By Mattotti (Fantagraphics Books and Coconino Press)
ISBN-13: 978-1-56097-763-6

The sixth release (I hesitate to call it a volume, as the format, though bold and wonderful, is far more than a magazine but not quite a book) from the eclectic European publications imprint designated the Ignatz Collection features an uncharacteristic and unforgettable look at the monochrome work of one of the world’s most talented colour artists.

Lorenzo Mattotti was born in Brescia, Italy and studied at the Faculty for Architecture in Venice before beginning a career as a comics storyteller in 1975 in the French magazine Circus. Whether alone or with long-time collaborator Fabrizio Ostani (AKA Jerry Kramsky – they often used the single pen-name “Kleidebistro”) Mattotti’s incredible, nigh-abstract designs and pictorial narratives have won him a huge following, with work appearing in Métal Hurlant, L’Écho des Savanes (France), Rumbo Sur (Spain), Frigidaire, Secondamano and Alter Alter (Italy), Raw (USA) and The Face (UK) among many others.

In 2002 Mattotti and Kramsky produced Docteur Jekyll & Mister Hyde (based on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic) for Casterman, and the English translation won Mattotti an Eisner Award the following year. As an illustrator, Mattotti has worked for Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, Vogue and Le Monde, and has produced a number of startling and beautiful children’s books. His absolute masterpiece thus far is – to my mind at least – Fires (and I think I’ll just add that to my “review real soon” pile).

Behind a deeply unsettling gate-fold wraparound cover, but printed throughout on reassuringly solid cream-coloured card-stock, lurks a startling journey from idyllic cloud-gazing through vaguely erotic musings on gods and giants to the depths of a terrifying and oppressive forested hell. Rendered in a bravura line-and-dry-brush style that ranges from seductive and cajoling, through airy tumult to raw, fierce, bestial rage and horror, Mattotti uses the reader’s eyes to pull the viewer on a chaotic descent reminiscent of Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain” from Walt Disney’s Fantasia, with just a hint of Watership Down thrown in.

Comics aficionados might also recognize a touch of the panning-in technique used by the great André Barbe where small pictorial changes lead to a total transformation, not only to the graphic representations but also to the mental or spiritual state of the object and observer. But where Barbe wanted to languidly surprise and seduce you, Mattotti is here to make you squirm…

Even if the “how” isn’t your major concern, the whole pictorial experience of Chimera is one headlong rush, and a supreme lesson in the power and virtuosity of dark lines against the light. This is probably the only white knuckle ride you can put on a bookshelf… so why don’t you?

Story and art © 2005 Lorenzo Mattotti. Book edition © 2005 Fantagraphics Books and Coconino Press.

Kelly Green volume 3: The Million Dollar Hit

By Stan Drake & Leonard Starr (Dargaud International Publishing)
ISBN: 2-205-06576-9

After the murder of her cop husband by his own superiors (Kelly Green: The Go-Between) Dan Green’s grieving and furious widow began a dubious new career in the twilight world between the law-abiding and the criminal aided by three of her husband’s reformed “cases”: con-man Spats Cavendish, thief Jimmy Delocke and pugnacious leg-breaker “Meathooks.”

With her life slowly getting back on track – although still not without moments of exotic glamour and extreme tension – the widow Green agrees to courier a large sum of cash to a conman who has already absconded with five million dollars of an oil company’s money. So why does OkalCo want Kelly to bring him more?

This sharp, wry thriller has plenty of surprises in store. The gorgeous go-between is dispatched to Alaska to deliver a hush-money payment and to bring back the secret method by which Cyrus Worthing – AKA Gus Arakian – managed to siphon away all that loot without anybody noticing. In the wilds of Big Snow country, can she even find him let alone prevent the conman selling his million-buck grift to others?

Further complicating matters is an unwise, unwelcome yet seemingly unstoppable fling with a US senator hiding some dark secrets of his own, a pair of hit-men with their own agenda dogging her heels and the small matter of a plane crash during the worst blizzard in recent memory…

These spectacular thrillers are intensely powerful, uncompromising stories, strictly for adults and not just because of the casual nudity; there’s a touch of chilling violence here that’s all the more distressing because it’s so skilfully underplayed. This series still works so well because it falls into a too rare category of crime-story where character not plot drives the narrative and it’s delivered with all the skill and artistry that two of the best storytellers comics have ever produced can command. The crash scenes in the mountains are alone worth every penny you might pay for this book.

