Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine


By Jason Aaron, Adam Kubert & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0785140801 (TPB)

Remember when comic stories were fun, thrilling and, best of all, joyously uncomplicated? Here’s one of those…

Eschewing mind-boggling continuity-links and crossover overload, writer Jason Aaron and artist Adam Kubert – with the impressive support of inkers Mark Morales, Dexter Vines & Mark Roslan (as well as colourist Justin Ponsor and letterer Rob Steen) – simply set out to craft a well-told, action-packed and even poignant time-travel fun-fest that does everything right… and superbly succeeded. The result was 6-issue miniseries Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine.

Without giving away too much delicious detail (trust me you’ll be grateful once you read the full epic adventure) 65-million years ago, as a giant asteroid hurtles towards Earth and an impact which will wipe out the dinosaurs and at least two emergent species of proto-hominid, a warring couple of marooned superheroes from the 21st century sadly make peace with their fate if not each other…

Lost in time for months through the most ridiculous of circumstances, Wolverine and Peter Parker are ready to die. The feral mutant has become leader of the smart but diminutive Small People, leading them to salvation from the predations of their giant evolutionary rivals the Kill People and all other threats, whilst the erstwhile Spider-Man has isolated himself from all contact, terrified of rewriting the future even if he is no longer part of it.

Moreover, Parker’s dreams are haunted by a woman he doesn’t know, but who has become the only thing he cares for…

At a most precipitous moment, the pair are snatched from their time zone and returned to what appears to be an utterly devastated present. The Small People have survived humanity’s fall and are new rulers of a shattered society, but are currently at risk of losing their own shot as overlords of Earth. A fresh Armageddon from leftover human technology, a time-travelling z-list villain and a terrifying sentient planet with the ghost consciousness of Doctor Doom appears to be about to end civilisation one more time…

After Wolverine saves the day and is brought back from beyond death by Parker, they are separated in time and dumped at significant and harrowing moments of each other’s early life; but all the while sinister forces wielded by a hidden cosmic mastermind are manipulating not just the heroes but time itself…

After literally saving the world and perhaps the universe, the heroes are still hunted and continually assaulted by Temporal Gangstas The Czar and Big Murder, until Spider-Man and Wolverine finally strike back and seemingly triumph, only to be stranded in the American West for years…

At least this time Peter is happily united with the mysterious girl of his dreams.

However, the epic is far from finished and heartbreak is just around the chronal corner…

Fast-paced, spectacular, incredibly ingenious and uproariously witty, this tale – available in trade paperback and digital editions – is a sparkling timeless gem and the perfect antidote for over-angsty costumed drama overload.
© 2012 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

Spider-Man: Fever


By Brendan McCarthy & Steve Cook, with Stan Lee & Steve Ditko (Marvel)
ISBN: 987-0-7851-4125-9 (TPB)

Peter Parker was a smart, alienated kid when he was bitten by a radioactive spider during a school trip. Developing astonishing abilities – augmented with his own natural chemistry, physics and engineering genius – the boy did what any lonely, unappreciated, geeky nerd would do with such newfound prowess: try to cash in for girls, fame and money…

Hiding behind a home-made costume (in case he fails and makes a fool of himself), Parker becomes a minor media celebrity – and a criminally self-important one. To his eternal regret, when a thief flees past him one night, the cocky teen doesn’t lift a finger to stop him. When the boy returns home that night, he learns that his beloved guardian uncle Ben Parker has been murdered.

Crazed with a need for vengeance, Peter hunts the assailant who made his devoted Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known, and discovers, to his horror, that it is the self-same felon he neglected to stop. The traumatised boy is fixated on the fact that his irresponsibility resulted in the death of the man who raised him, and swears to forevermore use his powers to help others…

Since that night he has tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public usually baying for his blood even as he perpetually saves them…

It wasn’t too long after his spectacular launch that Stan Lee & Steve Ditko’s astonishing Spider-Man proved himself a contemporary hero who fitted every possible milieu and scenario; equally at home against cheap hoods, world-busting super-menaces or the oddest of alien incursions, and this superbly outré modern masterpiece – available in trade paperback and digital formats – celebrates that astounding versatility by reprising one of the most brilliantly bizarre team-ups from the early Marvel Age.

The legendary classic first meeting of Mystic Master and Wondrous Wallcrawler occurred in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 and it’s rightly included at the end of this beguiling tome featuring über-imaginatively narrative art trendsetter Brendan McCarthy’s tribute to Ditko’s dazzling graphic magic.

London-born McCarthy came to prominence in comics on 2000AD before branching out into international comics stardom whilst pursuing parallel careers in film, television and design. His most notable works range from Strange Days and Paradax to Judge Dredd, The Zaucer of Zilk, Zenith, Skin, Rogan Gosh, Dream Gang and innumerable stunning covers. His moving media credits include The Storyteller, Highlander, Lost in Space, Reboot, Mad Max 4: Fury Road and so much more.

Collected here is a digitally-psychedelic, intoxicatingly appealing 3-issue miniseries from 2010 and produced for the mature-audience Marvel Knights sub-imprint. Written and illustrated by McCarthy with lettering and additional colouring from old comrade Steve Cook, it begins with the web-spinner battling frequent flyer archfoe The Vulture even as Sorcerer Supreme Stephen Strange explores a few Outer Realms and inadvertently activates an ancient trap set in an old grimoire – the Lost Journal of Albion Crowley

The “webwaze” energy escapes into the very architecture and infrastructure of New York City, finding its way to the cornered Vulture: possessing the bad old bird before passing through him, permeating and infecting the Friendly Neighbourhooded one…

When Strange further examines the cursed chronicle, he discovers the sorry tale of Crowley and his unlucky acolyte Victor Neumenon, whose long ago trans-dimensional forays led them into fateful contact with cosmically peripheral spider-demons dubbed Arachnix, lurking in the darkest corners and crannies of Creation.

Both were subjected to unimaginable atrocity at the many hands of the hairy horrors, but only Crowley returned to recount his experiences, and spin their adventures his way…

Meanwhile, ensorcelled Spider-Man, reeling in delirious torment, has instinctively crawled into the bathroom of Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum where his now-tainted soul is suddenly snatched away by arcane Arachnix-Hunter Daddy Longlegs, who drags the essence of the hero to its hideous homelands to be devoured by the ghastly King Korazon

Arriving too late to assist, the Master of the Mystic Arts gives chase through increasingly impossible planes of existence, following the ethereal webwaze paths in his frenzied attempts to save his old friend from utter horror and eternal damnation…

Along the way the wizard meets keenly helpful void-dwellers Fetch Doggy Fetch and Pugly, even as Peter Parker’s enmeshed spirit faces consumption by the Eight-Legged Tribe. Somehow, however, the hero’s dual nature confounds the beasts. They cannot determine if he is Spider – and therefore kin – or Man, and thus the most appealing meal ever presented to any Arachnix…

To decide his prey’s future fate Korazon despatches the befuddled soul-shell through the Insect Gate to catch the fabled feast known as the Sorror-Fly from the home dimension of all arthropods. If the arbitrary man-spider can snare the elusive treat he is their brother, but if he returns empty-handed, he’s just lunch…

Whilst the englamoured hero hunts in the insect realm, Strange rescues fellow Earth-born traveller Ms. Ningirril, long-trapped during her own dimensional Walkabout. In gratitude, the Antipodean wanderer provides the mage with useful intelligence, sound advice and a safer, swifter means of navigating his search for Spider-Man…

In a fantastic City of Termites our befuddled hero has succeeded in his task and is dragging the woeful Sorror-Fly back to the Arachnix: further succumbing with each passing moment to the inexorable, bestial allure of his Spider side, even as his garrulous meal relates the dread history of the insect dimension and a prophecy of telling magnitude.

When the Sorcerer Supreme and his allies fortuitously arrive, the Fly transforms back to a form he has not held for over a century, presaging the redemption and cure of the fallen Wall-crawler and a spectacular end to an infinitude of eight-legged terrors…

Bold, ambitious and visually compelling and off the wall, this superb magical mystery tour is perfectly augmented here by that aforementioned first meeting…

In 1965 Steve Ditko was blowing away audiences with another oddly tangential, daringly different superhero. Amazing Spider-Man King Size Annual #2 revealed ‘The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!’: introducing the webslinger to other realities after he accidentally interrupts an attack by wannabe wizard Xandu upon the Master of the Mystic Arts.

