Thunder Agents Archives volume 1

By Wally Wood & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 1-56389-903-5

The history of Wally Wood’s immortal comics masterpiece is convoluted, and once the mayfly-like lifetime of the Tower Comics line ended, not especially pretty: wrapped up in legal wrangling and not a little petty back-biting, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that the far-too brief careers of The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves was a benchmark of quality and sheer bravura fun for fans of both the still-reawakening superhero genre and the popular media’s spy-chic obsession.

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

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

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

With such a ravenous public appetite for super-spies and costumed heroes steadily rising in comic-book popularity the idea of blending the two concepts seems a no-brainer now, but those were far more conservative times, so when T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1 appeared with no fanfare or pre-publicity on newsstands in August 1965 (with a cover off-sale date of November) thrill-hungry readers like little me were blown away. It didn’t hurt either that all Tower titles were in the beloved-but-rarely-seen 80 Page Giant format: there was a huge amount to read in every issue!

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

This initial lush and lustrous compilation collects issues #1-4 and covers the first golden year of the series. It all starts with a simple four page tale ‘First Encounter’ by Ivie & Wood, wherein UN commandos failed to save brilliant scientist Professor Emil Jennings from the attack of the mysterious Warlord, but at least rescued some of his greatest inventions, including a belt that can increase the density of the wearer’s body until it becomes as hard as steel, a cloak of invisibility and an enigmatic brain-amplifier helmet.

These prototypes were to be divided between several agents to create a unit of superior fighting men and counter the increasingly bold attacks of many global terror threats such as the aforementioned Warlord.

First chosen was affable file clerk Len Brown who was, to everyone’s surprise, assigned the belt and the codename Dynamo in a delightfully light-hearted adventure ‘Menace of the Iron Fog’ (written by Len Brown, who had no idea illustrator/editor Wood had prankishly changed the hero’s civilian name as a last-minute gag) which gloriously pandered to every kid’s dream as the nice guy got the power to smash stuff. This cathartic fun-fest also introduced the Iron Maiden, a sultry villainess clad in figure-hugging steel who was the probable puberty trigger for an entire generation of boys…

‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent NoMan’ came next, the eerie saga of aged Dr. Anthony Dunn who chose to have his mind transferred into a specialised android body, then equipped with the invisibility cape. The author’s name is unknown but the incredible Reed Crandall (with supplemental Wood inks) drew the first episode which also found time and space to include a captivating clash with sinister mastermind Demo and his sultry associate Satana who had unleashed a wave of bestial sub-men on a modern metropolis. NoMan had one final advantage: if his artificial body was destroyed his consciousness could transfer to another android body. As long as he had a spare ready, he could never die…

Larry Ivie filled in some useful background on the war against the Warlord in the prose adventure ‘Face to Face’ before the third agent was chosen in ‘The Enemy Within’ (also with no script credit and illustrated by Gil Kane, Mike Esposito and George Tuska). However here is where the creators stepped well outside the comic-book conventions. John Janus was the perfect UN employee: a mental and physical marvel who easily passed all the tests necessary to wear the Jennings helmet. Sadly he was also a deep cover mole for the Warlord, poised to betray T.H.U.N.D.E.R. at the earliest opportunity…

All plans went awry once he donned the helmet and became Menthor. The device awakened the potential of his mind, granting him telepathy, telekinesis and mid-reading powers – and also drove all evil from his mind whilst he wore it. When the warlord attacked with a small army and a giant monster, Menthor was compelled by his own costume to defeat the assault. What a dilemma for a traitor to be in…

‘T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad’ by Ivie, Mike Sekowsky & Frank Giacoia, is a rip-roaring yarn featuring an elite team of non-powered specialist operatives – which predated TV’s Mission: Impossible outfit by almost two years – who tackled cases the super-agents were too busy or unsuited for. In this initial outing the Squad rushed to defend their Weapons Development Center from a full paramilitary assault only to discover that it’s a feint and Dynamo had been captured by the Warlord…

The first issue ended with a big old-fashioned team-up as all the forces of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. converged to rescue their prime agent who was ‘At the Mercy of the Iron Maiden’ (by Brown, Wood & Dan Adkins) a spectacular battle blockbuster that still takes the breath away…

Issue #2 led again with their strongman star when ‘Dynamo Battles Dynavac’ (Brown, Wood & Richard Bassford) another colossal combat classic as the hapless hero got a severe kicking from a deadly automaton. Once again a narrative thread stretched through the disparate tales as the hero’s girlfriend and fellow agent Alice was kidnapped…

NoMan was ‘In the Warlord’s Power’ (Bill Pearson, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando and Wood) when an army of Zombie-men attacked a Missile Base and Menthor again defied his master to defeat a Warlord scheme to destroy T.H.U.N.D.E.R. HQ (again no script credit but amazingly illustrated by Sekowsky & Giacoia) before ‘D-Day for Dynamo’ (with art from Wood, Adkins & Tony Coleman) pitted the assembled heroes, reunited to rescue Alice, against Demo, the Dynavac and the Warlord in an all-out war with atomic consequences.

The series took a fantastic turn as the Warlord was revealed to be an agent of a subterranean race of conquerors, but before that the second issue still held another prose piece, ‘Junior T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents’, whilst the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad responded ‘On the Double’ to a South American crisis, involving mutant monsters, Communist insurgents and bloody revolution in a classy thriller illustrated t Sekowsky/Giacoia team.

‘Dynamo Battles the Subterraneans’ drawn by Adkins, Wood & Coleman opened the third issue, as the Warlord’s macabre mole-men masters attacked Washington DC, whilst

‘NoMan Faces the Threat of the Amazing Vibraman’ (Pearson, John Giunta, Wood & Coleman) saw a far more plebian but no less deadly menace ended by the undying agent, before Dynamo almost became a propaganda victim of Communist agitator ‘The Red Dragon’ (Adkins, Wood & Coleman) and the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad battled a madman who manufactured his own ‘Invaders from the Deep’ (another uncredited script pictured by Sekowsky & Giacoia) before the main event ‘Dynamo vs. Menthor’ (Wood, Adkins & Coleman) posed a terrifying mystery as a trusted agent almost destroyed the entire organisation. With captivating pin-ups by Wood & Adkins featuring Dynamo, NoMan, the Thunderbelt, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad and Menthor the visual excitement in this issue is beyond price.

The Dynamo tale ‘Master of Evolution’ (written by Brown, illustrated by Wood, Adkins & Coleman) opened the fourth issue with a dinosaur bashing extravaganza, whilst the fiendish Mastermind arrayed his own android armies against the Artificial Agent in ‘The Synthetic Stand-Ins’ by Steve Skeates, Sekowsky & Giacoia, and the same art team debuted the latest super-agent in the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad saga ‘The Deadly Dust’ wherein a Nazi scientist used his time-retarding dust for evil and the heroes responded with a super-speed suit.  This first case for hyper-fast Lightning was followed by a Dynamo milestone ‘The Return of the Iron Maiden’ (drawn by Crandall, Wood & Adkins) which saw the Armoured Amorata betray her latest employer Dr. Death for the man sent to arrest her.

