Superman: The Golden Age Volume Five


By Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, John Sikela, Leo Nowak, Ed Dobrotka, George Roussos, Sam Citron & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8797-9 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Vital Vintage Superhero Fun and Fantasy… 9/10

The American comicbook industry – if it existed at all by now – would have been an utterly unrecognisable thing without The Man of Tomorrow. His unprecedented invention and adoption by a desperate and joy-starved generation gave birth to an entire genre if not an actual art form.

Imitation is the most honest compliment and can be profitable too. Superman triggered an inconceivable army of imitators and variations and, within three years of his Summer 1938 debut, the intoxicating blend of action and social wish-fulfilment which hallmarked the early Action Ace had grown to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, socially reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy, and whimsical comedy. Once the war in Europe and the East finally involved America, to that list was added patriotic relevance for a host of gods, heroes and monsters – all dedicated to profit through exuberant, eye-popping excess and vigorous dashing derring-do.

In comicbook terms at least, Superman was master of the world. He had already utterly changed the shape of the fledgling industry by the time of these tales. There was a successful newspaper strip, foreign and overseas syndication and the Fleischer studio was producing some of the most expensive – and best – animated cartoons ever conceived.

Thankfully the quality of the source material was increasing with every four-colour release, and the energy and enthusiasm of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster had infected the burgeoning studio that grew around them to cope with the relentless demand.

This latest addition to the splendid Golden Age/Silver Age strand of DC reprint compendia presents more of an epochal run of raw, unpolished but viscerally vibrant stories by Siegel, Shuster and the sterling crew of their “Superman Studio”. This stalwart band collaboratively set the nascent comics world on fire with crude, rough, uncontrollable wish-fulfilling, cathartically exuberant exploits of a righteous and superior man dealing out summary justice equally to social malcontents, exploitative capitalists, thugs and ne’er-do-wells, and captured the imagination of a generation.

This fifth remastered paperback collection (also available digitally) of the Action Ace’s early exploits – reprinted in the order they first appeared – covers the turbulent, times spanning May 1942 to February 1943: encompassing escapades from Action Comics #48-57, Superman #16-19 and his solo-adventures from World’s Finest Comics #6-8 (an oversized anthology title where he shared whimsical cover-stardom with Batman and Robin).

As always, every comic appearance is preceded by the original cover illustration depicting Superman trouncing scurrilous Axis War-mongers and reminding readers what we were all fighting for – captivating graphic masterpieces from Fred Ray, Jack Burnley and John Sikela – whilst each tale is credited to prolific co-originator Siegel.

I sometimes think – like many others I know – that superhero comics were never more apt or effective than when they were whole-heartedly combating global fascism with explosive, improbable excitement courtesy of a myriad of mysterious, masked marvel men.

All the most evocatively visceral moments of the genre seem to come when gaudy gladiators soundly thrashed – and I hope you’ll please forgive the offensive contemporary colloquialism – “Nips and Nazis”. However, even in those long-ago dark days, comics creators were wise enough to offset their tales of espionage and imminent invasion with a barrage of home-grown threats and gentler or even more whimsical four-colour fare…

Jerry Siegel was producing some of the best stories of his career, showing the Action Ace in all his morale-boosting glory; thrashing thugs, spies and masters of bad science whilst America kicked the Axis fascists in the pants…

Co-creator Joe Shuster, although plagued by punishing deadlines for the Superman newspaper strip and his rapidly failing eyesight, was still fully involved in the process, overseeing the stories and drawing character faces whenever possible, but as the months passed the talent pool of the “Superman Studio” increasingly took the lead in the comicbooks as the demands of the media superstar grew and grew. Thus, most of the stories in this volume were drawn by John Sikela with occasional support from others…

The magic begins with ‘The Merchant of Murder!’ from Action Comics #48 wherein the hero topples an insidious gang of killers led by The Top who uses wartime restrictions to sell used cars with deadly faults and defects until reporter Lois Lane and her soft-spoken leg man get involved…

Sikela flew solo on all of Superman #16, beginning with ‘The World’s Meanest Man’ as the Caped Kryptonian crushes a mobster attempting to plunder a social program giving deprived slum-kids a holiday in the countryside, before moving on to battle an astrologer prepared to murder his clients to prove his predictions in ‘Terror from the Stars’.

‘The Case of the Runaway Skyscrapers’ pits the Metropolis Marvel against Mister Sinister, a trans-dimensional tyrant who makes buildings vanish, after which the power-packed perilous periodical concluded with a deeply satisfying and classic campaign against organised crime as Superman crushes the ‘Racket on Delivery’.

Action Comics #49 introduced The Puzzler – a despicable, deadly and obsessive criminal maniac who hated losing and never played fair in ‘The Wizard of Chance’ (inked by Ed Dobrotka).

The debut of Superman propelled National Comics to the forefront of their fledgling industry and in 1939 the company collaborated with the organisers of the New York World’s Fair: producing two commemorative comic books celebrating the event. The Man of Tomorrow prominently featured on the appropriately titled New York World’s Fair Comics beside such four-colour stars as Zatara, Gingersnap, The Sandman and Batman and Robin. The spectacular card-cover 96-page anthologies were a huge hit and convinced National’s owner and editors that such an over-sized package of their pantheon of characters, with Superman and Batman prominently featured, would be a worthwhile proposition.

The bountiful format was retained for a wholly company-owned quarterly which retailed for the then-hefty price of 15¢. Launching as World’s Best Comics #1 (Spring 1941), the book transformed into World’s Finest Comics from #2, beginning a stellar 45-year run which only ended as part of the massive decluttering exercise that was Crisis on Infinite Earths.

From WFC #6 (Summer 1942), Siegel, Leo Nowak & Sikela’s ‘The Man of Steel vs. the Man of Metal’ pits our hero and newsboy Jimmy Olsen against Metalo: a mad scientist whose discoveries make him every inch Superman’s physical match…

Back in Action Comics #50, Clark Kent and Lois are despatched to Florida to scope out sporting skulduggery in ‘Play Ball!’– a light-hearted baseball tale illustrated by Nowak & Ed Dobrotka before Superman #17 offers a quartet of tales beginning with ‘Man or Superman?’ (pencilled by Shuster with Sikela inking), wherein Lois first begins putting together snippets of evidence and at last sensing that klutzy Clark might be hiding a Super-secret, even as the subject of her research tangles with sinister saboteur The Talon.

Following that, ‘The Human Bomb’ (art by Nowak) sees a criminal hypnotist transform innocent citizens into walking landmines until the tireless Action Ace scotches his wicked racket.

Sikela handled the last two tales in the issue beginning with ‘Muscles for Sale!’, in which Superman’s Fortress of Solitudeand Trophy Room debut and the Man of Steel battles another mad mesmerist turning ordinary citizens into dangerously overconfident louts, bullies and thieves, whilst ‘When Titans Clash!’ depicts a frantic and spectacular duel of wits and incredible super-strength after Luthor regains the mystic Power Stone to become Superman’s physical – but never intellectual – master …

Action Comics #51 introduces the canny faux-madness of practical-joking homicidal bandit The Prankster in the rollercoaster romp in Sikela’s ‘The Case of the Crimeless Crimes’ and the next issue features the ‘The Emperor of America!’, wherein an invading army are welcomed with open arms by all Americans except the indignantly suspicious Man of Steel who single-handedly liberates the nation in a blistering, rousing call-to-arms classic…

As the war progressed the raw passion and sly wit of Siegel’s stories and the rip-roaring energy of Shuster and his team were galvanised by the parlous state of the planet and Superman got even became better and more flamboyant to deal with it all. His startling abilities and take-charge, can-do attitude won the hearts of the public at home and he was embraced as a patriotic tonic for the troops across the war-torn world.

The rise was meteoric, inexorable and unprecedented. He was the indisputable star of Action and World’s Finest Comics plus his own dedicated title, whilst a daily newspaper strip (begun on 16th January 1939, with a separate Sunday strip following from 5th November of that year) garnered millions of new fans globally. A thrice-weekly radio serial had been running since February 12th 1940 and, with a movie cartoon series, games, toys, apparel and a growing international media presence, Superman was swiftly becoming the entire Earth’s hero…

Although the gaudy burlesque of evil aliens, marauding monsters and slick super-villains still lay years ahead of our hero, thrilling tales of villainy, criminality, corruption and disaster were just as engrossing and spoke powerfully of the tenor of the times, and are all dealt with in a direct and captivating manner by our relentlessly entertaining champion in summarily swift and decisive fashion.

No “To Be Continueds” here!

A perfect example of the done-in-one tale is Siegel, Nowak & Sikela’s ‘The Eight Doomed Men’ from World’s Finest Comics #7: a tale involving a coterie of ruthless millionaires targeted for murder because of the wicked past deeds of their privileged college fraternity. This enthralling crime mystery is suitably spiced up with flamboyant high-tech weaponry that pushes the Man of Tomorrow to his limits…

Superman #18 (September/October 1942) then offers a quartet of stunning sagas, leading with Sikela’s ‘The Conquest of a City’ wherein Nazi infiltrators use a civil defence drill to infiltrate the National Guard and conquer Metropolis in the Fuehrer’s name… until Superman spearheads the counter-attack…

Nowak’s ‘The Heat Horror’ posits an artificial asteroid threatening to burn the city to ashes until the Metropolis Marvel defeats Lex Luthor, the manic mastermind who initially aimed it at Earth.