For over three decades Stan Drake and Leonard Starr worked individually on some of the most successful family strips in the world. After years of critical and commercial rewards the pair teamed with French publisher Dargaud to flex their creativity unrestrained, producing a no-holds-barred contemporary crime-thriller that remains to this day one of the most exciting, vibrant and powerful in all strip history.

Copies of all volumes are still readily available (if a little pricey), but true quality has no upper limit and there are still rumours of a full revival of the character soon. Perhaps you could wait, but I wouldn’t…
© 1983 Dargaud Editeur. All Right Reserved.

Kelly Green volume 2: One, Two, Three… Die!

By Stan Drake & Leonard Starr (Dargaud International Publishing)
ISBN: 2-205-06952-7

The decades of creative expertise that marked the careers of strip veterans Stan Drake and Leonard Starr were rewarded by the one thing they had never achieved when they began their seminal crime-thriller for the European comics market: creative control. And blessed with that elusive prize they produced one of the most memorable women in comics: the frail, divinely human yet determinedly adamantine Kelly Green.

After the murder of her cop husband by his own superiors (Kelly Green: The Go-Between) the grieving and furious widow began a dubious career in the no-man’s land separating the law-abiding and felonious, aided by three of her husband’s reformed “cases”: con-man Spats Cavendish, thief Jimmy Delocke and colossal leg-breaker “Meathooks.”

In this tale however the job intersects disastrously with her private life as a new friend inadvertently draws her into a world of ruthless super-rich dynasties, blackmail, infidelity, exploitation and even serial murder. As this is a gripping mystery yarn of the “fair-play” variety I’ll avoid specifics so you can have a fair crack at deducing the killer, but I will offer this warning: you know those movies where a million people can die bloodily but your favourite actor and his dog will always escape unscathed? This isn’t one of those stories…

This spectacular thriller is powerful and uncompromising stuff, strictly for adults (and not just because of the casual nudity), falling into a rare category of crime-story in that it is unflinchingly character, not plot-driven, and delivered with all the skill and artistry that these two veteran storytellers can command.

Copies of all volumes are still readily available (if a little pricey), but true quality has no upper limit and there are still rumours of a full revival of the character soon. Perhaps you could wait…

But can you?
© 1983 Dargaud Editeur. All Right Reserved.

Rork 3: the Graveyard of Cathedrals/Starlight

By Andreas (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-150-6

To me a great comic strip begins with the simple line. The greatest drawing is always about the power of black against white. Colour enhances but it seldom creates. For my money, one of the best line artists in the business is the modern fantasist Andreas.

Andreas Martens is an incredibly versatile artist born in East Germany (from a time when that meant another country not a different location), trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf and the Saint-Luc Institute in Brussels. His work has appeared in Le 9e Rêve, and Tintin where in conjunction with his teacher Eddie Paape he created the seminal Udolfo.

Andreas has adapted the works of Francois Rivière (collected as Révélations Posthumes in 1980) and produced a graphic edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre for Je Bouquine. Among his many original efforts are Raffington Detective, Cyrrus, Arq and a host of others. All his works are steeped in classical style, draped in period glamour and drenched in visual tension. Many are thematically linked. But before all these he created one of the most stylish and memorable “challengers of The Unknown” in horror fiction with the introduction and continuing adventures of the enigmatic psychic savant Rork.

His pale and moody hero, (who debuted in Pilote in 1978) draws on the tone and sometimes content of dark-fantasists August Derleth, H. P. Lovecraft and especially the Carnacki stories of William Hope Hodgson; traveling the world and the great beyond unraveling great mysteries and discovering startling wonders not for fame or glory but because he must…

In the early 1990s Dark Horse Comics serialized his adventures in their superb anthology of European comics Cheval Noir, and those translations formed the basis of a little seen or remarked upon series of albums from NBM. This volume is a particular favourite of mine (even if the spine and binding are less than robust), featuring two tales in a continuing story arc as the ethereal knowledge-seeker is returned to Earth from a Transcendent Realm to intervene in the inevitably grisly fate of a scientific expedition in the wilds of Central America.

Douglas Holbein was obsessed with the story of The Chavesians, an order of architectural mystics declared heretical by the Spanish Inquisition and banished to the New World by Queen Isabella. The centuries-old sect, which built the great churches of Christendom, did not die in the harsh jungles, but continued the craft, erecting monolithic buildings in the lush wilderness, ever-seeking to learn the secrets of God through their vast stone Faith Machines.