Finally the mystery of Menthor was partially resolved in the fast-paced thriller ‘The Great Hypno’ (illustrated by Giunta, Wood & Coleman), and of course there were more fantastic art extras in the form of NoMan and The Origin of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. pin-up pages.

These are truly timeless comic tales that improve with every reading, and there’s never been a better time to add these landmark superhero sagas to your collection of favourites.

© 1965 John Carbonaro. All rights reserved. This edition © 2002 DC Comics.

Forever Nuts: Happy Hooligan

By Frederick Burr Opper (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-542-1

Frederick Burr Opper was one of the first giants of comic strips, a hugely imaginative, highly skilled and well-regarded illustrator and political cartoonist who moved into the burgeoning field of newspaper cartooning just as the medium was being born, and his pictorial creations (and even more so his dialogue) have enriched western culture and the English language.

Born in 1857 the son of Austrian immigrants, Opper grew up in Madison, Ohio, and at age 14 joined the Madison Gazette as a printer’s apprentice. Two years later he was in New York. Always drawing, he worked briefly in a store whilst studying at Cooper Union independent school before obtaining a position as student and eventually assistant, to illustration colossus Frank Beard.

Opper sold his first cartoon to Wild Oats in 1876, swiftly following up with further sales to Phunny Phellow, Scribbner’s Monthly, Harper’s Weekly, The Century, St. Nicholas Magazine and Frank Leslie’s Weekly, before joining the prestigious Puck in 1880, drawing everything from spot illustrations, gags, political cartoons and many of the new, full-colour, Chromolithographic covers. He was also a book illustrator of major renown, an incisive humorist, poet and creator of children’s books.

Clearly a forward-looking and perspicacious creator Opper first dipped his toe in the world of newspaper strips with an abortive and short-lived feature in the staid New York Herald in 1897, but after making few inroads he returned to magazine illustration. Undeterred by the failure and after 18 lucrative, influential and solid, steady years, Opper was finally lured away by William Randolph Hearst, joining his growing stable of bold comics pioneers in 1899.

Starting on the New York Journal’s Sunday Color Supplement, he created a wealth of different features beginning with Happy Hooligan which first appeared on 11th March 1900. Although not a regular feature at the start – many cartoon strippers of the fledgling art form were given great leeway to experiment with a variety of ideas in those early days – before too long the feature became simply too popular to miss and Opper settled into a stable tenure that lasted until 1932 when the artist’s failing eyesight led to his retirement and the tramp’s demise. Opper passed away at the end of August 1937.

Opper never used assistants but his imagination and unsurpassed creativity made Hooligan and his other creations household favourites around the world, appealing equally to Presidents and public alike. His next strip Mister Henry Peck (1901) was followed by the highly popular Alphonse and Gaston (1901-1904), Our Antediluvian Ancestors (1903-1904) and the astoundingly madcap Mule strip And Her Name was Maud which began in 1904.  It continued intermittently for decades and on May 23rd 1926, Maud became the regular “topper” to Happy Hooligan, running above the strip until both concluded on October 14th 1932 with the artist’s retirement.

Other strips followed, The Red Rig-a-Jigs (1906), Adolf from Hamburg (1906), King Jake (1907-1908), His Name is Ebenezer/His Name is Smith (1908), Ship Ahoy! (1908), Howsan Lott (1909-1914), Is Boggs Cheerful? He Is! (1908), Scuse Me, Mr. Johnson (1909), The Swift Work of Count DeGink (1916) and The Dubb Family/Down on the Farm (1918-1919, 1921-1923, 1925-1927), but none had the appeal or phenomenal staying power of Happy – or Maud – and had perforce to be abandoned.

Happy Hooligan is an affable, well-meaning but bumbling tramp who wears an old tin-can for a hat. Always ready and eager to assist and wishing nobody ill, this gentle vagrant was usually the inadvertent tool of far more fortunate folk who should know better, or cops a little too fond of the truncheon and nightstick, and generally the harsh, unforgiving cosmos of ill-fortune. It is a strip brimming with invention, pathos, social commentary, delightful wordplay and broad, reckless slapstick. More than one source cites Happy as having a profound influence on Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in both content and tone…

This classy hardback presents a selection of strips from 1902-1913 in the varying forms of colour (two, three and full colour depending presumably on the budget of the local papers these rare survivors were culled from) compiled and edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt with a fascinating introduction/biography from Allan Holtz who, with collector Cole Johnson, provided the majority of the strips included here.

The strips themselves range from June 8th 1902 to September 7th 1913 and although by no means complete or comprehensive afford a tantalizing glimpse at this iconic, influential and groundbreaking feature. Many of the reprints come from the highly productive and hilarious “Grand Tour” years of 1904 and 1905, (see also Happy Hooligan 1904-1905)

and follow the simple sad-sack across after many abortive, knockabout attempts, across the sea to England and then on to the unsuspecting continents of Europe and Africa before returning to America in 1906.

With brothers Montmorency and Gloomy Gus, plus a burgeoning family of nephews and hangers-on, this too-slim tome ends with some of the optimistic poltroon’s foredoomed attempts to woo Suzanne, the patient and amazingly egalitarian daughter of the Duke of Cabaret. As always these hysterical, rowdy escapades are often exacerbated by occasional visits from the ultra-polite Alphonse and Gaston, Opper’s legendary French gentlemen of extreme etiquette elitism…

Crossovers were not Opper’s only innovation. Happy Hooligan is considered to be the first American strip to depend on word balloons rather than supplemental text, and the humble, heartwarming hobo was also the first strip character to jump to the Silver Screen in six movie shorts from 1900-1902. He was also probably the first mass-market merchandising comics star…

Sadly Opper and his creations become less well-known with each passing year, but the quality of the work can never fail to amuse and inspire. Hopefully this superb graphic appetiser will lead to further collections, and as this book also contains a healthy selection of Opper’s other works from the early Wild Oats and Puck to the aforementioned Gallic gadabouts and the mulish Maud, perhaps we can also look forward to a compendium of his other seminal sketches and comedy classics…

Published in 2009 by NBM. © not invoked.

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 1

By Roy Crane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-161-9

Modern comics evolved from newspaper comic strips, and these pictorial features were until relatively recently utterly ubiquitous and hugely popular with the public – and highly valued by publishers who used them as an irresistible sales weapon to guarantee and increase circulation and profits.

It’s virtually impossible for us to today to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America (and the wider world) from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were the most common recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality.

