The Marvel Art of Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian


By John Rhett Thomas, Roy Thomas, P. Craig Russell, Barry Windsor-Smith, John Buscema, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Alex Toth, Walter Simonson, M.W. Kaluta, Tony DeZuñiga, Richard Corben, Boris Vallejo, Earl Norem, Joe Jusko, Michael Golden & many & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2382-2 (HB)

During the 1970’s the American comic book industry opened up after more than 15 years of cautious and calcified publishing practises that had come about as a reaction to the censorious oversight of the self- inflicted Comics Code Authority. This body was created to keep the publishers’ product wholesome after the industry suffered their very own McCarthy-style Witch-hunt during the 1950s.

One of the first genres revisited was Horror/Mystery comics and from that sprang pulp icon Conan the Barbarian, via a little tale in anthology Chamber of Darkness #4, whose hero bore no little thematic resemblance to the Cimmerian. 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 boom in tales of fantasy and the supernatural.

After decades away, and despite being fully owned by CPI (Conan Properties International), the brawny brute returned to the aegis of Marvel in 2019 and made himself fully at home. As well as his own title and in-world spin-offs, many collections celebrating “the Original Marvel Years” – due to the character’s sojourn with other publishers – have been released. This one is indubitably the most pretty to look upon.

The first time around, Conan broke many moulds, including being able to sustain not just his general audience boutique of titles and a newspaper strip, but also easily fitting Marvel’s black & white magazine division, offering more explicitly violent and risqué fare for supposedly more mature readers. For this market he debuted in Savage Tales #1 (1971) before winning his own monochrome title. Savage Sword of Conan launched in August 1974, running 235 issues until its cancellation in July 1995.

Throughout its life SSoC offered powerful stories, features on all things Robert E Howard and some of the most incredible artwork ever to grace comics pages.

All of that is covered by legendary Hyborian Scribe Roy Thomas in his Introduction and the page-by-page annotations of compiler John Rhett Thomas, but what’s really of interest is the painted covers, pin-ups, portfolios and extracts of story sequences by a stunning pantheon of internationally acclaimed artists which include John Buscema, Barry Windsor-Smith, Alex Toth, Neal Adams, Tony DeZuñiga, Jim Starlin, Frank Brunner, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Niño, Mike Zeck, Walter Simonson, Tim Conrad, Val Mayerik, Richard Corben, Steve Leialoha, Vicente Alcazar, Dick Giordano, Gene Colan, Pablo Marcos, E.R. Cruz, Rudy Nebres, Kerry Gammil, Nestor Redondo, Ernie Chan, Gene Day, Pat Broderick, Bill Sienkiewicz, Armando Gil, Gary Kwapisz, Adam Kubert, Dale Eaglesham, Dave Simons, Mike Docherty, Rafael Kayanan, Andrew Currie and P. Craig Russell, who also provides a picture-packed Afterword and appreciation of the mighty magazine and it’s star. I’m sure there are plenty more artists I’ve missed here, but you get the picture. Everyone and his granny wanted a shot at Conan…

Cover artists providing pulse-pounding paintings include Buscema, Adams, Starlin, Conrad, Sienkiewicz, Mayerik, Boris Vallejo, Earl Norem, Bob Larkin, Joe Jusko, Joe Chiodo, Michael Golden, Steve Hickman, Doug Beekman, David Mattingly, Dorian Vallejo, Nick Jainschigg, Ovi Hondru, Michael William Kaluta, George Pratt, Julie Bell and more, making this bombastic compilation a must-have bestiary of how to have cathartic fun and get paid too…

Groundbreaking, gripping, graphic wonderment, this astounding hardback and digital delight is every fantasy fan’s dream come true – and you know gift-giving season is just around the corner, right?
Conan the Barbarian published monthly by MARVEL WORLDWIDE INC., a subsidiary of MARVEL ENTERTAINMENT LLC. Conan © 2020 Conan Properties International LLC.

Problematic: Sketchbook Drawings 2004-2012


By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-594-5 (HB)

Some creators in the world of comics just defy description and their collected works are beyond the reviewer’s skills (mine certainly) to elucidate or encapsulate. Some are just so pedestrian or mind-numbingly bad that one simply can’t face writing about them. Others are so emphatically wonderful that no collection of praise and analysis can do them justice.

At the apex of that tricky funnybook pyramid is Jim Woodring: a position he’s maintained for years and appears capable of holding for years to come. Woodring’s work is challenging, spiritual, philosophical, funny, beautiful and extremely scary. And, even after reading that sentence, you will have absolutely no idea of what you will be seeing the first time you read any of it.

Moreover, even if you have scrupulously followed cartoonist, animator, Fine Artist, toy-maker and artistic Renaissance Man James William Woodring through an eccentric career spanning his first mini-comics in 1980; groundbreaking Fantagraphics magazine series such as Jim (1986), notional spin-offs Frank and Weathercraft, Tantalizing Stories, Seeing Things, Congress of the Animals or more mainstream storytelling such as Star Wars and Aliens tales for Dark Horse, you’ll still have no idea how you will respond to his work.

Woodring delivers surreal, abstract, wild, rational, primal cartooning: his clean-mannered art a blend of woodblock prints, Robert Crumb style, wry humour and eerie conviviality, Dreamscape, religious art and monstrous phantasmagoria. His works form a logical, progressional narrative pockmarked with multiple layers of meaning but generally devoid of speech or words, magnificently dependent on the intense involvement of the reader as a fully active participant.

So you can imagine what his first formative thoughts, passing observations and moments of wild unfettered graphic whimsy must be like…

This stunning hardback or digital compilation opens the gates of dream just a crack wider than is safe, offering selected graphic snippets from the artist’s sketchbooks covering a superbly productive period following the millennium and offering a few choice views of other graphic avenues he might have pursued if the world of harnessed hallucinations had not exhibited such a strong hold…

In his ‘Introduct’, Woodring describes his abandonment of traditional graphic tomes for diminutive “Moleskine” doodle-pads: using the flimsy palm-sized books to capture ideas roughly, quickly and with intense immediacy. The gimmick clearly works. The material collected here – mostly enlarged 140% up from the originals – simply buzzes with life and energy….

Many Frank regulars show up, including the eponymous Krazy Kat-like ingénue himself, and there are absolute torrents of bizarre, god-like household appliances, vulture-things, frog-things, rhino-things, plant-things and unspeakable Thing-things, all resident in the insanely logical traumic universe of his sensoria.

There are snippets of reportage, plenty of designs and even roughs and layouts from finished stories. Woodring also proves himself a pretty sharp pencil when it comes to capturing the weird moment of reality we all experience, a keen caricaturist and a deliciously funny “straight gag-man”, glamour artist and capturer of friends in idle moments – just like all of us sad art-school escapees who break into a cold sweat whenever we realise we’ve left the sketchbook at home and there’s only beer-mats and napkins to draw on….

Woodring is not to everyone’s taste or sensibilities – for starters, his drawings have a distressing habit of creeping back long after you’ve put the book down and scaring the bejeezus out of you – but he is an undisputed master of the form and an innovator always warping the creative envelope.

As such, this welcome peek into his creative process and conceptual/visual syllabary offers encouragement and delight to artists and storytellers of every stripe, as well as being just plain wonderful to see.

All art-forms need such creators and this glorious hardback monochrome tome could well change your working and reading habits for life.

Go on, aren’t you tempted, tantalized or terrified yet? What about curious, then…?
© 2012 Jim Woodring. This edition © 2012 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Hope and Hell’s Flaw – Shame books 4 and 5


By Lovern Kindzierski, John Bolton & Todd Klein (Renegade Arts Entertainment)

ISBN: 978-1-98782-548-0 (Hope TPB) ISBN: 978-1-98890389-7 (Hell’s Flaw TPB)

Comics are unequivocally a visual medium and that’s never more ably demonstrated than in a seductively bewitching allegorical fable from writer Lovern Kindzierski, painter John Bolton and letterer Todd Klein.