Now Holbein’s team have found the site of the ‘Graveyard of Cathedrals’ they accidentally disrupt a centuries-old truce between the sect’s last adherents with potentially catastrophic consequences and only the reality-shocked Rork can save them…

Following his harrowing return Rork is summoned to the deserts of Mexico by mysterious means to aid an old friend atoning for her past sins in an isolated and ancient pueblo. Increasingly endangered by a jealous Medicine Man, the woman called Low Valley cares for the Indians of the settlement as she awaits a certain lunar conjunction. The swift-approaching night when ‘Starlight’ again rains down on the people promises – or perhaps warns of – radical transformation when the heavens flare again. But the impoverished and desperate people must be made to remember that not all change is good…

Exotic, chilling and lyrically beguiling, the classical mysticism and otherwordly dread of these tales is a continuously heady and captivating brew, especially with the intense, linear illustration and stark design of Andreas to mesmerize and shock your widened eyes. This series should be at the top of the publisher’s list of books to re-release…

© 1996 Le Lombard. English translation © 1992 Dark Horse.

[Low Moon]

By Jason, translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-268-4

John Arne Saeterrøy, who works under the pen-name Jason, was born in Molde, Norway in 1965, and exploded onto the international cartoonists scene at age 30 with his first graphic novel Lomma full ay regn (Pocket Full of Rain) which won that year’s Sproing Award (Norway’s biggest comics prize). He followed with the series Mjau Mjau (winning another Sproing in 2001) and in 2002 turned almost exclusively to producing graphic novels. He has now achieved international fame and critical status, winning seven major awards as far afield as France, Slovakia and the USA and all areas in-between.

His stories utilise a small cast of anthropomorphic animal characters (and occasional movie and pop culture monsters), delivered in highly formal page layouts telling dark, wry and sardonically bleak tales – often pastiches, if not outright parodies – in a coldly austere and Spartan manner. This seemingly oppressive format somehow allows a simply vast range of emotionally telling tales on a wide spectrum of themes and genres to hit home like rockets whether the author’s intention was to make the reader smile or cry like a baby.

Drawing in a minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style, Jason’s work bores right into the reader’s core, and this movie-based collection of short tales is possibly his best work yet.

Redolent of quintessential Film Noir and especially the writing of Jim Thompson, the poignant tale of vengeance ‘Emily Says Hello’ precedes what is billed as the World’s “first and only Chess Western”. The eponymous ‘Low Moon’ was originally serialized in The New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2008, a surreal spoof of Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 classic High Noon as an old menace returns to terrorise the town until the Sheriff capitulates to his incessant demands for one final return match…

‘&’ is a tragic anecdote of love, loss and marital persistence related in the terms and stylings of a Hal Roach silent comedy and ‘Proto Film Noir’ owes an inspirational tip of the thermally insulated hat to Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (the 1946 version with John Garfield and Lana Turner) by way of the Flintstones and Groundhog Day, whilst the concluding tale of love, family and abandonment assumes science-fictional trappings to relate the soap-opera, generational tale of a mother kidnapped by aliens and the effects it inflicts on the husband and son she left behind. ‘You Are Here’ is bemusing, evocative and moving yet manages never to fall off the tightrope into mawkishness or buffoonery.

Jason’s comic tales are strictly for adults but allow us all to look at the world through wide-open childish eyes. He is a taste instantly acquired and a creator any true fan of the medium should move to the top of the “Must-Have” list. This superb little hardback could be your entry into a brave, old world, so get it while you can because stuff this good never lasts long…

© 2009 Jason. All right reserved.

Kelly Green Book 1: The Go-Between

By Leonard Starr & Stan Drake (Dargaud International)
ISBN: 2-205-06574-2

After years of superb – if thematically anodyne – wholesome family comic strips, two of America’s most gifted graphic storytellers were given the chance to work on a more adult and potentially controversial feature with no creative restrictions; and the result was the second best female adventurer series in comics history.

Leonard Starr was born in 1925 and began his long and illustrious creative career in the Golden Age of American comic-books, before working in advertising and settling in the challenging arena of newspaper strips. He worked on Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch and the immensely popular but now all-but forgotten Don Winslow of the Navy during the 1940s, drew love stories for Simon and Kirby’s landmark Romance line and crime stories for EC, and freelanced extensively for ACG and DC Comics until he left the industry for Madison Avenue. He returned to graphic narrative in 1955 when he ghosted Flash Gordon.

