Axa Adult Fantasy Color Album


By Enrique “Enric” Badía Romero & Donne Avenell (Ken Pierce Books/Eclipse Comics)
ISBN: 0-912277-27-0 (TPB)

Born in 1930 Enrique “Enric” Badía Romero’s comics career began in his native Spain fifteen years later when he was apprenticed to popular creator Emilio Freixas. By 1949 – as “Badia” – he was drawing strips for Susy and other publications, and in 1953, launched his own magazine Alex, before going on to found publishers Ruiz Romero where he produced everything from westerns, sports, war stories and trading cards – mostly in conjunction with his brothers Jorge and Jordi. Their most memorable series were Cromos, Hombres de Lucha and Historia de la Guerra.

“Enric” began working for the higher-paying UK market in the 1960s, on strips such as ‘Cathy and Wendy’, ‘Isometrics’ and ‘Cassius Clay’ before successfully assuming drawing duties on the high-profile Modesty Blaise adventure-serial in 1970. He left in 1978 when an enticing new prospect appeared whilst he was simultaneously illustrating Modesty and Rahan with André Chéret for Franco-Belgian weekly Pif gadget. Even for the prolific artist something had to give…

Axa ran in The Sun Monday to Saturday from 14th July 1978 to her abrupt cancellation on November 16th 1986 – purportedly a victim of political and editorial intrigue which saw the strip cancelled in the middle of a story. Other than the First American Edition series from strip historian Ken Pierce and this colour collection, there has never been a definitive English language collection. It should be noted also that at the time of this book she was still being published with great success and to popular acclaim.

Back then in Britain it often appeared the only place where truly affirmative female role-models appeared to be taken seriously were cartoon sections, but even there the likes of Modesty Blaise, Danielle, Scarth, Amanda, Wicked Wanda and all the other capable ladies who walked all over the oppressor gender – both humorously and in straight adventure scenarios – lost clothes and shed undies repeatedly, continuously, frivolously and in the manner they always had…

Nobody complained (at least no one important or who was ever taken seriously): it was just tradition and the idiom of the medium… and besides, artists have always liked to draw bare-naked ladies as much as blokes liked to see them. It was even “educational” for the kiddies – who could buy any newspaper in any shop without interference, even if they couldn’t get into cinemas to view Staying Alive, Octopussy or Return of the Jedi without an accompanying adult…

Tough ’n’ sexy take-charge chicks (without clothes) were a comic-strip standard by the time the Star Wars phenomenon rekindled interest in science fiction, and the infallible old standby of scantily-clad, curvy amazons in post-apocalyptic realms never had greater sales-appeal than when The Sun – Britain’s sleaziest yet best-selling tabloid – hired Romero & Donne Avenell to produce a new fantasy feature for their already well-stacked cartoon section.

This beautifully illustrated but oddly out of kilter collection doesn’t bear much similarity in terms of tone or format to the (ostensibly) family-oriented daily strip, and features none of the regular supporting cast like long-suffering lover Matt or robotic companion Mark 10, which leads me to suspect it was created independently for a European market, perhaps as a Sunday page in Romero’s homeland or elsewhere where attitudes and mores were more liberal.

Certainly in the early 1980s Axa appeared in adult bande dessinée icon Charlie Mensuel (which reprinted many classic newspaper strips from around the world) and after that closed in Swedish publication Magnum.

Whatever their origin, the tales collected here are far stronger and more explicitly sexual in nature; occasionally coming close to being macho rape-fantasies, so please be warned as such content, no matter how winningly illustrated, will certainly offend most modern consumers.

The eponymous heroine was raised in a stultifying, antiseptic and emotionless domed city: a bastion of technological advancement in a world destroyed by war, pollution and far worse. Chafing at the constricting life of loveless living dead men, Axa broke out and, ancient sword in hand, chose to roam the shattered Earth searching for something real and true and free…

This slim oversized tome opens with Axa crossing trackless wasteland under a scorching sun until she finds a hidden grotto beneath a ruined building. The coolly sensual hidden pool is a welcome delight but harbours a ghastly monster and mutant voyeur…

Captured by a hideously scarred human degenerate Axa discovers his gentle nature but is soon abducted by his far-less sympathetic brethren who want to use her as a brood mare for their next generation. Ultimately, fate, her newfound friend and that ever-present longsword combine to effect her escape…

Resuming aimless exploration, Axa encounters a coastal village and is almost killed by wild dogs. Desperate flight takes her to a lighthouse on the promontory above the deserted town where ruggedly handsome Juame and his teenaged daughter Maria have been trapped for months. Swiftly, sexual tension between Axa and Jaume culminates in the only way it can as Maria is driven mad by jealousy she can barely comprehend. When a roving band of vicious post-apocalyptic Hell’s Angels hits town hungry for slaughter and kicks, the conflicted teen opens the tower doors for them…

The brutes casually murder her father and are intent on adding her and Axa to their string of human playthings, when a terrific storm hits and Axa breaks loose to become the bloody tool of harsh, uncompromising and final fate…

This incarnation of the warrior wanderer is certainly harder-hitting and more visceral than the British strip version and has little of the feature’s sly, dry humour, but art-lovers cannot fail to be impressed by Romero’s vibrant mixed-media illustration and imaginative, liberating page compositions.

Lush, lavish, luxurious and strictly for adventure-loving adults, Axa is long overdue for a comprehensive ethical overhaul and definitive comics collection. Is there a bold publisher out there looking for the next big thing and prepared to face a barrage of ethical vituperation?
Axa © 1985 Enrique Badia Romero. Previously © 1983, 1984 in Spanish. Express Newspapers, Ltd.

Krazy & Ignatz 1919-1921: The George Herriman Library volume 2


By George Herriman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-367-7 (HB/Digital edition)

In a field positively brimming with magnificent, eternally evergreen achievements, Krazy Kat is – for most cartoon cognoscenti – the pinnacle of pictorial narrative innovation. The canon comprises a singular and hugely influential body of work which shaped the early days of the comics industry whilst elevating itself to the level of a treasure of world literature, adored by the literary and entertainment elite whilst simultaneously bewildering and annoying millions who didn’t “get it”…

Krazy & Ignatz is a creation which must always be approached and appreciated on its own terms. Over decades the strip developed a unique language – simultaneously visual and verbal – to allegorically delineate the immeasurable variety of human experience, foibles and peccadilloes with unfaltering warmth and understanding… and without ever offending anybody. Baffled millions, certainly, but offended… Nope, nehvah.

It certainly went over the heads and around the hearts of many, but Krazy Kat was never a strip for dull, slow or unimaginative people: those who can’t or won’t accept complex, multilayered verbal and visual whimsy, absurdist philosophy or seamless blending of sardonic slapstick with arcane joshing. It is still the closest thing to pure poesy narrative art has ever produced. Think of Dylan Thomas and Edward Lear playing “I Spy” with James Joyce amongst beautifully harsh, barren cactus fields as Gabriel García Márquez types up shorthand notes and keeps score…

George Joseph Herriman (August 22, 1880-April 25, 1944) was already successful as a cartoonist and journalist in 1913 when a cat and mouse who’d been noodling about at the edges of his domestic comedy strip The Family Upstairs graduated to their own feature on October 28th 1913. As covered here in heavily illustrated introductory article ‘A Mouse by Any Other Name: Krazy & Ignatz’s Early Life Under the Boards’ Krazy Kat – instantly mildly intoxicating and gently scene-stealing – had first popped up on July 26th 1910 in that strip’s precursor The Dingbat Family: a 5-day-a-week monochrome comedy strip in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal.

By sheer dint of that overbearing publishing magnate’s enrapt adoration and direct influence and interference, the cat ‘n’ mouse capers gradually and inexorably spread throughout his vast stable of papers. Although Hearst and contemporary artistic and literary intelligentsia (such as Frank Capra, e.e. Cummings, Willem de Kooning, H.L. Mencken and more) adored the strip, many local and regional editors did not: taking every potentially career-ending opportunity to drop it from those circulation-crucial comics sections designed to entice Joe Public and the general populace.

The feature eventually found its true home and sanctuary in the Arts and Drama section of Hearst’s papers, protected there by Hearst’s unshakable patronage. At last enhanced (in 1935) with the cachet of enticing colour, the Ket & Ko. flourished, freed from editorial interference or fleeting fashion. It ran mostly unmolested until Herriman’s death on April 25th 1944 from cirrhosis caused by Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Eschewing standard industry policy and finding a substitute creator, Hearst decreed Krazy Kat would die with its originator.

The premise is simple: Krazy is what we would call gender-fluid; an effeminate, dreamy, sensitive, romantic feline, hopelessly smitten with venal, toxically masculine Ignatz Mouse. A married, spouse-abusing delinquent father, he is rude, crude, brutal, mendacious and thoroughly scurrilous. Ignatz is a proudly unreconstructed male and early forerunner of the men’s rights movement: drinking, stealing, fighting, conniving, constantly neglecting his wife and many children and always responding to Krazy’s genteel advances of friendship (or more) by clobbering the Kat with a well-aimed brick. These he obtains singly or in bulk from local brick-maker Kolin Kelly. The smitten kitten misidentifies these gritty gifts as tokens of equally recondite affection, showered upon him/her/they in the manner of Cupid’s arrows. It’s not a response, except perhaps a conditioned one: the mouse spends the majority of his time, energy and ingenuity (when not indulging in crime or philandering) launching missiles at the mild moggy’s mug. He can’t help himself, and Krazy waits for it to happen with the day bleakly unfulfilled if the adored, anticipated assault fails to happen.

The final critical element completing an anthropomorphic emotional triangle is lawman Offissa Bull Pupp. He is utterly besotted with Krazy, professionally aware of the Mouse’s true nature, but hamstrung from permanently removing his devilish rival for the foolish feline’s affections by his own amorous timidity and sense of honour. Krazy is blithely oblivious to the perennially “Friend-Zoned” Pupp’s dolorous dilemma…

Peripherally populating the mutable stage are a large, ever-growing supporting cast of inspired bit players. These include new player and relentless deliverer of babies Joe Stork; Hispanic huckster Don Kiyoti, hobo Bum Bill Bee, self-aggrandizing Walter Cephus Austridge, inscrutable, barely intelligible (and outrageously unreconstructed by modern standards) Chinese mallard Mock Duck, portraitist Michael O’Kobalt, dozy Joe Turtil and snoopily sagacious fowl Mrs. Kwakk Wakk, augmented by a host of audacious animal crackers such as Krazy’s relations Katfish, Katbird and niece Katrina – all equally capable of stealing the limelight and supporting their own features…

The exotic, quixotic episodes occur mainly amidst the Painted Desert environs of Coconino (patterned on Herriman’s vacation retreat in Coconino County, Arizona) where surreal playfulness and the fluid ambiguity of flora and landscape are perhaps the most important member of the cast. The strips are a masterful mélange of unique experimental drawing, cunningly designed, wildly expressionistic (frequently referencing Navajo arts) whilst harnessing sheer unbridled imagination and delightfully evocative lettering and language. This last is most effective here: alliterative, phonetically, onomatopoeically joyous with a compellingly melodious musical force and delicious whimsy (“Ignatz Ainjil” or “I’m a heppy, heppy ket!”).

