Usagi Yojimbo Origins volume 1: Samurai


By Stan Sakai, with colours by Ronda Pattison (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-68405-740-5 eISBN: 978-1-68406-955-2

One of the very best and most adaptable survivors of the 1980s black-&-white comics explosion/implosion is a truly bizarre and wonderful synthesis of historical Japanese samurai fiction and anthropomorphic animal adventure: a perfect example of the versatility and strengths of a creator-owned character.

Usagi Yojimbo (which translates as “rabbit bodyguard”) first appeared as a background character in multi-talented creator Stan Sakai’s peripatetic comedy feature The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, which launched in furry ‘n’ fuzzy folk anthology Albedo Anthropomorphics #1 (1984). He subsequently appeared there on his own terms as well as in Critters Amazing Heroes, Furrlough and a Munden’s Bar back-up in Grimjack.

Sakai was born in 1953 in Kyoto, Japan before the family emigrated to Hawaii in 1955. He attended the University of Hawaii, graduating with a BA in Fine Arts, and pursued further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design after moving to California.

His first comics work was as a letterer, most famously for the Groo the Wanderer, before his nimble pens and brushes, coupled with a love of Japanese history, legend and the films of Akira Kurosawa and his peers, combined to turn a proposed story about a historical human hero into one of the most enticing and impressive – and astonishingly authentic – fantasy sagas of all time.

The deliciously rambling and expansive period fantasy series is nominally set in a world of sentient animals (with a few unobtrusive human characters scattered about) and specifically references the Edo Period of Feudal Japan around the beginning of the 17th century. It simultaneously samples contemporary cultural icons from sources as varied as Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi and even Godzilla. The saga details the life of Miyamoto Usagi, a ronin or masterless samurai, making an honourable living as a Yojimbo or bodyguard for hire. As such, his fate is to be drawn constantly into a plethora of incredible situations.

And yes, he’s a rabbit; a brave, sentimental, gentle, artistic, long-suffering, conscientious and heroic bunny who just can’t turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice…

The Lepine Legend later appeared in Albedo #2-4, The Doomsday Squad #3 and seven issues of Critters (1, 3, 6-7, 10-11 & 14) before leaping into his own long-running series. It was the first of many, relating his adventures and mirrored Sakai’s real-world peregrinations from publisher to publisher.

The Sublime Swordsbun has shifted homes frequently, but has been in continuous publication since 1987 – with more than 40 graphic novel collections and books to date. He’s also guest-starred in numerous other series, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and its TV incarnation) and even almost made it into his own small-screen show but there’s still time yet and fashions can revive as quickly as they die out…

There are high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci-fi comics serial and lots of toys.

Sakai and his creation have won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public, and now, as a venerable mainstay of the American comics landscape, the monochrome wanderer’s early exploits got a modern makeover in 2020. Not strictly chronologically ordered, Usagi Yojimbo Color Classics #1-7 are gathered here to hopefully bring him to a new generation…

Following a brief ‘Introduction’ recapping major characters and scenario, ‘Samurai!’ sees the rabbit ronin again meet money-mad bounty-hunter Gennosuké after a deadly duel of honour leaves a warrior named Gunichi a bloody corpse at the Yojimbo’s feet. Pressed by the newly-arrived and curious Rhino, the moodily moved and uncharacteristically loquacious rabbit shares some of the events of his boyhood…

Once, Miyamoto Usagi was simply the son of a small-town magistrate, dispatched with his friend Kenichi to train at the prestigious Dogora Fencing School in Sendai. As the boys make their journey they encounter a lone, aged warrior beset by a pack of bullies from that self-same school, determined to prove their institution’s martial superiority.

Despite all efforts to placate the hotheads, old Katsuichi is – most reluctantly – compelled to slay the toughs. The stunned witnesses start bickering and – whilst Kenichi wants to follow orders and go on to the (clearly honourless) Dogora School, little Usagi seeks out the old man to be his Sensei…

The elder was finished with teaching but eventually sees something in the defiant, determined little rabbit and grudgingly accepts his exceptional young charge…

Usagi spends years learning the Way of Bushido from his stern, leonine master: not just superior technique and tactics, but also a philosophy of justice and restraint to serve him all his days…

The revelations of Usagi’s boyhood training continue in short, revelatory vignettes – nine in all – as the elder Yojimbo and his surly companion continue towards shelter, highlighting the peculiar relationship of Sensei and Student. At the disciple’s first tournament, the scurrilous, vengeful Dogora adherents scheme to “accidentally” cripple the boy and thus humiliate his teacher, but don’t anticipate his innate ability.

After besting the entire Fencing School contingent in duels with Bokken (wooden swords) the boy at last faces his old friend Kenichi and triumphs. His prize is a Wakizashi “Young Willow” and Katana “Willow Branch”. The short and long swords are the soul of a samurai, marking his graduation to martial maturity, but Usagi is blithely unaware of what his victory has cost his childhood companion…

Mere months later, the graduate warrior is challenged by a masterful, mysterious swordsman who was bodyguard to the Great Lord Mifunė. Their duel is interrupted when a band of Dogora assassins attack, determined to avenge their school’s humiliation by a single stick-wielding student. The cowards are no match for the steel of Usagi and the mighty Gunichi, and the victors part as friends, with the bodyguard promising to recommend the rabbit for future service to his Lord.

Still assessing his options, the young Samurai encounters Kenichi once more. The disgraced youth has left the Dogora School and is trying to drink himself to death, but when he and Usagi hear their home village is threatened by bandits, the former friends reconcile to save their loved ones…

By holding Usagi’s childhood love Mariko hostage, the brigands successfully neutralise his magistrate father and are stripping the hamlet of its provisions and meagre treasures when Usagi and Kenichi challenge them. None of the villains survive the vengeance of the outraged villagers…

In the aftermath, although Mariko clearly wants Usagi to stay, she says nothing and the Samurai leaves to join Lord Mifunė’s service. Kenichi stays…

The young warrior advances quickly as Mifunė’s vassal and is soon a trusted bodyguard, serving beside indomitable Gunichi. It is a time of great unrest and war is brewing, and in Usagi’s third year of service, the Lord’s castle is attacked by Neko Ninja assassins. Although the doughty warriors save their master, his wife Kazumi and heir Tsuruichi are murdered. Realising ambitious rival Lord Hikiji is responsible, Mifunė declares war…

The struggle ends on the great Adachigahara plain when Mifunė’s general Toda switches sides. The Great Lord falls and at the crucial moment Gunichi also breaks, fleeing to save his own skin and leaving outnumbered Usagi to preserve the fallen Lord’s head – and Honour – from shameful desecration…

The story comes full circle now, when after two years as a purposeless, masterless Ronin, the wandering Yojimbo meets Gunichi again…

After the epic origin, short, pithy vignettes cleanse the dramatic palate, beginning with a delicious traditional horror story. In ‘Kappa’ the wanderer encounters a deadly marsh troll at dusk and barely escapes with his life by offering the foul beast some wild cucumbers he has picked. Exhausted, the Ronin finds shelter with an old woman for the night, but when she hears of his adventure she becomes hysterical.

The cucumbers were planted so that her own son – returning that night – would have something to buy off the voracious Kappa. Horrified by his inadvertent error, Usagi dashes back to the marsh to save the son, but after overcoming the monster, shockingly experiences one final sting in the tale…

Moments of peace and contemplation are few in the Yojimbo’s life but, even when a drunken horde interrupt ‘A Quiet Meal’, the rabbit’s patience takes plenty of rousing. Some rude fellows, however, really don’t know when to stop boozing and leave well enough alone…

‘Blind Swords-Pig’ is a sublime comedic parody that sets up future conflicts as the landless lepus meets a formidable companion on the road; one whose incredible olfactory sense more than compensates for his useless eyes. How tragic then that the affable Ino is also a ruthless, blood-spilling outlaw who won’t let comradeship affect his hunger for freedom or carnage…

Closing this collection, ‘Lone Rabbit and Child!’ also sets up major plot threads as the Ronin is hired by beautiful swordswoman Tomoe Ame to protect her Lord Noriyuki. The callow royal child has been travelling to the capital to ratify his role as leader of the prestigious Geishu Clan following the death of his father, but the party has been repeatedly attacked by ninjas working for infamous Hikiji – now risen high in the Emperor’s hierarchy.

The insidious schemer is determined to foil the investiture and appropriate Geishu properties for himself, but has not reckoned on fate and the prowess of the lethally adept Usagi…

Burnished with cover gallery, character sketches and a biography of Stan Sakai, this is a fast-paced yet lyrical compilation; funny, thrilling and simply bursting with veracity and verve. Usagi Yojimbo’s life story is a magical saga of irresistible appeal to delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened hater of “funny animal” stories. If that’s you, why not try some sheer comicbook poetry by a True Master?
Usagi Yojimbo™ © 2020 Stan Sakai. All rights reserved.

Bunny vs Monkey and the Supersonic Aye-Aye


By Jaimie Smart, with Sammy Borras (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-78845-243-4 (TPB)

Bunny vs. Monkey has been a fixture of British comics phenomenon The Phoenix since the very first issue in 2012: recounting a madcap vendetta gripping animal arch-enemies set amidst an idyllic arcadia masquerading as more-or-less mundane English woodlands.