From the very start humour was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics”, and from these gag and stunt beginnings – a blend of silent movie slapstick, outrageous fantasy and the vaudeville shows – came a thoroughly entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting on April 21st 1924 Washington Tubbs II was a comedic gag-a-day strip not much different from family favourite Harold Teen (by Crane’s friend and contemporary Carl Ed). Tubbs was a diminutive, ambitious young shop clerk when it began in 1924, but gradually the strip moved into mock-heroics, then through light action to become a full-blown, light-hearted, rip-roaring adventure series with the introduction of ancestral he-man and prototype moody swashbuckler Captain Easy in the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

As the tales became more exotic and thrill-packed the globe-trotting little dynamo clearly needed a sidekick who could believably handle the combat side of things, and thus in the middle of a European war Tubbs liberated a mysterious fellow American from a jail cell and history was made. Before long the mismatched pair were travelling companions, hunting treasure, fighting thugs and rescuing a bevy of startlingly comely maidens in distress…

The two-fisted, bluff, completely capable and utterly dependable, down-on-his-luck “Southern Gentleman” was something not seen before in comics, a raw, square-jawed hunk played straight rather than the buffoon or music hall foil of such classic serials as Hairsbreadth Harry or Desperate Desmond. Moreover Crane’s seductively simple blend of cartoon exuberance and design was a far more accessible and powerful medium for action story-telling than the somewhat static illustrative style favoured by artists like Hal Foster: just beginning to make waves on the new Tarzan Sunday page.

Tubbs and Easy were as exotic and thrilling as the Ape Man but rattled along like the tempestuous Popeye, full of vim, vigour and vinegar, as attested to by a close look at the early work of the would-be cartoonists who followed the strip with avid intensity: Floyd Gottfredson, Milton Caniff, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and especially young Joe Shuster…

After a couple of abortive attempts starring his little hero, Crane bowed to the inevitable and created a full colour Sunday page dedicated to his increasingly popular hero-for-hire. Captain Easy debuted on 30th July 1933, in wild and woolly escapades set before his fateful meeting with Tubbs,

This first volume begins with the soldier of fortune undertaking a mercenary mission for the Chinese government to spy on the city of ‘Gungshi.’ In the heyday of popular exploration and aviator exploits the bold solo flight over the Himalayas to Chinese Turkestan was stirring enough but when Easy infiltrated the hidden citadel it heralded the beginning of a rollercoaster romp with sword wielding Mongols, sultry Houris, helpless dancing girls, fabulous beasts and wicked bandits: captivating entire families across the planet, week after addictive week.

With an entire page and vibrant colours to play with, Crane’s imagination ran wild and his fabulous visual concoctions achieved a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art. The effect of the pages can be seen in so many strips since especially the works of such near-contemporaries as Hergé and giants in waiting like Charles Schulz.

These pages were a clearly as much of joy to create as to read. In fact, the cited reason for Crane surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les turner in 1937 was the NEA Syndicate abruptly demanding that all its strips be henceforward produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate them being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated. Crane just walked away, concentrating on the daily feature. In 1943 he left the Syndicate to create the pilot strip Buz Sawyer.

At the end of the blockbuster epic Easy is a hero to the people of Gungshi, if not the aristocracy, who plot to oust him via the subtlest of means. The second adventure ‘The Slave Girl’ began on 21st January 1934, and found the occidental hero bankrupted to save the beautiful Rose Petal from the auction block, a chivalrous gesture that led to war with the rival city of Kashno, and a brutally hilarious encounter with South Sea pirates…

In an era where ethic stereotyping and casual racism were acceptable if not mandatory, the introduction of a vile and unscrupulous yank as the exploitative villain was and is a surprising delight. Rambling Jack is every inch the ugly, greedy American and by contrasting Easy’s wholesome quest to make his fortune with the venal explorer’s rapacious ruthlessness, Crane makes a telling point for the folks back home. It also makes for great reading as Chinese bandits also enter the fray, determined to plunder both cities and everybody in-between…

With the help of a lost British aviator Easy is finally victorious, but on returning to his Chinese employers he spots something whilst flying over the Himalayas that radically alters his plans…

‘The Sunken City’ is an early masterpiece of pictorial fiction, as Easy recruits comedy stooge ‘arry Pippy, a demobbed cockney British Army cook, to help him explore a drowned city he had spotted from the air, lost for centuries in a hidden inland sea. However, simply to get there the pair must trek through wild jungles where they encounter blowpipe-wielding cannibals and the greatest threat the valiant rogue has ever faced…

If I’ve given the impression that this has all been grim and gritty turmoil and drama thus far, please forgive me: Roy Crane was a superbly irrepressible gag-man and this enchanting serial abounds with breezy light-hearted banter, hilarious situations and outright farce – a sure-fire formula modern cinema directors plunder to this day. Easy is the Indiana Jones, Flynn (the Librarian) Carsen and Jack (Romancing the Stone) Cotton of his day and clearly blazed a trail for all of them.

Using a deep sea diver’s suit the pair explore the piscine wonders and submerged grandeur of the lost city, encountering some of the most magical and fanciful sea beasts ever recorded in comics before literally striking gold, but when the cannibals attack their treasures are lost and Easy finds himself captive and betrothed to the most hideous witch hag imaginable…

Risking everything the desperate treasure-seekers make a break for it only to re-encounter ‘The Pirates’ (April 14th -July 7th 1935), but before they get too far the husband-hungry witch and her faithful cannibals come after him, leading to a brutal, murderous conclusion.

After years in the Orient Easy and Pippy have a hankering for less dangerous company and make their way to Constantinople and Europe, but trouble was never far from the mercenary and in ‘The Princess’ (14th July – December 1st 1935) his gentlemanly instincts compel him to rescue a beautiful woman from the unwelcome attentions of munitions magnate Count Heyloff, a gesture that embroiled the Captain in a manufactured war between two small nations.

This tale clearly addressed the contemporary American sentiment that another world conflict was brewing and it’s obvious that Crane’s opinion was the deeply held common conviction that the whole international unrest was the result of rich men’s greedy manipulations…

Dark, bittersweet and painfully foreboding this yarn sees Easy become the target of Heyloff’s vengeance and the entire air force for the tiny underdog nation of Nikkateena in their bitter struggle for survival against the equally-duped country of Woopsydasia. Crane kept the combat chronicle light but on occasion his true feelings showed through in some of the most trenchant anti-war art ever seen.

This superb hardback and colossal initial collection is the perfect means of discovering or rediscovering Crane’s rip-snorting, pulse-pounding, exotically racy adventure trailblazer. The huge pages in this volume (almost 14 ½ by 10½ inches or 21x14cm for the younger, metric crowd) also contain a fascinating and informative introductory biography of Crane by historian Jeet Heer, a glowing testimonial from Charles “Peanuts” Schulz, contemporary promotional material, extra drawings and sketches and a fascinating feature explaining how pages were coloured in those long-ago days before computers…

This is comics storytelling of the very highest quality: unforgettable, spectacular and utterly irresistible. These tales rank alongside her best of Hergé, Tezuka and Kirby and led irrefutably to the creations of all of them. Now that you have the chance to experience the strips that inspired the giants of our art form, how can you possibly resist?