‘The Man with the Cane’ offers a grand, old-fashioned and highly entertaining espionage murder mystery for Dobrotka & Sikela to illustrate after which Superman takes on his first fully costumed super-villain when ‘The Snake’ perpetrates a string of murders during construction of a river tunnel in a moody Nowak-drawn masterpiece.

Sikela is inked by George Roussos on fantastic thriller ‘The Man Who put Out the Sun!’ from Action Comics #53, wherein bird-themed bandit Night-Owl uses “black light” technology and ruthless gangsters to plunder at will until the Man of Steel takes charge, whilst in #54, ‘The Pirate of Pleasure Island!’ (Sikela) follows the foredoomed career of upstanding citizen Stanley Finchcomb, a seemingly civilised descendent of ruthless buccaneers who succumbs to madness and becomes a modern day merciless marine marauder. Or perhaps he truly is possessed by the merciless spirit of his ancestor Captain Ironfist in this enchanting supernatural thriller…?

A classic (and much reprinted) fantasy shocker opened Superman #19. ‘The Case of the Funny Papers Crimes’ (Sikela & Dobrotka) sees bizarre desperado Funnyface bring the larger-than-life villains of the Daily Planet’s comics page to terrifying life in a grab for loot and power, after which ‘Superman’s Amazing Adventure’ (Nowak) finds the Man of Steel battling incredible creatures in an incredible extra-dimensional realm – but all is not as it seems…

Some of the city’s most vicious criminals are commanded to kill a stray dog by the infamous Mr. Z in ‘The Canine and the Crooks’ (Nowak) and it takes all of Clark and Lois’ deductive skills to ascertain why before ‘Superman, Matinee Idol’breaks the fourth wall for readers as the reporters visit a movie house to see a Superman cartoon in a shameless yet exceedingly inventive and thrilling “infomercial” plug for the Fleischer Brothers cartoons then currently astounding movie-goers; all lovingly rendered by Shuster and inked by Sikela…

This latest leaf through times gone by continues with a witty and whimsical Li’l Abner spoof illustrated by Sikela & Dobrotka. ‘A Goof named Tiny Rufe’ focuses on desperate cartoonist Slapstick Sam who co-opts, plagiarises and ruins the simple lives of a couple of naïve hillbillies to fill his idea-empty panels and pages… until Superman intercedes to give the hicks their lives back and the devious dauber the drubbing he so richly deserves……

World’s Finest #8 (Winter, 1942-1943) next exposed ‘Talent Unlimited’ (Sam Criton & Sikela) as Superman tracks down a missing heiress who had abandoned wealth for a stage career and poor but honest theatrical friends. Unfortunately, even though she didn’t want her money, other people did…

A brace of episodes from Action Comics brings this gleaming Golden Age visit to a close, starting with ‘Design for Doom!’ from #56. Illustrated by Sikela, it pits the Caped Kryptonian against a deranged architect who creates global city-wrecking catastrophes simply to prove the superiority of his own creations.

Superman was pitifully short on returning villains in the early days so #57’s return of the Prankster as ‘Crime’s Comedy King’ made a welcome addition to his meagre Rogues Gallery, especially as the Macabre Madcap seems here to have turned over a new philanthropic leaf. Of course, there’s malevolence and a big con job at the heart of his transformation…

As fresh, thrilling and compelling now as they ever were, these endlessly re-readable epics are perfectly presented in these glorious paperback collections where the graphic magic defined what being a Super Hero means, with every tale dictating the basic iconography of the genre for all others to follow.

These Golden Age tales are priceless enjoyment at absurdly affordable prices and in a durable, comfortingly approachable format. What dedicated comics fan could possibly resist them?
© 1942, 1943, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Gahan Wilson Sunday Comics


By Gahan Wilson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-612-6 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: One Last Hard-Earned Laugh in the Face of the Toughest Holiday Season in Living Memory… 9/10

Born on February 18th 1930 and dying a year ago today, Gahan Allen Wilson was an illustrator, cartoonist, essayist and author who always had his eyes and heart set on the future. According to Gary Groth’s Afterword in this sublime collection, he and grew up reading comic strips as much as fantasy fiction.

It always showed.

The mordantly macabre, acerbically wry and surreal draughtsman tickled funnybones and twanged nerves with his darkly dry graphic confections from the 1960s; contributing superb spoofs, sparklingly horrific and satirically suspenseful drawings and strips and panels as a celebrated regular contributor in such major magazines as Playboy, Collier’s, The New Yorker and others. He also wrote science fiction for Again Dangerous Visions, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Twilight Zone Magazine and Realms of Fantasy as well as contributing criticism, book and film reviews for them all.

In an extremely broad and long career he wore dozens of creative hats, even embracing the modern digital universe by creating – with Byron Preiss – his own supernatural computer game, Gahan Wilson’s the Ultimate Haunted House.

When National Lampoon first began its devastatingly satirical (geez, do modern folk even recognize satire anymore?) all-out attack on the American Dream, Wilson was invited to contribute a regular strip to their comics section. His sublimely semi-autobiographical, darkly hilarious paean to lost childhood ran from 1972 and until 1981 and was collected as Nuts, another superb compilation from this publisher that you should own and share.

Few people – me included – knew that during that period he also, apparently more for fun and relaxation than profit, produced his own syndicated Sunday strip feature. For two years – beginning on March 3rd 1974 – Gahan Wilson Sunday Comics appeared in a small cross-section of newspapers from Boston to Los Angeles and, as with all his work, it bucked a trend.

At a time when most cartoonists were seeking a daily continuity strip, building a readership and eking jokes out with sensible parsimony, Wilson let himself go hog-wild, generating a half-dozen or so single-shot gags every Sabbath, blending his signature weird, wild monsters, uncanny aliens and unsavoury scenes with straight family humour, animal crackers, topical themes and cynically socio-politically astute observations.

Looking at them here it’s clear to me that his intent was to have fun and make himself laugh as much or even more than his readership; capturing those moments when an idea or notion gave him pause to giggle whilst going about his day job…

I’m not going to waste time describing the cartoons: there are too many and despite being a fascinating snapshot of life in the 1970s they’re almost all still outrageously funny in the way and manner that Gary Larson’s Far Side was a scant six years later.

I will say that even whilst generating a storm of humorous, apparently unconnected one-offs, consummate professional Wilson couldn’t restrain himself and eventually the jokes achieved an underlying shape and tone with recurring motifs (clocks, beasts, wallpaper, etc), guest appearances by “The Kid” (from Nuts) and features-within-the-feature such as The Creep and Future Funnies

Collected in a gloriously expansive (176 pages, 309x162mm) full-colour, landscape hardback, as well as in digital formats, this complete re-presentation of a lost cartooning classic offers a freewheeling, absurdist, esoterically banal, intensely, trenchantly funny slice of nostalgia. These fabulous joke page compendiums range from satire to slapstick to agonising irony and again prove Wilson to be one of the world’s greatest visual humourists.

This is a book no fan of fun should miss and, with Christmas oppressively bearing down on us, could be a crucial solution to the perennial “what to get him/her/them/they” question…
All comic strips © 2013 Gahan Wilson. This Edition © Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

Mandrake the Magician: The Hidden Kingdom of Murderers – Sundays 1935-1937


By Lee Falk & Phil Davis (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-0-85768-572-8 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Because We Believe in Magic… 10/10

Regarded by many as the first superhero, Mandrake the Magician debuted as a daily newspaper strip on 11th June 1934. An instant hit, it was soon supplemented by a full-colour Sunday companion page which launched on February 3rd 1935.

Creator Lee Falk had actually sold the strip to King Features Syndicate years earlier as a 19-year old college student, but asked the monolithic company to let him finish his studies before dedicating himself to it full time. With his schooling done, the 23-year old master raconteur settled in to begin his life’s work: entertaining millions with his astounding tales.

Falk – who also created the first costumed superhero in moodily magnificent mystery man The Phantom – spawned an actual comicbook subgenre with his first creation. Most publishers of the Golden Age boasted at least one (and usually many more) nattily attired wonder wizards amongst their gaudily-garbed pantheons; all roaming the world making miracles and defeating injustice with varying degrees of stage legerdemain or actual sorcery.

Characters such Mr. Mystic, Ibis the Invincible, Sargon the Sorcerer, and an assortment of “…the Magicians” such as Zanzibar, Zatara, Kardak and so many, many more, all borrowed heavily and shamelessly from the uncanny exploits of the elegant, enigmatic white knight who graced the pages of the world’s newspapers and magazines.

In the Antipodes, Mandrake was a stalwart regular of the Australian Women’s Weekly, and also became a cherished star in the UK, Italy and Scandinavia. Over the years he has been a star of radio, movie chapter-serials, a theatrical play, television and animation as part of the cartoon series Defenders of the Earth. With that has come the usual merchandising bonanza of games, toys (including magic trick kits), books, comics and more…

Falk worked on Mandrake and “The Ghost who Walks” until his death in 1999 (even on his deathbed he was laying out one last story) but he also found time to become a playwright, theatre producer and impresario, as well as an inveterate world-traveller.

