kane, with an introduction by Ray Bradbury (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-305-7

One of the greatest and most successful comic strips of all time, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur launched on Sunday 13th February 1937, a glorious weekly full-colour window not onto the past but rather onto what history should have been. It followed the life and adventures of a refugee boy driven by invaders from his homeland who rose to become one of the mightiest heroes of the age of Camelot.

Created by the incredible Harold “Hal” Foster, the noble lad grew to manhood in a heady sea of wonderment, siring a dynasty and roaming the globe whilst captivating and influencing generations of readers and thousands of creative types in all the arts. There have been films, cartoon series, and all manner of toys, games and collections based the strip – one of the few to have lasted from the thunderous thirties to the present day (over 3750 episodes and counting) and even in these declining days of the newspaper strip as a viable medium it still claims over 300 American papers as its home.

Foster wrote and illustrated the strip until he retired in 1971 when, after auditioning such notables as Wally Wood and Gray Morrow, Big Ben Bolt artist John Cullen Murphy was selected by Foster to continue the legend. In 2004 Cullen retired (he died a month later on July 2nd) and the strip has soldiered on under the extremely talented auspices of Mark Schultz and Gary Gianni ever since.

This glorious book – available in both hardback and softcover – is a complete updating of a 1992 celebratory edition, and features a complete story index and précising of the 3757 adventures to date, including a summary and overview of Val’s life; some key historic interviews and articles on the creators gathered over the years from such disparate sources as Everyday Magazine, the St Louis Dispatch and The Comics Journal covering Foster’s last recorded interview, an examination of Cullen Murphy’s pre-Valiant career, a look at the contribution of both Murphy and uncredited “ghost penciller” Frank Bolle and a brand new appreciation of Schultz and Gianni’s tenure.

A well as a copious and fascinating collection of printed pages, unpublished art, working drawings and candid photographs this superb black and white book also houses a sixteen page full-colour selection of episodes from each creator.

Beautiful, captivating and utterly awe-inspiring Prince Valiant is a World Classic of storytelling, and this book is something no fan should be without. If however you have never experienced the majesty and grandeur of the strip this thoroughly readable and tantalising appreciation might also be your gateway to a life-changing world of wonder and imagination…

Prince Valiant © 2009 King Features Syndicate. All other content and properties © 2009 their respective creators or holders. All rights reserved.

Moon Mullins: Two Adventures

By Frank H. Willard (Dover)
ISBN: 0-486-23237-9

An immensely popular newspaper strip in its day, Moon Mullins grew out of gentle – if rambunctious – Irish ethnic humour to become the comedy soap opera (one of the very first of its kind) that everybody followed.

Create by Frank Willard, a two-fisted, no-nonsense type with a cracking ear for dialogue, an unerring eye for social faux pas and an incorrigible sense of fun, the strip debuted on June 19th 1923. Willard wrote and drew both the dailies and Sunday segments until his death in 1958, whereupon his assistant Ferdinand “Ferd” Johnson (who had begun working with Willard scant months after the strip launched, and continued even whilst working on his own strips Texas Slim and Lovey-Dovey) assumed full authorship until his retirement in 1991 – an uninterrupted tenure of 68 years.

The Feature was marketed around the globe by the mighty Chicago Tribune/New York News Syndicate, and recounted the raucous, hand-to-mouth, lowbrow life and tribulations of Moonshine Mullins, lovable rogue and unsuccessful prize-fighter who was just getting by in tough circumstances, spending his time in bars, on the streets and most tellingly at the pokey boarding house of Emmy Schmaltz, located at 1323 Wump Street. Mullins was amiable and good-natured, liked to fight, loved to gamble, was slick with the ladies and had the worst friends imaginable…

He also had an iconic little brother, named Kayo, who was the visual prototype for all those tough kid heroes in Derby Hats that populated Simon & Kirby’s early work. Brooklyn and Scrapper and all those other two-fisted, langwitch-mangling’ cynical, sassy tykes took their cues from the kid who often had the last word. The other mainstay of the strip was lanky landlady Emmy Schmaltz, a nosy interfering busybody with inflated airs and graces and a grand line in infectious catchphrases.

Other regulars included Uncle Willie – Moon’s totally dissolute bad relation; the saucy, flighty flapper (Little) Egypt – our hero’s occasional girlfriend, a dead ringer for silent film sensation Louise Brooks and, incomprehensibly, Emmy’s niece, and Mushmouth – a black character who will make modern audiences wince with pain – although, in this strip which celebrated and venerated working class culture, he was far more friend than foil or patsy.

One final regular was the affluent Lord Plushbottom, whose eye for the ladies – particularly Egypt – constantly brought him to Emmy’s boarding house. At the period of this review he is a jolly English bachelor, completely unaware that the spidery spinster has set her cap for him. In 1933, after a decade of hilarious pursuit, she finally got her man.