The story began with three Original Graphic Novels released between 2011 and 2013, before the entire epic was housed in its proper setting: a lavish and sublime full-colour hardback tome, liberally garnished with beguiling bonus features and all the usual digital equivalents.

So, if you’re sitting comfortably with all the doors locked and windows covered, let’s begin with a swift reprise…

Once upon a time in Conception a benevolent but homely witch named Mother Virtue spent all her days doing little favours and grand good deeds for the ordinary and unfortunate, and for these kind actions she was beloved by all. Spiritually, she was probably the most perfect woman in the world, but as for her looks…

She lived life well, growing old and content, but one day, after decades of joyous philanthropy, a single selfish thought flashed idly through her mind: a momentary longing for a daughter and wish for it to be true, that she might be a mother in fact as well as name…

The weak moment was instantly exploited by malign Shadow of Ignorance Slur. Through dark magics, he impregnated the champion of Good with a vile seed of evil, bragging to the wise-woman that her wish-made daughter would be a diabolical demon deserving the name Shame

Deeply repenting that selfish whim and dreading horrors yet to come, Mother Virtue transformed her idyllic cottage in the woods into a floral prison; a Cradle reluctantly repurposed to isolate and eventually contain the thing growing in her belly. The miserable matron-to-be also assembled Dryads to care for and guard the baby. Once Virtue finally births Shame, she leaves the devil’s burden to be reared in the mystical compound, where it grows strong and cruel but so very beautiful…

After much concentrated effort, however, minions of Shame’s sire breach Cradle’s green ramparts and school the child in vile necromancy to ensure her dire, sordid inheritance. With malefic potency, Shame refashions her guardians into something more pliable and appropriately monstrous…

As the devil’s daughter physically ripens, Slur himself comes to his evil child and through him Shame learns the terrifying power of sex. With the aid of an infernal incubus which has stolen seed from many men, she quickens a child in her own belly and eventually births a beautiful baby girl.

Into that infant Slur pours Mother Virtue’s soul; gorily ripped from the despondent dotard’s aging carcase at the moment of her granddaughter’s delivery. Even the nunnery Virtue had locked herself within was no proof against the marauding Shadow of Ignorance…

With her despised mother now her own child, securely bound within the floral penitentiary, Shame goes out into the world to make her mark…

Pursuit took up the story sixteen years later. Infant Virtue has grown strong and lovely, despite every effort of malformed, mystically mutated Dryads and Shame’s own diabolical sorcery toiling constantly but to no effect in a campaign of corruption, making every day of her young life a savage test of survival. This daily failure makes Shame – now elevated by her own evil efforts to queen of a mortal kingdom – furious beyond belief.

When not burning witches and wise women who might threaten her absolute domination, or having her armies ravage neighbouring realms, the haughty hell-spawn spies upon her offspring/ancestor with infernal devices, but is always bitterly disappointed and enraged….

Elsewhere, a valiant knight lies dying and mournfully bids his afflicted son Merritt farewell. With his last breaths, the swift-failing father dreads how his foolish, naïve, beloved boy will fare in a world ruled by the Queen who has ended him…

The hopeless dreamer is stubborn above all else and – when Merritt discovers the vegetable hell-mound of Cradle – stories his mother told him long ago run again through his head. Odd, inexplicable yearning compels him to overcome appalling arcane odds and break in. He liberates the beautiful prisoner… although she actually does most of the work…

Freed from Cradle, Virtue’s mystic might blooms. Far away, Shame reels. Slur cares little for his daughter but much for his plans: disclosing Merritt is Destiny’s wild card: a Sword of Fate who could reshape the future of humanity. Of course, that depends on whose side he joins…

The young heroes near the capital but are ambushed. After a tremendous mystic clash, Merritt awakens in a palace with a compelling dark-haired vision ministering to his every need and desire. Meanwhile, far below in a rank, eldritch dungeon, Virtue languishes, patiently adjusting plans…

This eldritch esoterically erotic epic concluded with Redemption as Merritt fell deeper under the sultry sway of the dark queen, devolving into her submissive tool of human subjugation, whilst Virtue languished in fetid squalor, weaving intricate magic with the paltry, debased materials at hand…

In the Queen’s arms, Merritt remains a child shaped by his mother’s bedtime stories. When Virtue contacts him, he readily sneaks down to her cell, dreams of nobility and valiant deeds filling his addled head…

With a final confrontation between mother and daughter imminent, Virtue sends Merritt to Hell on a vital quest to recover the Hope of the World. His triumphant return saves the kingdom and redeems the downcast…

As with all great fairy tales, justice is delivered and the world is set right side up again, with Shame dead, Slur confined to the Pit and pure reborn soul Hope in charge…

But what actually happens on the first day of “Happy Ever After”? The answer comes as the initial trilogy is extended via a second tranche of Original Graphic Novels, with Kindzierski & Bolton picking up their eldritch tapestry again in Hope

The day after Shame’s dismemberment and descent to Hell, chaos and uprising grips the kingdom, forcing Merritt and rebel wisewoman Miss Grace to escort bewildered Hope to safety outside the castle. The war has been won but evil cannot die and the rioting crowds are almost as much a danger as the Queen’s remaining stooges and free-roaming satanic spirits. Moreover, the child’s unschooled mystic force makes her a danger to herself and all around her…

Transporting her to the peaceful countryside fills Merritt with memories of his childhood and reveals what happened to his own mother, subsequently provoking Grace to review her own chequered past. Both have suffered grievously from Shame’s actions, and have no idea that the monster is still active in Hell, manipulating ghosts and demons to effect her return to Earth using the infernal contamination that used to be Cradle…

In the forests, Hope sees visions of forthcoming atrocity, which confirmed by Grace’s scrying, force the caravan to divert towards the once-green hell and meet the threat head on…

To Be Continued…

Fifth volume Hell’s Flaw resumes the epic quest, as Shame marshals her forces to secure the pathway from Hell to the living world, while the wary, weary band of heroes struggles to the verdant hellmouth.

Their way is blocked demonic forces too horrible to bear, but Grace has learned to tap Hope’s raw magic to fight them off. Slowly though, she becomes more controlling, her promises to teach the child somehow never materialising, although her need for her as a living battery constantly increases. Eventually, however, during a truly formidable assault, Hope asserts herself to save Merritt and the entire course of the quest changes…

In Hell, Shame’s own cunning endeavours have borne black fruit and she is ready to return…

To Be Concluded…

Epic and fanciful, the fairy tale trappings mask a most mature examination of Good and Evil, and the shimmering photorealistic expressionism of John Bolton’s lush painting transforms the familiar settings of fantasy standards and set-pieces into visions truly bleak and bizarre, perfectly complementing the grim, earthily seedy meta-reality of Kindzierski’s script.

Dark and nasty yet packed with sumptuous seductions of every stripe, the salutary saga of Shame is every adult fantasist’s desire made real and every comic fan’s most fervent anticipation in one irresistible package…

Hope, Hell’s Flaw and Shame: the series conceived and written by Lovern Kindzierski. The story, characters, world and designs are © Lovern Kindzierski, John Bolton and Renegade Arts Canmore Ltd.

Can’t Get No


By Rick Veitch (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1059-5 (TPB)

The terrorist atrocity of September 11th, 2001 changed the world and in our own small corner, generated a number of graphic narrative responses of varying quality, not to mention deep emotional honesty. Rick Veitch’s 2006 entry Can’t Get No was as powerful and heartfelt as any, but benefited greatly from a little time and distance.