The villain had stolen the puissant Wand of Watoomb from Strange to achieve ultimate power, and when that pesky, interfering Spider-Man butts in, the power-crazed dilettante exiles him to an alien dimension – but not before the hero’s webbing snatches the arcane artefact from Xandu’s hand and takes it with him…

Cue an involuntary incredible journey to phantasmagorical, mind-bending worlds pursued by unstoppable zombie slaves and a desperately determined Doctor Strange in a dimension-hopping masterpiece of mystery and imagination…

Moody, creepy and staggeringly engrossing, this eerie eldritch escapade also includes the author/artist’s ‘Notes on the Design and Story Ideas for Spider-Man: Fever’ – a selection of commentary, roughs and sketches offering a fascinating glimpse of into the creative process of a truly unique talent, as well as a selection of Ditko pinups detailing the M.O.’s of The Circus of Crime, The Scorpion, The Beetle, Jonah’s Robot and the Crime-Master

Here’s another superb and crucial selection starring the timeless teen icon, superhero symbol and big screen superstar fans just cannot afford to do without
© 1965 and 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Marvel Masterworks volume 12


By Steve Englehart, Bob Brown, Sal Buscema, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5879-0 (HB)

One of the most momentous events in comics (and now, film) history came in the middle of 1963 when a disparate gang of heroic individuals banded together to combat an apparently out of control Incredible Hulk.

The Avengers combined most of the company’s fledgling superhero line in one bright, shiny and highly commercial package. Over the intervening decades the roster has unceasingly changed, and now almost every character in the Marvel multiverse has at some time numbered amongst their colourful ranks…

The everchanging roster proved that putting all one’s star eggs in a single basket can pay off big-time. Even when all Marvel Royalty such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man are absent, there’s no detriment: it merely allows the team’s lesser lights to shine more brightly.

Of course, the founding stars are never away for too long due to a rotating, open door policy ensuring most issues include somebody’s fave-rave.

After instigators Stan Lee & Jack Kirby moved on, the team prospered under the guidance of Roy Thomas who grew into one of the industry’s most impressive writers, guiding the World’s Mightiest Heroes through a range of adventures ranging from sublimely poetic to staggeringly epic. He then handed over the scripting to a young writer who carried the team to even greater heights…

This stunning hardcover compilation – also available in eBook iterations – assembles Avengers #112-119, plus crucial crossover episodes from Defenders #8-11: collectively covering June 1973 to January 1974 and celebrating the beginning of an era of cosmic catastrophe and cataclysmically captivating creative cross-pollination…

This bombastic tome commences with Avengers #112 in ‘The Lion God Lives!’ (illustrated by Don Heck & Frank Bolle) wherein a rival African deity returns to destroy the human avatar of the Panther God. As the Black Panther and his valiant comrades tackle that threat, in the wings an erstwhile ally and enemy and his exotic paramour made their own plans for the team…)

Unreasoning prejudice informed #113’s ‘Your Young Men Shall Slay Visions!’ (Bob Brown & Bolle) as a horde of fundamentalist bigots – offended by the “unnatural” love between Wanda, the mutant Scarlet Witch and the Vision – turn themselves into human bombs to destroy the sinful, unholy couple. Soon after, ‘Night of the Swordsman’ in #114 (Brown & Esposito) formally introduces the reformed swashbuckler and his enigmatic psychic martial artist paramour Mantis to the team… just in time to thwart the Lion God’s latest scheme.

In 1973 wunderkind scripter Steve Englehart (who provides a context-enhancing Introduction in this collected volume) was writing both Avengers and Defenders (as well as Doctor Strange, the Hulk and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire) and, yearning for the days of DC’s summer blockbuster annual events, decided to attempt his own massive multi-player epic.

Bravely given the editorial go-ahead at a time when deadline crunches regularly interrupted ongoing storylines, the author and his regular pencillers Sal Buscema and Bob Brown laid their plans…

Threads had been planted as early as Defenders #4 with Englehart carefully putting players in place for a hugely ambitious cross-over experiment: one that would turn the comics industry on its head.

For kids – of any and all ages – there is a simply primal fascination with brute strength and feeling dangerous, which surely goes some way towards explaining the perennial interest in angry tough guys who break stuff and as best exemplified by Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner and the Incredible Hulk. When you add the mystery and magic of Doctor Strange the recipe for thrills, spills and chills becomes simply irresistible…

Last of the big star-name conglomerate super-groups, the Defenders would eventually number amongst its membership almost every hero – and some few villains – in the Marvel Universe. No surprise there then since the initial line was composed of the company’s major league bad-boys: misunderstood, outcast and often actually dangerous to know. For Marvel in the 1970s, the outsider super-group must have seemed a conceptual inevitability – once they’d finally published it.

Apart from Spider-Man and Daredevil, all their heroes regularly teamed up in various mob-handed assemblages, and in the wake of the Defenders’ success even more super-teams featuring pre-existing characters would be packaged: The Champions, Invaders, New Warriors, Inhumans, Guardians of the Galaxy and so on… but never again with so many Very Big Guns…

The genesis of the team in fact derived from their status as publicly distrusted “villains”, and they never achieved the “in-continuity” fame or acceptance of other teams, but that simply seemed to leave the creators open to taking a few chances and playing the occasional narrative wild card.

After earthly madwoman Barbara Norris was cursed by amoral Asgardian Amora the Enchantress, the human was transformed into an incarnation of old Avengers enemy Valkyrie. The denouement of the tale also left part-time Avenger and Defender the Black Knight an ensorcelled, immobile stone statue. As Strange and Co. searched for a cure, aided by the Silver Surfer and tempestuous Hawkeye (another ex-Assembler looking to forge a solo career), they all fell into a subtle scheme orchestrated by two of the greatest forces of evil in all creation….

The classic confrontation finally commenced in Avengers #115 with lead story ‘Below Us the Battle!’ (Brown & Esposito) wherein the still-understaffed heroes travel to England and the castle of the Black Knight, only to encounter mystic resistance, a troglodytic race of scavengers and a comrade long missing…

The issue also contained a brief prologue at the end. ‘Alliance Most Foul!’ reveals other-dimensional Dark Lord Dormammu and Asgardian god of Evil Loki allying to secure an ultimate weapon which will give them ultimate victory against all their foes. This despotic duo plan a false flag operation to deceive the Defenders into securing the six component parts: surreptitiously “revealing” that the reconstructed Evil Eye can de-petrify and restore the Black Knight – a plan that opens with a similar prologue at the end of Defenders #8…

‘Deception’ (Englehart, Sal Buscema & Esposito) is the first chapter in ‘The Avengers/Defenders Clash’, disclosing how a mystic SOS from the spirit of the Black Knight is intercepted by the twin gods of evil, leading directly to ‘Betrayal!’ in Avengers #116, wherein the World’s Mightiest Heroes, hunting for their missing comrade, “discover” their oldest enemies Hulk and Sub-Mariner may have turned Black Knight to stone…

This and third chapter ‘Silver Surfer Vs. the Vision and the Scarlet Witch’ see the rival teams split up: one to gather the scattered sections of the Eye and the other to stop them at all costs…

Defenders #9 (with Sal Buscema & Frank McLaughlin art) begins with tense recap ‘Divide …and Conquer’ before ‘The Invincible Iron Man Vs. Hawkeye the Archer’ and ‘Dr. Strange Vs. the Black Panther and Mantis’ sheds more suspicion and doubt on the vile villains’ subtle master-plan…

In Avengers #117, ‘Holocaust’, ‘Swordsman Vs. the Valkyrie’ and crucial turning point ‘Captain America Vs. Sub-Mariner’ (all illustrated by Brown & Esposito) lead to the penultimate duel in Defenders #10 (Sal Buscema & Bolle) in ‘Breakthrough! The Incredible Hulk Vs. Thor’ and the inevitable joining together of the warring camps in ‘United We Stand!’. Tragically, understanding comes too late as Dormammu seizes the reconstructed Evil Eye and uses its power to merge his entire dimensional realm with Earth’s.

Avengers #118 delivers the cathartic, climactic conclusion in ‘To the Death’ (Brown, Esposito & Frank Giacoia) wherein all the heroes of the Marvel Universe resist demonic invasion on hideously mutated home soil whilst Avengers and Defenders plunge deep into the Dark Dimension itself to end forever the threat of the evil gods (well, for the moment, at least…).

With the overwhelming cosmic threat quelled, the victorious Defenders attempt to use the Eye to cure their petrified comrade, only to discover that his spirit has found a new home in the time of the Crusades.

In #11’s ‘A Dark and Stormy Knight’ (Sal B & Bolle), the group battle 12th century black magic, fail to retrieve the Knight and acrimoniously go their separate ways – as did overworked scripter Englehart, who dropped the “non-team” to concentrate on “The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes”…

Those never-ending struggles resume and the adventuring pauses after a delightfully traditional spooky Halloween tale as the Avengers – warned by clairvoyant vision from enigmatic Mantis – head once more to Rutland, Vermont for the ‘Night of the Collector’ (#119, by Brown & Heck): encountering old friends, a dastardly and determined foe, blistering action, staggering suspense and blistering battle…

As if extra enticements be needed, also included in this compendium are pages and pin-ups from company fanzine F.O.O.M. (#5, 6, 7: Mantis by John Byrne & Duffy Vohland, Jarvis by Marie Severin and a bombastic team shot by John and Sal Buscema), plus house ads for Avengers #116, previous collection covers from Carlos Pacheco, Jesus Merino & Ang Tsang, John Romita & Richard Isanove and original art pages by Brown & Esposito and #119’s Romita cover.

Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart were at the forefront of Marvel’s second generation of story-makers; brilliantly building on and consolidating the compelling creations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko while spearheading and constructing a logical, fully functioning wonder-machine of places and events that so many others were inspired by and could add to.

These terrific tales are perfect examples of superhero sagas done just right and also a pivotal step transforming the little company into today’s multinational corporate colossus. Best of all, Englehart’s forthcoming concoctions would turn the Marvel Universe on its head and pave the way for a new acme of cosmic adventure…
© 1973, 1974, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 6: “Me Li’l Swee’ Pea”


By Elzie Crisler Segar, with Doc Winner (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-483-2 (HB)

Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester, Illinois on 8th December 1894. His father was a general handyman, and the boy’s early life was filled with the kinds of solid, dependable blue-collar jobs that typified his generation of cartoonists. The lad worked as a decorator and house-painter and also played drums; accompanying vaudeville acts at the local theatre.

When the town got a movie-house, he played for the silent films, absorbing all the staging, timing and narrative tricks from keen observation of the screen. Those lessons would become his greatest assets as a cartoonist. It was while working as the film projectionist, at age 18, that he decided to become a cartoonist and tell his own stories.

Like so many others in those hard times, he studied art via mail, in this case W.L. Evans’ cartooning correspondence course out of Cleveland, Ohio, before gravitating to Chicago where he was “discovered” by Richard F. Outcault – regarded by most in the know today as the inventor of modern newspaper comic strips with The Yellow Kid and, later, Buster Brown.

The celebrated cartoonist introduced Segar around at the prestigious Chicago Herald. Still wet behind the ears, the kid’s first strip, Charley Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, debuted on 12th March 1916.

In 1918 he married Myrtle Johnson and moved to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American to create Looping the Loop, but Managing Editor William Curley saw a big future for Segar and packed the newlyweds off to New York, HQ of the mighty King Features Syndicate.

Within a year Segar was producing Thimble Theatre, which launched December 19th 1919 in the New York Journal. It was a pastiche of movie-inspired features like Hairbreadth Harry and Midget Movies, with a repertory of stock players to act out comedies, melodramas, comedies, crime-stories, chases and especially comedies for vast daily audiences.

The core cartoon cast included parental pillars Nana and Cole Oyl; their lanky, highly-strung daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor and Olive’s plain and simple occasional boyfriend Horace Hamgravy (later known as just Ham Gravy).

In 1924, Segar created a second daily strip. The 5:15 was a surreal domestic comedy featuring weedy commuter and would-be inventor John Sappo and his formidable wife Myrtle (surely, no relation?) which endured – in one form or another – as a topper/footer-feature accompanying the main Sunday page throughout the author’s entire career and even surviving his untimely death, to eventually become the trainee-playground of Popeye’s second great stylist Bud Sagendorf.

A born storyteller, Segar had, from the start, an advantage even his beloved cinema couldn’t match: a brilliant ear for dialogue and accent which boomed out from his admittedly average adventure plots, adding lustre and sheer sparkle to stories and gags he always felt he hadn’t drawn well enough. After a decade or so – and just as cinema caught up with the invention of “talkies” – he finally discovered a character whose unique sound and individual vocalisations blended with a fantastic, enthralling nature to create a literal superstar.

Popeye the sailor, brusque, incoherent, plug-ugly and stingingly sarcastic, lurched on stage midway through the protracted continuity ‘Dice Island’, (on January 17th 1929: see E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam!” and many happy returns sailor!). Once his part was played out, he simply refused to leave…

Within a year he was a regular and, as the strip’s circulation skyrocketed, gradually took his place as the star. The strip title was changed to reflect the fact and most of the tired old gang – except Olive – were consigned to oblivion …

The Old Salt clearly inspired his creator. The near-decade of thrilling mystery-comedies he crafted and the madcap and/or macabre new characters with which he furiously littered the strips revolutionised the industry, laid the groundwork for the entire superhero genre (sadly, usually without the leavening underpinnings of his wryly self-aware humour) and utterly captivated the whole wide world.

These superb oversized (375 x 268 mm) hardback collections are the ideal way of discovering or rediscovering Segar’s magical tales, and this sixth and final mammoth compendium augments the fun with another insightful introductory essay from Richard Marschall exploring ‘The Continuity Style of E. C. Segar: Between “Meanwhile” & “To Be Continued” and closes with an absorbing end-piece essay describing the globalisation of the character in ‘Licensing and Merchandising Move to Center Stage of the Thimble Theatre: Popeye Fisks his way into American Culture plus a 1930 magazine feature graphically revealing the Sailor Man’s natal origins and boyhood in ‘Blow Me Down! Popeye Born at Age of 2, But Orphink from Start’ scripted by unknown King Features writers but gloriously and copiously illustrated by Segar himself.

As always, the black-&-white Daily continuities are presented separately to the full-colour Sundays, and the monochrome mirth and mayhem – covering December 14th 1936 to August 29th 1938 12th – begins with all-new adventure ‘Mystery Melody’, wherein Popeye’s shamefully disreputable dad Poopdeck Pappy is haunted and hunted by the sinister Sea Hag. Her ghastly Magic Flute is employed to irresistibly lure the old goat back into the clutches of the woman he loved and abandoned years ago…

The tension and drama mounts in second chapter ‘Tea and Hamburgers’, when the Hag approaches another old flame – J. Wellington Wimpy – and uses the reprobate’s insatiable lust (for food) to help capture Poopdeck. The plan works, but not quite as the sinister sorceress intended…

In ‘Bolo vs Everyone!’ events escalate completely beyond control as the Hag’s primordial man-monster attacks the crew and our grizzled mariner ends the fight in his own inimitable manner, whilst mystic marvel Eugene the Jeep (a fantastic 4th dimensional beast with incredible powers) uses his uncanny gifts to – temporarily at least – settle the Sea Hag’s hash…

A decided change of pace began with the next storyline. ‘A Sock for Susan’s Sake’ showcases Popeye’s big heart and sentimental nature as he takes a destitute and starving waif under his wing: buying her clothes, breaking her out of jail and going on the run with her. However, his kind-hearted deeds arouse deep suspicions about his motives from friends and strangers alike…

It’s a tribute to Segar’s skills that the storyline perfectly balances social commentary and pathos with plenty of action (that sock in question is not footwear) and non-stop slapstick comedy. Their peregrinations again land Susan and the Old Salt in jail for vagrancy, but the wonderfully sympathetic and easily amused Judge Penny really makes the prosecution work hilariously hard for a conviction in ‘Order in the Court!’

Naturally, jealous Olive gets completely the wrong idea and uses the Jeep to track down her straying beau in ‘Who is That Girl?’, leading to the discovery of the ingénue’s origins and the restoration of her stolen fortune – a case calling for the return of ace detective and former strip star Castor Oyl…

The grateful child and her father burden Popeye with a huge reward, but as he has his own adequate savings at home he gives it all – with some unexpected difficulty – away to “Widdies and Orphinks”…

In the next sequence, the Sailor Man has reason to regret that generosity as, on returning to his house, he finds his hard-earned “Ten Thousing dollars” savings have been stolen…

Most annoyingly, he knows Poopdeck has taken it but the old goat won’t admit it, even though he has a new diamond engagement ring which he uses to bribe various loose young (and not so young) women into going out gallivanting with him and sowing ‘Wild Oats’

When Popeye first appeared, he was a rough, rude, crude and shocking anti-hero. The first Superman of comics was not a comfortable paragon to idolise but a barely human brute who thought with his fists and didn’t respect authority. Uneducated, opinionated, short-tempered, fickle (whenever hot tomatoes batted their eyelashes – or other movable bits thereabouts – at him), a gambler and troublemaker, he wasn’t welcome in polite society…and he wouldn’t want to be.

He was soon exposed as the ultimate working-class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, but with an innate and unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not, a joker who wanted kids to be themselves – but not necessarily “good” – and somebody who took no guff from anyone.

As his popularity grew, he mellowed somewhat. He was still always ready to defend the weak and had absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows. He was and will always be “the best of us”… but the shocking sense of unpredictability, danger and comedic anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed. So, in 1936 Segar brought it all back again in the form of Popeye’s 99-year old unrepentantly reprobate dad…

The elder mariner was a rough, hard-bitten, grumpy brute quite prepared and even happy to cheat, steal or smack a woman around if she stepped out of line, and once the old billy goat (whose shady past possibly concealed an occasional bit of piracy) was firmly established, Segar set Popeye and Olive the Herculean and unfailingly funny task of civilising the geriatric sod…

They return to their odious chore here as Pappy’s wild carousing, fighting and womanising grow ever more embarrassing and lead to the cops trying – and repeatedly failing – to jail the senior seaman.

Poopdeck finally goes too far and pushes one of his fancy woman fiancées into the river. At last brought to trial, he pleads ‘Extenuvatin’ Circumsnances’

The final full Segar saga began on 15th November 1937 as ‘The Valley of the Goons (An Adventure)’ sees Popeye and Wimpy drugged and shanghaied. Even though he could fight his way back home, Popeye agrees to stay on for the voyage since he needs money to pay lawyers appealing Pappy’s prison sentence. He quickly changes tack, however, when he discovers the valuable cargo they’re hunting is Goon skins!

