Thorgal volume 0: The Betrayed Sorceress & Almost Paradise

By Rosiński & Van Hamme, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Europe Comics/Cinebook)
No ISBN (Europe Comics digital-only edition)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-443-4 (Cinebook PB Album)

One of the very best and most celebrated fantasy adventure series of all time, Thorgal accomplishes the seemingly impossible: pleasing critics and selling in vast quantities.

The prototypical Game of Thrones saga debuted in iconic weekly Le Journal de Tintin in 1977 with album compilations beginning three years later. A far-reaching and expansive generational saga, it has won a monolithic international following in fourteen languages and dozens of countries, generating numerous spin-off series, and thus naturally offers a strong presence in the field of global gaming.

In story-terms, Thorgal offers the best of all weird worlds, with an ostensibly historical milieu of bold Viking adventure seamlessly incorporating science fiction elements, dire magic, horrendous beasts, social satire, political intrigue, soap opera, Atlantean mystique and mythically mystical literary standbys such as gods, monsters and devils.

Created by Belgian writer Jean Van Hamme (Domino, XIII, Largo Winch, Blake and Mortimer) and Polish illustrator Grzegorz Rosiński (Kapitan Żbik, Pilot Śmigłowca, Hans, The Revenge of Count Skarbek), the feature grew unstoppably over decades with the creative duo completing 29 albums between 1980 and 2006 when Van Hamme moved on. Thereafter the scripting duties fell to Yves Sente who collaborated on a further five collections until 2013 when Xavier Dorison wrote one before Yann became chief scribe. In 2019, he and Rosiński released the 37th epic-album L’Emite de Skellingar.

By the time Van Hamme departed, the canon had grown to cover not only the life of the titular hero and his son Jolan, but also other indomitable family members through a number of spin-off series (Kriss de Valnor, Louve, La Jeunesse de Thorgal) all clustered under the umbrella title Les Mondes de Thorgal – with all eventually winning their own series of solo albums.

In 1985, US publisher Donning released a brief but superb series of oversized hardcover translations, but Thorgal never really found an English-speaking audience until Cinebook began its own iteration in 2007.

The original Belgian series meandered back and forth through the hero’s life and Cinebook’s translated run began with the 7th and 8th albums combined in a double-length premiere edition. By that time the saga of wandering enigma Thorgal Aegirsson had properly gelled, but there were a few books before then, with the hero still finding his literary and graphic feet…

What you’ll learn from later volumes: Thorgal was recovered as a baby from a ferocious storm and raised by Northern Viking chief Leif Haraldson. Nobody could possibly know the fortunate foundling had survived a stellar incident which destroyed a starship full of super-scientific aliens…

Growing to manhood, the strange boy was eventually forced out of his adopted land by ambitious usurper Gandalf the Mad who feared the young warrior threatened his own claim to the throne.

For his entire childhood Thorgal had been inseparable from Gandalf’s daughter Aaricia and, as soon as they were able, they fled together from the poisonous atmosphere to live free from her father’s lethal jealousy and obsessive terror of losing his throne…

Danger was always close but after many appalling hardships, the lovers and their new son finally found a measure of cautious tranquillity by occupying a small island where they could thrive in safety… or so they thought…

Here, however, in these harder-hitting, initial escapades from 1980, the largely unexplained and formulaic Viking warrior is simply a hero in search of a cause. La Magicienne Trahie becomes eponymous debut book The Betrayed Sorceress, opening with a full-grown Thorgal tortured and left to die of exposure and drowning by arch enemy Gandalf.

He is fortuitously rescued by a red-haired woman who demands he work in her service for a year…

Accompanied by a loyal wild wolf, formidable mystic matron Slive is consumed with a hunger for vengeance and orders her reluctant vassal to undertake an arduous quest and great battles to retrieve a hidden casket and its mystical contents. Only after succeeding, does the warrior discover that the target of her ire is Gandalf…

The complex scheme almost succeeds but the witch’s plans eventually lead to bloodshed, calamity, an unsuspected connection to the hero’s beloved Aaricia and the exposure of long-hidden secrets.

As the final clash climaxes, Gandalf is near death and the lovers witness the sorceress’ last voyage into the coldest regions on Earth in a dragonship made of ice…

Follow-up exploit ‘Almost Paradise’ continues the saga and completes the first volume with Thorgal living again amongst Gandalf’s band, but only on sufferance and in constant daily hardship.

Here, a lone ride through winter snows leads to his being hunted by ravening wolves before plummeting into a fantastic time-lost and timeless enclave at the bottom of an icy crevasse. In that tropical Eden he finds a trio of mysterious maidens. Two vie for his attention and argue the seductive benefits of eternal life in a vast garden free of want and danger, but youngest girl Skadia secretly craves the freedom of the outside world and is willing to lead the homesick warrior into horrendous peril to achieve her ends. Desperate to return to his true love, Thorgal escapes with the third immortal, suffering a nightmare journey back to the real world, but not without paying a painful price…

Second collected album L’lle des Mers gelées is also included here as The Island of the Frozen Seas, and begins in spring as Aaricia readies herself to wed Thorgal and leave Gandalf’s lands forever. Those dreams are suddenly shattered when a brace of giant eagles fly down and snatch her away. Soon the entire band of warriors are pursuing in their Drakkars (dragonships), heading ever northwards…

The chase leads to fractious moments aboard ship and imminent mutiny is only forestalled when the Vikings encounter a fantastic vessel that moves without oars or sails. Despite valiant resistance, the barbarians are soon all captives beside Aaricia. All, that is, save for Thorgal and future brother-in-law Bjorn Gandalfson who escaped capture by taking to a lifeboat…

At the top of the world, they meet strange tribes-folk perfectly adapted to arctic existence and Thorgal continues his hunt for his intended bride, meeting and defeating her abductor, discovering an incredible secret citadel and uncovering an incredible story about his long-occluded origins before he can bring his beloved back home to her people…

Although lacking the humour of later tales these works in progress are fierce, inventive and phenomenally gripping: cunningly crafted, astonishingly addictive episodes gradually building towards a fully-realised universe of wonder and imagination whilst offering insight into the character of a true, if exceedingly unwilling hero.

Thorgal is every action fan’s ideal dream of unending adventure. What fanatical fantasy aficionado could possibly resist such barbaric blandishments?

This Europe Comics volume is a digital-only edition from the pan-continental collective imprint which collaborates to bring a wealth of fresh and classic material to English speaking fans. Many of their selections are picked up by established print publishers such as Top Shelf or Cinebook. In fact, this volume will be added to Cinebook’s stable of titles at the end of the year, under special enumeration as Thorgal volume 00: The Betrayed Sorceress, so if you’re already a fan you can wait until then to add the book to your collection. If you can’t wait, though, the past awaits you, only a few keystrokes away…

© Editions du Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard s.a.) 1980 Rosiński & Van Hamme. English translation © 2018 Cinebook Ltd.
Thorgal volume 00: The Betrayed Sorceress is scheduled for a November 2019 release by Cinebook.

