Doctor Strange Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Dennis O’Neil, Roy Thomas, Raymond Marais, Jim Lawrence, Dan Adkins, Bill Everett, Marie Severin, George Tuska & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1737-7 (HB)                    978-0-7851-6770-9 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Modicum More Merry Seasonal Magic… 9/10

When the budding House of Ideas introduced a warrior wizard to their burgeoning pantheon in the summer of 1963 it was a bold and curious move. Bizarre adventures and menacing monsters were still incredibly popular but mention of magic or the supernatural – especially vampires, werewolves and their eldritch ilk – were harshly proscribed by a censorship panel which dictated almost all aspects of story content.

At this time – almost a decade after a public witch hunt led to Senate hearings – all comics were ferociously monitored and adjudicated by the draconian Comics Code Authority. Even though the some of the small company’s strongest sellers were still mystery and monster mags, their underlying themes and premises were almost universally mad science and alien wonders, not necromantic or thaumaturgic horrors.

That might explain Stan Lee’s low-key introduction of Steve Ditko’s mystic adventurer: an exotic, twilit troubleshooter inhabiting the shadowy outer fringes of rational, civilised society.

Capitalising on of the runaway success of Fantastic Four, Lee had quickly spun off the youngest, most colourful member of the team into his own series, hoping to recapture the glory of the 1940s when the Human Torch was one of the company’s untouchable “Big Three” superstars.

Within a year of FF #1, anthology title Strange Tales became home for the blazing boy-hero (beginning with issue #101, cover-dated October 1962): launching Johnny Storm on a creatively productive but commercially unsuccessful solo career.

Soon after in Tales of Suspense #41 (May 1963) current sensation Iron Man battled a crazed technological wizard dubbed Doctor Strange, and with the name successfully and legally in copyrightable print (a long-established Lee technique: Thorr, The Thing, Magneto and the Hulk had been disposable Atlas “furry underpants monsters” long before they became in-continuity Marvel characters) preparations began for a new and truly different kind of hero.

The company had already recently published a quasi-mystic precursor: balding, trench-coated savant Doctor Droom – later rechristened (or is that re-paganed?) Dr. Druid – had an inconspicuous short run in Amazing Adventures (volume 1 #1-4 & #6: June-November 1961). He was a balding psychiatrist, sage and paranormal investigator who tackled everything from alien invaders to Atlanteans. He was subsequently retro-written into Marvel continuity as an alternative candidate and precursor for Stephen Strange’s ultimate role as Sorcerer Supreme…

Nevertheless, after a shaky start, the Marvel Age Master of the Mystic Arts became an unmissable icon of the cool counter-culture kids who saw in Ditko’s increasingly psychedelic art echoes and overtones of their own trippy explorations of other worlds and realms…

That might not have been the authors’ intentions but it certainly helped keep the mage at the forefront of Lee’s efforts to break comics out of the kids-stuff ghetto…

This magnificent confabulation (available in hardback, trade paperback and digital reincarnations) collects the mystical portions of Strange Tales #142-168, (spanning March 1966 to May 1968) and – despite the Good Doctor barely cover-featuring until #130 – kindly includes every issue’s stunning frontage: thus offering an incredible array of superb eye-catching Marvel masterpieces from the upstart company’s formative heydays by not only Ditko but also Jack Kirby, Bob Powell, John & Marie Severin, Bill Everett, Jim Steranko and Dan Adkins.

The sorcerous super-shenanigans commence after the traditional jocund reminiscences by Stan Lee in his Introduction, after which mystic mayhem resumes at full pelt and breakneck pace. This time-period, leading up to a full-blown Marvel expansion and solo-star status, saw the magician achieve his greatest triumphs under Ditko before entering a period of great creative insecurity under a welter of substitute writers and artists after the originator abruptly left the company at the height of his fame and success in early 1967.

The previous volume had seen Dr. Stephen Strange defeat his sworn nemesis Baron Mordo and extra-dimensional dark god Dormammu after an epic serial saga. The weary victor had then returned to his mystic Sanctum Sanctorum, unaware that lesser enemies had boobytrapped his residence with mundane explosives…

Scripted by Lee and plotted and illustrated by Ditko, Strange Tales #142 revealed ‘Those Who Would Destroy Me!’ as Mordo’s unnamed disciples ready for one last stab at the Master of the Mystic Arts.

They would remain anonymous for decades, only gaining names of their own – Kaecillius, Demonicus and The Witch – upon their return in the mid-1980s. Here, however, they easily entrap the exhausted mage and imprison him with a view to plundering all his secrets. It’s a big mistake as in the Roy Thomas scripted sequel ‘With None Beside Me!’, Strange quickly outwits and subdues his captors…

In #144 Ditko & Thomas take the heartsick hero ‘Where Man Hath Never Trod!’ Although Dread Dormammu was soundly defeated and humiliated before his peers and vassals, the demonic tyrant took a measure of revenge by exiling Strange’s anonymous female collaborator to realms unknown. Now, as the Earthling seeks to rescue her by searching myriad mystic planes he stumbles into a trap laid by the Dark One and carried out by devilish collector of souls Tazza

On defeating the scheme, Strange returns to Earth and almost dies at the hands of a far weaker, but much sneakier wizard dubbed Mister Rasputin. The spy and swindler utilises his meagre gifts for material gain but is happy to resort to base brutality ‘To Catch a Magician!’ (scripted by Dennis O’Neil).

All previous covers had been Kirby S.H.I.E.L.D. affairs but finally, with Strange Tales #146, Strange and Ditko won their moment in the sun. Although the artist would soon be gone, the Good Doctor would remain, alternating with Nick Fury’s team until the title ended.

Ditko & O’Neil presided over ‘The End …At Last!’ as a deranged Dormammu abducts Strange before suicidally attacking the omnipotent embodiment of the cosmos known as Eternity.

The cataclysmic chaos ruptures the heavens over infinite dimension and when the universe is calm again both supra-deities are gone. Rescued from the resultant tumult, however, is the valiant girl Strange had loved and lost. She introduces herself as Clea, and although Strange despondently leaves her, we all know she will be back…

This cosmic swansong was Ditko’s last hurrah. Issue #147 saw a fresh start as Strange returns to his Greenwich Village abode under the auspices of co-scripters Lee & O’Neil, with comics veteran Bill Everett suddenly and surprisingly limning the arcane adventures.

From the Nameless Nowhere Comes… Kaluu!’ sees sagacious mentor The Ancient One rush to his pupil’s side mere moments before an ancient enemy launches a deadly attack from beyond the unknown. O’Neil & Everett then tread new ground by revealing ‘The Origin of the Ancient One!’ even as the mysterious foe intensifies his siege of the Sanctum in #149’s ‘If Kaluu Should Triumph…’

Roy Thomas then steps in to write concluding battle bonanza ‘The Conquest of Kaluu!’ as Master and Student defeat the overwhelmingly powerful intruder through grit and ingenuity. ST #150 then wraps up on an ominous note as with Dormammu gone another ancient evil begins to stir in the Dark Dimension…

Throughout his despotic reign the Dread One had apparently been keeping captive a being every bit his equal in power and perfidy and his superior in guile and cruelty. She was his sister and in #151 ‘Umar Strikes!’ Returning scribe Lee & Everett document her assumption of the throne, revenge on Clea and plans for Earth before plunging Strange ‘Into the Dimension of Death!’ in #152.

Naturally, she too has underestimated the puny mortal and Strange begins his retaliation even as he finds himself traversing outer dimensions and eventually ‘Alone, Against the Mindless Ones!’ This episode is notable for the illustrative debut of the magnificent Marie Severin, who applies a sense of potent wonder and film-inspired kinetics to the storytelling.

Strange Tales #154 has Lee, Severin & Umar declare ‘Clea Must Die!’, but the task proves harder than imagined after Strange finds macabre and unlikely allies in the demonic dictator’s own dungeons.

Winning temporary reprieve, Strange and Clea voyage to Earth where the Ancient One ruthlessly moves her beyond Umar’s reach forever but ‘The Fearful Finish…!’ only escalates the goddess’ determination and wrath. In #156 she resolves to dirty her own hands and all too soon, ‘Umar Walks the Earth!’ She is too late as Strange’s mentor has despatched him to a distant realm beyond all worlds on a suicide mission that could endanger all creation…

Artistic super-star-in-waiting Herb Trimpe signed on as inker for #157’s ‘The End of the Ancient One!’ as Strange and his unleashed secret weapon arrive back in time to see off Umar, but only at an unforgivable cost…

Bereft and aghast, Strange must face alone the monster he has unleashed, unaware that his liberating of the beast Zom has not only sparked an awakening of mystic force all over the world but also invoked the draconian assessment of supernal arbiter The Living Tribunal who rules that Earth must die…

With Thomas scripting, the Cosmic Judge manifests ‘The Sands of Death’ to eradicate the destabilising wild magic infesting the planet but grudgingly accepts Strange’s plea bargain to save the universe from ‘The Evil That Men Do…’

This constant ramping up of tension proceeds as Strange enlists old foe Mordo, who magnanimously agrees to absorb all the evil energy the Doctor siphons from a legion of newly-empowered sorcerers.