Captain Easy Strips © 2010 United Features Syndicate, Inc. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

Happy Hooligan 1904-1905

By Frederick Burr Opper (Hyperion Press)
ISBN: 0-88355-658-8

While I eagerly await the arrival of my copy of the recent “Forever Nuts” hardback collection of Happy Hooligan I thought I’d dip again into the first collection of the eternal indigent that I ever saw: long ago whilst still a spotty, mildly angry punk art student…

Frederick Burr Opper was one of the first giants of comics, a hugely imaginative and skilled illustrator who moved into the burgeoning field of newspaper strips just as they were being born, and his pictorial creations (and even more so his dialogue) have forever changed the English language…

Born in 1857 the son of Austrian immigrants, Opper grew up in Madison, Ohio, and at age 14 joined the Madison Gazette as a printer’s apprentice. Two years later he was in New York. Always drawing, he worked briefly in a store whilst studying at Cooper Union (The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art was and is a magnificent experiment in education and excellence: look it up and be amazed…) before linking up as student and eventually, assistant, to illustration giant Frank Beard.

Opper sold his first cartoon to Wild Oats in 1876, swiftly following up with further sales to Scribbner’s Monthly, St. Nicholas Magazine and Frank Leslie’s Weekly, before joining the prestigious Puck in 1880, drawing everything from spot illustrations, gags, political cartoons and many of the new, full-colour, Chromolithographic covers. He was also a book illustrator of major renown, an incisive humorist, poet and creator of children’s books.

After 18 lucrative, influential – and steady – years, Opper was drawn away to join William Randolph Hearst’s growing stable of comics pioneers in 1899, joining the New York Journal’s Sunday Color Supplement, where Happy Hooligan first appeared on 11th March 1900. Although not a regular feature at the start – many cartoon strippers of the fledgling art form were given great leeway to experiment with a variety of ideas in those early days – before too long the feature became simply too popular to play with and settled into a stable tenure that lasted until 1932 when the artist’s failing eyesight led to his retirement and the tramp’s demise. Opper passed away at the end of August 1937.

Opper never used assistants but his imagination and unsurpassed creativity made Hooligan and other major features Alphonse and Gaston and the astoundingly madcap Mule strip And Her Name was Maud household favourites around the world, appealing equally to Presidents and public alike. As the feature became ever more popular experimental and lesser strips such as Howsan Lott and Our Antediluvian Ancestors had perforce to be abandoned.

Happy Hooligan is an affable, well-meaning but bumbling tramp who wears an old tin-can for a hat. Wishing nobody ill, this gentle vagrant is usually the inadvertent tool of better bred folks who should know better, cops a little too fond of the truncheon and nightstick, and harsh, unforgiving cosmic ill-fortune. It is a strip brimming with invention, pathos, social commentary, delightful wordplay and broad, reckless slapstick. More than one source cites Happy as having a profound influence on Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in both content and tone…

This black and white volume, compiled and edited in 1977 by unsung hero of American comic strips Bill Blackbeard, with a fascinating introduction from historian Rich Marschall, reprints the entire continuity from 1904 and 1905, and follows the simple sad-sack across the USA and, after many abortive and hilarious attempts, across the sea to England. After weeks of raucous calamity trying to see the King and falling foul of the equally high-handed British constabulary, Happy, with brothers Montmorency and Gloomy Gus (yep that’s one of Opper’s…) in tow, the clan Hooligan then proceeded to make themselves unwelcome throughout Europe. These hilarious, rowdy escapades are often exacerbated by occasional visits from the ultra-polite Alphonse and Gaston, Opper’s legendary duo of etiquette elitism…

Crossovers were not Opper’s only innovation. Happy Hooligan is considered to be the first American strip to depend on word balloons rather than supplemental text, and the humble, heartwarming hobo was also the first strip character to jump to the Silver Screen in six movie shorts between 1900-1902. He was also probably the first mass-market merchandising comics star…

Both Opper and his creations become less well-known by the year, but the quality of the work can never fail to amuse and inspire. If I could have only found a way to play bass and keep that tin can on me head back then, you might be buying my comeback album about now rather than reading a recommendation to track down one of the very best cartoon masterpieces of all time…
© 1977 Hyperion Press. All rights reserved.

The Phantom vs. the Sky Maidens

By Lee Falk & Ray Moore (Ken Pierce)

In the 17th century a British sailor survived an attack by pirates, and washing ashore in Africa, swore on the skull of his murdered father to dedicate his life and that of all his descendents to destroying pirates and criminals. The Phantom fights crime and injustice from a base deep in the Jungles of Bengali, and throughout Africa he is known as the “Ghost Who Walks”, considered an immortal avenger by the credulous and the wicked. Down the decades one hero after another has fought and died in an unbroken line, and the latest wearer of the mask, indistinguishable from the first, continues the never-ending battle…

For such a successful, long-lived and influential series, in terms of graphic novel collections The Phantom has been very poorly served by the English language market. Various small companies have tries to collect the strips – one of the longest continually running adventure serials in publishing history – but in no systematic or chronological order and never with any sustained success.

This particular edition is a black and white paperback album from the early 1980s and comes courtesy of that pioneer of strip preservation and proliferation Ken Pierce, collecting in almost its entirety the second ever dailies saga (originally published from 9th November 1936 to April 10th 1937) from the annals of “The Ghost Who Walks.”

Lee Falk created Jungle Avenger at the request of his publishers who were already making history and public headway with his first strip sensation Mandrake the Magician. Although technically not the first ever costumed hero in comics, The Phantom was the prototype paladin to wear a skin-tight body-stocking, and the first to have a mask with opaque eye-slits.

He debuted on February 17th 1936 in an extended sequence that pitted him against a global confederation of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood. Falk wrote and drew the daily strip for the first two weeks before artist Ray Moore took over the illustration side. The Sundays feature began in May 1939.

This second rip-snorting adventure-mystery follows directly on from the initial outing (and with the Singh Brotherhood tale forms the basis for the exceptionally watchable 1996 movie staring Billy Zane) and finds the anonymous, indomitable hero blamed for the depredations of a gang of airborne bandits currently raiding passenger planes and airships throughout the orient.