Concocted with gleefully gentle mania by cartoonist, comics artist and novelist Jamie Smart (Fish Head Steve!; Looshkin; Flember), his trend-setting, mind-bending yarns have been wisely retooled as graphic albums available in remastered, double-length digest editions such as this one. In this case, however, here we’ve caught up and the fabulous recycled fun of The Floating Cow Catastrophe is plumped up with new stuff…

All the tail-biting tension and animal argy-bargy began yonks ago after an obnoxious little beast popped up in the wake of a disastrous British space shot. Having crash-landed 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 just could not contain the incorrigible idiot ape, who was – and is – a rude, noise-loving, chaos-creating loutish troublemaker…

Problems are exacerbated by the other unconventional Crinkle creatures, particularly a skunk called Skunky who has a mad scientist’s attitude to life and a propensity to build very dangerous robots and super-weapons…

Here – with artistic assistance from Sammy Borras – the war of nerves and mega-ordnances resumes and intensifies. The unruly assortment of odd critters littering and loitering around the bucolic paradise have finally picked a side (sort of): shifting and twisting into bipartisan factionalism. They all seem to have forgotten that rapidly encroaching Hyoomanz are now well underway in building something called a “motorway” right through the sylvan glades and (apparently) unprotected parks… but they are quite interested in new resident Ai – the supersonic Ai-Ai – and where her allegiances fall…

It all resumes with ‘Insomnia!’ as new girl Ai proves to (a) nocturnal, (b) excitable and (c) a bit of a party animal just as Bunny seeks an early night, after which Monkey makes the mistake of stamping on her new house in his modular ‘Mega Mecha!’ and doesn’t get away with all his mechanical body parts intact and ‘Take to the Skies!’ finds Weenie squirrel and Pig optimistically building an aircraft, despite a blessed lack of knowledge and requisite skills. That doesn’t explain why Monkey insists on being the first to test pilot it…

A rare moment of tranquillity in ‘Time to Get Along!’ finds all the woodland weirdoes sharing a natural hot spring, until acrimony returns when somebody makes a whirlpool and someone else activates a robot shark…

‘Spring’ comes round again, finding the forest full of greenery-gobbling ‘Worms!’ until Monkey accidentally saves the day, before ‘A Great Big Snotty Cold!’ afflicts everyone. The cure is too weaponize the germs into a giant bogie-beast… but it doesn’t end there…

Skunky’s latest “greatest invention” generates ‘Bubble Trouble!’ before he builds his snarky simian sidekick’s dream device – an enormous ‘Metal Monkey!’ – that bears no relationship to the enigmatic and apparently unattended ‘Giant Egg!’ Ai and Bunny stumble across. Was that the reason for her throwing a dinner party for all her new friends and urgently urge them to ‘Eat Up!’ while revealing some culinary secrets nobody wanted to know?

‘Spaaaace!’ finds Skunky trying – but failing – to send Monkey back where he came from, after which ‘Storytime!’ shows Bunny’s literary leanings whilst Weenie and Pig enjoy ‘Mud, Glorious Mud!’ and aliens are erroneously blamed for all the fuss on ‘The Night They Floated Our Cows Away!’

Everyone’s recovered by time soapbox cart fever intoxicates the little critters, resulting in a shock ending for the ‘Screwball 4000!’, after which a different – Ai-sponsored – comic reality results in baffling grudge-match ‘Weenie vs Monkey’ before she races off, oblivious to the attentions of brain-battered, bewildered and besotted former stuntmanAction Beaver in ‘♥’

Skunky’s ploy of creating robot duplicates of his opponents goes just like you’d expect in ‘Double Trouble!’, leaving a certain robot in a tizzy safeguarding rare floral gem ‘The Purple Popplewhatsit!’, just as we ease effortlessly into the middle of the year, with ‘Summer’ heralding the first sighting of Skunky’s latest giant sensation ‘The Walrus!’

Undaunted, the black-&-white bounder almost incinerates the woods with a homemade star making ‘Sun Kinda Trouble!’before building colossal fantasy constructs in ‘The Midnight Dragon’ and spoiling a party whilst the stroppy simian is trapped in a timeloop in ‘Monkeyfloop!’

Catastrophic rivalry erupts as alternate evil genius Maniacal Badger competes with Skunky for a science prize and the title of ‘The Most Brilliant Animal in the Woods!’ whilst a blow to the bonce creates ‘Evil Bunny!’ and Weenie consults the Skunk to achieve the dream of being ‘The Bravest Squirrel in the Woods!’

Monkey triggers road rage by building a motorway around Bunny’s cottage in ‘Beep! Beep!’, yet still find time to completely miss the united animals war against a human invader in ‘Persuasion!’ whilst Weenie’s awesome weaponization of sugary treats in ‘Doughnuts!’ brings us stickily to the ‘Autumn’ segment where ‘A Moment of Solace!’for Skunky still ends in chaos and carnage.

Laziness exacerbates the shameful antics and utter rout of the ‘Monkey Army!’, which leads the valiantly victorious Bunny team to pursue supernatural phenomena in ‘Will-o-de-Wisp!’ Strangely, the glowing phantasm that scarily greets them bears a disturbing resemblance to long-gone local legend Fantastic Le Fox

‘What a Brave Little Squirrel (Part One)!’ begins a strange excursion to a subterranean realm with terror and abandonment on the cards for Weenie, but hope and escape materialise in ‘What a Brave Little Squirrel (Part Two)!’before being driven away again by the secret power source of Skunky’s new hover board in ‘The Flipping Point!’

That so-familiar spectre returns prophesying ‘Grave Danger!’ and in the resultant ‘Panic!’ Bunny becomes a maddened doomsday-prepper, but Weenie is more concerned with culinary success and new kitchen gadget the Multi-Kitchen Buddy in ‘The Other Side!’

At last the doom arrives, but declaring ‘Battle Stations!’ and gathering everybody together and marshalling extraordinary defences amount to nothing and soon distracted Randolph the Raccoon and Ai are pointlessly competing in ‘Runnnn!’ …with Action Beaver and the timestream itself regretting their actions…

‘The Worst Idea You’ve Ever Had!’ finds Monkey yet again ruining Skunky’s plans as the boffin attempts to imprison a ghost before the madness pauses – for now – with ‘The Woodland Devil!’ as the dreaded, doom-laden grave danger arrives and all the animals are caught napping!

The animal anarchy is augmented here with detailed instructions on How to Draw Ai’ and ‘How to Draw Weenie’ so, as well as beguiling your young ’uns with stories, you can use this book to teach them a trade…

The absolute acme of absurdist adventure, Bunny vs Monkey is weird wit, brilliant invention, potent sentiment and superb cartooning all in one eccentrically excellent package: providing jubilant joy for grown-ups of every vintage, even those who claim they only get it for their kids. This is the kind of comic parents beg kids to read to them. Is that you yet?
Text and illustrations © Jamie Smart 2022. All rights reserved.

Bunny vs Monkey and the Supersonic Aye-Aye is published on January 6th 2022 and is available for pre-order now.

Yakari volume 19: The Devil in the Woods


By Derib & Job, coloured by Dominique and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-80044-037-1 (Album PB)

Le Crapaud à lunettes was founded in 1964 by Swiss journalist André Jobin who wrote for it under the pseudonym Job. Three years later he hired fellow French-Swiss artist Claude de Ribaupierre AKA “Derib”. The illustrator had launched his own career as an assistant at Studio Peyo, working on The Smurfs strips for venerable weekly Le Journal de Spirou.

Derib – equally au fait with enticing, comically dynamic “Marcinelle” cartoon style yarns and devastatingly compelling meta-realistic illustrated action epics – went on to become one of the Continent’s most prolific and revered creators.

Many of Derib’s stunning works feature his cherished Western themes; magnificent geographical backdrops and epic landscapes, with Yakari considered by fans and critics to be the strip which first led him to deserved mega-stardom. Debuting in 1969, it details the life of a young Oglala Lakota boy on the Great Plains: set sometime after the introduction of horses by the Conquistadores but before the coming of modern Europeans.

The content and set-up are both stunningly simple and effectively timeless, affording new readers total enjoyment with a minimum of required familiarity or foreknowledge. The series – which has generated two separate animated TV series and a movie release last year – has achieved 40 albums thus far: a testament to the strip’s evergreen vitality and the brilliance of its creators, even though originator Job has moved on and Frenchman Joris Chamblain assumed the writer’s role in 2016.

Overflowing with gentle whimsy and heady compassion, young Yakari enjoys a largely bucolic existence: at one with nature and generally free from privation or strife. For the sake of our delectation, however, the ever-changing seasons are punctuated with the odd crisis. Generally they are resolved without fuss, fame or fanfare by a little lad who is smart, brave and can – thanks to a boon of his totem guide the Great Eagle – chat with all animals. This time, however, the conclusion is far from cheery or cosy and presages dark times ahead for some…

It begins in the depths of winter, with deep snow covering the plains and provender scarce for all. As the youngsters Rainbow, Buffalo Seed and Yakari amuse themselves with his pony Little Thunder, the talkative boy’s father Bold Gazeand hunter Taut Bow urgently seek food. Luck turns their way when a large hehaka (wapiti) rushes right into their arrows. By nightfall the entire tribe has eaten well and the leftovers are preserved and dressed to provide more food in the days to come.

The adults cannot shake the impression that their welcome repast was fleeing from something worse than their arrows, and that apprehension is confirmed in the morning when the tribe discover all the remaining food has gone. The fresh snow carries no trace of the thief…

Ever-inquisitive Yakari wants an explanation and sets out to ask his animal pals, eventually finding strange tracks that might belong to some sort of bear. Incautiously following, he sees the footprints peter out just as beaver chieftain Double-Tooth pops up.

The jolly rodent is disturbed by the news and helps in searching, but as Yakari and Double-Tooth follow tracks that constantly seem to vanish into thin air, Bold Gaze and Taut Bow are trailing the thief with the camp dogs. It’s  a horrific mistake as something unseen kills and eats the valiant hounds!

