Tarzan Digest #1

By Russ Manning (DC Comics)

The early 1970s were the last real glory days of National (now DC) Comics. As they slowly lost market-share to Marvel they responded by producing controversial and landmark superhero material, but their greatest strength lay, as it always has, in the variety and quality of its genre divisions. Mystery and supernatural, Romance, War and Kids’ titles remained strong and the company’s eye for a strong licensed brand was as keen as ever.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan had long been a mainstay of Dell and Gold Key, as well as a global multi-media phenomenon, and when DC acquired the title they rightly trumpeted it out, putting one of their top Artist/Editors, Joe Kubert, in charge of the legendary Ape-man’s monthly exploits, and putting a whole niche of ERB titles onto the stands in a variety of formats.

The latter days of the Gold Key run had suffered since the brilliant Russ Manning took over the syndicated newspaper strip, and even the likes of Doug Wildey hadn’t been able to revive the comicbook series in the face of increasing prices and a general downturn in sales across the market. The DC incarnation premiered in a blaze of publicity at the height of a nostalgia boom and was generally well received by fans and the company pushed the title in many places and manners.

One of my very favourites is this handy-dandy digest, reprinting a number of Manning’s most fantastic forays with ERB’s fabulous creations, taken, I believe from the Manning Sunday strips, and filled out with Jesse Marsh’s ‘Tarzan’s illustrated Ape-English Dictionary’ and a couple of ‘Tarzan’s Jungle Lore’ features.

Russ Manning was an absolute master of his art, most popularly remembered now for the Star Wars newspaper strip, Magnus, Robot Fighter as well as the comic-book and newspaper strip (dailies from 1969-1972 and the Sundays from 1969-1979) incarnations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s immortal Lord of the Jungle.

Manning’s Tarzan never strayed far from the canonical texts and here he puts the indomitable Greystoke through his paces in ‘Tarzan and the Rite of the Great Apes’ a delightful short fantasy of the Great White God’s relaxing times among his hairy subjects, ‘Tarzan and the Ant-Men’, which sees him return to the diminutive Velopismakusian warrior race stranded behind their impenetrable Thorn barrier, and the epic sequel ‘Tarzan and the Attack of the Beast Men’, which pits and him and son Korak against an invasion of Hyena and Crocodile men from a lost outpost of ancient Egypt.

Spectacular, tantalising, captivating and gloriously beautiful (I cannot think of any artist who drew lovelier women – or men, for that matter) this pocket-sized gem is an unending source of delights.

Eho vando! Tarmangani gree-ah! Kagoda? Now if you had this book you’d probably agree, no?
© 1972 Edgar Rice Burroughs Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.

Rip Kirby: Gunpowder Dreams Daily Strips 27 March-10 June 1950

By Alex Raymond (Pacific Comics Club)

Does size really matter? That loaded question makes more sense in the context of this rare but wonderful package I dug out in response to hearing that IDW intend to collect the entire saga of Rip Kirby in collector’s editions.

This complete softcover adventure (alternatively entitled ‘Correspondence Crisis’) was selectively released in 1980 and occasionally turns up in shops and on the internet. You can’t miss it, as the book is 340x245mm (that’s nearly 15 inches by 10) and on its glossy white pages presents a superbly compelling exploit of one of America’s most famous fictional detectives, drawn by one of the world’s most brilliant and influential artists. A perfect taste of the heady 1950s style, this yarn will suck you into a captivating world of adventure and resurgent post-war glamour.

In the golden age of newspaper adventure strips (that’s the 1930s, right?) Alex Raymond made Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim and Secret Agent X-9 household names all over the world, but when his country called he dropped everything and went to war.

On his return, rather than rekindle old glories he created (from King Features Editor Ward Greene’s concept and scripts) a new kind of private detective. The result was a rather unique individual, a demobbed marine who was intellectual and sedentary by preference, and although physically powerful chose to use his mind rather than fists and guns.

He had a steady girlfriend called Judith “Honey” Dorian and a mousy but competent manservant named Desmond with hidden depths (he was a reformed burglar decades before Lady Penelope hired that guy Parker). Remington “Rip” Kirby debuted on March 4th 1946, to instant approbation and commercial success.

Greene wrote the strip until 1952 when he was replaced by journalist Fred Dickenson and Raymond illustrated it until Sept. 6, 1956, when, aged only 46, he died in a car crash. The hugely talented John Prentice assumed the art duties whilst Dickenson continued writing until 1986 when he left due to ill-health, from which time Prentice did that too. The feature finally ended on June 26th 1999 when Prentice retired.

The story?