This still readily available book collects and reprints two marvellous extended adventures which were originally formatted and released in 1929 and 1931 by Cupples & Leon – a publishing company which specialized in reprinting popular strips in lush, black and white albums; very much a precursor of both comic-books and today’s graphic novels.

In the first story Mullins is given a car in payment for $30 he foolishly lent Emmy’s ne’er-do-well brother Ziggy, unaware the vehicle is stolen. This is a delightful shambolic, knockabout episode with striking slapstick and clever intrigues which result in the entire cast behind bars at one time or another. It should be remembered that the cops in these circumstances are always everybody’s enemy and fools to themselves…

The second tale describes how Lord Plushbottom treats Emmy and Egypt to a Florida holiday unaware that he’s also paying for Moon and Mushmouth to join them after a brilliantly inventive and madcap road-trip.

Each adventure is delivered via the incredibly difficult method of one complete gag-strip per day combining to form an over-arching narrative… and they’re all wonderfully drawn and still funny.

Moon Mullins was one of the key strips in the development of both cartooning and graphic narrative; hugely influential, vastly, constantly entertaining and perfectly drawn. With such a wealth of brilliant material surely it’s only a matter of time until some fine publisher releases a definitive series of collected editions. Until then there’s always this…
© 1929, 1931 The Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: Green Cobra

By Peter O’Donnell, John Burns & Pat Wright (Titan Books)
ISBN 13: 1-84576-420-3

Titan Books’ marvellous series re-presentation the classic British newspaper strip continues and concludes a period of artistic instability with this fourteenth volume (encompassing April 2nd 1979 to May 23rd 1980) as the superb John M. Burns finishes his groundbreaking and far too brief tenure as illustrator on the World’s Greatest Adventure Heroine, abruptly replaced mid-strip by veteran Pat Wright – who also didn’t stick around for very long…

Burns had worked on Junior Express and School Friend but really began his auspicious rise as part of the team of artists who worked on the Gerry Anderson licensed titles TV Century 21 and its sister magazines (he is fondly remembered for Space Family Robinson in Lady Penelope). He drew strips for The Daily Sketch, Daily Mirror and Sun with long, acclaimed runs on The Seekers and the saucy strip Danielle, before briefly and controversially taking over Modesty Blaise.

He has since worked on TV-based series for Look-In and Countdown and found a welcome home in the legendary British science fiction comic 2000AD, where he works on Judge Dredd, Nikolai Dante and his own Bendatti Vendetta.

Although Burns only drew 272 consecutive daily strips, his influence on Modesty was marked and long-lasting. His deft ability with nib and brush are highlighted here with a further complimentary feature reprinting 6 more of the illustrations he drew for O’Donnell’s Modesty prose novels. Also included is another text feature on the oddly arbitrary editorial censorship the strip endured at this period, and particularly the rather heavy-handed manner in which Cartoon Editor Gerald Lip was ordered by Evening Standard Editor Charles Wintour to summarily fire Burns, and ten months later, after only 198 strips, Wright as well, in just as brusque and inexplicable a manner. To this day no one why they were dismissed.

Of Pat Wright himself I know very little, other than he is an exceptionally talented draughtsman, well capable of handling a dramatic feature like Modesty, and also a highly skilled comedy cartoonist working in both line and painted colour. He looks to have been one of the artists used by Fleetway in the late 1970’s on such titles as Action and Valiant (but I’m only guessing here). Just another unsung hero of an industry far too reticent in giving credit where it’s due…

Modesty and Willie Garvin are ex-criminals who retired young, rich and healthy from a career where they made far too many enemies. They were slowly dying of boredom in England when British Spymaster Sir Gerald Tarrant offered them a chance to have fun, get back into harness and do a bit of good in the world. Accepting, they have never looked back…

This volume begins with the eponymous ‘Green Cobra’ and finds Burns at his most effective in a sly and gripping tale of intrigue wherein a band of professional espionage agents kidnap Tarrant’s right hand man Fraser, with a view to breaking and selling him to the highest bidder.

This is a tale rich in character, which spends some welcome time on the bit-players for a change, although when Modesty and Willie go into action against the devilish Dr. Vigo and Pandora, an death-crazed assassin who covets Modesty’s hard-earned reputation, the pace is hectic and the action non-stop. Full of twists and clever subterfuge, this tripartite struggle between Tarrant’s agents, established enemy network Salamander Four and the mysterious new organisation Green Cobra all add to one of the most captivating Modesty yarns ever.

‘Eve and Adam’ is a deliciously quirky tale blending whimsy with terrifyingly grim geopolitical horrors as millionaire philanthropist Dan Galt throws a party for Modesty and Willie, before drugging and transporting them to an isolated part of Africa. It transpires that Galt is dying and believes that humanity will soon follow him. Determined that the race will not be lost he dumps his guests naked and helpless in his new Garden of Eden expecting them to repopulate the world after we’re all gone.