Chad Roe’s company sold the world’s most permanent and indelible marker pen, the “Eter-No-Mark”. Everyone was flying high but then the lawsuits hit all at once. A cheap, utterly irremovable felt-pen is a godsend to street-artists and the most virulent of vandalistic weapons to property owners…

As his universe collapses on him, Chad goes on a bender, picks up two hippie-artist-chicks in a bar and wakes up a human scribble-board, covered literally from head to toe in swirling, organic, totally permanent designs.

Even then he tries so very hard to bounce back. A walking abstract artwork, he is ostracized by mockery, unable to conceal his obvious “otherness”, and neither self-help philosophies, drugs, nor alcohol can make him feel normal again. Defeated, reviled and eventually crushed in spirit, he’s trapped in a downward spiral. He meets the pen-wielding girls again and finds solace and uncomplicated joy in the artist’s world of sex, booze and dope.

Lost to “normal” society, Chad goes on a road-trip with the women, but they haven’t even left the city before they’re all arrested. It is morning on September 11th and as the girls violently resist the cops an airplane flies overhead, straight towards the centre of Manhattan…

With no-one looking at him, just another part of the shocked crowd, he watches for an eternity, and then no longer anything but another stunned mortal, Chad drives away with an Arab family in their mobile home.

And thus begins a psychedelic, introspective argosy through America’s philosophy, symbolism and meta-physicality. With this one act of terrorism forever changing the nation, Chad is forced on a journey of discovery to find an America that is newborn both inside and out. His travels take him through vistas of predictable cruelty and unexpected tolerance, through places both eerily symbolic and terrifyingly plebeian, but by the end of this modern Pilgrim’s Progress, both he and the world have adapted, accommodated and accepted.

Born in 1951, Rick Veitch is a criminally undervalued creator who has lived through post-war(s) America’s many chimeric social revolutions. He has a poet’s sensibilities and a disaffected Flower-Child’s perspectives informing a powerful creative consciousness – and conscience. Can’t Get No is a landmark experiment in both form and content which deserves careful and repeated examination.

Black and white in a landscape format, and eschewing dialogue and personal monologues for ambient text (no word balloons or descriptive captions, just the words that the characters encounter such as signs, newspapers, faxes etc.) this graphic narrative – in paperback and digital editions – screams out its great differences to usual comic strip fare, but the truly magical innovation is the “text-track”, a continual fluid, peroration of poetic statements that supply an evocative counterpoint to the visual component.

Satirical, cynical, strident: Lyricism is employed for examination and introspection, in perhaps occasionally over-florid, but nonetheless moving and heartfelt free verse and epigrams don’t make this an easy read or a simple entertainment. They do make it a piece of work every serious consumer of graphic narrative should attempt.
© 2006 Rick Veitch. All Rights Reserved.

Iznogoud and the Magic Carpet (volume 6)


By Goscinny and Tabary (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918- 044-3 (Album PB)

For the greater part of his too-short lifetime (1926-1977), René Goscinny was one of the most prolific and most-read writers of comic strips the world has ever seen. He still is.

Among his most popular comic collaborations are Lucky Luke, Le Petit Nicolas and, of course Asterix the Gaul, but there were so many others, such as the dazzling, dark deeds of a dastardly usurper whose dreams of diabolical skulduggery perpetually proved to be ultimately no more than castles in the sand…

Scant years after the Suez crisis, the French returned to the hotly contested deserts as Goscinny teamed with sublimely gifted Swedish émigré Jean Tabary (1930-2011) – who numbered Richard et Charlie, Grabadu et Gabaliouchtou, Totoche, Corinne et Jeannot and Valentin le Vagabond amongst his hit strips – to detail the innocuous history of imbecilic Arabian (im)potentate Haroun el-Poussah. However, it was the strip’s villainous foil, power-hungry vizier Iznogoud who stole the show – possibly the conniving imp’s only successful coup.

Les Aventures du Calife Haroun el Poussah was created for Record; with the first episode appearing in the January 15th1962 issue. A minor hit, it subsequently jumped ship to Pilote – a comics magazine created and edited by Goscinny – artfully refashioned into a starring vehicle for the devious ratbag who had increasingly been hogging all the laughs and limelight.

Like all great storytelling, Iznogoud works on many levels: as a comedic romp with adorably wicked baddies invariably hoisted on their own petards and coming a-cropper for the youngsters, whilst older, wiser heads revelled in the pun-filled, witty satire of marvellously accessible episodic comic capers.

The same magic formula had made its more famous cousin Asterix a global success, and just like the saga of the indomitable Gaul, this irresistibly addictive Arabian nitwit is adapted by master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge who made those Roman Follies so very palatable to the English tongue.

Moreover, the deliciously malicious whimsy is always heavily laden with manic absurdity and brilliantly delivered creative anachronism which keeps the assorted escapades bizarrely fresh and inventive.

Insidious antihero Iznogoud is Grand Vizier to affable, easy-going Haroun Al Plassid, Caliph of Ancient Baghdad, but the sneaky little toad has loftier ambitions, or as he is always declaiming “I want to be Caliph instead of the Caliph!”…

The retooled series launched in Pilote in 1968, and soon became a massive European hit, with 30 albums to date (carried on by Tabary’s children Stéphane, Muriel and Nicolas); his own solo comic, computer games, animated films, a TV cartoon show and even a live-action movie.

When Goscinny died in 1977 Tabary began scripting his own sublimely stylish tales (from 13th album onwards), switching to book-length complete adventures, rather than the compilations of short, punchy vignettes which typified the collaborations.

There haven’t been any new translated volumes since 2017, but this sixth Cinebook album (actually the ninth French album, released in 1973 as Le Tapis Magique) is now available in digital formats and opens with lead tale ‘The Magic Carpet’: an exceptional, extended 20-page epic bolstered by a triumvirate of shorter yarns and prefaced as ever with a handy catch-up profile page of the unusual suspects…

It all starts in gloriously bustling Baghdad where the verminous Vizier unaccountably encounters a few famous faces (moonlighting from their day jobs in Le Journal de Tintin) before returning to plotting how to remove the gentle, isolated and very dim obstacle to power …

It’s the birthday of corpulent oaf Haroun Al Plassid and a nasty notion finally occurs: employing impecunious Fakir Khaledonyahn to make a very special kind of rug. Flying carpets are no big deal in the empire and the skies of Baghdad are crammed with them, but the Fakir’s are extraordinary…

They only travel one way. Anybody standing on one of these when the trigger word is pronounced takes a flight to who-knows-where and never returns…

Who-knows-where is actually Ancient Peking (you can say Beijing if you want) and soon the venerably inscrutable and imperturbable citizens there are having their legendary patience and implacability tested as rug after rug arrives because untrusting Iznogoud continually demands proof of concept before parting with cash. Meanwhile, the gullibly hapless Caliph can’t get the hang of the magic word his trusted advisor wants him to repeat…

This sharply convoluted pun-punctuated yarn is followed by a sneaky dose of inspired iniquity dubbed ‘Incognito’. The well-meaning Caliph has no idea of the dire depredations Iznogoud inflicts upon the populace in his name, or that his beloved people fear, despise and revile the Caliphate because of excessive taxes, prisons filled with tortured citizens and schools empty of children. When chimerically inquisitive Haroun Al Plassid decides to go out amongst the populace in all his regal splendour, he is disappointed and surprised to find the streets utterly deserted by the terrified common folk…

Asking his precious Iznogoud for advice, the Commander of the Faithful is then convinced to sneak out alone dressed as a common beggar. Unable to believe his luck, the venal Vizier quickly briefs bumbling, long-suffering crony Wa’at Alahfand orders the guards to throw into the deepest dungeon any beggars who approach the palace.