Dread haunts the humans huddled in their tents that night, but in the morning Yakari and Little Thunder check out and eliminate all the local bears – even the notoriously grumpy and insomniac Grizzly who’s having difficulty hibernating – from the suspect list, unaware that something sinister and malign is tracking them…

Baffled and scared that one of their ursine pals has gone mad, Yakari and the beaver clan build a wonderful trap to catch the mysterious thief, but again the stalker outwits them all: even diverting their suspicions to the most unlikely culprit whilst retaliating by destroying the beavers’ precious dam and home…

With all creatures equally endangered by the “devil”, Yakari and his allies convince the mighty and increasingly irate Grizzly to help them hunt, and before long the arrogant quarry rises to the challenge. It confronts its pursuers but the resultant battle is swift, terrible and sadly inconclusive as their brutal clash triggers an avalanche…

In the eerie aftermath, the Great Eagle arrives and shares some disturbing thoughts that may have terrible implications in days to come…

Originally released in 1994, Le diable des bois was the 20th European album, and although its suspenseful, ominous tone feels like a dark departure from the cheery norm, there’s still plenty of humour and slapstick hijinks to balance the grim proceedings, and – in deference to the younger readers – everything is carried out with sensitivity and wit.

As ever, Derib & Job display astounding and compelling narrative virtuosity in this glorious graphic tour de force highlighting the appealing courage of our diminutive heroes, in a visually stunning, seductively smart saga to delight young and old alike.

Yakari is one of the most unfailingly absorbing all-ages strips ever conceived and should be in every home, right beside Tintin, Uncle Scrooge, Asterix and The Moomins.

Original edition © Derib + Job – Editions du Lombard (Dargaud- Lombard s. a.) 2000. All rights reserved. English translation 2021 © Cinebook Ltd.

Conan the Barbarian Epic Collection volume 3 1973-1974: The Curse of the Golden Skull


By Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Neal Adams, Rich Buckler, Ernie Chan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2655-7 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Savagely Sensational Sagas for All Seasons… 8/10

During the 1970’s the American comic book industry opened up after more than 15 years of calcified publishing practises in response to the censorious, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority: created to police product after the industry suffered its very own McCarthy-style 1950s Witch-hunt.

One of the first genres revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from that sprang translated pulp star Conan the Cimmerian; initially crafted by Roy Thomas & Barry Windsor-Smith. Despite some early teething problems – including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month – the comic adventures of Robert E. Howard’s wandering warrior quickly became as big a success as the revived prose paperbacks which had heralded a world resurgence in tales of fantasy and the supernatural.

After decades away, the brawny brute recently returned to the Aegis of Marvel, who’s first bite of the cherry was retroactively subtitled “the Original Marvel Years” due to the character’s sojourn with other publishers and intellectual properties rights holders.

This third compendium of action fantasy reprints Conan the Barbarian #27-42 plus material from the first Annual and spans June1973 to May 1973 – a period when he was becoming the darling of the Comics world and when artist John Buscema made the hero his very own.

Story content was evermore redolent of pulp-oriented episodic action – much of it based on Thomas’ adaptations of Howard’s (and sometimes, other writers) “heroic” rather than fantasy fiction. Also on show is the inking of long-time Conan illustrator Ernie Chan, using at this time for reasons unimportant now the pen-name “Ernie Chua”.

First up is ‘Blood of Bel-Hissar’: a tight, taut tale of banditry, treacherous hill-chieftains and jinxed gems set in the aftermath of the recently ended War of the Tarim, followed by a gripping jungle-set horror story. ‘Moon of Zembabwei’sees the Cimmerian battling rival thief Thutmekri, witch-dancers and a golden monster ape before ‘Two Against Turan’has the sell-sword joining the army of Howard’s analogue of an Arabic super-state (and how prescient was that?).

Effete and ineffectual King Yildiz – father of Conan’s greatest human enemy, Yezdigerd – features in a tale displaying all of the barbarian’s most compelling qualities as he rescues agitator and new drinking buddy Ormraxes from the city’s torturers: a mistake that almost costs him his life…

Closely following is ‘Hand of Nergal’: another mystic adventure and one not taken directly from a Howard original, although it is derived from a Lin Carter novelette based on Howard’s notes. When Yildiz’s legions clash with the armies of a rebel satrap, sole survivor Conan is eventually pitted against the sorcery-possessed revolutionary and trapped at ground-zero of a clash between elder gods/demons…

Sporting a stunning Windsor-Smith cover, Conan the Barbarian Annual #1 was a reprint vehicle. It’s represented here by the aforementioned pic and text feature ‘The Hyborian Page’ before we head back to the monthly mag where #31 sees Thomas, Buscema & Chan at their brutal best. ‘Shadow in the Tomb’ has become an iconic Conan scenario due to the movies, but it’s a fairly standard monster and mayhem yarn where the allure of sudden wealth awakens something old, arcane and angry…

Further deviating from the prose canon, what follows is a 3-chapter epic based on the novel Flame Winds by Norvell W. Page – author of most of the 1930s pulp adventures of The Spider – with Thomas substituting Conan for wandering crusader Prester John, and setting the tale in Howard’s fabulous and fabled analogue of ancient China: ‘Khitai’.

Beginning in ‘Flame Winds of Lost Khitai’ with the unwelcome Barbarian caught in a war between the seven ruling sorcerers of the city of Wan Tengri, expanding ferociously into urban unrest and eldritch carnage in ‘Death and 7 Wizards’ and cataclysmically concluding with Conan confronting ‘The Temptress in the Tower of Flame!’ and overturning millennia of oppressive civilisation, this roaring romp deals out politics, magic and greed for Conan to overcome before he decides the Orient is not for him…

Heading towards the middle east with aggravating new flunky Bortai, he is driven by desert raiders into trackless wastes to discover a shattered abandoned city. A skeleton grasping an azure gem should be warning enough, but greed overwhelms common sense and before long ‘The Hell-Spawn of Kara-Shehr’ is loosed on the Barbarian and those who still pursue him. That yarn was freely adapted from Howard’s The Fires of Assurbanipal, but ‘Beware the Hykranians Bearing Gifts…’ is all-original: finding Conan finally back in Aghraphur and reporting to King Yildiz, just in time to save the impotentate from mystic assassination, after which Neal Adams steps in to spectacularly limn ‘The Curse of the Golden Skull’ with Conan and new comrade Juma captured by a mad wizard keen on creating a dynasty with the princess they’re bodyguarding.

His Lemurian arts and monsters eventually prove no match for brawny thews and determination after which Buscema and Chan return for Thomas’ spin on Howard’s The House of Arabu. ‘The Warrior and the Were-Woman’, sees the barbarian involved in petty palace politics and targeted by the mate of a monster he recently despatched, and is followed by epic all-original yarn ‘Dragon from the Inland Sea’ wherein Conan sets out to rescue a sacrificial maid from a very determined, very big lizard: a tale with mythological antecedents graced with Buscema inking his own pencils …

Chan is back in in #40 inking Rich Buckler’s pinch-hitter pencilling on ‘The Fiend from the Forgotten City’. Plotted by Michael Resnick, it sadly suffers a notable lack of panache and verve but still provides a solid tale of treachery and tomb-raiders, after which Buscema, Chan & Thomas reunite for new tale ‘The Garden of Death and Life’, as the nomadic mercenary lands in a nameless desert village sustained by a monstrous predatory tree…

We close for now on the ‘Night of the Gargoyle’ – adapted from Howard’s The Purple Heart of Erlik – bringing the action to a halt to a close on a spooky note as Conan returns to thieving and attracts the extremely unwanted attention of mystic adept Lun-Faar and his menagerie of horrors…

These classic tales are burnished by more behind the scenes extras such as a picture feature on the 1974 Conan commemorative coin and Marvel Value Stamp, plus contemporary house ads, 4 Buscema pencil pages and a previous Omnibus Collection cover by Dale Keown & Jason Keith.

Stirring, evocative, and deeply satisfying on a primal level, this is one of the best volumes in a superb series of a paragon of adventurers. What more does any red-blooded, action-starved fan need to know?
© 2021 Conan Properties International, LLC (“CPI”)

Wonder Woman: 80 Years of the Amazon Warrior – The Deluxe Edition


By William Moulton Marston & Harry G. Peter, Trina Robbins, Joye Hummel, Robert Kanigher, Samuel R. Delany, Cary Bates, Roy Thomas, George Pérez, Len Wein, Lynda Carter, William Messner-Loebs, Phil Jimenez,Joe Kelly, Allan Heinberg, Amanda Conner, Brian Azzarello, Mariko TamakiGreg Rucka, Becky Cloonan & Michael W. Conrad, Patty Jenkins, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Dick Giordano, Don Heck, Gene Colan, Jill Thompson, Lee Moder, Gary Frank, Cliff Chiang, Elena Casagrande, Nicola Scott, Jen Bartel & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-7795-1157-7 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Classic Triumphs of Wondrous Empowerment… 9/10

Without doubt Wonder Woman is the very acme of female role models. Since her premier in 1941 she has permeated every aspect of global consciousness and become not only a paradigm of comics’ very fabric but also a symbol to women everywhere. In whatever era you observe, the Amazing Amazon epitomises the eternal balance between Brains and Brawn and, over those decades, has become one of that rarefied pantheon of literary creations to achieve meta-reality.

For decades, the official story was that the Princess of Paradise Island was conceived by psychologist and polygraph pioneer William Moulton Marston: a calculated attempt to offer girls a positive and forceful role model and – for forward-thinking Editor M.C. Gaines – a sound move to sell more funnybooks to girls. From a guest shot in All Star Comics the Amazon immediately catapulted one month later into her own series and the cover-spot of new anthology title Sensation Comics.