Entitled ‘The Sky Band’ it was a great shock to avid readers of the 1930s to discover that those enigmatic, ruthless aerial brigands were all weak and feeble women – whereas re-titling the book “The Sky Maidens” might have tipped off any later fans…

Escaping from police custody with the aid of his faithful Pygmy warriors the Bandar, The Phantom is soon hot on the trail of the real mastermind…

Stuffed with chases, assorted fights, stunts and many a misapprehension – police and authorities clearly having a hard time believing a pistol-packing masked man with a pet wolf might not be a bad egg – this a gripping blood and thunder tale that still packs a punch and quite a few subtle laughs. Captured by the manic Baroness who runs the all-girl gang, The Phantom eventually turns the tide not by force but by exerting his masculine wiles upon the hot-blooded – if psychopathic – harridan, unaware until too late that his own beloved, true-blue Diana Palmer is watching…

It is truly inexplicable to me that in a marketplace which has rediscovered so many lost and forgotten comics treasures that such an iconic strip as the Phantom (and Mandrake the Magician for that matter) can remain uncollected and ignored, especially as the material is still fresh, entertaining and addictively compelling.

But, even if it were only of historical value (or just printed for Australians – who have long been manic devotees of the implacable champion) surely the Ghost Who Walks is worthy of a definitive chronological compendium series?
© 1982 King Features Syndicate. All rights reserved.

Walt Kelly’s Our Gang volume 4 1946-1947

By Walt Kelly (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-322-4

The Our Gang (later to be known as the Li’l Rascals) movie shorts were one of the most popular series in American Film history. Beginning in 1922 they featured the fun and folksy humour of a bunch of “typical kids” (atypically though, there was full racial equality and mingling – but the little girls were still always smarter than the boys) having idealised adventures in a time both safer and more simple. The rotating cast of characters and slapstick shenanigans were the brainchild of film genius Hal Roach (he directed and worked with Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy amongst many others) and these brief cinematic paeans to a mythic childhood entered the “household name” category of popular Americana in amazingly swift order.

As times and tastes changed Roach was forced to sell up to the celluloid butcher’s shop of MGM in 1938, and the features suffered the same interference and loss of control that marred the later careers of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton.

In 1942 Dell released an Our Gang comic-book written and drawn by Walt Kelly who, consummate craftsman that he was, restored the wit, verve and charm of the cinematic glory days with a progression of short tales that elevated the lower-class American childhood to the mythic peaks of Dorothy in Oz or Huckleberry Finn.

Over the course of the first eight issues (see Walt Kelly’s Our Gang volume 1) the master raconteur moved beyond the films – good and otherwise – to build an idyllic story-scape of games and dares, excursions, adventures, get-rich-quick-schemes, battles with rival gangs and especially plucky victories over adults: mean, condescending, criminal or psychotic. Given more leeway, Kelly eventually in-filled with his own characters, but for this book aficionados and purists can still thrill to the classic cast.

This long-awaited fourth collection gathers the adventures from issues #24 to #30 (July 1946l -January 1947), and finds Kelly inserting more of himself into the mix. Here the light-hearted yarns often evolved into full-blooded dramas, with murderous returning villains and bold excursions far beyond what modern parents would allow their cosseted darlings to experience, all based on Kelly’s great fondness for the wholesome adventures of daring youth written by Horatio Alger and Oliver (the Rover Boys, Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift) Optic.

The entrancing full colour fun leads off with riotous rumbles as Buckeye and Red Macdougal build a fake teleportation machine to prank Froggy, only to have two burglars steal the cardboard contraption thinking it the real deal, and thereafter the entire gang gets into serious danger when The Barrel returns.

The Hispanic master-criminal wants revenge for the way the kids foiled his counterfeiting ring, but luckily the old circus entertainer Professor Gravy is around – with his lion and tiger…

A rare (for the era) continued storyline begins with #26 as Froggy, Macdougal and Julip the goat join the Professor on his showboat for a summer of entertaining the river towns. Unfortunately the fugitive Barrel is also on board, incognito and desperate to skip town…

By the next issue the kids have taken care of their arch-enemy (for the meantime) and Julip takes centre-stage – or deck – when he swallows a talking toy parrot and the Professor thinks he’s found the showbiz sensation of the century: a hilarious tale that introduces as memorable new cast member, blustery lady-wrestler Guinevere.

As the kids continue their parent-free working vacation the showboat takes on two new passengers; a thoroughbred race horse and his owner trying to avoid thieves keen on stealing the elite hayburner. If I just mention that this is the same week that the boys are trying to perfect their pantomime-horse act I suspect you can guess where this tale is heading…

The two-fisted dénouement of that escapade left the riverboat high and dry on a reef, and in #29 the stranded cast decides that they will trap the horse-thieves who escaped capture during the battle that led to the crash. This is a dark tale indeed as Macdougal is kidnapped and shot, but the bonny lucky lad soon turns the tables on the villains thanks to some ghastly green flares and a handy graveyard…

This volume ends as the boys return to school and plunge straight into Baseball woes as old rival Feeny of the Gashouse gang frames the bespectacled Froggy. Banned by his teacher from playing in a vital match, the little wise guy needs somebody to pretend to be his mother and get him out of an unjust punishment. It’s a measure of his tenacity if not faith, when three separate versions of his mom turn up at the game…

Today’s comics have nothing like these magical masterpieces to offer to contemporary audiences. Many readers might not even be able to appreciate the sheer beauty, narrative charm and lost innocence of this style of children’s story: sumptuous confections from a true legend of our art-form with truly universal appeal.

If so I genuinely pity them, because this is work with heart and soul, drawn by one of the greatest exponents of graphic narrative America has ever produced. Be assured however, that their loss need not be yours…

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All Rights Reserved.

Abandoned Cars

By Tim Lane (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-341-5

Tim Lane is a post-war American. His inner landscape is populated with B-Movies, Rock and Roll, junk-memorabilia, big cars with fins, old television shows, Jack Kerouac, the seven ages of Marlon Brando, pulp fictions, young Elvis, distilled Depression-era experiences (all of them from “The Great” to the latest), black and white images on TV, a loss of faith in old values, Mad Avenue propaganda, compromised ideals and frustrated dreams. He calls that oh, so plunderable societal gestalt and psychic landscape “The Great American Mythological Drama”, and in this first collection of his stark, intriguing comic strips he dips deep and concocts his own striking contributions to the Great Double Martini of Life…

Many modern Americans are using that shared popular culture to create new paintings and sculptures (see any of the numerous “lowbrow” or “pop surrealist” tomes by Schorr, Ryden, Ledbetter et al that we’ve reviewed here over the last few months) but Lane has eschewed the gallery art arena for his explorations, opting instead for the only true American medium of expression, the story, and toils bombastically in its ugly bastard offspring – Comics.

He draws in stunning black and white: hard-edged, uncompromising and enticingly moody, and these short stories, vignettes, observations and sequential investigations are far from the usual stock of funnies.