Yet for all our high-fallutin’ intellectualism, these comic adventures are poetic, satirical, timely, timeless, bittersweet, self-referential, fourth-wall bending, eerily idiosyncratic, outrageously hilarious escapades encompassing every aspect of humour from painfully punning shaggy dog stories to riotous, violent slapstick. Herriman was a master of action: indulging in dialogue-free escapades as captivating as any Keystone Kop or Charlie Chaplin 2-reeler. Kids of any age will delight in them as much as any pompous old oaf like me and you…

This cartoon wonderment is bulked up with a veritable treasure trove of unique artefacts: candid photos, correspondence, original strip art and examples of Herriman’s personalised gifts and commissions (gorgeous hand-coloured artworks featuring the cast and settings), supported by fascinating insights and crucial history. Bill Blackbeard’s essay ‘A Mouse by Any Other Name: Krazy & Ignatz’s Early Life Under the Boards’ continues detailing the circuitous path to Krazy in Coconino via Herriman’s earlier strips successes The Dingbat Family and The Family Upstairs.

This volume then reveals – mostly in monochrome – the strips from January 5th 1919 to December 25th 1921 in a reassuringly hefty atlas of another land and time, with the unending dramas playing out as before, but with some intriguing diversions. These include a wealth of snow and farming gags, recurring tributes to Kipling’s “Just So Stories” (such as learning how Kookoo Klocks work, why bananas are slippy and hang around in bunches and why Lightning Bugs light up). Early in the year occasional unwelcome guest Blind Pig (a sly salute to speakeasies in Prohibition days) debuts even as the regulars tirelessly test out their strange threesome relationship in a dazzling array of short painful trysts…

The peculiar proceedings are delivered – much like Joe Stork’s bundles of joy/responsibility – every seven days, with running gags on Ignatz being furless and Krazy philanthropically and clandestinely finding ways to buy or grow him a warm winter coat; odd vegetables taking root in the region’s unfeasibly fertile soil and plenty of scandal and gossip spawning mischief from the animal onlookers. A nod to an unstable post war world comes with strikes at Kelly’s brickworks and sundry other reasons why bricks suddenly become scarce, all forcing Ignatz to find replacement ammunition…

Even so, always our benighted star gets hit with something solid: many, variegated, heavy and forever evoking joyous, grateful raptures and transports of delight from the heartsore, hard-headed recipient, with Pupp helpless to thwart Ignatz or even understand why the Ket longs for his hate-filled assaults. Often Herriman simply let nature takes its odd course: draughting surreal slapstick chases, weird physics events and convoluted climate conditions to carry the action and confound the reader, but gradually an unshakeable character dynamic forms involving love and pain, crime and punishment and – always – forgiveness, redemption and another chance for all transgressors and malefactors…

Much time and effort is expended to have Joe deliver a longed-for heir to rich but dissatisfied tycoon Mr. T Vanwagg-Taylor even though each time fate intervenes and the anticipated offspring is left with other mothers. The Ket’s ancient Egyptian antecedents are exposed whilst in the present Krazy is put on trial for being crazy…

A Katnippery is opened and many strips concentrate on how the magic herb is kultivated and konsumed, whilst a fashion for hats and helmets leads to a period of brick imperviousness before the mouse adapts again. Krazy explores careers in music, dance, acting and pugilism as Herriman opens decades of subversive playing with line and shade carefully probing where black ink and white paper are metaphors for race and colour.

When not sleeping in the bath or giving shelter to migrant Mexican jumping beans and land-locked castaway clams, Krazy falls in love with motoring and racing, and also sets up an electrical power company based upon cat fur static, whilst malevolent Ignatz delves deep into the lore of bricks and dornicks, edging closer to having his own kiln and manufactory…

Sometimes there’s no logic in control, as when Krazy obtains the Pied Piper’s magical instrument and the result is not what you’d expect, or as assorted ailments afflict the town too, or it is assailed by reformers and bluestocking moralists…

And then it was Christmas and a new year and volume lay ahead…

Before closing, though, at the far end of the tome you can enjoy some full-colour archival illustration and another batch of erudite and instructional acclimation in ‘The Ignatz Mouse Debaffler’, with Blackbeard, Jeet Heer and Michael Tisserand providing pertinent facts, snippets of contextual history and necessary notes for the young and potentially perplexed.

Tisserand discusses language, race and (undisclosed creole “passing” as white) Herriman’s career as an artist via his character Musical Mose in ‘The Impussanations of Krazy Kat” before Blackbeard’s biographical essay ‘George Herriman: 1880-1944’.

Herriman’s epochal classic is a remarkable triumph: in all arenas of Art and Literature there has never been anything like these comic strips which shaped our industry and creators, inspired auteurs in fields as disparate as prose fiction, film, dance, animation and music whilst delivering delight and delectation to generations of wonder-starved fans with a story of cartoon romance gone awry. If, however, you are one of Them and not Us, or if you actually haven’t experienced the gleeful graphic assault on the sensorium, mental equilibrium and emotional lexicon carefully thrown together by George Herriman from the dawn of the 20th century until the dog days of World War II, this glorious compendium is the most accessible way to do so. Don’t waste the opportunity…

That was harsh. Not everybody gets it and some of them aren’t even stupid or soulless, just unfortunate. Still, for lovers of whimsy and whimsical lovers There Is A Heppy Lend Furfur A-Waay” if only you accept where and how to look…

The George Herriman Library: Krazy & Ignatz 1919-1921 © 2020 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All contents © 2020 Fantagraphics Books, Inc., unless otherwise noted. “A Mouse by Any Other Name: Krazy & Ignatz’s Early Life Under the Boards”, “The Ignatz Mouse Debaffler Page”, and Herriman biography © 2020 Bill Blackbeard. “The Impussanations of Krazy Kat” © 2020 Michael Tisserand. All other images and text © 2020 their respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

Numbercruncher


By Simon Spurrier & P.J. Holden, with Jordie Bellaire (Titan Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78276-004-7 (HB/Digital edition)

Sometimes a story just cries out to be told – especially if your tastes run to the sentimentally cynical, soppily savage or wide-eyed yet jaded. If that’s you, Numbercruncher will confirm all your suspicions about life whilst providing a really good time.

The tale – by Simon Spurrier (Judge Dredd, X-Men: Legacy, Six-Gun Gorilla, Damn Them All, John Constantine: Hellblazer) & P.J. Holden (also your man Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Battlefields, Terminator/Robocop Skullduggery Pleasant, The Moon Looked Down and Laughed) – began as a creator-owned project in The Judge Dredd Megazine before being expanded into a 4-issue miniseries at Titan Comics: a clever, controversial confection that will confound, delight and astound lovers of metaphysical whimsy, romantic fantasy and unnecessarily extreme violence.

Like 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, Werewolf by Night (2022) and especially A Matter of Life and Death, this unearthly tale is told on two separate levels of existence, differentiated by full-colour mundanity sections and monochrome views of The Afterlife. Unlike those movies, it’s a nasty and wittily vicious piece of work; just like handy geezer Bastard Zane, AKA operative #494, employed by The Divine Calculator to enforce Karmic Accountancy and keep souls circulating through the great cosmic All.

The Universe is just numbers and God is a mean, pedantic bean-counter, only concerned with the smooth running of his Grand Algorithm. Unfortunately, it all starts to fall apart when Zane is tasked by the weaselly Big Boss with stopping an in-love but dying young mathematician from gaming the system. SuperGenius Richard Thyme in his final seconds of mortal life, has a Eureka moment and divines the true and exact nature of everything… and how to manipulate it…

Armed with that inspirational knowledge, Thyme’s soul arrives before the Writer in the Grand Ledger and wheedles another spin on the Karmic Wheel – Reincarnation.

Brilliant Richard had been utterly in love with a dippy hippy chick named Jessica Reed, and when he bargains for another chance at a life with her, the petty-minded Divine Calculator gleefully accepts the proposition. Thyme will be reborn, with all memories intact, but when this second life ends, his soul will be gainfully employed – just like Zane – by the Karmic Accountancy Agency as a collector. Standard term of employment is for eternity… unless he can convince someone to take his place. The indentured operatives call it “Recirculation”…

There is only one get-out: a “Zero-clause” which means that if Thyme can live a life completely and totally without sin, his contract becomes null and void. But who could possibly live a mortal life without the slightest transgression?

Naturally, The Accountant won’t play fair: stacking the deck so reborn Richard is unable to even get near his lost love until it’s too late. However, when Zane finally shows up in AD 2035, eagerly expecting to close the case-file and retire with Thyme taking his long-suffering place in The Register, the frustrated, cheated SuperGenius plays his own trump card…

He’d always expected to be short-changed and made his own Karmic side-deal. By selling his contract to another Accountancy operative, he had bought another life, and as psychotically furious Bastard Zane soon sees, Thyme has pulled this trick over and over again. No matter how often Richard dies, he’s already being born again somewhere else…

With the mathematician’s sold-&-resold soul promised to practically every agent in the Afterlife, Zane’s only hope of retirement rests in killing the canny lad’s each and every reincarnation whilst simultaneously slaughtering every Karmic operative who’s been suckered into a deal with the lovesick little sod… On Earth, despite perpetual setbacks, each brief existence inches Richard slowly ever closer to Jess. That should make his eventual capture inevitable – but even here the smart guy has an incredible Plan B in operation: one even the Supreme Architect of the Cosmos didn’t see coming and one which may well undo the Algorithm underpinning Everything That Is…

Poignant, funny, outrageously gory, gloriously rude and wickedly clever, this is a ferociously upbeat, hilariously dark black comedy no insufferable incurable romantic could possibly resist. Moreover, for all us dyed-in-the-wool comics freaks, there’s a host of background features included. Interspersed between a gallery of covers and variants plus unused iterations and loads of original art, roughs and sketches, an ‘Author’s Note’ explores the genesis of the tale, further expanded upon in ‘A Comic for Talking to God – an interview with Brian Truitt of USA Today’. A discussion and explanation of Jordie Bellaire’s colouring process is the focus of ‘Working Flat-Out’ and ‘Birth Placement’ details the procedure for creating a cover, before the usual Creator’s Biographies ends things on a knowledgeable note.

Love, Death, Sex, more Death, Rebirth, lots of Death and Numbers: there’s your Meaning of Life right there…
™ & © 2013 Simon Spurrier & P.J. Holden. All rights reserved.

Conan the Barbarian Epic Collection volume 4: Queen of the Black Coast (1974-1976)


By Roy Thomas, Fred Blosser, John Buscema, Mike Ploog, Tim Conrad & various (MARVEL)
ISBN: 1-84576-137-5 (TPB/Digital edition)

In the 1970’s, America’s comic book industry opened up after more than 15 years of calcified publishing practises promulgated by the censorious, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority: a self-imposed oversight organisation created to police product after the industry suffered its very own McCarthy-style 1950s Witch-hunt. The first genre revisited during the literary liberation was Horror/Mystery, and from those changes sprang migrated pulp star Conan.