Sadly the old duffer has made a few wrong assumptions. Firstly, Modesty and Willie are simply unable to relate to each other sexually – their bond is far deeper than that. Secondly, the world just isn’t that big anymore: Galt’s oasis in the middle of a desert is disputed territory warring African nations are seeking to control, and finally, his new Adam and Eve are never helpless…

As the pair are preparing to trek out of the desert a satellite crashes into their garden, carrying geological data that the state of Burenzi and its opponent nations will kill to possess. Before too long a small unit from the former and a large troop of mercenaries from the latter have invaded paradise, and they’re not the kind of people who leave witnesses…

Burns was fired without warning or explanation four weeks into this saga and Pat Wright deftly took over just as the bloodshed of a brutal war of attrition escalated, with Modesty and Willie making alliances and picking off ruthless soldiers in a gritty, effective contemporary thriller.

This volume, and Wright’s artistic tenure end with a thoroughly engaging Christmas themed crime-mystery ‘Brethren of Blaise’ which finds our tarnished heroes exposing a criminal scheme perpetrated against one of England’s most impoverished aristocratic families. Hidden treasure, nasty murders and a delightfully thrilling supernatural frosting combined with superb humour and action make this an exception tale in an often grim canon.

During this tale, and once more for no apparent reason, Editor Wintour had Modesty’s illustrator fired. His replacement, Neville Colvin, managed to survive a while longer…but that’s a tale for another graphic novel and a different review.

Originally a newspaper strip created by Peter O’Donnell and drawn by the brilliant Jim Holdaway, Modesty and her charismatic partner in crime (and latterly crime-busting) Willie Garvin have also starred in 13 prose novels and short story collections, two films, one TV pilot, a radio play and nearly one hundred comic strip adventures between 1963 and the strip’s conclusion in 2002. She has been syndicated world-wide, and Holdaway’s version has been cited as an artistic influence by many major comic artists.

These are unbeatable stories from a brilliant writer and his greatest creation; timeless tales of crime and punishments more enthralling now than ever, and which never fail to deliver maximum thrills and enjoyment. It’s never too late to embrace your Modesty…

© 2008 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.

Casey Ruggles: in Old Angeles – Selected Daily Strips 1950-1951

By Warren Tufts (Western Winds Productions)

Warren Tufts was a phenomenally talented illustrator and storyteller born too late. He is best remembered now – if at all – for creating two of the most beautiful western comics strips of all time, but at a time when the glory days of newspaper syndicated strips was gradually giving way to the television age. Had he been working scant years earlier in adventure’s Golden Age he would undoubtedly be a household name – at least in comics fans’ homes.

Born in Fresno, California on 12th December 1925, Tufts was a superb, meticulous craftsman with a canny grasp of character and a great ear for dialogue whose art was stately in a representational manner and favourably compared to both Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and the best of Alex Raymond. On May 22nd 1949 he began the seminal Casey Ruggles – A Saga of the West as a colour Sunday page, following with a daily black and white strip beginning on September 19th of that year, working for the United Features Syndicate, who owned such landmark strips as Fritzi Ritz and L’il Abner.

Ruggles was a dynamic ex-cavalry sergeant and sometime US Marshal making his way to California in 1849 to find his fortune (the storyline of both features until 1950, where daily and Sunday strips divided into separate tales), meeting historical personages like Millard Fillmore, William Fargo, Jean Lafitte and Kit Carson in gripping two-fisted action-adventures. The lush, expansive tales were crisply told and highly engaging, but Tufts, a compulsive perfectionist, regularly worked 80-hour weeks at the drawing board and consequently often missed deadlines.

This led him to use many assistants such as Al Plastino, Rueben Moreira and Edmund Good. Established veterans Nick Cardy and Alex Toth also spent time working as “ghosts” (uncredited assistants and fill-in artists) on the series.

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

Tufts created his own syndicate for his next and greatest project, Lance (probably the last great full page Sunday strip and another series crying out for a high-quality collection) before moving peripherally into comic-books, working extensively for West Coast outfit Dell/Gold Key, where he drew various westerns and cowboy TV show tie-ins like Wagon Train, Korak son of Tarzan, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan and a long run on the Pink Panther comic. Eventually he quit drawing completely, working as an actor, voice-actor and eventually in animation on such shows as Challenge of the Super Friends.

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

The Pacific Comics Club collected many “lost strip classics” at the start of the 1980s, including a number of Casey Ruggles adventures. This third colossal black and white volume (approximately 15 inches x 10 inches) contains stories that highlight Tufts’ love of Western history and delightful facility for comedy and satire in three tales from the peak of the strip’s run.

The first of these is a wonderfully whacky history lesson. ‘The Pomo Uprising’ which originally ran from 20th November 1950 – 17th February 1951, described a little remembered period of West Coast lore.

In 1812 expansionist Russians annexed what are now Northern California, Oregon and Washington State to augment their possessions in Alaska. For nearly thirty years Cossacks and fur traders operated out of the colonial base Fort Ross until over-hunting and changing politics at home forced the Tsar to sell the entire kit and caboodle.

