John Constantine, Hellblazer volume 3: The Fear Machine (New Edition)


By Jamie Delano, Richard Piers Rayner, Mike Hoffman, Mark Buckingham, Alfredo Alcala & various (Vertigo/DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3519-2 (TPB)

You’ve either heard of John Constantine by now or you haven’t, so I’ll be as brief as I can. Created by Alan Moore during the early days of his groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing, John Constantine is a mercurial modern wizard, a dissolute chancer who plays like an addict with magic on his own terms for his own ends. He is not a hero. He is not a nice person. Sometimes though, he’s all there is between us and the void…

Given his own series by popular demand, he premiered in the dying days of Reaganite Atrocity in the US but at the height of Thatcherite Barbarism in England, so as we’re singing the same song now – but with second-rate Britain’s Got Talent cover-artist wannabes as leaders – I thought I’d cover a few old gems that might be regaining relevance in the days ahead…

In 1987 Creative Arts and Liberal attitudes were dirty words in many quarters and the readership of Vertigo was pretty easy to profile. Jamie Delano began the series with relatively safe horror plots, introducing us to Constantine’s unpleasant nature, chequered history and odd acquaintances but even then, discriminating fans were aware of a joyously anti-establishment political line and wildly metaphorical underpinnings.

Skinheads, racism, Darwinian politics, gender fluidity, plague, famine, gruesome supernature and more abound in the dark dystopian present of John Constantine – a world of cutting edge mysticism, Cyber-shamanism and political soul-stealing. In Delano’s world the edges between science and magic aren’t blurred – they simply don’t exist.

Some terrors are eternal and some seem inextricably tied to a specific time and place. The Fear Machine (available in paperback and digital formats and collecting issues #14-22 spanning December 1988-September 1989) is an engrossing extended epic which begins in ‘Touching the Earth’ (by Delano, Richard Piers Rayner & Mark Buckingham) as the wizard goes on the run thanks to the tabloid press pillorying him as a sex-crazed Satanist serial killer.

Forced to flee his London comfort-zone, Constantine is adopted by neo-pagan Travellers and journeys through the heartland of Britain. Apparently, these dangerous non-conformists are responsible for all the ills plaguing society of the 1980s and 1990s, just like fat people, the poor and immigrants are today…

Going native amongst the drop-outs, druggies, bath-dodgers and social misfits, Constantine buddies up with an immensely powerful psychic girl named Mercury and her extremely engaging mum, Marj, but even amidst these freewheeling folks he can feel something nasty and unnatural building. The first inkling occurs in ‘Shepherd’s Warning’when Mercury discovers an ancient stone circle has been fenced off by a quasi-governmental company named Geotroniks. It seems someone is trying to shackle Mother Earth’s circulatory system of Ley lines.

Meanwhile elsewhere, people are compelled to kill and mutilate themselves while Geotroniks boffins watch and take notes…

Mercury is abducted when police raid the Travellers’ campsite in ‘Rough Justice’. Imprisoned in a secret complex where the mind’s limits and the Earth’s hidden forces are being radically tested, she witnesses horrors beyond imagining and cutting-edge science. If only the subjects and observing scientists can be persuaded to stop committing suicide…

Mike Hoffman illustrates fourth chapter, ‘Fellow Travellers’ wherein Constantine heads back to London for help in finding Mercury and uncovering Geotroniks’ secrets. He gains one horrific insight when the train he’s on is devastated by a psychic assault which forces the passengers to destroy themselves…

With Buckingham & Alfredo Alcala assuming the art duties, ‘Hate Mail & Love Letters’ begins two months later. Marj and the travellers are hiding in the Scottish Highlands with a fringe group called the Pagan Nation, led by the mysterious Zed – an old friend of the wily trickster. Constantine keeps digging, but across the country, suicide and self-harm are increasing. Society itself seems diseased, but at least the Satanist witch hunt has been forgotten as the bloody pack of Press vultures rage on to their next sanctimonious cause celebre

Touching base with his precious few police contacts and pet journalists, the metropolitan mage soon stumbles into a fresh aspect of mystery when a Masonic hitman begins removing anyone who might further his enquiries in ‘The Broken Man’. Constantine saves journalist Simon Hughes from assassination in a particularly exotic manner guaranteed to divert attention from his politically-damaging investigations, and discovers new clues. It all points the psychic horror and social unrest being orchestrated by reactionary factions of the government employing a sinister and all-pervasive “Old Boy network”…