A man of many talents, Falk drew the first few weeks himself before uniting with sublimely imaginative cartoonist Phil Davis, whose sleekly understated renditions took the daily strip – and especially these expansive full-page Sunday offerings – to unparalleled heights of sophistication: his steady assured realism the perfect tool to render the Magician’s mounting catalogue of wondrous miracles…

Those in the know are well aware that Mandrake was educated at the fabled College of Magic in Tibet, thereafter becoming a suave globe-trotting troubleshooter, always accompanied by his faithful African partner Lothar and beautiful, feisty companion (and eventually, in 1997, bride) Princess Narda of Cockaigne, solving crimes and fighting evil. Those days, however, are still to come as the comics section opens in this splendidly oversized (315 x 236 mm) full-colour luxury hardback – and digital equivalents – with ‘The Hidden Kingdom of Murderers’ (which ran from February 3rd to June 2nd 1935) as the urbane Prince of Prestidigitation and his herculean companion are approached by members of the international police to help expose a secret society of criminals and killers acting against the civilised world from their own hidden country.

After officer Duval is assassinated, Mandrake and Lothar – accompanied by panther woman Rheeta and surviving cop Pierce – embark upon a multi-continental search which, after many adventures, eventually brings them to a desolate desert region where they are confronted by bloody-handed Bull Ganton, King of Killers.

With the master murderer distracted by Rheeta, Mandrake easily infiltrates the odious organisation and quickly begins dismantling the secret society of two million murderers. By the time Ganton wises up and begins a succession of schemes to end Mandrake, it’s too late…

That deadly drama concluded, Mandrake and Lothar head to India to revisit old haunts and end up playing both peacemaker and cupid in the ‘Land of the Fakirs’ (running from June 9th to October 6th).

When Princess Jana, daughter of Mandrake’s old acquaintance Jehol Khan is abducted by rival ruler Rajah Indus of Lapore, the Magician ends his mischievous baiting of the street fakirs to intervene. In the meantime, Captain Jorga – who loves Jana despite being of a lower caste – sets off from the Khan’s palace to save her or die in the trying…

After many terrific and protracted struggles, Mandrake, Lothar and Jorga finally unite to defeat the devious and duplicitous Rajah before the westerners set about their most difficult and important feat; overturning centuries of tradition so that Jorga and Jana might marry…

Heading north, the peripatetic performers stumble into amazing fantasy after entering the ‘Land of the Little People’ (13thOctober 1935 to March 1st 1936), encountering a lost race of tiny people embroiled in a centuries-long war with brutal cannibalistic adversaries. After saving the proud warriors from obliteration, Mandrake again plays matchmaker, allowing valiant Prince Dano to wed brave and formidable commoner Derina who fought so bravely beside them…

With this sequence illustrator Davis seemed to shake off all prior influences and truly blossomed into an artist with a unique and mesmerising style all his own. That is perfectly showcased in the loosely knit sequence (spanning 8th March to 23rd August 1936) which follows, as Mandrake and Lothar return to civilisation only to narrowly escape death in an horrific train wreck.

Crawling from the wreckage, our heroes help ‘The Circus People’ recapture and calm the animals freed by the crash, subsequently sticking around as the close-knit family of nomadic outcasts rebuild. Mighty Lothar has many clashes with jealous bully Zaro the Strongman, culminating in thwarting attempted murder, whilst Mandrake uses his hypnotic hoodoo to teach sadistic animal trainer Almado lessons in how to behave, but primarily the newcomers act as a catalyst, making three slow-burning romances finally burst into roaring passionate life…

Absolutely the best tale in this tome and an imaginative tour de force which inspired many soon-to-be legendary comicbook stars, ‘The Chamber into the X Dimension’ (30th August 1936 to March 7th 1937) is a breathtaking, mind-bending saga starting when Mandrake and Lothar search for the missing daughter of a scientist whose experiments have sent her literally out of this world.

Professor Theobold has discovered a way to pierce the walls between worlds but his beloved Fran never returned from the first live test. Eager to help – and addicted to adventure – Mandrake and Lothar volunteer to go in search of her and soon find themselves in a bizarre timeless world where the rules of science are warped and races of sentient vegetation, living metal, crystal and even flame war with fleshly humanoids for dominance and survival.

After months of captivity, slavery, exploration and struggle our human heroes finally lead a rebellion of the downtrodden fleshlings and bring the professor the happiest news of his long-missing child…

Concluding this initial conjuror’s compilation is a whimsical tale of judgement and redemption as Mandrake uses his gifts to challenge the mad antics of ‘Prince Paulo the Tyrant’ 14th (March 14th – 29th August 1937).

The unhappy usurper stole the throne of Ruritanian Dementor and promptly turned the idyllic kingdom into a scientifically created madhouse. Sadly, Paulo had no conception of what true chaos and terror were until the magician exercised his mesmeric talents…

This epic celebration also offers a fulsome, picture-packed and informative introduction to the character – thanks to Magnus Magnuson’s compelling essay ‘Mandrake the Magician Wonder of a Generation’ – plus details on the lives of the creators (‘Lee Falk’ and ‘Phil Davis Biography’ features) plus a marvellous Davis pin-up of the cast to complete an immaculate confection of nostalgic strip wonderment for young and old alike.
Mandrake the Magician © 2016 King Features Syndicate. All Rights Reserved. “Mandrake the Magician Wonder of a Generation” © 2016 by Magnus Magnuson.

Waiting for the Great Pumpkin


By Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-772-7 (HB)

Peanuts is 70 years old today and not even death can stop it. Many happy returns Chuck…

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most broadly accepted, since – after the characters made the jump to television – the little nippers become an integral part of the American mass cultural experience.

Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for fifty years. He published 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000 and died from the complications of cancer the day before his last strip was published…

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Attendant book collections, a merchandising mountain and TV spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire. That profitable sideline – one Schulz devoted barely any time to over the decades – is where this little gem originates from…

Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived by showing that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punchlines.

The usual focus of the feature (we just can’t call him “star” or “hero”) is everyman loser Charlie Brown who, with high-maintenance, fanciful mutt Snoopy, endures a bombastic and mercurial supporting cast who hang out doing kid things in a most introspective, self-absorbed manner.

The daily gags centred on playing (pranks, sports, musical instruments), teasing each other, making ill-informed observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups. The consistently expanding cast also includes mean girl Violet, infant prodigy Schroeder, “world’s greatest fussbudget” Lucy Van Pelt, her other-worldly baby brother Linus and dirt-magnet “Pig-Pen”: each with a signature twist to the overall mirth quotient and sufficiently fleshed out and personified to generate jokes and sequences around their own foibles. As a whole, the kids tackled every aspect of human existence in a charming and witty manner, acting as cartoon therapists and graphic philosophical guides to the world that watched them.

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

This outing – available in a child-friendly hardback and the usual digital formats – celebrates the whimsy at the feature’s core and spotlights Lucy’s weird little brother Linus and a peculiar belief system all his own…

Waiting for the Great Pumpkin offers a quartet of vintage seasonal sequences dedicated to the kid’s attempts displace Santa Claus as the benevolent bestower of largesse to the good little boys and girls and promote a far earthier patron: one who comes to good children from a gourd plantation somewhere in America…

Like all zealots, Linus never ceases to proselytise, and Charlie Brown and Snoopy are happy to go along and see for themselves in ‘You Believe in Santa Claus and I’ll Believe in the Great Pumpkin’, but there’s a time limit to their willingness to convert…

Another year and the kids are back in fraught contention for ‘Santa Claus vs. the Great Pumpkin’, but how long can even the most devout devote last in the face of perpetual disappointment? According to ‘Oh, Great Pumpkin, You’re Going to Drive Me Crazy!’, not forever, but the year Linus convinces Charlie’s little sister Sally to wait with him is painfully revelatory as seen in ‘True Love Revealed in the Pumpkin Patch’

The tales are told in a series of monochrome panels (generally four to a page) that never fail to delight, recapturing the hilarious seriousness of childhood in a manner nobody else can match. Since you and yours are almost certainly not going out for “tricks or treats” this year, why not ameliorate your own existentialist family travails with online sweets deliveries and this handy gem?
Waiting for the Great Pumpkin © 2014 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. All rights reserved.

Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore! – DC Comics Classic Library


By Dennis O’Neil, Curt Swan, Murphy Anderson, Dick Giordano & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2085-3 (HB)

While looking through old collections in my morbid response to the death of Denny O’Neil, I happened up on this book again. It’s the epitome of a comics classic and still a true joy to read. Why is it and so many other brilliant tomes like out of print and frustratingly unavailable in digital editions? I won’t stop asking, but rather than wait, why don’t you track this down now and give yourself a grand pre-Christmas treat?