The contents here are culled from a number of sources such as Legal Action Comics, Hotwire, Typhon, Riverfront Times and his self-published magazine Happy Hour in America from 2003 to 2008, and range from tales of dark, eccentric whimsy (‘American Cut-Out Collectibles’, ‘The Manic-Depressive from Another Planet’ and ‘The Aries Cow’) to philosophically charged musings (‘Ghost Road’, ‘To Be Happy’ and ‘The Drive Home’), Pop cultural pastiches (‘Outing’ and ‘Doo-Wop and Planet Earth’ ) fascinating autobiography and reportage (‘Spirit’ parts 1-3, ‘In My Dream’ and ‘You Are Here: the Story of Stagger Lee’) to just plain old-fashioned noir-tinted thrillers like ‘Cleveland’ and  ‘Sanctuary’.

The book also contains numerous untitled, enigmatic and addictive short pieces, and for my money the most evocative and powerful piece herein is an all but wordless, two-page rumination on age and loss: ‘Those Were Good Years’. You’d have to be made of stone to be unmoved…

Crafting comics is clearly not a job or hobby for Lane. Serious artists have always struggled to discover greater truths through their creative response to the world, and he has obviously found his instrument in black line on white and his muse in the shabby, avuncular, boisterous, scary detritus of our everyday, blue-collar communal past. The result is stunning and highly intoxicating.

Questing, introspective, insightful and as desperately inquiring as the young Bob Dylan, with as many questions, even fewer answers and just as much lasting, life-altering entertainment to be derived…

Why haven’t you got this book yet?

© 2003 – 2008, 2010 Tim Lane. All rights reserved.

Blazing Combat

By Archie Goodwin & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-366-8

If you’re a bold young publisher or passionate young author you know you must be doing something right when the American government is out to get you. At least that must have felt the case for struggling print entrepreneur Jim Warren and writer/editor Archie Goodwin in the months that followed the launch of the war anthology comics magazine Blazing Combat.

Warren had originally established himself with the black and white B-Movie periodical Famous Monsters of Filmland and satire magazine Help!, when in 1965 he took his admiration of the legendary 1950s EC Comics to its logical conclusion by reviving the concept of horror short stories for older fans by launching Creepy. Stuffed with clever, sardonic, tongue-in-cheek comics chillers illustrated by the top artists in the field (many of them ex-EC stars) he circumvented the all-powerful Comics Code Authority – which had ended EC’s glory days and eventually their entire comics line – by publishing as a newsstand magazine.

It was a no-lose proposition. Older readers didn’t care to be associated with “kid’s stuff” comic-books whilst magazines had tempting cachet (i.e. mild nudity and little more explicit violence) for readers of a transitional age; moreover the standard monochrome format was a quarter of the costs of colour periodicals.

Creepy was a huge and influential hit, especially among the increasingly rebellious teen market, often cited as a source of inspiration for the nascent underground commix movement and feeding on the growing renewed public interest in the supernatural. In true Darwinian “Grow or Die” mode Warren looked around for a new project.

At this time the war in Vietnam was starting to escalate, and the 1948 Selective Service Act – which had kept the Military, National Guard and Federal Reserve forces “topped up” with able-bodied men throughout the Cold War and Korean “Police Action” – was increasingly informing young men that they had been called up to “Advise” their allies in Indo-China on how to kill communists…

Archie Goodwin was a young cartoonist and writer working as an assistant art director at Redbook magazine. Another passionate EC fan, he had sold a script to Warren which appeared in Creepy #1, becoming its editor with #4, and was promptly offered the editor’s chair on Warren’s latest brainstorm. If EC horror had come back into vogue wouldn’t that audience also like a mag based on the old company’s landmark war anthologies Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales?

We’ll never know.

Nowadays controversy sells and there’s no such thing as bad publicity but in 1965 it was a different world and these passionately realistic, uncompromising tales of battle were deemed anti-war (can that ever be a bad thing?) and anti-American: not by the readers but by the distributors paid to get Blazing Combat onto the shelves.

With the second quarterly issue copies were arbitrarily being left in warehouses, the American Legion publicly denounced the magazine – presumably for not showing war as a fun-filled, glorious picnic – and US Military authorities had banned the publication from all their PX’s (the Post Exchange and its Navy, Marine and Air Force equivalents were and still are the One-Stop-Shop of US bases and sold everything from reading materials to off-duty shoes – they were a major generator of comic-book sales) citing a number of Vietnam themed tales which implied that American soldiers were killing innocent civilians.

The public revelation of the My Lai massacre of as many as 507 villagers by American soldiers remained covered up until 1969…

Accompanied by fascinating and frankly gob-smacking interviews with Warren and Goodwin this wonderful, astounding collection re-presents all four of these monochrome masterpieces (which ran over a year from October 1965 to July 1966) in a rousing tome filled with trenchant, unforgettable war-stories by some of the greatest artists in the industry.

The moral body-blows and ethical challenges begin with ‘Viet-Cong!’(illustrated by Joe Orlando), just another grisly day in the field for our boys: marching, searching, torturing prisoners… followed by Angelo Torres’ ‘Aftermath!’, a paean to pride and stupidity set during the Civil War. Next is a terse, informative drama about the ‘Flying Tigers!’ drawn by aviation ace George Evans, and disturbing fable about ultimate objectives during the War in the Pacific, ‘Long View!’ by Gray Morrow.

Reed Crandall illustrated ‘Cantigny!’ decrying the patriotic madness of WWI, and Alex Toth drew a beautiful ‘Combat Quiz’ feature, whilst Tex Blaisdell, Russ Jones and Maurice Whitman collaborated on the rousing tale of Revolutionary War hero ‘Mad Anthony!’ The first issue concluded with John Severin’s gritty cautionary WWII tale ‘Enemy!’

‘Landscape!’ is the Vietnam tale that caused all that long-ago furore, once more drawn by Orlando, whilst Crandall tried his hand at Minutemen and Lobsterbacks (rebellious Colonials and British regulars to you) in the painfully ironic story of ‘Saratoga!’ and Korea fell under the spotlight in Al McWilliams’ stirring ‘Mig Alley!’

Orlando recaptured the mania of the Spanish-American War of 1898 in ‘Face to Face!’ whilst the dream-team of Torres and Al Williamson delivered a brutal classic of tank warfare in ‘Kasserine Pass!’ and Alex Toth’s design and greytone mastery made ‘Lone Hawk’ as perfect a tale of WWI aerial combat as you will ever see…

There’s another (uncredited) ‘Comics Quiz’ to solve before Severin’s chilling psycho-drama ‘Holding Action’ ended that controversial second issue.

The magazine was already doomed by the time ‘Special Forces!’ from Joe Orlando opened the third issue. It’s gory, blasé, day-in-the-life attitudes nicely counter-pointed the human tragedy and triumph of Crandall’s Civil War shocker ‘Foragers’ and the chilling acceptance of the war-obsessed survivors in ‘U-Boat’; Gene Coloan’s first contribution to this ill-starred gem of a series.