The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book

By Bill Watterson (Andrews McMeel)
ISBN: 978-0-83621-852-7 (TPB)

Almost any event big or small is best experienced through the eyes of a child – and better yet if he’s a fictional waif controlled by the whimsical sensibilities of a comic strip genius like Bill Watterson.

Calvin is the child in us all; Hobbes is the sardonic unleashed beast of our Aspirations; no, wait… Calvin is this little boy, an only child with a big imagination and a stuffed Tiger that is his common sense and moral sounding board…

No; Calvin is just a lonely little boy and Hobbes talks only to him. That’s all you need or want.

A best-selling strip and critical hit for ten years (running from November 18th 1985 through December 31st 1995), Calvin and Hobbes came and went like a comet and we’re all now the poorer for its passing. The strip redefined depictions of the “Eyes of Wonder” which children all possess, and made us adults laugh, and so often cry too: its influence shaping a generation of up-and-coming cartoonists and comicbook creators.

We all wanted a childhood like that kid’s; bullies, weird teachers, obnoxious little girls and all. At least we could – and still do – visit…

The Daily and Sundays appeared in more than 2,400 newspapers all over the planet and from 2010 reruns have featured in over 50 countries. There have been 18 unmissable collections (selling over 45,000,000 copies thus far), including a fabulous complete boxed set edition in both soft and hard cover formats. I gloat over my hardback set almost every day.

Unlike most of his fellows, Watterson shunned the spotlight and the merchandising Babylon that follows a comic strip mega-hit and dedicated all his spirit and energies into producing one of the greatest treatments on childhood and the twin and inevitably converging worlds of fantasy and reality anywhere in fiction. All purists need to know is that the creator cites unique sole-auteur strips Pogo, Krazy Kat and Peanuts as his major influences and all mysteries are solved…

Calvin is a hyper-active little boy growing up in a suburban middle-American Everytown. There’s a city nearby, with museums and such, and a little bit of wooded wilderness at the bottom of the garden. The kid’s smart, academically uninspired and happy in his own world. He’s you and me. His best friend and companion is stuffed tiger Hobbes, who – as I might have already mentioned – may or may not be alive. He’s certainly far smarter and more ethically evolved than his owner…

And that’s all the help you’re getting. If you know the strip you already love it, and if you don’t you won’t appreciate my destroying the joys of discovery for you. This is beautiful, charming, clever, intoxicating and addictive tale-telling, blending wonder and laughter, socially responsible and wildly funny.

After a miraculous decade, at the top of his game Watterson retired the strip and himself, and though I bitterly resent it, and miss it still, I suppose it’s best to go out on a peak rather than fade away by degrees. I certainly respect and admire his dedication and principles.

This slim tome collects some of the earliest full-colour Sunday pages from the strip, and includes a new 10-page adventure painted in staggeringly lovely watercolours. Imaginative, dazzling, unforgettably captivating, these are some of the best of Watterson’s work. You should have them in your house.

The entire Calvin and Hobbes canon is still fully available in solo volumes and the aforementioned wrist-cracking box set but not, sadly, in a digital edition yet. You can however, enjoy digital dollops of this graphic milestone if so inclined by going to They are also available online through the Andrews McMeel Uclick platform, so there’s no reason for you not to make this brilliant example of our art form a permanent part of your life. And you’ll thank me for it, too…
© 1989 Universal Press Syndicate. All Rights Reserved.

Maddie Kettle – The Adventure of the Thimblewitch

By Eric Orchard (Top Shelf Productions)
ISBN: 978-1-60309-072-8 (TPB)
When this fantastic tale – the debut graphic novel of Canadian cartoonist and illustrator Eric Orchard – was released a few years ago, it created quite a stir among critics and comics fans, won a Spectrum Award and made us all hungry for more. We’re still waiting for a sequel but the power and imagination of the story hasn’t diminished one whit…

Maddy Kettle is eleven years old and used to work in her parents’ bookshop in Dustcloud Gap, but now she’s a girl with a mission. Unfortunately, that mission keeps changing on the fly…

With her pet floating Spadefoot Toad Ralph, she takes a steam train across the wild country, seeking the spider goblins who attacked their store and seeking the mysterious Thimblewitch who turned mum and dad into mole rats…

When more goblins attack the train, Maddie is lost in the desert, but soon finds new allies in cloud cartographers Harry the bear and musical raccoon Silvio. They offer her a ride in their moon-gas powered balloon, but refuse to believe her story. After all, the Thimblewitch used to be the protector of the cloudscape and these days doesn’t even use magic anymore…

After many adventures, and encounters with strange creatures such as vampire bats and unlikely warrior Splike, Maddy finally has her showdown with the Thimblewitch, only to learn a few amazing truths and set out on even more perilous quests…

Visually spectacular, hyper-imaginative and mordantly moody in the manner of Ghormenghast and the darker passages of Baum’s Oz books, this is a deliciously dark fable with a wonderfully memorable girl hero, showing that intelligence, determination, creativity, courage and a willingness to admit mistakes are also super powers.

Available in paperback and eBook formats, this is a fabulous romp no kid of any vintage could resist.
© and ™ 2014 Eric Orchard. All Rights Reserved.

Flember – the Secret Book (Advance galley proof copy)

By Jaimie Smart (David Fickling Books)
ISBN: 978-1-910989-46-3 (PB Illustrated novel)

There are precious few perks in the high stakes, cut & thrust world of writing about graphic novels and books, but one is getting to see great stories before you all do and then acting all smugly know-it-all and blasé about how good they are, as if I’m in with the In Crowd.

This review of Flember is based on a proof copy and I’ll probably review the proper book too when it comes out in Early October. It’s that good…

Unlike writer/artist Jamie Smart’s previous outings (Fish Head Steve!, Space Raoul, Bunny vs. Monkey, Looshkin – the Adventures of the Maddest Cat in the World!!, Corporate Skull and bunches of brilliant strips for The Beano, Dandy and others), this is an illustrated novel, not comics strips, but that only means he’s really good at the wordy stuff too, and even so his dynamic cartoons, diagrams and maps are lavished all over the text and act as an integral part of the storytelling.

Here’s a little digression that might assuage any confusions I’ve inadvertently caused…

The old demarcations – whether in format or content – between comics and books are all but gone these days but once the items of printing were reckoned as different as chalk and chuck wagons.

From the pre-print era of illustrated manuscripts, books always possessed a capacity (time, manpower and budgets permitting) to include images in the text. As the book trade evolved, pictures were generally phased out of cheaper, mass-market editions because they required costly, time-consuming extra effort by skilled technicians. Most artists and illustrators wanted payment for their efforts too, so volumes with pictures were regarded as extra special, most often crafted for children, students or aficionados of textbooks…

Comics strips grew out of cartoon images, beginning as static illustrations accompanied by blocks of printed text before gradually developing into pictorial sequences with narration, dialogue and sound effects incorporated into the actual design. Print procedures and physical strictures of manual typesetting often dictated that pictures (printed on the pages or added as separate plates) frequently appeared nowhere near the snippets of text they illumined).

These days digital print processes are speedy, efficient and flexible, and many creative bright sparks have realised that they can combine all these tangential disciplines into a potent synthesis.

Gosh, wasn’t that lecture dull?