And somewhere dark and hidden, Mercury’s captors are opening doors to places mortals were never meant to go…

As the Pagan Nation’s priestesses work subtle magics to find the missing girl and save humanity’s soul, a disgusting, conglomerate beast-thing is maturing, made from fear and pain, greed, suffering and deep black despair: provoking a response from and guest-appearance by Morpheus, the Sandman, which prompts Constantine, Hughes and possibly the last decent copper in London to go hunting…

After picking up another recruit in the form of KGB scientist Sergei in ‘Betrayal’, events spiral ever faster as the Freemasons – or at least their “Magi Caecus” elite – are revealed as organisers of the plot to combine Cold War paranormal research, economic imperialism, divisive Thatcherite self-gratification and the Order’s own quasi-mystical arcana to create a situation in which their guiding principles will dominate society and the physical world. It’s nothing more than a greedy, sleazy power-grab using blood and horror to fuel the engines of change…

All pretence of scientific research at Geotroniks is abandoned in ‘The God of All Gods’ as Masonic hitman Mr. Webstergoes off the deep end, ignoring his own Lodge Grandmaster’s orders to abort the project amidst an escalating national atmosphere of mania. He is determined to free the fearful thing they’ve created and unmake the modern world at all costs. Constantine’s allies are all taken and the wizard is left to fight on alone.

Knee deep in intrigue, conspiracy and spilled guts, humanity is doomed unless Constantine’s band of unhappy brothers and a bunch of Highland witch-women can pull the biggest, bloodiest rabbit out of the mother of all hats in spectacular conclusion ‘Balance’

The heady blend of authoritarian intransigence, counterculture optimism, espionage action, murder-mystery, conspiracy theories and ancient sex-magic mix perfectly to create an oppressive tract of inexorable terror and shattered hope before an astounding climax forestalls – if not saves – the day of doom, in this extremely impressive dark chronicle which still resonates with the bleak and cheerless zeitgeist of the time.

This is a superb example of true horror fiction, inextricably linking politics, religion, human nature and sheer bloody-mindedness as root cause of all ills. That our best chance of survival is a truly reprehensible, exploitative monomaniac seems a perfect metaphor for the world we’re locked into…

Clever, subversive and painfully prophetic, even at its most outlandish, this tale jabs at the subconscious with its scratchy edginess and jangles the nerves from beginning to end. An unmissable feast for fear fans, humanists and political mavericks everywhere…
© 1989, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Tales of the Demon


By Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Dick Giordano, Michael Golden, Don Newton & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1401299439 (HB)

After three seasons the overwhelmingly successful Batman TV show ended in March, 1968. Clocking up 120 episodes plus a theatrical-release movie since its premiere on January 12, 1966 it had triggered a global furore of “Batmania” fomenting hysteria for all things costumed, zany and mystery-mannish.

Once the series foundered and crashed, global fascination with “camp” superheroes burst as quickly as it had boomed, and the Caped Crusader was left to a hard core of dedicated fans and followers who hoped they might now have “their” hero back.

For comic book editor Julius Schwartz – who had tried to keep the most ludicrous excesses of the show off his pages whilst still cashing in on his global popularity – the solution was simple: ditch the tired shtick, gimmicks and gaudy paraphernalia and bring Batman back to basics, solving baffling mysteries and facing life-threatening perils.

That also meant phasing out the boy sidekick. Although the college freshman Teen Wonder would pop back for the occasional guest-shot yarn, this monument to comics ingenuity and narrative brilliance features him only sporadically. Robin had finally spread his wings and flown the nest for a solo back-up slot in Detective Comics, alternating with TV-derived newcomer Batgirl.

This themed collection re-presents some of the key clashes between the Gotham Guardian and immortal mastermind eco-activist Ra’s al Ghul – a contemporary and more acceptable visual embodiment of the classic inscrutable foreign devil as typified in a less forgiving age as the Yellow Peril or Dr. Fu Manchu. This kind of alien archetype permeates fiction as an overwhelmingly powerful villain symbol, although the character’s Arabic origins, neutral at the time, seem to embody a different kind of ethnic bogeyman in today’s post 9/11 world. These legendary tales and supplementary material come from Batman #232, 235, 240, 242-244; DC Special Series #15; Detective Comics #411, 485, 489-490; Limited Collector’s Edition C-51; and Saga of Ra’s al Ghul #1-4.

