The Epic of Gilgamesh

Translated by Kent H. Dixon & illustrated by Kevin H. Dixon (Seven Stories Press)
ISBN: 978-1-60980-793-1 (PB)                     : 978-1-60980-794-8 (eBook)

Comics is the most expansive medium we have for extolling heroic deeds, combining a facility for depicting all aspects of character with an unlimited budget for special effects and communicating instantaneous visceral understanding and appreciation to and on the part of the audience.

That was not always the case: once upon a time all we had was words, originally spoken or chanted but eventually translated into permanent marks on long-lasting surfaces.

As of this writing, The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known work of human literature. A truly timeless heroic saga, the work’s earliest incarnation is actually five Sumerian poems lauding the accomplishments of Bilgamesh, King of Uruk, that date from the Third Dynasty of Ur – or about 2100 BC as you or I and modern Mesopotamians would reckon it.

As is so often the case, some smart wordsmith long ago appropriated and reconditioned the snippets into something grander with the saga surviving into our era via a series (still incomplete) of Babylonian tablets. The material is open to frequent interpretation and has been translated into many languages since first discovered.

What source material we have comes from tablets of cuneiform logographs discovered back in 1853 by Hormuzd Rassam amidst the remains of the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh (near modern Mosul in Iraq). In the early 1870s western historian George Smith published his first translation and, after more hands-on study and research, a full and final version in his 1880 book The Chaldean Account of Genesis. The first direct Arabic translation – by Iraqi Taha Baqir – only appeared in 1960.

Many later scholars have had a bash, with 2003’s 2-volume critical work by Andrew George being generally accounted as the most definitive thus far.

I, however, am no scholar (or gentleman, by all accounts) and the graphic novel on point today has my vote for perhaps the most honest and genuine treatment yet…

Gilgamesh is the prototype and template of all modern hero myths, with a demi-god king, alternatively beloved and despised, stricken and emboldened by his own greatness triumphing over all odds and odd monsters, but ultimately brought low by his own humanity.

It’s also a story with creation myth motifs (Man brought forth from clay; god-touched, animal-saving survivors of great floods; resurrection from the dead) that reoccur over and over again in later religions.

This version, though, is replete with earthy humour, casual smut and everyday venality. It feels like despite the mystical trappings, the characters at its heart are all-too human: which is quite cool, as artefacts dating back to 2600 BC have been recently uncovered that indicate the actual existence of some of the actors in this particular passion play…

What also lends this superb monochrome marvel much of its compelling veracity and beguiling attraction is a somewhat unique collaboration. Kent H. Dixon is an award-winning poet, screenwriter, novelist and educator who spends his days teaching and translating literary works from Japanese hibakusha to classics by Rilke and Mallarmé.

Kent H. Dixon is a social activist, underground radio show host and the award-winning cartoonist who created …And Then There Was Rock and subversive milestone Mickey Death in the Winds of Impotence. He might be the only aging rebel in the world happy to work with his dad…

Their slowly-unfolding, decade-long collaboration on The Epic of Gilgamesh caught the attention of top bloke Russ Kick (You Are Being Lied To and Everything You Know is Wrong; and data archive who quickly made it and them a key part of his superb Graphic Canon series.

So, what do you get here that other translations don’t offer? Following Kick’s scene-setting, context-establishing Introduction, Kent Senior’s Translator’s Note relates how the literary wizard retranslated the original tablets – including recently unearthed Tablet 5 – and offers a few hints regarding narrative direction whilst Kevin Dixon’s Artist’s Note spills a few secrets on producing a classic everybody “knows” as an out of sequence part-work…

As for the story: an arrogant hero-king wanders the Earth and realms of gods and monsters. He’s pretty vile to women and beats up whom he pleases until the gods create a perfect enemy who ends up becoming his truest, only friend. And then he dies and Hero defies the universe and challenges Hell to get him back. You’ve heard it all before but you’ve never seen it like this…

Bold and brash, raw and raucous, this inviting interpretation also manages to maintain a graceful poetic rhythm and deftly incorporate the philosophy and instructions-for-living that permeate and underscore the original without missing a beat. A magnificent tale with a big heart and supremely engaging, this funny, scary, action-packed pictorial fable is a brilliant achievement and I for one am hungry for more.

Spenser’s Faerie Queene or Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West anyone?
© 2018 by Kent H. Dixon and Kevin H. Dixon. All rights reserved.

Rock Steady – Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life

By Ellen Forney (Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-101-7

Ellen Forney was born in 1968 and has dealt with Bipolar Disorder for most of her adult life (even though she only got her official diagnosis in 1998).

At college she majored in Psychology and she now works as an illustrator, teacher and educator, but is best known as a (mostly autobiographical) cartoonist responsible for the strip ‘I Was Seven in ‘75’ and anthologies Monkey Food, I Love Led Zeppelin and Lust.

In 2012 she published cartoon memoir Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me, relating her historical and ongoing experiences living with Bipolar Disorder. It’s an amazing piece of work and one I must get around to reviewing soon.

Don’t wait for me though, get your own copy and start reading…

Today though, we’re looking at a superbly uplifting follow-up from Forney. Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life is a graphic manual and almanac for living on an even keel from someone who has clearly experienced the best and worst the condition can offer.

Divided into logically-ordered chapters and subdivided into easily-absorbed learning moments and teaching points the book offers astoundingly down-to-earth, practical coping tools and hard-earned advice and is prefaced with a most engaging Introduction providing history and context for what follows.

The sharing session begins with Chapter 1: Basics; Wide-ranging but Totally Doable, Whats & Whys, all split into soundly-sensible swiftly-disseminated routines for staying well-fed and exercised, fully rested and on top of medication. That may sound rather superfluous to some, but let’s face it nobody likes taking drugs unless they’re expensive and recreational…

There’s also advice on developing routines, seeing doctors and maintaining support networks.

Winningly visualised and formulated, the tips and hints are expanded in Chapter 2: Therapy; Navigating your Many Options, 3: Coping Tools; Strategies & Techniques for Steadying your Mind & Body and 4: Insomnia; Going to Bed, Getting to Sleep & Sleeping All Night.