What I’m saying is that these days, the immediacy of comics, the enchantment of illustrated images, the power of well-designed infographics and the mesmeric tone and mood of well-written prose can all be employed simultaneously to create tales of overwhelming entertainment. Flember – The Secret Book does it with aplomb, imagination, dexterity and sundry other fruit and veg you’ve never heard of. That’s an inside joke until you read the book…

But what’s it about, Win?

I’m giving little away but suffice to say that somewhere far away the island of Flember houses a rather rural and backwards facing community who live in a little walled village called Eden. The citizens are an odd bunch, set in the old traditional ways and they don’t particularly like inventors anymore.

Young Dev Everdew doesn’t really fit in. His brother is a snarky would-be leader of the local Guild and Mum doesn’t like to cause a fuss. Dad used to be Mayor but he’s gone now…

Life on the island depends on a seemingly-mystical force called Flember: an energising life force that animates the trees, living creatures and crops and even people. Did I mention that Dev’s addicted to inventing? He is, and all his contraptions always go wrong and cause the fuss previously mentioned.

The boy can’t stop himself, though, and just knows his devices can make life better for everybody. Despite the pleadings, help and advice of his young pals, Dev keeps making things and accidentally hurting people, but the situation gets completely out of hand after he builds a giant bear that absorbs all the Flember and comes shockingly alive. Sadly, that puts the little genius on the trail of a colossal secret underpinning everything and teaches him the consequences of rash actions…

Fast-paced, astoundingly inventive, raucously hilarious, deeply moving even while sagely exploring how carefree childishness grows into empathy and responsibility, this is a marvellous romp and an ideal example of words and pictures acting in harmony… almost like a well-oiled machine.

Just to be clear here though; never oil books or any digital reading device, ok? Just use them to acquaint yourself with tales as good as this one…
Text and illustrations © Jamie Smart 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Flember – The Secret Book is scheduled for release on October 3rd 2019 and is available for pre-order now. It’s a perfect item if you’re already stuck for options about Great Big Gift-Giving Season…

Showcase Presents Challengers of the Unknown volume 2

By Arnold Drake, Ed Herron, Bob Brown & various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1725-9 (TPB)

The Challengers of the Unknown was a bridging concept. As superheroes were being revived in 1956 here was a super-team – the first of the Silver Age – with no powers, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes and the most dubious of motives… Suicide by Mystery.

Yet they were a huge hit and struck a chord that lasted for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable. Springing from tireless and inspirational human hit-factory Jack Kirby – before his move across town to co-create the Marvel Universe – the solid adventure concept and perfect action heroes he left behind were ideal everyman characters for the tumultuous 1960s – an era before super-heroes obtained a virtual chokehold on the comic-book pages.

Kirby had developed a brilliantly feasible concept and heroically archetypical characters in cool pilot Ace Morgan, indomitable strongman Rocky Davis, intellectual aquanaut “Prof.” Haley and daredevil acrobat Red Ryan. The Challengers of the Unknown were four (extra)ordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Already obviously what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, they decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and naturally, Justice. They were joined by an occasional fifth member, beautiful (of course) scientist June Robbins in their second appearance (‘Ultivac is Loose!’ in Showcase #7, March/April 1957), and she became a hardy perennial, always popping up to solve puzzles, catch criminals and generally deal with Aliens, Monsters and assorted supernatural threats.

A number of writers, many sadly lost to posterity, wrote these tales, including Bill Finger, Ed Herron, Jack Miller, Bob Haney and Arnold Drake, but one man handled the artwork: Bob Brown.

Brown was born August 22nd 1915 and he died in 1977 following a long illness. He studied at Hartford Art School and Rhode Island School of Design, and worked with his showbiz folks and sister in a song-&-dance act from 1927 onwards. He was drafted in 1940 – the year he also began working as a comics artist and scripter for Fox, timely/Atlas. As the war intensified, he was an aircraft radio operator, an aviation cadet and served in the Pacific as bombardier and navigator in B-29 bombers, earning six air medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

After jobbing around the industry during the late 1040s and 1950’s Brown settled at National Comics/DC, co-created the long-running Space Ranger, drawing Tomahawk, western hero Vigilante, Batman, Superboy, Doom Patrol, World’s Finest Comics and a host of other features and genre shorts. He moved to Marvel in the 1970s where he drew Warlock, Daredevil and the Avengers among others.

He was a consummate professional and drew every issue of the Challengers from #9 – 63: almost a decade of high-adventure ranged from ravaging aliens, cute-and-fuzzy space beasts to truly scary supernatural horrors.

The Challengers followed Kirby’s model until cancellation in 1970, but, due to a dispute with Editor Jack Schiff the writer/artist resigned at the height of his powers. The King’s exuberant magic was impossible to match, but as with all The King’s creations, every element was in place for the successors to run with.

Challengers of the Unknown #9 (September 1959) saw an increase in the monster-heavy fantasy elements favoured by Schiff, and perhaps an easing of the subtle tension and inter-group fractious bickering that marked previous issues (Comics Historians take note: the Challs were snapping and snarling at each other years before Marvel’s Cosmic Quartet ever boarded that fateful rocket-ship).

This second cheap-&-cheerful volume collects the contents of Challengers of the Unknown #18 – #37 – spanning February/March 1961 through May 1964 – and opens with ‘The Menace of Mystery Island’ which finds the team fighting crooks on a tropical island that contains a crashed alien probe. This accident has deposited a test animal with uncanny powers…

In the manner of the times, the tenacious troubleshooters adopt the fuzzy li’l space-tyke and name him Cosmo.

The second story of the issue offers darker fare, however, as the team are then shanghaied through time to save ‘The Doomed World of Tomorrow’.

In the ‘The Alien Who Stole a Planet’, the heroes aid refugees from a doomed world, but things turn sour after one of the survivors decides Earth would be suitable replacement home, whilst in ‘The Beasts from the Fabulous Gem’, a soldier-of-fortune uses a stolen mystic jewel liberate monsters imprisoned within it in ancient times. Their very own super-villain then resurfaces as ‘Multi-Man Strikes Again’ in issue #20, and June shows up for a spot of beastie-bashing in the hectic riddle of ‘The Cosmic-Powered Creature!’ In the next issue it’s apparently just the lads who are shanghaied to ‘The Weird World that Didn’t Exist’ but she plays a major role in the follow-up tale when Cosmo returns in ‘The Challengers’ Space-Pet Ally’.

‘The Curse of the Golden God’ proffers the usual action-packed crime-drama in the South American jungles, whereas #22’s second tale hits much closer to home as the squad’s secret base is compromised by ‘The Thing in Challenger Mountain’ and the team find that ‘Death Guarded the Doom Box’ in the form of ancient but still deadly mechanical devices, after which more aliens kidnap humans to ‘The Island in the Sky’.

In ‘The Challengers Die at Dawn’, the hunt for a swindler leads the team to a lost tribe of oriental pirates in the South China Seas, but the big story in #24 is ‘Multi-Man, Master of Earth’: a grand, old-fashioned battle for justice against a seemingly unstoppable foe. Although the stories were becoming a touch formulaic by this stage, the equation was a trusted one, and Brown’s art was constantly improving.