The concept of a villain who has the best interests of the planet at heart is not a new one, but Ra’s Al Ghul, whose avowed intent is to reduce teeming humanity to viable levels and save the world from our poison, hit a chord in the 1970s – a period where ecological issues first came to the attention of the young. It was a rare kid who didn’t find a note of sense in what the Demon’s Head planned. I wonder how the latest crop of youthful would-be planet-savers feel about him?

Background and more is discussed in screenwriter Sam Hamm’s recycled 1991 Introduction to that year’s landmark graphic novel compilation of this saga, before the timeless contest of indomitable wills begins with a seminal story from Detective Comics #411. ‘Into the Den of the Death-Dealers’ was written by Denny O’Neil, illustrated by the great Bob Brown, and inked by Dick Giordano, featuring the sinister League of Assassins and introducing exotic mystery woman Talia.

Neal Adams & Dick Giordano joined O’Neil for Batman #232’s ‘Daughter of the Demon’: a signature high-point of the entire Batman canon. It details an exotic chase and mystery yarn drawing an increasingly Dark Knight from Gotham’s concrete canyons to the Himalayas in search of hostages Robin and Talia. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t read this much reprinted tale, I’m not going to spoil the joy that awaits you…

Batman #235 sees penciller Irv Novick join regulars O’Neil & Giordano for ‘Swamp Sinister’, a tale of bio-hazard and double cross affording some early insights into the true character of Talia and her ruthless sire. The same creative team sets the scene for the groundbreaking “series-within-a-series” soon to follow when ‘Vengeance for a Dead Man’ (Batman #240) has Batman uncover one of Ra’s Al Ghul’s less worthy and more grisly projects. As a result, open war begins between Batman and the Demon…

Batman #242-244 and an epilogue from #245 (still-infuriatingly absent from this supposedly definitive collection) formed an extended saga and was taken out of normal DC continuity. It promised what was to be the final confrontation between two opposing ideals. Novick pencilled first episode ‘Bruce Wayne – Rest in Peace!’ wherein Batman gathers a small team of allies – including still-active-today underworld insider Matches Malone – to destroy the Demon forever. Adams returned with second chapter ‘The Lazarus Pit’, which offered titanic action, rollercoaster drama and what seemed to we consumers of the day to be a brilliant conclusion to the epic. But with the last three pages the rug was pulled out from under us and the saga continued!

How sad for modern fans with so many sources of information today: the chances of creators genuinely surprising devoted readers are almost non-existent, but in the faraway 1970s we had no idea what to expect from #244 when ‘The Demon Lives Again!’ hit shops and newsstands.

In a classic confrontation, Batman ultimately triumphs and Ra’s Al Ghul disappeared for years. He was considered by DC as a special villain and not one to be diluted through overuse. How times change…

By 1978 the company was experimenting with formats and genres in a time of poor comic sales. Part of that drive was an irregular anthology entitled DC Special Series and from the all-Batman #15 comes an oddly enticing gem scripted by O’Neil and drawn by a talented young newcomer called Michael Golden, with inks from the ubiquitous Dick Giordano.

‘I Now Pronounce you Batman and Wife’ is a stylish, pacy thriller that anticipates the 1980s sea-change in comics storytelling, but its most interesting aspect is the plot maguffin which later inspired a trilogy of graphic novels in the 1990s and today’s Damien Wayne/Robin.

September 1979 brought another key multi-part epic, represented here by Detective Comics #485, 489 and 490. Although picky me still wishes that all parts were included, the truncated version here suffers no significant loss of narrative flow as Batman is dragged into a civil war for leadership of the Al Ghul organization between the Demon and the aged oriental super-assassin the Sensei – whom older fans will know as the villain behind the murder of aerialist Boston Brand and birth of Deadman.

O’Neil, Don Newton & Dan Adkins open proceedings in ‘The Vengeance Vow!’ as a long-standing member of the Batman Family is murdered, drawing Batman into battle with deadly mind-controlled martial artist Bronze Tiger. After thwarting the Sensei’s schemes for months, the saga cataclysmically concludes in ‘Where Strike the Assassins!’ and ‘Requiem for a Martyr!’

Whilst perhaps not as powerful as the O’Neil/Novick/Adams/Giordano run, this serial is a stirring thriller with a satisfactory denouement, elevated to dizzying heights by the magnificent artwork of Don & Adkins. Newton’s Batman could well have become the definitive 1980s look, but the artist’s tragically early death in 1984 cut short what should have been a superlative and stellar career.

In recent years, Ra’s Al Ghul has become Just Another Bat-Foe: familiarity indeed breeding mediocrity, if not contempt. But these unique tales from a unique era are comics at their very best in this definitive archival landmark.