The Cap’n and his scurvy crew are planning to slaughter the hapless hulking exotic primitives for a few measly dollars…

After brutally driving off the murderous thugs, Popeye – and the shirking Wimpy – are marooned on the Goons’ isolated island…

The barbaric land holds a few surprises: most notably the fact that the natives are ruled over by Popeye’s dour old pal King Blozo (formerly of Nazilia) who, with his imbecilic retainer Oscar, is calling all the shots. It’s a happy coincidence, as Wimpy’s eternal hunger and relentless mooching have won him a death sentence and he’s in imminent danger of being hanged…

All this time Olive, guided by the mystical tracking gifts of the Jeep, has been sailing the seven seas in search of her man and she beaches her boat just as Popeye begins to get the situation under control. In doing so he unfairly earns the chagrin of the island’s unseen but highly voluble sea monster George

Shock follows shock as the eerie-voiced unseen creature is revealed as the horrendous Sea Hag who re-exerts her uncanny hold (some illusions but mostly the promise of unlimited hamburgers) upon Wimpy and tries to make him the ‘Bride of George’

In the middle of this tale Segar fell seriously ill with Leukaemia and his assistant Doc Winner assumed responsibility for completing the story: probably from Segar’s notes if not at his actual direction.

Although Winner’s illustrations carry ‘Valley of the Goons’ to conclusion, this tome excludes the all-Winner adventure ‘Hamburger Sharks and Sea Spinach’ before resuming with the May 23rd instalment by the apparently recovered Segar.

‘King Swee’Pea’ saw the feisty baby – who had been left with Popeye – become the focus of political drama and family tension when he was revealed to be heir to the Kingdom of Demonia

After a protracted tussle with that nation’s secret service and bombastic kingmaker F.G. Frogfuzz Esquire, the Sailor Man has himself appointed regent and chief advisor before taking most of the cast with him and relocating to the harsh land where only Ka-babages grow.

Popeye soon finds that his mischievous little charge has started to speak: increasingly crossing and contradicting his gruff guardian and others, much to the annoyance of blustering bully King Cabooso of neighbouring (rival) nation Cuspidonia

Before long, another unique crisis manifests in ‘Rise of the De-Mings’ as smugly sassy subterranean critters begin devastating the Ka-babage crop even as Swee’Pea and Caboosa escalate their war of insults…

Sadly, although coming back strongly, within three months Segar had relapsed. The adventures end here with his last strip and a précis of Winner’s eventual conclusion…

Segar passed away six weeks after his final Daily strip was published.

The full-colour Sunday pages in this volume run from 20th September 1936 to October 2nd 1938, a combination of star turn and intriguing footers.

After an interlude with a new wry and charming feature – Pete and Patsy: For Kids Only – the artist settled once again upon an old favourite to back up Popeye.

The bizarrely entertaining Sappo (accompanied by scene-and show-stealing Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle) supplemental strip returned in a blaze of imaginative wonder, as Segar also benched the cartooning tricks section which allowed him to play graphic games with his readership and again pushed the boundaries of Weird Science as the Odd Couple – and long-suffering spouse Myrtle – spent months exploring other worlds.

The assorted Saps also dabbled with robot dogs, brain-switching machines and fell embarrassingly foul of such inventions as long-distance spy-rays, anti-gravity devices, limb extending “Stretcholene”, “Speak-no-Evil” pills, Atom-Counters and the deeply disturbing trouble magnet dubbed “Dream Solidifier”, whilst Sappo’s less scientific but far more profitable gimmicks kept the cash rolling in and the arrogant Professor steaming with outrage…

Above these arcane antics Sunday’s star attraction remained fixedly exploring the comedy gold of Popeye’s interactions with Wimpy, Olive Oyl and the rest of Segar’s cast of thousands (of idiots).

The humorous antics – in sequences of one-off gag strips alternating with the occasional extended saga – saw the Sailor-Man fighting for every iota of attention whilst his mournful mooching co-star became increasingly more ingenious – not to say surreal – in his quest for free meals…

An engaging Micawber-like coward, cad and conman, the insatiable J. Wellington Wimpy debuted on May 3rd 1931 as an unnamed and decidedly partisan referee in one of Popeye’s frequent boxing matches. The scurrilous but polite oaf obviously struck a chord and Segar gradually made him a fixture. Always hungry, keen to take bribes and a cunning coiner of many immortal catchphrases – such as “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” and ‘Let’s you and him fight’ – he was the perfect foil for a simple action hero and increasingly stole the entire show, just like anything else unless it was firmly nailed down…

There was also a long-suffering returning rival for Olive’s dubious and flighty affections: local charmer Curly

When not beating the stuffing out of his opponents or kissing pretty girls, Popeye pursued his flighty, vacillating and irresolute Olive with exceptional verve, if little success, but his life was always made more complicated whenever the unflappable, so-corruptible and adorably contemptible Wimpy made an appearance.

Infinitely varying riffs on Olive’s peculiar romantic notions or Wimpy’s attempts to cadge food or money (for food) were irresistible to the adoring readership, but Segar wisely peppered the Sundays with longer episodic tales, such as the saga of ‘The Terrible Kid Mustard’ (which ran from December 27th 1936 to February 28th 1937) and pitted the prize-fighting Sea Salt against another boxer who was as ferociously fuelled by the incredible nourishing power of Spinach…

Another extended endeavour starred the smallest addition to the cast (and eponymous star of this volume). The rambunctious tyke Swee’ Pea was never an angel and when he began stealing jam and framing Eugene the Jeep (March 7th through 28th) the search for a culprit proved he was also precociously smart too.

The impossible task of civilising Poopdeck Pappy also covered many months – with no appreciable or lasting effect – and incorporated an outrageous sequence wherein the dastardly dotard become scandalously, catastrophically entangled in Popeye’s mechanical diaper-changing machine…

On June 27th Wimpy found the closest thing to true love when he met Olive’s friend Waneeta: a meek, retiring soul whose father owned 50,000 cows. His devoted and ardent pursuit filled many pages over the following months, as did the latest scheme of his arch-nemesis George W. Geezil, who bought a café/diner with the sole intention of poisoning the constantly cadging conman…

Although starring the same characters, the Sunday and Daily strips ran separate storylines, offering Segar opportunities to utilise the same good idea in different ways.

On September 19th 1937 he began a sequence wherein Swee’ Pea’s mother returned, seeking to regain custody of the boy she had given away. The resultant tug-of-love tale ran until December 5th and displayed genuine warmth and angst amidst the wealth of hilarious antics by both parties to convince the feisty “infink” to pick his preferred parent…

On January 16th 1938 Popeye was approached by scientists who had stumbled upon an incipient Martian invasion. The invaders planned to pit their monster against a typical Earthman before committing to the assault so the Boffins believed the grizzly old pug was the planet’s best bet…

Readers had no idea that the feature’s glory days were ending. Segar’s advancing illness was affecting his output – there are no pages reproduced here between February 6th and June 26th – and although when he resumed drawing the gags were funnier than ever (especially a short sequence where Pappy shaves his beard and dyes his hair so he could impersonate Popeye and woo Olive), the long lead-in time necessary to create Sundays only left him time to finish 15 more pages.

The last Segar signed strip was published on October 2nd 1938. He died eleven days later.

There is more than one Popeye. If your first thought on hearing the name is an unintelligible, indomitable white-clad sailor always fighting a great big beardy-bloke and mainlining spinach, that’s okay: the animated features have a brilliance and energy of their own (even the later, watered-down anodyne TV versions have some merit) and they are indeed based on the grizzled, crusty, foul-mouthed, bulletproof, golden-hearted old swab who shambled his way into Thimble Theatre and wouldn’t go away But they are really only the tip of an incredible iceberg of satire, slapstick, virtue, vice and mind-boggling adventure…

Popeye and the bizarre, surreally quotidian cast that welcomed and grew up around him are true icons of international popular culture who have grown far beyond their newspaper strip origins. Nevertheless, in one very true sense, with this marvellous yet painfully tragic final volume, the most creative period in the saga of the true and only Sailor Man closes.

His last strips were often augmented or even fully ghosted by Doc Winner, but the intent is generally untrammelled, leaving an unparalleled testament to Segar’s incontestable timeless, manic brilliance for us all to enjoy over and over again.

There is more than one Popeye. Most of them are pretty good and some are truly excellent. There was only ever one by Elzie Segar – and don’t you think it’s time you sampled the original and very best?
© 2012 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2011 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

Justice


By Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, Doug Braithwaite & Todd Klein (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3526-0 (TPB)

Once upon a time, comics were instantly accessible, kid-friendly and dealt with pure universal fundamentals like Goodies vs Baddies. All us old, ultra-sophisticated advocates of the mature global art form secretly miss them terribly…

So much so, that in the early days of the 21st century Alex Ross and his frequent collaborators Jim Krueger and Doug Braithwaite celebrated their personal wonder years with this epic clash that originally sold as a 12-issue miniseries before jumping to a number of classy collected editions. This particular re-release is available in trade paperback and digital editions.