Superman is the comic book crusader who started the whole genre and, in the decades since his debut in 1938, has probably undertaken every kind of adventure imaginable. With this in mind it’s tempting and very rewarding to gather up whole swathes of his inventory and periodically re-present them in specific themed collections, such as this hardback commemoration of one his greatest extended adventures. It was originally released just as comics fandom was becoming a powerful – if headless – lobbying force reshaping the industry to its own specialised desires.

When Julie Schwartz took over the editorial responsibilities of the Man of Steel in 1970, he was expected to shake things up with nothing less than spectacular results. To that end, he incorporated many key characters and events that were developing as part of fellow iconoclast Jack Kirby’s freshly unfolding “Fourth World”.

That bold experiment was a breathtaking tour de force of cosmic wonderment which introduced a staggering new universe to fans; instantly and permanently changing the way DC Comics were perceived and how the entire medium could be received.

Schwartz was simultaneously breathing fresh life into the powerful but moribund Superman franchise and his creative changes were just appearing in 1971. The new direction was also the vanguard and trigger for a wealth of controversial and socially-challenging material unheard of since the feature’s earliest days: a wave of tales described as “relevant”…

Here the era and those changes are described and contextualised – after ‘A Word from the Publisher’ – in Paul Levitz’s Introduction, after which the first radical shift in Superman’s vast mythology begins to unfold.

With iconic covers by Neal Adams, Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson this titanic tome collects Superman #233-238 and #240-242, originally running from January to September 1971.

Almost all the groundbreaking extended epic was crafted by scripter Denny O’Neil, veteran illustrator Curt Swan and inker Murphy Anderson – although stand-in Dick Giordano inked #240. The willing and very public abandonment of super-villains, Kryptonian scenarios and otherworldly paraphernalia instantly revitalised the Man of Tomorrow, attracted new readers and began a period of superb human-scaled stories which made him a “must-buy” character all over again.

The innovations began in ‘Superman Breaks Loose’ (Superman #233) when a government experiment to harness the energy of Kryptonite goes explosively wrong. Closely monitoring the test, the Action Ace is blasted across the desert surrounding the isolated lab but somehow survives the supposedly fatal radiation-bath. In the aftermath reports start to filter in from all over Earth: every piece of the deadly green mineral has been transformed to common iron…

As he goes about his protective, preventative patrols, the liberated hero experiences an emotional high at the prospect of all the good he can do now. He isn’t even phased when the Daily Planet’s new owner Morgan Edge (a key Kirby character) shakes up his civilian life: summarily ejecting Clark Kent from the print game and overnight remaking him into a roving TV journalist…

Meanwhile in the deep desert, the site of his recent crashlanding offers a moment of deep foreboding when Superman’s irradiated imprint in the sand shockingly grows solid and shambles away in ghastly parody of life…

The resurgent suspense resumes in #234’s ‘How to Tame a Wild Volcano!’, as an out-of-control plantation owner refuses to let his indentured native workforce flee an imminent eruption. Handicapped by misused international laws, the Man of Tomorrow can only fume helplessly as the UN rushes towards a diplomatic solution, but his anxiety is intensified when the sinister sand-thing inadvertently passes him and agonisingly drains him of his mighty powers.

Crashing to Earth in a turbulent squall, the de-powered hero is attacked by bossman Boysie Harker’s thugs and instantly responds to the foolish provocation, relying for a change on determination rather than overwhelming might to save the day…

The ‘Sinister Scream of the Devil’s Harp’ in #235 gave way to weirder ways (the industry was enjoying a periodic revival of interest in supernatural themes and stories) as mystery musician Ferlin Nyxly reveals the secret of his impressive and ever-growing aptitudes is an archaic artefact which steals gifts, talents and even Superman’s alien abilities.

The Man of Steel is initially unaware of the drain as he’s trying to communicate with his eerily silent dusty doppelganger, but once Nyxly graduates to a full-on raving super-menace self-dubbed Pan, the taciturn homunculus unexpectedly joins its living template in trouncing the power thief…

The next issue offered a science fictional morality play as cherubic aliens seek Superman’s assistance in defeating a band of devils and rescuing Clark Kent’s best friends from Hell. However, the ‘Planet of the Angels’ proves to be nothing of the kind, and the Caped Kryptonian has to pull out all the stops to save Earth from a very real Armageddon…

Superman #237 sees the Metropolis Marvel save an astronaut only to see him succumb to a madness-inducing mutative disease. After another destructive confrontation with the sand-thing further debilitates him, the harried hero is present when more mortals fall to the contagion and – believing himself the cause and an uncontrollable ‘Enemy of Earth’ – considers quarantining himself to space…

As he is deciding, Lois Lane stumbles into one more lethal situation and Superman’s instinctive intervention seemingly confirms his earlier diagnosis, but another clash with his always-close sandy simulacrum on the edge of space heralds an incredible truth. Pathetically debilitated, Superman nevertheless saves Lois and again meets the ever-more human creature. Now able to speak, it gives a chilling warning and the Man of Steel realises exactly what it is taking from him and what it might become…

A mere shadow of his former self, the Man of Tomorrow is unable to prevent a band of terrorists taking over a magma-tapping drilling rig and endangering the entire Earth in #238’s ‘Menace at 1000 Degrees’. With Lois one of a number of hostages and the madmen threatening to detonate a nuke in the pipeline, the Action Ace desperately begs his doppelganger to assist him, before its cold rejection forces the depleted hero to take the biggest gamble of his life…

Superman #239 was an all-reprint giant featuring the hero in his incalculably all-powerful days – and thus not included here – but the much-reduced Caped Kryptonian returned in #240 (Giordano inks) to confront his own lessened state and seek a solution in ‘To Save a Superman’. The trigger is his inability to extinguish a tenement fire and the wider world’s realisation that their unconquerable champion was now vulnerable and fallible…

Especially interested are his old enemies in the Anti-Superman Gang who immediately allocate all their resources to destroying their nemesis. After one particularly close call Clark is visited by an ancient Asian sage who somehow knows of his other identity and offers an unconventional solution…

From 1968 onwards superhero comics began to decline and publishers sought new ways to keep audience as tastes changed. Back then, the entire industry depended on newsstand sales, and if you weren’t popular, you died. Editor Jack Miller, innovating illustrator Mike Sekowsky and relatively new scripter Denny O’Neil stepped up with a radical proposal and made a little bit of funnybook history with the only female superhero then in the marketplace.

They revealed that the almighty mystical Amazons were forced to leave our dimension, and took with them all their magic – including Wonder Woman’s powers and all her weapons…

Reduced to mere humanity she opted to stay on Earth, assuming her own secret identity of Diana Prince, resolved to fighting injustice as a mortal. Tutored by blind Buddhist monk I Ching, she trained as a martial artist, and quickly became a formidable enemy of contemporary evil.

Now this same I Ching claims to be able to repair Superman’s difficulties and dwindling might, but evil eyes are watching. Arriving clandestinely, Superman allows the adept to remove all his Kryptonian powers as a precursor to restoring them, allowing the A-S Gang the perfect opportunity to strike. In the resultant melee, the all-too-human hero triumphs in the hardest fight of his life…

The saga continues with “Swan-derson” back on the art in #241 as Superman overcomes a momentary but nearly overwhelming temptation to surrender his oppressive burden and lead a normal life…

Admonished and resolved, he then submits to Ching’s resumed remedy ritual and finds his spirit soaring to where the sand-being lurks before explosively reclaiming the stolen powers. Leaving the gritty golem a shattered husk, the phantom brings the awesome energies back to their true owner and a triumphant hero returns to saving the world…

Over the next few days, however, it becomes clear that something has gone wrong. The Man of Tomorrow has become arrogant, erratic and unpredictable, acting rashly, overreacting and even making stupid mistakes.

In her boutique Diana Prince discusses the problem with Ching and the sagacious teacher soon deduces that during his time of mere mortality whilst fighting the gangsters, Superman received a punishing blow to the head. Clearly it has resulted in brain injury that did not heal when his powers returned…

When the hero refuses to listen to them, Diana and Ching have no choice but to track down the dying sand-thing and request its aid. The elderly savant recognises it as a formless creature from other-dimensional realm Quarrm and listens to the amazing story of its entrance into our world. He also suggests a way for it to regain some of what it recently lost…

Superman, meanwhile, has blithely gone about his deranged business until savagely attacked by the possessed and animated statue of a Chinese war-demon. Also able to steal his power, this second fugitive from Quarrm has no conscience and wears ‘The Shape of Fear!

The staggering saga concludes in ‘The Ultimate Battle’ as the Quarrmer briefly falls under the sway of a brace of brutal petty thugs who put the again de-powered Superman into hospital…

Rushed into emergency surgery, the Kryptonian fights for his life as the sand-thing confronts the war-demon in the streets, but events take an even more bizarre turn once the latter drives off its foe and turns towards the hospital to finish off the flesh-&-blood Superman.

Recovering consciousness – and a portion of his power – the Metropolis Marvel battles the beast to a standstill but needs the aid of his silicon stand-in to drive the thing back beyond the pale…

With the immediate threat ended, Man of Steel and Man of Sand face each other one last time, each determined to ensure his own existence no matter the cost…

The stunning conclusion was a brilliant stroke on the part of the creators, one which left Superman approximately half the man he used to be. Of course, all too soon he returned to his unassailable, god-like power levels but never quite regained the tension-free smug assurance of his 1950s-1960s self.