In 1957 he created ‘On Stage’, a soap-opera strip starring aspiring actress Mary Perkins for the Chicago Tribune. He left the globally syndicated feature in 1979 to revive Harold Gray’s legendary Little Orphan Annie (which he continued until his retirement in 2000), simultaneously creating the series ‘Cannonball Carmody’ for Belgium’s Tintin magazine. An experienced TV scripter since 1970 Starr worked as head writer on Thundercats, and briefly returned to comic-books in the 1980s. He received the National Cartoonist’s Society Story Comic Strip Award for On Stage in 1960 and 1963, and their Reuben Award in 1965.

Stan Drake (1921-1997) was another vastly experienced cartoonist who began work in the 1940s. His two most famous series are the superbly compelling romantic drama-strip ‘The Heart of Juliet Jones’ (co-created in 1953 and initially written by Elliot Caplin) and the iconic ‘Blondie’ which he took over illustrating in 1984. He began his drawing career in the pulps, specifically Popular Detective and Popular Sports, before moving on to newly formed Timely Comics and The Black Widow. In 1941 he enlisted in the US Army. After the war he too worked in advertising until 1953 and Juliet Jones. In 1956 he narrowly survived the road accident that took the life of Alex Raymond, and was quickly back to work.

In the late 1970s he began Pop Idols – a syndicated series of celebrity biographies – whilst still working on Juliet Jones (which he left in 1989) and Blondie (which he drew until his death in 1997). During that incredibly productive time he still found the odd moment to work on Kelly Green – from 1982-1988 – and do the occasional job for Marvel Comics. To relax, he painted portraits of his cartoonist friends (now on display in the Comic Artist’s Museum in Sarasota, Florida). He received the National Cartoonists Society Story Comic Strip Award for 1969, 1970, and 1972 for The Heart of Juliet Jones.

Brave, competent, sexy, and divinely human, Kelly Green debuted in 1981 as a black and white serial in the legendary French magazine Pilote; a boldly contemporary antiheroic drama, with a deft, light tone and grimly mature themes. Within a year colour albums were flying off shelves across Europe, and eventually in the English speaking world, too.

Kelly Green is a stunning red-head who escaped a traumatic and mysterious past when she married Dan Green, a respected New York cop. But her comfortable world comes crashing down when he’s set-up by one of his own superiors and killed during a high-profile raid. Devastated, Kelly is pulled out of a suicidal depression by Spats Cavendish, Jimmy Delocke and the man-mountain called “Meathooks”; three career felons the straight-shooting cop had not only busted but then successfully rehabilitated.

Owing their new lives to the dead hero, the trio of honourable rogues take the widow under their collective wing, teaching her all the tricks of survival in a dirty world and even finding her a new occupation.

Hating the criminals that Dan fought and who finally got him, but despising more the corrupt police force that orchestrated his death, the grieving woman becomes a professional “Go-Between”, a paid intercessionary liaising between crooks and victims who don’t want police involvement. Apparently the job is completely legal and there’s never a shortage of clients…

This first case involves paying off a blackmailer and safely retrieving his damaging “evidence” for a prominent Miami millionaire, but in a dazzling blur of twists and counter-twists the job leads to the murderer of her beloved husband in a tense, terse thriller full of drama and action, and brimming with humour and good old fashioned style.

This beautifully executed crime thriller is still powerful, gritty stuff, and strictly for adults (it was made for France so there’s lots of lovingly rendered nakedness and nudity and even some unclothing), with copies of all volumes still readily available (if fetching rather high prices), so the persistent rumours of a full revival of the character next year are most welcome – and eagerly anticipated.
© 1982 Dargaud Editeur. All Right Reserved.

Iznogoud volume 2: The Caliph’s Vacation

By Goscinny & Tabary, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-905460-61-8

During his lifetime (1926-1977) René Goscinny was one of the most prolific, and is still one of the most read, writers of comic strips the world has ever seen. Among his most popular series are Lucky Luke, Le Petit Nicolas and of course Asterix the Gaul. In 1962, scant years after the Suez crisis, the French returned to the deserts when he teamed with Jean Tabary to produce imbecilic Arabian potentate Haroun el-Poussah but it was the villainous foil, power-hungry vizier Iznogoud that stole the show – possibly the conniving little devil’s only successful scheme.

Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah was created for Record with the first instalment appearing in the January 15th issue in1962. A modest success, it was transferred to Pilot: a magazine created and edited by Goscinny where it was redeveloped to give more emphasis to the scurrilous little weasel who had increasingly stolen the show.

With the emphasis shifted to the shifty shrimp the revamped series, retitled Iznogoud, commenced in Pilote in 1968, becoming a huge favourite, with 27 albums to date, a long-running TV cartoon show and even a live action movie in 2005. When Goscinny died in 1977 Tabary took over writing the strip as well, moving to book-length complete tales, rather than the compilations of short punchy stories that typified their collaborations.

Like all the best storytelling, Iznogoud works on two levels: as a comedic romp of sneaky baddies coming a cropper for younger readers, and as a pun-filled, witty satire for older, wiser heads, much like its more famous cousin Asterix – and also translated here by the master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge who made the indomitable little Gaul so very palatable to the English tongue. Here their famed skills conjure up the best – and least salacious – bits of the legendary “Carry On films”…

Iznogoud is Grand Vizier to Haroun Al Plassid, Caliph of Ancient Baghdad, but the sneaky little toad has loftier ambitions, or as he is always shouting “I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph!”

The vile vizier is “aided” – that’s sarcasm, that is – in his schemes by bumbling and reluctant assistant Wa’at Alahf, and in this second delightful translation from CineBook (which was originally the third album Les vacances du calife (1968, Dargaud), they begin their latest campaign of insurrections with ‘Summer Vacation or Never Say Die.’ As the holidays come round again the vizier persuades the Caliph to forego his usual Summer Palace in favour of a quiet bed-sit by the seaside, where an unwary ruler could easily drown or be buried in the sand or lost at sea or be eaten by sharks or…

As usual the plans go painfully awry and it’s back to Baghdad for ‘Good Sports in the Caliphate’ as a hapless magician/weatherman accidentally creates enough snow in the desert to open a ski resort. It doesn’t take much – it never does – to convince Haroun to sample the chilly thrills of skiing, snowboarding, crevasses and avalanches but as usual it’s not the Big Chief who sustains any crippling injuries.

The vacation theme continues with ‘The Caliph’s Cruise’ but after booking passage for Haroun with the unluckiest sea captain alive, the vile vizier doesn’t get off the ship quickly enough and the selection of cannibals, monsters, savages and sea creatures the voyagers encounter find him a far more suitable subject for their unique attentions, whilst in the concluding tale ‘Lihkwid’s Bottle or the Bottle of Lihkwid’ a travelling merchant provides an infallible elixir that will transform the affable potentate into a louse – but only if Iznogoud can trick him into drinking all three gallons of the foul-tasting stuff…

Snappy, fast-paced slapstick and painfully punny word-play abound in these mirthfully infectious tales, and this series is a household name in France; where the name has even entered common usage as a term for a certain type of politician: over-ambitious, unscrupulous – and often of diminutive stature.

When first released here in the 1970s, Iznogoud made little impression but hopefully this snazzy new incarnation of gloriously readable and wonderfully affordable comedy vignettes can finally find an audience among today’s more internationally aware comics-and-cartoon savvy British Kids Of All Ages.

I’m already one of them: How about you…?

© 1968 Dargaud Editeur Paris by Goscinny & Tabary. All Rights Reserved.

Lucky Luke: Billy the Kid

By Morris & Goscinny, translated by Luke Spear (CineBook)
ISBN: 978-1-905460-11-3

It’s hard to think of one of Europe’s most beloved and long-running comics character’s being in any way controversial, but when the changing times caught up with the fastest gun in the West (“so fast he can outdraw his own shadow”) and Lucky Luke moved with them, the news made headlines all over the world.

Lucky Luke is a rangy, laconic, good, natured cowboy who roams the fabulously mythic Old West, having light-hearted adventures with his horse Jolly Jumper and Rantanplan (“dumbest dog in the West” and a charming spoof of cinema canine Rin-Tin-Tin), interacting with a host of historical and legendary figures of the genre.

His continued exploits over more than 60 years have made him the best-selling comic character in Europe, (more than 300 million albums in 30 languages thus far), with spin-off games, computer games, animated cartoon and even live-action movies.

He was created by Belgian animator, illustrator and cartoonist Maurice de Bévère – who signed himself Morris – for the 1947 Annual (L’Almanach Spirou 1947) of Le Journal de Spirou, launching into his first adventure Arizona 1880′ on December 7th 1946.