As a private aside here, I must say that I’ve only ever known well two people with BP (as far as I know) so the efficacy of much that’s here falls in the range of “bowing to experience”, whereas the section dealing with sleep disorders and getting enough rest is something I have first-hand experience of. There’s stuff here I fully intend to try myself at my earliest convenience…

Moving on to Chapter 5: Dealing with Meds; At Home, While Traveling, & Side Effects, there’s plenty of useful stuff here and in the next chapter Chapter 6: The Danger Zone; Identifying your Warning Signs & How to Deal with Them – especially if you have someone in your life coping with depression or anxiety disorders.

Wrapping up on a high note (gosh, that looks in poor taste when read back!) Chapters 7 & 8 take us on to an uplifting and hopeful conclusion with : You Have Company; Finding Like-Minded People; Getting Beyond Stigma, & Knowing for sure that you’re not alone and :You Rock; It’s a lot of stuff but you got this! Which stress the benefits of sharing thoughts and feelings and keeping those close to you in the loop…

The information included is delivered in a bright, breezy but never trivialising manner and Forney’s cartooning is warm, clear and deliciously accessible. It’s also fabulously funny – a remarkable achievement in itself considering the subject matter…

What shines through most brilliantly however is the artist’s deep desire to share and help fellow sufferers and those all who live with and around them.

Cartoons have long been one of humanity’s most powerful and enduring teaching tools. This superb tome is another magnificent example of how and why.
Rock Steady – Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life © 2018 Ellen Forney. This edition © 2018 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

The March to Death – Drawings by John Olday

By John Olday, edited by Donald Rooum (Freedom Press)
ISBN: 978-0900384806

We tend to remember World War II as a battle of opposites, of united fronts and ubiquitous evil; of Us and Them. In these increasingly polarised days where any disagreement or demurring opinion on any issue is treated as heresy punishable by death or flogging, it’s valuable and comforting to be reminded that even under the most calamitous conditions and clearest of threats, dissent is part of the human psyche and our most valuable birthright.

The March to Death was an unashamed political tract, a collection of anti-war cartoons and tellingly appropriate quotations first published in 1943 by Freedom Press, the Anarchist publishing organisation.

Comics strips and especially cartoons are an astonishingly powerful tool for education as well as entertainment and the images rendered by German emigré John Olday (neé Arthur William Oldag) were, are and remain blistering attacks on the World Order of all nations that had led humanity so inexorably to a second global conflagration in less than a generation.

He drew most of the images whilst serving in the British Royal Pioneer Corps before deserting in 1943. For that he was imprisoned until 1946.

The accompanying text for this edition was selected by his colleague and artistic collaborator Marie Louise Berneri, a French Anarchist thinker who moved to Britain in 1937.

Still readily available, the 1995 edition has a wonderfully informative foreword by cartoonist, letterer, and deceptively affable deep thinker Donald Rooum which paints the time and the tone for the young and less politically informed. This is a work that all serious advocates of the graphic image as more than a vehicle for bubble gum should know of and champion.

Makes you Think, right. Hopefully it will make you act, too.
© 1943, 1995 Freedom Press.

Comics at War

By Denis Gifford (Hawk Books)
ISBN: 978-0-96824-885-6

Very often the books we write about our comics are better than the stories and pictures themselves: memorable, intensely evocative and infused with the debilitating nostalgic joy that only passing years and selective memory bestows.

That’s not meant in any way to denigrate or decry the superb works of the countless -generally unrecognised and generally unlauded – creators who brightened the days of generations of children with fantastic adventures and side-splitting gags in those so flimsy, so easily lost and damaged cheap pamphlets, but rather because of an added factor inherent in these commemorative tomes: by their very existence they add the inestimable value and mystery of Lost, Forgotten or Buried Treasures into the mix.

A perfect example is this copious chronicle released as an anniversary item in 1988 to celebrate the wartime delights rationed out to beleaguered British lads and lasses, compiled by possibly the nation’s greatest devotee and celebrant of childish pastimes and halcyon days.

Denis Gifford was a cartoonist, writer, TV show deviser and historian who loved comics. As both collector and creator he gave his life to strips and movies, acquiring items and memorabilia voraciously, consequently channelling his fascinations into more than fifty books on Film, Television, Radio and Comics; imparting his overwhelming devotion to a veritable legion of fans.

If his works were occasionally short on depth or perhaps guilty of getting the odd fact wrong, he was nevertheless the consummate master of enthusiastic remembrance. He deeply loved the medium in concept and in all its execution, from slipshod and rushed to pure masterpieces with the same degree of passion and was capable of sharing – infecting almost – a casual reader with some of that fierce wistful fire.

With hundreds of illustrative examples culled from his own collection, this volume was released to commemorate the outbreak of World War II and revels in the magnificent contributions to morale generated by a battalion of artists and (usually anonymous) writers, covering the output – in breadth if not depth – of an industry that endured and persevered under appalling restrictions (paper was a vital war resource and stringently rationed), inciting patriotic fervour and providing crucial relief from the stresses and privation of the times.

Abandoning academic rigour in favour of inculcating a taste of the times, this book reprints complete sample strips of the period beginning with the affable tramps and Jester cover stars Basil and Bert (by George Parlett), covering the start of the war in four strips from January to November 1939, before dividing the collection into themed sections such as Be Prepared: with examples of Norman Ward’s Home Guard heroes Sandy and Muddy from Knock-Out and John Jukes’ Marmaduke, the Merry Militiaman from Radio Fun.

At War With the Army displays the ordinary Englishman’s perennial problem with Authority – with episodes of Koko the Pup and Desperate Dan (respectively by Bob MacGillivray and Dudley Watkins from D.C. Thomsons’ Magic and The Dandy); Weary Willie and Tired Tim (from Chips and superbly rendered by Percy Cocking), as well as stunning two-tone and full colour examples from Tip-Top, The Wonder and others.