Challengers of the Unknown #25 (April/May 1962) was right on the cusp of the moment full-blown superhero mania hit the world and, although ‘Return of the Invincible Pharaoh’ is a story of ancient mystery and slumbering menaces, its plot of a lost secret bestowing superpowers was to become a recurring staple for “normal, human heroes” such as the Challs, Blackhawk – and even in the Batman titles.

The second tale, ‘Captives of the Alien Hunter’ features another thieving extra-terrestrial up to no good and once more both June and Cosmo are required to foil the fiend.

‘Death Crowns the Challenger King’ is a bizarre variation on the Prisoner of Zenda’s plot: set in a hidden Mongol city with Prof. replacing the true ruler in a series of ceremonial ordeals, whilst the rest of the gang run interference against the scurvy villains, after which a flamboyant impresario is shown to have an out-of-this-world new act in ‘The Secret of the Space Spectaculars’.

Issue #27 led with ‘The 1,001 Impossible Inventions’, wherein two convicts bamboozle a wounded alien into using his advanced science for crime, whilst ‘Master of the Volcano Men’ (the first story for which we have a confirmed writer – Arnold Drake) introduces another perennial villain: rapacious marauding lava beings from the centre of the earth.

It was once more rebellious robots causing a destructive fuss in ‘The Revolt of the Terrible FX-1’, but the real show-stealer of #28 is a classic time-travel romp sending the team back to ancient Egypt to solve ‘The Riddle of the Faceless Man.’

The next issue brought ‘Four Roads to Doomsday (again by Drake) wherein satellite sabotage draws the team into a plot by alien criminals to conquer Earth, whilst the raucous, antagonistic nature of the team is highlighted in Ed “France” Herron’s ‘The War Between the Challenger Teams’, as Ace and Red battle Prof. and Rocky to end a war between two sub-sea races.

‘Multi-Man… Villain Turned Hero’ turned out to be just another evil ploy by the shape-changing charlatan, but #30’s real treat is the introduction of Gaylord Clayburn (Don’t. Just don’t. Grow up): a spoiled multimillionaire playboy who wants to become ‘The Fifth Challenger’ and is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve his ambition…

‘The Man Who Saved the Challengers’ Lives’ in #31 is the first full-length story since 1960; impressively retelling their dramatic origin, and revealing the debt they possibly owe to a shady industrialist, whilst #32 declares business as usual in Drake’s ‘One Challenger Must Die!’

Here the boys fiercely compete to learn who would sacrifice themselves to stop another rampaging Volcano Man, before rediscovering the power of teamwork, which was just as well since the second tale reveals how and why ‘Cosmo Turns Traitor.’

Each an expert in some field of human endeavour, in #33, the Challs are confronted by a superior individual in Drake’s ‘The Challengers Meet their Master’, but as with ‘The Threat of the Trojan Robot’, teamwork proves the solution to any problem. Ed Herron scripted terse thriller ‘Beachhead, USA’ which opens #34, as a U-Boat full of Nazis frozen since World War II tries to complete their last mission – blowing up the East Coast of America, with only the Chall’s in place to stop them.

Multi-Man then discovers that no matter how smart you are, building the perfect mate is a very bad (and tasteless) idea in ‘Multi-Woman, Queen of Disaster.’

‘The War Against the Moon Beast’ is a spectacular sci-fi yarn, balanced by the quirky prognostications of a carnival seer whose crystal ball predicts an adventure of the ‘Sons of the Challengers’.

One of the death-cheaters became a monster in #36’s ‘The Giant in Challenger Mountain’, but is recovered in time to join the others as ‘Bodyguards to a Star’ on the location of a dinosaur-infested movie-epic.

This splendidly daft second volume ends with #37 and ‘The Triple Terror of Mr. Dimension’ – a cheap thug who lucks into a reality-altering weapon, with Herron scripting the taut drama of ‘The Last Days of the Challengers’ wherein the team struggle to destroy giant robots and thwart an execution-list with their names on it…

Challengers of the Unknown is sheer escapist wonderment, and no fan of the medium should be deprived of the graphic exploits starring these ideal adventurer-heroes in the evocative setting of the recent now; a simpler, better world than ours. Reader-friendly to anyone with a love of wild thrills (or Saturday morning cartoons), these long-neglected tales would make the perfect animated kids show too…
© 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Challengers of the Unknown volume 1

By Jack Kirby, Bob Brown, Dave Wood, Ed Herron, Roz Kirby, Marvin Stein, Bruno Premiani, George Klein, Wally Wood & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1087-8 (TPB)

In an era where comicbooks had slipped into an undirected and formless mass of genre-niches, the Challengers of the Unknown were a bridging concept between the fashionably all-American human trouble-shooters who monopolised comicbooks for most of the 1950s and the costumed mystery men who would soon return to take over the industry.

As superheroes were being gradually revived in 1956 under the cautious aegis of Julius Schwartz, here was a super-team – the first of the Silver Age – with no powers, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes and the most dubious of motives: Suicide by Mystery.

Despite all that they were a huge hit and struck a chord that lasted for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable.

Jack Kirby was – and remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are, quite rightly, millions of words written about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium. I’m going to add even more words to that superabundance in this review of one of his best projects, which like so many others, he perfectly constructed before moving on as he always did, leaving highly competent but never quite as inspired talents to build upon his legacy.

When the comic industry suffered an economic collapse in the mid 1950’s, Kirby’s partnership with Joe Simon ended and he returned briefly to DC Comics. Here he worked on mystery tales and the minority-interest Green Arrow back-up strip whilst creating newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force.

Never idle for a moment, he also re-packaged for Showcase (a try-out title that launched the careers of many DC mainstays) an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and collaborator Simon had closed their innovative but unfortunate Mainline Comics.

After years of working for others, Simon and Kirby had finally established their own publishing company, producing comics for a much more sophisticated audience, only to find themselves in a sales downturn and awash in public hysteria generated by the anti-comic book witch-hunt of US Senator Estes Kefauver and psychologist Dr Fredric Wertham.

Simon moved into advertising, but Kirby soldiered on, taking his skills and ideas to a number of safer, if less experimental, companies.

The Challengers of the Unknown were four ordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Clearly what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, they decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and, naturally, Justice.

The Kirby tales of the team have been thankfully immortalised in full-colour archival print and digital editions, but the team captivated readers for a decade beyond those glorious beginnings, and thus far those tales are only available in these monochrome tomes. Hope springs eternal, though…

The series launched with ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’ (Showcase #6, cover-dated January/February 1957 – which meant it came out in time for Christmas 1956). Kirby and scripter Dave Wood, plus inkers Marvin Stein and Jack’s wife Roz, crafted a spectacular epic as the doom-chasers are hired by duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient container holding otherworldly secrets and powers.

This initial story roars along with all the tension and wonder of the B-movie thrillers it emulates and Kirby’s awesome drawing resonates with power and dynamism. That continues for the sequel, a science fiction drama sparked by an alliance of Nazi technologies and American criminality which unleashes a terrible robotic monster. ‘Ultivac is Loose!’ (Showcase #7, dated March/April 1957) introduces beautiful and capable boffin (aren’t they always?) Dr. June Robbins, who becomes the unofficial fifth Challenger at a time when most comic females (and living ones too) – had been banished back to subsidiary domestic status in that so-conservative era.