An instant hit, Wonder Woman won her eponymous supplemental title a few months later (cover-dated summer 1942). That set up enabled the Star-Spangled Sensation to weather the vicissitudes of the notoriously transient comic book marketplace and survive beyond the Golden Age of costumed heroes beside Superman, Batman and a few lucky hangers-on who inhabited the backs of their titles.

We now know that Wonder Woman was a team if not truly communal effort, with Moulton Marston acting at the behest of his remarkable wife Elizabeth and their life partner Olive Byrne. Barring a couple of early fill-ins by Frank Godwin, the vast majority of outlandish, eccentric, thematically barbed adventures they collectively penned were limned by classical illustrator Harry G. Peter.

This stunning compilation is part of a series introducing and exploring the historical and cultural pedigree of venerable DC icons. Available in hardback and digital formats, it offers a sequence of sublime snapshots detailing how Diana of the Amazons has evolved and thrived in worlds and times where women were generally regarded as second class, second rate, painfully functional or strictly ornamental.

It re-presents material from All-Star Comics #8; Sensation Comics #1; Wonder Woman volume 1 #5, 78, 98, 124, 162, 203, 206; Comic Cavalcade #11; DC Special #3; DC Comics Presents #41; Wonder Woman volume 2 #6, 57, 73, 170;Wonder Woman Annual #1, Wonder Woman volume 4 #23; Wonder Woman #600, 750; Future State: Immortal Wonder Woman #1 and 2: cumulatively covering July 1940 to February 2021. The comics stories are augmented throughout by essays and brief critical analyses from significant personages linked with the Amazon, but we begin with the origin…

‘Introducing Wonder Woman’ was an extra story in All Star Comics #8 (cover-dated December 1941/January 1942), home of the mighty and popular Justice Society of America, and led directly to Wonder Woman Comes to America’: her formal debut in Sensation Comics #1 (January 1942). In combination they reveal how, once upon a time on a hidden island of immortal super-women, American aviator Steve Trevor of US Army Intelligence crashes to Earth. Near death, he is nursed back to health by young, impressionable Princess Diana.

Fearful of her besotted child’s growing obsession with the creature from a long-forgotten and madly violent world, Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyte reveals the hidden history of the Amazons: how they were seduced and betrayed by men but rescued by the goddess Aphrodite on condition that they forever isolate themselves from the mortal world: devoting their eternal lives to becoming ideal rational beings.

However, after Trevor explains the perfidious spy plot which accidentally brought him to the Island enclave and how the planet is in crisis, Athena and Aphrodite instruct the Queen to send an Amazon back with the American to fight for global freedom and liberty. Hippolyte declares an open contest to find the best candidate and, despite being forbidden to compete, young closeted, cosseted Diana clandestinely overcomes all other candidates to become their emissary.

Accepting the will of the gods, the worried mother outfits Diana in the guise of Wonder Woman and sends her out to Man’s World armed with an arsenal of super-scientific and magical weapons…

Leading from the front in her own series in anthological Sensation Comics, the first tale resumed where the introduction left off. ‘Wonder Woman Comes to America’ sees the eager culture-shocked immigrant returning the recuperating Trevor to Man’s World before trouncing a gang of bank robbers and briefly falling in with a show business swindler.

An intriguing innovation was her buying her secret identity from lovelorn Army nurse Diana Prince, elegantly allowing the Amazon to be close to Steve whilst enabling the heartsick medic to join her fiancé in South America. Even with all that going on, there was still room for Wonder Woman and Captain Trevor to bust up a spy ring attempting to use poison gas on a Draft Induction centre. Typically, Steve breaks his leg and ends up in hospital again, where “Nurse Prince” looks after him…

New Diana gained a position with Army Intelligence as secretary to General Darnell, further ensuring she would always be able to watch over her beloved. She little suspected that, although painfully shallow Steve only had eyes for the dazzling superwoman, the General had fallen for mousy but supremely competent Lieutenant Prince…

As previously mentioned, the Amazing Amazon was a huge and ever-growing hit, gaining her own title in late Spring of 1942 (cover-dated Summer). This comic frequently innovated with full-length stories, and the extract here – the opening chapter of Wonder Woman #5, June/July 1943 – presented an interlinked epic: the ‘Battle for Womanhood’ that had repercussion for the cast for decades to come.

War-god Mars (who had instigated the World War from his HQ on the red planet through earthly pawns Hitler, Mussoliniand Hirohito) returns to plague humanity directly, this time enlisting the aid of a brilliant but physically deformed and intellectually demented woman-hating psychologist with psychic powers. Tormented Dr. Psycho uses his gifts to marry and dominate a medium named Marva, employing her unique abilities to form ectoplasmic bodies as he seeks to enslave every woman on Earth. Allegorical or what, huh?

Veteran cartoonist and herself something of a feminist icon, Trina Robbins shares her thoughts on ‘Wonder Woman’before the Golden Age delights resume with The Cheetah Returns!’ (Comics Cavalcade #11, Summer1945) as the savage miscreant and symbol of selfish, chaotic wilfulness wreaks havoc after escaping prison and replacing her remarkably similar-seeming cousin…

Drawn by Peter, this tale was scripted by another lost author – Joye Hummel. Born in 1924 and forgotten for decades, she ghost-wrote at least 70 Wonder Woman stories between 1944 and 1947 as Marston gradually succumbed to cancer. She left, ostensibly to raise a family but apparently because themes of universal female autonomy were being editorially edged out by male management…

The dawn era of superheroes was drawing to a close and fantasy was giving way to grittier, more manly themes. Included here is a rare treat, as ‘The Cheetah’s Thought Prisoners’ finds the cat criminal released on a legal technicality and using Amazon thought modification to torment and dominate her archenemy and friends.

With the author unknown – could it be Hummel? – this H.G. Peter yarn was scheduled for Comic Cavalcade but shelved when that quarterly became a funny animal title. Eventually exhumed and published in reprint giant DC Special #3 (June 1969), it shows the dangerous power of a woman in command!

By the time of Wonder Woman #78 (November 1955) Robert Kanigher was scripting Diana’s dramas and ‘Zero Hour for an Amazon!’ sees her struggling but triumphing after all her magic weapons malfunction: a standard tale as the author sought to maintain the series status quo.

Utilising group nom de plume Charles Moulton, Marston – and his collaborators, albeit with the women uniformly unacknowledged and uncredited for decades – generated the Amazon’s amazing exploits until his death in 1947, whereupon Kanigher ultimately assumed command with the venerable Peter soldiering on until his own death in 1958. Wonder Woman #97 – in April of that year – was his last hurrah and the end of an era.

Ross Andru & Mike Esposito had debuted as cover artists 3 issues earlier, but with the opening inclusion of Wonder Woman #98, took over the visual component whilst Kanigher reinvented much of the old mythology and even tinkered with her origins.

Whilst costumed colleagues foundered, Wonder Woman soldiered on well into the Silver Age and far beyond it, benefitting from constant revisionism under Kanigher’s canny auspices: re-energising her for the Silver Age renaissance and beyond…

With the exception of DC’s “Trinity” (plus those few innocuous back-up features like Aquaman and Green Arrow), superheroes all but vanished at the end of the 1940s, replaced by mostly mortal champions in a deluge of anthologised genre titles. Everything changed again after Showcase #4 rekindled the public’s interest in costumed crimebusters with a new iteration of The Flash in 1956.

From the moment those fanciful floodgates opened wide once more, and whilst re-inventing Golden Age Greats such as Green Lantern, The Atom and Hawkman, National/DC began updating the venerable veteran survivors who had weathered the 1950s backlash – none more so than the ever-resilient Amazon.

As editor, Kanigher had always tweaked or reinvented much of the original mythos, but now his tinkering with her origins unleashed a very enthusiastic yet motherly Diana on an unsuspecting world in a fanciful blend of girlish whimsy, rampant sexism, strange romance, alien invasion, monster-mashing, utterly surreal almost stream-of-consciousness storytelling. This was at a time when all DC’s newly revived, revised or reinvented costumed champions were getting together and teaming up at the drop of a hat – as indeed was the Princess of Power – in Justice League of America. However, within the pages of her own title, a timeless, isolated fantasy universe was carrying on much as it always had. Here, that transition is marked by ‘The Million Dollar Penny!’ from #98 (May 1958) with Kanigher, Andru & Esposito reinventing the mythology and adjusting her origins…

When goddess Athena visits an island of super-scientific, immortal women, she informs Queen Hippolyta that she must send an emissary and champion of justice to crime-ridden “Man’s World.”

Declaring an open competition for the job, the queen isn’t surprised when her daughter Diana wins. She is then given the task of turning one penny into a million dollars in a day – all profits going to children’s charities, of course…

Just as the new Wonder Woman commences her coin chore, American airman Steve Trevor bails out of his malfunctioning jet high above the magically hidden isle, unaware that should any male set foot on Amazon soil the immortals would lose all their powers. Promptly thwarting impending disaster, Diana and Steve team up to accomplish her task, encountering along the way ‘The Undersea Menace’ before building ‘The Impossible Bridge!’

Following a chat about the comic champion’s real world influence ‘In Conversation with Gal Godot’, mythic madness resumes with ‘The Impossible Day!’ (WW #124, August 1961).

Amazon science (and the unfettered imagination of Kanigher, for whom slavish continuity, consistency or rationality were never as important as strong plots or breathtaking visuals) had already enabled readers to share the adventures of the teenaged Wonder Girl and toddler Wonder Tot both in their appropriate time-zones and, on occasion, teamed together on “Impossible Days”.