Tanks a Million! offers selections from the height of the fighting, and brings us head-on into the controversial arena of ethnic stereotyping. All I can say is what I always do: the times were different. Mercifully we’ve moved beyond the obvious institutionalised iniquities of casual racism and sexism (maybe not so much on that last one though?) and are much more tolerant today (unless you’re obese, gay, a smoker, or childless and happy about it), but if antiquated attitudes and caricaturing might offend you, don’t read old comics, or watch vintage films or cartoons – it’s your choice and your loss.

The strip that sparked this tirade is an example of Stymie and his Magic Wishbone from Radio Fun (a long-running strip with a black boy-tramp in the tradition of minstrel shows) from a chapter highlighting the comic strip love-affair with armoured vehicles and including many less controversial examples from Tiger Tim’s Weekly, Knock-Out, Chips and The Dandy, featuring stars such as Our Ernie, Our Gang, Stonehenge, Kit the Ancient Brit and Deed-A-Day Danny.

…And if you think we were hard on innocent and usually allied non-white people just wait till you see the treatment dealt to Germans, Italians and Japanese by our patriotic cartoonists…

At Sea with the Navy! highlights nautical manoeuvres from Casey Court (Chips, and by Albert Pease); Rip Van Wink (Beano, James Crichton); Lt. Daring and Jolly Roger (from Golden by Roy Wilson; Billy Bunter (Knock-Out by Frank Minnitt); Hairy Dan (Beano, Basil Blackaller) and Pitch and Toss (Funny Wonder, Roy Wilson again) whilst Sinking the Subs takes us below the surface with Our Ernie, Desperate Dan, Koko, Pansy Potter, Alfie the Air Tramp and Billy Bunter.

Britain’s fledgling flying squad takes centre-stage with In the Air with the R.A.F. featuring Freddie Crompton’s Tiny Tots, Korky the Cat from Dandy, The Gremlins (Knock-Out, by Fred Robinson) and yet more Koko the Pup.

Awful Adolf and his Nasty Nazis! demonstrates and deftly depicts just what we all thought about the Axis nations and even indulges in some highly personal attacks against prominent personages on the other side, beginning with Sam Fair’s riotously ridiculing Addie and Hermy, (Beano’s utterly unauthorised adventures of misters Hitler and Goering), whilst Our Ernie, Lord Snooty, Pitch and Toss, Big Eggo (Beano, by Reg Carter), Plum and Duff (Comic Cuts, Albert Pease) and the staggeringly offensive Musso the WopHe’s a Big-a-Da-Flop (Beano, Artie Jackson and others) all cheered up the home-front with macerating mockery.

Doing Their Bit then gathers wartime exploits of the nation’s stars and celebrities (turning Britain’s long love affair with entertainment industry figures into another True Brit bullet at the Boche. Strips featuring Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey, Charlie Chaplin, Jack Warner, Flanagan and Allen, Haver and Lee, The Western Brothers, Sandy Powell, Old Mother Riley (featuring Lucan & McShane), Claude Hulbert, Duggie Wakefield, Joe E. Brown, Harold Lloyd, Lupino Lane and Laurel and Hardy included here were collectively illustrated by Reg and George Parlett, Tom Radford, John Jukes, Bertie Brown, Alex Akerbladh, George Heath, Norman Ward and Billy Wakefield.

The kids themselves are the stars of Evacuation Saves the Nation! as our collective banishment of city-bred children produced a wealth of intriguing possibilities for comics creators.

Vicky the Vacky (Magic, George Drysdale), Our Happy Vaccies (Knock-Out, by Hugh McNeill) and Annie Vakkie (Knock-Out, by Frank Lazenby) showed readers the best way to keep their displaced chins up before Blackout Blues! finds the famous and commonplace alike suffering from night terrors…

Examples here include Grandma Jolly and her Brolly, Will Hay, the Master of Mirth, Ben and Bert, Barney Boko, Crusoe Kids, Grandfather Clock, Constable Cuddlecock and Big Ben and Little Len after which Gas Mask Drill finds the funny side of potential asphyxiation with choice strips such as Stan Deezy, Hungry Horace, Deed-A-Day Danny, Big Eggo, Good King Coke and Cinderella all encountering difficulties with Britain’s most essential useless fashion accessory…

Barrage Balloons! lampoons the giant sky sausages that made life tricky for the Luftwaffe with examples from Luke and Len the Odd-Job Men (Larks and by Wally Robertson), It’s the Gremlins, Alfie the Air Tramp, and In Town this Week from Radio Fun whilst Tuning Up the A.R.P.! deals out the same treatment to the valiant volunteers who patrolled our bombed-out streets after dark. Those Air Raid Precautions patrols get a right (albeit roundly good natured) sending up in strips starring Deed-A-Day Danny, Big Eggo, P.C. Penny, Ben and Bert, Marmy and His Ma, Lord Snooty and his Pals, The Tickler Twins in Wonderland, Our Ernie, Tootsy McTurk, Boy Biffo the Brave and Pa Perkins and his Son Percy.

The girls finally get a go in the vanguard with Wow! Women of War! starring Dandy’s Keyhole Kate and Meddlesome Matty (by Allan Morley and Sam Fair respectively); Dolly Dimple (Magic, Morley again), Tell Tale Tilly, Peggy the Pride of the Force, Pansy Potter the Strongman’s Daughter, Big Hearted Martha Our A.R.P. Nut and Kitty Clare’s Schooldays whilst the Home Guard stumble to the fore once more in a section entitled Doing Their Best with examples from Tootsy McTurk (Magic, John Mason), Casey Court, Lord Snooty, Deed-A-Day Danny and Big Eggo.

The peril of imminent invasion was always in the air and the embattled cartoonists sensibly responded with measured insolence. Hop It, Hitler! displays our pen-pushers’ fighting spirit with examples such as Bamboo Town (Dandy, Chick Gordon), Sandy and Muddy, Pansy Potter, the astonishingly un-PC Sooty Snowball, Hair-Oil Hal Your Barber Pal and Stonehenge Kit, before espionage antics are exposed in I Spy Mit Mein Little Eye! in Laurie and Trailer the Secret Service Men plus even more Sandy and Muddy, Herr Paul Pry, Big Eggo and Lord Snooty.