In Strange Tales #160 Raymond Marais, Severin & Trimpe reveal what a bad idea that is as ‘If This Planet You Would Save!’ sees the powered-up Baron turn on his benefactor, before exiling him to a fantastic alien cosmos in #161’s ‘And a Scourge Shall Come Upon You!’ (by Marais & new star-turn artist Dan Adkins).

In that uncanny other realm Strange meets former romantic entanglement Victoria Bentley before both are accosted by a macabre mystic tyrant who offers aid against the nigh-omnipotent Mordo for a price…

From the Never-World Comes… Nebulos!’ (scripted by James Bond writer Jim Lawrence & rendered by Adkins) sees Strange pull all the stops out: crushing Mordo, outwitting Nebulos and stymying The Tribunal’s ‘Three Faces of Doom!’ just in time save Earth.

As his reward he is despatched by the Grand Arbiter into a ‘Nightmare!’ pursuit of Victoria, arriving on a monster-ridden planet ruled by a techno-wizard named Yandroth, who declares himself to be the Scientist supreme of the universe…

The subject of a case of hate at first sight, Dr. Strange endures more gadget-laden peril in issue #165 as Yandroth inflicts testing to destruction on ‘The Mystic and the Machine’. Defeated by the hero’s courage and magic the bonkers boffin activates his doomsday scenario, stating ‘Nothing Can Halt… Voltorg!’ (Lawrence, George Tuska & Adkins) until science proves him wrong…

Big things were happening at Marvel in 1968. After years under a restrictive retail sales deal, The House of Ideas secured a new distributor and were finally expanding with a tidal wave of titles. “Split-Books” such as Strange Tales were phased out in favour of solo series for their cohabiting stars and, for the Master of the Mystic Arts at least, that meant a bit of rapid resetting…

O’Neil & Adkins teamed up in ST #167 for ‘This Dream… This Doom!’ in which Strange returns to Earth, indulges in a spot of handy resurrecting and proceeds to track down the still missing Victoria Bentley. This excursion takes the wizard of Greenwich Village deep into the realm of imagination where Yandroth is waiting for him…

The end comes suddenly in #168 as ‘Exile!’ apparently sees the end of the villain and a quick return to home in time for a bold new start…

That’s it for this exemplary exhibition of ethereal escapades – unless you include one last treat in the form of a stunning Ditko pin-up originally seen in Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics #10 (August 1967) – but there’s more magical marvels to come in your future…

Doctor Strange has always been the coolest of outsiders and most accessible fringe star of the Marvel firmament. This glorious grimoire is a miraculous means for old fans to enjoy his world once more and the perfect introduction for recent acolytes or converts created by the movie iteration.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Adventures of Tintin: The Black Island


By Hergé & various; translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-806-2 (HB)                    : 978-1-40520-61-1 (PB)

Georges Prosper Remi – AKA Hergé – created a true masterpiece of graphic literature with his many tales of a plucky boy reporter and his entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor and the Hergé Studio, Remi accomplished 23 splendid volumes (originally produced in brief instalments for a variety of periodicals) that have grown beyond their popular culture roots and attained the status of High Art.

Like Charles Dickens with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hergé died in the throes of creation, and final outing Tintin and Alph-Art remains a volume without a conclusion, but still a fascinating examination and a pictorial memorial of how the artist worked.

It’s only fair though, to ascribe a substantial proportion of credit to the many translators whose diligent contributions have enabled the series to be understood and beloved in 38 languages. The subtle, canny, witty and slyly funny English versions are the work of Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi worked for Catholic newspaper Le XXe Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-like editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. The following year, the young artist – a passionate and dedicated boy scout – produced his first strip series: The Adventures of Totor for the monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine.

By 1928 he was in charge of producing the contents of Le XXe Siécles children’s weekly supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme and unhappily illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette when Abbot Wallez urged Remi to create a new adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who would travel the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

And also, perhaps, highlight and expose some the Faith’s greatest enemies and threats…?

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate this simple yet effective innovation into his own work.

He would produce a strip that was modern and action-packed. Beginning January 10th 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments, running until May 8th 1930.

Accompanied by his dog Milou (Snowy to us Brits), the clean-cut, no-nonsense boy-hero – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul (a soldier in the Belgian Army) – would report back all the inequities from the “Godless Russias”.

The strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was an actual foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme

The odyssey was a huge success, assuring further – albeit less politically charged and controversial – exploits to follow. At least that was the plan…

Originally published as monochrome strip Le Mystère De L’Avion Gris (The Mystery of the Grey Plane) from April 15th to November 16th 1937, the stirring saga was rerun in French Catholic newspaper Coeurs Vallaint from April 17th 1938. Its doom-laden atmosphere of espionage, criminality and darkly gathering storms settling upon the Continent clearly caught the public imagination…

Later that year Éditions Casterman released the entire epic as L’Île noire in a hardback volume that Hergé hated. It was eventually re-released in 1943, reformatted, extensively redrawn and in full colour and was greeted with rapturous success and acclaim.

Further revisions came after Tintin crossed the channel into British bookstores. The Black Island required a number of alterations to suit British publisher Methuen, leading to Herge’s assistant Bob De Moor travelling to England in 1961 for an extensive and extremely productive fact-finding mission which resulted in a new revised and updated edition that appeared not only here but was again serialised in Europe.

One evening as Tintin and Snowy are enjoying a walk in the country, a small plane experiences engine trouble and ditches in a field. When the helpful reporter offers assistance, he is shot…

Visited in hospital by bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson, the patient discovers they’re off to England to investigate the crash of an unregistered plane. Putting the meagre facts together Tintin discharges himself, and with Snowy in tow, catches the boat-train to Dover.

The young gallant is utterly unaware that he’s been targeted by sinister figures. Before journey’s end they have framed him for an assault and had him arrested. All too soon the wonder boy has escaped and is hounded across the countryside as a fugitive.

Despite the frantic pursuit, he makes it safely to England, having temporarily eluded the authorities, but is still being pursued by the murderous thugs who set him up…

He is eventually captured by the gangsters – actually German spies – and uncovers a forgery plot that circuitously leads him to the wilds of Scotland and a (visually stunning) “haunted” castle on an island in a Loch.

Undaunted, the bonny boy reporter goes undercover to investigate and discovers the gang’s base. He also finds out to his peril that the old place is guarded by a monstrous ape…

And that’s when the action really takes off…

This superb adventure, powerfully reminiscent of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, guarantees the cherished notion that, as always, virtue, daring and a huge helping of comedic good luck inevitably leads to a spectacular and thrilling denouement…

It’s hard to imagine that comics as marvellous as these still haven’t found their way onto everybody’s bookshelf, but if you are one of this underprivileged underclass, now is the time series to rectify that sorry situation.

The Black Island: artwork © 1956, 1984 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai.
Text © 1966 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Elseworlds Batman volume 2


By Doug Moench, Kelley Jones, John Beatty & Malcolm Jones III (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6982-1

During the 1990s DC regrouped and rebranded its frequent dalliances with alternate reality scenarios under the copious and broad umbrella of a separate imprint. The Elseworlds banner and credo declared that heroes would be taken out of their usual settings and put into strange places and times – some that have existed, or might have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t or Shouldn’t exist…

Here a recent reissue (originally released in 2007 as Batman Vampire – Tales of the Multiverse) and now available in paperback and eBook editions collects a trilogy of unlikely Batman stories that began with a literary cross-pollination of the type publishers seem so in love with.

Crafted by Doug Moench, Kelley Jones and Malcolm Jones III, Batman and Dracula: Red Rain was and remains is a genuinely creepy adventure of heroism and sacrifice. Here the Lord of Vampires moves into Gotham City and turns the city into a hellscape unimaginable to behold.

Desperate to save his home, the Dark Knight is forced to ally himself with “good vampires” in an attempt to stop Dracula. It can’t be a spoiler to reveal that he also has to sacrifice his life and his humanity before the threat to his beloved city is ended…

This tale was a great success when it was first released in 1991; a minor gothic masterpiece, both philosophical and tension drenched, with the sleek, glossily distorted artwork of Jones & Jones III creating a powerful aura of foredoomed predestination. It alone is well worth the price of admission.

And that is a very good thing because the two sequels are a possibly unnecessary indulgence.

Batman: Bloodstorm (1994, with the somehow more visually hygienic John Beatty replacing Malcolm Jones III as inker) sees a devasted-but-still-hanging-on Gotham protected by a vampiric Batman.