The team didn’t reappear until Showcase #11 (November/December 1957) as The Flash and Lois Lane got their shots at the big time. When the Challs did return, it was in alien invasion adventure ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’, with unique realist Bruno Premiani inking a taut doomsday chiller pinning readers to the edges of their seats even today, and by the time of their last Showcase outing (#12, January /February 1958) they had won their own title.

‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ was defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and ingenuity (with the wonderful inking of George Klein adding subtle clarity to the tale of an international criminal who steals an ancient weapons cache that threatens the entire world if misused), but the biggest buzz came two months later with the debut of their own magazine.

Issue #1, written and drawn by Kirby, with Stein on inks, presented two complete stories plus an iconic introductory page that would become almost a signature second logo for the team.

‘The Man Who Tampered with Infinity’ pits the heroes against a renegade scientist whose cavalier dabbling liberates dreadful monsters from the beyond onto our defenceless planet, after which the team are abducted by aliens to become ‘The Human Pets’.

The same creators were responsible for a brace of thrillers in #2. ‘The Traitorous Challenger’ is a monster mystery, with June returning to sabotage a mission in the Australian Outback, whilst ‘The Monster Maker’ finds the team seemingly helpless against a super-criminal who can conjure up and animate solid objects out of his thoughts.

The third issue features ‘Secret of the Sorcerer’s Mirror’ with Roz Kirby & Marvin Stein again inking the mesmerising pencils, as the boys pursue a band of criminals whose magic looking glass can locate deadly ancient weapons, although the most intriguing tale for fans and historians is undoubtedly ‘The Menace of the Invincible Challenger’.

Here team strongman Rocky Davis is rocketed into space, only to crash back to Earth with strange, uncanny powers.

For years the obvious similarities of this group – and especially this adventure – to the origin of Marvel’s Fantastic Four (FF #1 came out in the autumn of 1961) have fuelled speculation. In all honesty, I simply don’t care. They’re both similar and different but equally enjoyable, so read both. In fact, read them all.

With #4 the series became artistically perfect as the sheer luminous brilliance of Wally Wood’s inking elevated the art to unparalleled heights. The scintillant sheen and limpid depth of Wood’s brushwork fostered an abiding authenticity in even the most outrageous of Kirby’s designs and the result is – even now – breathtaking.

‘The Wizard of Time’ is a full-length masterpiece wherein a series of bizarre robberies leads the team to a scientist with a time-machine. By visiting oracles of the past, he finds a path to the far future. When he gets there, he plans on robbing it blind, but the Challengers find a way to follow him…

‘The Riddle of the Star-Stone’ (#5) is a contemporary full-length thriller, wherein an archaeologist’s assistant uncovers an alien tablet bestowing various super-powers when different gems are inserted into it. The exotic locales and non-stop spectacular action are intoxicating, but the solid characterisation and ingenious writing are what make this such a compelling read.

Scripter Dave Wood returned for #6’s first story. ‘Captives of the Space Circus’ has the boys kidnapped from Earth to perform in a interplanetary show, but the evil ringmaster is promptly outfoxed and the team returns for Ed Herron’s mystic saga ‘The Sorceress of Forbidden Valley’, as June becomes an amnesiac puppet in a power struggle between a fugitive gangster and a ruthless feudal potentate.

There are also two stories in #7. Herron scripted both the relatively straightforward alien-safari tale ‘The Beasts from Planet 9’ and much more intriguing ‘Isle of No Return’ with the team confronting a scientific bandit before his shrinking ray leaves them permanently mouse-sized.

Issue #8 is a magnificent finale to a superb run, as Kirby & Wally Wood go out in style via two gripping spectaculars (both of which introduce menaces who would return to bedevil the team in future tales).

‘The Man Who Stole the Future’ by Dave Wood, Kirby and the (unrelated) Wally, introduces Drabny – a mastermind who steals mystic artefacts and conquers a small nation before the lads hand him his marching orders. This is a tale of blistering battles and uncharacteristic, if welcome, comedy, but the true gem is science fiction tour-de-force ‘Prisoners of the Robot Planet’, with art by Kirby & Wally, and most probably written by Kirby & Herron. Petitioned by a desperate alien, the Challs travel to his distant world to liberate the population from bondage to their own robotic servants, who have risen in revolt under the command of fearsome automaton Kra.

These are classic adventures, told in a classical manner. Kirby developed a brilliantly feasible concept with which to work and heroically archetypical characters in cool pilot Ace Morgan, indomitable strongman Rocky, intellectual aquanaut “Prof”. Haley and daredevil acrobat Red Ryan. He then manipulated, mixed and matched an astounding blend of genres to display their talents and courage in unforgettable exploits that informed every team comic that followed, and certainly influenced his successive and landmark triumphs with Stan Lee. But then he left.

The Challengers would follow the Kirby model until cancellation in 1970, but, due to a dispute with Editor Jack Schiff the writer/artist resigned at the height of his powers. The Kirby magic was impossible to match, but as with all The King’s creations, every element was in place for the successors to run with.

Challengers of the Unknown #9 (September 1959) saw an increase in the fantasy elements favoured by Schiff, and perhaps an easing of the subtle tension and inter-group fractious bickering that marked previous issues (Comics Historians take note: the Challs were snapping and snarling at each other years before Marvel’s Cosmic Quartet ever boarded that fateful rocket-ship).

A number of writers, many sadly lost to posterity, stepped in, including Bill Finger, Ed Herron and possibly Jack Miller, Bob Haney and Arnold Drake, but one man took over the illustrator’s role: Bob Brown.

Brown was born August 22nd 1915 and he died in 1977 following a long illness. He studied at Hartford Art School and Rhode Island School of Design, and worked with his showbiz folks and sister in a song-&-dance act from 1927 onwards. He was drafted in 1940 – the year he also began working as a comics artist and scripter for Fox, Timely/Atlas. As the war intensified, he was an aircraft radio operator, an aviation cadet and served in the Pacific as bombardier and navigator in B-29 bombers, earning six air medals and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

After jobbing around the industry during the late 1040s and 1950’s Brown settled at National Comics/DC, co-created the long-running Space Ranger, drawing Tomahawk, western hero Vigilante, Batman, Superboy, Doom Patrol, World’s Finest Comics and a host of other features and genre shorts. He moved to Marvel in the 1970s where he drew Warlock, Daredevil and the Avengers among others.

He was a consummate professional and drew every issue of the Challengers from #9-63: almost a decade of high adventure ranged from ravaging aliens, cute-and-fuzzy space beasts to truly scary supernatural horrors.

‘The Men who Lost their Memories’ finds the team fighting crooks with a thought-stealing machine, whereas ‘The Plot to Destroy Earth!’ is a full-on, end-of-humanity thriller with monsters bent on carving our world into chunks for their resource-hungry alien masters. Only the guts and ingenuity of our heroes can save the day…

A destructive giant with a deadly secret is the motivating premise of ‘The Cave-Man Beast’ and #10’s cover-featured second tale sets another time-travel conundrum as the boys discover their own likenesses on a submerged monolith in fanciful thriller ‘The Four Faces of Doom’.