Here Tot, Teen and adult teamed together against shape-shifting nuclear threat Multiple Man, with the threat or promise of more pairings to come…

As the 1960s progressed Wonder Woman was looking tired and increasingly out of step with the rest of National/DC’s gradually gelling – and ultimately cohesively shared – continuity but, by the decade’s close, a radical overhaul was on the cards – but before looking forward, the company turned back…

Kanigher never forgot he was writing comic books and constantly pointed it out to the readership – even though their preference might not be to have narrative rules, and suspension of disbelief flouted whilst fourth walls were continually broached. In #158 (not included here), he gathered the entire – vast – series cast in his office and told them that most were fired. Readers were then challenged to guess who would be back for the Big Change…

The promised reboot consisted of a full switch to the faux 1940’s stories mimicking the triumphs of the Golden Age.

‘The Startling Secret of Diana Prince!’ opened WW #162, (May 1966) by reworking Sensation Comics #1, relating again how the Paradise Island Émigré purchased the identity and papers of lovelorn Army Nurse Diana Prince to be close to Trevor at all times…

By 1968 superhero comics were again in deep decline and publishers sought new ways to stay profitable – or even just in business – as audience tastes and American society evolved. Back then, with the industry dependent on newsstand sales, if you weren’t popular, you died.

Handing over the increasingly moribund title to Editor Jack Miller and Mike Sekowsky, the bosses sat back and waited for their eventual failure, and prepared to cancel the only female superhero in the marketplace. Sekowsky’s unique visualisation of the JLA had contributed to that title’s overwhelming success, and at this time he was stretching himself with a number of experimental projects, focussed on teen and youth-markets.

With scripter Denny O’Neil, he killed Steve Trevor, removed the Amazons and Paradise Island, taking with them all their magic and paraphernalia – including Diana’s astounding weapons, Invisible Plane, Golden Lasso and mighty superpowers. Despite all that, her love for Steve compelled her to remain on Earth. Effectively becoming her own secret identity of Diana Prince, the now-mortal champion resolved to fight injustice as a human would…

Sekowsky’s root and branch overhaul offered a whole new kind of Wonder Woman (one heavily based on TV character Emma Peel) but, as always, fashion ruled and in a few years, without any fanfare or warning, everything that had happened since Wonder Woman lost her powers was unwritten.

From that period comes the last adventure of Diana Prince, with celebrated novelist Samuel R. Delaney joining Dick Giordano to take the hero – abortively – in a fascinating new direction. Socially-aware polemic ‘The Grandee Caper’(December 1972) sees Ms. Prince championing underpaid, bullied and exploited department store workers (all women because they can be legally paid less) in a tale that pulls no punches, offers no easy solutions and can’t even manage a happy ending…

A true landmark in every way, it was immediately scuppered as – without warning or explanation – the superpowered Amazon was back in the next issue. Not included here but crucial to know is that in #204, her mythical origins were revised and re-established as she abruptly returned to a world of immortals, gods, magic monster and super-villains. There was even a new nemesis: an Greco-African American half-sister named Nubia

Such an abrupt reversal had tongues wagging and heads spinning in fan circles. Had the series offended some shady “higher-ups” who didn’t want controversy or a shake-up of the status quo?

Probably not.

Sales were never great even on Sekowsky’s run and the most logical reason is probably television. Wonder Woman had been under option since the 1966 Batman TV show and by this time (1973) production had begun on an original pilot featuring Cathy Lee Crosby. An rapid return to the character most viewers were familiar with from their own childhoods seems perfectly logical to me. By the time Linda Carter made the concept work in 1975, Wonder Woman was once again “Stronger than Hercules, swifter than Mercury and more beautiful than Aphrodite”…

Eventually however – after the TV-inspired sales boost ended with the show’s cancellation – the comic slumped into another decline, leading to another revamp. Showcasing that tenuous era is ‘War of the Wonder Women!’ from #206, (July 1973) in which Cary Bates, Don Heck & Vince Colletta pit the Amazon and Nubia against war god Mars and discover the origins of Diana’s long-lost twin sister…

Another relaunch and return to past glory came in DC Comics Presents #41 (January 1982) as a “Prevue” insert by Roy Thomas, Gene Colan & Romeo Tanghal offered (‘A Bold New Direction for Wonder Woman’). It entailed returning Captain Prince and resurrected Colonel Trevor to military intelligence duty just in time for the Amazon to enjoy a costume tweak and settle old scores with Hercules – the demigod who abused his mother and brought about the first fall of the Amazons…

Those themes were key to the next iteration of the Amazon. Following Crisis on Infinite Earths’ mass restructuring of continuity, Diana was radically re-imagined for the modern DCU. Her comic series started again from #1, with a February 1987 cover-date, crafted by Greg Potter, George Pérez & Bruce Patterson. The new history revealed how Amazons are actually reincarnated souls of women murdered by men in primordial times. Given potent new form by female Hellenic gods, they thrived in a segregated city of aloof and indomitable women until war god Ares orchestrated their downfall via his demigod dupe Herakles.

Abused, subjugated and despondent, the Amazons were rescued by their patron goddesses in return for eternal penance in isolation on hidden the island of Themyscira.

Into that paradise Diana was born: another murdered soul imbued with life in an infant body made from clay. She excelled in every endeavour and became the Wonder Woman…

After relocating to the outer world, Diana becomes an inspirational figure and global hero whilst constantly trying to integrate and understand the madness of “Patriarch’s World”, but only after saving all mankind from armageddon…

Concluding the initial story arc, ‘Powerplay’ – by George Pérez, Len Wein & Bruce Patterson from Wonder Woman volume 2 #1, 6 (July 1987) – sees a naive but valiant Diana fighting beside an elderly Steve Trevor who will never be her romantic partner and a select band of mortal friends to stop Ares and his vile children from making mankind destroy itself with nuclear war. Driven by the unbounded creativity and sensitivity of Pérez, this incarnation was possibly the most effective, entertaining and true to the Marston group’s original concept…

‘In Conversation with Gal Godot’ precedes ‘The Fugitive Kind’ (Wonder Woman vol. 2 #57, August 1991) with Pérez scripting for illustrator Jill Thompson & Romeo Tanghal as the Amazon is blamed for a massacre in Gotham City…

William Messner, Lee Moder & Ande Parks take the displaced Amazon further into fresh territory in ‘Losses’ (Wonder Woman vol. 2 #73, April 1993) as Themyscira vanishes from Earth and Diana, deprived of financial support, starts looking for work and a place to live, ignorant of the machinations of a new foe…

Change became a constant and by the time of ‘She’s a Wonder!’ (Wonder Woman vol. 2 #170, July 2001) by Phil Jimenez, Joe Kelly & Andy Lanning, she is again a global celebrity.

This beguiling day-in-the-life tale sees Lois Lane interviewing the superhero/Themysciran cultural ambassador to Mans’s World during a typical day, providing readers with valuable insights into the heroine and the woman.

‘Backstory’ from Wonder Woman Annual #1 (November 2007) has Allan Heinberg, Gary Frank & Jon Sibal set intelligence operatives Diana Prince and Nemesis on the trail of Wonder Woman following her execution of Maxwell Lordduring the Infinite Crisis event: a sharp way of updating the readership in a time of rapid and sweeping change, after which Amanda Conner delivers a sliver of sheer delight as the Amazon and Power Girl hilariously bond over baddie bashing and cat care tips in ‘Fuzzy Logic’ from Wonder Woman #600 (August 2010).

In 2011, the entire DCU was reimagined and Wonder Woman enjoyed one of the biggest upheavals, learning that she was not born from clay but was actually an illegitimate daughter of ever-philandering Zeus. Her life became a melee of shifting alliances or constant battle against outraged deities and fellow demigods culminating in ‘God Down’ (Wonder Woman volume 4 #23, October 2013). Here Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang detail the death of gods, defeat of the usurping First Born and the creation of anew god of war after which Wonder Woman #750 (March 2020) provides a brace of tales starting with Mariko Tamaki & Elena Casagrande’s ‘The Interrogation’.

Here Diana again defeats Ares – but in a most unconventional manner – whilst ‘Never Change’ by Greg Rucka & Nicola Scott sees her and former archenemy Circe offer one final chance at redemption and salvation to the monstrous Cheetah…

The comics conclude with a glimpse at a potential tomorrow. Future State: Immortal Wonder Woman #1 and 2 (January & February 2021) reveals how Diana copes with the end of existence in an impossibly distant tomorrow populated by ghosts and hardy survivors – like Superman and Darkseid – in an intriguing continued epic by Becky Cloonan & Michael W, Conrad, & Jen Bartel.