The Dark Nosferatu now combines his crime-fighting mission with dispatching those bloodsuckers who escaped the cataclysmic events of Red Rain. Tragically, he is a tortured hero suffering the agonies of the damned, struggling perpetually with his unholy thirst, but is determined nonetheless never to drink human blood.

However, when the Joker assumes command of the remaining vampire packs and attempts to take control of Gotham, not even the hero’s greatest friends and a lycanthropic Cat-Woman can forestall Batman’s final fate…

And yet Batman’s eternal rest is thwarted and stolen from him after the heartsick Alfred Pennyworth and desperate Commissioner Jim Gordon recall the Batman from his tomb in Batman: Crimson Mist.

Moench, Jones & Beatty recount a bleak but predictable saga (originally released in 1999) of a beleaguered metropolis overrun by super-criminals since the caped Crusader went to his reward.

So, when his faithful manservant brings him back, the faithful retainer is horrified to find the now corrupted hero is just another malevolent, blood-hungry beast. One who plans to save Gotham by slaughtering every criminal still breathing in it…

Only a bizarre alliance of good men and monstrous villains can rectify this situation before humanity itself pays the awful price…

These stories take the concept of Batman as scary beast to logical extremes – and far beyond – but although well drawn and thoughtfully written, the sequels lack the depth and intensity of the initial tale and feel too much like most sequels – just an attempt to make some more money.

If you’re a superhero fan at least in this volume you have the real deal, so buy it and just treat the last two thirds as bonus material. If you’re a sucker for stylish bloodbaths and dramatic scarlet-drenched suspense, however, there’s plenty here for you to wade through and wallow in…
© 1991, 1994, 1999, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Hellboy Omnibus volume 2: Strange Places


By Mike Mignola with Richard Corben, Gary Gianni, Dave Stewart & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-667-2 (PB)                     eISBN: 978-1-50670-688-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Spooky, Sensational, Unmissable… 9/10

Hellboy was first seen 25 years ago in the 1993 San Diego Comic Con programme. Many Happy Returns, Big Red.

After the establishment of the comicbook direct market system, there was a huge outburst of independent publishers in America and, as with all booms, a lot of them went bust. Some few, however, were more than flash-in-the-pans and grew to become major players in the new world order.

Arguably, the most successful was Dark Horse Comics who fully embraced the shocking new concept of creator ownership (amongst other radical ideas). This concept – and their professional outlook and attitude – drew a number of big-name creators to the new company and in 1994 Frank Miller & John Byrne formally instituted the sub-imprint Legend for those projects major creators wanted to produce their own way and at their own pace.

Over the next four years the brand counted Mike Mignola, Art Adams, Mike Allred, Paul Chadwick, Dave Gibbons and Geof Darrow amongst its ranks; generating a wealth of superbly entertaining and groundbreaking series and concepts.

Unquestionably the most impressive, popular and long-lived was Mignola’s supernatural thriller Hellboy.

As previously cited, the monstrous monster-hunter debuted in San Diego Comic-Con Comics #2 (August 1993) before formally launching in 4-issue miniseries Seed of Destruction (with Byrne scripting over Mignola’s plot and art). Colourist Mark Chiarello added layers of mood with his understated hues. Once the fans saw what was on offer there was no going back…

This new trade paperback and digital series re-presents the succession of long form tales and miniseries that followed in omnibus volumes, accompanied by a companion series of tomes featuring all the short stories. I’ll get around to them too before much longer…

This second stellar select starring the Scourge of Sheol collects Hellboy: Conqueror Worm, Hellboy: Strange Places, Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea plus ‘Right Hand of Doom’ and ‘Box Full of Evil’ from Hellboy: The Right Hand of Doom and the lead tale from companion volume BPRD: Being Human.

What You Need to Know: on December 23rd 1944 American Patriotic Superhero The Torch of Liberty and a squad of US Rangers interrupted a satanic ritual predicted by Allied parapsychologist Professors Trevor Bruttenholm and Malcolm Frost.

They were working in conjunction with influential medium Lady Cynthia Eden-Jones. Those stalwarts were waiting at a ruined church in East Bromwich, England when a demon baby with a huge stone right hand appeared in a fireball. The startled soldiers took the infernal yet seemingly innocent waif into custody.

Far, far further north, off the Scottish Coast on Tarmagant Island, a cabal of Nazi Sorcerers roundly berated ancient wizard Grigori Rasputin whose Project Ragna Rok ritual seemed to have failed. The Russian was unfazed. Events were unfolding as he wished…

Five decades later, the baby had grown into a mighty warrior engaging in a never-ending secret war: the world’s most successful paranormal investigator. Bruttenholm spent years lovingly raising the weird foundling whilst forming an organisation to destroy unnatural threats and supernatural monsters – The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. “Hellboy” quickly became its lead agent.

Moreover, as the decades of his career unfolded, Hellboy gleaned tantalising snatches of his origins, hints that he was an infernal creature of dark portent: born a demonic messiah, somehow destined to destroy the world and bring back ancient powers of evil. It is a fate he despises and utterly rejects…

Answers began seeping out in ‘The Right Hand of Doom’ (originally seen in in Dark Horse Presents Annual 1998 in macabre monochrome and coloured here by Dave Stewart) as the B.P.R.D. big gun meets a priest with a connection to his arrival on Earth during WWII.

Adrian Frost carries an ancient document depicting Hellboy’s arcane stone appendage and offers to trade it for the true story of his terrestrial nativity and subsequent career…

The cleric learns how a Lord of Hell and an earthly witch spawned a child of diabolical destiny and how the grand plan was derailed by destiny and a human-reared child who moved Heaven and Hell to live his own life…

That fascinating background was expanded in 2-part 1999 miniseries ‘Box Full of Evil’ when Hellboy and agent associate Abe Sapien return to modern-day Britain to assess a mystic burglary.

Old antagonist Igor Bromhead has used his magic to steal the ancient metal coffer Saint Dunstan used to imprison a devil, but by the time the occult operatives find him the vile plotter has opened the box and sold on its contents to debauched Satanists Count Guarino and Countess Bellona.

Their facile joy is short-lived as the dubious double-dealer takes possession of the cask’s true treasure. In return for paltry wealth and appalling knowledge, the liberated demon shares the secret name and true nature of Hellboy as well as his Abysmally-ordained destiny.

It even helps Igor ambush the investigator, usurping both Hellboy’s true power and ascribed role in the destruction of the universe…

With that misappropriated magical might, the demon starts to end Creation but has not reckoned on the incredible will and sheer bloody-mindedness of the paranormal troubleshooter, nor those other ancient powers of the Earth who have no intention of dying before their appointed times…

This astounding tale of hell-bent heroism and cosmic doom is then followed by a 4-page epilogue which offers dark portents of further trials for the monster who will always be his own man…

Written by Mignola & illustrated by comics legend Richard Corben, ‘Being Human’ comes from 2011 and details how Hellboy and former foe-turned-new-recruit Roger the Homunculus debate relative ethics and personal worth whilst calamitously battling a necromantic witch and her ghastly zombie slave…

A chronological reversion to earlier graphic terrors and grave wit unleashes the award-winning 4-issue miniseries ‘Hellboy: Conqueror Worm’ (originally seen from May to August 2001); featuring earth-shattering battles, cosmic revelations and a crucial turning point in the life of the world’s greatest supernatural superhero.

It begins on March 20th 1939 when Nazi stronghold Hunte Castle is invaded by a select force of American soldiers, intent on disrupting the plans of “Nazi Einstein” Ernst Oeming.

Deep within the Austrian alpine fortress, fanatical scientists and occultists are counting down to Earth’s first space shot when the crack unit – led by two-fisted mystery man Lobster Johnson – storm in with explosive repercussions…

Sixty-one years later the ruins are the scene of careful scrutiny by the B.P.R.D.

NASA telescopes have spotted a Nazi-emblazoned capsule rocketing back to Earth, clearly a result of that clandestine commando mission’s ultimate failure. With the fallen Reich’s past track record of supernatural surprises, Director Tom Manning wants Hellboy and Roger to see what lost secrets they can uncover.

Guiding them is a local girl with useful connections. Lisa Karnstein grew up near the ruins and now works for the Austrian Secret Police…

Before they finally embark, Hellboy endures a distasteful interview with his new boss. The B.P.R.D. bigwigs have placed explosives inside Roger – “just in case” – and require the crimson colossus to carry the detonator with him at all times…

Furious but committed, Hellboy storms off, but soon the cautious trio are nearing the summit and ominous ruins. Their way is briefly barred by an enigmatic figure begging them to turn back from the haunted site, but it quickly succumbs to Hellboy’s already short fuse and thundering fists.

Before long they are picking their way towards the entrance when shots are fired from ambush and Roger plunges off the side of the mountain…

Angrier than ever, Hellboy smashes into the derelict building to discover one of his oldest enemies in charge of a restored Nazi mission control suite.