On his fact-finding mission, the shabby Caliph learns a lot he doesn’t like and determines to fix things as soon as he gets back. Unfortunately, being a newcomer in his own city he gets lost…

Soon Iznogoud is going insane with suspense. Al Plassid should be back and languishing in jail by now, but as long as he’s out there somewhere the coup cannot begin. Thus, the despot-in-waiting and his fatuous flunky are forced to disguise themselves as beggars, covertly creeping out into Baghdad to search for their missing lord.

In the meantime, the Caliph has the brilliant notion of asking for directions and shambles home just as the Guard is being changed. Nobody even notices the scruffy indigent who shambles back to his apartments and becomes again The Caliph. Down in the city the tired and frustrated plotters give up and head for home, just as the order to arrest all beggars becomes law…

Sheer broad slapstick-riddled farce is the secret ingredient of the perfectly paced saga of ‘The Tiger Hunt’ when Iznogoud convinces his boss to go for a low key safari – just him, the Vizier and faithful Wa’at Alahf, all armed with bows and blunt arrows – to bag the perfect bedside rug.

Typically, the murder plot goes hideously awry as a succession of hunters provide perfectly suitable, already skinned rugs to the happy ruler and the only living apex predators they can find are just not interested.

Forced to improvise, Iznogoud resorts to digging a huge pit, but whilst he’s at the bottom of it Haroun at last finds a way to really tick off a tiger – just before it tumbles into a great big hole in the ground…

The manic mirth concludes with ‘The Box of Souvenirs’ as a visitor from distant Nippon visits Baghdad with a strange device. Judoka Karate is a destitute tourist whose incredible hand-held cube can turn solid objects into two-dimensional pictures.

Instantly sensing an opportunity Iznogoud – after much spirited dickering – acquires the mystic souvenir-maker, but hasn’t fully considered the details. To turn a jug, jewel or Caliph into a black-&-white image, the object has to be the proper distance from the lens and the subject absolutely must keep completely still for a minute or two.

Confident he can cope, the Vizier has utterly underestimated the Caliph’s mayfly attention span and ingrained vanity which has led to large mirrors being placed all over the palace…

Just such witty, fast-paced hi-jinks and craftily crafted comedy set pieces have made this addictive series a household name in France where “Iznogoud” is common term for a certain type of politician: over-ambitious, unscrupulous – and frequently not that tall.

When first released in Britain in the 1970s (and again in 1996 as a periodical comic book) these tales made little impression, but this snappy, wonderfully beguiling strip deserves an appreciative audience among today’s more internationally aware, politically jaded comics-and-cartoon savvy Kids of All Ages…
Original edition © Editions TABARY 1991, by Goscinny & Tabary. All rights reserved. This edition published 2010 by Cinebook Ltd.

Connective Tissue


By Bob Fingerman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-143-5 (HB)

The always innovative and entertaining Bob Fingerman (Minimum Wage; Recess Pieces; Bottomfeeder; Garbage Pail Kids; Scooby Doo) turned his post-modern attentions to the burgeoning sector of illustrated novellas (picture books for grown-ups) with this classy, sassy and wickedly beguiling blend of Alice in Wonderland, Stranger in a Strange Landand Clerks – with just a dash of Allan Moyle’s hugely underrated 1995 movie Empire Records peppering the mix.

There’s a whole other class of people in the world: eternally young, worldly-wise and yet unaccountably innocent. They dress oddly, know cool but useless things, don’t care about pension plans or job security and work only to live their outside lives. They are the disaffected tribe who work for minimum wage in the odd corners of modern retail: record stores, non-chain book shops, computer games stores, comic shops…

They’re not an underclass, just a different one.

Darla Vogel earns her living at Kwok’s Video rental store. As a cool and rudely healthy chick in a venue that attracts a lot of loners, weirdoes and social no-hopers, she often finds herself the object of fumbling attention and unwanted gifts. One particular night when she gets home she finds herself abducted via a poster on her wall into a disturbing new universe: bleakly undulating, slightly skewed, grossly organic and filled with far too much of the wrong kind of nakedness. Darla wants to go home…

Fingerman takes a classic plot with a much funnier, feistier heroine, adds a dollop of queasy otherworldliness, peppers it all with dry wit and an avalanche of contemporary references – everything from celebrity gossip to comic – before adding his own subversively funny tone-and-wash illustrations (a delightful remembrance of the best Mad Magazine pages) to produce a runaway delight for full-grown childish lovers of the outré and outrageous.

Get it: it’s yummy scrummy!
© 2009 Bob Fingerman. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Wonder Woman volume 1


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

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 were limned by classical illustrator by Harry G. Peter. She 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 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 discrete end of an era.

This first cheap and cheerful monochrome Showcase collection covers what came next: specifically issues #98-117, spanning May 1958-October 1960.

With the notable exception of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and inoffensive back-up B-listers Aquaman and Green Arrow (plus – arguably – Johnny Quick, who held on until December 1954 and cowboy crimebuster Vigilante who finally bit the dust a month earlier), costumed heroes died out at the beginning of the 1950s, replaced by a plethora of merely mortal champions and a welter of anthologised genre titles.

When after almost no time at all, Showcase #4 rekindled the readership’s imagination and zest for masked mystery-men with a new iteration of The Flash in 1956, the fanciful floodgates opened wide once more. As well as re-imagining Golden Age stalwarts such as Green Lantern, The Atom and Hawkman, National/DC consequently updated all its hoary survivors such as the aforementioned Emerald Archer and Sea King. Also included in that revitalising agenda were the company’s High Trinity: Man of Steel, Caped Crusader and the ever-resilient Princess of Power…

Artists Ross Andru & Mike Esposito had debuted as cover artists 3 issues earlier, but with opening inclusion Wonder Woman #98 they took over the entire comic book as Robert Kanigher reinvented much of the old mythology and even tinkered with her origins in ‘The Million Dollar Penny!’ when goddess Athena visits an island of super-scientific immortal women, informing 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 and is given the task of turning a penny into a million dollars in a day – all profits going to children’s charities, of course…

Just as the new Wonder Woman begins 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!’

Issue #99 opened in similar bombastic fashion with ‘Stampede of the Comets!’ as Trevor is lost undertaking a pioneering space mission and Wonder Woman goes to his rescue thanks to incredible Amazon engineering ingenuity. After foiling an alien attack against Earth, the reunited lovers return in time for the introduction of the Hellenic Heroine’s new covert identity as Air Force Intelligence Lieutenant Diana Prince in ‘Top Secret!’ – beginning a decade of tales with Steve perpetually attempting to uncover her identity and make the most powerful woman on Earth his blushing bride, whilst his bespectacled, glorified secretary stands unnoticed, exasperated and ignored right beside – or slightly behind – him…

The 100th issue was a spectacular battle saga commencing with ‘The Challenge of Dimension X!’ and an alternate Earth Wonder Woman competing with the Amazing Amazon for sole rights to the title: all culminating with a deciding bout in ‘The Forest of Giants!’, whilst ‘Wonder Woman’s 100th Anniversary!’ deals with the impossibility of capturing the far-too-fast and furious Amazon’s exploits on film for Paradise Island’s archives…

‘The Undersea Trap!’ opened #101, with Steve tricking his “Angel” into agreeing to marry him if she has to rescue him three times in 24 hours (just chalk it up to simpler times, or you’ll pop a blood vessel, OK?) after which the odd couple are trapped by a temporal tyrant in ‘The Fun House of Time!’

Steve’s affection and wits are tested by an alien giant in ‘The Three Faces of Wonder Woman’ when he’s forced to pick out his true love from a trio of identical duplicates to save the world in #102, before ‘The Wonder Woman Album’ returns to the previously explored “impossible-to-photograph” theme in #103, but devotes most space to sinister thriller ‘The Box of Three Dooms!’ wherein the murderous Gadget Maker attempts to destroy the Amazon with a booby-trapped gift.