Issue #11 is an action-packed full-length interdimensional romp subdivided into ‘The Creatures from the Forbidden World’, ‘Land beyond the Light’ and ‘The Achilles Heel’, after which the two-story format returns for the next issue, which boasts ‘The Challenger from Outer Space’ – with an alien superhero joining the team – and ‘Three Clues to Sorcery’ with our quarrelsome quartet again forced to endure exotic locales and extreme perils to acquire mystic artefacts for a criminal mastermind. Even so, this time there’s a unique and deadly twist in this oft-told tale…

‘The Prisoner of the Tiny Space Ball’ see the team rescuing the ruler of another world, before Rocky is possessed by the legendary Golden Fleece, making him a puppet of ‘The Creatures from the Past’.

Issue #14 opens with one of the few adventures with a credited scripter. Ed “France” Herron was a 30-year comics veteran and ‘The Man who Conquered the Challengers’ is one of his best tales, with crooked archaeologist Eric Pramble stealing an ancient formula for “liquid light” which makes him functionally immortal. Moreover, every time he’s killed, he reanimates with a different super-power!

As Multi-Man, Pramble became the closest thing to an arch-villain the series ever had, and even graduated to becoming a regular foe across the DCU. Once again, cool wits and sheer nerve find a way to victory that sheer firepower never could.

In second yarn ‘Captives of the Alien Beasts’, all five Challs are teleported to another world by animals who have invaded a scientist’s laboratory. It’s a relatively innocuous tale when compared to #15’s all-out fight-fest ‘The Return of Multi-Man’ and bizarre offering ‘The Lady Giant and the Beast’, wherein June is transformed into a 50-foot leviathan just as a scaly monster cuts a swathe of destruction through the locality.

Issue #16’s ‘Incredible Metal Creature’ sees an Earth thug join forces with an escaped alien criminal. No real Challenge there, but a back-up yarn finds the team in Arabia as ‘Prisoners of the Mirage World’ facing knights who have been trapped there since the time of the Crusades.

This thrill-stuffed then tome concludes with #17’s supernatural crime whimsy ‘The Genie who Feared June’, and interplanetary mission of mercy ‘The Secret of the Space Capsules’; both solid pieces of adventure fiction that, if not displaying the unique Kirby magic, are redolent with its flavours.

As well as being probably (certainly at this moment, anyway) my favourite comics series, Challengers of the Unknown is sheer escapist wonderment, and no fan of the medium should miss the graphic exploits of these perfect adventurers in the ideal setting of not so long ago in a simpler better world than ours. If only we could convince DC Comics to give them the archival home in print and digital editions they so richly deserve, to match the constant re-imaginings the team and title regularly enjoy…
© 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Cave Girls of the Lost World,

By Richard Sala (Fantagraphics Books Digital Exclusive)
No ISBN: ASIN: B07H487P65

Richard Sala is a lauded and much-deserving darling of the Literary Comics movement (if such a thing exists), blending beloved pop culture artefacts and conventions – particularly cheesy comics and old horror films – with a hypnotically effective ability to tell a graphic tale. His compelling pictorial sagas appeal greatly to kids of all ages.

He grew up in Chicago and Arizona before earning a Masters Degree in Fine Arts. Soon after beginning a career as an illustrator he rediscovered his early love of comicbooks and icons of popular mass culture, such as cop shows and horror movies. He’s never looked back…

The release of potentially metafictional and self-published Night Drive in 1984 led to appearances in legendary 1980s anthologies Raw and Blab! and animated adaptations of the series on Liquid Television.

His work is welcomingly atmospheric, dryly ironic, wittily quirky and mordantly funny; indulgently celebrating childhood terrors, gangsters, bizarre events, monsters and manic mysteries, through iconic lead characters as girl sleuth Judy Drood and the glorious trenchant storybook investigator Peculia: to date the most well-known and utilised of his gratifyingly large repertory of characters.

Sala’s art is a joltingly jolly – if macabre – joy to behold and has also shone on many out-industry projects such as his work with Lemony Snickett, The Residents and even – albeit posthumously – Jack Kerouac; illustrating the author’s outrageous Doctor Sax and The Great World Snake. At the moment he’s devoting time to extended mystery webcomics Super-Enigmatix and The Cardinal. Oh, and this…

A (thus far) digital only release, Cave Girls of the Lost World is a marriage of text blocks and full-page illustrations cheekily referencing 1960s dinosaur cheesecake themes (as seen in One Million Years BC or When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) with the plucky bonhomie of schoolgirls novels and comics of the same era. Think of The Four Marys in Conan Doyle’s Lost World and channelling the funnier parts of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies

Actually, no, don’t. Think of very fetching cartoons heaving with gleeful irony…

The saga unfolds in four chapters as a young boy wanders a beach and finds a message in a bottle. It is a diary detailing the extraordinary fate which befell 30 female college applicants whose plane crashed onto a strange plateau where giant saurians, extinct precursor races of mankind and vegetable horrors still thrived and relates how the castaways learned to kill or perish…

Fans of Super-Enigmatix will be delighted to discover that some of the characters from that unfolding drama play a crucial part here, too…

    Beguiling, clever, and staggeringly engaging, this yarn blends nostalgic escapism with the childish frisson of children scaring themselves silly under the bedcovers at night and will leave every unrepentant fantasy fan hungry for more…
    Cave Girls of the Lost World © 2018 Richard Sala. This edition © 2018 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Flash: The Silver Age volume 4

By John Broome, Gardner Fox, Robert Kanigher, Carmine Infantino & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8823-5 (TPB)

The second iteration of the Flash triggered the Silver Age of American comicbooks and – for the first ten years or so – in terms of creative quality and sheer originality, was always the book and hero to watch.

Following his meteoric launch in Showcase #4 (October 1956), police scientist Barry Allen – transformed by a lightning strike and accidental chemical bath into a human thunderbolt of unparalleled velocity and ingenuity – was uncharacteristically slow in winning his own title, but finally (after three more cautiously released trial issues) finally stood on his own wing-tipped feet in The Flash #105 (February-March 1959).

He never looked back, and by the time of this second commemorative compilation was very much the innovation mainstay of DC/National Comics’ burgeoning superhero universe. This fourth trade paperback (and digital) collection re-presents Flash #148-163 – spanning November 1964 through August 1966 – robustly confirming the Vizier of Velocity as the pivotal figure in the all-consuming renaissance of comicbook super-heroics.

Shepherding the Scarlet Speedster’s meteoric rise to prominence, the majority of stories are written by the brilliant John Broome and Gardner Fox with pencils from the infinitely impressive and constantly innovating Carmine Infantino. Their slickly polished, coolly sophisticated rapid-fire short stories set in a welcomingly suburbanite milieu – constantly threatened by super-thieves, sinister spies and marauding aliens – displayed our affable hero always triumphant whilst expanding and establishing the broad parameters of an increasingly cohesive narrative universe. The comicbook had gelled into a comfortable pattern of two short tales per issue leavened with semi-regular book-length thrillers, although in this period that format would slowly switch to longer complete tales.