In this tale Casey is asked by an old friend to assess the value of Fort Ross – which he has recently purchased – just as a column of Russians explorers, lost for a decade, return utterly unaware that their old home now belongs to the USA. Refusing to believe their changing fortunes they declare war on the Yankee interlopers and bribe the local Pomo Indians to attack the American outpost of San Francisco…

Spectacular action and barbed wit mix brilliantly in this clever tale (crafted during the early days of the Cold War) and which features a classy star turn for Casey’s Indian sidekick Kit Fox, before the epic segues into pure comedy as Casey’s sometimes girlfriend Chris is abducted in (and by) ‘Old Ancient’ a grizzled dime-store owlhoot in a mood for marrying – a wicked parody of silver screen cowboy William Boyd whose super-sanitized Hopalong Cassidy wowed generations of movie and TV viewers who might perhaps have been better served by picking up a history book instead…

This volume concludes with a return to authentic Western action in the eponymous ‘In Old Angeles’ wherein the Marshal is summoned to the newly American city to halt a gang of miners who claim to own the entire city and are rapidly reducing it to one colossal gold mine. Yet their deeds and claims seem completely legitimate and genuine….

Human intrigue and fallibility, bombastic action and a taste for the bizarre reminiscent of the best John Ford or Raoul Walsh movies make Casey Ruggles the ideal western strip for the discerning modern audience. These lighter tales also prove that George (Destry Rides Again) Marshall would also feel right at home with Tufts’ first masterpiece.

Westerns are continually falling into and out of fashion yet surely the beautiful clean-cut lines and sheer artistic veracity of Warren Tufts can never be out of vogue? These great tales are desperately deserving of a wider following, and I’m still praying some canny publisher knows a good thing when he sees it…
© 1950, 1951United Features Syndicate, Inc. Collection © Western Winds Productions. All Rights Reserved.

Frederic Mullally’s Amanda

By Frederic Mullally, John Richardson & “Ken” (Ken Pierce Books)
ISBN: 978-0-91227-703-5

When I reviewed the comic strip collection Danielle recently I declaimed at long length about having to become an apologist for some of the themes and content of what used to be called “cheesecake” or “girly” strips – a genre stuffy old-fashioned Britain used to excel at and happily venerate. We’re that sort of culture: saucy postcards, carry-on films and ingenuously innocent smut.

As John Dakin points out in his introduction to this short-lived strip-siren, The Sun, original home of the lady in question, was the country’s best selling newspaper and was provocatively, proudly populist. That translated into low laughs and acres of undraped female flesh everywhere except the sports section – and even there when possible…

By 1976 the battle for female equality had mostly moved from headlines to business pages: the height of the much-maligned “Sexual Revolution” with women demanding equal rights, equal pay and fair treatment had passed (so isn’t it marvellous that they’ve got all those things sorted now?). Contraception-on-demand and burning bras were gone except for the provision of comedy fodder and men had generally returned to their old habits, breathing a heavy sigh of relief…

Amanda launched on January 26th 1976, written by journalist, editor (of left-wing magazine Tribune), columnist, novelist and political writer Frederic Mullally, and initially seemed a low key, low-brow reworking of his prestigious Penthouse satire ‘O Wicked Wanda!’ but there were marked differences for anybody looking below the satin-skinned surface.

Amanda Muller was the beautiful, sequestered heir to the world’s largest fortune, and once her old fossil of a father finally kicked the bucket she decided to become a teen rebel and have all the fun she’d missed growing up in an old castle with only prim staff and her cousins Wiley and Hunk for company. With thief turned companion Kiki, she determined to splurge and spree and have anything she wanted.

The strip ran for a year and the first illustrator was John Richardson, a highly gifted artist with a light touch blending Brian Lewis with Frank Bellamy who has worked practically everywhere in Britain from 2000AD to DC Thomson to Marvel UK as well as for specialist magazines such as Custom Car, Super Bike and Citizen’s Band. The introductory story sees Amanda – shedding her clothes at every opportunity – try to buy a title, only to fall foul of a Mafia plot to control Italian Nudist Beaches, before moving on to a “career” as a pop-star – which once more draws her into a world of unscrupulous sharks and swindlers…

Whilst looking for a new maid Amanda and Kiki next got embroiled in a continental burglary ring, before the author’s political interests resurfaced when brainy cousin Wiley was invited to display his new electronic Chess brain behind the Iron Curtain. Naturally physical Adonis Cousin Hunk wants to come along – it’s just before an Olympics after all – and the girls tag along just for kicks.