‘Trial By Fire’ pits Diana Prince against a host of deadly traps only Wonder Woman could survive after which ‘Key to Deception!’ closes #104 by reintroducing Golden Age villain the Duke of Deception as a militaristic Martian marauder in a gripping interplanetary caper.

Issue #105 debuted Wonder Girl in the ‘Secret Origin of Wonder Woman’, revealing how centuries ago the gods and goddesses of Olympus bestowed unique powers on the daughter of Queen Hippolyta and how – as a mere teenager – the indomitable Diana brought the Amazons to Paradise Island. Continuity – let alone consistency and rationality – were never as important to Kanigher as strong story or breathtaking visuals, and this eclectic odyssey is a great yarn that simply annoyed the heck out of a lot of fans… but not as much as the junior Amazon would in years to come…

Second feature ‘Eagle of Space’ is a more traditional tale of predatory space Pterodactyls and a dinosaur planet where Steve and Diana lend a civilising hand to the indigenous caveman population.

‘The Human Charm Bracelet!’ in #106 sees Wonder Woman battling an unbeatable extraterrestrial giant who wants Earth for his plaything, and her younger self encounters a chameleonic lass in ‘The Invisible Wonder Girl!’

The high fantasy adventures of the junior heroine clearly caught somebody’s fancy as they started coming thick and fast: ‘Wonder Woman – Amazon Teen-Ager!’ opened #107 as the youngster finds a romantic interest in merboy Ronno, undergoing a quest to win herself a superhero costume, whilst her adult self is relegated to a back-up battle against ‘Gunslingers of Space!’

‘Wanted… Wonder Woman!’ features Flying Saucer aliens framing our heroine for heinous crimes as a precursor to a planetary invasion and ‘The Stamps of Doom!’ offers a plot by another murderous inventor to kill the Princess in #108, before the next issue steps back in time to feature ‘Wonder Girl in Giant Land’ with the nubile neophyte easily overcoming ambush by colossal aliens. Her mature self is represented by ‘The Million Dollar Pigeon!’ wherein gangsters think they’ve found a foolproof method of removing the Amazing Amazon from their lives…

Wonder Woman #110 was a full-length saga with the indomitable warrior maid searching Earth for a missing alien princess in ‘The Bridge of Crocodiles!’ If the wanderer can’t be found, her concerned family intend laying waste the entire planet…

In #111, ‘The Robot Wonder Woman’ commissioned by gangsters provides no competition for the genuine article, whilst ‘Battle of the Mermen!’ sees Wonder Girl drawn into a sub-sea rumble between competing gangs of teenaged fish-boys…

The youthful incarnation led off the next issue. ‘Wonder Girl in the Chest of Monsters!’ takes the concept to unparalleled heights of absurdity as, in contemporary times, a heroic girl is rewarded with three Amazon wishes and travels back in time for an adventure with Wonder Woman’s younger self, whilst #113 return to relatively straight action with ‘The Invasion of the Sphinx Creatures!’ with the Adult Amazon battling the ancient weapons of a resurrected Pharoah-Queen, before ‘Wonder Girl’s Birthday Party!’ recounts how each anniversary event seems to coincide with geological disaster, mythological menace or uncanny event…

Aliens once more attack in #114’s ‘The Monster Express!’, turning parade balloons into ravening monsters until Diana and Steve intercede, after which ‘Wonder Girl’s Robot Playmate!’ demonstrate how hard it is growing up special…

Old enemy Angle Man returns revamped for the Silver Age in #115’s ‘Graveyard of Monster Ships!’ whilst ‘Mer-Boy’s Undersea Party!’ proves that above or below the waves Wonder Girls just don’t want to have fun, whilst in #116 both Ronno and Young Diana prove capable of serious heroism in ‘The Cave of Secret Creatures!’, before the Adult Amazon finally stops a millennial menace to mankind in ‘The Time -Traveller of Terror!’

This initial enchanting epistle concludes with Wonder Woman #117 wherein ‘The Fantastic Fishermen of the Forbidden Sea!’ revive Golden Age stars Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls – in modernised, marginally less offensive incarnations – for a fantastic tale of aquatic invaders before Amazon time-travel techniques allow the impossible to occur when ‘Wonder Girl Meets Wonder Woman!’… or do they?

By modern standards these exuberant, effulgent fantasies are all-out crazy, but as examples of the days when less attention was paid to continuity and concepts of shared universes and adventure in the moment were paramount, these outrageous romps simply sparkle with fun, thrills and sheer spectacle.

Wonder Woman is rightly revered as a focal point of female strength, independence and empowerment, but the welcoming nostalgia and easy familiarity of these costumed fairy tales remain a delight for all open-minded readers with the true value of these exploits being the incredible quality of entertainment they provide.
© 1958-1960, 2007 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

When Big Bears Invade


By Alexander Finbow & Nyco Rudolph with Ryan Ferrier (Renegade Arts Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-987982-549-7 (HB)

You might not know it when he/she/they put peanut butter poptarts on your vintage vinyl turntable or hide unwanted vegetables in the laptop, but kids always want to be heroes. They pick up what’s going in the world – local or global – and look for ways to fix it. Just compare the number of septuagenarians to middle schoolers who heard Greta Thunberg’s call to arms and decided now was the time to act…

There’s a wonderful tinge of all that in this hardback and digital picture book for the young and restless of all ages. Courtesy of writer/editor/publisher Alexander Finbow and illustrator Nyco Rudolph, When Big Bears Invade offers traditional rhyming couplets for humongous, cathartic painted spreads predicting what will happen when Earth finally has enough of humanity’s wasteful destructive ways and sets a legion of gigantic ursine avengers to settling scores and fixing the mess in the most effective manner possible…

Witty, pretty and deliciously satisfying, this is a full-on eco-fable for the rightly concerned of every vintage and persuasion: a perfect gift and a welcome diversion when the real world’s imminent demise drags you down…
© 2017 Alexander Finbow & Nyco Rudolph.

Bogart Creek volume 2


By Derek Evernden (Renegade Arts Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-98890-390-3 (PB) eISBN: 978-1-98890-397-2

Welcome to September, start of Autumn and notionally a season of mellow fruitfulness. Sod all that though, let’s kick off with some much-needed hearty chuckles, thanks to a second helping of quirkily Canadian observational comedy…

Cartoonist Derek Evernden has a skewed, devious way of looking at the world and its many potentialities; probably the result of growing up in a small, quiet, very pleasant place. Everyone knows early and repeated exposure to that kind of environment twists your brains…

You know that old line about writing/drawing what you know? Evernden grew up in actual Bogart Creek, Ontario, so let’s all hope at least some of this stuff is just made up, right? He’s Canadian, so must be polite and sympathetic, but clearly, he’s also the other sort of Canadian: someone with a lot to laugh at, plenty of time to take notice and probably perfused with that slow-burning, ever-mounting rage everyone gracious and well-mannered has boiling inside, because of the nonsense the rest of us get up to…

Bogart Creek is a daily single panel gag delivered in a variety of artistic styles; viewing the world – especially popular culture – with a mordant, cruelly satirical eye. It deftly delivers charmingly rendered and seditious examples of how reality actually operates, through popular themes like murder, philosophy, crime, history, vengeance, psychiatry, cryptozoology and the natural world. Think of it as a school for smirking realists…

Like all of us, Evernden is a child of mass-culture, inspired by movies, fashion, sports, popular culture, the media and anything else passing strangers might discuss at a water cooler or bus stop in deference to social convention…

The strip is also hopelessly mired in painful punning on a mega “dad-joke” scale; absurdist revelation and surreal slapstick. The creator has mastered the art of wedding funny notions to effective dialogue and efficient, smart cartooning. Evernden proudly admits his debt to and influence of Gary Larson’s The Far Side, but he can’t keep blaming that poor guy for all of this new stuff in this second collection of infectious, debased hilarity…

On prominent display here are monochrome and full-colour japes and jests concerning home-schooled surgeons, morgue sports, school days, lab animals, manufacturing and the job market, animal amusements, protesting, historical moments, fat-shaming, driving, monsters, inventors, bucket lists and Christmas. There’s also a frighteningly large number of gags aimed at (and scoring palpable hits on) superhero, sci fi and horror movies, balanced by a delightful concentration on the sheer arbitrary lunacy of modern life…

Smart, inventive, cruelly witty, instantly addictive and cheekily outrageous, this is a collection (in paperback or digital editions) to restore any weary adult in need of tension release and a therapeutic schadenfreude. We’ve all been proverbially up the creek before, but at least now you have a jolly tome to paddle back to reality with.
Cover illustration, book design and cartoons all © 2020 Derek Evernden. All rights reserved.