Sword & Sorcery stories had been undergoing a prose revival in the paperback marketplace since the release of softcover editions of Lord of the Rings in 1954 and, in the 1960s, revivals of the fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, Fritz Lieber and others were making huge inroads into buying patterns across the world. The old masters had also been augmented by many modern writers. Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter and others kick-started their prose careers with contemporary versions of man against mage against monsters. The undisputed overlord of the genre was Robert E. Howard with his 1930s pulp masterpiece Conan of Cimmeria.

Gold Key had notionally opened the field in 1964 with cult hit Mighty Samson, followed by Clawfang the Barbarian’ in Thrill-O-Rama #2 in 1966. Both steely warriors dwelt in post-apocalyptic techno-wildernesses, but in 1969 DC dabbled with previously code-proscribed mysticism as Nightmaster in Showcase #82 -84, following the example of CCA-exempt Warren anthologies Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. Marvel tested the waters with barbarian villain/Conan prototype Arkon the Magnificent in Avengers #76 (April 1970) and the same month went all-out with short supernatural thriller ‘The Sword and the Sorcerers’ in their own watered-down horror anthology Chamber of Darkness #4.

Written by Roy Thomas and drawn by fresh-faced Barry Smith (a recent Marvel find who was just breaking out of the company’s still-prevalent Kirby house-style) the tale introduced Starr the Slayer who also bore no small resemblance to the Barbarian-in-waiting…

Conan the Barbarian debuted with an October 1970 cover-date and – despite early teething problems, including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month – these strip adventures of Howard’s primal hero were as big a success as the prose yarns they adapted. Conan became a huge hit: a blockbuster brand that prompted new prose tales, movies, TV series, cartoon shows, a newspaper strip and all the other paraphernalia of global superstardom.

However, times changed, sales declined and in 2003 the property found a different comics publisher, before – after decades away – in 2019 the brawny brute returned to the aegis of Marvel.

Their first bite of the cherry was retroactively subtitled “the Original Marvel Years” due to the character’s sojourn with Dark Horse Comics and other intellectual rights holders with this fourth compendium – spanning cover-dates August 1974 to February 1976 – reprinting Conan the Barbarian #43-59 plus a tale from Savage Sword of Conan #1. It highlights a period when the burly brute was very much the darling of the Comics universe and when artist John Buscema made the hero his very own.

Adaptor Thomas had resolved to follow the character’s narrative timeline as laid out by Howard and successors such as L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, expanded and padded out with other adaptions of REH and his contemporaries and – almost as a last resort – all-new adventures. Thus, content was evermore redolent of pulp-oriented episodic action rather than traditional fantasy fiction.

As we hurtle back in time approximately 12,000 years to a forgotten age of wonders, and – following the now traditional map of ‘The Hyborean Age of Conan’ plus accompanying mandatory establishing quote, the saga resumes with a riotous romp from Savage Sword of Conan #1 (August 1974).

The series had broken many moulds, including being able to sustain not just a general audience but also appropriate for Marvel’s monochrome magazine division, offering more explicitly violent and risqué fare for supposedly more mature readers. For this market he debuted in Savage Tales #1 (1971) before winning his own magazine residency. Savage Sword of Conan launched in August 1974, running 235 issues until its cancellation in July 1995. Throughout its life SSoC offered powerful stories, features on all things RE Howard and some of the most incredible artwork ever to grace comics pages. The antediluvian experience opens with #1’s lead yarn. Thomas, John Buscema & Pablo Marcos’ ‘Curse of the Undead-Man’ was adapted from Howard’s short story Mistress of Death with Conan meeting old comrade Red Sonja amongst the fleshpots of “The Maul” in Zamora’s City of Thieves before falling foul of sorcerer Costranno: a mage for whom being chopped to mincemeat is only a minor inconvenience but who still strenuously objected to being robbed and murdered…

A sequence of self-contained tales resumes in the colour newsstand Conan the Barbarian #43 (October 1974) as Thomas continues to follow Howard and de Camp’s roadmap. The saga begins with the warriors’ rapid escape from Zamora, relentlessly pursued by bounty hunters. Trouble finds them when they are taken by bat-monsters to a ‘Tower of Blood’ (inked by Erni Chan nee Chua) where the husky lout is forcibly “admired” by ancient queen-with-a-secret Uathacht and threatened by her sorcerer brother Morophla. The mage has been hiding from Conan’s sworn foe Thoth Amon for simply ages and has revolting plans for both warriors which go appallingly awry in #44’s ‘Of Flame and the Fiend!’ (collaboratively inked by “The Crusty Bunkers”). Exposed as less than human the siblings inflict a ghastly burden on Conan but aren’t sage enough to escape his and Sonja’s inevitable vengeance…

An eerily memorable change-of-pace tragedy sees the shaken and morbidly morose barbarian befriend a foredoomed bard in ‘The Last Ballad of Laza-Lanti’: agreeing to take the troubled troubadour to his place of origin and encountering yet again the horrors that lurk in the Hyborian age…

The next half year comprises a protracted and loving adaptation of prose pulp yarn Kothar and the Conjurer’s Curse, originally penned by the prolific and justifiably legendary Gardner F. Fox (if anybody deserves the title of Elder God of comic books it must be He!). Here our cantankerous Cimmerian is once again embroiled in war between wizards and wades through imperilled maidens and gore galore in equal amounts, beginning with ‘The Curse of the Conjurer!’ as inked by Joe Sinnott. When the wanderer is coerced by magician Merdoramon into delivering a protective amulet to embattled Regent Themas Herklar of Phalkar, the simple mission to safeguard the ruler from his own treacherous court wizards soon proves riddled with undisclosed peril and duplicity.

En route he saves supposed witch Stefanya from burning at the stake and is diverted by her need to have him rescue her master Zoqquanor. Although a “good wizard”, the mage had linked her life force to his own and she needs to ensure his future safety. That proves tricky when they pull the comatose conjuror from his shattered castle and awaken crystal homunculus Shokkoth, and gets even harder in the Dan Adkins inked ‘Goblins in the Moonlight!’ (#47) as a R&R stopover in seemingly sedate ruins sparks an attack by more supernatural horrors…

The issue also provided a text feature on ‘Conan’s Parents’ illustrated by Tim Conrad, before the quest resumes in #48 where ‘The Rats Dance at Ravengard!’ Dick Giordano & Adkins inks) as a formative episode from Conan’s youth – with Priestess of the Wild Ursla – leads to a close shave with local warlord Torkal Moh, near death-by-rats and answers to many of the obscure machinations in play, thanks to Ursla’s latterday kinswoman Lupalina the Wolf Mistress

With the aid of the ‘Wolf-Woman!’ Conan rescues Stefanya – revealed as a crucial pawn in the region’s politics – and topples Torkal Moh, but retrieving the Amulet in #50 unleashes ‘The Dweller in the Pool!’ whose subsequent dispatch by the Cimmerian triggers civil war, the downfall of the Phalkar’s resident magicians and the horror they served and the restoration of a long lost princess in concluding chapter ‘Man Born of Demon!’

Cover-dated July 1975 and stunningly crafted by Thomas, Buscema and Tom Palmer, Conan The Barbarian #52 signalled a turning point in the Cimmerian’s life as he signs on to fight a war with old Corinthian associate Murilo (from Conan #11): now leading a mercenary army of Condottieri dubbed the Crimson Company. He can always use a proven warrior, and also takes under his wing a street urchin/acrobat called Tara of Hanumar whom Conan had saved from an unfair fight…

Re-outfitting the almost-naked wanderer in arms and armour (and clothes!), Murilo’s band are headed to Ronnoco in anticipation of a war between states but the march almost ends in disaster when the mercenaries accidentally awaken an interred horror from antiquity in ‘The Altar and the Scorpion!’ Thanks to Conan the horror from the age of King Kull is defeated, but as the survivors depart they are unaware that a second terror was aroused… and now follows…

Frank Spinger embellished #53 as the Crimson Company reach their client city but are attacked by those inside. When the costly misunderstanding is rectified, Conan has made another enemy after displaying his feelings to arrogant autocrat Prince Vanni who ordered the assault on his comrades and refuses to allow any mercenaries inside walled city of Ronnoco.

King Belzamo is at least more diplomatic as he outlines the causes of the war with rival city-states Carnolla and Pergona and demands his hirelings’ first action: kidnapping the princess Yvonna of Pergona so she can be made to wed Vanni. However, defeating her terrifying bodyguards the ‘Brothers of the Blade!’ proves harder than anticipated and unknown to all, a dark hungry shadow is slowly consuming everything it its path…

Palmer returns in #54 as teen sole survivor Yusef brings a warning of the hungry shadow leading to Conan, Tara and Yusef ordered away to consult ‘The Oracle of Ophir!’ Their reconnaissance and information gathering is hampered by myriad mystic deterrents that culminate in the brawny barbarian battling his own deadly doppelganger and only getting away with highly suspect vague proclamations by guile not force. The party arrives back at Ronnoco (in #55) to find ‘A Shadow on the Land!’ and untold horror besieging the city, prompting Conan to go AWOL and return to the site of a previous victory. His hunch proves correct and he unleashes the one thing the shadow cannot consume, bring an abrupt universally unsatisfactory end to the war – and their pay – through political compromise and economic pragmatism…

Pausing for breath and the Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott cover for November 1975’s Giant-Size Conan #5 (a reprint vehicle teaming our hero with Michael Moorcock’s doomed king Elric and not included here) Conan, Tara and Yusef quit the Crimson company and in CTB #56 discover ‘The Strange High Tower in the Mist!’ Inked by Pablo Marcos, the tale finds the trio bewildered by a keep apparently populated by oblivious silent ghosts and a bat monster, but seeing in not always believing…

Still sticking to Howard’s roadmap, Thomas and illustrator Mike (Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Werewolf By Night, Monster of Frankenstein, Weirdworld, Planet of the Apes) Ploog detail an ‘Incident in Argos!’ for #57 that acts as a prelude to a momentous stage in Conan’s life. Falling foul of stupid laws, city guards and sanctimonious judges, the barbarian and his teen charges face jail and punitive amputation until Conan goes wild. Separated, they escape individually just in time for the Cimmerian to reach the long-awaited beginning of Howard’s great love story…

Pulp novelette Queen of the Black Coast was published in the May 1934 Weird Tales, obliquely told of Conan’s time as infamous pirate “Amra”: plundering the coasts of Kush (prehistoric Africa) beside his first great love. The brief but tragic tale of bold buccaneer Bêlit would be expanded over the next few years in an epic storyline that ran to #100 of the monthly comic and officially launched with Conan The Barbarian #58.

Here Thomas, Buscema & Steve Gan launched Queen of the Black Coast!’ as the frantic Cimmerian fugitive finds safe harbour on an outward bound Argossean trading ship caught in a surging tide. Despite barely and extremely publicly escaping a fusillade of guards’ spears, the Northborn outlaw befriends entrepreneurial Captain Tito – himself a regular loser when faced with Argos’ corrupt lawmakers and taxmen – and settles into the mariner’s life.