Since you just can’t trust a Commie they’re all soon in lots of trouble but naturally the frolicsome foursome escape with relative ease. The next adventure, and all the remaining strips, are illustrated by somebody who signs him (or her) self “Ken”, and who, I’m ashamed to say, I know absolutely nothing about. Competent, but a tad stiff and hesitant, and lacking the humorous touch of Richardson, I’d lay money on the enigma being an Italian or Hispanic artist – but I’ve been wrong before and I will be again…

Safely home again Amanda decided to create a feminist magazine entitled New Woman, and sent Kiki to interview the world’s greatest Chauvinist Pig – fashion designer “Bruno” – only to once more fall foul of crooks; although this time its kidnappers and embezzlers.

Still in editor mode the gang then head to super-sexist Banana Republic Costa Larga, just in time for the next revolution, infiltrate the “Miss Sex Object” beauty contest with the intent of sabotaging it, and conclude their globe-trotting by heading for a tropical holiday just as the local government is overthrown by a tin-pot dictator…

Despite my caveats this was series that started out with few pretensions and great promise; however the early loss of Richardson and, I suspect, Mullally’s intellectual interest soon quashed what charm it held. Nevertheless this collection is a good representative of an important period and a key genre in British cartooning history.

Some of the gags are still funny (especially in our modern world where celebrity equates with exactly where drunken, stoned rich people threw up last) and if you’re going to ogle and objectify naked women at least well-drawn ones can’t be harmed or humiliated in the process. Also I don’t think a drawing has ever contributed to a girl’s low self esteem or body issues, At least, I hope not…
© 1984 Express Newspapers Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Jeff Hawke: The Ambassadors

By Sydney Jordan & Willie Patterson (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-598-9

One the world’s most captivating comics strips is inexplicably almost unknown amongst modern readers, but this appalling state of affairs could so easily be rectified simply by purchasing this spiffy deluxe hardback from Titan Books – and its predecessor and falling under the spell of some of the most witty, intriguing and outright astounding British science fiction ever written or drawn. In both style and quality these superb tales from the 1960s are the only serious rival to the legendary Dan Dare these Sceptred Isles have ever produced.

Sydney Jordan began his saga of the thinking man’s hero in the Daily Express on February 2nd 1954, writing the first adventures himself. In 1956 his old school friend and associate Willie Patterson moved from Scotland to London and helped out with the fifth adventure ‘Sanctuary’, and scripted the next one ‘Unquiet Island’, whilst sorting out his own career as a freelance scripter for such titles as Amalgamated Press’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, Caroline Baker – Barrister at Law and eventually Fleetway’s War Picture Library series.

Syd was never comfortable scripting, preferring to plot and draw the strips, but his choice of collaborators has always been immaculate – Harry Harrison wrote ‘Out of Touch’, which ran from October 10th 1957 – April 5th 1958, Nick Faure and Martin Asbury worked with him in the 1970s and in the strips’ final days he hired young artists Brian Bolland and Paul Neary. Patterson continued to supplement and assist Jordan intermittently until 1960 until with the fourteenth tale ‘Overlord’ (see Jeff Hawke volume 1: Overlord) Patterson assumed the writing chores on a full-time basis and began the strip’s Golden Age. He remained the wordsmith-in-chief until 1969.

This volume opens with another fascinating memoir from Jordan himself before the wonderment begins. In ‘Pastmaster’ (August 3rd 1961-October 18th 1961) British Space Scientist and trouble-shooter Hawke is visiting the British Moonbase just as a crazed time-traveller from the future materialises intent on changing history by transporting the entire complex back 10,000 years, and giving humanity a huge technological jump-start in the race’s development.

A terrific mix of sly comedy and startling action in the inimitable, underplayed style of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the best of John Wyndham, this romp of time-cops and robbers is a splendid appetiser for ‘The Immortal Toys’ (October 19th 1961- 5th April 1962) wherein ancient Hindu jewels in the shape of insects are revealed to be something else entirely, leading Hawke and a rambunctious archaeologist reminiscent of the bombastic Professor Challenger to a long-hidden tomb and concrete evidence of alien visitors from Earth’s earliest pre-history. No fan of Indiana Jones would want to miss this yarn – especially as here all the science, history and stunts are both plausible and possible…

‘The Ambassadors’ (6th April 1962-13th July 1962) is a winningly clever social satire as two avian aliens looking just like owls arrive in London to offer Earth free, gratis and for nothing a device that will do away with work forever. Instantly politicians and the media descend like vultures and the dry self-deprecatory comedy of films like The Mouse That Roared as well as the works of Jonathan Swift, Robert Sheckley or Eric Frank Russell can be seen in this story exposing the worst of humanity.