Wireless War! celebrates both radio stars and enemy broadcasts with a selection from Tommy Handley, Troddles and his Pet Tortoise Tonky-Tonk, Happy Harry and Sister Sue, Crackers the Perky Pup, Our Gang and a couple of examples of John Jukes’ sublimely wicked Radio Fun strip Lord Haw-Haw – The Broadcasting Humbug from Hamburg.

To Blazes With the Firemen! is a rather affectionate and jolly examination of one of the toughest of home front duties with a selection of strips including Podge (whose dad was a fire-fighter, drawn by Eric Roberts for Dandy), Casey Court, Pansy Potter and In Town This Week.

Rationing was never far from people’s minds and an art-form where the ultimate reward was usually “a slap-up feed” perfectly lambasted the necessary measures in many strips. Examples here include The Bruin Boy from Tiny Tim’s Weekly; Freddy the Fearless Fly (Dandy, Allan Morley), Cyril Price’s vast ensemble cast from Casey Court (courtesy of Chips), Our Ernie and Dudley Watkins’ Peter Piper from Magic, all in need of Luvly Grub!

Under the miscellaneous sub-headings of Salvage!, Comical Camouflage!, Workers Playtime! and Allies, strips featuring Ronnie Roy the India-rubber Boy, Ding Dong Dally, Desperate Dan, Tin-Can Tommy the Clockwork Boy, Big Hearted Arthur and Dicky Murdoch and other stalwarts all gather hopeful momentum as the Big Push looms and this gloriously inventive and immensely satisfying compilation heads triumphantly towards its conclusion.

V for Victory! sees a telling gallery of strips celebrating the war’s end and better tomorrows; featuring final sallies from Casey Court, Weary Willie and Tired Tim, a stunning Mickey Mouse Weekly cover by Victor Ibbotson, It’s That Man Again – Tommy Handley, Laurel and Hardy and – from Jingles – Albert Pease has the last word with ‘Charlie Chucklechops Speaking… About New Uses for Old War materials’

Some modern fans find a steady diet of these veteran classics a little samey and formulaic – indeed even I too have trouble with some of the scripts – but the astonishing talents of the assembled artists here just cannot be understated. These are great works by brilliant comic stylists which truly stand the test of time. Moreover, in these carefully selected, measured doses these tales salvaged from a desperate but somehow more pleasant and even enviable time are utterly enchanting. This book is long overdue for a new edition and luckily for you is still available through many internet retailers.
Text and compilation © 1988 Denis Gifford. © 1988 Hawk Books. All rights reserved.

The Children’s Annual

By Alan Clark (Boxtree)
ISBN: 978-1-85283-212-4

The comic has been with us a long time now and debate still continues about where, when and exactly what constitutes the first of these artefacts to truly earn the title. There’s a lot less debate about the children’s annual, a particularly British institution and one that continues – albeit in a severely limited manner – to this day.

It’s a rare person indeed who never received a sturdily reassuring colourful card-covered compendium on Christmas morning, full of stories and comic-strips and usually featuring the seasonal antics of favourite characters, whether from comics such as Beano, Dandy, Lion, Eagle and their ilk, or television, film or radio franchises and personalities such as Dr Who, Star Wars, TV21, Radio Fun or some hallowed star of a bygone age.

There were even sports annuals and beautifully illustrated commemorative editions of the fact and general knowledge comics such as Look and Learn, and special events such as the always glorious and awe-inspiring Rupert Annuals.

The history and development of this glorious holiday tradition are lovingly shared by the enthusiastic and erudite Alan Clark in this wonderful book. Never lapsing into too much detail, Clark introduces his subject – always lavishly illustrated – offers a tantalising taste and then moves on.

His goal is always achieved. Once you’ve seen, you will want to see more. This kind of nostalgic paean is our industry’s best weapon in the fight to build sales, both of new material and back issues.

When was the last time you bought something old or untried at a comic shop? Give your Nostalgia Vision a workout for a change, and if you’re still a little dubious, this book should be your guide to tip the scales.
© 1988 Alan Clark.

Take That, Adolf! – The Fighting Comic Books of the Second World War

By Mark Fertig and many & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-987-5

Long the bastion of the arcane, historic, esoteric and the just plain interesting arenas of the comics experience, Fantagraphics Books here celebrates the dawn age of Fights ‘n’ Tights funnybooks with a magnificent collection of (mostly) superhero covers culled from the fraught period which most truly defined the comics industry.

Comicbook covers are a potent and evocative way of assessing the timbre of an era and a captivating shortcut into worlds far removed from our own. They are also half the sum total of fun generated by narrative art and arguably an art form all their own.

In this tome, educator, scholar and writer Mark Fertig (Chair of Art and Art History at Susquehanna University, Pennsylvania and revered film noir expert – check out his Where Danger Lives for more populist fun) offers an erudite and wide-reaching essay comprehensively addressing every aspect of the four-colour Home Front’s graphic endeavours in support of America’s WWII war effort.

Detailing how Jewish émigré artists’ and writers’ creative influences advocated America surrender its isolationist stance in ‘Four Color Fantasies’ and ‘Building Towards War’, Fertig then traces the development of ‘Red, White, and Blue Heroes’ such as The Shield and Uncle Sam before ‘The Coming of Captain America’ sparks the invention of ‘An Army of Captains’.

After the USA finally enters the war ‘All-Out Assault: August & September 1941’ is followed by an examination of female masked fighters in ‘She Can Do It!’ and reveals how Wonder Woman became ‘An Amazon for the Ages’.

‘Kids Can Fight Too!’ reveals the impact of junior and under-age crusaders as well as the sub-genre of Kid Gangs whilst ‘Attaboy, Steamboat!’ confronts head-on the depiction of ethnic characters – “evil” and Pro-democracy. From here in the distant future, some of the appalling jingoism and racism is even more disturbing than the tortures, torments and buckets of gore liberally scattered through the images of Evil Nazis and Japs…

Next ‘Into the Breach’ addresses the reasons omnipotent heroes such as Superman and Captain Marvel left the actual fighting in Europe and the Pacific to ordinary mortals before ‘Pulling Together’ details and the promotion of Home Front solidarity munitions manufacture and the arming of the armies of Freedom after which Hitler repeatedly gets his just deserts (in effigy at least) ‘In Der Führer’s Face!’