Herman Von Klempt was there when Oeming took off for the stars in 1939 and in the years since has become a major menace to civilisation through his macabre transplant experiments and cybernetic killer-apes. The latest incarnation of the latter is what smashes Hellboy into unconsciousness…

When the investigator comes to he is trussed into a typically sadistic torture device. As he screams in agony his Nazi nemesis is smugly boasting of the fruition of decades of planning. He is also congratulating his devoted mole within the B.P.R.D. operation…

Elsewhere, the earthly remains of Lobster Johnson make contact with a presumed-lost B.P.R.D. agent and begins a desperate counterstrike which might be mankind’s only chance of survival, even as Von Klempt’s technicians guide the vintage space capsule to a safe descent…

With Hellboy free and liberally wreaking havoc amidst the mad scientist’s forces, a third faction then enters the fray, offering crucial intelligence into the demon-foundling’s true origins and early life.

Ignoring the many ghosts infesting the castle, he also reveals how the plan was never to send a living human into space, but to deliver a corpse which would be inhabited by an ancient, arcane monstrosity from antediluvian prehistory: a creature whose reign on Earth would signal the end and obliteration of humanity…

Before dying he finally offers a meagre weapon to oppose the beast, but it seems utterly inconsequential compared to the hideous transformative majesty of the chthonic horror Von Klempt calls the Conqueror Worm…

With all sides in play the supernatural action goes into Armageddon overdrive as Hellboy and his allies strive to destroy the creeping evil and its insane acolytes. Enemies fall and allegiances shift from moment to moment, but when the gift-weapon is shattered only the greatest sacrifice imaginable can halt the monster’s domination.

Most tellingly, even after Hellboy’s greatest, most important triumph, his anger at mankind’s madness and venality force him to make the most important decision of his unconventional life…

Wrapping up the spectral sideshow is an ominous Epilogue revealing how a convocation of the Weird Warrior’s most dangerous foes results in one less archenemy but more trouble in store…

‘The Third Wish’ was first released as a 2-issue micro-series between July and August 2002 and reveals how, at the bottom of the sea, three mermaid sisters implore the mighty Bog Roosh to grant their wishes.

Her acquiescence comes at a great cost however: the marine maidens must somehow hammer a mystic nail into the head of her great enemy…

Hellboy is currently in Africa, estranged from the B.P.R.D. but still encountering mystic menaces that need stopping. Eventually he stops to listen to the tales of witch-man Mohlomi and is soon under the spell of the tale-teller. Lapsing into a deep sleep, he dreams of lions who foretell his future…

Hellboy awakens to find they have somehow moved to the coast. When Mohlomi tells him the ocean is calling, the baffled but resigned parapsychologist enters the roaring surf and is promptly dragged under the waves, protected only by a bell-charm the sorcerer has given him…

Attacked by sea beasts and the three sisters, Hellboy is overcome as soon as he lets go of the jingling trinket and is helpless to prevent them driving in the damned nail…

Bound and helpless in the Bog Roosh’s power, Hellboy can only watch as the sisters are given their hearts’ desires and – in the usual manner of such things – suffer the cruel consequences of double-dealing demonry.

Wise in such matters, Hellboy tries to help the third mermaid avoid her fate but is powerless to prevent the sea-witch granting the last wish. His kind act touches the mermaid’s heart and – whilst the witch tries to dismember Hellboy and all the powers of The Pit stand helpless to prevent the end of all their hopes and dreams – she sneaks back and frees him.

Released to vent his considerable anger, Hellboy ends the Bog Roosh and decimates her power, but is ultimately unable to save his saviour…

‘The Island’ debuted in June and July 2005 and signalled the grand finale of the First Chapter in Hellboy’s life…

Hellboy wades ashore in a drear limbo of shattered ships and broken vessels. Anxious but resolved, he trudges on and joins a motley assemblage of mariners in a protracted boozing session, only later realising he has been drinking with dead men.

A further shock to his system is delivered by old enemy Hecate, who appears gloating and glad that the Bog Roosh failed to kill him. As long as Hellboy lives she can still corrupt or conquer him…

Shunning the Goddess of the Damned, Hellboy trudges on, entering a dilapidated castle where he is sucked into an ancient vision offering potential clues to his past and future. Now though, it only results in him battling ferociously with little success against yet another gargantuan monster…

He awakes an unknowable time later on a dry, dusty plain with Mohlomi who offers yet more occluded, oblique advice before a revived ghost joins the conversation with the tale of his mortality in ancient Tenochtitlan.

This story of life, death and resurrection coincidentally reveals the secret history of creation, the inevitable end of mankind, what will follow and – most terrifyingly – the truth about Hellboy’s stone hand and his intended role in the ghastly Grand Scheme of Cosmic Doom…

Wrapping up the spectral showcase is another ominous Epilogue as arcane and infernal powers confer over what the revelations mean to Hellboy. The Fated One is now armed with knowledge but is only drifting closer to his future, no matter how hard he struggles to turn away from it…

This second comics compilation concludes with the inclusion of 2017’s Original Graphic Novel ‘Into the Silent Sea’, co-written by Mignola & Gary Gianni, with the latter fully illustrating the tale in his usual lush classicist style.

Sailing through a Sargasso of wrecked ships, Hellboy is drawn into a bizarre time-bending miasma and is captured by the crew of an 18th century scientific exploration vessel. At least so it first seems…

Once he learns that the abusive Captain is merely the flunky of the mysterious Lady, whose obsessive search for deeper cosmic truths knows no bounds, Hellboy knows bad things are coming. Once Heca Emen Raa, the Serpent from the Beginning of the World answers her insane call, he realises it’s a case of every man for himself and the devil will most certainly take the hindmost…

And even after the thrashing surf settles, there’s one more horrifying shock in store…

Rounding out this apocalyptic endeavour is a stunning Hellboy Sketchbook Section which includes behind-the-scenes insights, author commentary, character designs, breathtaking drawings and roughs detailing the development and visual evolution of the beasties and bad guys populating the stories to sweeten the pot for every lover of great comics art.

Baroque, grandiose, alternating suspenseful slow-boiling tension with explosive spectacle, Hellboy mixes apocalyptic revelation with astounding adventure to enthral horror addicts and action junkies alike. This is another cataclysmic compendium of dark delights you simply must have.
Hellboy™ Strange Places © 1993, 2018 Mike Mignola. Hellboy, Abe Sapien, Liz Sherman and all other prominently featured characters are trademarks of Mike Mignola. All rights reserved.

Jonah Hex: Shadows West


By Joe R. Lansdale, Timothy Truman, Sam Glanzman & various (DC/Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-4715-7

As initially imagined by John Albano & Tony DeZuñiga, Jonah Hex is probably the most memorable western comic character ever created. He’s certainly the darkest and most grippingly realised, as is the brutal and uncompromising world he inhabits.

A ruthless demon with gun or knife or whatever is at hand, he hunts men for the price on their heads in the years following the American civil war, and the scars inside him are more shocking even than the ghastly ruin of his face.

DC – or National Periodicals as it then was – had run a notable stable of clean-cut gunslingers since the collapse of the super-hero genre in 1949, with such dashing – and immensely readable – luminaries as Johnny Thunder, The Trigger Twins, Nighthawk, Matt Savage and dozens of others in a marketplace that seemed limitless in its voracious hunger for chaps in chaps. However, all things end and comic tastes are notoriously fickle, and by the early sixties the sagebrush brigade had dwindled to a few venerable properties as an onslaught of costumed super-characters assaulted the newsstands and senses.

They too would temporarily pass…

As the 1960s closed, the thematic changes in the cinematic Cowboy filtered through to a comics industry suffering its second superhero retreat in twenty years. Although a critical success, the light-hearted Western series Bat Lash couldn’t garner a solid following, but DC, desperate for a genre that readers would warm to, retrenched and revived an old and revered title, gambling once again on heroes who were no longer simply boy scouts with six-guns.

the very model of the modern anti-hero, Jonah Hex, who first appeared in All-Star Comics #10: a vulgarly coarse and engagingly callous bounty hunter clad in a battered Confederate Grey tunic and hat.

With half his face lost to some hideous past injury, Hex was a brutal thug little better than the scum he hunted and certainly a man to avoid.

From the very start the series sought to redress some of the most unpalatable motifs of old-style cowboy literature and any fan of films like Soldier Blue and Little Big Man or Dee Brown’s iconoclastic book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee will feel a grim sense of vicarious satisfaction and redress at most of the stories here.

There’s also a huge degree of world-weary cynicism that wasn’t to be found in other comics until well past the Watergate Scandal, the first time when America as a whole lost its social and political innocence. Sadly, not the last, though…

It was that edgy dissimilarity to standard comicbook fare that first attracted esteemed author, occasional comics scripter and devout Robert E. Howard fan Joe R. Lansdale (Bubba Hotep, Edge of Dark Water, Dead Aim) to the series as a child.