A fresh approach, snappy dialogue and more terrestrial, human-scaled concerns to shade the outrageous implausible fantasy elements, wedded to gripping plots and sublime artwork make Kryptonite Nevermore! one of the very best Superman sagas ever created.

Also included here is the iconic ‘House Ad’ by Swan & Vince Colletta which proclaimed the big change throughout the DC Universe, and a thoughtful ‘Afterword by Denny O’Neil’ wraps things up with some insights and reminiscences every lover of the medium will appreciate.
© 1971, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 2 1936-1937


By Roy Crane with Les Turner (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-391-0 (HB)

The comics industry evolved from newspaper strips and these circulation-boosting pictorial features were, until relatively recently, utterly ubiquitous, hugely popular with the public and regarded as invaluable by publishers who used them as an irresistible sales weapon to guarantee consumer loyalty, increase sales and ensure profits. Many a scribbler became a millionaire thanks to their ability to draw pictures and spin a yarn…

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; that’s why we call them “Funnies” or “Comics”, after all. From these gag and stunt beginnings, blending silent movie slapstick, outrageous antics, fabulous fantasy and vaudeville shows, came a thoroughly unique entertainment hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting on April 21st 1924 Washington Tubbs II was a comedic gag-a-day strip not entirely dissimilar from confirmed family favourite Harold Teen (by Crane’s friend and contemporary Carl Ed).

Tubbs was a diminutive, ambitious young shop clerk when the strip began, but gradually he moved into mock-heroics, then through harm-free action into full-blown, light-hearted rip-roaring adventures with the introduction of pioneering he-man, moody swashbuckling prototype Captain Easy in the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

As the tales became increasingly more exotic and thrill-drenched, 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 inseparable comrades; travelling the world, 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 compelling page-design was a far more accessible and powerful medium for action story-telling than the static illustrative style favoured by artists like Hal Foster (just starting to make waves on the new Tarzan Sunday page).

While were thinking of Edgar Rice Burroughs, it’s difficult to re-read the phrase “Southern Gentleman” these days without pausing to consider how much of that term originally denoted chivalric do-gooder, rather than Defender of Slavery, to most readers. Frankly, I’m not sure Crane gave a moment’s thought to political or social implications, although his heroes never made a distinction between races and treated all characters equally, even back then. Their only motivations were getting rich honestly and helping folks in trouble. These stories come from a long time ago, so just read with a sense of historical perspective, please…

Tubbs and Easy were easily 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 madcap, two-fisted exploits (originally) set before his fateful meeting with Tubbs.

Following a foreword from historian, archival publisher and critic Rick Norwood, ‘Stealing Color From Black and White’, a fascinating extended introduction by award-winning cartoonist Paul Pope and ‘Three Strip Monte ’– a brief history of Crane’s career gambles by legendary strip historian Bill Blackbeard – this second volume (of four) really begins with ‘Gold of the Frozen North’ as the dour, sour soldier of fortune reaches the chilly snow-swept mining boom-town of Bugaboo.

Exhausted after his part in the war between Nikkateena and Woopsydasia (as seen in Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 1) all Easy wanted was a meal and a bed, but his innate chivalry defending a bar-girl’s honour soon has him on the run from Nikky Eskota, the savage gang-boss who runs the town. Easy then compounds the error by helping beautiful Gizzy escape the brute’s amorous attentions before escorting her down the frozen river to trade her fathers’ diamonds.

Of course, the wicked thug dispatches an army of heavies to stop them…

This spectacular icy wilderness adventure ran from 8th December 1935 to 19th April 1936, after which ‘The Hook-Nosed Bandit’ (4th April -8th August 1936) finds the footloose paladin heading to the trouble-soaked nation of Hitaxia where his penchant for trouble soon brands him a wanted criminal fugitive and lands him in the midst of a civil war. As usual, a pretty girl is the immediate cause of his many woes and the method of his eventual escape… that and the advent of a bombastic new companion – unconventional millionaire inventor Mr. Belfry. With Easy and Belfry’s daughter languishing in a Hitaxian jail, the sagacious entrepreneur acts to end the crisis in unique manner with a handy shipment of pigs…

When the Belfrys return to America, Easy accompanies them, only to become embroiled in a whirlwind cops ‘n’ robbers thriller as mobsters and businessmen alike try to obtain by every means fair and foul ‘The Diamond Formula’ (16thAugust – 13th December 1936): the inventor’s new process for creating gems from coal or sugar…

After this wild and woolly Manhattan escapade, Crane opted for wholly different territory as Easy takes a mild-mannered old daydreamer from Belfry’s Gentleman’s Club on the Screwball comedy of ‘Dinwiddy’s Adventure’: a fast-paced rollercoaster romp of intrigue, suspense and multiple practical jokes, with a twist and turn on every gloriously rendered page, which was first published between 13th December 1936 and March 14th 1937…

The Club also provides the maguffin for ‘Lost at Sea’ (March 21st – May 9th 1937) as hen-pecked and harassed Benjamin Barton hired the laconic Southern Gentleman to engineer his escape from his ghastly social climbing wife and wastrel children. Barton even left them all his money: the rattled old goof simply wants peace and quiet… and perhaps a little fishing. Despite all Easy’s best efforts, he doesn’t get any of that…

Clearly on a roll with the emphasis on comedy, Crane then introduced one of his wackiest characters in ‘The King of Kleptomania’ (16th May – November 14th1937), as an audacious, freeloading, lazy, good-for-nothing hobo actually turns out to be Kron Prinz Hugo Maximillian von Hooten Tooten: audacious, freeloading, lazy, good-for-nothing spendthrift heir to a European nation who is paid by the Dictator of Kleptomania to stay away and not seek his rightful throne.

Saving the bum’s life in America only causes the lovable leech to attach himself to Easy, but after going through his bi-annual stipend of $25,000 in mere days, “Hoot” decides to welsh on his deal with the despot and take back his country. Against his better judgement and to his lasting regret, Captain Easy goes along for the ride and is soon knee deep in ineptitude, iniquity and revolution…

With the war over Easy is stranded in Ruritanian Europe and stumbles into an espionage plot culminating in a welcome reunion and ‘The Firing Squad’ (21st November 1937 – 15th May 1938). Framed and jailed again, Easy is to be shot so it’s lucky that the captain of the aforementioned executioners is long-lost pal Wash Tubbs!

Risking life and diminutive limb to save his old pal, Wash also rescues sultry spitfire Ruby Dallas, who promptly entangles them in her desperate tale of woe. Ruby was unfortunate enough to have witnessed a murder in America and has been on the run ever since. The killer was a prominent millionaire with too much to lose so he’s been hunting her ever since. Once the trio escape murderous cutthroats, slavers and assassins, they soon settle his hash…

When he began the Sunday page Crane’s creativity went into overdrive: an entire page and vibrant colours to play with clearly stirred his imagination and the results were wild visual concoctions which achieved a timeless immediacy and made each instalment a unified piece of sequential art. The effect of the pages can be seen in so many comic and strips since – even in 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 NEA Syndicate’s abrupt demand 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. You can actually see the day that happened in this volume.

Whilst the basic drawing of Crane and Turner is practically indistinguishable, the moment when the layout and composition were shackled stands out like a painful sore thumb. Crane just walked away from his playground, concentrating on the daily feature, until in 1943 with contract expired, he left NEA to create the aviation adventure strip Buz Sawyer.

In this selection, Crane’s irrepressible humour comes perfectly into focus and this enchanting serial abounds with breezy light-hearted banter, hilarious situations and outright farce – a sure-fire formula modern cinema directors still plunder to this day.

Easy is Indiana Jones, Flynn (the Librarian) Carsen and Jack (Romancing the Stone) Cotton all at once and clearly set the benchmark for all of them.

This superb and colossal hardback 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) provide the perfect stage to absorb and enjoy the classic tale-telling of a master raconteur. The volumes are even still readily available from online retailers, but regrettably haven’t yet been digitised …

This is storytelling of impeccable quality: unforgettable, spectacular and utterly irresistible. These tales rank alongside the best of Hergé, Tezuka, Toth and Kirby and unarguably fed the imaginations of them all as he still does for today’s comics creators. 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 © 2011 United Feature Syndicate, Inc. This edition © 2011 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

Flash Gordon on the Planet Mongo: volume 1 Sundays 1934-1937 (The Complete Flash Gordon Library)


By Alex Raymond & Don Moore with restorations by Peter Maresca (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-0-85768-154-6 (HB)

By most lights, Flash Gordon is the most influential comic strip in the world. When the hero debuted on Sunday January 7th 1934 (with the superb but rather dated Jungle Jim running as a supplementary “topper” strip) as response to revolutionary, inspirational, but clunky Buck Rogers (by Philip Nolan & Dick Calkins and which had also began on January 7th but in 1929), a new element was added to the realm of fantasy wonderment: Classical Lyricism.