‘Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines!’ follows the development of more human fictional soldiers and heroes whilst and ‘More Thrilling Than Fiction’ sees the begins of fact-based accounts of true champions such as President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower before ‘Pitch Men’ follows the numerous examples of masked warriors and kiddie-characters inciting readers to help pay for the war through selling war bonds and liberty stamps and ‘On to Victory’ celebrates the end of hostilities and the aftermath.

The fact-packed lecture is also supplemented at the back of the book by creator biographies of industry giants and iconic cover crafters Charles Clarence Beck, Jack Binder, Charles Biro, Hardin “Jack” Burnley, Reed Crandall, Will Eisner, Lou Fine, Irv Novick, Manuel “Mac” Raboy and Alex Schomburg (regarded as the most prolific cover illustrator of the period) but the true merit of this enchanting tome is the covers gathered for your perusal.

Designed to incite patriotic fervour and build morale, the awesome majority of this tome features a potent avalanche of stunning covers from almost every company, displaying not only how mystery men and superheroes dealt with the Axis of Evil in those tense times but also the valiant efforts of “ordinary fighting men” and even cartoon fantasy stars such as Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Walt Disney stars such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck

Shopping List Alert: skip if you must…

This book celebrates an absolute cascade of spectacular, galvanising scenes of heroes legendary and obscure, costumed and uniformed, crushing tanks, swatting planes, sinking U-Boats and decimating enemy ranks, unleashed before your assuredly goggled eyes by artists long forgotten, and never known as well as more familiar names such as Joe Shuster, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Eisner, Harry G. Peter, Jack Burnley, Frank Harry, Irwin Hasen, Al Avison, Bob Powell, Edd Ashe, Harry Lucey, Paul Gustavson, Bill Everett, Jerry Robinson, Gus Ricca, Al Gabriele, Charles Sultan, Gene Fawcette, Louis & Arturo Cazeneuve, Gill Fox, Sam Cooper, Jim Mooney, Elmer Wexler, Fred Ray, Dan Zolnerowich, Don Rico, Max Plaisted, Howard Sherman, Everett E. Hibbard, Ramona Patenaude, Pierce Rice, Harry Anderson, Lin Streeter, Dan Gormley, Bernard Klein, Stephen Douglas, Martin Nodell, Charles Quinlan, Dan Noonan, Sheldon Moldoff, Henry Keifer, Marc Swayze, Carl Buettner, Charles A. Winter, Maurice, del Bourgo, Jack Warren, Bob Montana, Bob, Fujimori, Vernon Greene, George Papp, John Jordan, Syd Shores, John Sikela, Alex Blum, Ray Ramsey, R. Webster, Harry Sahle, Mort Leav, Alex Kotzky, Dan Barry, Al Camy, Stan Kaye, George Gregg, Art Saaf, George Tuska, alexander Kostuk, Al Carreno, Fred Kida, Ruben Moreira, Sidney Hamburg, Rudy Palais, Joe Doolin, Al Plastino, Harvey K. Fuller, Louis Ferstadt, Matt Bailey, Ham Fisher, Walt Kelly, Wayne Boring, John Giunta, Creig Flessel, Harold Delay, Lee Elias, Henry Boltinoff, L.B. Cole and George Marcoux plus many more who did their bit by providing safe thrills, captivating joy and astounding excitement for millions.

These powerful, evocative, charming, funny, thrilling, occasionally daft and often horrific images are controversial these days. Many people consider them Art with a capital ‘A’ whereas close-minded, reactionary, unimaginative, bigoted die-hard poltroons don’t.

Why not Dig back in time (For Victory!) and make your own decision?
© 2017 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. Main text© 2017 Mark Fertig. All comics covers and illustrations herein © 2017 the respective copyright holders All rights reserved.

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero

By Siegel & Joe Shuster with Thomas Andrae, Mel Gordon & Jerome (Feral House)
ISBN: 978-1-932595-78-9

The comics industry owes an irredeemable debt to two talented and ambitious Jewish kids from Cleveland in the right place at the right time who were able to translate their enthusiasm and heartfelt affection for beloved influences and delight in a new medium into a brand-new genre which took the world by storm.

Writer Jerome Siegel and artist Joe Shuster were a jobbing cartoonist team just breaking into the brand-new yet already-ailing comicbook business with strips such as ‘Henri Duval’, ‘Doctor Occult’ and ‘Slam Bradley’. When they rejigged a constantly rejected newspaper strip concept for a new title they manifested the greatest action sensation of the age – if not all time…

Superman captivated depression-era audiences and within a year had become the vanguard of a genre and an industry. In those early days, the feature was both whimsical and bombastic – as much gag strip as adventure serial – and it was clear the utterly inspired whiz kids were wedded to laughs just as much as any wish-fulfilling empowerment fantasies.

As even the most casual scholar knows, Siegel & Shuster were not well-served by their publishers and by 1946 no longer worked for National Periodicals (today’s DC Comics). In fact, they were in acrimonious litigation which led to the originators losing all rights to their creation and suffering years of ill-treatment until an artist-led campaign at the time of the 1978 Superman movie shamed the company into a belated reversal and financial package (consisting mostly of having their names returned to the character’s logo and company medical benefits).

Long before this however, the dynamic duo produced an abortive “Last Hurrah”: another unique character based on early influences, but one who sadly did not catch the public’s attention in those post war years when the first super-heroic age was ending.

Based broadly on Danny Kaye, Funnyman was a stand-up comedian who dressed as a clown and used comedy gimmicks to battle criminals, super-villains and aliens: first in six issues of his own comic-book and then as a Daily and Sunday newspaper strip.