As his Introduction details, it’s also a large part of what convinced him and fellow craftsmen Timothy Truman (Grimjack, Scout, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Conan) and Sam Glanzman (USS Stevens, Haunted Tank, A Sailor’s Story, The Lonely War of Willy Schultz) to revive and reimagine the grizzled veteran in what turned out to be a highly popular and painfully controversial trio of adulted-oriented miniseries for DC’s Vertigo Comics imprint.

Collecting Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo #1-5 (August-December 1993), Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such #1-5 (March-July 1995) and Jonah Hex: Shadows West #1-3 (February-April 1999), this volume – available in trade paperback and digital editions – also references heaping helpings of Spaghetti Western tropes, raw-edged Texan lore and attitudes, supernatural weirdness and some of the broadest, crudest, daftest belly-laugh humour ever seen in street-level American comics…

It all kicks off with Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo as the bounty hunter is saved from lynching by the criminals he’s hunting. His saviour is nigh-decrepit aging manhunter Go Slow Smith. Together they despatch the outlaws who arranged the necktie party, but when the pecuniary lawmen try to claim the money on their latest gory prizes, they’re faced with bureaucratic obfuscation and delay.

That’s not too terrible as the town of Mud Creek has booze, beds and hot food, but when the sun goes down horror stalks Main Street and Smith is gunned down by a dead man…

Falsely accused of murder, Hex narrowly avoids another hanging and sets after traveling man Doc “Cross” Williams. When he tracks him down, however, the gunman realises the scientist has perfected a diabolical means of resurrecting the dead. It’s not so hard tackling the Doc’s bizarre coterie of ghastly freaks, but Hex has no chance against the wanderer’s star attraction, the undead but still lightning fast-draw Wild Bill Hickok.

The madman’s big mistake is trying to turn Hex into another zombie slave. After the hell-faced gunman gets way and regroups, Jonah undertakes a slow, relentless revenge that pulls Williams across the deadliest terrain in Texas and straight into the unforgiving sights of remorseless Apache renegades…

The result is a spectacular and breathtaking battle of wills you’ll never forget…

The creative band got back together for Jonah Hex: Riders of the Worm and Such: a truly inspired and deftly ridiculous spoof on western themes and attitudes with Hex cast as willing straight man in a yarn touching base with Robert E. Howard’s subterranean horror myths as viewed through Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles.

In the searing inhospitable desert scrub a rather quaint English émigré is trying to establish a cattle ranch. He’s got lots of other strange ideas too, based on a lecture he once saw by Oscar Wilde.

At the Wilde West Ranch and Culture Emporium, Mr. Graves pays good wages and provides every amenity. He is well respected, but in return expects his doughty cowpokes to write and recite poetry, perform skits and enthusiastically burst into song at every opportunity.

Sadly, they got the enthusiasm down pat, but exhibit no discernible talent or artistic ability to underpin it…

When the restless Hex and his brash young sidekick stumble upon the cultural bastion, they have just barely survived an horrific encounter with a subterranean monster that drags people and animals beneath the earth to suck out their innards via efficiently-sliced off heads.

It’s not long before the newcomers realise the Englishman and his prairie troubadours are having their own encounters with the vile beasts.

When the effusive Graves reveals that the ranch previously belonged to a luckless fool named Errol Autumn an incredible tale emerges…

Autumn had set up his spread on land that had been contested for millennia by the local Indians and an antediluvian subhuman race dubbed the Worms of the Earth. After the idiot white man accidentally destroyed the wards and charms the natives had used to keep the monsters safely below, something escaped and raped his wife.

The offspring were still wandering the region and now seem intent on reviving that age-old war on humanity…

After one particularly hungry horror busts through the floor of Graves’s compound, Hex and the cowboys decide to take the battle to them and embark on a brain-blasting, ultimately cataclysmic voyage to the heart of hell, with the hybrid worm-children dogging their heels.

At least the underground argonauts can keep up their spirits with a song or two…

The bawdy and absurdist humour remain for the final outing but Jonah Hex: Shadows West also offers plenty of trenchant things to say about the treatment of native cultures too.

After another painful brush with ever-encroaching white civilisation and the stupidity of the law, Hex is induced by diminutive sharpshooter ‘Long Tom’ to join the shamefully low-rent Wild West Show of failed dentist and inveterate chancer Buffalo Will.

It’s an uncomfortable fit despite the huge salary and a reunion with old friend Spotted Balls. Will is an unrepentant shyster and charlatan and his white performers brutally and continually abuse the native hires.

After seeing how the men treat a squaw, Hex decides to quit and is astonished when she and Spotted Balls elect to come with him. The woman has an ulterior motive: her young son is the spawn of a spirit and looks it. He’s half bear, half human, talks and is the proposed means Buffalo Will plans to become stinking rich…

Happy to frustrate the evil impresario, Hex and his charges ride out in search of the spirit folk under ‘Gathering Shadows’ with Long Tom and a posse of killers in hot pursuit and a deadly race and mobile war of attrition ensues.

By the time the fugitives reach their destination, leaving bodies on both sides, ‘Final Shadows’ are falling and all hope seems lost. But even Hex’s cynical disbelief in mystic mumbo-jumbo takes a pounding when the child is reunited with the chief of the Bear Folk…

Raucous, excessively violent and bitingly funny, these irreverent yarns capture the spirit of the original Hex series whilst adding a modicum of unnatural unworldliness and outrageously lampooning the beloved cinema standbys of a bygone era.

If you love dry wit, trenchant absurdity and a non-stop bombardment of high-octane action, you must get this book.
© 1993, 1995, 1999, 2014 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Doom Patrol: The Silver Age volume 1


By Arnold Drake, Bob Haney, Bruno Premiani, Bob Brown & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8111-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Blockbuster Weird Science Fun… 8/10

1963 was the year when cautious comicbook publishers finally realised that superheroes were back in a big way and began reviving or creating a host of costumed characters to battle outrageous menaces and dastardly villains.

Thus it was that the powers-that-be at National Comics decided that venerable anthology-mystery title My Greatest Adventure would dip its toe in the waters with a radical take on the fad. Still, famed for cautious publishing, they introduced a startling squad of champions with their thematic roots still firmly planted in the B-movie monster films of the era that subtly informed the parent comic.

No traditional team of masked adventurers, this cast comprised a robot, a mummy and an occasional 50-foot woman, who joined forces with and were guided by a vivid, brusque, domineering, crippled mad scientist to fight injustice in a whole new way…

Covering June 1963 to May 1965, this stunning trade paperback – and eBook – compilation collects the Fabulous Freaks’ earliest exploits from My Greatest Adventure #80-85 and thereafter, issues #86-95 of the renamed title once overwhelming reader response compelled editor Murray Boltinoff to change it to the Doom Patrol.

The dramas were especially enhanced by the drawing skills of Italian cartoonist and classicist artist Giordano Bruno Premiani, whose highly detailed, subtly humanistic illustration made even the strangest situation dauntingly authentic and grittily believable. The premier tale ‘The Doom Patrol’ was co-scripted by Arnold Drake and Bob Haney, and saw a mysterious wheelchair-bound scientist summon three outcasts to his home through the promise of changing their miserable lives forever…

Competitive car racer Cliff Steele had died in a horrific pile up, but his undamaged brain had been transplanted into a fantastic mechanical body. Test pilot Larry Trainor had been trapped in an experimental stratospheric plane and become permanently radioactive, with the dubious benefit of gaining a semi-sentient energy avatar which could escape his body to perform incredible stunts for up to a minute at a time.

To pass safely amongst men Trainor had to constantly wrap himself in special radiation-proof bandages.

Ex-movie star Rita Farr had been exposed to mysterious gases which gave her the terrifying, unpredictable and, at first, uncontrolled ability to shrink or grow to incredible sizes.

The outcasts were brought together by brilliant but enigmatic Renaissance Man The Chief, who sought to mould the solitary misfits into a force for good. He quickly proved his point when a mad bomber attempted to blow up the city docks. The surly savant directed the trio of strangers in defusing it and no sooner had the misfits realised their true worth than they were on their first mission…

In second chapter ‘The Challenge of the Timeless Commander’, an incredibly ancient despot tried to seize a fallen alien ship, intent on turning its extraterrestrial secrets into weapons of world conquest, culminating in ‘The Deadly Duel with General Immortus’ which saw the Doom Patrol dedicate their lives to saving humanity from all threats.