 

Showcase Presents Showcase


By Many and various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-364-1 (TPB)

If you’re a book reviewer, Christmas often comes incredibly early. We received lots and lots of lovely new tomes in the last week and I’ve still not caught up yet, so in the meantime, I’m fobbing you all off with a reworked recommendation I was saving for our actual Christmas promotion season. It’s still a wonderful read criminally in need of re-release and a digital edition, but readily available – for now…

The review is incredibly long. If you want to skip it and just buy the book – because it’s truly brilliant – then please do. I won’t mind and you won’t regret it at all…

In almost every conceivable way, DC’s original “try-out title” Showcase created and dictated the form of the Silver Age of American comic books and is responsible for the multi-billion-dollar industry and art form we all enjoy today.

For many of us old lags, the Silver Age is the ideal era and a still-calling Promised Land of fun and thrills. Varnished by nostalgia (because it’s the era when most of us caught this crazy childhood bug), the clean-cut, unsophisticated optimism of the late 1950s and early 1960s produced captivating heroes and compelling villains who were still far less terrifying than the Cold War baddies then troubling the grown-ups. The sheer talent and unbridled professionalism of the creators working in that too-briefly revitalised comics world resulted in triumph after triumph and even inspired competitors to step up and excel: all of which brightened our young lives and still glow today with quality and achievement.

The principle was a sound one and graphically depicted in the very first issue: the Editors at National/DC were apparently bombarded with readers’ suggestions for new titles and concepts and the only possible way to feasibly prove which would be popular was to offer test runs and assess fan reactions – for which read Sales…

Firmly ensconced in the age of genre thrillers and human adventurers, this magnificent, monolithic monochrome tome covers the first 21 issues from that historic series, spanning March/April 1956 to July/August 1959, and starts the ball rolling with the first and last appearances of Fireman Farrell in a proposed series dubbed Fire Fighters.

Following the aforementioned short ‘The Story Behind Showcase’ by Jack Schiff & Win Mortimer, the human-scaled dramas begin in ‘The School for Smoke-Eaters’ by Schiff and the superb John Prentice (Rip Kirby), introducing trainee fireman Mike Farrell during the last days of his training and desperate to simultaneously live up to and escape his father’s fabulous record as a legendary “smoke-eater”.

The remaining stories, both scripted by Arnold Drake, deal with the job’s daily dilemmas: firstly in ‘Fire under the Big Top’ wherein an unscrupulous showman ignored Farrell’s Fire Inspection findings with tragic consequences, and in‘Fourth Alarm’ mixing an industrial dispute over fireman’s pay, a crooked factory owner and a waterfront blaze captured on live TV in a blisteringly authentic tale of human heroism.

Showcase #2 featured Kings of the Wild: tales of animal valour imaginatively related in three tales scripted by Robert Kanigher – who had thrived after the demise of superheroes with a range of fantastical genre adventures covering western, war, espionage and straight adventure. Stunningly illustrated by Joe Kubert, ‘Rider of the Winds’ tells of a Native American lad’s relationship with his totem spirit Eagle; ‘Outcast Heroes’ (Ross Andru & Mike Esposito) relates how an orphan boy’s loneliness ends after befriending a runaway mutt who eventually saves the town’s kids from a flood before ‘Runaway Bear’ – drawn by Russ Heath – uses broad comedy to describe how an escaped circus bruin battles all the horrors of the wilderness to get return to his comfortable, safe life under the Big Top.

Issue #3 debuted Kanigher & Heath’s The Frogmen in an extended single tale following candidates for a US Underwater Demolitions Team as they move from students to successful undersea warriors. Beginning with ‘The Making of a Frogman’ as the smallest diver – mocked and chided as a ‘Sardine’ by his fellows (especially ‘Shark’ and ‘Whale’) – perseveres and forges bonds until the trio are dumped into blazing Pacific action in ‘Flying Frogmen’, learning the worth of teamwork and sacrifice by destroying a Japanese Sub base in ‘Silent War’

The feature returned as a semi-regular strip in All-American Men of War #44 (April #1957) amongst other Kanigher-edited war comics: making Frogmen the first but certainly not the last graduate of the try-out system. The next debut was to be the most successful but the cautious publishers took a long, long time to make it so…

No matter which way you look at it, the Silver Age officially arrived began with The Flash. It’s an unjust but true fact that being first is not enough; it also helps to be best and people have to notice. The Shield beat Captain America to the news-stands by over a year yet the former is all but forgotten today.

The industry had never really stopped trying to revive superheroes when Showcase #4 was released in late summer of 1956, with such precursors as The Avenger (February-September 1955); Captain Flash (November 1954-July 1955); Marvel’s Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and aforementioned Sentinel of Liberty (December 1953-October 1955) and even DC’s own Captain Comet (December 1953-October 1955) and Manhunter from Mars (November 1955 until the close of the 1960’s and almost the end of superheroes again!) still turning up in second-hand-stores and “Five-and-Dime” bargain bins. What made the new Fastest Man Alive stand out and stick was … well, everything!

Once DC’s powers-that-be decided to try superheroes once more, they moved pretty fast themselves. Editor Julie Schwartz asked office partner and Golden-Age Flash scripter Kanigher to recreate a speedster for the Space Age, aided and abetted by Carmine Infantino & Joe Kubert, who had also worked on the previous incarnation.

The new Flash was Barry Allen, a forensic scientist simultaneously struck by lightning and bathed in the exploding chemicals of his lab. Supercharged by the accident, Barry took his superhero identity from a comic book featuring his predecessor (scientist Jay Garrick, who was exposed to the mutagenic fumes of “Hard Water”). Designing a sleek, streamlined bodysuit (courtesy of Infantino – a major talent rapidly approaching his artistic and creative pinnacle), Barry Allen became the point man for the spectacular revival of a genre and the entire industry.

‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ (Kanigher) and ‘The Man Who Broke the Time Barrier’ (written by the superb John Broome) are polished, coolly sophisticated stories introducing the comfortingly suburban superhero and establishing the broad parameters of his universe. Whether defeating bizarre criminal masterminds such as The Turtle or returning criminal exile Mazdan to his own century, the new Flash was a protagonist of keen insight and sharp wits as well as overwhelming power. Nonetheless the concept was so controversial that despite phenomenal sales, rather than his own series the Fastest Man Alive was given a Showcase encore almost a year later…

Showcase #5 featured the last comics concept in years that didn’t actually develop into an ongoing series, but that’s certainly due to changing fashions of the times and not the quality of the work. The three crime yarns comprising cops-&-robbers anthology Manhunters, begin with ‘The Greatest Villain of all Time’ by Jack Miller & Mort Meskin, revealing how Hollywood screenwriter-turned-police detective Lt. Fowler is dogged by a madman playing for real all the fantastic bad guys the mystery author had once created, whilst ‘The Two Faces of Mr. X’ (Miller, Curt Swan & Sy Barry) finds a male model drafted by the FBI to replace a prominent mob-boss. Unfortunately, it’s the day before the gangster is scheduled for face-changing plastic surgery…

‘The Human Eel’ (Miller & Bill Ely) then pits a cop unable to endure heights against an international high-tech rogue who thinks he hold all the winning cards…

The next try-out was on far firmer fashion grounds and was the first feature to win two issues in a row.