‘In Conversation with Patty Jenkins’ provides some final thoughts from the Wonder Woman. movies’ director to wrap up the celebrations…

Wonder Woman is a primal figure of comic fiction and global symbol, and looks set to remain one. This compilation might not be all of her best material but it is a solid representation of what gave her such fame and should grace any fan’s collection.
© 1941, 1943, 1945, 1955, 1958, 1961, 1966, 1969, 1973, 1982, 1987, 1991, 1993, 2001, 2007, 2010, 2013, 2020, 2021 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic volume 1


By Katie Cook, Andy Price, Heather Breckel & various (IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-61377-605-6 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Inexplicably Adorable and Absolutely Entertaining Romps and Hi-jinks… 8/10

The older I get – a close-run thing in itself, some days – the more I realise how little I know or understand. I’m all about comics, me, and I’m considered by many who’ve bought my books but haven’t actually met me as something of an expert. I’m also always up for a challenge so here’s a hopefully fair review of a graphic novel series that normally I wouldn’t go near…

My Little Pony is a toy and merchandising phenomenon that developed out of a failed line. Constantly reinvented and relaunched, My Pretty Pony debuted in 1981 but was quickly retooled into what we know today. The first successful toy line ran from 1982 to 1992 in the US and 1995 in the rest of the world. The brand was relaunched in 1997, 2003 and 2010, with another line revision this year. If you need more information, there’s this thing called the internet…

These comics are based on the 2010 designs and concepts and this initial collection gathers #1-4 of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic: a vivid and charming reboot whose toys were sold until October 2019.  The next big thing is – or will be – My Little Pony: A New Generation

Here, however, we visit the land of Equestria; a realm of magical horses like unicorns and Pegasuses, each blessed with special powers and a distinguishing symbol on their flanks: a “cutie mark”. It’s not all fun and games though, as we share the adventures of Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, Fluttershy, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, the Cutie Mark Crusaders (think equine equivalents of Carl Barks’ Little Chickadees) and little dragon Spike, especially after their idyllic life is threatened by darkly demonic Queen Chrysalis who is determined to end the benevolent and protective nurturing rule of magical Princess Celestia

Crafted by writer Katie Cook, illustrator Andy Price, colourist Heather Breckel and letterers Bobbie Robbins & Neil Uyatake, a shocking threat manifests with ‘The Return of Queen Chrysalis’ as all the younger horses and other creatures begin acting weirdly aloof and even hostile…

At first, it’s easy to write it off as bad moods and the impending stellar event of the Secretariat Comet about to narrowly miss Equestria, but as the day passes and the situation deepens, Rainbow Dash and Applejack investigate, and discover things are getting worse by the moment.

Even after calling in all their friends they are unable to contact Princess Celestia and so set out to solve the problem themselves. When diabolical Chrysalis taunts them and kidnaps the ever-eager Cutie Mark Crusaders, our stalwart steeds boldly undertake a fantastic quest under the brooding Appaloosan Mountain range to save the foolish foals, encountering cave trolls, monster spiders, demonic minions, carnivorous plants, Chupacabra and worse before confronting the malign sorceress and beginning a battle of magic they cannot hope to win.

And yet…

Fizzy, ebullient and intoxicatingly silly, this is an astonishingly witty and smart yarn mixing affirming values of friendship and cooperation with good old fashioned fun, thrills and sharp comedy, delivered with stunning visual flourish: a tale as much for parents as the kids they’re rearing.

Adding lustre to joyous laughter are all-Cook short yarns ‘How Much is That Pony in the Window?’ and ‘In the Interim…’, an art gallery by Price and covers and variants by Jill Thompson, Cook, Amy Mebberson, Stephanie Buscema, Amanda Connor & Paul Mounts, J. Scott Campbell & Nei Ruffino.

Despite my preconceptions and misgivings, this book is one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen this year and is well worth a bit of your time and attention.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic volume 1 © 2013 Hasbro. All Rights Reserved.

Yakari volume 18: The Wall of Fire


By Derib & Job, coloured by Dominique and translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-591-2 (Album PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Superb All-Ages Entertainment and Adventure… 9/10

Children’s magazine Le Crapaud à lunettes was founded in 1964 by Swiss journalist André Jobin who then wrote for it under the pseudonym Job. Three years later he hired fellow French-Swiss artist Claude de Ribaupierre AKA “Derib”. The illustrator had launched his own career as an assistant at Studio Peyo (home of Les Schtroumpfs), working on The Smurfs strips for venerable weekly Le Journal de Spirou. Together, they created the splendid Adventures of the Owl Pythagore before striking pure comics gold a few years later with their next collaboration.

Derib – equally au fait with enticing, comically dynamic “Marcinelle” cartoon style yarns and devastatingly compelling meta-realistic action illustrated action epics – went on to become one of the Continent’s most prolific and revered creators. It’s a crime that groundbreaking strips such as Celui-qui-est-né-deux-fois, Jo (the first comic ever published dealing with AIDS), Pour toi, Sandra and La Grande Saga Indienne) haven’t been translated into English yet, but we still patiently wait in hope and anticipation…

Many of Derib’s stunning works over the decades feature his cherished Western themes; magnificent geographical backdrops and epic landscapes. Yakari is considered by fans and critics to be the strip which first led him to deserved mega-stardom.

Debuting in 1969, Yakari follows the life of a young Oglala Lakota boy on the Great Plains and is set sometime after the introduction of horses by the Conquistadores but before the coming of modern Europeans.

The series – which has generated two separate animated TV series and a movie release last year – has achieved 40 albums thus far: a testament to the strip’s evergreen vitality and the brilliance of its creators, even though originator Job has moved on and Frenchman Joris Chamblain assumed the writer’s role in 2016.

Overflowing with gentle whimsy and heady compassion, young Yakari enjoys a largely bucolic existence: at one with nature and generally free from privation or strife. For the sake of our delectation, however, the ever-changing seasons are punctuated with the odd crisis, generally resolved without fuss, fame or fanfare by a little lad who is smart, brave… and can – thanks to a boon of his totem guide the Great Eagle converse with all animals …

Originally released in 1993, la barrière de feu was the 19th European album, but – as always with the best books – the content and set-up are both stunningly simple and effectively timeless, affording new readers total enjoyment with a minimum of familiarity or foreknowledge required…

This time, the little wonder is embroiled in uncharacteristically dark deeds as a raiding party led by Wild Mane results in the loss of all the horses – except valiant pony Little Thunder who not only escapes but also raises the alarm and rouses the sleeping tribe.

As the adults set out on foot to recover their steeds and reclaim their honour, little Yakari tracks his equine friend and is amazed to find Little Thunder is trailing his stolen herdmates. As he follows, the loquacious lad meets a flying squirrel who kindly offers to act as an advance scout…

While the grown-ups are stymied by their cunning quarry’s tactics, the tiny tree-hugger rapidly reunites the boy with his horse and the trio set off together after the thieves. All too soon they have located the raiders, but instead of useless heroic gestures they sagely seek out Yakari’s father and lead his team to the thieves.

Dauntingly, it’s a nomadic convocation of thousands, and a retaliatory raid seems impossible. Moreover, something is shadowing the stalkers themselves, ever unseen but even getting close enough to steal supplies while they’re being carried! The adults are seriously considering swallowing their shame and retreating, but Yakari cannot let go of the notion that something is smarter than he is…

Ultimately, with help from his bestial buddies, the mystery is solved and the boy meets a new friend: a wounded lynx. The beautiful, cunning creature shows the curious kid a new trick: a sticky black liquid that oozes out of the ground and is ideal for sealing wounds.

When the shaman sees it he recognises it for all its many properties, including a tendency to burn, which gives Yakari’s father an inspired idea for countering the raiders’ superior numbers and getting back the tribe’s most treasured possessions…

Exotically enticing, deviously educational and wildly entertaining, this boldly action-packed and splendidly spectacular yarn sees Yakari’s gifts not only used to benefit his people and animal friends but also with the full acknowledgement of the adults he’s previously been unknowingly slighted by. Is our boy finally on the path to being a man?

Once again, Derib & Job display their astounding and compelling narrative virtuosity in another glorious graphic tour de force capturing the appealing courage of our diminutive heroes, and a visually stunning, seductively smart saga to delight young and old alike.

Yakari is one of the most unfailingly absorbing all-ages strips ever conceived and should be in every home, right beside Tintin, Uncle Scrooge, Asterix and The Moomins.
Original edition © Derib + Job – Editions du Lombard (Dargaud- Lombard s. a.) 1993. All rights reserved. English translation 2020 © Cinebook Ltd.

Conan the Barbarian Epic Collection: volume 2: Hawks from the Sea 1972-1973


By Roy Thomas & Barry Windsor-Smith, with Michael Moorcock, James Cawthorn, Gil Kane, John Buscema, Sal Buscema & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2655-7 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Sensational Sagas for All Seasons… 9/10

During the 1970’s the American comic book industry opened up after more than 15 years of cautiously calcified publishing practises in response to the censorious oversight of the self- inflicted Comics Code Authority: created to police the publishers’ product after the industry suffered its very own McCarthy-style 1950s Witch-hunt.

One of the first genres revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from that sprang adapted pulp legend Conan the Cimmerian, via an anthological yarn in Chamber of Darkness #4, whose hero bore deliberate thematic resemblance to the Barbarian. It was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Barry (now Windsor-) Smith, a recent Marvel find, and one who was gradually breaking out of the company’s all-encompassing Jack Kirby house-style.

Despite some early teething problems – including being cancelled and reinstated in the same month – the comic book adventures of Robert E. Howard’s brawny warrior soon became as big a success as the revived prose paperbacks which had heralded a world resurgence in tales of fantasy and the supernatural.

After decades away, the brawny brute recently returned to the Aegis of Marvel, subtitled “the Original Marvel Years” due to the character’s sojourn with other publishers and intellectual properties rights holders. This second selection of groundbreaking action fantasy yarns features the contents of Conan the Barbarian #14-26 spanning March 1972-May 1973 – a period when the character was swiftly becoming the darling of the Comics world – and features two creators riding the crest of that creative wave. Digitally remastered and available in trade paperback or digital formats, these absorbing arcane adventures sparked a revolution in comics and a franchising empire in my youth, and are certainly good enough to do so once again.