My Greatest Adventure #81 featured ‘The Nightmare Maker’, combining everyday disaster response – saving a damaged submarine – with a nationwide plague of monsters. Stuck at base, The Chief monitors missions by means of a TV camera attached to Robotman’s chest, and quickly deduces the uncanny secret of the beasts and their war criminal creator Josef Kreutz

Solely scripted by Drake, a devious espionage ploy outed the Chief – or at least his image, if not name – in #82’s ‘Three Against the Earth!’, leading the team to believe Rita a traitor. When the cabal of millionaires actually behind the scheme are exposed as an alien advance guard who assumed the wheelchair-bound leader to be a rival invader, the inevitable showdown nearly costs Cliff what remains of his life…

In #83, ‘The Night Negative Man Went Berserk!’ spotlights the living mummy as a radio astronomy experiment interrupts the Negative Man’s return to Larry Trainor’s body, pitching the pilot into a coma and sending the ebony energy creature on a global spree of destruction. Calamity piles upon calamity when crooks steal the military equipment constructed to destroy the radio-energy creature and only desperate improvisation by Cliff and Rita allows avatar and host to reunite…

Issue #84 saw ‘The Return of General Immortus’ as ancient Babylonian artefacts lead the squad to the eternal malefactor, only to have the wily warrior turn the tables and take control of Robotman. Even though his comrades soon save him, Immortus escapes with the greatest treasures of all time…

My Greatest Adventure #85 was the last issue and featured ‘The Furies from 4,000 Miles Below’: monstrous subterranean horrors fuelled by nuclear forces. Despite having tricked Elasti-Girl into resuming her Hollywood career, the paternalistic heroes are pretty grateful when she turns up to save them all from radioactive incineration…

An unqualified success, the comicbook transformed seamlessly into The Doom Patrol with #86 and celebrated by introducing ‘The Brotherhood of Evil’: an assemblage of international super-criminals and terrorists led by French genius-in-a-jar The Brain. He was backed up by his greatest creation, a super-intelligent talking gorilla dubbed Monsieur Mallah.

The diametrically opposed teams first cross swords after brotherhood applicant Mr. Morden steals Rog, a giant robot the Chief intended for the US military…

DP #87 revealed ‘The Terrible Secret of Negative Man’ after Brotherhood femme fatale Madame Rouge attempts to seduce Larry. When the Brain’s unstoppable mechanical army invades the city, Trainor is forced to remove his bandages and allow his lethal radiations to disrupt their transmissions…

An occasional series of short solo adventures kicked off in this issue with ‘Robotman Fights Alone’. Here Cliff is dispatched to a Pacific island in search of an escaped killer, only to walk into a devastating series of WWII Japanese booby-traps…

All the mysteries surrounding the team’s leader are finally revealed in issue #88 with ‘The Incredible Origin of the Chief’: a blistering drama telling how brilliant but impoverished student Niles Caulder suddenly received unlimited funding from an anonymous patron interested in his researches on extending life.

Curiosity drove Caulder to track down his benefactor and he was horrified to discover the money came from the head of a criminal syndicate who claimed to be eons old…

Immortus had long ago consumed a potion which extended his life and wanted the student to recreate it since the years were finally catching up. To insure Caulder’s full cooperation, the General had a bomb inserted in the researcher’s chest and powered by his heartbeat …

After building a robot surgeon, Caulder tricked Immortus into shooting him, determined to thwart the monster at all costs. Once clinically dead, his Ra-2 doctor-bot removed the now-inert explosive and revived the bold scientist, but tragically the trusty mechanoid had been too slow and Caulder lost the use of his legs forever…

Undaunted, ‘The Man Who Lived Twice’ then destroyed all his research and went into hiding for years, with Immortus utterly unaware that Caulder had actually succeeded in the task which had stymied history’s greatest doctors and biologists…

Now, under the alias of super-thief The Baron, Immortus captures the Doom Patrol and demands a final confrontation with the Chief. Luckily the wheelchair-locked inventor is not only a biologist and robotics genius but also rather adept at constructing concealed weapons…

In #89 the team tackle a duplicitous scientist who devises a means to transform himself into ‘The Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Menace’ before ‘The Private War of Elasti-Girl’ finds the Maid of Many Sizes using unsuspected detective skills to track down a missing soldier and reunite him with his adopted son.

‘The Enemy within the Doom Patrol’ sees shape-shifting Madame Rouge infiltrate the team and almost turn them against each other whilst issue #91 introduces multi-millionaire Steve Dayton.

Used to getting whatever he wants, he creates a superhero persona solely to woo and wed Rita Farr. With such ambiguous motivations ‘Mento – the Man who Split the Doom Patrol’ was a radical character for the times, but at least his psycho-kinetic helmet proved a big help in defeating the plastic robots of grotesque alien invader Garguax

DP #92 tasks the team with a temporal terrorist in ‘The Sinister Secret of Dr. Tyme’ and features the abrasive Mento again saving the day, after which ‘Showdown on Nightmare Road’ in #93 features The Brain’s latest monstrous scheme. This results in the evil genius being transplanted inside Robotman’s skull whilst poor Cliff is dumped into a horrific beast, until the Chief out-plays the French Fiend at his own game…

Creature-feature veteran Bob Brown stepped in to illustrate #94’s lead tale ‘The Nightmare Fighters’ as an eastern mystic’s uncanny abilities are swiftly debunked by solid American science. Premiani returned to render back-up solo-feature ‘The Chief “Stands” Alone’ wherein Caulder eschews his deputies’ aid to bring down bird-themed villain The Claw with a mixture of wit, nerve and weaponised wheelchair.

This initial outing concludes with The Chief’s disastrous effort to cure Rita and Larry (DP #95); resulting in switched powers and the ‘Menace of the Turnabout Heroes’, so naturally that would be the very moment the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man would pick for a return bout…

Although as kids we all happily suspended disbelief and bought into the fanciful antics of the myriad masked heroes available, somehow the exploits of the Doom Patrol – and their surprisingly synchronistic Marvel counterparts The X-Men (freaks and outcasts, wheelchair geniuses, both debuting in the summer of 1963) – always seemed just a bit more “real” than the usual caped and costumed crowd.

With the edge of time and experience on my side it’s obvious just how incredibly mature and hardcore Drake, Haney & Premiani’s take on superheroes actually was. These superbly engaging, frantically fun and breathtakingly beautiful tales should rightfully rank amongst the finest Fights ‘n’ Tights tales ever told. Moreover, you should definitely own them, and now you can…
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 2018 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: Zatanna’s Search


By Gardner Fox & various (DC Comics/Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0188-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless and Magical… 8/10

With Julius Schwartz and John Broome, writer extraordinaire Gardner Fox built the Silver Age of comics and laid the foundations of the modern DC universe. He was also a canny innovator and one of the earliest proponents of extended storylines which have since become so familiar to us as “braided crossovers.”

A qualified lawyer, Fox began his comics career in the Golden Age on major and minor features, working in every genre and for most companies. One of the B-list strips he scripted was Zatara; a magician-hero in the Mandrake mould who had fought evil and astounded audiences in the pages of Action and World’s Finest Comics for over a decade, beginning with the very first issues (to be completely accurate the latter’s premiere performance was entitled World’s Best Comics #1, but whatever the book’s name, the top-hatted and suavely tailed and tailored trickster was there…)

Zatara fell from favour at the end of the 1940s, fading from memory like so many other outlandish crime-crushers. In 1956 Editor Schwartz reinvented the superhero genre and reintroduced costumed characters based on the company’s past pantheon. Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and The Atom were refitted for the sleek, scientific atomic age, and later their legendary predecessors were reincarnated and returned as denizens of an alternate Earth.

As the experiment became a trend and then inexorable policy, surviving heroes such as Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Aquaman and Wonder Woman were retrofitted to match the new world order. The Superhero was back and the public appetite seemed inexhaustible.

For their next trick Fox & Schwartz turned to the magician and presumably found him wanting. Rather than condemn him to Earth-2 they created the first “legacy hero” by having Zatara vanish from sight and introduced his daughter, set on a far-reaching quest to find him. Zatanna debuted in Hawkman #4 (October-November 1964) illustrated by the great Murphy Anderson in a tale entitled ‘The Girl who Split in Two’.

Following a mystical trail and wearing a variation of Zatara’s garb the plucky but impatient lass had divided her body and travelled simultaneously to Ireland and China, but lapsed into paralysis until Hawkman and Hawkgirl answered her distress call.

Although nobody knew it at the time she appeared next as a villain in Detective Comics #336 (February 1965). ‘Batman’s Bewitched Nightmare’ found a broom-riding old crone attacking the Dynamic Duo at the command of mutant super-threat The Outsider in a stirring yarn drawn by Bob Kane and Joe Giella.

Current opinion is that this wasn’t originally intended as part of the epic, but when the quest was resolved in Justice League of America #51 at the height of TV inspired “Batmania”, a very slick piece of back-writing was necessary to bring the high-profile Caped Crusader into the storyline.

Gil Kane & Sid Greene illustrated the next two chapters in the saga; firstly in ‘World of the Magic Atom’ (Atom #19, June-July 1965), wherein Mystic Maid and Tiny Titan battle Zatara’s old nemesis the Druid in the microcosmic world of Catamoore, and then later with the Emerald Gladiator in an extra-dimensional realm on ‘The Other Side of the World!’ (Green Lantern #42, January 1966).