Ross and Krueger co-wrote the saga – a tribute to the traditional Fights ‘n’ Tights sagas of childhood, both in 1970s DC Comics and also the animated Super-Friends and Challenge of the Super-Friends TV shows – after which Braithwaite pencilled the amazing action before Ross finished the pages in his painterly manner. Letterer Todd Klein added sense to the proceedings in his usual efficient manner.

Set outside of regular DC continuity (whatever that means, in these multimedia, multi-platform, multiple Earths modern days) this tale begins with widespread dreams of Nuclear Armageddon and the ultimate failure of Earth’s superheroes to save the world. These nightmares similarly plague many of the planet’s vilest super-villains, until – after overcoming their natural distrust of each other – they at last unite under Lex Luthor to finally overcome their arch-enemies once-and-for-all.

Not only do the massed malefactors hunt down and deal with Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League, but they thereafter also instigate a public charm offensive. The united super creeps undertake and achieve real change: improving the world in proactive interventionist ways the heroes never have.

As deserts are made to bloom, the crippled cured and the hungry masses are finally fed, humanity is blithely oblivious to the fact that their erstwhile champions are being brutally tortured and murdered…

With the superheroes compromised and defeated, lesser valiant lights of the DC Universe come into play whilst the triumphant villains divvy up their cunningly won spoils. However, as the forces of decency begin their fight back, it becomes increasingly clear that Luthor and alien computer intelligence Brainiac have their own agendas: ones that don’t include their erstwhile allies and pawns.

More significantly, the supremely insane Joker is on the loose again. He’s quite unhappy about being excluded from the initial alliance of villains…

The Big Finale is a feast of chaos and carnage, grand spectacle and bombastic set pieces as war between the Super Powers of the DCU exposes the dastardly master-plan of Lex and Brainiac even as the resurgent heroes – each clad in personalised Battle Armour (Gotta Collect ‘em All!) – go into concerted action to save the world… not just from the depredations of the desperate villains, but also the imminent threat of nuclear Armageddon.

Visually astounding and enthralling, in story-terms this overly complex and convoluted tale falls far short of the halcyon material it references, possibly because the target audience is assumed to be too mature for the clear-cut simplicity of those child-friendly days and tales. There’s also a little too much of the prospective “merch” about the whole affair, for my liking: surely it can’t just be all about Toys, Action Figures and Collectables, these days?

I understand that it’s a tough commercial world and that many fans love toys, gadgets, statues and other extras that are now part-and-parcel of comics publishing. I just worry that when peripherals begin to dictate content, you have a core product that’s no longer able to sustain itself.

Although beautiful and pictorially compelling, Justice could have greatly benefited from a little of the clear, clean plot-driven simplicity of those long-ago stories. The saga comes so close to being perfect comics fare, but founders at the last, with its superbly gifted creators spending too much on toy-factory fripperies, yet failing to make the kind of mind-blowing magic memories which inspired them to get into the business in the first place…
© 2005, 2006, 2007, 2011 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Spider-Man Newspaper Strips volume 1: January 3rd 1977-January 28th 1979


By Stan Lee & John Romita, with Frank Giacoia (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-8561-1 (TPB)

By 1977 Stan Lee had all but surrendered his role as editor and guiding light of Marvel Comics for that of a roving PR machine to hype-up the company he had turned into a powerhouse. In that year two events occurred which catapulted Marvel’s standout and signature character into the popular culture mainstream. One was the long-anticipated release of the Amazing Spider-Man live action TV show – a mixed blessing and pyrrhic victory at best – whilst the other, and one much more in keeping with his humble origins, was the launch of a syndicated newspaper strip.

Both mass-audience outreach projects brought the character to a wider audience, but the later offered at least a promise of editorial control – a vital factor in keeping the wondrous wallcrawler’s identity and integrity intact. But even this closely-aligned creative medium dictated some tailoring of the Merry Marvel Madness before the hero was a suitable fit with the grown-up world of the “Funny Pages”.

Which is a longwinded way of saying that completists, long-time fans and lovers of great artwork will enjoy this collection of periodical strips, as will any admirer of the stunning talents of the senior John Romita (latterly inked by the great Frank Giacoia); but the stories, tame, bowdlerised and rather mediocre, struggle without the support network of a Marvel Universe, and might feel a tad toned down and simplistic for readers not familiar with the wider cast or long history.

The strip was first posited and peddled around the papers in 1970 (Lee & Romita’s initial proposal and two weeks of trial continuities are included at the back of this book) but The Amazing Spider-Man only began on January 3rd 1977. It ran as a property of the Register and Tribune Syndicate until 1985, briefly switched to Cowles Media Company before becoming part of the King Features Syndicate in 1986. The strip went on hiatus following Lee’s death with the final new strip appearing on March 23rd 2019. Lee was still credited as writer even though Roy Thomas has been the ghost writer since 2000.

Romita illustrated the strip for the first four years, after which Stan’s brother Larry Lieber (in two separate stints), Fred Kida, Dan Barry and Alex Saviuk – all aided by a legion of artistic stand-ins – provided the visuals.

This initial collection – available in both landscape paperback and in digital formats – is a modified rerelease of a hardback tome from 2008, offering extra editorial and commentary as it re-presents the first two years of the strip, with traditional single tier monochrome dailies supplemented by full-colour, full page Sunday strips.

If the reader is steeped in the established folklore of the comicbook Spider-Man, the serials here – solidly emphasising Peter Parker’s personal relationships in the grand manner of strip soap opera drama – introducing Dr. Doom and Dr. Octopus are merely heavy-handed, light on action but intrinsically familiar riffs on what has gone before. However, for the presumed millions of neophyte readers the yarns might have been a tad confusing: presented as if all participants are already fully-established, with no development or real explanation of backstory.

After the full-on Marvel villains are successively trounced, serpentine new baddie The Rattler stalks the city, followed in turn by the more appropriate and understandable (for strips at least) gangster The Kingpin who combines seditious politics with gun-toting thuggery.

Only then do the creators finally get around to a retelling of the origin, albeit one now based on that aforementioned TV show rather than the classic Lee/Ditko masterpiece. It’s safe to say that in those early years the TV series informed the strip much (too much) more than the monthly comicbooks…

A revised Kraven the Hunter debuted next, presenting an opportunity to remove glamourous good-time girl Mary Jane Watson from the strip in favour of a string of temporary girl-friends, more in line with the TV iteration. This also signalled a reining-in of super-menaces in favour of less-fantastic and far-fetched opponents such as a middle-Eastern terrorist.

The launch of a Spider-Man movie (surely the most improbable of events!) then takes photojournalist Peter Parker to Hollywood and into a clash with a new version of deranged special-effects genius Mysterio, before Dr. Doom returns, attempting to derange our hero with robot pigeons and duplicates of Peter Parker’s associates….

This is followed by an exceptional and emotionally-stirring run of episodes as three street thugs terrorise senior citizen Aunt May for her social security money, after which Spider-Man must foil a crazed fashion-model who has discovered his identity and is blackmailing him… These human-scale threats are a far more fitting use of the hero in this more realistic milieu – which pauses here with a protection racket romp set in the (feel free to shudder) discotheque owned by young entrepreneurs Flash Thompson and Harry Osborn, courtesy of newly-returned corpulent crimelord Kingpin…

To Be Continued…

Adding to the time capsule of arachnid entertainment is that aforementioned proposal by Lee & Romita; archival interviews with both creators conducted by John Rhett Thomas and Alex Lear plus a gallery of six Sunday title panels (used to summarise events and set the tone for reader who only read the sabbath colour strips), as well as a classic Romita pin-up page starring the artist and his greatest co-creations…

Sadly, the stunning art can’t fully counteract the goofy stories that predominate in this oddball collection, nor has time been gentle with much of the dialogue, but there is nonetheless a certain guilty pleasure to be derived from this volume, if you don’t take your comics too seriously and are open to alternative existences….
© 1977, 1978, 2019 Marvel. All rights reserved.

Uncanny X-Men Marvel Masterworks volume 5


By Chris Claremont, Mary Jo Duffy, Bob Layton, John Byrne, Terry Austin, John Romita Jr., Bob McLeod, Dave Cockrum, Ricardo Villamonte, John Buscema, Klaus Janson, George Pérez, Alfredo Alcala & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5872-1 (TPB) 978-0-7851-1698-1 (HB)

In the autumn of 1963, The X-Men #1 introduced Scott (Cyclops) Summers, Bobby (Iceman) Drake, Warren (Angel) Worthington, Jean (Marvel Girl) Grey and Hank (The Beast) McCoy: very special students of Professor Charles Xavier.

The teacher was a wheelchair-bound telepath dedicated to brokering peace and integration between the masses of humanity and the emergent off-shoot race of mutants dubbed Homo superior; considered by many who knew him as a living saint.