After visiting many fabulous ports and exotic wild places, Conan’s life changes again when the ship encounters the most feared vessel afloat. When the fighting is done only Conan remains, having made a devil’s feast of the attacking pirates. Even he cannot beat this horde of Kushite warriors but as he prepares to die fighting, the white queen of these black pillagers grants him his life. When some pirates complain, Conan is allowed to earn his place by fighting the objectors and soon settles in… as Bêlit’s prize…

This volume concludes with Thomas, Buscema & Gan’s spellbinding origin yarn as #59 reveals in the words of shaman mentor/guardian N’yaga how the woman remade herself in ‘The Ballad of Bêlit!’. Conan hears how a Shemite child whose seafaring father was king of Asgalun until murdered by Stygians who placed her uncle on the vacant throne. He marvels at her life, growing up among barbarous tribesmen of the Silver Isles where she was trained in warrior arts to best any man. With amazement the Cimmerian learns how, by facing and mastering supernal horrors and using them to destroy a jealous chieftain, the war maiden became – in the eyes of the tribes – the earthly daughter of their Death Goddess Derketa, sworn to take her vengeance on Stygians and all who deal with them…

… And Conan also realises that he loves Bêlit beyond all else, even if she may not be human…

To Be Continued…

With covers by Boris Vallejo, Gil Kane, Dan Adkins, Neal Adams, John Romita, Tom Palmer, Dick Giordano, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, Vince Colletta, this dark love story is also burnished by behind the scenes extras such as a more detailed map of ‘The Hyborean Age of Conan’ and world, taken from 1978’s Conan the Barbarian Marvel Treasury Edition #19 whilst #4 of the same name provides stunningly beautiful front & back covers by Barry Windsor-Smith, and text article ‘An Informal History of the Thomas/Smith Conan’.

There’s also Windsor-Smith’s watercolour Conan image and illustrated page (May) from the 1975 Mighty Marvel Calendar plus House ads, plus original Buscema unused cover art and pencil pages with equivalent inked version from Savage Sword of Conan #1. There are even pre and post CCA moderated images of Bêlit and Conan…

Stirring, evocative, cathartic and thrilling, these yarns are deeply satisfying on a primal level, and this is one of the best volumes in a superb series starring a paragon of adventure heroes. This is classic pulp/comic action in all its unashamed exuberance: an honestly guilty pleasure for old time fans and newbies of all persuasion. What more does any red-blooded, action-starved fan need to know?
© 2021 Conan Properties International, LLC (“CPI”)

What Am I Going To Do Without You?


By Patt Kelley (Top Shelf Digital)
No ISBN. A Digital Exclusive (2012)

We live not just in the End Days but also truly Fortean Times. That’s artfully demonstrated and perfectly embodied in this forgotten gem from Patt Kelley (Fedor, Scout, And Then There Was Nothing, What’s for Breakfast?) who here pokes gently with a soft stick the sore subjects of love, loss, loneliness, mortality and embracing enforced change…

A dozen years ago in his debut graphic novel Kelley captivatingly mixed small town small mindedness with a look at enduring relationships and dawning independence played against a backdrop of the world turned upside down…

When little kids discover a dead dinosaur (an apatosaurus, if you’re asking) in the woods it soon escalates into a full-on media circus with gawkers, reporters and chancers invading a little piece of hamlet heaven we’re all programmed to crave. The news sensation doesn’t really affect Jeanie, who’s more concerned with stopping her moronic provincial classmates – especially Kaylee and her God-fearing Mean Girls – picking on her because she’s the only goth in high school. Typically though, her miracle-hungry mom goes crazy and drags the rebel sophisticate into the building gossip frenzy.

Across town, Flo and her husband Murray get some bad news when the doctor reveals what’s causing his persistent cough. Flo is facing the rest of her life alone and asks herself a question she doesn’t want answered…

When Kaylee starts spiteful Satanic rumours about Jeanie it’s not long before the faculty jump on board to ostracise the nonconformist weird kid, but the authorities’ disposal of the dead dino is what’s really gripping the parochial townsfolk. Even rapidly-declining Murray is blown away by the big lizard story. Hubby seems pretty accepting of his own imminent extinction, and just won’t shut up about what Flo should do once he’s out of the picture…

Everywhere strangers start talking to each other, moved by the incredible once-in-a-lifetime event, but Kaylee is gleefully punishing proudly unrepentant voluntary outsider Jeanie… until another unique one-in-a-billion happenstance settles that confrontation. It’s only the start of more strange encounters and freak accidents that Flo is oblivious to. For now Murray is all the world to her…

As chaos increasingly unfolds peaks and finally fades, the inevitable comes and many players confront their fears and reconcile regrets where they can. In the aftermath, widow Flo tries to adjust and on a whim heads for those woods where the dinosaur died and happens on one last once-in-a-lifetime meeting…

Slowly building and beguilingly understated, the interplay of little lives Kelly unpicks and puts under the microscope here form a mosaic of overwhelming emotion, wedding pedestrian and universally shared aspects of human existence with the reminder that there is wonder everywhere if you just look. So why don’t you?
What Am I Going To Do Without You? © & ™ Patt Kelley. All Rights Reserved.

Dear Beloved Stranger


By Dino Pai (Urban-Fairy Tales/Top Shelf Productions)
ISBN: 978-1-60309-271-5 (TPB)

The search for love is a primal drive in almost every human being, but so are the equally obsessive, transcendent passions to find one’s station in the world and accomplish great deeds. What happens when none of those quests seem to be progressing or, even worse, when they seem to be implacably at odds?

In 2013 this stunning, Xeric Award-winning debut comic tale addressed just such thorny issues in an intimate, candid and introspective manner. Solitary, intense, dedicated Dino has just finished art school and ponders where his now directionless life is heading next. His search for work and zeal for aesthetic creation hasn’t left much time for a social life so he developed a novel coping mechanism. Moreover, now that he’s truly on his own, inspiration also seems to have died…

Somewhere “Out There” is a soulmate: “His Girl”, patiently waiting to be found. Until that happens, Dino writes notes sharing his life, thoughts and dreams, folds them into paper airplanes and trusts the breeze and fate to take them to where they need to be…

One directionless day when he’s restocking drawing supplies, he finds former classmate Cathy temping at the art store while she saves up for fashion school. The chance encounter makes him realise everyone is progressing but him and Dino resolves to try harder to make and enact choices.

… And somewhere across the city, Cindy finds a crumpled-up paper plane in the street…

He meets Cathy again at an art show and her casually spoken neutral words somehow inspire him. Returning home, Dino stares at the picture of the beautiful Japanese pop star on his wall and starts to create a story: a comic book tale of a boy’s journey…

It starts with a siren song calling him. He hears and climbs through a keyhole, following ever-onwards through strange, perilous and uncanny regions. Along the way are friendly animals who help him survive unnatural perils.

As the work laboriously nears completion it completely consumes him, but still, somehow, whenever Dino leaves his room and re-enters the real world, Cathy is there and slowly, inevitably his two existences drift together.

Crafted in a dazzling variety of styles, techniques and media, Dear Beloved Stranger superbly captures that all-consuming hunger for the indefinable something every frustrated lover feels must be out there somewhere: translating that debilitating absence into a candid examination every person in search of human completion has ever endured.

Sweet, sharp, sour and ultimately enlightening, this is a story for all lovers, would-be lovers and lovers of what might be.
© 2013 Shih-Mu Dino Pai. All rights reserved.

Tarzan in the City of Gold (The Complete Burne Hogarth Comic Strip Library volume 1)


By Burne Hogarth and Don Garden (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-317-7 (HB)

Modern comics and graphic novels evolved from newspaper comic strips. These daily pictorial features were – until relatively recently – extremely popular with the public and highly valued by publishers who used them as a powerful weapon to guarantee and even increase circulation and profits. From the earliest days humour was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” – and of course, “Comics”.

The 1930s saw an explosion of action and drama strips launched with astounding rapidity and success. Not just strips but actual genres were created in that decade which still impact on not just today’s comic-books but all our popular fiction. Despite the odd ancestor or precedent like Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs (comedic when it began in 1924, but gradually moving through mock-heroics to light-action and becoming a full-blown adventure serial with the introduction of Captain Easy in 1929), the majority of strips in production were feel-good humour strips with the occasional child-oriented fantasy.

The full-blown adventure serial strip started on January 7th 1929 with Buck Rogers and Tarzan launching on the same day. Both were adaptations of pre-existing prose properties – although the Ape-Man had already conquered the silver screen – and their influence changed the shape of the medium forever. In terms of sheer quality of art, the adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels starring jungle-bred John Clayton, Lord Greystoke by Canadian commercial artist Harold “Hal” Foster were unsurpassed, and the strip became a firm favourite of the reading masses, supplementing movies, books, a radio show and ubiquitous advertising appearances.

As fully detailed in Tarzan historian/author Scott Tracy Griffin’s informative overview ‘Burne & Burroughs: The Story of Burne Hogarth and Edgar Rice Burroughs’, Foster initially quit the strip after the10-week adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes. He was replaced by Rex Maxon, but returned (at the insistent urging of Edgar Rice Burroughs) when the black-&-white daily was expanded to include a lush, full colour Sunday page of new tales.

Leaving Maxon to cater the Monday through Saturday series of novel adaptations, Foster produced the Sunday page until 1936 (233 weeks) after which he momentously moved to King Features Syndicate and created his own weekend masterpiece. Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur debuted on February 13th 1937. Once a four month backlog of material he had built up was gone, Foster was succeeded by a precociously brilliant 25-year old artist named Burne Hogarth: a young graphic visionary whose superb anatomical skill, cinematic design flair and compelling page composition revolutionised action/adventure narrative illustration.

The galvanic modern dynamism of the idealised human figure in comic books is directly attributable to Hogarth’s pioneering drawing and, in later years, educational efforts.

When he in turn finally left the strip, Hogarth found his way into teaching as co-founder – with Silas H. Rhodes – of the Cartoonist and Illustrators School for returning veterans. This became the New York School of Visual Arts and Hogarth produced an invaluable and inspirational series of art textbooks including Dynamic Anatomy and Dynamic Figure Drawing, shaping generations of aspiring pencillers. I can see my own well-worn copies from where I sit typing this.

In the early 1970s, Hogarth was lured back to the leafy domain of legendary Lord Greystoke, producing two magnificent volumes of graphic narrative in the dazzling style that had captivated audiences more than 30 years previously. Large bold panels, vibrantly coloured, with blocks of Burroughs’ original text, leapt out at the reader in a riot of hue and motion as they retold the triumphant, tragic tale of an orphaned scion of British nobility raised to puissant manhood by Great Apes in Tarzan of the Apes and Jungle Tales of Tarzan.

Burroughs cannily used the increasingly popular strip feature to cross-market his own prose efforts with great effect. Tarzan and the City of Gold was first serialised in pulp magazine Argosy in 1932 and released in book form the following year. So by May 17th 1936, Foster’s new and unconnected Tarzan in the City of Gold could be described as a brand new adventure on one hand, whilst boosting already impressively book sales by acting as a subtle weekly ad for the fantastic fantasy novels.

As discussed and précised in ‘Hal Foster’s Tarzan in the City of Gold – the Story So Far’, the illustrator and regular scripter Don Garden’s final yarn began with the 271st weekly page: revealing how the wandering Ape-Man had stumbled upon a lost outpost built by ancient refugees from Asia Minor in a desolate region of the “Dark Continent”.