Adding lustre to proceedings is a gallery of pertinent covers taken from early trade paperback collections. Brian Stelfreeze produced a brace of stunners with 1991’s Batman: Tales of the Demon TPB in editions for DC Comics and Warner Books; Adams created the potent image used on this very edition in a wraparound treat gracing Limited Collector’s Edition C-51 (August 1977) whilst Jerry Bingham & Dick Giordano and Adams & Rudy Nebres delivered a quartet of covers for Saga of Ra’s al Ghul #1-4 (January-April 1988). Also included here are an Afterword by Denny O’Neil and John Wells’ ‘The Saga of the Demon’s Head’ detailing the later schemes of the eternal thorn in humanity’s skin…

With the game-changing classics in this volume, Batman finally returned to the commercial and critical top flight he had deserved and enjoyed in the 1940s: reviving and expanding upon his original conception as a remorseless, relentless avenger of injustice. The next few years would see the hero rise to unparalleled heights of quality so stay tuned: the very best is just around the corner… that dark, dark corner…
© 1971, 1972, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1988, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Julio’s Day


By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-606-5 (HB)

In the 1980s a qualitative revolution forever destroyed the clichéd, stereotypical ways different genres of comic strips were produced and marketed. Most prominent in destroying the comfy pigeonholes we’d built for ourselves were three guys from Oxnard, California: Jaime, Mario (occasionally) and Gilberto Hernandez.

Love and Rockets was an anthology magazine featuring slick, intriguing, sci-fi tinted hi-jinx of punky young things Maggie & Hopey – the outrageously beguiling las Locas – as well as heart-warming, terrifying, gut-wrenching soap-opera fantasies from the rural Central American paradise of Palomar.

Supreme synthesists, Los Bros Hernandez enthralled and enchanted with incredible stories that sampled a thousand influences, conceptual and actual; everything from Comics, TV cartoons, masked wrestlers and the emergent exotica of American Hispanic pop culture to iconic German Expressionism. There was also a perpetual backdrop displaying the holy trinity of the young: Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll – for which please hear alternative music and punk rock.

The result was dynamite. Mario only officially contributed on rare occasions, but Jaime’s slick, enticing visual feasts explored friendship and modern love whilst destroying stereotypes of feminine attraction through his fetching coterie of Gals Gone Wild, whilst “Beto” exhaustively crafted a hyper-authentic rural landscape and playground of wit and passion created for his extended generational saga Heartbreak Soup: a quicksilver chimera of breadline Latin-American village life with a vibrant, funny and fantastically quotidian cast.

Everything from life, death, adultery, magic, serial killing and especially gossip could happen in Palomar’s meta-fictional environs, as the artist mined his own post-punk influences through a powerfully effective primitivist style which blended the stylised mythologies and iconographies of comics, music, recreational drugs, gangs, sex, forceful, capable, dominating women and the inescapable bonds of family using a narrative format which is at the graphic vanguard of Magical Realism.

There’s fiction, there’s Meta-fiction and then there’s Gilbert Hernandez. In addition to his astonishingly captivating Palomar tales he has authored stand-alone books such as Sloth, Grip, Birdland and Girl Crazy, all marked by his boldly compelling, disingenuous artwork and a mature, sensitive adoption of literary techniques by writers like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez: techniques which he has amplified and, visually at least, made his own.

He later played with his own filmic and literary influences – Roger Corman, John Cassavetes, Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson – breaking new ground by reprocessing the cultural influences forming all us baby-boomers, through “adaptations” of the trashy B-Movies which were perennial plot “maguffins” in his stories. Those became a little more actual in his “adaptations” of thrillers like Chance in Hell, The Troublemakers and Love from the Shadows

Accruing critical acclaim but seldom financial reward, the brothers eventually went their own ways, but a few years ago creatively reunited to produce annual collections of new material in their particularly peculiar shared – or, rather, adjacent – pen-and-ink universes. This beguiling pictorial elegy began in Love and Rockets volume II, #1 but remained unfinished until completed in this stark evocative monochrome hardback and digital delight.

Here, Gilbert foregoes many signature elements and the frenetic youth-fuelled backdrop he’s famous for to methodically detail the moving life-story of an ordinary man.