By this time, it was clear that the biggest draw to the Flash was his mind-boggling array of costumed foes, but there was still time and space for straight adventure, complex quandaries and old-fashioned experimentation, as evidenced by the odd yarn that follows Broome’s Captain Boomerang tale in Flash #248.

‘The Day Flash Went into Orbit!’ (illustrated by Infantino & Murphy Anderson) sees the Monarch of Motion caught in the crossfire after the Ozzie felon becomes a helpless patsy for a nefarious hypnotist…

With the back-up tale in this issue Broome proved creative heart and soul still counted for much. Inked by Joe Giella, ‘The Doorway to the Unknown!’ is the moving story of an embezzler who returns from the grave to prevent his brother paying for his crimes: a ghost story penned at a time when such tales were all but banned and a pithy human drama of redemption and hope that deservedly won the Academy of Comic Book Arts Alley Award for Best Short Story of the year. It still brings a worthy tear to my eyes…

Broome also scripted #149’s ‘The Flash’s Sensational Risk!’: an alien invasion yarn co-starring the Vizier of Velocity’s speedy sidekick Kid Flash, whilst Fox penned the Anderson inked ‘Robberies by Magic!’ featuring another return engagement for future-born stage conjuror Abra Kadabra, before going on to produce #150’s lead tale of a bizarre robbery-spree ‘Captain Cold’s Polar Perils!’ Giella returned for Fox’s second yarn, another science mystery as ‘The Touch-and-Steal Bandits!’ somehow transform from simple thugs to telekinetic terrors…

Flash #151 was another sterling team-up epic co-starring the original Scarlet Speedster. Fox once more teamed his 1940’s (or retroactively, Earth-2) creation Jay Garrick with his contemporary counterpart, this time in a spectacular full-length battle against the black-hearted Shade in ‘Invader From the Dark Dimension’, whilst #152’s Infantino & Anderson double-header consisted of our hero stopping ‘The Trickster’s Toy Thefts’ after which Broome’s light-hearted thriller ‘The Case of the Explosive Vegetables!’ offered another engaging comedy of errors starring Barry Allen’s father-in-law to be: absent-minded Professor Ira West.

Giella settled in for a marathon inker stint as Flash #153 has Broome reprise the much-lauded ‘Our Enemy, the Flash!’ in new yarn ‘The Mightiest Punch of All Time!’

Here villainous Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash again attempts to corrupt reformed and cured Al Desmond – a multiple personality sufferer who was also Flash-Foes Mr. Element and Doctor Alchemy. The next issue then saw Fox’s medical mystery ‘The Day Flash Ran Away with Himself!’ and Broome’s old-fashioned crime caper ‘Gangster Masquerade!’ which brought back thespian Dexter Myles and made him custodian of an increasingly important Central City landmark: the Flash Museum.

It had to happen – and it finally did – in Flash #155: Broome teamed six of the Rogue’s Gallery into ‘The Gauntlet of Super-Villains!’, a bombastic Fights ‘n’ Tights extravaganza, but one with a hidden twist and a mystery foe concealed in the wings, whilst the following issue revealed Broome’s ‘The Super-Hero Who Betrayed the World!’: an engrossing and exciting invasion saga with the Flash a hunted man accused of treason against humanity…

Fox provided both stories in #157: ‘Who Stole the Flash’s Super-Speed?’ – a return visit for Doralla, the Girl from the Super-Fast Dimension – plus another titanic tussle with the nefarious Top in ‘The Day Flash Aged 100 Years!’ The scripter repeated the feat in #158, beginning with a rather ridiculous and somewhat gross alien encounter in ‘Battle Against the Breakaway Bandit!’ and far more appetising thriller ‘The One-Man Justice League!’, wherein Flash defeats the power-purloining plans of JLA nemesis Professor Ivo without even noticing…

The cover of Flash #159 features his empty uniform and a note saying the hero is quitting, in a tale entitled ‘The Flash’s Final Fling!’ It was written by Fox, and guest-starred Kid Flash and Earth-2 hero Dr. Mid-Nite in a time-busting battle against criminals from the future…

At that time, editors and creative staff usually designed covers that would grab potential readers’ attention and then produced stories to fit. For this issue Julie Schwartz tried something truly novel and commissioned Robert Kanigher (first scripter of the new Scarlet Speedster in Showcase #4) to write a different tale to fit the same eye-catching visual…

Scripted by Broome, ‘Big Blast in Rocket City!’ filled out #159 with another humorous Professor West espionage escapade after which Flash #160 is represented by its cover – highlighting an 80-Page Giant reprint edition.

The first story in issue #161 is where that novel experiment culminated with Kanigher’s gritty, terse and uniquely emotional interpretation in ‘The Case of the Curious Costume’ before the high-octane costumed madness continues with Fox, Infantino & Giella’s portentous Mirror Master mystery ‘The Mirror with 20-20 Vision!’

The tone of the times was gradually changing and scarier tales were sneaking into the bright and shiny Sci Fi world of super-heroics. Flash #162 featured a Fox-penned moody drama entitled ‘Who Haunts the Corridor of Chills?’ in which an apparently haunted fairground attraction opens the doors into an invasion-mystery millions of years old. The resultant clash stretches the Scarlet Speedster’s powers and imagination to the limit…

The next issue – the final entry of this collection – carries two tales by globe-trotting author Broome, beginning with ‘The Flash Stakes his Life – On – You!’ which takes a hallowed philosophical concept to its illogical but highly entertaining extreme after criminal scientist Ben Haddon makes the residents of Central City forget their champion ever existed. That has the incredible effect of making the Flash fade away… if not for the utter devotion of one hero-worshipping little girl who still believes…

By contrast ‘The Day Magic Exposed Flash’s Secret Identity!’ is a sharp non-nonsense duel with a dastardly villain after approbation-addicted illusionist Abra Kadabra again escapes prison and trades bodies with the 64th century cop sent to bring back to face future justice, leaving the Speedster with an impossible choice to make…

These tales were crucial to the development of modern comics and, more importantly, remain brilliant, awe-inspiring, beautifully realised thrillers to amuse, amaze and enthral both new readers and old lags. As always, the emphasis is on brains and learning, not gimmicks or abilities, which is why the stories still work more than half-a-century later.

This is a captivating snap-shot of when science was our friend and the universe(s) a place of infinite possibility. This wonderful compilation is another must-read item for anybody in love with the world of words-in-pictures.
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 2019 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Magus of the Library volume 1

By Mitsu Izumi, translated by Stephen Kohler (Kodansha Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-63236-823-2 (TPB)

Everyone knows reading is a magical experience and many fanciful tales have delightfully taken that premise at its most literal. This particular offering comes from modern manga maestro Izumi Mitsu who’s a bit of a mystery herself: preferring to let a canon of short stories and such serialised gems as 7th Garden and Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai act as her credentials.