Before then, while working at the CBA (Compagnie Belge d’Actualitiés) cartoon studio Morris met future comics super-stars Franquin and Peyo, and worked for weekly magazine Le Moustique as a caricaturist (to my eyes Lucky Luke looks uncannily like the young Robert Mitchum who graced so many mid-1940s B-movie Westerns).

He quickly became one of “la Bande des quatre” or Gang of Four, which comprised the creators Jijé, Will and his old comrade Franquin, and who were the leading proponents of the loose and free-wheeling artistic style known as the “Marcinelle School” which dominated Spirou in aesthetic contention with the “Ligne Claire” style used by Hergé, EP

Jacobs and other artists in Tintin Magazine.

In 1948 the Gang (all but Will) visited America, meeting US creators and sightseeing, and Morris stayed for six years, meeting René Goscinny, scoring some work from the newly formed EC sensation, Mad, and making copious notes and sketches of the swiftly disappearing Old West. His research henceforward resonated on every page of his life’s work.

Working alone until 1955 when he reunited with Goscinny (see our recent Iznogoud review for the low-down on that most prolific of comics writers) Morris produced another nine albums worth of affectionate sagebrush parody before, working in perfect unison, Luke attained the dizzying heights of superstardom, commencing with ‘Des rails sur la Prairie’ (Rails on the Prairie), which began in Spirou on August 25th 1955.

In 1967 the straight-shooter switched teams, leaving Spirou for Goscinny’s magazine Pilote with the tale ‘La Diligence’ (the Stagecoach). Goscinny produced 45 albums with Morris before his death, from when Morris continued both alone and with other collaborators. Morris died in 2001 having drawn fully 70 adventures, plus the spin-off adventures of Rantanplan, and the team of Achdé and Laurent Gerra took over franchise, producing another three tales to date. In a most peculiar aside I feel I must mention that Morris was apparently voted the “79th Greatest Belgian” in the 2005 Walloon election of De Grootste Belg. If so, I demand a recount…

Lucky Luke first appeared in Britain syndicated in the weekly comic Film Fun and again in 1967 in Giggle where he was renamed Buck Bingo. In all these venues as well as the numerous attempts to follow the English-language successes of Tintin and Asterix albums from Brockhampton and Knight Books, Luke had a trademark cigarette hanging insouciantly from his lip, but in 1983 Morris – no doubt amidst both pained howls and muted mutterings of “political correctness gone mad” – substituted a piece of straw for the much-traveled dog-end, which garnered him an official tip of the hat from the World Health Organization.

The latest attempt to bring Lucky Luke to our shores and shelves comes from Cinebook, and the first of the twenty (and counting) available albums is Billy the Kid, Morris and Goscinny’s eleventh collaboration.

As Luke rides into the troubled town of Fort Weakling he finds the populace cowed and broken by the vile depredations of the infamous William Bonney. The desperado robs the bank every couple of days, and the stage coach every time it leaves town, helps himself to caramels without paying, and won’t let the saloon serve anything but drinking chocolate.

His deadly aptitude with a six-gun means that no one will swear out a complaint let alone testify against the vicious little bully, and when Luke accepts the job of sheriff it takes brains and cunning rather than his legendary skill with a shooting iron to free the town from the tiny grip of the world’s meanest 12 year old…

Although the dialogue is a trifle stiff in places, this is a grand old hoot in the tradition of Destry Rides again and Support Your Local Sheriff (or perhaps Alias Smith and Jones or Evil Roy Slade are more your style?) superbly executed by master storytellers, and a wonderful introduction to a unique genres for kids of all ages.

And in case you’re worried, even though the interior art still has our hero chawin’ on that ol’ nicotine stick, trust me, there’s very little chance of anyone craving a quick snout, but quite a high probability that they’ll want more Lucky Luke Albums…
© Dargaud Editeur Paris 1971 by Goscinny & Morris. © Lucky Comics. English translation © Cinebook Ltd.

Iznogoud Volume 1: the Wicked Wiles of Iznogoud

By René Goscinny & Jean Tabary, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-905460-46-5

René Goscinny was one of the most prolific, and therefore remains one of the most read, writers of comic strips the world has ever seen. Born in Paris in 1926, he was raised in Argentina where his father taught mathematics. From an early age he showed artistic promise, and studied fine arts, graduating in 1942.