After nearly eight years of eccentrically spectacular adventures the mutant misfits virtually disappeared at the beginning of 1970 during another periodic downturn in superhero comics sales. Just like in the closing years of the 1940s, mystery men faded away as supernatural mysteries and traditional genre themes once more dominated the world’s entertainment fields…

Although the title was revived at the end of the year as a cheap reprint vehicle, the missing mutants were reduced to guest-stars and bit-players throughout the Marvel universe and the Beast was refashioned as a monster fit for the global uptick in scary stories until Len Wein & Dave Cockrum revived and reordered the Mutant mystique with a brand-new team in Giant Size X-Men #1 in 1975.

To old foes-turned-friends Banshee and Sunfire was added one-shot Hulk hunter Wolverine, and all-original creations Kurt Wagner, a demonic German teleporter codenamed Nightcrawler, African weather “goddess” Ororo Monroe AKA Storm, Russian farmboy Peter Rasputin, who transformed at will into a living steel Colossus and bitter, disillusioned Apache superman John Proudstar who was cajoled into joining the makeshift squad as Thunderbird.

The revision was an instantaneous and unstoppable hit, with Wein’s editorial assistant Chris Claremont writing the series from the second story onwards. The Uncanny X-Men reclaimed their own comicbook with #94 and it quickly became the company’s most popular – and high quality – title.

Cockrum was succeeded by John Byrne and as the team roster shifted and changed the series rose to even greater heights, culminating in the landmark Dark Phoenix storyline which saw the death of arguably the book’s most beloved and imaginative character.

In the aftermath team leader Cyclops left but the epic cosmic saga also seemed to fracture the epochal working relationship of Claremont and Byrne. Within months of publication they went their separate ways: Claremont staying with the mutants whilst Byrne moved on to establish his own reputation as a writer on series such as Alpha Flight, Incredible Hulk and especially his revolutionised and freshly-groundbreaking Fantastic Four

After Apache warrior Thunderbird became the team’s first fatality, the survivors slowly bonded, becoming an infallible fighting unit under the brusque and draconian supervision of Cyclops. When Jean seemingly died to be reborn as a fiery godlike super-psionic, the team’s adventures became unmissable reading as there seemed to be no telling what shocks might come next…

This fifth fabulous compilation (available in luxurious hardcover, trade paperback and eBook editions) is perfect for newbies, neophytes and even old lags nervous about reading such splendid yarns on fragile but extremely valuable newsprint paper. It celebrates the absolute peak of Claremont & Byrne’s collaborative synergy (with regular inker Terry Austin very much a part of the magical experience) as the mutants confirmed their unstoppable march to market dominance through groundbreaking, high-quality stories: specifically, issues #132-140 of the decidedly “All-New, All-Different” X-Men plus Annual #4 – spanning April 1980 to July 1981, plus chronologically askew treats from Phoenix: the Untold Story and Bizarre Adventures #27.

In the previous volume two new mutants – Kitty Pryde and Disco diva Alison “the Dazzler” Blair – debuted as the X-Man clashed with plutocratic secret society The Hellfire Club: a battle the heroes survived by the skin of their teeth, and now the saga resumes in #132 as ‘And Hellfire is their Name!’ brings the Angel back into the fold. Their latest foes are in actuality a centuries-old association of the world’s most powerful and wealthy individuals and Warren Worthington’s family have been members in good standing for generations.

What better way of infiltrating the organisation than with someone already deep on the ultra-privileged inside?

As Wolverine and Nightcrawler scurry through sewers beneath the society’s palatial New York headquarters, Warren inveigles the rest in through the grand front doors into the year’s swankiest soiree whilst he and the Professor await events.

It’s a bold move but a pointless one. Although the rank and file are simply spoiled rich folk, there is an Inner Circle led by mutant powerhouse Sebastian Shaw which comprises some of Earth’s most dangerous men and women… and they have been waiting and watching for the mutants-in-mufti’s countermove…

As soon as the heroes are inside, mystery mindwarper Jason Wyngarde strikes, pushing Jean Grey until she succumbs to a fictitious persona he has woven over months to awaken her darkest desires. With the Phoenix’s overwhelming power added to the Inner Circle’s might, former friends quickly fall before the attack of super-strong Shaw and cyborg human Donald Pierce. Even Wolverine is beaten, smashed through the floors to his doom by mass-manipulating mutant Harry Leland

As the Inner Circle gloat, Cyclops – connected to Jean by their psionic rapport – sees the world through his lover’s corrupted, beguiled eyes and despairs. However, when Wyngarde, revealed as mutant illusion caster Mastermind, apparently stabs Cyclops, the effect on “his” Black Queen is far from anticipated…

Far below their feet, a body stirs. Battered but unbowed, ‘Wolverine: Alone!’ begins to work his ruthless, relentless way through the Club’s murderous minions. His explosive entrance in #134’s ‘Too Late, the Heroes!’ gives the captive heroes a chance to break free and strike back, soundly thrashing the Hellfire blackguards. Sadly for Mastermind, not all his tampering has been expunged, and when Jean catches him, Jason Wyngarde’s fate is ghastly beyond imagining…

As the mutants make their escape the situation escalates to crisis level as the mind-manipulation finally unleashes all Jean’s most selfish, self-serving desires and she shatteringly transforms into ‘Dark Phoenix’

Manifested as a god without qualm or conscience, Jean attacks her comrades before vanishing into space. Soon she reaches a distant system and, cognizant that she is feeling depleted, consumes the star, indifferent to the entire civilisation that dies upon the planet circling it…

Passing the D’Bari system is a vast and powerful ship of the Shi’ar star fleet. Rushing to aid the already extinct world, they are merely a postprandial palate cleanser for the voracious Phoenix…

X-Men #136 opens with the horrified Shi’ar Empress Lilandra mobilising her entire military machine and heading for Earth, determined to end the threat of the ‘Child of Light and Darkness!’ On that beleaguered world Cyclops has called in the Beast to build a psychic scrambler to disrupt Jean’s immeasurable psionic might but when she cataclysmically reappears to trounce the team, the device burns out in seconds.

Sporadically Jean’s gentler persona appears, begging her friends to kill her before she loses control, but Dark Phoenix is close to destroying the world before, in a cataclysmic mental duel, Xavier shuts down her powers and establishes psychic circuit breakers to prevent her ever going rogue again…

With Jean left as little more than mind-maimed human, the exhausted heroes shudder in the aftermath of Earth’s latest close call when suddenly, in a flash of light, they all vanish…

The epic concludes in X-Men #137 as the outraged and terrified Shi’ar arrive in orbit to settle ‘The Fate of the Phoenix!’

With observers from the Kree and Skrull empires in attendance, Lilandra has come to exact justice and prevent the Phoenix from ever rising again. She is not prepared to accept her fiancé Charles Xavier’s word that the threat is already ended…

Summary execution is only avoided when Xavier invokes an ancient rite compelling Lilandra to accept a form of trial-by-combat. Relocating to the enigmatic Blue Area of the Moon (with its artificial pocket of breathable atmosphere) the mutants engage in all-out war with a brigade of cosmic champions the Shi’ar Imperial Guard (an in-joke version of DC’s Legion of Super Heroes). However, despite their greatest efforts they are pushed to the brink of defeat.

With collapse imminent and her friends doomed, Jean’s psychic shackles slip and the Phoenix breaks free again. Horrified at what will inevitably happen, Jean commits suicide to save the universe…

Days later on Earth, the X-Men mourn her passing in #138’s ‘Elegy’ as Cyclops recalls his life with the valiant woman he loved so deeply – and we get a comprehensive recap of the mutant team’s career to date. Heartbroken, the quintessential X-Man resigns just as phase shifting teenager Kitty Pryde moves in…

Breaking from the monthly run, X-Men Annual #4 then describes ‘Nightcrawler’s Inferno!’ (by Claremont, John Romita Jr.& Bob McLeod) as Doctor Strange is called in after Kurt Wagner is targeted by a demonic Lord of Limbo and uncovers a secret family connection to uber-witch Margali Szardos

A new day dawns in issue #139’s ‘…Something Wicked This Way Comes!’ as the Angel returns to the squad just in time to see Nightcrawler join Wolverine in heading north for a reconciliation with the Canadian’s previous team, Alpha Flight. The visit turns into a hunt for carnivorous magical monster Wendigo, culminating in a brutal battle and an increasingly rare clean win in #140’s concluding chapter ‘Rage!’

Wrapping up the mutant mayhem are a selection of tales retroactively crafted for this period of X-history. The first is a marketing oddity of the period. Phoenix: The Untold Story was released in 1984 and reprinted in X-Men #137… mostly.

By all accounts that epic conclusion was originally completed with a different ending and Jean Grey surviving the battle against the Shi’ar. That was before then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter overruled the outcome and decreed that she should die for her sins. You can judge the merits of the decision for yourself. Also included here are ‘The Dark Phoenix Tapes – a candid conversation between Byrne, Shooter and Claremont’ on the contentious issue.