Patterson could use humour like a scalpel and augmented by Jordan’s fantastic artwork and rich, incisive facility with expressions produced here a gentle satire to rival the best of Private Eye, Tom Lehrer or TW3. You’ll believe an owl can cry…

Sheer exotic adventure and High Concept science dominates ‘The Gamesman’ (14th July 1962- September 23rd 1962) as a bored alien uses sub-atomic worlds for role-playing diversions, snatching Hawke and his assistant, a giant warrior, a technical wizard and a feisty “princess” from their respective worlds to play with him. Unfortunately ambition is a universal problem and the extraterrestrial dungeon-master quickly finds himself “played”…

The last tale in this volume is another human-scaled fable that touched on contemporary concerns, but although humour is still present in ‘A Test Case’ (September 24th 1962- 2nd January 1963) the over-arching theme is nuclear terror, as a second-rate scientist is given ultra-advanced atomic knowledge by well-meaning aliens who have no idea how fragile a human mind can be…

The frantic desperation and tension as Hawke and the authorities search London for a super-nuclear device primed to eradicate them all is chillingly reminiscent of the Boulting Brothers 1950 film classic Seven Days to Noon and makes of this memorable tale a timeless salutary warning.

These are stories that appeared in daily episodes and their sardonic grasp of the true nature of “the man-in-the-street” make them a delightful slice of social history as well as pure escapist entertainment. Jeff Hawke is a revered and respected milestone of graphic achievement almost everywhere except his country of origin. Hopefully this latest attempt to revive these gems will find a more receptive audience this time, and perhaps we’ll even get to see those earlier stories as well.

© 2008 Express Newspapers Ltd.

Danielle: First American Edition Series

By John M. Burns & Richard O’Neill (Vertigo)
ISBN: 0-912277-23-8

If you indulge in the wonders of comics for any appreciable length of time you’ll increasingly find yourself becoming something of an apologist.

“I just like the artwork.”

“They’ll be worth money one day”

“It’s a metaphor for…”

You get the idea. I often end up having to explain away situations and depictions that might seem racist, sexist or – worst of all – painfully naff, and at first glance, this book and its contents might easily confirm most if not all of those charges. But I’m not apologising and I urge you not to rush to judgements.

The prime reason for this is the illustrator. John M. Burns is an international star of comics but still remains largely unsung in his own country – which, considering the sheer breadth and quality of his output, is possibly the greatest compliment I can pay him. Britain has always been painfully ignorant of its comics heroes…

Born in Essex in 1938 he apprenticed at Doris White’s Link Studios in 1954 before moving on to Amalgamated Press where he worked on “Young Juvenile” titles such as Junior Express, Girl’s Crystal and School Friend, graduating to the luxurious photogravure mainstream comic Express Weekly a year later.

After National Service (we used to conscript our young men for two years’ military training in those hazy Cold War days – just in case…) which found him in the RAF and sent to Singapore he returned to comics in 1961, adapting Wuthering Heights for DC Thomson’s Diana and drawing Kelpie in Odhams revolutionary weekly Wham!

Spreading himself far and wide he followed Ron Embleton on Wrath of the Gods in Boy’s World and Eagle (scripted by Michael Moorcock – now there’s a strip crying out for collection), as well as The Fists of Danny Pike, Dolebusters and Roving Reporter. He was part of the inimitable and beloved team of artists who worked on Gerry Anderson’s licensed titles TV Century 21 and its sister magazines – he was particularly impressive on Space Family Robinson in Lady Penelope.

From 1965 he worked increasingly for newspapers beginning with The Tuckwells in The Sunday Citizen, The Seekers for The Daily Sketch (1966-1971), Danielle in the Evening News (1973-74), George and Lynne (1977-1984) and The Royals – the official strip biography of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer (1981) in The Sun and Modesty Blaise for The Evening Standard (see Modesty Blaise: Yellowstone Booty).

He revived Jane for the Daily Mirror (1985-1989) and has intermittently worked on many others. He was chosen to conclude Jim Edgar and Tony Weare’s incredible, long-running western strip Matt Marriot in 1977.

Burns’ TV related work is magnificent. He has worked on licensed series for Look-In, TV Action and Countdown illustrating the adventures of UFO, Mission Impossible, Tomorrow People, Bionic Woman, How the West Was Won and others. For Germany he drew the strip Julia (also know as Lilli) and worked with Martin Lodewijk on the fantasy series Zetari before in 1980 beginning his long association with the legendary British science fiction comic 2000AD, where he has – and continues to – work on Judge Dredd, Trueno, Nikolai Dante and his own Bendatti Vendetta.

He is also a regular adaptor of significant literary masterpieces, having already completed pictorial versions of Lorna Doone, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

1973 was the height of the much-maligned “Sexual Revolution” with women demanding equal rights, equal pay and fair treatment (and isn’t it great that they’ve got all those things now…). Contraception was becoming readily available, everywhere bras were burning, and men thought that sex wasn’t going to be so expensive anymore. It was a reactionary Male Chauvinist Pig’s Dream, and unrepentant old-school stand-up comedians were having a field day.

I’m not sure that the various editors of papers were supporters of the Women’s Lib movement, or simply found a great excuse to turn the industry’s long tradition of naked chicks in strips into something at least nominally hip, political and contemporary: I do know that a awful of new features with liberated, forceful women who nevertheless still had hunky take-charge boyfriends in tow appeared – but not for very long.