Slick, polished and so very modern, this seductive pot-boiler sees the usually worldly-wise Desmond gulled by a con-artist who uses the hearts and flowers racket to fleece lonely men, but when his butler goes missing Rip is more than sharp enough to track him down…

Your chances of tracking down this gem are admittedly quite slim, but well worth the effort if you’re an art-lover, as Raymond’s drawing at this size is an unparalleled delight. Still and all, even in the relatively meagre dimensions modern strips are reprinted the Rip Kirby collections will be a treat you simply cannot afford to miss. Let’s hope we’re not waiting too long…
© 1950, 1980 King Features. All Rights Reserved. Book © 1980 Pacific C.C.

Smilin’ Jack: the Classic Aviator

By Zack Mosley (Classic Comic Strips)

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

It’s virtually impossible for us to understand the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America 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 came mutants and hybrids like Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs. Comedic when it began in 1924, it gradually moved from mock-heroics to light-action and became a full-blown, rip-roaring adventure series with the introduction of ancestral he-man and prototype moody swashbuckler Captain Easy in 1929.

From there it wasn’t such a leap to full-on blockbusters like Tarzan (which began on January 7th 1929) and Buck Rogers (also January 7th 1929) – both adaptations of pre-existing prose properties, but the majority of drama strips that followed were original productions. The tidal-wave began in the early 1930s when an explosion of action and drama strips (tastefully tailored for a family audience and fondly recalled as “Thud and Blunder” yarns) were launched with astounding rapidity. Not just strips but entire genres were created in that decade which still impact on not just today’s comic-books but all our popular fiction. Still most common however were general feel-good humour strips with the occasional child-oriented fantasy.

Among the most popular of the new adventure genres was the Aviator serial. With air speed, distance and endurance records bring broken every day, travelling air-circuses barnstorming across rural America and real life heroes such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart plastered all over the front pages it wasn’t difficult to grasp the potential of funny-pages analogues.

The first was Tailspin Tommy, by Glenn Chaffin and Hal Forrest, the story of boy pilot Tommy Tompkins, which ran from May 21st 1928 (almost exactly one year after Lindbergh’s epic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis) until 1942, swiftly followed by Lester J Maitland and Dick Calkins Skyroads and John Terry’s Scorchy Smith (see Scorchy Smith: Partners in Danger) 1930 -1961, as well as such late-arriving classics as Flyin’ Jenny, Buz Sawyer and even Steve Canyon.

Zack Mosley was an enterprising young cartoonist who assisted Calkins on both Skyroads and the legendary Buck Rogers (see Buck Rogers: the First 60 Years in the 25th Century). He was also a dedicated pilot and flying enthusiast, and when he heard that Captain Jor Patterson (influential editor of the Chicago Tribune) was taking lessons he swiftly pitched a series to the kingmaker of comic strips.

On the Wing debuted as a Sunday page on October 1st 1933, but the name never gelled and the series was re-titled Smilin’ Jack (apparently Moseley was surreptitiously known as “Smiling Zack” around the Tribune office), from the December 31st episode. The strip steadily gained interest and syndication subscribers and on June 15th 1936 was augmented by a daily strip.

Jack Martin was a nervous student pilot, and the series originally played safe by vacillating between comedy and hairsbreadth thrills as he and his fellow learner-pilots learned the ropes. Never a top-tier series it nevertheless always delivered terrific entertainment to the masses, moving with the times into a romance, war-feature, a crime thriller (complete with Dick Tracy style villains) and even a family soap. Moreover the strip progressed in real time and when it closed on 1st April 1973, Jack was a twice married air veteran with a grown son and a full cast of romantic dalliances in tow. It wasn’t lack of popularity that ended it either. Mosley at 67 years old wanted to spend his final years in the air, not at a drawing board…

This fabulous collection delivers a delightful selection of rousing romps, beginning with that name changing first episode from December 31st 1933, before concentrating on some classic sequences from the roaring thirties starring Jack, comedy foil Rufus Jimpson (a hill-Billy mechanic), eye-candy air hostess and love interest Dixie Lee (subject of an extended romantic triangle), Latin spitfire (the curvy sort not the fighter plane sort) Bonita Caliente and spies, thugs, imbecile passengers, South American revolutionaries and even a foreign Legion of the Skies with an eerily prescient stiff-necked Prussian flyer named Von Bosch whose type would soon be plastered all over the strips and comic books when WWII broke out

This kind of strip is, I suspect, an acquired taste today like Preston Sturges or George Cukor films, with a little bit of intellectual and historical concentration required, but the effort is certainly worth it, and if this kind of stuff is good enough for the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg it’s perfectly good enough for you and me…
© 1989, 2009 Chicago Tribune Syndicate. All Rights Reserved. (I’m guessing here: if somebody else actually owns the rights let me know and I’ll happily amend the entry)

Century 21 volume 1: Adventure in the 21st Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fred Basset 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s the appeal?

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

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

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

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

Drinky Crow’s Maakies Treasury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best of Simon and Kirby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boody: the Bizarre Comics of Boody Rogers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re also beautifully drawn and a total hoot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackhawk Archives Volume 1

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

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

Nobody was ready for Blackhawk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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