A complete antithesis to the Man of Steel, Larry Davis was a total insider, no orphan or immigrant, but a wealthy, successful man, revered by society, yet one who chose to become a ridiculous outsider, fighting for not the common good but because it gave him a thrill nothing else could match.

The series was light, beautifully audacious, tremendous fun and sank like a concrete-filled whoopee cushion.

In this smart paperback compilation – also available as a digital or perhaps hee-heBook (sorry, simply couldn’t resist. Should have, but couldn’t…) – social historians Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon carefully re-examine the strip in the much broader context of Jewish Identity and racial character, with particular reference as it applies to Jewish-Americans, and make some fascinating observations and postulates.

Following an intriguing preface by author, writer, editor and comics historian Danny Fingeroth, this book assiduously dissects the history and psychology of the Judaic experience in a compelling series of astoundingly illustrated essays gathered under the umbrellas of Gordon’s ‘The Farblondjet Superhero and his Cultural Origins’ and Andrae’s ‘The Jewish Superhero’.

The former (and Farblondjet translates as “mixed up” or “lost”) probes ‘The Mystery of Jewish Humor’, ‘The Construct of Humor in Everyday Jewish Life’, ‘The Old Theories: ‘Laughter-Through-Tears’; ‘A Laughing People’; ‘Outside Observer’ and ‘The Badkhn Theory’ (Badkhn being performers hired to insult, offend and depress guests and celebrants at social gatherings such as weddings or funerals).

‘Characteristics of Modern Jewish Humor’ are subdivided and explored in ‘Aggression’, ‘The Yiddish Language’, ‘Self-Mockery’, ‘Inversion and Skepticism’, ‘Scatology’, ‘Gallows Humor’ and ‘Solipsism and Materialism’ before Gibson’s compelling, contextual potted-history concludes with ‘American-Jewish Comedy Before 1947’ (the year Funnyman debuted),‘Weber and Fields’, ‘On the Boards’, ‘The Borscht Belt’, ‘Cartoons and Jokebooks’ and ‘Hollywood Talkies and Syndicated Radio’.

Then, in ‘The Jewish Superhero’ Andrae examines Siegel & Shuster’s possible influences; everything from German expressionist cinema masterpiece ‘The Golem: How He Came into This World’ to real-life strongman Sigmund Breitbart, a Polish Jew who astounded the world with his feats in the early 1920s. On his American tour Sigmund appeared in Cleveland in October 1923. Siegel, a local resident, would have been nine years old which as everyone knows is the real “golden age of comics”…

‘Funnyman, Jewish Masculinity and the Decline of the Superhero’ explores the psychology and landscape of the medium through the careers and treatment of Siegel & Shuster in ‘The Birth of Funnyman’, ‘The Body Politic’, ‘The Schlemiel and the Tough Jew’, ‘The Decline of the Superhero’ and ‘Comic Book Noir’ before going on to recount the story of the newspaper strips in ‘The Funnyman Comic Strip’ and ‘Reggie Van Twerp’ (a last ditch attempt by the creators to resurrect their comic fortunes) before the inevitable axe falls in ‘End Game’

Thus far the engaging tome acts as a compulsive and hugely informative academic work, but in ‘Funnyman Comic Book Stories’ the resplendent fan fun truly takes hold with a full colour section reproducing a selection of strips from the 6-issue run.

‘The Kute Knockout!’ (Funnyman #2, March 1948) pits the Hilarious Hero against a streetwalker robot built to seduce and rob Johns after which ‘The Medieval Mirthquake’ (Funnyman #4, May 1948) propels the Comedy Crusader back to the time of Camelot. From the same issue comes ‘Leapin’ Lena’ as Funnyman tackles a female bandit who can jump like a kangaroo and #5 (July 1948) has him chasing a worrying new crime gimmick in ‘The Peculiar Pacifier’.

Also included are the striking covers of all six issues, the origin of Funnyman from #1, lots of splash pages and a selection of Shuster’s Superman art, but the most welcome benefit for collectors and collectors is a detailed précis of the entire run’s 20 tales.

The same consideration is offered for the newspaper strips. As well as similar synopses for the Sundays (12 adventures spanning October 31st 1948 to the end of October 1949) and Dailies (another dozen larks spanning October 18th 1948 to September 17th 1949), there are11 pages of full-colour Sunday sections and the complete black and white ‘Adventure in Hollywood’ (December 20th to January 12th 1949) to adore and marvel over.

Like Funnyman himself, this book is an odd duck. Whereas I would have loved to see the entire output gathered into one volume, what there is here is completely engrossing: a wonderful appreciation and compelling contextualization of genuine world-altering pioneers. This is a fabulous package with an appeal that ranges far beyond its possibly limited comic-fan audience.
Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman © 2010 Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon. All rights reserved.

Portraits of Violence – An Illustrated History of Radical Thinking

By Brad Evans, Sean Michael Wilson, Inko, Carl Thompson, Robert Brown, Chris Mackenzie, Michiru Morikawa & Yen Quach (New Internationalist)
ISBN: 978-1-78026-318-2                  eISBN: 978-1-78026-319-9

Our particular branch of the arts depends rather heavily on the loving depiction of violence in all its forms, but it’s unlikely that most of us ever give it much rational and cohesive thought. How wonderful then than somebody actually has and kindly put it all together in a series of irresistible comic essay dialectics.

At least in terms of entertainment, there seems to be an unquenchable – almost compulsive – need to see conflicts resolved through force and problems solved by the imposition of will upon dissenters. Justifications for these acts can always be found if one looks hard enough…

Violence isn’t just a perfectly choreographed punch in the jaw or a sublimely balletic spin-kick, it’s also oppression, subtracting choices, dismissing someone’s opinions, denying them education or agency and so many other things we allow our leaders or even our friends and associates to do to – and “for” – us on a daily and incremental basis. The effects, however, are cumulative, vast and lasting…

Here a number of thinkers, theoreticians, activists and educators have their works and key achievements précised and propounded via a series of short strips seeking to highlight different ways to address our species’ second most primal drive.