One of them was Danielle: at first glance a fantasy saga in the tradition of Garth, but as the saga unfolded, one that developed beyond its superficial beginnings. The strip launched on Monday, September 17th 1973, and introduced a willowy blonde heroine: a rebel against an oppressive regime, and one whose railing against the system had resulted in her banishment. Her crime? She had loved a man.

Now Danielle had returned to the planet Janus to overthrow her own mother, whose matriarchal dictatorship had kept men as subservient sex-slaves, and to rescue her truly beloved Zabal from the State Brothel he had been condemned to (stop sniggering).

Reversing many of the cherished trappings of Flash Gordon, Danielle fought monsters and militarists before she and Zabal escaped, using a magical Pendant of Power to leap into the chaos of time and space. From then on the pair roamed the universe like buff, unclad Doctor Who extras, first landing in futuristic Britain in ‘Master Plan’ where the previous situation is utterly reversed and women have been drugged into subservient submission and a highly commercialised male hegemony rules virtually unopposed.

When Zabal’s head is turned by freedom and testosterone-soaked male dominance he betrays Danielle until she joins the all-female resistance and helps overthrow the Masters. Reunited but not quite so trusting anymore they are then whisked by the Pendant to ‘The Dump’ an intergalactic penal colony, where she is the only woman, before the space eddies tear them apart and Zabal is lost…

In ‘Dark Genesis’ Danielle lands on a desolate world where the rejects of a super-alien’s genetics program try to stop her from becoming their creator’s latest stock-breeder, but after defeating the alien with common sense the hapless voyager materialises at a ‘Black Sabbath’ in Edinburgh in 1660. Mistaken for a demon she finds herself at the mercy of Puritan witch-finders and corrupt, debased officers of Cromwell’s New Model Army…

Appalling as these summations sound, Richard O’Neill’s scripts are a wry and canny counterpoint to the strident zeitgeist of the times. Brought in to overhaul Burns’ initial proposal, the ex-TV 21 editor managed to impose a studied balance to what was always intended to be a slight, escapist, lad-ish girly-strip with lots of ogle-worthy nudity and loads of fantasy action.

With deliberate overtones of H.P. Lovecraft and Philip José Farmer, the military historian added a knowing lightness to the proceedings which, married to Burn’s imagination and incredible line-work, resulted in a delight of self-deprecatory storytelling which is far, far from the exploitative, pandering lip-service it might first seem to be.

However it couldn’t save the feature. ‘Superstar’, the last story in this slim black and white volume, deviates from the established format as Danielle lands on a Hollywood film set in 1930. Quickly co-opted by a zany movie director she becomes a reluctant rising star before being reunited with Zabal who has been marooned on Earth for decades. Roaring along at a rather brisk pace and played strictly for gentle laughs, this final tale abruptly ended Danielle’s cosmic capers on September 14th 1974. Not included in this book is her 54 day revival from 1978, but I suspect that’s for the best…

Heavy-handed at first glance but stunningly beautiful to look upon; this is a series with a lot to say about the times it came from and perhaps one that might finally find a welcoming readership in these oh-so-perfect modern days.
© 1984 Associated Newspapers Group. All Rights Reserved.

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

By Carl Barks (Gladstone)

From the late 1940’s until the mid-1960s Carl Barks worked in productive seclusion writing and drawing a vast array of comedic adventure yarns for kids, creating a Duck Universe of memorable – and highly bankable – characters like Gladstone Gander (1948), the Beagle Boys (1951), Gyro Gearloose (1952), and Magica De Spell (1961) to augment the stable of cartoon actors from the Disney Studio. His greatest creation was undoubtedly the crusty, energetic, paternalistic, money-mad gazillionaire Scrooge McDuck: the star of this show.

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

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

Gladstone Publishing began re-packaging Barks material – and a selection of other Disney comics strips – in the 1980s and this album is one of the very best. Whilst producing all that landmark innovative material Barks was just a working guy, generating covers, illustrating other people’s scripts when necessary and contributing story and/or art to the burgeoning canon of Duck Lore.

This album is printed in the large European oversized format (278mm x 223mm) and features one of the best tales Barks ever told. Taken from Four Color Comics #456 (1953 and technically the second full story to star the multimillionaire mallard) ‘Back to the Klondike’ is a rip-roaring adventure, a brilliant comedy and even a bittersweet romance, which added huge depth to the character of the World’s Richest Duck, even whilst reiterating the superficial peccadilloes that made him such a memorable and engaging star.

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

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

This superb yarn tells you everything you could ever need about Scrooge McDuck. It’s the perfect character tale and rattles along like an express train, sad, happy, thrilling and funny by turns, and it’s supplemented in this book with a classic Gyro Gearloose tale from 1960. ‘Cave of the Winds’ taken from Four Color Comics #1095, has Scrooge consult the feathered inventor on a perfect hiding place for his cash, but the answer is far from satisfactory… The book concludes with a short and punchy untitled tale from Uncle Scrooge #8 (1954) which has Scrooge run for City Treasurer – without spending any money…

Even if you can’t find this particular volume, Barks’ work is now readily accessible through a number of publications and outlets. No matter what your age or temperament if you’ve never experienced his captivating magic, you can discover “the Hans Christian Andersen of Comics” simply by applying yourself and your credit cards to any search engine. The rewards are there for the finding…
© 1987, 1960, 1954, 1953 The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.