While working as junior illustrator in an ad agency in 1945 an uncle invited him to stay in America, where he found work as a translator. After his National Service in France he settled in Brooklyn and pursued an artistic career becoming in 1948 an assistant for a little studio that included Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jack Davis and John Severin as well as European giants-in-waiting Maurice de Bévère (“Morris”, with whom he produced Lucky Luke from 1955-1977) and Joseph Gillain (Jijé). He also met Georges Troisfontaines, head of the World Press Agency, the company that provided comics for the French magazine Spirou.

After contributing scripts to Belles Histoires de l’Oncle Paul and ‘Jerry Spring’ Goscinny was made head of World Press’Paris office where he met his life-long creative partner Albert Uderzo (Jehan Sepoulet, Luc Junior) as well as creating Sylvie and Alain et Christine (with “Martial”- Martial Durand) and Fanfan et Polo (drawn by Dino Attanasio).

In 1955 Goscinny, Uderzo, Charlier and Jean Hébrard formed the independent Édipress/Édifrance syndicate, creating magazines for general industry (Clairon for the factory union and Pistolin for a chocolate factory). With Uderzo he produced Bill Blanchart, Pistolet and Benjamin et Benjamine, and himself wrote and illustrated Le Capitaine Bibobu.

Goscinny seems to have invented the 9-day week. Using the pen-name Agostini he wrote Le Petit Nicholas (drawn by Jean-Jacques Sempé), and in 1956 he began an association with the revolutionary magazine Tintin, writing stories for many illustrators including Signor Spagetti (Dino Attanasio), Monsieur Tric (Bob De Moor), Prudence Petitpas (Maréchal), Globule le Martien and Alphonse (both by Tibet), Modeste et Pompon (for André Franquin), Strapontin (Berck) as well as Oumpah-Pah with Uderzo. He also wrote strips for the magazines Paris-Flirt and Vaillant.

In 1959 Édipress/Édifrance launched Pilote, and Goscinny went into overdrive. The first issue starred his and Uderzo’s instant masterpiece Asterix the Gaul, and he also re-launched Le Petit Nicolas, Jehan Pistolet/Jehan Soupolet and began Jacquot le Mousse and Tromblon et Bottaclou (drawn by Godard). When Georges Dargaud bought Pilote in 1960, Goscinny became editor-in-Chief, but still found time to add new series Les Divagations de Monsieur Sait-Tout (Martial), La Potachologie Illustrée (Cabu), Les Dingodossiers (Gotlib) and La Forêt de Chênebeau (Mic Delinx).

He also wrote frequently for television. In his spare time he created a little strip entitled Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah for Record (first episode January 15th 1962) illustrated by a Swedish-born artist named Jean Tabary. A minor success, it was re-tooled as Iznogoud when it transferred to Pilote.

Goscinny died – probably of well-deserved pride and severe exhaustion – aged 933, in November 1977.

Jean Tabary was born in Stockholm, and began his comics career in 1956 on Vaillant, illustrating Richard et Charlie, before graduating to the hugely popular boy’s adventure strip Totoche in 1959. The engaging head of a kid gang, Totoche spawned a spin-off, Corinne et Jeannot, and as Vaillant transformed into Pif, the lad even got his own short-lived comic; Totoche Posche. Tabary drew the series until 1976, and has revived it in recent years under his own publishing imprint Séguinière /Editions Tabary.

In 1962 he teamed with René Goscinny to produce imbecilic Arabian potentate Haroun el-Poussah but it was the villainous foil, power-hungry vizier Iznogoud that stole the show – possibly the little rat’s only successful plot.

With the emphasis shifted to the shifty shrimp the revamped series moved to Pilote in 1968, becoming a huge favourite, spawning 27 albums to date, a long-running TV cartoon show and even a live action movie in 2005. Following their success Goscinny and Tabary created Valentin, and Tabary also wrote Buck Gallo for Mic Delinx to draw. When Goscinny died in 1977 Tabary took over writing Iznogoud as well, moving to book length complete tales, rather than the compilations of short stories that typified their collaboration.

So what’s it all about?

Like all the best comics it works on two levels: as a comedic romp of sneaky baddies coming a cropper for younger readers, and as a pun-filled, sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads, much like its more famous cousin Asterix – and translated here with the brilliantly light touch of master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge who made the indomitable little Gaul so very palatable to the English tongue.