The city of Taanor was so rich in gold that the material was only useful for weather-proofing roofs and domes of houses, but when white ne’er-do-wells Jim Gorrey and Rufus Flint discover the fantastic horde they marshalled a mercenary army, complete with tanks and aircraft to plunder the lost kingdom. Tarzan, meanwhile, had become war-chief of noble King Dalkon and his beautiful daughter Princess Nakonia and determined to use every trick and stratagem to smash the invaders…

After 51 epic weekly episodes, Foster was gone and we pick up the story of ‘Tarzan in the City of Gold’ (episodes #322-343, 9th May to October 3rd 1937) as the drama takes a bold new direction when the embattled Jungle Lord leads a slow war of attrition against the invaders whilst simultaneously recruiting a bizarre battalion of beasts comprising apes, lions and elephants to crush the greedily amassed armaments of 20th century warfare with fang and claw, sinew and muscle…

In those halcyon days the action was non-stop and, rather than cleanly defined breaks, storylines flowed one into another. Thus, Tarzan allowed the victorious Taanorians to believe he had perished in battle and journeyed to familiar territory, revisiting the cabin where he had been born and the region where he was raised by the she-ape Kala – stopping to punish a tribe of humans hunting and tormenting his old family/band of apes. Then, Hogarth’s first full epic began.

‘Tarzan and the Boers Part I’ (pages #344-377, 10th October 1937 – 29th May 1938) sees the erstwhile Greystoke lured to the assistance of duplicitous chieftain Ishtak who craves the Ape-Man’s assistance in repulsing an “invasion” by white pioneers from South Africa.

It isn’t too long before Tarzan discovers Ishtak is playing a double game. Having sold the land in question to families led by aged Jan Van Buren, the avaricious king intends to wipe them out and keep his tribal territories intact…

When Tarzan unravels the plot he naturally sides with the Boers and, over many bloody, torturous weeks, helps the refugees survive Ishtak’s murderous campaign of terror to establish a sound, solid community of honest (white) farmers…

When Hogarth first took over he had used an affected drawing style mimicking Foster’s static realism, but by the time of ‘Tarzan and the Chinese’ (#378-402, 5 June – 20th November 1938) had completed a slow transition to his own tautly hyper-kinetic visual methodology, perfectly suited to the electric vitality of the ever-onrushing feature’s exotic wonders.

Here, after leaving the new Boer nation, Tarzan finds a vast, double-walled enclosure and – ever curious – climbs into a fabulous hidden kingdom populated by the descendants of imperial Chinese colonists.

Once again he was just in time to prevent the overthrow of the rightful ruler – firstly by rebels and bandits, then a treacherous usurper and latterly by invading African warriors – before slipping away to befriend another clan of Great Apes and be mistaken for an evolutionary missing link by Professor John Farr in ‘Tarzan and the Pygmies’ (#403-427, 27th November 1938 to 14th May 1939). However, the boffin’s nefarious guide Marsada knows exactly who and what the Ape-Man is and spends a great deal of time and effort trying to kill Tarzan, as payback for his destroying a profitable poaching racket years before. Most infuriatingly, the husky newcomer had caught the passionate fancy of Farr’s lovely daughter Linda

Following an extended clash with actual missing links – a mountain tribe of primitive, bestial half-men – Tarzan and Linda fall into the brawny hands of magnificent (white) tree-dwelling viragos who all want to mate with a man who seems their physical equal. The trials and tribulations of ‘Tarzan and the Amazons’ (#428-437, 21st May-23rd July 1939) only ends when the jungle Adonis fakes his own death…

More relatively aimless perambulations bring the hero once more to the nascent homeland of his Afrikaans friends. ‘Tarzan and the Boers Part II’ (#438-477, 30th July 1939 – 28th April 1940) has him perfectly matched against cunning, truly monstrous villain Klaas Vanger. This wandering diamond hunter has discovered a mother-lode of gems on Jan Van Buren’s farm and, after seducing his way into the family’s good graces by romancing impressionable daughter Matea, he tries to murder them all. When this also fails, Vanger instigates a new war between settlers and natives, whilst absconding with a cache of diamonds and massacring a tribe of baboons befriended by Tarzan…

These vile acts lead to a horrific boom town of greedy killers springing up on Boer lands, compelling Tarzan, baby baboon Bo-Dan and hulking. tongue-tied lovelorn farmhand Groot Carlus to take a terrible but well-deserved vengeance on the money-crazed monster and his minions and rescuing crestfallen Matea from the seducer’s vile clutches…

Edgar Rice Burroughs was a master of populist writing and always his prose crackled with energy and imagination. Hogarth was an inspired intellectual and, as well as gradually instilling his pages with ferocious, unceasing action, layered the panels with subtle symbolism. Even vegetation looked spiky, edgy and liable to attack at a moment’s notice…

His pictorial narratives are all coiled-spring tension or vital, violent explosive motion, stretching, running, fighting: a surging rush of power and glory. It’s wonderful these majestic exploits are back in print – especially in such a lavish and luxurious oversized (330 x 254mm) hardback format – even if only to give us comic lovers and other couch potatoes a thorough cardio-vascular work-out. Nevertheless, I won’t be completely happy until all this wild wonderment is online too…

Beautifully rendered and reassuringly formulaic, these masterful interpretations of the utterly authentic Ape-Man are a welcome addition to any comics’ connoisseurs’ cupboard and you would be crazy not to take advantage of this beautiful collection; the first of five in the Complete Burne Hogarth Comic Strip Library.
Tarzan® & © 2014 ERB, Inc. All Rights Reserved. All images copyright of ERB, Inc 2014. All text copyright of ERB, Inc 2014.

The Usagi Yojimbo Saga Book 1


By Stan Sakai (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-671-6(HB) 978-1-61655-609-9(TPB) eISBN: 978-1-63008-081-5

Back in 1955, when Stan Sakai was two years old, the family moved from Kyoto, Japan to Hawaii. Growing up in a cross-cultural paradise, he graduated from the University of Hawaii with a BA in Fine Arts, before leaving to pursue further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design in California. His early forays into comics were as a letterer – most famously for Groo the Wanderer and the Spider-Man newspaper strip – before his nimble pens and brushes found a way to express his passion for Japanese history, legend and Akira Kurosawa films, inspirationally transforming a proposed story about a human historical hero into one of the most enticing and impressive fantasy sagas of all time.

Usagi Yojimbo (“rabbit bodyguard”) first appeared in 1984’s Albedo Anthropomorphics #1: a background character in Stan Sakai’s The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, and premiering amongst assorted furry ‘n’ fuzzy folk. He soon graduated to a nomadic solo act in Critters, Amazing Heroes, Furrlough and the Munden’s Bar back-up series in Grimjack. Although the expansive period epic stars sentient animals and details the life of a peripatetic Lord-less Samurai eking out as honourable a living as possible as a Yojimbo (bodyguard-for-hire), the milieu and scenarios scrupulously mirror Japan’s Feudal Edo Period (roughly 16th-17th century AD by Western reckoning) whilst simultaneously referencing other cultural icons from sources as varied as Zatoichi to Godzilla.

Miyamoto Usagi is brave, noble, industrious, honest, sentimental, gentle, artistic, empathetic, long-suffering and conscientious: a rabbit devoted to the tenets of Bushido and utterly unable to turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice. As such, his destiny is to be perpetually drawn into an unending panorama of incredible situations.

Despite changing publishers a few times, the Roaming Rabbit has been in publication since 1987, with nearly 60 assorted collections of comics and at least 5 art books to date. He’s guest-starred in many other series (most notably Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and its TV incarnation) and even made it into his own small-screen Netflix show – albeit in a futuristic setting. There are high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, spin-off comics serials and lots of toys. Author Sakai and his creation have won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public… And it’s still more educational, informative and authentic than any dozen Samurai sagas you can name…

The title is as much a wanderer as its star, migrating from Fantagraphics to Mirage, Dark Horse, Radio Comix, IDW and Dark Horse again under Sakai’s own Dogu Publishing imprint. None of that matters: what you need to know is that this stuff is superb and no matter which version you see, you will be a better being for reading it…

This guest-star stuffed premiere monochrome masterpiece draws together yarns released by Mirage Publishing as Usagi Yojimbo volume 2 #1-16 and Usagi Yojimbo volume 3 #1-6

Following a fulsome Foreword from former editor Jamie S. Rich, pictorial rundown of dramatis personae in ‘Cast of Characters’ and rousing strip recap ‘Origin Tale’, an evocative Introduction from legendary illustrator and Dean of Dinosauria William Stout leads into the magnificent and ever-unfolding medieval mystery play…

It begins with 3-parter ‘Shades of Green’ wherein Usagi and crusty companion Gennosuke (an irascibly bombastic, money-mad bounty-hunter and conniving thief-taking Indian rhino with a heart of gold) are recruited by Kakera: a ratty shaman in dire need of protection from the dwindling remnants of the once-mighty Neko Ninja clan. The former imperial favourites have fallen upon hard times since they and the Ronin Rabbit crushed the Dragon Bellow plot of rebel Lord Takamuro. Now, bat assassins of the Komori Ninja clan are constantly harrying, harassing and actively seeking to supplant them in Lord Hikiji’s service…

Chunin (deputy leader) Gunji believes the rodent wizard would make a mighty useful slave, and is scheming to overthrow the new – female – clan chief Chizu whilst acquiring him…

With the Neko’s trap closing around them all, the sagacious sensei summons spirits of four fantastic fighters to aid Usagi and Gen. These phantoms promptly possess a quartet of little Kame (tortoises) and are reshaped into adolescent amphibian Ninja Turtles, identifying themselves as Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello. Crucially, Usagi has fought beside one of their number before…

Subsequent battles go badly and eventually Gunji’s forces make off with Kakera-sensei. As Usagi leads the remaining heroes in relentless pursuit, the conniving Chunin makes his move. Gunji’s attempt to assassinate Chizu is bloodily and efficiently ended by late-arriving Usagi who is astounded to be told by the lady he has saved that the Neko’s lethal interest in him is now at an end…

With Kakera rescued and Gunji dead, the adventure closes with the turtle spirits returning to their own place and time, leaving Gen and Usagi to follow their own (temporarily) separate roads before ‘Jizo’ offers a delightfully gripping interlude as a grieving mother dedicates a roadside shrine to her murdered child and ineffable Karma places the killers in the path of a certain justice-dispensing, long-eared wanderer…

Next comes a brace of stories offering elucidating glimpses of the rabbit’s boyhood. Once, Miyamoto Usagi was simply son to a small-town magistrate before being sent to spend his formative years learning the Way of Bushido from gruff and distant leonine hermit Katsuichi. The stern sensei taught not just superior technique and tactics, but also an ironclad creed of justice and restraint which would serve the Ronin well throughout his turbulent life.