Where Rogers had traditional adventures and high science concepts, this new feature reinterpreted Fairy Tales, Heroic Epics and Mythology. It did so by spectacularly draping them in the trappings of the contemporary future, with varying ‘Rays’, ‘Engines’ and ‘Motors’ substituting for trusty swords and lances – although there were also plenty of those – and exotic flying craft and contraptions standing in for Galleons, Chariots and Magic Carpets.

Most important of all, the sheer artistic talent of Raymond, his compositional skills, fine line-work, eye for concise, elegant detail and just plain genius for drawing beautiful people and things, swiftly made this the strip all young artists swiped from.

When all-original comic books began a few years later, literally dozens of talented kids used the clean lined Romanticism of Gordon as their model and ticket to future success in the field of adventure strips. Most of the others went with Milton Caniff’s expressionistic masterpiece Terry and the Pirates (which also began in 1934 – and he’ll get his go another day).

Thankfully, there are a few collections knocking about, but I’m plumping here for 2012’s hardcover archive from British publisher and keeper of old traditions Titan Books, who boldly began a Complete Library of the stellar crusader’s exploits that year…

Augmenting the epic entertainment are a brace of photo and illustration-packed introductory essays, beginning with uber-artist and fan Alex Ross’ exploration of ‘The Flash Gordon Legacy’ and continuing with ‘Birth of a Legend’ by comics writer and historical publisher Doug Murray, detailing the world and fantasy milieu into which the dauntless hero was born…

The very first tale begins with a rogue planet about to smash into the Earth. As panic grips the planet, polo player Flash and fellow airline passenger Dale Arden narrowly escape disaster when a meteor fragment downs the plane they’re traveling on. They parachute out and land on the estate of tormented genius Dr. Hans Zarkov, who imprisons them on the rocket-ship he has built. His plan? To fly the ship directly at the astral invader and deflect it from Earth by crashing into it!

And that’s just in the first, 13-panel episode. ‘On the Planet Mongo’ ran every Sunday until April 15th 1934, when, according to this wonderful full-colour book, second adventure ‘Monsters of Mongo’ (22nd April – 18th November 1934) began, to be promptly followed by ‘Tournaments of Mongo’ (25th November 1934 to 24th February 1935).

To the readers back then, of course, there were no such artificial divisions. There was just one continuous, unmissable Sunday appointment with sheer wonderment. The machinations of the utterly evil but magnetic Ming, emperor of the fantastic wandering planet; Flash’s battles and alliances with all the myriad exotic races subject to the Emperor’s will and the gradual victory over oppression captivated America, and the World, in tales that seemed a direct contrast to the increasingly darker reality in the days before World War II.

In short order the Earthlings become firm friends – and in the case of Flash and Dale, much more – as they encounter battle and frequently ally with beautiful, cruel Princess Aura, the Red Monkey Men, Lion Men, Shark Men, Dwarf Men, King Vultan and the winged Hawkmen.

The epic rebellion against seemingly unbeatable Ming opened with the awesome ‘Tournaments…’: a sequence wherein Raymond seemed to simply explode with confidence.

It was here that the true magic blossomed, with every episode more spectacular than the last. Without breaking step, Raymond moved on to next saga, as our hero entered ‘The Caverns of Mongo’ (March 3rd – 14th April 1935).

Veteran editor Don Moore was only 30 when he was convinced to “assist” Raymond with the writing, starting soon after the strip first gained popularity. Moore remained until 1953, long after Raymond departed. The artist joined the Marines in February 1944, and the last page he worked on was published on April 30th of that year. On his demobilisation, Raymond moved to fresh strip fields with Rip Kirby. Mercifully, that still leaves a decade’s worth of spectacular, majestic adventure for us to enjoy…

Without pausing for breath, the collaborators rapidly introduced a host of new races and places for their perfect hero to win over in the war against Ming’s timeless evil. On increasingly epic Sunday comics pages Flash and his entourage confronted the ‘Witch Queen of Mongo’ (April 21st – 13th October 1935), found themselves ‘At War with Ming’ (20thOctober 1935 – April 5th 1936) and discovered ‘The Undersea Kingdom of Mongo’ (12th April – October 11th 1936). The sheer beauty and drama of the globally syndicated serial captivated readers all over the world, resulting in not only some of the medium’s most glorious comic art, but also novels, three movie serials, a radio and later TV show, a monochrome daily strip (by Raymond’s former assistant Austin Briggs), comic books, merchandise and so much more.

The Ruritanian flavour of the series was enhanced continuously, as Raymond’s slick, sleek futurism endlessly accessed and refined the picture-perfect Romanticism of idyllic Kingdoms, populated by idealised heroes, stylised villains and women of staggering beauty.

In these episodes Azura, Witch Queen of Mongo wages a brutal and bloody war with Flash and his friends for control of the underworld, which eventually leads to all-out conflict with Ming the Merciless – a sequence of such memorable power that artists and movie-men would be swiping from it for decades to come. When the war ends our heroes are forced to flee, only to become refugees and captives of the seductive Queen Undina in her undersea Coral City…

The never-ending parade of hairsbreadth escapes, fights and/or chases continues as Flash, Dale and Zarkov crash into the huge jungle of Mongo. As this initial tome ends, the refugees enter ‘The Forest Kingdom of Mongo’ (October 18th 1936 to 31st January 1937), barely surviving its wild creatures before weathering the horrific tunnels of ‘The Tusk-Men of Mongo’ (February 7th to June 5th 1938). Here, struggling through desperate hardship and overcoming both monsters and the esoteric semi-humans they finally reach Arboria, the Tree kingdom of Prince Barin, Ming’s son-in-law. He is not what he seems…

And so the book ends, but not the adventure. Even stripped down to the bare plot-facts, the drama is captivating. Once you factor in the by-play, the jealousies and intrigues, all rendered with spectacular and lush visualisation by the master of classical realism, you can begin to grasp why this strip captured the world’s imagination and holds it still. To garnish all this enchantment, there’s even ‘The Alex Raymond Flash Gordon Checklist’ and biographies of both creators and this astounding tome’s key contributors

Along with Hal Foster (Prince Valiant) and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon), Raymond’s work on Flash Gordon is considered pivotal to the development of American – if not world – comic art. These works overwhelmingly influenced everybody who followed until the emergence of manga and the advancement of computer technology. If you’ve only heard how good this strip is, you owe it to yourself to experience the magic up close and personal.

I never fail to be impressed by the quality of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon. Yes, the plots are formulaic but what commercial narrative medium is free of that? What is never dull or repetitive is the sheer artistry and bravura staging of the tales. Every episode is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, but the next episode still tops it. You are a fool to yourself if you don’t try this wonderful strip out, and all the more so in such inexpensive yet lavish volumes. It’s not too soon to start dropping hints for Christmas, you know…
Flash Gordon © 2012 King Features Syndicate Inc., & ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Definitive Betty Boop: The Classic Comic Strip Collection


By Max Fleischer, Bud Counihan, with Hal Seeger, & various (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-707-8 (HB)

Betty Boop is one of the most famous and long-lived fictional media icons on the planet and probably the one who has generated the least amount of narrative creative material – as opposed to simply merchandise – per year since her debut.

She was created at the Fleischer Cartoon Studios, most likely by either by Max Fleischer himself or top cartoonist and animator Grim Natwick – depending on whomever you’ve just read – and had a bit part in the monochrome animated short feature Dizzy Dishes: the seventh “Talkartoon” release from the studio. It screened for the first time on August 9th 1930. Happy Anniversary, Ms Boop!

A calculatedly racy sex-symbol from the start, albeit anthropomorphised into a sexy French Poodle, Betty was primarily based on silent movie star and infamous “It-Girl” Clara Bow. Or, according to some historians, it was far more than just her distinctive sound Betty took from popular contemporary star Helen Kane. In those pioneering days of “the talkies” Betty was voiced by a succession of actresses including Margie Hines, Kate Wright, Ann Rothschild and ultimately Mae Questel who all mimicked Bow’s soft and seductive (no, really!) Brooklyn accent. Or possibly Kane’s. There’s a court case involved in this history so opinions are hard held and very divided…

Although frequently appearing beside early Fleischer Studios stars Bimbo (a homely puppy dog also called Fitz) and Koko the Clown – who had both debuted in Fleischer’s earliest screen offerings Out of the Inkwell – Betty had become a fully, if wickedly shaped, human girl by 1932’s Any Rags and she quickly  co-opted and monopolised all the remaining Talkartoons, before graduating to the Screen Songs featurettes. She ultimately won her own animated cartoon series to become “The Queen of the Animated Screen”, reigning until the end of the decade.