Of course, once you start looking. you realise there’s really no such thing as ordinary…

It’s about families and friends, the secrets we must keep and how, even though the World changes, sometimes we just can’t…

I’d be doing you and the author a huge disservice by going into too much detail, but suffice to say that somewhere in Southern California a baby is born in 1900. From the start Julio is nourished and cherished by a loving family – excepting his uncle Juan, whom only the infant’s older sister Sofia realises should be kept well away from all children at all costs…

Over 100 pages, until his passing in 2000, Julio grows up with friends Tommy and Araceli, dimly aware of yet barely affected by humanity’s great crises. Sadly, the uncompromising nature of the times, elements and environment shape the people of the village just as powerfully as any global war or Stock Market crash. One slip in a mere mudslide affects the family for three tragic generations. Moreover, even in such placid outreaches, bullying, cruelty, bigotry and intolerance exist in abundance to mould young hearts and minds…

As he grows to maturity, Julio loses family, makes new friends and comes to realises he has a secret he cannot share with anyone: one that, despite the way the times change society before his very eyes, he simply cannot admit or acknowledge…

Dedicated to the proposition that big history happens somewhere else even as its effects touch us all, this warm-hearted, deceptively heartrending, challenging, and incontrovertibly groundbreaking epic is a grown-up comics fan’s dream come true; proving again just how far the medium has progressed.

From traditional world-saving, anodyne fist-fights, fanciful fantasies and children’s escapism to the likes of Maus, One Bad Rat, Palestine, Persepolis, Pride of Baghdad, Sailor Twain and so many more, comics have evolved until they not only produce material equal to other art forms, but with Julio’s Day – a diamond point at the cutting edge of graphic narrative – have arrived at masterpieces which can only be truly told as graphic narratives…

…As you will surely see…
© 2013 Gilbert Hernandez. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

World’s Finest: Guardians of Earth


By Denny O’Neil, Mike Friedrich, Steve Skeates, Len Wein, Elliot S! Maggin, Dick Dillin, Joe Giella & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-7795-0178-3 (HB)

For decades Superman and Batman were quintessential superhero partners: the “World’s Finest team”. The affable stalwarts were best buddies as well as mutually respectful colleagues, and their pairing made sound financial sense since DC’s top heroes could happily cross-pollinate and cross-sell their combined readerships. This most inevitable of Paladin Pairings first occurred on the Superman radio show in the early 1940s, whilst in comics the pair had only briefly met whilst on a Justice Society of America adventure in All-Star Comics #36 (August-September 1947) – and perhaps even there they missed each other in the gaudy hubbub…

Of course, they had shared covers on World’s Finest Comics from the outset, but never crossed paths inside; sticking firmly to their specified solo adventures within. In fact, they never shared an official comic book case. However, once that Rubicon was crossed in Superman #76 (May 1952), the partnership solidified thanks to spiralling costs and dwindling page-counts. As 52-page titles dwindled to the 32, WFC permanently sealed the new deal and the industry never looked back…

The Cape and Cowl Crusaders were partners and allies from #71 onwards (July 1954), working together until the title was cancelled in the build-up to Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986. All that is, except for a brief period when the Man of Steel was paired with other stars of DC’s firmament.

This mighty compelling compendium re-presents those cataclysmic collaborations from the turbulent 1970’s (World’s Finest Comics #198-214, spanning November 1970 to October- November 1972), as radical shifts in America’s tastes and cultural landscape fostered a hunger for more mature, socially relevant stories. That drive even affected the Dark Knight and Action Ace – so much so, in fact, that their partnership was temporarily suspended: paused so Superman could guest-star with other DC icons.

After three years, another bold experiment reunited them as parents of The Super-Sons before the regular relationship was revitalised and renewed. With the World’s Finest Heroes fully restored, their bizarrely apt pre-eminence endured another lengthy run until the title’s demise.

Without preamble the action kicks off here by returning to a thorny topic which had bedevilled fans for years…

The comic book experience is littered with eternal, unanswerable questions. The most common and most passionately asked always begin “who would win if…” or “who’s strongest/smartest/fastest…”

Here, crafted by Denny O’Neil, Dick Dillin & Joe Giella, ‘Race to Save the Universe!’ and the concluding ‘Race to Save Time’ (WFC #198-199; November and December 1970) upped the stakes on two previous competitions as the high-speed heroes are conscripted by the Guardians of the Universe to circumnavigate the entire cosmos at their greatest velocities to reverse the rampage of the mysterious Anachronids: faster-than-light creatures whose pell-mell course throughout the galaxies is actually unwinding time itself and unravelling the fabric of creation. Little does anybody suspect that Superman’s oldest enemies were behind the entire appalling scheme…

Anniversary issue #200 was crafted by regular Robin, the Teen Wonder scripter Mike Friedrich, with Dillin & Giella doing the drawing – as they did for this entire book. ‘Prisoners of the Immortal World!’ (February 1971) focusses on college-student brothers on opposite sides of the Vietnam War debate abducted along with youth icon Robin and “Mr. Establishment” Superman to a distant planet where undying vampiric aliens wage eternal war on each other.