Here the malevolently marauding, potentially Earth-dominating Warlock of Ys is eventually overcome after a mighty struggle and compelled to reveal further clues in the trail.

The Elongated Man starred in a long-running back-up feature in Detective Comics, and from #355 (September 1966, pencilled and inked by Carmine Infantino) ‘The Tantalizing Trouble of the Tripod Thieves!’ revealed how the search for a stolen eldritch artefact brought the young sorceress closer to her goal, and the search concluded in spectacular and fabulously satisfying fashion with the aforementioned JLA tale ‘Z – As in Zatanna – and Zero Hour!’ (#51, February 1967).

With art from the incomparable team of Mike Sekowsky & Sid Greene, all the heroes who aided her are transported to another mystical plane to fight in a classic battle of good versus evil, with plenty of cunning surprises for all and a happy ending at the end.

Collected here is a triumphant early and long-running experiment in continuity that remains one of the very best adventures of the Silver Age, featuring some of the period’s greatest creators at the peak of their powers.

This slim volume also has an enticing encore in store: following the mandatory cover gallery is a never before reprinted 10-page tale. ‘The Secret Spell!’ – by Gerry Conway, Romeo Tanghal & Vince Colletta – was originally seen in DC Blue Ribbon Digest #5 (November-December 1980) which revealed ‘Secret Origins of Super-Heroes’ and explores the hidden history of both father and daughter in a snappy, informative and inclusive manner.

Although a little hard to find now – and a top candidate to be arcanely transmogrified into an eBook – this is a superlative volume for fans of costumed heroes and would also make a wonderful tome to introduce newcomers to the genre.

© 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1980, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: The Sunday Classics 1943-1946


By Don Cameron, Bill Finger, Joe Samachson, Alvin Schwartz, Bob Kane, Jack Burnley, Fred Ray & various (Sterling)
ISBN: 978-1-1402-4718-2

For most of the 20th century the newspaper comic strip was the Holy Grail that cartoonists and graphic narrative storytellers hungered for. Syndicated across the country and the planet, with millions of readers and accepted (in most places) as a more mature and sophisticated form of literature than comic-books, it also paid better. The Holiest of Holies was a full-colour Sunday page.

However, it was always something of a poisoned chalice when a comicbook property became so popular that it swam against the tide (after all weren’t the funny-books invented just to reprint the strips in cheap accessible form?) to become a syndicated serial strip.

Superman, Wonder Woman, Archie Andrews and a few others made the jump in the 1940s and many features have done so since. One of the most highly regarded came late to the party even though it was probably the highest quality offering, both in its daily and Sunday format. It was called Batman and Robin.

Although a highpoint in strip cartooning, both simultaneous Batman features were cursed by ill-timing. The feature finally debuted during a period in newspaper publishing that was afflicted by rationing, shortages and a changing marketplace.

These strips never achieved the circulation they deserved, but at least the Sundays were given a new lease of life after DC began reprinting vintage stories in the 1960s in their 80-Page Giants and Annuals.

The superior quality adventures were ideal action-mystery short stories, adding an extra cachet of exoticism for young readers already captivated by enjoying tales of their heroes that were positively ancient and redolent of History with a capital “H”.

The stories themselves are broken down into complete single page instalments building into short tales averaging between four to six pages per adventure. The mandatory esoteric foes include such regulars as the Penguin (twice), Joker, Catwoman and Two-Face and all-original themed villains such as The Gopher, The Sparrow and Falstaff, but the bulk of the yarns offer more prosaic criminals, if indeed there is any antagonist at all…

A huge benefit of work produced for an audience deemed “more mature” is the freedom to explore human interest stories such as exonerating wrongly convicted men, fighting forest fires or discovering the identity of an amnesia victim. There is even a jolly seasonal yarn that bracketed Christmas week, 1945.

The writers of the strip included Don Cameron, Bill Finger, Joe Samachson, Alvin Schwartz with art by Bob Kane, Jack Burnley and Fred Ray and inking by Win Mortimer and Charles Paris. The letterer was tireless, invisible calligraphic master Ira Schnapp and the strips were all coloured by Raymond Perry.

This lovely oversized (241 x 318 mm) full colour hardback was originally published in conjunction by DC Comics & Kitchen Sink Press in 1991, and also contains a wealth of extra features such as biographical notes, a history of the strip, promotional artefacts, behind-the-scenes artwork and sketches, promotional features and much more. It’s long past time it was back in print – and eBooked too – as it’s a must for both Bat-fans and lovers of the artform and a certain anniversary is fast approaching…
© 1991, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam!”


By Elzie Crisler Segar (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-779-7

HAPPY 90th BIRTHDAY POPEYE!

Call me an idiot (you know you want to) but for years I laboured under the misapprehension that comics’ first superhuman hero debuted on January 29th 1929. Eventually. thanks to a superb collection of archival albums from the wonderful folk at Fantagraphics, I was disabused of that erroneous notion. Those mammoth oversized compendia are still the best books about the old Swabbie ever published…

Thimble Theatre was an unassuming comic strip which began on 19th December 1919; one of many newspaper features that parodied/burlesqued/mimicked the silent movies of the era. Its more successful forebears included C.W. Kahles’ Hairbreadth Harry and Ed Wheelan’s Midget Movies (later and more famously renamed Minute Movies).

These all used a repertory company of characters to play out generic adventures firmly based on the cinema antics of the silent era. Thimble Theatre’s cast included Nana and Cole Oyl, their gawky daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor, and Horace Hamgravy, Olive’s sappy, would-be beau.

The series ticked along for a decade, competent and unassuming, with Castor and Ham Gravy, as he became, tumbling through get-rich-quick schemes, gentle adventures and simple gag situations until September 10th 1928 (the first strip reprinted in this astonishingly lavish and beautiful collection), when explorer uncle Lubry Kent Oyl gave Castor a present from his latest exploration of Africa: a hand-reared Whiffle Hen – most fabulous of all birds. It was the start of something groundbreaking.

As eny fule kno Whiffle Hens are troublesome, incredibly rare and possessed of fantastic powers, but after months of inspired hokum and slapsick shenanigans, Castor was resigned to Bernice – for that was the hen’s name – when a series of increasingly peculiar circumstances brought him into contention with the ruthless Mr. Fadewell, world’s greatest gambler and king of the gaming resort of ‘Dice Island’.

Bernice clearly affected writer/artist E.C. Segar, because his strip increasingly became a playground of frantic, compelling action and comedy during this period.

When Castor and Ham discovered that everybody wanted the Whiffle Hen because she could bestow infallible good luck, they decided to sail for Dice Island to win every penny from its lavish casinos. Sister Olive wanted to come along but the boys planned to leave her behind once their vessel was ready to sail. It was 16th January 1929…

The next day and in the 108th instalment of the saga, a bluff, irascible, ignorant, itinerant and exceeding ugly one-eyed old sailor was hired by the pair to man the boat they had rented, and the world was introduced to one of the most iconic and memorable characters ever conceived. By sheer, surly willpower, Popeye won the hearts and minds of every reader: his no-nonsense, grumbling simplicity and dubious appeal enchanting the public until by the end of the tale his walk-on had taken up full residency. He would eventually make the strip his own…

The journey to Dice Island was a terrible one: Olive had stowed away, and Popeye, already doing the work of twelve men, did not like her. After many travails the power of Bernice succeeded and Castor bankrupted Dice Island, but as they sailed for home with their millions Fadewell and his murderous associate Snork hunted them across the oceans. Before long, Popeye settled their hash too, almost at the cost of his life…

Once home their newfound wealth quickly led Castor, Ham and Olive into more trouble, with carpetbaggers, conmen and ne’er-do-wells constantly circling, and before long they lost all their money (a common occurrence for them), but one they thing they couldn’t lose was their sea-dog tag-along. The public – and Segar himself – were besotted with the unlovable, belligerent old goat. After an absence of 32 episodes Popeye shambled back on stage, and he stayed for good.

Although not yet the paramour of Olive, Popeye increasingly took Ham’s place as a foil for the sharp-talking, pompous Castor Oyl, and before long they were all having adventures together. When they escaped jail at the start of ‘The Black Barnacle’ (December 11th 1929) they found themselves aboard an empty ship and at the start of a golden age of comic strip magic…

Segar famously considered himself an inferior draughtsman – most of the world disagreed and still does – but his ability to weave a yarn was unquestioned and it grew to astounding and epic proportions in these strips.

Day by day he was creating the syllabary and graphic lexicon of a brand-new art-form, inventing narrative tricks and beats that a generation of artists and writers would use in their own works, and he did it while being scary, thrilling and funny all at once.