A Jazz Age flapper in the Depression Era, the delectable Boop was probably the first sex-charged teen-rebel of the 20thCentury, yet remained winningly innocent and knowledgably chaste throughout her career. Maybe that’s why she became so astoundingly, incredibly popular – although her appeal diminished appreciably once the censorious Hayes Production Code cleaned up all that smut and fun and sophistication oozing out of Hollywood in 1934 – even though the Fleisher Studio was proudly New York born and bred…

Saucy singer Helen Kane – who had performed in a sexy “Bow-esque” Brooklyn accent throughout the 1920s and was billed as “The Boop-Oop-A-Doop Girl” – famously sued for “deliberate caricature” in 1932. As well as a renowned actor, she was sharp enough to briefly steal the show and become the star of the first Betty newspaper strips…

When Kane’s lawsuit failed, Betty took over the paper outlets in her own name, but couldn’t withstand a prolonged assault by the National Legion of Decency and the Hayes Code myrmidons. With all innuendo removed, salacious movements restricted and wearing much longer skirts, Betty gained a boyfriend and family whilst the newspaper strip scripts consciously targeted a younger audience. The tabloid feature folded in 1937 and her last animated cartoon stories were released in 1939. The only advantage to Betty’s screen neutering and new wholesome image was that she suddenly became eligible for inclusion on the Funnies pages of family newspapers, alongside the likes of Popeye, Little Orphan Annie and Mickey Mouse.

This superb hardback edition (also available in digital formats) gathers every pre-war iteration associated with Betty Boop – including ones she isn’t in – and is augmented by fond remembrances from Mark Fleischer and Virginia Mahoney in their Foreword ‘About our grandad, Max Fleischer…’ and comes with an informative Introduction tracing Betty’s wild ride of a career.

Supplementing his text with candid behind-the-scenes photos and contemporary art as well as advertising and memorabilia of the time, cartoonist Brian Walker (son of Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois creator Mort Walker) traces the celluloid and tabloid star’s creation, rise, fall and latter day resurgence in ‘Made of Pen and Ink, she can win you with a Wink’.

There was a brief flurry of renewed activity during the 1980s, which led to a couple of TV specials, a comic book from First Comics – Betty Boop’s Big Break (1990) and a second newspaper strip. Betty Boop and Felix was crafted by Walker and his brothers Neal, Greg, and Morgan, wherein the glamour queen shared adventures with fellow King Features nostalgia icon Felix the Cat. It ran from July 23rd 1984 – January 31st 1988, but even counting those – and we aren’t here – that’s still a pretty meagre complete comics canon for a lady of Betty’s longevity, pedigree and stature…

Confusion and contention abound in Betty’s print career and that’s mirrored in this book. Her first regular strip was as a Daily feature in black-&-white, but you’ll see that last, because the comics experience begins in full colour with an experimental Out of the Inkwell Koko the Klown Sunday strip starring the manic mime in silent surreal romps that have the cachet of being Fleischer’s first work for King Features Syndicate.

They ran from November 25th – December 15th 1934 and are followed by The Original Boop Boop-A-Doop Girl: a Sunday feature spanning August 5th to October 12th 1934. As negotiations between Fleischer and King Features stalled in 1933, Helen Kane approached the Syndicate and offered herself as a straight knock-off for the cartoon star. The resultant domestic comedy strip ran for just 11 weeks, and only in the tabloid New York Sunday Mirror. It was dropped as soon as Fleischer signed with King Features…

Attributed to Kane and drawn by Ving Fuller, the succession of manic gag pages are basic, innocently racy vaudeville one-liners, but do still evoke a certain nostalgic charm…

Whilst we’re on a possibly touchy subject: a lot of attitudes to women and visualisations of minorities won’t really pass an earnest examination here, and readers should be aware that these were all created in a different time for far less enlightened audiences. A little patience and forbearance will be your best guides on some pages…

Running from November 25th 1934 to November 27th 1937, the full colour Sunday strips starring the original and genuine Betty Boop were drawn by Bud Counihan: a veteran ink-slinger who had created the Little Napoleon strip in the 1920s before becoming Chic Young’s assistant on Blondie. They commenced a few months after the Daily feature and might be a little confusing as they encompass a large supporting cast for aspiring starlet Betty as she navigates a tiresome and treacherous career in Hollywood. I’d advise reading the dailies first and ending your reading enjoyment here, but it’s your choice…

These gag episodes feature the freshly-sanitised, family-oriented heroine of the post-Hayes Code era, but for devotees of the period and comics fans in general, the strip still retains a unique and abiding charm. Counihan’s Betty is still oddly, innocently coquettish yet confidant: a saucy thing with too-short skirts and skimpy apparel. Some of the outfits – especially bathing costumes – would raise eyebrows even now, and although the bald innuendo that made her a star is absent, these tales of a street-wise young thing trying to “make it” in Tinseltown are plenty sophisticated when viewed through the knowing and sexually adroit eyes of 21st century readers…

Produced as full-page strips, the Sundays are broadly slapstick, with moments of cunning wordplay: single joke stories regarding the weirdness of acting and the travails of fandom.

There’s a succession of blandly arrogant romantic leading men (usually called “Van” something-or-other) but none stick around for long as Betty builds her career, and eventually the scenario changes to a western setting as cast and crew begin making Cowboy Pictures, leading to many weeks’ worth of “Injun Jokes”, but ones working delightfully and hilariously counter to the expected unpleasant stereotypes of the times. However, the introduction of fearsome lower-class virago Aunt Tillie – chaperone, bouncer and sometime comedy movie extra – moves the strip into an unexpected direction and begins Betty’s life as an extra in her own show…

Soon, a clear and unflinching formula sets in with Bubby (see below), Aunt Tillie and her diminutive new beau Hunky Dory increasingly edging Betty out of the spotlight and even occasionally off the page entirely.

By 1937 the show was over…

The Betty Boop daily strip began on July 23rd 1934: a raw and raucous comedy gig that ran until March 18th 1935 in an extended sequence of gag-a-day encounters blending into an epic comedy-of-errors as Betty’s lawyers do litigious battle with movie directors and producers to arrive at the perfect contract for all parties. That’s clearly a war that still rages to this day and once again it’s happening under the cost restrictions of what is, after all, another Great Depression like the one Betty was a constant momentary antidote to…

The jokes come thick and fast in the same vein, with lawyers, entourage and all extras providing the bulk of the humour whilst Betty stands in for the Straight Man in her own strip…

…Except for a recurring riff about losing weight to honour her contract, which stipulates she cannot be filmed weighing more than 100 pounds! Geez! Her head alone has got to weigh at least… sorry, I know… just a comic…

Like most modern stars, Betty had a dual career and there’s a lot of recording industry and song jokes as well as fan affrontery and boyfriend woes, as well as the introduction of the first of an extended cast: Betty’s streetwise baby brother Bubby (originally Billy). He’s a riotous rapscallion intended to act as a chaotic foil to the star’s affably sweet, knowingly dim complacency, and he’s another celluloid wannabe in waiting…

By no means a major effort of the Golden Age of Comics Strips, Counihan’s Betty Boop (like most licensed syndicated features the strip was “signed” by the copyright holder, in this case Max Fleischer) remains a hugely effective, engaging and entertaining work, splendidly executed and well worthy of the attentions of fans with a penchant for history or feeling for fashion.

With the huge merchandising empire built around the effervescent cartoon Gamin/Houri, (everything from apparel to wallpaper, clocks to drinking paraphernalia) surely there’s room today to address her small brief but potent contributions to the comics arts. If you think so, this book is for you…
Betty Boop © 2015 King Features Syndicate, Inc./Fleischer Studios, Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc./ Fleischer Studios, Inc. All rights reserved. Foreword © 2015 Mark Fleischer & Ginny Mahoney. Introduction © 2015 Brian Walker.

The Beano and the Dandy: Favourites from the Forties


By many & various (DC Thomson & Co)
ISBN: 978-0-85116-821-0 (HB)

I couldn’t let the occasion pass unremarked, so here’s a suggestion of better times and more carefree entertainments to celebrate Britain’s longest running comic. On July 30th 1938, The Beano was unleashed upon the Great British Public…

Released in 2003 as part of the DC Thomson’s Sixtieth Anniversary celebrations for their children’s periodicals division – which has more than any other shaped the psyche of generations of kids – this splendidly oversized (296 x 204mm) 144 page hardback compilation rightly glories in the incredible wealth of ebullient creativity that paraded through the flimsy colourful pages of The Beano and The Dandy during a particularly bleak and fraught period in British history. Tragically, neither it nor its companion volumes are available digitally yet, but hope springs ever eternal…

Admittedly the book goes through some rather elaborate editing and paste-up additions whilst editorially explaining for modern readers the vast changes to the once-commonplace that have occurred over eight decades, and naturally the editors have expurgated a few of the more egregious terms that wouldn’t sit well with 21st century sensibilities (Mussolini lampoon Musso the Wop becomes the far-less ethnically unsound “Musso”, for instance) but otherwise this is a superb cartoon commemoration of one of the greatest morale-building initiatives this nation ever enjoyed.

They’re also superbly timeless examples of cartoon storytelling at its best…

Until it folded and was reborn as a digital publication on 4th December 2012, The Dandy was the third-longest running comic in the world (behind Italy’s Il Giornalino – launched in 1924 – and America’s Detective Comics in March 1937).

Premiering on December 4th 1937, The Dandy broke the mould of traditional British predecessors by using word balloons and captions rather than narrative blocks of text under the sequential picture frames.