In ‘Usagi’s Garden’ the callow pupil rebels against the arduous and undignified task of growing food until the lion delivers a subtle but lifechanging lesson, whilst in ‘Autumn’ a painful fall propels the lad into a nightmare confrontation with a monster who has trapped the changing of the seasons in a bamboo cage…

Two-part tale ‘Shi’ sees Usagi comes to the aid of a valley of poor farmers under constant attack by bullies and brigands seeking to force them from their impoverished homes. The thugs are secretly employed by a local magistrate and his ruthless brother who discovered gold under the peasants’ land and want to extract it without attracting the attention of the local Lord’s tax collectors. When the Ronin’s formidable skills stall the brothers’ scheme they hire a quartet of assassins whose collective name means “death”. However, the killers are far less trouble than the head farmer’s daughter Kimie, who has never seen someone as glamorous or attractive as the soft-spoken defrocked samurai…

Although there are battles aplenty for Usagi, the brothers’ remorseless greed ends them before the Yojimbo can…

Delightful silent comedy follows as ‘The Lizard’s Tale’ pantomimically depicts the ronin playing unwilling Pied Piper and guardian to a wandering flock of tokagé lizards (ubiquitous, omnivorous reptiles populating the anthropomorphic world, replacing scavenger species like rats, cats and dogs in the fictitious ecosystem). The rambunctious trouble-magnets repay the favour when the wanderer is ambushed in snow-drowned mountains by vengeful bandits…

‘Battlefield’ is a 3-chapter fable sharing a key moment and boyhood turning point in the trainee warrior’s life. It begins when a mind-broken, fleeing soldier shatters the boy’s childish dreams of warrior glory. The fugitive is a survivor of the losing side in a mighty battle and his sorry state forces Usagi to rethink his preconceptions of war. Eager to ram home the lesson, Katsuichi takes his pupil to the battlefield where peasants and scavengers busily snatch up whatever they can from the scattered corpses. Usagi is horrified. To take a samurai’s swords is to steal his soul, but even so, a little later he cannot stop himself picking up a fallen hero’s Wakizashi (short sword)…

After concealing the blade in a safe place, the apprentice is haunted by visions of the unquiet corpse and sneaks off to return the stolen steel soul. Caught by soldiers who think him a scavenging looter and about to lose his thieving hands, little Miyamoto is saved by the intervention of victorious Great Lord Mifune. The noble looks into the boy’s face and sees something honest, honourable and – perhaps one day – useful…

Following an Introduction on ‘Classic Storytelling’ from James Robinson, the ronin roaming resumes with ‘The Music of Heaven’ as Miyamoto and a wandering flock of tokagé lizards encounter a gentle, pious priest whose life is dedicated to peace, music and enlightenment. When their paths cross again later, the rabbit narrowly avoids being murdered by a ruthless assassin who has since killed and impersonated holy man Komuso in an attempt to catch Usagi off guard. Evocative and movingly spiritual, this classic of casual tragedy perfectly displays the vast range of storytelling Sakai can pack into the most innocuous of tales.

More menaces from the wanderer’s past reconnect in ‘The Gambler, The Widow and the Ronin’ as a professional conman who fleeces villagers with rigged samurai duels plies his shabby trade in just another little hamlet. Unfortunately, this one is home to his last stooge’s wife, and to make matters worse, whilst his latest hired killer Kedamono is attempting to take over the business, the long-eared nomad who so deftly dispatched his predecessor Shubo strolls into town looking for refreshments…

Again forced into a fight, Miyamoto makes short work of Kedamono, leaving the smug gambler to safely flee with the entire take. Slurping back celebratory servings of sake, the villain has no idea the inn where he relaxes employs a vengeful widow and mother who knows just who really caused her man’s death…

A note of portentous foreboding informs ‘The Nature of the Viper’, opening a year previously when a boisterous, good-hearted fisherman pulled a body out of the river and nursed his amazingly still breathing catch back to health. If he expected gratitude or mercy, the peasant was sadly mistaken, as the fondling explained whilst killing his benefactor as soon as he was able. The ingrate is Jei: a veritable devil in mortal form, who believes himself a “Blade of the Gods” and singled out by the Lords of Heaven to kill the wicked. The maniac makes a convincing case: when he stalked Usagi, the monster was struck by a fortuitous – or possibly divinely sent – lightning bolt but is still going strong and keenly continuing to hunt the Ronin.

‘Slavers’ begins a particularly dark journey for our hero as Usagi stumbles across a boy in chains escaping from a bandit horde. Little Hiro explains how the ragtag rogues of wily “General” Fujii have captured a whole town: making the inhabitants harvest their crops for the scum to steal…

Resolved to save them, the rabbit infiltrates the captive town as a mercenary seeking work, but is soon exposed and taken prisoner. ‘Slavers Part 2’ finds Miyamoto stoically enduring the General’s tortures until the boy he saved bravely returns the favour – after which the Yojimbo’s vengeance is awesome and terrible…

However, even as the villagers rebel and take back their homes and property, chief bandit Fujii escapes, taking Usagi’s daish? (matched long and short swords) with him. To take a samurai’s swords is to steal his soul, and the monster not only has them but continually dishonours them by slaughtering innocents as he flees the ronin’s relentless pursuit.

‘Daish? – Part One’ opens with a hallowed sword-maker undertaking the sacred process of crafting blades and the harder task of selecting the right person to buy them. Three hundred years later, Usagi is on the brink of madness as he follows Fujii’s bloody trail, pitilessly picking off the General’s remaining killers whilst attempting to redeem those soiled dispensers of death. The chase leads to another town pillaged by Fujii where Miyamoto almost refuses to aid a wounded man… until one woman accuses him of being no better than the beast he hunts…

Shocked back to his senses, the yojimbo saves the elder’s life and in gratitude the girl Hanako offers to lead him to where Fujii was heading. ‘Mongrels’ changes tack as erstwhile ally and hard-to-love friend Gennosuke reenters the picture. The bombastic, money-mad bounty-hunter and conniving thief-taker is on the prowl for suitably profitable prospects when he meets The Stray Dog: his greatest rival in the unpopular profession of cop-for-hire.

After some posturing and double-dealing wherein each tries to edge out the other in the hunt for Fujii, they inevitably come to blows and are only stopped by the fortuitous intervention of the Rabbit Ronin…

‘Daish? – Part Two’ sees the irascible rugged individualists form a shaky truce in their overweening hunger to tackle the General. Mistrustful of each other, they nevertheless cut a swathe of destruction through Fujii’s regrouped band, but even after furious Usagi regains his honour swords there is one last betrayal in store…

Older, wiser and generally unharmed, Gen and Usagi part company again as ‘Runaways’ delves deeper into the wanderer’s past. Stopping in a town he hasn’t visited in decades, the rabbit hears a name called out and his mind retreats to a time when he was a fresh young warrior in the service of Great Lord Mifune.

Young princess Takani Kinuko had been promised as bride to trustworthy ally Lord Hirano and the rabbit was a last-minute replacement as leader of the “babysitting” escort column to her impending nuptials. When an overwhelming ambush eradicated the party, Usagi was forced to flee with the stuck-up brat: both of them masquerading as carefree, unencumbered peasants as he strove to bring her safely to her future husband past an army of ninjas killers.

The poignant reverie concludes in ‘Runaways – Part 2’ as valiant hero and spotless maiden fell in love whilst fleeing from pitiless, unrelenting marauders. Successful at last, their social positions naturally forced them apart once she was safely delivered.

Shaken from his memories, the ronin moves on, tragically unaware he was not the only one recalling those moments and pondering what might have been…

Originally collected as The Brink of Life and Death, an evocatively enticing third tranche of torrid tales opens with ‘Discoveries’ – a heartfelt and enthusiastic Introduction from comics author Kurt Busiek – before more epics of intrigue intermingle with vignettes of more plebeian dramas and even an occasional supernatural thriller, all tantalisingly tinged with astounding martial arts action and drenched in wit, irony, pathos and tragedy…

Far away from our nomadic star a portentous interlude occurs as a simple peasant and his granddaughter are attacked by bandits. The belligerent scum are about to compound extortion and murder with even more heinous crimes when a stranger with a ‘Black Soul’ stops them…

This is Jei and nothing good comes from even innocent association with the Blade of the Gods. Still pursuing his crusade, the monster deals most emphatically with the criminals before “permitting” orphaned granddaughter Keiko to join him…

‘Kaise’ then finds Miyamoto Usagi befriending a seaweed farmer who’s experiencing a spot of bother with his neighbours. At peace with himself amongst hard-toiling peasants, Usagi is soon embroiled in their escalating battle with a village of rival seaweed sellers – previously regarded as helpful and friendly – and quickly realises scurrilous merchant Yamanaka is fomenting discord and unrest between his suppliers to make extra profit…

In a roadside hostelry ‘A Meeting of Strangers’ introduces a formidable female warrior to the ever-expanding cast as the Lepine Legend graciously offers a fellow weary mendicant the price of a drink. A professional informer then sells Usagi out to still-smarting Yamanaka and lethally capable Inazuma has ample opportunity to repay her slight debt to the Rabbit Ronin when he’s ambushed by an army of hired brigands…

Despite – or because – it is usually one of the funniest comics on the market, occasionally Usagi Yojimbo will brilliantly twist readers’ expectations with tales that rip your heart apart. Such is the case with ‘Noodles’, as the ronin meets again street performer, shady entertainer and charismatic pickpocket Kitsune. She was plying all her antisocial trades in a new town just as eternally-wandering Usagi rolls up. The little metropolis is in uproar at a plague of daring robberies and when inept enforcers employed by Yoriki (Assistant Commander) Masuda try – and painfully fail – to arrest the long-eared stranger as a probable accomplice, the ferociously resistant rabbit earns the instant enmity of the pompous official.