Iznogoud is Grand Vizier to Haroun Al Plassid, Caliph of Ancient Baghdad, but the sneaky little tyke has loftier ambitions, or as he is always shouting it “I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph!”

The vile vizier is “aided” – and that’s me being uncharacteristically kind – in his schemes by his bumbling assistant Wa’at Alahf, and in this first album they begin their campaign with ‘Kissmet’, wherein pandemonium ensues after a talking frog is revealed to be an ensorcelled Prince who can only regain human form if kissed by a human. Iznogoud sees an opportunity if he can only trick the simple-minded Caliph into puckering up; unfortunately he forgets that he’s not the only ambitious man in Baghdad…

‘Mesmer-Eyezed’ finds him employing a surly stage hypnotist to remove the Caliph whilst ‘The Occidental Philtre’ sees him employ a flying potion obtained from a lost, jet-lagged western sorcerer, each with hilarious but painfully counter-productive results.

Tabary drew himself into ‘The Time Machine’ as a comic artist desperate to meet his deadlines who falls foul of a mystical time cabinet, but when he meets the vizier, that diminutive dastard can clearly see its Caliph-removing potential – to his eternal regret… In ‘The Picnic’ Iznogoud takes drastic action, luring Haroun Al Plassid into the desert, but as usual his best-laid plans aren’t, and the book concludes with ‘Chop and Change’ as the villain gets hold of a magic goblet which can switch the minds of any who drink from it, forgetting that Caliphs are important people who employ food-tasters…

Snappy, fast-paced slapstick and painfully delightful word-play abound in these mirthfully infectious tales and the series has become a household name in France; said the name has even entered French Political life as a term for a certain type of politician: over-ambitious, unscrupulous – and usually short.

Eight albums were translated in the 1970s and 1980s, but made little impact here: hopefully this new incarnation of gloriously readable and wonderfully affordable comedy epics will finally find an appreciative audience among British kids of all ages. I’m certainly going to be one of them…
© 1967 Dargaud Editeur Paris by Goscinny & Tabary. All Rights Reserved.

Rocky volume 2: Strictly Business

By Martin Kellerman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-852-7

It’s too rare to see contemporary comics material from anywhere but the English-speaking or Japanese markets, so seeing the second volume of Martin Kellerman’s self-confessed “Fritz the Cat knock-off” is in itself a delight, but once again I fear a lot of the Swedish nuance and integral humour has been lost in a poor translation (I don’t speak the tongue – I’m simply taking the word of those who do).

Rocky is a cartoonist (and a dog) in a world of anthropomorphic animals acting out the parts of young folk in modern Stockholm: drinking, swearing, playing computer games, sleeping around and generally wondering what it’s all about while living pointless generation zero lives. Since Rocky is a cartoonist slowly getting established with his autobiographical strip, most of his friends, acquaintances and dalliances end up on public view in his work…

The strips are meticulous and rendered in a scratchy line very reminiscent of the US underground scene. In fact much of the narrative furniture of the strip is indistinguishable from America, with US movies, hip-hop/rap music and even fast food franchises being far more common than native Scandinavian references. I fear that’s the result of Cultural Imperialism rather than translation though: an awful lot of the world looks like Main Street, nowadays.

Which is a pity since, although the strips and Sunday pages here range from competent to riotously funny, the ones that stand out are invariably those where hints of local politics, socially distinct themes and home-grown issues still flavour the gags, quips and brickbats.

Although aiming at twenty-somethings also interested in getting laid, getting wasted and getting rich, Kellerman nonetheless manages to move beyond the ever-fertile grounds of the battle of the sexes, bodily functions and morning-after guilt-trips to produce a lot of work that is truly fresh, funny and uniquely personal. As his strip takes off, his first book collection is released and he takes a room-mate, a number of trips, and a succession of generally disappointed bed-partners…

Less raucous and more considered than the first collection (Rocky: the Big Payback ISBN-13: 978-156097-679-0) there’s the same cast of ne’er-do-wells, unattainable women, slackers of both sexes, salty language and cartoon humping, but the best moments are those where his cronies all seem to be actually settling down. Heck, best bud Manny even has a kid now and his own biological clock seems to be ticking a little louder…

Observational humour can be hit-or-miss at best and I’m decidedly uncomfortable with the translated dialogue, but despite all that there’s still lot to recommend this book, and I’m sure the next one will be even better…
All characters, stories and artwork © 2008 Martin Kellerman, Homework. This book © 2008 Fantagraphics Books. All Rights Reserved.