‘The Black Barnacle’ introduced the dire menace of the hideous Sea-Hag – one of the greatest villains in fiction – and the scenes of her advancing in misty darkness upon our sleeping heroes are still the most effective I’ve seen in all my years…

This incredible tale leads seamlessly into diamond-stealing, kidnappings, spurned loves, an African excursion and the introduction of wealthy Mr. Kilph, whose do-gooding propensities would lead Castor and Popeye into plenty of trouble, beginning with the eerie science fiction thriller ‘The Mystery of Brownstone Hill’ and the return of the nefarious Snork, who almost murders the salty old seadog a second time…

The black and white dailies section ends with ‘The Wilson Mystery’ as Castor and Popeye set up their own detective agency: something that would become a common strip convention and the perfect maguffin to keep the adventures tumbling along – even Mickey Mouse would don metaphoric deerstalker and magnifying glass (see Mickey and Donald and The Lair of Wolf Barker among many others).

These superb and colossal hardcover albums (200 pages and 368 mm by 268 mm) are augmented with fascinating articles and essays; including testimonial remembrances from famous cartoonists – Jules Feiffer in this first volume – and accompanied by the relevant full colour Sunday pages from the same period.

Here then are the more gag-oriented complete tales from 2nd March 1930 through February 22nd 1931, including the “topper” Sappo.

A topper was a small mini-strip that was run above the main feature on a Sunday page. Some were connected to the main strip but many were just filler. They were used so that individual editors could remove them if their particular periodical had non-standard page requirements. Originally entitled The 5:15, Sappo was a surreal domestic comedy gag strip created by Segar in 1924 which became peculiarly entwined with the Sunday Thimble Theatre as the 1930s unfolded – and it’s a strip long overdue for consideration on its own unique merits….

Since many papers only carried dailies or Sundays, not necessarily both, a system of differentiated storylines developed early in American publishing, and when Popeye finally made his belated appearance, he was already a fairly well-developed character.

Thus, Segar concentrated on more family-friendly gags – and eventually continued mini-sagas – and it was here that the Popeye/Olive Oyl modern romance began: a series of encounters full of bile, intransigence, repressed hostility, jealousy and passion which usually ended in raised voices and scintillating cartoon violence – and they are still as riotously funny now as then.

We saw softer sides of the sailor-man and, when Castor and Mr. Kilph realised how good Popeye was at boxing, an extended, trenchant and scathingly funny sequence about the sport of prize-fighting began. Again, cartoon violence was at a premium – family values were different then – but Segar’s worldly, probing satire and Popeye’s beguiling (but relative) innocence and lack of experience kept the entire affair in hilarious perspective whilst making him an unlikely and lovable waif.

Popeye is fast approaching his centenary and still deserves his place as a world icon. These magnificent volumes are the perfect way to celebrate the genius and mastery of EC Segar and his brilliantly imperfect superman. These are books that every home should have.
© 2006 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2006 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

Gotham Central Book 1: In the Line of Duty


By Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka & Michael Lark & Stephen Gaudiano (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1923-9 (HB)                    978-1-4012-2037-2 (TPB)

One of the great joys of long-lasting, legendary comics characters is their potential for innovation and reinterpretation. There always seems to be another facet or corner to develop. Such a case was Gotham Central, wherein contemporary television sensibilities cannily combined with the deadly drudgery of the long-suffering boys in blue in the world’s most famous four-colour city.

Owing as much to shows such as Homicide: Life on the Streets and Law & Order as it did to the baroque continuity of Batman, the series mixed gritty, authentic police action with a soft-underbelly peek at what the merely mortal guardians and peacekeepers had to put up with in a world of psychotic clowns, flying aliens and scumbag hairballs who just won’t stay dead.

This compilation – available in hardback, soft cover and eBook editions – collects Gotham Central #1-10 (spanning February to October 2003), lovingly crafted by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka with sublimely understated illustration from Michael Lark and comes with an erudite and informative Introduction on ‘The Mean Streets of Gotham’ by celebrated crime author Lawrence Block.

Brubaker & Rucka co-wrote the eponymous two-part premier tale ‘In the Line of Duty’ wherein a desperate child-kidnap investigation by detectives Marcus Driver and Charlie Fields of ex-Commissioner Gordon’s hand-picked Major Crimes Unit leads them all unawares to the temporary hideout of murderous superfreak Mr Freeze.

The cold-hearted killer horrifically eliminates Charlie but sadistically leaves Driver injured and alive… as an object lesson.

The GCPD have a strange relationship with the Dark Knight. They all know he’s out there, but the official line is that he’s an urban myth and the Administration refuses to acknowledge his existence.

Thus, a civilian is employed to turn on the bat-signal on the roof when crises occur and the public are told the eerie light is simply used to keep the cowardly, superstitious underworld cowed…

In such circumstances all real cops are loath to ask for The Bat’s help and Driver and his grieving, angry colleagues pull out all the stops to find and capture Freeze before the masked vigilante insultingly finishes their job for them.

However, as night falls and the flash-frozen body count rises, Marcus deduces what Freeze is planning and has no choice but to ask new Police Commissioner Akins to suspend his embargo and call in the whacko expert before hundreds more die…

From an era when comicbook noir was enjoying a superb renaissance, this classic take on the theme of the hunt for a cop-killer is a masterpiece of edgy and fast-paced tension whilst simultaneously smoothly and memorably introducing a large cast of splendidly realised new and very individual players…

Brubaker solo-scripts the second story as ‘Motive’ finds the now fit-for-duty Driver and his temporary partner Romy Chandler using solid police work to solve the outstanding kidnap case, all the while under the gun since arson villain The Firebug is dancing on the horizon, burning down Gotham one building at a time.

Fourteen-year old babysitter Bonnie Lewis vanished while walking home from her yuppie client’s house, and a subsequent ransom demand later proved to be a fake. Now, after her body is found, Driver and Chandler meticulously re-examine the facts and discover that almost everybody involved has been lying…

As they methodically sift evidence, alibis and possible motives, they begin to realise that even this tragically normal crime has its roots in both common greed and the gaudy madness of the city’s abundant metahuman menaces…

The gripping procedural drama then segues back to the city’s aristocracy of maniacs as Greg Rucka scripts ‘Half a Life’ with focus switching to Renee Montoya: a solid cop with too many secrets.

After her former partner Harvey Bullock was fired with extreme prejudice, tongues started wagging, but now an old case threatens to destroy her career and end her life…

When arresting rapist Marty Lipari, he tried to stab her, and Montoya forcefully subdued him. Now her morning is ruined after the skel sues her for ten million dollars in damages.

It only gets worse when she and partner Crispus Allen get a bogus case dumped on them by the corrupt, lazy meatheads in Robbery Division. However, the capper is dinner with her traditional, devout Catholic parents who still want her to settle down and have kids…

Her life begins to truly unravel when a photo of her kissing another woman does the rounds of colleagues, friends and family. Not all her fellow cops are homophobic bigots: but just enough are. That’s why she kept her life private for years.

Now, apparently outed by Lipari’s hired gumshoe Brian Selker, she is targeted by Internal Affairs when first the PI and then Lipari himself are found shot to death.

With her lover Darla threatened, her gun identified as the murder weapon and a huge quantity of illicit drugs found in her apartment, Renee is soon on her way to jail – another bad egg just like Bullock…

Nobody in MCU thinks she’s guilty but the evidence is overwhelming, and the crisis comes when en route she’s busted out by masked men and taken to the hidden citadel of one of Batman’s most nightmarish nemeses…

Utterly alone, in the unfriendliest job in the world, in the nastiest town on Earth, Montoya has to deal alone with a crazed maniac who’s destroyed her life just so he can be with her forever.

As a Major Crimes detective she’s seen how bad The Bat’s enemies can get, but this time she’s the target, not the hunter or witness, and it’s not just her life at stake…

This engrossing drama never steps outside of human bounds, irrespective of the nature of evil in Gotham, and the original comic presentation (from issues #6-10) won Eisner, Harvey, Eagle and Prism awards for Best Story of 2003.

Sadly not included in this volume are the two earlier tales from Renee’s past (you might want to track down Batman Chronicles #16 – Two Down, by Rucka & Jason Pearson & Cam Smith and Detective Comics#747 – Happy Birthday Two You, by Rucka, William Rosado & Steve Mitchell) which explained that oblique connection to her obsessive suitor. You can find them in the original 2005 trade paperback Gotham Central: Half a Life. and hopefully future editions will restore them to this volume too.

The appropriate quota of human drama, tension, stress and machismo all play well under Michael Lark’s deft subtle artwork, adding a grimy patina of pseudo-reality to good old-fashioned cops ‘n’ robbers stories, all playing out with compulsive veracity in what can only be described as the urban city of the damned.

This smart cop thriller set on the edge of hell is a stunning study in genre-crossing storytelling, and this edition includes a full cover gallery by Lark as well as a fulsome section of designs and character sketches in bonus feature ‘Staffing the GCPD’.

Dark, suspenseful and so very addictive, this is a book no bat-freak or crime buff can afford to miss.
© 2004, 2005, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.