Following the confrontation, a hulking, mute soba (buckwheat noodle) vendor begins to pester the still-annoyed ronin and eventually reveals he’s carrying elegant escapologist Kitsune in his baskets. Astounded, the yojimbo renews his acquaintance with her before the affable thieves go on their way, unaware that trouble and tragedy are just around the corner…

The town magistrate is leaning heavily on his Yoriki to end the crimewave but has no conception Masuda is actually in the pay of a vicious gang carrying out most of the thefts. What they all need is a convincing scapegoat to pin the blame on, and poor dumb peasant Noodles is ideal – after all, he can’t even deny his guilt…

With a little sacrificed loot planted, the gentle giant becomes a perfect patsy and before Usagi and Kitsune even know he’s been taken, the simple fool has been tried and horrifically executed. ‘Noodles Part 2’ opens as our aggrieved heroes frantically dash for the public trial and almost immediate crucifixion. Neither pickpocket nor bodyguard can save the innocent stooge: all they can do is swear to secure appropriate vengeance and a kind of justice…

In sober mien the rabbit roves on, stumbling into a house of horror and case of possession. ‘The Wrath of the Tangled Skein’ finds Usagi returning to a region plagued by demon-infested forests. Offered hospitality at a merchant’s house, he subsequently saves the daughter from doom at the claws of a demonic Nue (tiger/fox/pig/snake devil), but is almost too late and only alerted to a double dose of danger when a Bonze (Buddhist Priest) arrives to exorcise the poor child – just like the cleric already praying over the afflicted waif upstairs…

This duel with the forces of hell leads into ‘The Bonze’s Story’ as Usagi befriends the real priest and learns how misfortune and devotion to honour compelled elite samurai Sanshobo to put aside weapons and war in search of greater truths and inner peace…

Political intrigue and explosive espionage return to the fore in ‘Bats, the Cat, & the Rabbit’ as Neko ninja chief Chizu re-enters Usagi’s life, fleeing a flight of rival Komori (bat) ninjas. These winged horrors are determined to possess a scroll containing the secrets of making gunpowder and, after a tremendous, extended struggle, the exhausted she-cat cannot believe her rabbit companion is willing to simply hand it over. She soon shrugs it off, after all the Komori have fallen into her trap and quickly regret testing the purloined formula…

The peripatetic yojimbo then walks into a plot to murder Great Lord Miyagi involving infallible unseen assassin Kuroshi at ‘The Chrysanthemum Pass’. Although the valiant wanderer is simply aiding karma to a just outcome despite overwhelming odds and a most subtle opponent, this act will have appalling repercussions in days ahead…

Hunted woman and deadly adept Inazuma then proves ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’ when found – as always – at the heart of a storm of hired blades trying to kill her. However, during one peaceful moment, she makes time to share with a fellow swordsmaster the instructive tale of a dutiful daughter who married the wrong samurai. By exacting rightful vengeance upon his killer, she won the undying hatred of a powerful lord and set her own feet irredeemably upon the road of doom…

Rounding out in this epic collection are copious ‘Story Notes by Stan Sakai’, a full-colour ‘Gallery’ of the covers from both comic books and their attendant paperback compilations, annotated ‘Cover Sketches’ and designs, plus biographical data ‘About the Author’.

Fast-paced yet lyrical, informative and funny, the saga alternately bristles with tension and thrills and frequently crushes your heart with astounding tales of pride and tragedy, evil and duty. Bursting with veracity and verve, Usagi Yojimbo is the perfect comics epic: a monolithically magical, irresistibly appealing tale to delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened haters of “funny animal” stories.
Text and illustrations © 1993-1998, 2014 Stan Sakai. All rights reserved. Foreword © 2014 Jamie S. Rich. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles © 2014 Viacom International, Inc. All rights reserved. All other material and registered characters are © and TM their respective owners. Usagi Yojimbo and all other prominently featured characters are registered trademarks of Stan Sakai.

Bunny Vs Monkey volume 9: Bunny Bonanza


By Jamie Smart, with Sammy Borras (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-306-6 (Digest HB)

Bunny vs Monkey has been the bonkers hairy backbone of The Phoenix since the first issue back in 2012: recounting a madcap vendetta gripping animal archenemies set amidst an idyllic arcadia masquerading as more-or-less mundane but critically endangered English woodlands. Concocted with gleefully gentle mania by cartoonist, comics artist and novelist Jamie Smart (Fish Head Steve!; Looshkin; Max and Chaffy, Flember), these trendsetting, mind-bending yarns have been wisely retooled as graphic albums available in remastered, double-length digest editions such as this one. All the tail-biting tension and animal argy-bargy began yonks ago after an obnoxious little beast plopped down in after a disastrous British space shot.

Crashlanding in Crinkle Woods – scant miles from his launch site – lab animal Monkey believed himself the rightful owner of a strange new world, despite all efforts from reasonable, sensible, genteel, contemplative forest resident Bunny to dissuade him. For all his patience, propriety and good breeding, the laid-back lepine could not contain or control the incorrigible idiot ape, who to this day remains a rude, noise-loving, chaos-creating, troublemaking lout intent on building his perfect “Monkeyopia” with or without the aid of evil supergenius ally Skunky or their “henches” Metal Steve and Action Beaver

Problems are exacerbated by other unconventional Crinkle creatures, particularly monochrome mad scientist Skunky whose intellect and cavalier attitude to life presents as a propensity for building extremely dangerous robots, bio-beasts and sundry other super-weapons…

Here – with artistic assistance from design deputy Sammy Borras – the war of nerves and mega-ordnances resumes even though everybody thought all the battles had ended. They even seemingly forgot the ever-encroaching Hyoomanz

Divided into seasonal outbursts, this ninth magnificent hardback archive of insanity opens in the traditional manner: starting slowly with a sudden realisation, by building on the shocking denouement of the last book when the lop-eared good guy cried enough and quit. The cosmically surreal shenanigans resume on New Year’s Day with the woods gripped in snowy winter and still utterly ‘Bunnyless’ after the steadfast voice of reason surprisingly ascended to higher realms to get a little peace and quiet…

As the shellshocked populace (Ai, Pig Piggerton, Weenie Squirrel, Metal E.V.E., Le Fox and Lucky the Red Panda) meander and moan, seeking someone to fill that vacant place, even the anthropoid antithesis feels the loss and builds a replacement but it’s simply ‘Not Bunny’ and ends up scrapped like so many dastardly ploys, compelling morally ambiguous outsider Le Fox to seek change for its own cathartic sake. As he makes his companions ‘Switch Up’ it results in a huge explosion that unearths and awakens their long-lost companion… or does it?

Although apparently back from the Puddle of Eternity thanks to a fluke of the Molecular Stream, “Bunny” has complete amnesia – and utter incredulity regarding Monkey’s antics – especially after he unleashes scatological atrocity weapon ‘Stickleplops’ and learns with some shock that this rabbit also has no tolerance for nonsense…

Spring arrives, heralding another harsh lesson after the simian starts lobbing ‘Eggy Drops!’ and Bunny again acts contrary to expectations, before Monkey’s reality-bending ‘Flying Fun’ starts grinding down the forgetful rabbit’s resilience and ongoing attempts to restore lost memories result in a true theatrical travesty in ‘The Show Must Go On’

To facilitate another DNA experiment, Skunky and Monkey raid the Human farm Pig came from and force the tender-hearted refugee to guide them on their ‘Mouldy Mission’ after which an untitled (unless you read music) and silent – but deadly – tale of Skunky’s wind-borne ultimate weapon leads to ‘A Moment of Calm’ for Le Fox shattered by incessant stupid questions like “where are my socks?” and “have you seen that black hole I made and lost?”

Events take an even stranger turn and Bunny starts being weirdly changeable when Weenie and Pig discover something strange in ‘The Cave’ just as Skunky & Monkey deal with the ghastly contents of the ‘Bin of Doom!’ prior to indulging in pranks and ‘Birthday Wishes!’ for Bunny…

A revolting mess goes on ‘A Blobby Journey’ and attains transcendent loveliness just before ‘The Day the Sky Fell In! (Part one and two)’ sees imminent lunar catastrophe barely averted by the advent of “Danger Sausage” even as Bunny experiences virtual (un)reality in ‘Plugged In’: but still can’t stop Summer starting with ‘The Fastest Monkey in the World’ when the ape idiot gets hold of a super-speed suit…

It’s time for some tragic origin-ing courtesy of ‘Action Beaver: The Early Years’ after which Pig gets a unique pet in ‘Old!’ whilst a diversion to times past sets the scene for future frolics as a couple of pirates bury their ‘Hidden Loot’ blithely unaware how their actions will annoy a monkey centuries from then…

Ungracious and solitary, Le Fox dabbles with Skunky’s devices to create a beast able to enforce some ‘Shush!’ just as the evil genius is busy probing the captive Red Panda and discovering exactly what ‘A Little Bit Unlucky’ feels like at ground zero. Maybe that’s what causes the period of intellectual funk and lack of creativity that necessitates holding an ‘Invent-a-thon’ to restore appropriate levels of chaos and carnage to Crinkle Woods…

With Bunny seemingly resolved to endure Monkey’s incessant antics, ‘Nice Neighbours’ displays the ingrained idiocy of Weenie and Pig as seen in a windblown Fantastic Voyage tribute before ‘Butterflew’ sets teeth on edge and‘The Shubmarine’ that swims through soil meets its inevitable fate…

Events take a strange turn as Autumn begins and ‘Dig Up!’ reveals an incredible subterranean civilisation and fantastic big beasts before ‘Muckey’ sees the simian sod achieve a lifelong dream to become “the stinkiest monkey in the universe” – a situation only remedied by an ancient process hidden in Metal E.V.E’s memory banks…

The mystery of our hero’s amnesia is slowly solved when cyborg ‘Bunny Law’ targets Monkey, but with Skunky distracted by a cosmic calculation and unable to ‘Work it Out’ the brutal invasion by a really ‘Big Bunny’ proves to the creeped-out Crinkle critters that there is more than one of their friend around…

At last galvanised into affirmative action, Monkey resolves to build his Monkeyopia before it’s too late and begins his campaign in ‘Sqeak-ooooo’ unaware that his latest superweapon has a fatal flaw. Undeterred, he’s back with cybernetic ‘Fists of Fun’ able to decimate the woods at will just as ‘Happy Birthday Bunny (Part one & two)’ at last reveal what really happened to Monkey’s nemesis and how a terrifying ‘Shadow Bunny’ has come to take care of his unfinished business…

Winter returns with Christmas on the way and ‘Super-powered Monkey!’ in charge of everything, crushing opposition with his “Doom Fists” under ‘A New Regime’. Happily, ‘A Very Hoppy Christmas!’ signals a true miracle as the proper Bunny returns with all those other rabbit replacements in tow…

The agonised, anxiety-addled animal anarchy might have ended for now, but there’s a few more secrets to share, thanks to detailed instructions on ‘How to Draw Shadow Bunny’, ‘…Rock Bunny’ and ‘…Bunny Law’ as well as handy previews of other treats and wonders available in The Phoenix to wind down from all that angsty furore…

The zany zenith of absurdist adventure, Bunny vs Monkey is weird wit, brilliant invention, potent sentiment and superb cartooning all crammed into one eccentrically excellent package. These tails never fail to deliver jubilant joy for grown-ups of every vintage, even those who claim they only get it for their kids. Is that you?

Text and illustrations © Fumboo Ltd. 2024. All rights reserved.

Superman: the Atomic Age Sundays volume 2: 1953-1956


By Alvin Schwartz, Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye (IDW/DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-537-2 (HB)

It’s indisputable that today’s comic book industry – if it existed at all – would have been an utterly unrecognisable thing without Superman. Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster’s bold and unprecedented invention was fervidly adopted by a desperate and joy-starved generation and quite literally gave birth to a genre… if not an actual art form.

He was shamelessly copied and adapted by many inspired writers and artists for numerous publishers, spawning an incomprehensible army of imitators and variations within three years of his summer 1938 debut. 85 YEARS… and counting!

An intoxicating blend of breakneck, breathtaking action and triumphal wish-fulfilment which epitomised the early Man of Steel soon grew to encompass cops-and-robbers crime-busting, socially reforming dramas, science fiction, fantasy, whimsical comedy and, once the war in Europe and the East also engulfed America, patriotic relevance for a host of gods, heroes and monsters, all dedicated to profit through exuberant, eye-popping excess and vigorous dashing derring-do.