Adapted and scripted throughout by Dr. Brad Evans and Sean Michael Wilson, the thought-provocations begin with ‘Brad Evans: Thinking Against Violence’. Illustrated by Inko, they collaboratively restate a conversation between the political philosopher/critical theorist and a journalist as he sought to explain his thesis that the media feeds and is dependent on violence for its own survival.

Chris Mackenzie then limns a visual discourse on how observation of the trial of Adolf Eichmann led to a new theory on human nature, the power of delegated authority and impact of surrendered autonomy in ‘Hannah Arendt: The Banality of Evil’, after which ‘Frantz Fanon: The Wretched of the Earth’ (with art by Carl Thompson) describes how the psychologist re-examined the effects of colonialism on both masters and subjects.

A landmark shift in critical thinking and educational doctrine is scrutinised in the Inko-illustrated ‘Paulo Freire: The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ before a theoretical icon is revisited and the unshakable link between liberals and State violence is revealed in ‘Michel Foucault: Society Must Be Defended’ (illustrated by Robert Brown).

A Humanist examination of the cultural biases that colour and inform the West’s view of Eastern cultures is disclosed in ‘Edward Said: Orientalism’; with Thompson’s art working to explain the knottier points of history and entrenched racism. Then Inko makes her final artistic contribution in ‘Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others’ as the theoretician deconstructs and adjudicates on the misleading truths and overwhelming potency of carefully selected, deliberately disseminated images utilised by media and governing authorities…

‘Noam Chomsky: Manufacturing Consent’ (Thompson again) explores the misnomer of a “Free Press” and reveals how a commercial media system can only act as a propaganda tool of whoever’s in charge, whilst Michiru Morikawa portrays ‘Judith Butler: Precarious Lives’; explaining how knee-jerk responses to atrocity fail through her theories on Normative Violence, Subversion and Liveable Life, after which Yen Quach depicts the arguments of Italian philosopher ‘Giorgio Agamben: Sovereign Power/Bare Life’ which posit that the job of democratic politics is to prevent the development of conditions which lead to hatred, terror and destruction, not merely to respond to and control them after they’ve occurred…

I’m not smart enough to do much more than parrot the phrases of these brilliant concerned individuals but I strongly urge you to read this collection – especially Henry A Giroux’s Foreword ‘How do we educate about Violence?’ which offers terms of reference, context and chilling insight into the state of play between Us and Them…

Supplemented by ‘Biographical Notes for the Writers and the Artists’ this is a compelling and challenging collection that needs to seen by everybody in power or comfortably submitting to it…
© Brad Evans and Sean Michael Wilson.

Taxes, the Tea Party and Those Revolting Rebels: A History in Comics of the American Revolution

By Stan Mack (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-697-6

It has long been a truism of the creative arts that the most effective, efficient and economical method of instruction and training has been the comic strip. Advertising mavens have, for over a century, exploited the easy impact of words wedded to evocative pictures, and public information materials frequently use sequential narrative to get hard messages over quickly and simply.

Additionally, since World War II, carefully crafted strips have been constantly used as training materials in every aspect of adult life from school careers advice to various branches of military service – utilising the talents of comics giants as varied as Milton Caniff, Will Eisner (who spent decades producing reams of comic manuals for the US army and other government departments), Kurt Schaffenberger and Neil Adams.

These days the educational value and merit of comics is a given. Larry Gonick in particular has been using the strip medium to stuff learning and entertainment in equal amounts into the weary brains of jaded students with such tomes as The Cartoon History of the Universe, The Cartoon History of the United States and The Cartoon Guide to… series (Genetics, Sex, Computers, Non-Communication, Physics, Statistics, the Environment and more).

Japan uses a huge number of manga text books in its schools and universities and has even released government reports and business prospectuses as comic books to get around the public’s apathy towards reading large dreary screeds of public information.

So do we, and so do the Americans. I’ve even produced one or two myself, back in my freelancing years…

Here the medium has been used by an acclaimed master to comprehensively recapitulate the most pivotal period in the history of democracy in a manner both inviting and astoundingly effective – as is clear by the pages of testimonials from satisfied teachers…

Former art director for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Stan Mack is also a writer, artist and cartoonist with a long history of turning strips into documentary, commentary and reportage: see for example his controversial Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies (Village Voice), Stan Mack’s Out-takes (Adweek) and books like Fight for Freedom, Hard Time, Janet & Me, The Road to Revolution, and The Story of the Jews: A 4,000-Year Adventure.

In 1994 he released a stunningly addictive pictorial treatment of those convoluted times, characters and events which explosively combined to create the libertarian utopia of the United States of America. The recently re-released saga examined background and context, laid out key events and the causes of them: tracing the tricky path from sidelined and dissatisfied colonial possession to new nation and it was done with wit, understanding and a determined effort to demystify and desanctify the affair, undoing two centuries of spin and revisionism…

It all starts with a charming Introduction, explaining the origins of this superb monochrome hardback tome (164 mm x 240 mm) and tale: laying out the ground rules for use and the ethos behind the project.

Thereafter the fact-packed fun unfolds in section one ‘1761-1775 Monarchy and Mobs’ which covers – in smart, snappy, efficiently short and phenomenally memorable vignettes – ‘1761 The Writs of Assistance’ and ‘1763 The Colonies’ setting the scene whilst the heinous money-making schemes of English bean-counting Prime Minister George Grenville (whose swingeing taxes and tariffs kickstart the rebellion) are seen in action through ‘1764 Sugar Act’ and ‘1765 Stamp Act’ before his successor ramped up the grief with ‘1767 Townsend Duties’ resulting in ‘1770 Boston Massacre’

Thus we come to the truth about the ‘1773 Boston Tea Party’, and the ‘1774 1st Continental Congress’ before at last shedding blood at ‘1775 Lexington & Concord’

Throughout the chapter and the book Mack is scrupulous in pointing out that all the talk of equality, liberty and self-determination only applies to white males, not slaves (or freed Africans), Indigenous people and women; the results of which we are still living through and something that still needs addressing…

The second section then counts down ‘1775-1781 Redcoats & Guerrillas’, ‘1775’s ‘2nd Continental Congress’, ‘Bunker Hill’, ‘George Washington’ and the potential escalations at ‘Ticonderoga/Canada’ as well as 1776’s ‘Declaration of Independence’, before following the war from ‘Long Island to Trenton’.