Magus of the Library was first seen in good! Afternoon as Toshokan no Daimajutsushi and has thus far filled two volumes. It’s also made the translation jump and is waiting on English-language shelves for your rapt consideration…

In a wondrous Eastern kingdom, literature is worshipped and books are venerated. Reading them is a social privilege shared with all and fostered through a string of public libraries. Sadly, the tomes themselves have become objects of great value. That means some people keep private collections and others think they have the right to dictate who reads what…

In the rural village of Amun, a strange half-breed boy named Theo Fumis is utterly addicted to reading – especially pirate adventures. A poor slum-kid disgraced by blonde hair and pointed ears, he is the subject of much abuse, particularly from merchant-turned-librarian Ossei Menes who claims the urchin is unworthy to even touch books, let alone borrow them…

Luckily, he has a few friends, a devoted – albeit broken – family, a rich imagination and unflagging optimism to reinforce his hunger to read and learn. Moreover, one day he will definitely make the pilgrimage to the incredible, fabled Aftzaak: City of Books, where prejudice and injustice don’t exist. He just knows he will…

That dream comes one step closer when a quartet of riders enter Amun. They are Kafna: legendary warrior-librarians dedicated to preserving books and the status quo allowing all to partake of knowledge. After their leader Sedona befriends little Theo, he begins to get an inkling of their true power and purpose. The enigmatic riders are in search of a wild grimoire, teeming with magic it can no longer safely contain, but soon suspect they have stumbled onto a long-prophesied chosen one who will reshape and reconnect the world…

They better hope so, for as well as rampant escaped magic dark and ingrained bigotry, peril comes constantly courtesy of dangerous forces from beyond slowly gathering and focussing their attention on the land of literature…

Packed with wide-eyed wonder and traditional adventure set pieces, Magus of the Library traces the first steps on Theo’s path of destiny with winning exuberance and plenty of action: a delightful trip every kid and all their imaginative elders will be happy to share.
© 2018 Mitsu Izumi. English translation © 2019 Mitsu Izumi. All rights reserved.

Der Struwwelmaakies

By Tony Millionaire and guests (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1560976547 (HB)

As a career and lifestyle, cartooning has far more than its share of individuals with a unique view of and response to the world. Ronald Searle, Charles Addams, George Herriman, Gerald Scarfe, Rick Geary, Berke Breathed, Ralph Steadman, Bill Watterson, Matt Groening, Gary Larson, Steve Bell, Richard Thompson – the list is potentially endless. Perhaps it’s the power to create entire sculptured worlds, coupled with the constant catharsis of vented spleen that so colours their work – whether they paint or draw – or maybe it’s simply the crucible of constant deadlines that makes their efforts so addictive and effective.

Der Struwwelmaakies is the fourth collection (featuring material from 2003-2004 and available in both landscape hardback and digital formats) of the magnificent Tony Millionaire’s impossibly addictive and distressingly wonderful weekly newspaper strip which ran in America and selected international venues from February 1994 to December 2016. Client papers included The New York Press, and the feature was widely syndicated in US alternative newspapers such as LA Weekly and The Stranger, and comics magazines such as Linus and Rocky. There was even an animated series on Time-Warner’s Adult Swim strand.

It’s clear that Time never withered his infinitely grotesque variety and perspectives one little bit. It seems he was always Like That

The man loves to draw and does it very, very well; referencing classical art, timeless children’s book illustration, Moby Dick and nautical adventure novels as well as an eclectic mix of pioneering comics draughtsmen like George McManus, Rudolph Dirks, Cliff Sterrett, Frank Willard, Harold Gray, Elzie Segar and George Herriman. The result of seamlessly blending their styles and sensibilities with European engravings masters from the “legitimate” side of the storytelling picture racket is a uniquely bracing cartoon experience…

Born Scott Richardson, he especially cites Johnny (Raggedy Ann and Andy) Gruelle and English illustrator Ernest H. Shepard (The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh) as definitive formative influences.

With a variety of graphical strings to his bow – such as his own coterie of books for children (including the superbly stirring Billy Hazelnuts series) – animations and his legendary Sock Monkey stories – Mr. Millionaire folded his strip when he felt that there were no longer enough newspaper and magazines to support it, but in its heyday Maakies was a deliciously deeply disturbing weekly treat detailing the riotously vulgar, violent, scatalogical and absurdly surreal adventures of an Irish monkey called Uncle Gabby and his fellow macro-alcoholic and nautical mis-adventurer Drinky Crow.

They are abetted but never aided by a peculiarly twisted, off-kilter cast of reprobates, antagonists and confrontational well-wishers, such as Drunken Cop, old Wachtel, The Captain’s Daughter and avian Aunt Phoebe whilst constantly opposed by a nefarious French crocodile dubbed The Frenchman. Or not. It depends…

Also on hand and all at sea are a legion of monsters, devils and horrible hangers-on…

In the grand tradition of the earliest US newspaper cartoon features, each episode comes with a linked mini-feature running across the foot of the strip – although often that link is quite hard to ascertain.

Notionally based in a nautical setting of rip-roaring 19th century sea-faring situations, replete with maritime perils and stunning vistas, the dark-and-bitter comical instalments vary from staggeringly rude and crude through absolutely hysterical to conceptually impenetrable, with content and gags utterly unfettered by the bounds of taste or any acquiescence to wholesome fun-squelching decency.

Millionaire cheekily promoted his other creative endeavours in his Maakies pages, digressed into autobiography and personal rants, brought in selected guest creators to mess with his toys and invited the readership to contribute ideas, pictures and objects of communal interest to the mix – especially any tattoos his dedicated readership could be bothered to despatch…

This penetratingly incisive, witty and often poignant cartoon arena was his personal playground and if you didn’t like it, you should leave… but quietly please, ‘cause there’s a hangover going on here most days…

Continuity plays second fiddle to an avalanche of inventive ideas and outré action, so the strips can be read in almost any order, and the debauched drunkenness, manic ultra-violence (in the manner of the best Tom & Jerry or Itchy & Scratchy cartoons), acerbic view of sexuality and deep core of existentialist angst still finds a welcome with Slackers, Laggards, the un-Christian and all those scurrilous, lost Generations after X, as well as everyone addicted to bad taste tomfoolery.

This sizzling sampler provides – in indisputable monochrome – still more of the wonderful same with such spit-take, eye-watering, drink-coming-out-of-your-nose moments as how to sabotage and scupper circumcisions with Faux-Skin™, Zen Master’s Secret to Life, the danger of widdling in rivers during thunderstorms, Maakies Foto Funnies, The Amazing Spider-Fly, Albert Einstone, the Neanderthal Genius and numerous other reasons to welcome the inescapable alcoholocaust to come…

Guest artists this time around include Rick Detorie, Phoebe, Jim Campbell and Kaz and all the timeless themes Millionaire specialises in are on show: mandatory variations of sordid sexual encounters, ghastly interspecies progeny, assorted single entendres, bodily function lectures and misfires and gory death-scenes share space with some of literature’s greatest poets and sots – who never knew what hit them. There’s even room for a wealth of anti-war commentary from the early days of America’s 21st century Middle East misadventures…

If you’re not easily upset this is a spectacularly funny and rewarding strip, one of the most consistently creative and entertaining in existence, so if you can thrive on gorge-rousing gags and mind-bending rumination this is an experience you simply cannot deny yourself.
© Tony Millionaire. All rights reserved. This edition © 2005 Fantagraphics Books.