The Challengers of the Unknown were a bridging concept. As the superhero genre was ever so cautiously alpha-tested in 1956 here was a super-team – the first new group-entry of this still-to-be codified era – but with no uncanny abilities or masks, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes, and the most dubious of motives: Suicide by Mystery…

If you wanted to play editorially safe you could argue that were simply another para-military band of adventurers like the long running Blackhawks… but they weren’t.

A huge early hit – winning their own title before The Flash (March 1959) and just two months after Lois Lane (March 1958, although she had been a star in comics since 1938 and even had TV, radio and movie recognition on her side) – the Challs struck a chord resonating 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. When the comic industry suffered a collapse in the mid 1950’s, Kirby briefly returned to DC, crafting genre mystery tales and revitalising the Green Arrow back-up strip whilst creating newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force. He also re-packaged for Showcase an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and long-time collaborator Joe Simon had closed their innovative but unfortunate Mainline Comics.

The Challengers of the Unknown were four extraordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers brought together for a radio show 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, of course, Justice.

Showcase #6, dated January/February 1957 – which meant it came out in time for Christmas 1956 – introduced pilot Ace Morgan, wrestler Rocky Davis, acrobat Red Ryan and scholarly marine explorer “Prof” Haley in a no-nonsense romp by Kirby, scripter Dave Wood, inkers Marvin Stein and Jack’s wife Roz, before devoting the rest of the issue to a spectacular epic with the doom-chasers hired by duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient casque holding otherworldly secrets and powers in ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’

This 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 as the heroes tackle ancient horrors such as ‘Dragon Seed!’, ‘The Freezing Sun!’ and ‘The Whirling Weaver!’

The fantasy magic continued in the sequel: a science fiction crisis caused when an alliance of Nazi technologies with American criminality unleashes a robotic monster. Scripted by Kirby, ‘Ultivac is Loose!’ (Showcase #7, March/April 1957) introduces quietly capable boffin Dr. June Robbins, who becomes the fifth Challenger at a time when most comic females had returned to a subsidiary status in that so-conservative era.

As her computers predict ‘A Challenger Must Die!’, the lads nevertheless continue to hunt a telepathic, sentient super-robot who inadvertently terrorises ‘The Fearful Millions’ but soon find their sympathies with the tragic artificial intelligence after ‘The Fateful Prediction!’ is fulfilled…

Showcase #8 (June 1957) again featured the Flash, leading with another Kanigher tale – ‘The Secret of the Empty Box’. This perplexing but pedestrian mystery sees Frank Giacoia debut as inker, but the real landmark is Broome’s thriller ‘The Coldest Man on Earth’. With this yarn the author confirmed and consolidated the new phenomenon by introducing the first of a Rogues Gallery of outlandish super-villains. Unlike Golden Age stalwarts, new super-heroes would face predominantly costumed foes rather than thugs and spies. Henceforth, Bad Guys would be as visually arresting and memorable as the champions of justice. Captain Cold would return time and again as pre-eminent Flash Foe and Broome would go on to create every single member of Flash’s classic pantheon of super-villains.

Also included is filler reprint ‘The Race of Wheel and Keel’ by Gardner Fox, Gil Kane & Harry Lazarus, from All-Star Comics #53 (June/July 1950): a true story of how in 1858 a shipping magnate and stagecoach tycoon competed to prove which method of transportation was fastest…

When Lois Lane – arguably the oldest supporting character/star in the Superman mythology if not DC universe – finally received her own shot at a solo title, it was very much on the terms of the times.

I must shamefacedly admit to a deep, nostalgic affection for her bright, breezy, fantastically fun adventures, but as a free-thinking, (nominally) adult liberal of the 21st century I’m astounded now at the jolly, patronising, patriarchally misogynistic attitudes underpinning so many of the stories.

Yes, I’m fully aware that the series was intended for young readers at a time when “dizzy dames” like Lucille Ball or Doris Day played to a popular American stereotype of Woman as jealous minx, silly goose, diffident wife and brood-hungry nester, but asking kids to seriously accept that intelligent, courageous, ambitious, ethical and highly capable females would drop everything they’d worked hard for to lie, cheat, inveigle, manipulate and entrap a man just so that they could cook pot-roast and change super-diapers is just plain crazy and tantamount to child abuse.

I’m just saying…

Showcase #9 (cover-dated July/August 1957) featured Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane in three tales by Jerry Coleman, Ruben Moreira & Al Plastino; opening with seminal yarn ‘The Girl in Superman’s Past’ wherein Lois first meets red-headed hussy Lana Lang. The childhood sweetheart of Superboy seems to be a pushy conniving go-getter out to win Lois’ intended at all costs. Naturally Miss Lane invites Miss Lang to stay at her apartment and the grand rivalry is off and running…

‘The New Lois Lane’ aggravatingly saw Lois turn over a new leaf and stop attempting to uncover his secret identity just when Superman actually needs her to do so, and the premier concludes with concussion-induced day-dream ‘Mrs. Superman’ with Lois imagining a life of domestic super-bliss…

The next issue (September/October 1957) offered three more of the same, all illustrated by Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye, beginning with ‘The Jilting of Superman’ – scripted by Otto Binder – wherein the Man of Tomorrow almost falls for an ancient ploy as Lois pretends to marry another man to make the Kryptonian clod realise what she means to him…

‘The Sightless Lois Lane’ by Coleman reveals how a nuclear accident temporarily blinds the journalist, before her unexpected recovery almost exposes Clark Kent’s secret when he callously changes to Superman in front of the blind girl. Binder delightfully closes the issue with ‘The Forbidden Box from Krypton’: a cache of devices dug up by a Smallville archaeologist originally packed by Jor-El to aid the infant superbaby on Earth. Of course, when Lois opens the chest all she sees is a way to become as powerful as the Man of Steel before becoming addicted to being a super-champion in her own right…

Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane launched into her own title scant months later, clearly exactly what the readers wanted…

Showcase #11 (November/December 1957) saw the Challengers return to combat an alien invasion on ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’, with unique realist Bruno Premiani inking a taut doomsday chiller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats even today. Whilst searching for missing Antarctic explorers the Challs discover an under-ice base where double-brained aliens prepare to explosively alter the mass and gravity of Earth. Although intellectually superior, ‘The Tyrans’are no match for the indomitable human heroes and with their Plan A scotched, resort to brute force and ‘The Thing That Came out of the Sea’, even as Prof scuttles their aquatic ace in the hole with ‘One Minute to Doom’

By the time of their final Showcase cases (#12, January/February 1958) they had already secured their own title. Here, though, ‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ is defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and ingenuity (with the wonderful inking of George Klein, not Wally Wood as credited here) as international spy and criminal Karnak steals a clutch of ancient chemical weapons which create giants and ‘The Fire Being!’, summon ‘The Demon from the Depths’and materialise ‘The Deadly Duplicates!’ before the pre-fantastic four put their enemy down.

Flash zipped back in Showcase #13 (March/April 1958) in a brace of tales pencilled by Infantino and inked by Joe Giella. Written by Kanigher, ‘Around the World in 80 Minutes’ follows the Scarlet Speedster as he tackles atomic blackmail in Paris, foils kidnappers and rebuilds a pyramid in Egypt; dismantles an avalanche in Tibet and scuttles a pirate submarine in the Pacific, before Broome’s ‘Master of the Elements’ introduces outlandish chemical criminal Al Desmond who ravages Central City as Mr. Element until the Flash outwits him.