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

Over the decades the “terrible twins” spawned a bevy of unforgettable and beloved household names who delighted countless avid and devoted readers, and the unmissable end of year celebrations were graced with bumper bonanzas of the comics’ weekly stars in extended stories in magnificent bumper hardback annuals.

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

This superb tribute of Celtic creativity is packed literally cover-to-cover with brilliant strips and the mirth starts on the inside front with a wonderful Biffo the Bear exploit, illustrated by indisputable key man Dudley D. Watkins, followed by a sharp Korky the Cat gag-page by James Crichton and a listing of ‘Forty from the 40’s’, before the vintage fun properly proceeds, sensibly sub-divided into themed chapters.

Sadly, none of the writers are named and precious few of the artists, but I’ve offered a best guess as to whom we should thank, and of course I would be so very happy if anybody could confirm or deny my suppositions…

Then and Now offers a smart selection of comparisons to life in the past measured against 21st century existence, with hilarious examples and contributions from Lord Snooty – by the incredibly prolific Watkins – cowboy superman Desperate Dan at the doctor’s, ostrich antics with Big Eggo (by Crichton or perhaps Reg Carter), Wild West woman sheriff Ding-Dong Belle – from Bill Holroyd – and a glimpse at primitive fast-food courtesy of Dandy’s Bamboo Town duo Bongo and Pongo as limned by Charlie Gordon.

There’s medical mirth with Desperate Dan, wash day blues with Mickey’s Magic Book (Crichton?) and a prose yarn pinpointing the funnier points of the class war in The Slapdash Circus – with a stirring illustration by Toby Baines – before Charlie Chutney the Comical Cook (Allan Morley) plays pie-man, whilst Watkins produces another Biffo blast.

Next comes The Horse That Jack Built, a rousing medieval adventure yarn starring a clockwork charger by Holroyd, and the chapter concludes in another Desperate Dan fable about messing around growing vegetables…

Entertainment explores how fun was had in the war years – i.e. before television – beginning with a phonographic Korky yarn and the first fine example of licensed film feature Our Gang illustrated by that man Watkins.

In case you were wondering… Our Gang (later known as Li’l Rascals) movie shorts were one of the most popular series in 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 times both safer and simpler. The rotating cast of characters and slapstick shenanigans were the brainchild of film genius Hal Roach (who 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 Comics in the USA released an Our Gang comicbook 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 Gale in Oz or Huckleberry Finn.

Long before then, however (1937 and in The Dandy #1, in fact), DC Thomson had secured the British rights to produce their own uniquely home-grown weekly escapades of Alfalfa Switzer, Scotty Becket, Spanky McFarland, Darla Hood,Buckwheat Thomas and the rest, such as the quirky keep-fit frolic included here…

Desperate Dan then endures some cool radio fun with Aunt Aggie whilst Keyhole Kate (Allan Morley) has trouble with a Magic Lantern show, and Biffo’s juggling act brings nothing but pain and strife.

As depicted by the wonderful Eric Roberts, Podge find drumming is unwelcome around the village and the not-so-wild animals of Bamboo Town strike up – and out – the band, after which both Biffo and Korky suffer terribly for their R-and-R.

Posh poseur Swanky Lanky Liz (Charles Holt) comes a-cropper in a brace of telling tales after which the aforementioned dictator of Italy is mercilessly lambasted in a cruel quartet of Musso strips from Sam Fair, even as Charlie Chutney bakes to excess, Our Gang take vengeance on a bullying boxer and Podge foils a bunch of schoolboy cheats.

How the daily travails of conflict were relieved is examined in Wartime 1 with Jimmy and his Magic Patch (Watkins) accidentally visiting bellicose Lilliput, whilst Lord Snooty’s pals battle a Nazi spy and his pigeons and barmy barber Hair Oil Hal (by John Brown) cuts up in a clever quartet.

Sam Fair was in excoriating top form with the superbly manic Addie and Hermy slapstick assaults on Adolf Hitler and Hermann Wilhelm Göring/Goering, Meddlesome Matty (Fair or Malcolm Judge?) becomes a different sort of siren and Mickey’s Magic Book proves more hindrance than help during an air raid…

The complex world of Fashion begins with a plethora of Korky on parade, Beano’s Ding-Dong Belle offers some six-gun hints on good manners, Doubting Thomas (by Roberts) is overwhelmed by a shop dummy and Meddlesome Matty went shoe shopping… for a horse…

Hugh McNeil’s Pansy Potter, the Strongman’s Daughter was legendary for her unique looks – as seen in three strips here – but Swanky Lanky Liz, Charlie Chutney, Musso, Hair Oil Hal and Biffo all offer their own stylistic visions to round out this section before the un-PC past is more fully and shamefacedly explored in Out of Fashion. Here Biffo, Desperate Dan, Tin-Can Tommy, the Clockwork Boy (by the Torelli Brothers), Meddlesome Matty, Korky, Doubting Thomas, Bamboo Town and Mickey’s Magic Book all exhibit behaviours we just don’t condone nowadays…

Strips depicting Transport follow with Multy the Millionaire (Richard Cox), Korky and Biffo all experiencing some distress and delay after which Watkins displays his superb dramatic style for 1946 fantasy adventure Tom Thumb.

There are also more travel travails for Korky, Ding-Dong Belle, Doubting Thomas, Podge, Swanky Lanky Liz and Desperate Dan before a prose chapter from an epic Black Bob serial (a Lassie-like wonder dog illustrated by Jack Prout) precedes a Big Eggo pantomime romp and a 1944 Watkins spectacular starring Jimmy and his Magic Patch as a slave on a Roman ship.

Our trip down memory lane concludes with another bout of combat fever in Wartime 2, offering stunning contributions from Bamboo Town and Desperate Dan plus a treat for Pansy Potter fans: four fill-in strips illustrated by different artists who might or might not be McNeil, Basil Blackaller, Sam Fair, James Clark and/or Charles Grigg.

The campaign continues with a 1942 Tin-Can Tommy tale plus more Podge, Keyhole Kate, Doubting Thomas, Desperate Dan, and Korky strips as well as more Jimmy and his Magic Patch and a lovely Lord Snooty and his Pals yarn – with the kids helping the Home Guard – before Biffo ushers us out just as he had invited us in…

A marvel of nostalgia and timeless comics wonder, the true magic of this collection is the brilliant art and stories by a host of talents that have literally made Britons who they are today, and bravo to DC Thomson for letting them out for a half-day to run amok once again.
© 2003 DC Thomson & Co. Ltd. All rights reserved.

Batter Up, Charlie Brown!


By Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-725-3 (HB)

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most broadly accepted, since – after the characters made the jump to television – the little nippers become an integral part of the American mass cultural experience.

Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for fifty years. He published 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000 and died from the complications of cancer the day before his last strip was published…

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Attendant book collections, a merchandising mountain and TV spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire. That profitable sideline – one Schulz devoted barely any time to over the decades – is where this little gem originates from…

Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived by showing that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punchlines.

The usual focus of the feature (we just can’t call him “star” or “hero”) is everyman loser Charlie Brown who, with high-maintenance, fanciful mutt Snoopy, endures a bombastic and mercurial supporting cast who hang out doing kid things in a most introspective, self-absorbed manner.

The daily gags centred on playing (pranks, sports, musical instruments), teasing each other, making ill-informed observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups. The consistently expanding cast also includes mean girl Violet, infant prodigy Schroeder, “world’s greatest fussbudget” Lucy Van Pelt, her other-worldly baby brother Linusand dirt-magnet “Pig-Pen”: each with a signature twist to the overall mirth quotient and sufficiently fleshed out and personified to generate jokes and sequences around their own foibles. As a whole, the kids tackled every aspect of human existence in a charming and witty manner, acting as cartoon therapists and graphic philosophical guides to the world that watched them.

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

Available in a child-friendly hardback and the usual digital formats, Batter Up, Charlie Brown! offers a trio of extended vintage sequences dedicated to the kids’ attempts to distinguish themselves as sporting superstars in the heady arena of America’s favourite summer pastime. As a metaphor for living life to the full, sports has never been more accurate in its foreshadowings…

The tales are told in a series of monochrome panels (generally four to a page) and begin with ‘Team Manager’ as the perpetually anxious and responsibility-burdened Charlie anticipates the start of a new season. His worries are only further exacerbated by his devoted team who are all eager to act as back seat strategists…

Eponymous delight ‘Batter up!’ sees our gallant but overwhelmed commander stretched beyond his own herculean capacities as the squad call on him to lead from the front as usual but Charlie is weighed down with new familial stress as he’s ordered to push his new sister Sally in her stroller all day long. Can he cope with the stress of twin challenges and still save the game in the final inning?

Wrapping up the field fiascos, ‘Slide!’ sees the plucky player/manager (groundsman, talent scout, coach, organiser, tailor…) called upon to end the team’s permanent losing streak through innovative new tactics and heroic last-minute athleticism…

Timeless and evergreen – although that might just be grass stains – Charlie Brown’s existentialist travail have been delighting readers seemingly forever and clearly will not be stopping or superseded anytime soon. If you haven’t joined this club yet, why not sign up now?
Batter Up, Charlie Brown! © 2014 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. All rights reserved.