Alex Toth co-wrote the ambiguously post-apocalyptic ‘Survival!’, but the potent reductionist minimalism of the art is all his own, whilst Wally Wood wrote and illustrated a slick, stirring thriller in ‘The Battle of Britain’ – the only tale on which Goodwin had no input, and the first to feature non-American protagonists…

The Indian Wars of 1885 provided Gray Morrow with an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the only true winner of genocide in ‘Water Hole’, and the penultimate issue concluded with a saga of unjustified assumptions in Severin’s beguiling Pacific War parable ‘Souvenirs!’

Gene Colan illustrated the final Vietnam tale ‘Conflict!’, an impassioned tale of racism under fire, George Evans returned to the killer skies of WWI in the bloody history lesson ‘How It Began!’ which leads directly into – visually, at least – the best thing in the book.

Alex Toth revisited the glory of his landmark EC tale ‘F86: Sabre Jet!’ (Frontline Combat #12, 1953; track it down – preferably in black and white – it is utterly indescribable in its pictorial brilliance) with another saga of Jet Age combat: ‘The Edge’ a stark, yet oddly comforting homily.

‘Give and Take’ by hyper-realist Russ Heath is a perfect example of the anti-war philosophy and hauntingly lovely, whilst Wally Wood’s sleek imagery and finishing clearly shows how Hitler’s mad arrogance lost the war by mis-using the incredible jet fighter ‘ME-262!’

Severin’s final contribution is the gallows-grim lark of WWI ‘The Trench!’ whilst Reed Crandall’s immense versatility is displayed in a two-tier tale of legendary holding actions. Co-written by the artist, British troops retreating in Greece in 1941 recall another time dedicated soldiers bought time for their nation, living and dying at ‘Thermopylae!’

This volume’s comic section ends in the only way it can, with the grimly pointless, nasty story of military pragmatism and ruthless necessity, with conscience the first casualty, as German and American troops respectively mop up after a ‘Night Drop!’ illustrated with mordant aplomb by Angelo Torres in his too-infrequently seen wash and tone style.

After the aforementioned interviews by Mike Catron this incredible volume ends with all of Frank Frazetta’s original colour cover paintings.

Blazing Combat is a singular vision, filled with artistic wonders and brimming with some of the best and certainly most impassioned writing the gentle genius Archie Goodwin ever penned in his glittering career. This is probably the only book of war comics that comes anywhere near the power, artistry and impact of our own Charley’s War. Whatever your reasons for loving comics you should read this book – and if you don’t like comics at all, read it anyway and have your mind changed for you…

This collection © 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Contents © 1965, 1966 Warren Publishing renewed and assigned to J. Michael Catron 1993. All other material © the respective individual holders. All rights reserved.

Culture Corner

By Basil Wolverton (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-308-8

Basil Wolverton was one of a kind, a cartoonist and wordsmith of unique skills and imagination and one whose controversial works inspired and delighted many whilst utterly revolting others. Born in Central Point, Oregon on July 9th 1909 he worked as a Vaudeville performer, reporter and cartoonist, and unlike most cartoonists of his time preferred to stay far away from the big city. For most of his life he mailed his work from the rural wilderness of Vancouver, Washington State.

He made his first national cartoon sale at age 16 and began pitching newspaper strips in the late 1920s. A great fan of fantastic fiction he sold Marco of Mars to the Independent Syndicate of New York in 1929 (the company then declined to publish it, citing its similarity to the popular Buck

Equally at home with comedy, horror and adventure fantasy material Wolverton adapted easily to the concept of superheroes, working extensively in the new medium of comic-books, where he produced such gems as Spacehawks and Disk-Eyes the Detective for Circus Comics, the grimly imaginative, (unrelated) sci fi cosmic avenger Spacehawk for Target Comics and Rockman, “Underground Secret Agent” for Timely/Marvel’s USA Comics.

He also produced a seemingly endless supply of comedy features ranging from extended series such as superman/boxing parody ‘Powerhouse Pepper’ to double, single and half-page gag fillers such as ‘Bedtime Bunk’, ‘Culture Quickie’ and ‘Bedtime Banter’.

In 1946 he famously won a national competition held by Al Capp of Li‘l Abner fame to visualise “Lena the Hyena”, that strip’s “ugliest woman in the world”, and during the 1950s space and horror boom produced some of the most imaginative short stories comics have ever seen. He also worked for Mad Magazine.

Wolverton had been a member of Herbert W. Armstrong’s (prototype televangelist of a burgeoning fundamentalist movement) Radio Church of God since 1941. In 1956 he illustrated the founder’s pamphlet ‘1975 in Prophecy’. Two years later Wolverton produced a stunning interpretation of The Book of Revelation Unveiled at Last and began writing and drawing an illustrated six-volume adaptation of the Old Testament entitled ‘The Bible Story: the Story of Man’ which was serialised in the sect’s journal The Plain Truth. In many ways these religious works are his most moving and powerful.

In 1973 he returned to the world of comic books, illustrating more of his memorably comedic grotesques for DC’s Plop!, but suffered a stroke the next year. He died on December 31st 1978.

Now Fantagraphics have collected a spectacular haul of Wolverton’s very best gag feature in a uniquely informative hardback. Culture Corner ran as a surreal and screwball half-page “advice column” in Whiz Comics as well as Marvel Family and The Daisy Handbook from 1946 to 1955 when publisher Fawcett sold off its comic division to Charlton Comics – including the very last unpublished strips. The cartoonist was clearly a meticulous creator, and his extensive files have bequeathed us a once-in-a-lifetime insight into his working practice and the editorial exigencies of the period.

Wolverton sent a fully penciled rough of each proposed episode to Will Lieberson and Virginia Provisiaro (Executive editor and Whiz Comic’s editor respectively) who would comment and commission or reject. The returned pencils would then form the skeleton of the instalment. This lovely madcap tome re-presents the full colour strip with almost all of the original pencil roughs, (diligently stored by Wolverton for decades) as counterpoint and accompaniment, revealing the depth not only of Wolverton’s imagination at play but also his deft facility with design and inking. Also included are some extra roughs and all the extent rejected ideas – some of the most outrageous tomfoolery ever unleashed.

Wolverton was something of an inventor and DIY maestro according to his son Monte’s illuminating introduction, and turned the family home into a dream-house Rube Goldberg or our own Professor Brainstawm would be proud of, and that febrile ingenuity is clearly seen in the advisements of Croucher K. Conk Q.O.C. (Queer Old Coot) as with awesome alliteration and pre-Rap rhyming riffs he suggests solutions for some of life’s least tiresome troubles.

Among the welter of whacky wisdoms imparted some of the most timelessly true are ‘How to Raise Your Eyebrows’, ‘How to Eat your Spaghetti without Getting Wetty’, ‘How to Clap without Mishap’, ‘How to Stop Brooding if your Ears are Protruding’, ‘How to Bow’ and ‘How to Grope for Bathtub Soap’ amongst more than a hundred other sage prescriptions, but whatever your age, alignment or species this crazy chronicle has something that will change your life – and often for the better!