Green Lantern pops in for #201, contesting ‘A Prize of Peril!’ (O’Neil, Dillin & Giella) which would grant either Emerald Gladiator or Man of Steel sole jurisdiction of Earth’s skies. Sadly, all is not as it seems…

Batman returned for a limited engagement in #202 as the O’Neil-penned ‘Vengeance of the Tomb-Thing!’ sees archaeologists unearth something horrific in Egypt, just before Superman seemingly goes mad and attacks his greatest friends and allies. A superb ecological scare-story, this tale changed the Man of Tomorrow’s life for decades to come…

Current Aquaman writer Steve Skeates waded in for #203 as ‘Who’s Minding the Earth?’ pits Metropolis Marvel and King of Atlantis against parthenogenetic mutant dolphins attempting to terraform the polluted world into something more welcoming to their kind…

More ecological terror underpins O’Neil’s bleak warning in #204 as ‘Journey to the End of Hope!’ finds powerless former Wonder Woman Diana Prince and Superman summoned to a barren lifeless Earth. Here a dying computer warns that a butterfly effect will inevitably lead to this future unless they prevent a certain person dying in a college campus riot. Only time will tell if they succeed as the clash does indeed cost a life despite all their efforts…

Racism, sexism and the oppression of reactionary conservative values then get a well-deserved pasting in #205’s ‘The Computer that Captured a Town!’

Here Skeates deviously layers a Teen Titans tale with a wealth of eye-opening commentary after the team are locked into a mid-Victorian parochial paradise enforced by a dead man and alien tech, until the Man of Tomorrow wades in to set things straight…

WFC #206 (October-November 1971) was an all-reprint giant, represented here by its rousing Dick Giordano cover, after which #207 again reunites the true World’s Finest team as Batman returns to solve a murder mystery in the making and save the Man of Tomorrow in ‘A Matter of Light and Death!’, after which Earth-2 sorcerer hero Doctor Fate aids the Action Ace in thwarting the extraterrestrial ‘Peril of the Planet-Smashers!’ – both courtesy of Len Wein, Dillin & Giella.

Supernatural menaces were increasingly popular as a global horror boom reshaped readers’ tastes, informing (#209) Friedrich’s ‘Meet the Tempter – and Die!’ wherein Hawkman and Superman are seduced into evil by an eternal demon, whilst Elliot S! Maggin’s ‘World of Faceless Slaves!’ in #210 catapults the Caped Kryptonian and Green Arrow into a primordial magic kingdom to liberate the vassals of diabolical sorcerer supreme Effron

The Darknight Detective returns again in #211, as O’Neil, Dillin & Giella devise a global manhunt for a ‘Fugitive from the Stars!’ Their target is a political refugee whose arrest is demanded by warriors who are a physical match for Superman, but happily, not Batman’s intellectual equals…

‘…And So My World Begins!’ in #212 is O’Neil’s thematic sequel to Justice League of America #71, which saw Mars devasted by race war and its survivors flee to the stars in search of a new homeworld. Here, Martian Manhunter J’onn J’onzz seeks Superman’s aid to rescue the last survivors from life-leeching mechanoids, unaware that a traitor has sold them all out to predatory aliens…

Maggin drills deep into super science for #213 as ‘Peril in a Very Small Place!’ finds the greater universe endangered by a microscopic and insatiable Genesis molecule, demanding a fantastic voyage into the Microverse inside a phone line for the Atom and Superman before this compilation concludes with wild west weirdness from by Skeates, O’Neil, Dillin & Giella. Here Golden Age troubleshooter The Vigilante delivers the silver bullet necessary to save Superman when ‘A Beast Stalks the Badlands!’

With covers by Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, Nick Cardy and Curt Swan & Murphy Anderson, this book is a gloriously uncomplicated treasure trove of adventures which still have the power and punch to enthral even today’s jaded seen it-all audiences.