That’s followed by monochrome magazine Bizarre Adventures #27 (published in July 1981) which offered untold tales under the umbrella heading of ‘Secret Lives of the X-Men’

Preceded by ‘X-Men Data Log’ pages by illustrated by Dave Cockrum, solo tales of idiosyncratic stars begin with Phoenix in ‘The Brides of Attuma’ by Claremont, John Buscema & Klaus Janson. Here the dear departed mutant’s sister Sara Grey recalls a past moment when they were abducted by the undersea barbarian and Jean proved to be more than any mortal could handle…

That’s followed by Iceman vignette ‘Winter Carnival’ by Mary Jo Duffy, George Pérez & Alfredo Alcala, wherein Bobby Drake becomes embroiled in a college heist with potential catastrophic consequences before ‘Show me the way to go home…’ by Bob Layton, Duffy, Cockrum & Ricardo Villamonte pits Nightcrawler against villainous teleporter the Vanisher in a light-hearted trans-dimensional romp involving warrior women, threats to the very nature of reality and gratuitous (male) nudity…

For many fans these tales – and those in the next volume – comprise the definitive X-Men look and feel. Rightly ranking amongst some of the greatest stories Marvel ever published they remain thrilling, groundbreaking and painfully intoxicating and an invaluable grounding in contemporary fights ‘n’ tights fiction no fan or casual reader can afford to ignore.
© 1979, 1980-1984, 2014 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Green Arrow volume 3: The Trial of Oliver Queen


By Mike Grell, Ed Hannigan, Dan Jurgens, Dick Giordano, Frank McLaughlin & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5523-7 (TPB)

Premiering in More Fun Comics #73 in 1941, Green Arrow is one of very few superheroes to be continuously published (more or less) since the Golden Age of American comicbooks. At first glance this blatant amalgamation of Batman and Robin Hood seems to have very little going for him but has always managed to somehow keep himself in vogue.

Probably his most telling of many makeovers came in 1987, when, hot on the heels of The Dark Knight Returns, writer/artist Mike Grell was tasked with making him the star of DC’s second “Prestige Format Mini-Series”.

Grell was one of comics’ biggest guns at the time. Beginning his rise with a laudable run on Legion of Super-Heroes, he went on to draw the revived Green Lantern/Green Arrow and practically saved the company with his Edgar Rice Burroughs-inspired fantasy epic Warlord. He had also notched up a big fan following illustrating many Aquaman, Batman and Phantom Stranger stories before establishing his independent creator credentials at First Comics with Starslayer and Jon Sable, Freelance

In the grim ‘n’ gritty late Eighties, it was certainly time for another overhaul of the Emerald Archer. Exploding arrows yes, maybe even net or rope arrows, but arrows with boxing gloves or paint brushes on them just wouldn’t wash with a newer, more sophisticated readership. Thus, in an era of corrupt government, drug cartels and serial killers, the evergreen survivor adapted and thrived under the direction of a creator famed for the uncompromising realism of his work.

The Longbow Hunters focused on the superhero’s mid-life crisis as he relocated to Seattle and struggled to come to terms with the fact that since his former sidekick Speedy was now a dad, Oliver Queen had technically become a grandfather. Beside long-time “significant other” Dinah (Black Canary) Lance he began to simplify his life, but the drive to fight injustice never dimmed for either of them.

Dinah went undercover to stamp out a drug ring whilst Ollie became engrossed in the hunt for a psycho-killer dubbed “The Seattle Slasher”. The archer also learned of a second – cross-country – slayer who had been murdering people with arrows…

Eschewing gaudy costume and gimmicks, Queen reinvented himself as an urban hunter to stop such unglamorous, everyday monsters, stumbling into a mystery which led back to World War II involving the Yakuza, CIA, corporate America and even the Viet Nam war, even as it introduced a deadly female counterpart to the beleaguered bowman: an enigmatic, morally ambiguous archer called Shado

The intricate plot, subtly blending three seemingly separate stories which were in fact one, still delivers a shocking punch even now in its disturbingly explicit examination of torture: a treatment which won the series undeserved negative press when it was first published. Although possibly tame to most modern tastes, this was eye-opening stuff in the 1980’s, which is a shame, as it diverted attention from the real issue… and that was a massive surge in quality and maturity.

The intricate, maturely sophisticated plot – interweaving themes of age, diminishing potency, vengeance and family – highlighted another turning point in American comics and led to an ongoing series specifically targeting that nebulous “Mature Readership”. The treatment and tone heavily influenced and flavoured today’s TV adaptation Arrow and has led to the release of Grell’s entire saga of nigh-forgotten urban predator tales in a range of economical, no-nonsense, full-colour trade paperbacks and digital editions.

This third collection, scripted by Grell with superbly efficient, powerfully understated art from Ed Hannigan, Dan Jurgens, Dick Giordano & Frank McLaughlin, re-presents Green Arrow volume 2 #13-20 (eclectically cover-dated “Holiday” and January-July 1989): a succession of two-part tales offering starkly authentic dramas ripped from headlines that have as much impact and relevance today as they did three decades ago…

Sparse, Spartan and startlingly compelling, the action begins – sans any preamble – with

‘Moving Target’ parts 1 & 2 (Jurgens & Giordano) wherein the hero carries on his crusade against street punks, petty thugs, wifebeaters and neo-Nazis, blithely unaware that only sheer dumb luck has prevented his assassination by a hired gun…

Once he’s caught up, Oliver eliminates all the usual suspects including the CIA and mercenary spy Eddie Fyres and almost misses his chance when the real would-be killer finally breaks cover for a final face-to-face confrontation…

‘Seattle & Die’ (Hannigan, Giordano & McLaughlin) then sees the archer on the trail of a mystery shooter who kills a gang of thieves to prevent a bloodbath in a night club. Determined to find the criminal saviour before the cops do, Queen becomes entangled in a devious web of intrigue involving an Australian Secret Service kill-team and suffers a chilling presentiment of how his own life might end…

Veteran fans in the know will enjoy the subtle tweaking of characters that allow Grell’s archer to notionally team up with his aforementioned indie hit John Sable

Jurgens, Giordano & McLaughlin then combine to depict the sordid bloody saga of ‘The Horseman’ who hits Seattle hard, fast and furious in an uncompromising search for a missing stripper. His campaign of destruction sparks a brutal war amongst the drug dealers and flesh peddlers of the city, but by the time the Arrow gets involved, the conflict has escalated and working girls are being murdered in grotesque and obscene manner…

Before long, however, the mysterious Horseman is proven to have hidden motives for his brutal vendetta and another distasteful alliance is formed to find the real killers…

Always challenging and controversial, the themes hit especially hard in the final story as the Longbow Hunter gets it terribly wrong in a dark dingy alley and a young paintballer gets an arrow in the chest after seemingly shooting a cop.

Broken inside, the vigilante meekly submits to ‘The Trial of Oliver Queen’ (Hannigan, Giordano & McLaughlin) and, although completely exonerated in the eyes of the Law, condemns himself to death by dissipation – until an old friend intervenes in a most unconventional manner to restore Green Arrow’s equilibrium and moral compass…

Terse scripts, intelligent, flawed human interactions, stunning action delivered through economical and immensely effective illustration and an unfailing eye for engaging controversy make these epic yarns some of the most powerful sagas American comics ever produced. Compiled here with a cover gallery by Hannigan, Jurgens & Giordano, this compulsive retooling is yet another long-overlooked highpoint of superhero storytelling no lover of the genre will want to miss.
© 1988, 1989, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman: Trinity – the Deluxe Edition


By Matt Wagner, with Dave Stewart & Sean Konot (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5690-6 (HC)
Comics fans – especially diehard lifelong aficionados of the superhero genre – have an innate appreciation and love of mythologizing. The hunger lures like a siren, hits like a speeding locomotive and dictates our lives and fate like Doomsday freshly arrived. We just can’t help ourselves…

DC Comics have been responsible for many outstanding tales that have become modern day legends, ever since the primal creation of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman: slowly interweaving the undying fantasy favourites into a rich tapestry of perfect adventure which has taken on a life of its own, inextricably entrenched in the dream-lives of generations of children and the adults – and screen icons – they became.

It was only relatively recently that DC fully acknowledged the imaginative treasure-trove they were sitting on: cannily building on the epic, cross-generational appeal and elder statesman status of their founding stars. One of the most impressive of the efforts is this evergreen fable, originally released in 2003 as a 3-part Prestige Format miniseries.

As seen in Batman and the Mad Monk, Sandman Mystery Theatre, The Shadow: The Death of Margo Lane or Zorro, auteur Matt Wagner has an uncanny gift for re-imagining and updating the raw power of Golden Age classics while celebrating and sustaining the core mystique of the originating concept. With Trinity he revealed a new canonical first collaborative venture of the all-conquering triumvirate, set in the brave new lone universe post-Crisis on Infinite Earths

Following an effusive Introduction from novelist and A-List comics-scribe Brad Meltzer, the brief encounter opens in the Art Deco Metropolis as oafish Clark Kent‘s morning is ruined by an assassin who shoots a commuter train driver and brings the morning rush-hour to a screeching, crashing, cataclysmic halt…

It soon becomes apparent that the subsequent near-disaster has been devised simply to distract and assess the capabilities of the mighty Man of Steel. That night a daring raid on S.T.A.R. Labs is ruthlessly foiled by a silent, caped visitor to the “City of Tomorrow”, but Superman knows nothing about it until it’s all over.