As we hurtle back in time approximately 12,000 years into a forgotten age of wonders, the dramas open with a classic map of ‘The Hyborean Age of Conan’ plus an accompanying quote I’m sure every devoted acolyte already knows by heart…

The fabulous pictorial fantasy resumes with a tempestuous transatlantic team-up as Conan meets Michael Moorcock’s groundbreaking icon Elric of Melniboné in a 2-part tale freely adapted by Thomas, Windsor-Smith & Sal Buscema from a treatment by the British cult author and his frequent collaborator James Cawthorn.

Elric was a landmark of the Sword & Sorcery genre: last ruler of a pre-human civilization. The denizens of Melniboné were a race of cruel, arrogant sorcerers: dissolute creatures in a slow, decadent decline after millennia of dominance over the Earth.

An albino, Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of his line, is physically weak and possessed of a brooding, philosophical temperament, caring for nothing save his beautiful cousin Cymoril, even though her brother Prince Yrrkoon openly lusts for her and his throne.

Elric doesn’t even really want to rule, but will execute his duty. He is the only one of his race to see the newly evolved race of Man as a threat to the Empire and owns – or is possessed by – black sword Stormbringer: a magical blade which drinks the souls of its victims to feed their vitality to the albino.

His life is all blood and tragedy, exacerbated by his despised dependence on the black sword and his sworn allegiance to the chimerical Lord of Chaos Arioch

Heady stuff for those simpler comic book times: the “White Wolf “was the complete antithesis of roistering lusty, impetuous Conan, who was drawn into a trans-dimensional conflict after rescuing old associate Zephra from marauding Chaos Warriors in ‘A Sword Called Stormbringer!’

She was the daughter of Zukala: a wizard who strangely bore no animosity towards the barbarian youth who had shattered his power and maimed his face the last time they clashed. In fact, the mage wanted to hire Conan to stop rival wizard Kulan Gath from rousing a sleeping demon queen from another realm…

The promise of much gold convinces the normally magic-averse warrior to accept the commission and soon he and Zephra are riding hard for the lake beneath which lies Terhali of Melniboné. They are unaware that Xiombarg, Queen of Swords (and rival Lord of Chaos) has despatched her own warriors to intercept them. As they near the haunted mere, the humans meet a gaunt, eerie albino with his own reasons for seeking out Terhali.

After a violent misunderstanding, Conan and Elric call a suspicious truce, intent on stopping Kulan Gath, his patron Xiombarg and a small army of Chaos killers. However, once the unlikely trio of world savers reach submerged city Yagala, they find ‘The Green Empress of Melniboné!’ is wide awake and intends making her apocalyptic mark on the Hyborian Age…

It takes the callous intervention of Arkyn, Lord of Order and Zephra’s willing sacrifice to end the emerald menace before the heartsick heroes part: each riding towards his own foredoomed destiny…

Conan #16 featured a sort-of reprint in ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter’: a haunting, racy tale written by Howard and originally adapted in black-&-white for Savage Tales #1. It was slotted into the monthly schedule here after Windsor-Smith first resigned – citing punishing deadlines and poor reproduction values of the now monthly title.

The original monochrome magazine was an early attempt to enter the more adult market, so when it was reprinted, Smith’s art had to be judiciously censored to obscure some female body parts youngsters might be corrupted by. Even so, it remains a beautiful piece of work job by Smith and comes with another map of ‘The Hyborian Age of Conan’.

The artist’s resignation triggered a frantic scrabble for a replacement, which happily brought forth avid R.E. Howard fan Gil Kane, who lent his galvanic dynamism to a stunning 2-part adaptation of a prose short story originally starring Celtic hero Black Turlogh O’Brien

Inked by Ralph Reese, ‘The Gods of Bal-Sagoth’ opens as Conan clashes once again with former foe and current pirate chief Fafnir, before the ship they ride in founders in a storm. As the only survivors, Cimmerian and Vanirman wash ashore on a mist-enshrouded island and fall into a savage power struggle between ambitious castaway Kyrie – who claims to be the incarnation of goddess Aala – and High Priest Gothan who rules the oldest kingdom in the world through sorcery and his puppet King Ska

Now, the faux deity employs an ancient prophecy concerning two warriors from the sea to make her play, but only slaughter and cataclysm result after the insurgency releases ‘The Thing in the Temple’ (inked by Dan Adkins)…

Clearly refreshed and re-inspired, Windsor-Smith returned with #19 for a defining magnum opus, wherein the Cimmerian and Fafnir – last survivors of drowned Bal-Sagoth – are picked up and pressed into service with the invasion fleet of a power-hungry prince…

Developed and adapted from Howard’s lost historical classic The Shadow of the Vulture, the War of the Tarim was a bold epic embroiling the still-young wanderer in a Holy War between city-state Makkalet and expansionist the Empire of Turan, led by ambitious Prince Yezdigerd. He would become a bitter, life-long enemy of our sword-wielding swashbuckler.

‘Hawks of the Sea’ opens slowly as the outlanders learn the ostensible reason for the conflict – the abduction of the current fleshly receptacle of Living God Tarim – but soon kicks into high gear when Yezdigerd’s initial beachhead in Makkalet is repulsed by sorcery. Only Conan’s inimitable prowess and ingenuity allows any survivors to escape back to the relative safety of their ships…

The Cimmerian later joins a commando raid to steal back the man-god and meets a “temple-wench” who turns out to be the city-state’s embattled queen. The mission goes bloodily awry when Machiavellian high priest Kharam-Akkadunleashes the citadel’s ‘Black Hound of Vengeance!’ Barely surviving the beast’s fury, Conan returns to Yezdigerd’s flagship where – upon discovering what the invaders have done with their own burdensome wounded – he maims the Turanian prince and jumps ship…

Grandeur and terror spike with ‘The Monster of the Monoliths!’ (inked by Adkins, P. Craig Russell, Val Mayerik & Sal Buscema) as Conan – at risk of his life – defects to besieged Makkalet and is promptly commissioned by ineffectual King Eannatum to ride through the lines with a small company of men and seek allies and assistance amongst the Queen’s noble but distant family.

Little does he realise he’s been judged expendable but a worthwhile sacrifice for an arcane antediluvian horror from beyond the mortal realms… but then again, little does the loathsome travesty of nature understand the nature of the man it’s been offered…

Conan the Barbarian #22 was a reprint, represented here by the cover and a ‘Special Hyborian Page Pin-up! before inkers Adkins & Chic Stone and the dream-team restart hostilities in ‘The Shadow of the Vulture!’: setting the scene and introducing trend-setting warrior Red Sonja, a female mercenary who would take fantasy fans by storm, especially since the next chapter, ‘The Song of Red Sonja’ – drawn, inked & coloured by Windsor-Smith – became one of the most popular and reprinted stories of the decade. It went on to win the 1973 Academy of Comic Book Arts Awards in the Best Individual Story (Dramatic) category, but was also the restless illustrator’s colour comic swansong…

On his departure, Thomas commenced a long and fruitful partnership with John Buscema, who, in fact, had been Thomas’s first choice to draw Conan, but was deemed by then-publisher Martin Goodman too valuable to waste on a mere licensed property…

Issue #25 introduced Big John via ‘The Mirrors of Kharam Akkad’ (inked by brother Sal and the legendary John Severin): incorporating a loose adaptation of Howard’s King Kull tale The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune while setting the pieces in play for a spectacular conclusion…

The war ended in raw, grimly ironic fashion in ‘The Hour of the Griffin!’ – inked by Ernie Chua (nee Chan) – and swiftly silenced all the nay-sayers who claimed that Conan would die without its original artist…

Even greater heights would be scaled in the months and years to come…

Also included in this grand grimoire of graphic thrills are another map; 16 pages of original art and covers by Windsor-Smith and Kane plus fascinating documents from the Comics Code Authority, listing art changes needed before they allowed ‘The Frost Giant’ Daughter’ to be published, as well as “before-&-after” changes demanded for ‘The Song of Red Sonja’.

This treasure trove then closes with a selection of past collection covers  by John Buscema & Marie Javins and John Cassaday & Laura Martin.

Stirring, evocative, deeply satisfying, this is one of the best collections in a superb series of a paragon of adventurers. What more does any red-blooded, action-starved fan need to know?
© 2020 Conan Properties International, LLC (“CPI”)

Showcase Presents Wonder Woman volume 2


By Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1373-2 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Silly Sagas and Some Socially Forbidden Fruits… 8/10

Until DC finally get around to republishing and digitally releasing their vast untapped comic treasures, I’m reduced to recommending some of their superb past printed glories whenever I feel like celebrating a key anniversary of the world’s preeminent female superhero who first caught the public’s attention in October 8 decades ago…

Wonder Woman was created by polygraph pioneer William Moulton Marston – apparently at the behest of his remarkable wife Elizabeth and their life partner Olive Byrne. The vast majority of the outlandish adventures they collectively penned were limned by classical illustrator Harry G. Peter.

The Astounding Amazon debuted in All Star Comics #8 (cover-dated December 1941) before gaining her own series and the cover-spot in new anthology title Sensation Comics a month later. She was an instant hit, and won her own eponymous title in late Spring of that year (Summer 1942).

Using the nom de plume Charles Moulton, Marston & Co – the women unacknowledged and uncredited for decades – scripted all the Amazing Amazon’s many and fabulous exploits until his death in 1947, whereupon Robert Kanigher took over the writer’s role. The venerable H.G. Peter continued until his own death in 1958. Wonder Woman #97 – in April of that year – was his last hurrah and the end of an era. Ross Andru & Mike Esposito had debuted as cover artists 3 issues earlier, but with the opening inclusion of Wonder Woman #98, took over the visual component as Robert Kanigher reinvented much of the old mythology and even tinkered with her origins.