Superman was master of the world and whilst transforming and dictating the shape of the fledgling funnybook industry, the Man of Tomorrow relentlessly expanded into all areas of the entertainment media. Although we all think of the Cleveland boys’ iconic invention as the epitome and acme of cartoon creation, the truth is that very soon after his debut in Action Comics #1 the Man of Steel became a fictional multimedia monolith in the same league as Popeye, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Mickey Mouse. Diehard comics fans regard our purest and most enduring icons in primarily graphic narrative terms, but the likes of Batman, Spider-Man, Black Panther, The Avengers and their hyperkinetic ilk long ago outgrew four-colour origins to become fully mythologized modern media creatures, instantly recognised in mass markets across all platforms and age ranges…

Far more people have viewed or heard the Man of Steel than have ever read his comics. His globally syndicated newspaper strips alone reached untold millions, and by the time his 20th anniversary rolled around at the very start of what we know as the Silver Age of Comics, he had been a thrice-weekly radio serial regular and starred in a series of astounding animated cartoons, as well as two films and a novel by George Lowther.

Superman was a perennial sure-fire success for toy, game, puzzle and apparel manufacturers and had just ended his first smash live-action television serial. In his future were many more shows (Superboy, Lois & Clark, Smallville, Superman & Lois and even spin-offs like Supergirl), a stage musical, a franchise of blockbuster movies and an almost seamless succession of games, bubble gum cards and TV cartoons beginning with The New Adventures of Superman in 1966 and continuing ever since. Even his superdog Krypto got in on the small-screen act…

However, during his formative years the small screen was simply an expensive novelty so the Action Ace achieved true mass market fame through a different medium: one not that far removed from his print origins.

Although pretty much a spent force these days, for the majority of the last century the newspaper comic strip was the Holy Grail that all American cartoonists and graphic narrative storytellers hungered for. Syndicated across the country – and frequently the planet – it was seen by millions, if not billions, of readers and generally accepted as a more mature and sophisticated form of literature than comic-books. It also paid far better.

And rightly so: some of the most enduring and entertaining characters and concepts of all time were created to lure readers from one particular paper to another and many of them grew to be part of a global culture. Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, Charlie Brown and so many more escaped humble and tawdry newsprint origins to become meta-real: existing in the minds of earthlings from Albuquerque to Zanzibar.

Some still do…

Superman was the first original comic book character to make that leap – about 6 months after he exploded out of Action Comics – but precious few ever successfully followed. Wonder Woman, Batman (eventually) and trailblazing teen icon Archie Andrews made the jump in the 1940s with only a handful such as Spider-Man, Howard the Duck and Conan the Barbarian having done so since.

The daily Superman newspaper comic strip launched on 16th January 1939, supplemented by a full-colour Sunday page from November 5th of that year. Originally crafted by such luminaries as Siegel & Shuster and their studio (Paul Cassidy, Leo Nowak, Dennis Neville, John Sikela, Ed Dobrotka, Paul J. Lauretta & Wayne Boring), the mammoth task soon required the additional talents of Jack Burnley and writers Whitney Ellsworth, Jack Schiff & Alvin Schwartz.

The McClure Syndicate Superman feature ran continuously from 1939 until May 1966, appearing at its peak in more than 300 daily and 90 Sunday newspapers; boasting a combined readership of more than 20 million. For most of the post war years Boring & Stan Kaye illustrated these spectacular Sundays (eventually supplemented by artists Win Mortimer and Curt Swan). The majority of the strips – from 1944 to 1958 – were written by Alvin Schwartz.

Born in 1916, he was an early maestro of comic books, writing for Batman, Superman, Captain Marvel and many other titles and companies. Whilst handling the Superman strip he also freelanced on Wonder Woman and the dwindling superhero pantheon as well as genre titles like Tomahawk, Buzzy, A Date with Judy and House of Mystery. After numerous clashes with new Superman Editor Mort Weisinger, Schwartz quit comics for commercial writing, selling novels and essays, and latterly documentaries and docudramas for the National Film Board of Canada.

He also worked miracles in advertising and market research, developing selling techniques such as psychographics and typological identification. He was a member of the advisory committee to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. He died in 2011.

After years wallowing in obscurity most of Superman’s newspaper strip exploits are at last available to aficionados and the curious newcomer in tomes such as this one, compiled under the auspices of the Library of American Comics. Showcasing Schwartz and artist Wayne Boring in their purest prime, these Sundays (numbered as pages #699 to #869 and collectively spanning March 22nd 1953 to June 24th 1956) feature a nigh-omnipotent Man of Steel in domestically-framed and curated tales of emotional dilemmas and pedestrian criminality rather than muscle-flexing bombast, utilising mystery, fashion, wit and satire as substitutes for bludgeoning action.

Following an affable appreciation of the creators and overview of the era in ‘An Introduction’ by Mark Waid, ‘A Wayne Boring Gallery’ provides a tantalising selection of Superman and Action Comics covers from the period before weekly wonderment commences in all its vibrant glory. Sadly, individual serial stories are untitled, so you’ll just have to manage with my meagre synopses of the individual yarns…

It begins with another prime example of Superman gaslighting his girlfriend – one of the sharpest journalists on Earth – in what I keep telling myself is just an example of how different attitudes were back then…

When Lois Lane catches Superman mid-change from Clark Kent, he manages to obscure his face long enough to claim her “victory” was through luck not skill or ingenuity, and challenge her to actually deduce his alter ego in a test through time. Angry, prideful and apparently a real sucker, she agrees and – relocated to ancient Troy, on the pilgrim ship Mayflower and Massechusetts colony and in 1907 San Francisco – promptly fails to spot the new identities the Man of Steel establishes. Apart from the appalling patriarchal premise and treatment it’s a beautiful tale with Lois meeting and/or replacing Helen of Troy, Priscilla Mullins (look her up or read The Courtship of Miles Standish by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) and celebrity performer Lillian Russell with Trojan battles, pioneering dangers and the Great San Francisco Earthquake giving Superman plenty to do before she concedes defeat…

Dated July 5th 1953 (strip #714), the next exploit is far less upsetting as a dying millionaire convinces the Man of Tomorrow to find a decent purpose and inheritor for his vast riches. Operating clandestinely at first Superman vets artists, inventors, simple scammers, country doctors (thereby diverging long enough to become embroiled in a decades-long hillbilly feud) and battles crooks before finally completing his mission…

Strip #725 opened a thrilling new chapter on September 20th as the Action Ace intercepts an alien vehicle crashing to Earth and finds it carries two convicts from his long-dead homeworld. At first Arno and Tolas are content to use their new superpowers to scam, steal and swindle the puny humans before eventually realising they’re strong enough to take anything want. Superman’s attempts to restrain their crimes are never enough and he only saves his adopted homeworld by adopting his enemies’ preferred tactics…

December 13th (strip #737) saw a new yarn begin as an extremely determined young woman threw herself off a building to get Superman’s attention. Alice Talbot was a lawyer working as process server for her sexist uncle. He believed Law was man’s work and had his associates give her impossible jobs to discourage her: a situation that needed all the Man of Steel’s discretion as Alice took on ever-more difficult serving jobs and succeeded – even if with some secret assistance…

Few Superman foes transferred from funnybooks to the Funnies section, but murderously ridiculous criminal The Prankster was perfect for whimsy-minded readers. Strip #747 (February 21st 1954) began an extend campaign of confusion and carnage as the diabolically devious bandit began attacking modern art, plundering vaults and raiding stores after finding a way to exploit one of Superman’s powers and use it against him…

Clark took centre stage in a clever quandary running from April 25th to July 4th (#756-766) as a publicity stunt gone awry leaves him handcuffed to a starlet and accompanied everywhere by her wily manager, requiring many clever tricks over a very busy weekend to go into action as the Man of Tomorrow before he can legitimately shuck the shackles…

The “Atomic Age” title gets full milage in the next story (#767-777, July 11th – September 19th) as a purse-snatcher fleeing Superman is dosed with radiation and acquires the unwelcome and uncontrollable power to become intangible. Happily he’s not smart enough to capitalise on the scary gift… but his even shadier pal Al is…

When a strange man starts following Superman, it leads to crazy contests and another shifty conman mystic who has convinced wrestler Mop-up Moby that he can beat the Man of Steel in the ring. Incredibly that proves true in the comedy romp running from September 26th – November 7th (#778-784), after which a science experiment gives Superman amnesia and leaves him lost and confused on a desert island (#785-793, November 14th 1954 to January 9th 1955). At least “Roger” has lazy drop-out beach-bums Horace and Mike to guide him and manage his strange abilities: they even help the simple islanders appreciate the mod-cons of 20th century living Roger provides – whether they want him to or not…

Restored and returned to Metropolis for strip #794 (November 14th), Superman is swamped with petty requests from the authorities, unaware they are keeping him distracted from preparations for a major television event. The “Your Story” episode detailing his life is a great honour, but a huge risk too as he’s supposed to appear live with all his friends: Lois, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and… Clark Kent…

Another secret identity dilemma follows (#801-805, March 6th – April 3rd) as Clark exhibits superstrength and allows observers to believe it comes from a mutant apple he ate. It might have been the end of it, but two other apples were eaten and he has to spend all his time faking the same powers for their eaters or risk exposure of his alter ego…

When Lois and Clark investigate a mystery millionaire (#806-813, April 10th – May 29th) they go undercover as domestics and encounter the most appalling children ever reared. Soon though a heartbreaking story emerges and the hardboiled reporters become matchmaking homemakers, after which epic action and humour return as an amazing archaeological discovery sends Superman back to ancient Greece to dispel many myths around Hercules before helping the rather hapless legend-in-waiting accomplish his labours (#814-824, June 5th – August 14th)…

Atom Age fantasy follows as a genuine flying horse baffles and bamboozles Metropolitans from scientists to thieves to circus showmen (#825-833, August 21st – October 16th). When Superman discovers the facts, his greatest concern is to reunite the modern Pegasus with the boy who loves him, before heading to the Himalayas (#834-844, October 23rd 1955 – January 1st 1956) and foiling a devilish plotter seeking to seize control of a lost colony of French musketeers and cavaliers!

The new year opened with science fiction in the driving seat as downtrodden despondent travelling salesman/inventor Edgar Weems makes contact with a scientist on a dying world. Benevolent Bel Neth Ka of Kadath is happy to share his secrets – like antigravity ointment and superstrength serum – but when innocent Edgar starts selling them his instant success naturally causes chaos. That was a big and very funny job for Superman running from January 8th to March 25th over Strips #845-856, and leads to the concluding tale in this second Atomic Age collection, as Lois goes on quiz show “The $88,000 Jackpot”. Her specialist subject is Superman and her answers are astonishingly accurate. As the days pass (April 1st to June 24th 1953 and strips#857-869), audience attention makes life hell for the Action Ace, reminding viewers of his weaknesses and who he might be in civilian life…

The Atomic Age Superman: – Sunday Pages 1953-1956 is the second of three huge (312 x 245mm), lavish, high-end hardback collections starring the Man of Tomorrow. It’s an inexpressible joy to see these “lost” stories again, offering a far more measured, domesticated and comforting side of America’s most unique contribution to world culture. It’s also a pure delight to see some of the hero’s most engaging yesterdays. Join me and see for yourself…
© 2016 DC Comics. All rights reserved. SUPERMAN and all related characters and elements are trademarks of DC Comics.