One last try-out issue – inked by Giacoia – cemented the Flash’s future: Showcase #14 (May/June 1958) opens with Kanigher’s eerie ‘Giants of the Time-World!’ as the Fastest Man Alive smashes dimensional barriers to rescue his girlfriend Iris West from uncanny cosmic colossi and stamp out an alien invasion plan, after which Al Desmond returns with an altered M.O. and new identity. Doctor Alchemy’s discovery of the mystic Philosopher’s Stone makes him ‘The Man who Changed the Earth!’: a stunning yarn and worthy effort to bow out on, but it was still nearly a year until the first issue of The Flash finally hit the stands.

To reiterate: Showcase was a try-out comic designed to launch new series and concepts with minimal commitment of publishing resources. If a new character sold well initially, a regular series would follow. The process had been proved with Frogmen, Lois Lane, Challengers of the Unknown and Flash, so Editorial Director Irwin Donenfeld now urged his two Showcase editors to create science fiction heroes to capitalise on the twin zeitgeists of the Space Race and the popular fascination with movie monsters and aliens. Jack Schiff came up with a “masked” crimefighter of the future – who featured in issues #15 and 16 – whilst Julie Schwartz concentrated on the now in the saga of a contemporary Earth explorer catapulted into the most uncharted territory yet imagined.

Showcase #15 (September/October 1958) commenced without fanfare – or origin – the ongoing adventures of Space Ranger – beginning in ‘The Great Plutonium Plot’ (plotted by Gardner Fox, scripted by pulp veteran Edmond Hamilton and illustrated by Bob Brown).

Their hero was in actuality Rick Starr, son of a wealthy interplanetary businessman who – thanks to incredible gadgets and the assistance of shape-shifting alien pal Cryll and capable Girl Friday Myra Mason – spent his free time battling evil and injustice. When Jarko the Jovian space pirate targets only ships carrying the trans-uranic element, Rick suspects a hidden motive. Donning his guise of the Space Ranger, he lays a cunning trap, exposing a hidden mastermind and a deadly ancient device endangering the entire solar system…

From his base in a hollow asteroid, Space Ranger ranges the universe and ‘The Robot Planet’ brings him and his team to Sirius after discovering a diabolical device designed to rip Sol’s planets out of their orbits. At the end of his voyage, Starr discovers a sublime civilisation reduced to cave-dwelling and a mighty computer intelligence intent on controlling the entire universe unless he can stop it…

Issue #16 opened with ‘The Secret of the Space Monster’ (plot by John Forte, scripted by Hamilton, illustrated by Brown) with Rick, Myra and Cryll investigating an impossible void creature and uncovering a band of alien revolutionaries testing novel super-weapons. ‘The Riddle of the Lost Race’ (Fox, Hamilton & Brown) then takes the team on a whistle-stop tour of the Solar system in pursuit of a vicious criminal and hidden treasures of a long-vanished civilisation.

A few months later Space Ranger was transported to science fiction anthology Tales of the Unexpected, beginning with issue #40 (August 1959) to hold the lead and cover spot for a 6-year run…

One of the most compelling and revered stars of those halcyon days was an ordinary Earthman who regularly travelled to another world for spectacular adventures, armed with nothing more than a ray-gun, a jetpack and his own ingenuity. His name was Adam Strange, and like so many of that era’s triumphs, he was the brainchild of Julius Schwartz and his close team of creative stars.

Showcase #17 (November/December 1958) proclaimed Adventures on Other Worlds, courtesy of Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky & Bernard Sachs, telling of an archaeologist who, whilst fleeing from enraged natives in Peru, jumps a 25-foot chasm only to be hit by a stray teleport beam from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. Rematerialising on another planet filled with giant plants and monsters, he is rescued by a beautiful woman named Alanna who teaches him her language via a cunning contrivance. ‘Secret of the Eternal City!’ reveals Rann is a world recovering from atomic war, and the beam Adam intercepted was in fact a simple flare, one of many sent in an attempt to communicate with other races.

In the four years (Speed of Light, right? As You Know, Bob – Alpha Centauri is about 4.3 light-years from Sol) the Zeta-Flare travelled through space, cosmic radiation converted it into a teleportation beam. Until the radiation drains from his body Strange is a most willing prisoner on a fantastic world of mystery, adventure and romance…

And an incredibly unlucky one apparently, as no sooner has Adam started acclimatising than an alien race The Eternalsinvades, seeking a mineral that grants them immortality. Strange’s courage and sharp wits enable him to defeat the invaders only to have the Zeta radiation finally fade, drawing him home before his adoring Alanna can administer a hero’s reward. Thus was established the principles of this beguiling series. Adam would intercept a Zeta-beam hoping for some time with his alien sweetheart, only to be confronted with a planet-menacing crisis.

The very next of these, ‘The Planet and the Pendulum’ sees him obtain the crimson-and-white spacesuit and weaponry that became his distinctive trademark in a tale of alien invaders attacking a lost colony of Rannians. They reside on planetary neighbour Anthorann – a fact that also introduces the major subplot of Rann’s still-warring city-states, all desperate to progress and all at different stages of recovery and development….

The next issue featured the self-explanatory ‘Invaders from the Atom Universe’ – with sub-atomic marauders displacing the native races until Adam unravels their nefarious plans – and ‘The Dozen Dooms of Adam Strange’, wherein our hero outfoxes the dictator of Dys who plans to invade Alanna’s home-city Rannagar.

With this last story, Sachs was replaced by Joe Giella as inker, although the former did ink Showcase #19’s stunning Gil Kane cover, (March/April 1959) which saw the unwieldy Adventures on Other Worlds title replaced with eponymous logo Adam Strange.

‘Challenge of the Star-Hunter’ and ‘Mystery of the Mental Menace’ are classic puzzle tales wherein the Earthman must outwit a shape-changing alien and an all-powerful energy-being. After so doing, Adam Strange took over the lead spot and cover of anthology comic Mystery in Space with the August issue.

Clearly on a creative high and riding a building wave, Showcase #20 (May/June 1959) introduced Rip Hunter… Time Master and his dauntless crew as Prisoners of 100 Million BC’ (by Jack Miller & Ruben Moreira) in a novel-length introductory escapade seeing the daredevil physicist, his engineer friend Jeff Smith, girlfriend Bonnie Baxter and her little brother Corky travel to the Mesozoic era, unaware they are carrying two criminal stowaways.

Once there, the thugs hi-jack the Time Sphere, holding it hostage until the explorers help them stock up with rare and precious minerals. Reduced to the status of castaways, Rip and his team become ‘The Modern-Day Cavemen’, but when an erupting volcano provokes ‘The Great Beast Stampede’, our dauntless chrononauts finally turn the tables on their abductors…

Miller was always careful to use the best research available, but never afraid to blend historical fact with bold fantasy for Hunter’s escapades, and this volume concludes with an epic follow-up. Illustrated by Sekowsky & Joe Giella, ‘The Secret of the Lost Continent’ (Showcase #21, July/August, 1959,) has the Time Masters jump progressively further back in time in search of Atlantis. Starting with a dramatic meeting with Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, the explorers follow the trail back centuries to ‘The Forbidden Island’ of Aeaea in 700 BCE and uncover the secret of the witch Circe before finally reaching 14,000 BCE and ‘The Doomed Continent’ only to find the legendary pinnacle of early human achievement to be a colony of stranded extraterrestrial refugees…

Rip Hunter would appear twice more in Showcase before winning his own comic. The succeeding months would see the Silver Age truly kick into High Gear with classic launches coming thick and fast…

These stories from a uniquely influential comic book determined the course of the entire American strip culture and for that alone they should be cherished, but the fact they are still some of the most timeless, accessible and entertaining graphic adventures ever produced is a gift that should be celebrated by every fan and casual reader.

Buy this for yourself, get it for your friends and get a spare just because you can…
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