Modesty Blaise: Yellowstone Booty

By Peter O’Donnell, Enric Badia Romero & John Burns (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-419-7

Originally a newspaper strip created by Peter O’Donnell and drawn by the brilliant Jim Holdaway, Modesty and her charismatic partner in crime (and latterly crime-busting) Willie Garvin have also starred in 13 prose novels and short story collections, two films, one TV pilot, a radio play and nearly one hundred comic strip adventures between 1963 and the strip’s conclusion in 2002. She has been syndicated world-wide, and Holdaway’s version has been cited as an artistic influence by many major comic artists.

Titan Books’ marvelous series re-presenting the classic British newspaper strip reaches a period of artistic instability with this thirteenth volume as Spanish collaborator Romero left in 1978 to concentrate on his own creation Axa; although if anything the strip actually improved under the all-too-brief tenure of his replacement.

John M. Burns had worked on Junior Express and School Friend but truly began his auspicious rise as part of the inimitable and beloved team of artists who worked on the Gerry Anderson licensed titles TV Century 21 and its sister magazines (he is particularly admired for Space Family Robinson in Lady Penelope). He drew strips for The Daily Sketch, Daily Mirror and Sun with long, acclaimed runs on The Seekers and the saucy “Good Girl” strip Danielle (expect a review of her really soon), before briefly – and controversially – taking over Modesty Blaise.

Since then he has worked on TV-based series for Look-In and Countdown before latterly abandoning pen and ink for painted art and finding a welcome home in the legendary British science fiction comic 2000AD, where he has – and continues to – work on Judge Dredd, Nikolai Dante and his own Bendatti Vendetta. He is also a regular adaptor of significant literary masterpieces, having already completed pictorial versions of Lorna Doone, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

Although Burns only drew 272 consecutive daily strips, his influence on Modesty was marked and long-lasting. His deft ability with nib and brush are highlighted here with a complimentary feature reprinting 12 of his illustrations from some of those prose novels O’Donnell wrote starring his inimitable creation, and there are also sketches and cover reproductions from Titan Books’ 1980s Modesty collections.

The adventure portion of this book begins with ‘Idaho George’ an extremely engaging comedy thriller which sees Garvin and “the Princess” rescue an old acquaintance. The eponymous George is a marriage-dodging conman who accidentally fools the wrong mark: superstitious and extremely dangerous Anastasia Bone sets her gang of murderous crime specialists on the hapless trickster when he masquerades as a swami who can materialise gold from thin air…

Fast-paced and tremendously satisfying, that caper is just a taster for Romero’s last job ‘The Golden Frog’, a globe-girdling vendetta that brings Modesty back to her roots when Saragam – the martial arts master who taught her to fight – is captured by a revenge-crazed Khmer Rouge warlord with a grudge against her that stretches back to her days as leader of the criminal organisation The Network. Lured back to the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia and unsure who to trust, Modesty and Willie face possibly their greatest threat in this action-packed, fists of fury fight-fest.

John Burns seemed an ideal replacement for Romero, and is still remembered with affection and appreciation by fans, but he only illustrated two-and-a-half stories, beginning with ‘Yellowstone Booty’ which ran from November 1st 1978 to March 30th 1979 (if you’re curious Idaho George and The Golden Frog appeared in the Evening Standard from 23rd January to October 31st 1978).

His innate design sense, sleek, deceptive line and facility with the female form coincided with a much freer use of casual nudity in the feature, and the action scenes were to become graphic poetry in motion. All these advantages can be observed in this clever yarn of gangsters and lost treasure that sees a young couple save Willie from an ingenious murder-plot, incurring a debt that Modesty moves Heaven and Earth to repay…

These timeless tales of crime and punishments are more enthralling now than ever, and provide much-needed relief in a world increasingly bleak and confusing. At least here you always know who to cheer for and who to boo at. More than three decades later it’s quite odd to realise just mere months after the heroine shockingly – and controversially – bared her breasts, naked ladies adorned not just the comics pages but the “news” portions of so many British papers – all without the kingdom falling into flaming anarchy.

Odder still is the realization that heavy-handed censorship still occurs in America and other countries: boobies and botties – no matter how well-drawn – are still racy, shocking and a big deal opposed with all the vehemence one expects from populations when their Governments suspend Habeas Corpus and/or outlaw football.

I trust this will be all the warning you need, should you be of a sensitive disposition, but hope that such sights won’t discourage you from reading these incredible tales of fiction’s greatest adventuress.

© 2008 Associated Newspapers/Solo Syndication.