The contents of this titanic team-up tome are a veritable feast of witty, pretty thrillers packing as much punch and wonder now as they always have. Utterly entrancing adventure for fans of all ages!
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Master of Kung Fu Epic Collection volume 1: 1973-1975 Weapon of the Soul


By Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Doug Moench, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Roger Stern, Paul Gulacy, Ron Wilson, Al Milgrom, Ross Andru, Keith Pollard, Alan Weiss, Walter Simonson, John Buscema, Ed Hannigan, Aubrey Bradford, P Craig Russell, Frank McLaughlin, Jeff Aclin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0135-6 (TPB)

Comic books have always operated within the larger bounds of popular trends and fashions – just look at what got published whenever westerns or science fiction dominated on TV – so when the ancient philosophy and discipline of Kung Fu made its unstoppable mark on domestic western entertainment, it wasn’t long before all those kicks and punches found their way onto four-colour pages of America’s periodicals. Early starter Charlton added Yang and House of Yang to the pioneering Judo Joe and Frank McLaughlin’s Judomaster; DC debuted Richard Dragon and rebooted Karate Kid; Atlas/ Seaboard opened The Hands of the Dragon and Marvel rapidly converted a proposed literary adaptation into an ongoing saga about a villain’s son. A month after it launched, a second orient-tinged hero in Iron Fist: combining combat philosophy, high fantasy and magic powers with a proper superhero mask and costume…

At their core, comics are just another mass-media entertainment form, but even (or do I mean especially?) the most frivolous fun for the largest audiences may carry at its heart cultural and social iniquity, easily-exploitable prejudices and dangerously-pernicious stereotyping and profiling. With that in mind, here’s a thorny subject for all concerned, on so many levels…

After the sublime success and cultural phenomenon of the Black Panther movie, people of colour finally had a heroic icon and cultural touchstone of their very own. The glorious and affirmative characters and stories were based on comics generated over many years by a multitude of talented, well-meaning creators, all originating at a company that was generally liberal, socially aware and earnestly seeking to address issues of prejudice and inclusivity whenever and wherever they found them.

That was black folk sorted, right? However, people of Asian ancestry still cry out for something of relevance and meaning to them. That’s why there’s a blockbuster Shang-Chi movie heading towards our screens in September.

It’s also notionally based on some incredible comics by a variety of gifted individuals and teams, but the white world in general and Marvel in particular have a different kind of history with those of Asian heritage…

Although largely retrofitted for modern times, inspirational Master of Kung Fu star Shang-Chi comes with a lot of tricky baggage. He debuted in the autumn of 1973, cashing in on a 1970s craze for Eastern philosophy and martial arts action which generated an avalanche of “Chop Sockey” movies and a controversial TV sensation entitled Kung Fu. You may recall that the lead in that western-set saga was a half-Chinese Shaolin monk, played – after much publicised legal and industry agitation – by a white actor…

At Marvel, no one at that time particularly griped about the fact that Shang-Chi was designed by editor Roy Thomas and artisans Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin & Al Milgrom as a naive innocent (also half Chinese, with an American mother) thrown into tumultuous modern society as a rebellious but involved counterpoint to his father: an insidious scheming fiend intent on global domination.

Back then, securing rights to a major literary property and wrapping new comics in it was an established practise. It had worked spectacularly with Conan the Barbarian and horror stars like Dracula and Frankenstein. The same process also brilliantly informed seminal science fiction icon Killraven in War of the Worlds and plenty more…

These days we comics apologists keep saying “it was a different era”, but I genuinely don’t think anyone in the editorial office paused for a moment of second thoughts when their new Kung Fu book secured the use one of literature’s greatest villains as a major player. Special Marvel Edition #15 (cover-dated December 1973) launched to great success, and the overarching villain was already a global personification of infamy …Fu Manchu.

Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward AKA Sax Rohmer’s ultimate embodiment of patronising mistrust and racist suspicion had been hugely popular since 1913’s The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu. The prime archetype for mad scientists and the remorseless “Yellow Peril” threatening civilization, the character spread to stage, screen, airwaves and comics (even appropriating the cover of Detective Comics #1, heralding an interior series that ran until #28), but most importantly, became the visual affirmation and conceptual basis for countless evil “Asiatics”, “Orientals” and “Celestials” dominating popular fiction ever since.

In recent years as we’ve all (well, mostly all) acknowledged past iniquities, Shang-Chi has been reimagined, with that paternal link downplayed or abandoned – as much for licensing laws as social justice.