…And at the bottom of the world, more mysterious masked minions at last liberate Superman’s warped and retarded clonal antithesis Bizarro from its icy imprisonment deep beneath the Antarctic mantle…

Another promising day is spoiled for the reporter by a visit from Bruce Wayne, a reluctant occasional ally, and equally obnoxious whether in his playboy charade or as his true self: the dread Batman.

The visit is a courtesy call between distant colleagues. A terrorist group calling itself “The Purge” would have obtained samples of Kryptonite had the Dark Knight not intervened. Now they plan to raid Lex Luthor‘s citadel and professional courtesy demands that Superman be fully apprised…
Meanwhile, in a most secret hideaway a strangely formidable young girl named Diana auditions for the Most Dangerous Man on Earth: a criminal overlord in need of a perfect warrior to lead his massed forces…

Ra’s Al Ghul always gets what he wants and after the charismatic Demon’s Head charms Bizarro with honeyed words of friendship, the freakish doppelganger is only too happy to bring him a present…

Tragically, Russian nuclear submarines are a bit tricky to handle and the super-simpleton manages to drop one of its atomic missiles en route. The lost nuke explodes far from any regular shipping lines, however. Apart from fish, the only creatures affected are a race of immortal women warriors, invisible to mortal eyes and forgotten by Man’s World for millennia…

As mysterious mercenary Diana prepares to carry out The Demon’s orders, in Metropolis another Amazon tracks down Superman and politely enquires why he dropped an A-Bomb on her home. Eschewing rash accusations or pointless fisticuffs they soon come to realise the true nature of the horrific event and unite to track the stolen sub to the Sahara, promptly falling into an ambush by Al Ghul’s fanatical forces. The guns, knives, nerve gas and suicide bombers prove no problem, but a booby-trapped nuke is another matter entirely…

Barely surviving the detonation, Man of Steel and Princess of Power head for Gotham City to seek the grudging assistance of The Demon’s most implacable foe, only to find the Dark Knight is already on the case, having just unsuccessfully engaged with Al Ghul’s Amazonian field commander.

Reluctant to admit a need for allies and inherently suspicious of bright and shiny super-people chronically unable to make hard decisions or get their hands dirty, Batman nevertheless enters into a tenuous alliance with the dilettante champions to stop the insane plans of an immortal madman determined to wipe out modern civilisation and cleanse the Earth of toxic humanity…

Hard-hitting, epic and spectacular, this Wagnerian saga (you have no idea how long and hard I struggled before succumbing to that painful pun) superbly illustrates the vast gulfs between the oh-so-different heroes and how they nevertheless mesh to form the perfect team. Strongly character-driven throughout, the protracted struggle to defeat Al Ghul and his infamous allies offers tension, mystery, genuine humour and powerful plot-twists galore, all wrapped up in a bombastic feast of frenzied action supplemented with savvy cameos and guest shots by other – albeit lesser – keystones of the DCU.

Stunningly illustrated by Wagner, lavishly coloured by Dave Stewart and subtly lettered by Sean Konot, this Deluxe hardcover and digital edition also includes a glorious cover gallery – including the tie-in covers to the miniseries that graced Adventures of Superman #628, Wonder Woman #204 and Batman #627, plus a beautiful Sketchbook section featuring a wealth of the artist’s preliminary drawings, layouts, designs and ideas.

When producing this type of tale there’s always the dilemma of whether to trade on current continuity or to deconstruct and attain a more grandiose, mythic feel, but part-time and casual readers need not worry. Wagner has hewn to the timeless fundamentals to craft a gratifyingly “Big” story which still manages to reveal more about the individual stars involved than a year’s worth of periodical publishing.

Trinity is primal adventure: accessible, exciting and rewarding, with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as they should always be but so seldom are. Team ups and retrofits should all be this good.
© 2003, 2004, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: The Man of Steel volume 2


By John Byrne, Marv Wolfman, Jerry Ordway & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0005-3

In 1985, when DC Comics decided to rationalise and reconstruct their continuity with Crisis on Infinite Earths, they used the event to regenerate their key properties at the same time. The biggest gun they had was Superman and it’s hard to argue that the change was not before time.

The big guy was in a bit of a slump, but he’d weathered those before. So how could a root and branch retooling be anything but a pathetic marketing ploy that would alienate the real fans for a few fly-by-night Johnny-come-latelies who would jump ship as soon as the next fad surfaced? The popular wisdom amongst fans was that this new Superman was going to suck.

They couldn’t have been more wrong.

Both Superman titles were cancelled or suspended for three months, and yes, that did make the real-world media sit-up and take notice of the character for the first time in decades. But there was method in the corporate madness.

Beginning with 6-part miniseries Man of Steel – written and drawn by mainstream superstar John Byrne and inked by venerated veteran Dick Giordano – the experiment was a huge and instant success. So much so, that when it was first collected as a stand-alone graphic novel in the 1980s it became one of the industry’s premiere ‘break-out’ hits. From this overwhelming start the character returned to his suspended comic-book homes with the addition of a third monthly title premiering that same month.

Superman, Adventures of Superman, and Action Comics (which morphed into a fan-pleasing team-up book that guest-starred other favourites of the DC Universe) were instant best-sellers. So successful was the relaunch that by the early 1990’s Superman would be able to sustain four monthly titles as well as Specials, Annuals, guest shots and his semi-regular appearances in titles such as Justice League. It was quite a turnaround from the earlier heydays of the Man of Steel when editors were frantic about not over-exposing their biggest gun.

This trade paperback and/or digital collection was the first of a far-too-infrequent sequence collecting those early editions, patterned on the Man of Steel compendium. Volume 2 begins a more or less (narrative permitting) chronological representation of the regular monthly titles, with this outing gathering Superman #1-3, Action Comics #584-586 and Adventures of Superman #424-426 covering January to March 1987 and includes relevant pages from the DC Who’s Who Update 1987.

Following co-author Marv Wolfman’s introductory reminisces and commentary in ‘Reinventing the Wheel’ , the never-ending battle recommences with Superman vol. 2 #1, as Byrne & Terry Austin reveal a ‘Heart of Stone’: offering a new origin for Metallo, the Terminator-style cyborg with a human brain and a Kryptonite heart, culminating in a deadly battle and baffling mystery portending big troubles to come. The focus then shifts to Action #584 and ‘Squatter!’ (Byrne & Giordano) as a body-snatching mental force suborns the Metropolis Marvel and necessitates a team-up with the Teen Titans. The accent is predominantly on breakneck pace and all-out costumed conflict here…
Superman #2 (by Byrne & Austin) then describes ‘The Secret Revealed’ as modern-day robber baron Lex Luthor makes the biggest mistake of his life after kidnapping and torturing Clark Kent’s first girlfriend Lana Lang

This is followed by Marv Wolfman & Jerry Ordway’s ‘Man O’ War’ and ‘Going the Gauntlet,’ (Adventures of Superman #424 and #425, and inked by Mike Machlan): introducing the tragic Dr. Emil Hamilton and rival reporter Cat Grant to the mythology. Here the Action Ace battles high-tech terrorists sponsored by rogue state Qurac and proves to be no respecter of international boundaries like his pre-Crisis counterpart…

These politically and socially aware dramas would become a truer and more lasting template for the modern Man of Tomorrow after Byrne’s eventual retirement from the character…

The Phantom Stranger guests in a battle against a deadly manifestation of unquiet spirits in ‘And the Graves Give Up Their Dead’ (Byrne & Giordano from Action #585) before the last three chapters are given over to the Superman segment of multi-part crossover event Legends.

Byrne & Austin’s Superman #3 began with ‘Legends of the Darkside’, as Clark Kent is abducted to Apokolips by its evil master. He escapes to become a rebel leader of the lowly “Hunger Dogs” in Adventures… #426, wherein Wolfman, Ordway & Machlan give us an amnesiac Superman on Apokolips in ‘From the Dregs’ before the rousing yarn concludes with ‘The Champion’, as Action Comics #586 (Byrne & Giordano) reintroduces Jack Kirby’s legendary New Gods Orion and Lightray just in time for a blistering battle royale between the Man of Steel and Darkseid

Closing this collection is a full cover gallery and information pages on reimagined and post-Crisis icons Lois Lane, Amazing Grace, Krypton and Kryptonite, and Metallo.

As I’ve previously mentioned ad nauseum, a major problem most non-fans have with super-hero comics (apart from them actually having super-heroes in them) are the insane permutations and convolutions demanded by in-house continuity. This All-Readers-Start-Here opportunity to show doubters how good this genre can be was one all comics missionaries could exploit to the fullest, and these tales are even more accessible and enjoyable now that they ever were. Thrill-starved Newbies start here… and bring your significant others/mothers/dads/kids and all your super-friends too…
© 1987, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.