Graphically grotesque, inveterately un-sane and scrupulously screwball, this lexicon of lost laughs is a must have item for anyone in need of a classy cheering up.

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Tales of the Green Beret Books 1-3

By Robin Moore & Joe Kubert (Blackthorne/Comic Strip Preserves)
ISBNs: 0-932629-36-9, 0-932629-48-2 and 0-932629-59-8

If you’re old enough to remember the Viet Nam conflict you’ll understand when I say that it was a war that changed the World’s perception of America. It marked a growth of civil resistance, student unrest and all-pervasive questioning of previously accepted authority. People thought differently after it ended. Most had their eyes opened: many screwed them tighter shut…

It is something we should be aware of now more than ever…

In 1965 a blockbuster book by novelist Robin Moore rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists, generating a film, a hit song and a highly controversial syndicated comic strip. Moore, possibly one of the very first “Embedded Journalists”, trained with and then accompanied America’s elite combat group, the US Army Special Forces, for two years, and was clearly proud to be counted amongst “The Green Berets.”

The United States Army Special Forces is a Special Operations Force designed to carry out six specific briefs: Unconventional Warfare, Foreign Internal Defense, Special Reconnaissance, Direct Military Action, Hostage Rescue and Counter-Terrorism. Units usually carry out these missions with foreign troops on foreign soil, and their remit also includes Search and Rescue, Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Assistance. In later years they have also specialized in Landmine Removal, Counter-Proliferation, Psychological Operations, Manhunting, and Counter-Drug operations.

The unit was formed in 1952 as part of the US Army Psychological Warfare Division, designated the 10th Special Forces Group at the new Psychological Warfare School (which became the John F. Special Warfare Center and School just before these strips premiered).

During the 1960s they were mostly employed in Southeast Asia, South America and Europe in their Unconventional Warfare capacity. The group motto is “De Oppresso Liber” – To Liberate the Oppressed – and relates to their most frequent function: training and advising foreign indigenous forces.

Oddly, the Green Beret itself is a Scottish tradition dating from World War II, when American OSS agents and US Army Rangers (their equivalent to our Commandos) were trained by the Royal Marines and awarded the prestigious headgear for successfully completing the terrifying Commando Training course.

The hats were banned by the US military, but worn clandestinely – and illegally – until 1961, when President Kennedy personally authorized them as a signal of the caliber of soldier able to win one: “a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.”

This gesture forever bound the Green Berets to the memory of the murdered President, as the very first week of the strip stirringly affirms. Tales of the Green Berets comes from a time when the USA led the Free World (now there’s a phrase to pick apart semantically), politicians were generally considered to be open and honest and the CIA were good guys. As usual when nations go to war, idealism is always the first casualty, closely followed by young men and foreign civilians…

Fully aware of the value of favourable PR, the strip was created at the urging of Lt. General William Yarborough, who had sponsored Moore’s research and arduous training. He was the current commander of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and was keen to see the military displayed in a positive light. After a brief but abortive initial opening, the strip launched as a daily on April 4th and Sunday feature on April 10th 1966 from the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, with scripts by Howard Liss and art from the immensely talented Joe Kubert, whose work on DC’s war comic-books was swiftly making him America’s top war artist.

The tales featured a fictionalised reporter, Chris Tower, who had trained with the Green Berets for an article and was now posted to Vietnam by his newspaper magnate father to report on the war…

In the first adventure here ‘Kidnap Ksor Tonn’ Tower meets up with an old friend and becomes embroiled in an operation to abduct a prominent Viet Cong commander: an impressive tale of jeopardy and double-cross. These stories are surprisingly even-handed in their treatment of the conflict, as ‘Sucker Bait’ sees Tower visiting a jungle village of peasants caught in the middle of the war, with heartbreaking consequences…

This is followed by an exotic view of life in Sin City Saigon entitled ‘Chris Kidnapped’ but the perpetrators aren’t political, merely greedy students looking to make some quick American cash…

The first volume ends with the opening shots in a new conflict as Chris flies to Central America to join ‘Operation Oilspot’…

The saga continues in volume two as Chris becomes deeply involved in an ideological battle between the poor peasants of San Marco and Marxist insurgents. In this war for hearts and minds the Green Berets are only “observers”, teaching and training the local soldiery and helping to construct roads and a bridge, but the insurgents are determined to sabotage the project. Moreover they are not so much dedicated communists as profiteering bandits with an eye to the main chance…

This is an impressive saga full of genuine moral conflict and personal tragedy, whilst the next tale ‘Freedom Flight’, switches locales to East Berlin and genres to pure espionage as Tower and a European team warm up the Cold War to smuggle a family through Checkpoint Charlie for a new life beyond the Iron Curtain. Once more the story breaks at a critical moment, to resume in the third and final volume.

On concluding ‘Freedom Flight’ Tower returns to Southeast Asia to examine the links between South Vietnamese Generals – ostensibly the allies of the Americans – and American organised crime. ‘The Syndicate’ is a tense thriller which shows that the modern problem with Vietnamese drug lords was an open secret even in 1967, and as the spellbinding action simultaneously takes place in Asia and America, clearly reveals that the situation was in large part self-inflicted…

This final volume concludes with the somewhat truncated yet engagingly complex political drama ‘Prince Synoc’, wherein a Special Forces trained son of the King of Thailand apparently defects to a faction of the anti-American, anti-monarchist Thai Army of Liberation.

All is not as it seems though, as Tower and the local Green Berets discover… The third and final volume ends here on a rather inconclusive note with the December 31st 1967 Sunday instalment, but I’m not really surprised that these volumes never finished reprinting the entire strip…

The feature was in strange and controversial straits by this time. Although still popular, it had become an easy target for anti-war protesters, with writing campaigns and even picketing of papers that carried it. Kubert’s usually inspired and grippingly evocative textured art suffered (it looks to me like fellow DC artist Jack Abel has ghosted the inking on more than one occasion), and Joe left the strip in January 1968. His last Sunday page was January 7th and his final daily ran three days later. The series continued for a few months more with veteran Tarzan artist John Celardo as illustrator, before succumbing to the inevitable.

Now however, with the distance of decades, surely it is time for this superb and seminal series to be revisited and given the complete deluxe treatment. These cheap and cheerful Blackthorne editions are scarce, often poorly printed and incomplete. The first abortive tale ‘Viet Cong Cowboy’ was not included and since the stories are so very readable it seems only right to also include the missing Celardo strips. After all, this man was also a major artistic talent and I for one would love to review his later efforts…

One more for the graphic novel wish-list then…
© 1986 Tribune Media Services, Inc. All Rights Reserved.