A catalogue of battles follows: ‘1777 Saratoga’ and ‘1778 Valley Forge’; ‘1779 Trouble at Home’, ‘1781 West Point’ before examining ‘1780 War in the South’ and ‘1781 Yorktown’.

The third and final section explores how the war was won but victory led only to factional infighting: a cold war for hearts and minds between Federalists and Constitutionalists such as Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison Jr. on one side and conservative Anti-Federalists on the other. Seeing as all the familiar names are on one side; guess who won?

Apparently each faction was as concerned with wealth as well-being and freedom…

In ‘1782-1789 Profit & Virtue’ explores the changing state of world trade with the new nation, as the architects of America focussed on consolidation in ‘1782 The Confederation’, almost having their work undone by ‘1786 Shay’s Rebellion’ finally leading to ‘1786 Constitutional Convention’ and ultimately the ‘1789 Bill of Rights’

Potently enthralling, beguiling succinct and astoundingly matter-of-fact, Mack offers an eyes-wide-open account of events and motives that make this book an absolute must-have for any student, political exponent or tub-thumping pub expert.

And it’s bloody well drawn and rather funny too…
© 1994, 2012 Stan Mack.

Small Press Sundays

Like so many others I started out in the business making minicomics, collaborating on fanzines and concocting stripzines with fellow weirdoes, outcasts and addicts. Even today, seeing the raw stuff of creativity in hand-crafted paper pamphlets – or better yet professionally printed packages which put dreamers’ money where their mouths are – still gets me going in ways which endanger my tired old heart…

With that in mind here are two more superb offerings from one of my favourite independent publishers of the moment…

Wolf Country #5

By Jim Alexander, Will Pickering, Jim Campbell & Liz Howarth (Planet Jimbot)

Go read this review then come back here.

As well as stunning graphic novels, anthologies and one-shots, independent publisher Planet Jimbot (likely lads Jim Alexander & Jim Campbell) also produce proper periodical comicbooks, and damned good ones. Vying for the accolade of their very best of the moment (neck and neck with GoodCopBadCop, depending on which one I’m actually holding) is their eerie otherworld socio-political saga blending the most evocative and captivating genre tropes of Westerns with supernatural horror stories: Wolf Country.

Complementing the recent release of the first WC trade paperback collection, this latest instalment in the expanding saga returns us to The Settlement where a dwindling congregation of devout vampires prove their faith daily by eking out a peril-fraught existence in the midst of their unnatural, pagan enemies; assorted tribes of bestial werewolves.

The ferocious, uncontrollable Lycanthropes infest the badlands surrounding the enclave as well as the distant city-state carved out by their forward-looking, progressive vampire brethren who are increasing, leaving the faith in favour of temporal comfort and scientific progress. Sides are being drawn in an inevitable clash of belief systems…

The Settlement has just survived the latest full-moon assault by another pack, this time employing a giant monster wolf. They only survived because of the intervention of heavily-armed Kingdom troops who have imposed their own draconian style of martial law. In the days following, brutal Sergeant Urquhart has tortured settler-scout Carmichael, convinced he knows where the missing boy celebrity Luke – famed in the city as the prophesied “Boy Who Killed Wolf” as gone…

Temporary leader Natasha is in turmoil. Her husband Halfpenny would not stand for these atrocities, but he has been spirited away to the Kingdom on some mystery mission for The High Executor

Her tensions only increase after she contacts Luke through dreams and discovers he has discarded all notions of his foretold destiny and made a life for himself amongst the wolves, humans and lycanthropes in the vast unknown wilds…

Halfpenny would be unable to help even if he knew. His time in civilisation has found him used as a Judas Goat to get close to radical, rebel vampires in a no-go zone dubbed Free State. The attempt led to death, a carefully instigated riot and even greater submersion in the fetid swamp of City politics, but also a tantalising glimpse at a true sacrament of faith and mystery that he must pursue…

Back at the Settlement, Natasha does the only thing she can to spare Carmichael’s agonies and offers to lead Urquhart to where the fugitive Luke and his new family enjoy a life of wild freedom…

To Be Continued…

After a thoroughly beguiling and meticulous stage setting and plot seeding process, Wolf Country is gearing up to a fantastic second act that promises drama, action, suspense and even more mystery. Don’t wait for the next book compilation, climb aboard the feral express right now…
Story © 2016 Jim Alexander (story) & Will Pickering (art).

The Samurai

By Jim Alexander, Luke Cooper, Jim Campbell & Ed Murphy (Planet Jimbot)

Clearly men of broad and wide-ranging tastes in term of comics adventure, Jim Alexander and regular collaborator Luke Cooper have turned their creative juices loose on the venerable sub-genre of itinerant Bushido warriors with this deceptively enthralling one-shot.

A nameless, weary swordsman, The Samurai is first seen returning home after faithful service in the wars against Mongol invaders. Tragically, a longed-for reunion with his family is forever forestalled when he finds their dismembered corpses in his burned-out village. Implacably he begins stalking the vile bandits who killed them…

However, in his righteous rage he underestimates his foes and is nearly despatched to join his loved ones until fate monstrously intervenes…

A broken, brooding nomad, his hunt for the remaining marauders takes him to a wooded region and another ravaged house in a ‘Burning Forest Clearing’. His decision to search the dwelling for survivors is a grave mistake as he is ambushed by diabolical cannibals and left for dead, but when a little girl comes to his aid he finally finds the strength to overcome.

Good thing too, as the flesh eaters have returned for their next meal…

An iconic blend of exotic action and philosophy liberally dosed with classic supernatural elements and overtones, this is a no-nonsense romp to delight the senses and fire the hearts of all lovers of ancient oriental excitement.
© 2016 Jim Alexander (story) & Luke Cooper (art)