This second economical monochrome Showcase collection covers issues #118-137: spanning November 1960 to April 1963, a period of increased fantasy frolics and wildly imaginative excess which still divides fans into violently opposing camps…

With the exception of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and a few anodyne back-up features, costumed heroes went extinct at the beginning of the 1950s, replaced by merely mortal champions in a welter of anthologised genre titles. When Showcase #4 rekindled the public’s interest in costumed crime-busters with a new iteration of The Flash in 1956, the fanciful floodgates opened wide once more…

Whilst re-inventing Golden Age Greats such as Green Lantern, Atom and Hawkman, National/DC also updated those hoary survivors who had weathered the backlash – especially the Man of Steel, Caped Crusader and ever-resilient Amazing Amazon…

The fanciful blend of girlish whimsy, rampant sexism, untrue romance, alien invasion, monster-mashing and all-out surreal (some would say-stream-of-consciousness) storytelling continues unabated here from the get-go beginning with ‘Wonder Woman’s Impossible Decision!’ (#118) seeing the comely champion constantly distracted from her mission to wipe out injustice by the antics of her savagely-sparring suitors Colonel Steve Trevor and Manno the merman.

Amazon science (and the unfettered imagination of Kanigher, for whom slavish continuity, consistency or rationality were never as important as strong plots or breathtaking visuals) had already enabled readers to share the adventures of Wonder Girl and latterly Wonder Tot – the Princess of Power as teen and toddler – both in their appropriate time-zones and, on occasion, teamed together on “Impossible Days”.

WW #119 opened with a tale of the Titanic Teen. ‘Mer-Boy’s Secret Prize!’ sees the besotted undersea booby repeatedly risk his life to win his intended inamorata a flashy treasure, whilst in ‘Three Wishes of Doom!’, a capable but arrogant young girl wins a competition and claims Wonder Woman’s Bracelets, Lasso and Tiara with the disastrous notion of using them to out-do the Amazing Amazon…

Issue #120’s ‘The Secret of Volcano Mountain! pits teen and adult Dianas – a decade apart – against the same terrifying threat as an alien elemental twice attempts to conquer the world, after which an “Impossible Day” event sees Wonder Girl, her older self and their mother Queen Hippolyta unite to defeat the monstrous peril of ‘The Island Eater!’

‘The Skyscraper Wonder Woman’ introduces Diana’s pre-schooler incarnation as the Sinister Seer of Saturn seeks to invade Earth with a colossal robot facsimile whilst simultaneously de-aging the Amazon to her younger – but crucially, no less competent – adolescent and pre-adolescent incarnations…

Wonder Woman #123 offered a glimpse of the ‘Amazon Magic-Eye Album!’ as Hippolyta reviewed some of the crazy exploits of her daughter as Tot, Teen and adult, whilst the issue after contrived to team them all together against shape-shifting nuclear threat Multiple Man on ‘The Impossible Day!’

Steve and Manno resumed their war for the princess’ hand in marriage in #125’s ‘Wonder Woman… Battle Prize!’ with the improbable romantic triangle ending up marooned on a beast-&-alien amoeba-men-infested Blue Lagoon…

‘Wonder Tot and Mister Genie!’ was the first of two tales in #126, depicting what might happen when an imaginative super-kid is left on her own, whilst exasperated US Air Force lieutenant Diana Prince gets steamed at being her own romantic rival for Trevor in ‘The Unmasking of Wonder Woman!

The next issue sees her stopping another extraterrestrial assault in ‘Invaders of the Topsy-Turvy Planet’ before ‘Wonder Woman’s Surprise Honeymoon!’ gives usually incorrigible Trevor a terrifying foretaste of what married life with his Amazon Angel might be like…

WW#128 revealed the astounding and charming ‘Origin of the Amazing Robot Plane!’ before things turn (a bit) more serious when the Amazon endures the deadly ‘Vengeance of the Angle Man!’

In #129, another spectacular Impossible Day sees the entire Wonder Woman Family (that would be just her at three different ages with mum alongside to save the day) in ‘The Vengeance of Multiple Man!’ whilst #130 opens with Wonder Tot discovering the ‘Secret of Mister Genie’s Magic Turban!’ and closes with an outrageous and embarrassing attack by Angle Man on her mature self in ‘The Mirage Mirrors!’

WW #131’s, ‘The Proving of Wonder Woman!’ details the origins of her unique epithets (such as “Thunderbolts of Jove”, “Neptune’s Trident” and “Great Hera”) before back-up ‘Wonder Woman’s Surprise Birthday Gift!’ has indefatigable, incorrigible Manno risk all manner of maritime monstrosity to find her a dazzling bauble, whilst the Amazon herself was trying to find her mother a present.

‘Wonder Tot and the Flying Saucer!’ sees the adult Amazon turn herself into a toddler to converse with a baby and discover the secret of a devastating alien atomic attack, whilst a second story reveals ancient romantic encounters which occurred when ‘Wonder Queen Fights Hercules!’

Wonder Woman #133 cover-featured the Impossible Tale of ‘The Amazing Amazon Race!’ wherein Tot, Teen, Woman and Queen compete in a fraught athletic contest with deadly consequences, whilst in Man’s World, Diana Prince takes centre-stage to become ‘Wonder Woman’s Invincible Rival… Herself!’ when a movie-project went dangerously awry.

‘Menace of the Mirror Wonder Women!’ pits her and Steve against the Image-Maker: a deadly other-dimensional mastermind able to animate and enslave reflections, before #134 closes with another disastrous sub-sea date for Wonder Girl when she must prevent ‘The Capture of Mer-boy!’

It was one more time for Multiple Man as he/it returned to battle the Wonder Family in #135’s Impossible Day drama ‘Attack of the Human Iceberg!’, whilst #136 had the Female Fury transformed into a ravenous, colossal threat to humanity after alien machine men infect her with a growth-agent to become ‘Wonder Woman… World’s Greatest Menace!’

This compendium concludes with #137’s classic duel on an ersatz Earth, where mechanical replicas of humanity and metal facsimiles of the Amazons run amok. Here, Earth’s foremost female defender must overcome ‘The Robot Wonder Woman!’

By modern narrative standards these exuberant, effulgent fantasies are usually illogical and occasionally just plain bonkers, but in those days far less attention was paid to continuity and shared universes: adventure in the moment was paramount and these strangely infectious romps simply sparkled then and now with fun, thrills and sheer spectacle.

Wonder Woman is rightly revered as a focus of female strength, independence and empowerment, but the welcoming nostalgia and easy familiarity of such innocuous costumed fairy tales must be a delight for unbiased readers, whilst the true, incomparable value of such stories is the incredible quality entertainment they still offer.
© 1960-1963, 2008 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Catalyst


By Asia Alfasi, Charlotte Bailey, Jason Chuang, Dominique Duong, Catherine Anyango Grünewald, Shuning Ji, Pris Lemons, Sonia Leong, Calico N.M., Tyrell Osborne & Woodrow Phoenix, edited by Ayoola Solarin (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-91142-402-7 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Heartfelt, Fantastic, Full-on and Unmissable… 8/10

At its best, the comics biz is companionable, collegiate, welcoming and wonderfully supportive. We all like to help each other along, especially if the end result is more and better stories for all. That even extends to the publishing and managerial arena, as seen here with this anthology of tales resulting from SelfMadeHero’s 2021 Graphic Anthology Programme, which was set up to tutor and mentor emergent talent from diverse backgrounds. The first intake were all people of colour and the broadest range of backgrounds and life experience.

As explained in the introductory Editor and Publisher’s Letter by Ayoola Solarin & Emma Hayley preceding 11 extremely enthralling pictorial yarns, this tome results from a 12-week training course, for which seven participants and their assigned mentors produced many 8-page graphic short stories based on a specific theme: “Catalyst”.

The phenomenally far-ranging works are subdivided into ‘Dissolution’, ‘Reaction’ and ‘Repercussion’, with the entire catalogue of imaginative wonders bookended by extensive biographies of the creators, mentors and Editorial Team.

Dissolution opens with a chilling view of the potential pitfalls of video conferencing in Catherine Anyango Grünewald’s ‘The Host’, after which Shuning Ji reveals horrors hidden in ‘The Camera’ and Jason Chuang offers a disturbing view of public transport interactions in truly disturbing vignette ‘The Guessing Game’.

Tyrell Osborne then wraps up the openers with a quiet stroll through a very off-kilter London and some introspective dilemmas satisfactorily solved in ‘Same Tall Tale’

Under the aegis of Reaction, Pris Lemons indulges some internal investigation in party tale ‘Orbital Decay’ whilst Sonia Leong shares her love of manga and search for creative camaraderie and approval in ‘Just Like Me’. Calico N.M. then whimsically explores natal wonders and fantastic beasts in ‘Because I’ve Got All Of You’ before we move on to final revelations in Repercussion.

Dominique Duong sets the ball rolling as ‘One Small Thing’ chillingly exposes the monster within, before Asia Alfasi beguiles with an Arabian tale of traditional versus hereditary storytelling gifts in ‘Happily Never After’ after which Charlotte Bailey amazes and amuses with a mesmerising love affair and marriage of ultimate opposites in ‘Cetea & Clay’.

Concluding on a true high, the small sagas cease with ‘Convolute’ by the inimitable Woodrow Phoenix, revealing how the true saviours and secret stars of the 1960s space race was a team of seamstresses led by forgotten black hero Hazel Fellows

Offering a hand up or a way in is something we can all do, and the rewards are enormous and never-ending. When it also results in superb storytelling and the first full flexing of creative mettle its practically a civil duty to encourage more.

Do that. Buy this.
All stories and artwork © their respective creators. All rights reserved.