For the movie, the villainous sire is now The Mandarin, but that only reminds us that, over its decades of existence, Marvel has employed plenty of “Yellow Peril” knock-offs and personifications – including Wong Chu; Plan Tzu (AKA the Yellow – or latterly GoldenClaw); Huang Zhu; Silver Samurai; Doctor Sun ad infinitum: all birds of another colour that are still nastily pejorative shades of saffron. Perhaps this is just my white guilt and fanboy shame talking. These stories, crafted by Marvel’s employees were – and remain – some of the best action comics you’ll ever encounter, but never forget what they’re actually about… distrust of the obviously other…

Without making excuses, I should also state that despite the easy, casual racism suggested by legions of outrageously exotic, inscrutable bad guys haunting this series at every level, Master of Kung Fu did sensitively address issues of race and honestly attempt to share non-Christian philosophies and thought whilst, most importantly, offering potent and powerful role models to kids of Asian origins. So at least there’s that to defend…

Packed with stunning adventure and compellingly convincing drama, this trade paperback and digital collection gathers far-ranging appearances from Special Marvel Edition #15-16; Master of Kung Fu #17-28; Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #1-4; Giant-Size Spider-Man #2, plus material from Iron Man Annual #4 (collectively spanning December 1973-August 1977) and it opens without a preamble in the middle of a mighty battle…

‘Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu!’ introduces a vibrant, brilliant young man raised in utter isolation in the style and manner of imperial China. Reared by monks and savants, the boy is the result of a match between a physically perfect American woman and misunderstood patriot Fu Manchu: a noble hero unfairly hunted and slandered by corrupt western governments and the communist usurpers now blasphemously controlling the world’s greatest empire.

This son was schooled to respect and obey his sire, trained to perfection in martial arts: designed as the ultimate warrior servant and the doctor’s devoted personal weapon against lifelong enemies Sir Dennis Nayland Smith and Doctor Petrie.

On reaching maturity, Shang – who’s name means “the rising and advancing of a spirit” – is despatched to execute Petrie, but after the obedient weapon executes his mission, he subsequently questions his entire life and the worldly benefit of killing an elderly, dying man. An emotional confrontation with Nayland Smith – who endures the daily agonies of being maimed at the Devil Doctor’s command – further shakes the boy’s resolve and eventually Shang’s sublime education demands that he reassess everything his father has taught him…

After invading the villain’s New York citadel and crushing his army of freaks and monsters, Shang Chi faces his father and rejects all he stands for. The battle lines of an epic family struggle are drawn…

Focusing on the madness of modern living, outcast misfit Shang navigates the perils of New York City in the next episode, before reluctantly fighting his childhood companion M’nai in ‘Midnight brings Dark Death!’ It’s another bittersweet betrayal, since Midnight has always known of Fu’s true nature and happily acted as his infallible assassin… until now…

The series had launched in bimonthly reprint title Special Marvel Edition as The Hands of Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu and by the third issue (April 1974) it became exclusively his. Issue #17’s ‘Lair of the Lost!’ introduced (a painfully, equally stereotypical) True Brit foe who would soon become a trusted ally.

Blackjack Tarr seeks vengeance for his old ally Petrie; luring Shang Chi to a private murder mansion. However, the battle royal ends with all concerned re-evaluating their positions and agreeing to unite to defeat the actual enemy of all humanity…

Scripted by Englehart and inked by Milgrom, #18 was the true turning point in the series. Newcomer Paul Gulacy became penciller, blending a love of popular cinema with a vivid illustration style based on the comics designs of Jim Steranko. ‘Attack!’ sees Shang taking his war to Fu Manchu and his complex, convoluted secret society of assassins and acolytes, invading Fu’s New York base to deliver a salutary declaration of war before undertaking his first mission for spymaster Nayland Smith.

Despatched to Florida to intercept mysterious smugglers and an unknown cargo, the Master of Kung Fu foils a scheme to poison America’s gasoline supply, defeats a supernaturally enhanced Dacoit (look it up: Rohmer’s literary creation enlisted almost every Asian subculture into an admittedly beguiling army of oriental killers faithfully aligned against white imperialism) and escapes a hallucinogenic ambush…

Promoted to monthly with #19 (August 1974), the next chapter sees the hero’s full initiation into the Marvel Universe with a crossover. ‘Retreat’ depicts the still-drugged Shang lost in the Everglades, hunted by assassins and clashing with the monstrous Man-Thing. There’s even a cheeky acknowledgement of the series’ antecedents with a cameo starring a certain TV Sino-American wandering philosopher…

Gerry Conway scripts ‘Weapon of the Soul’ as Mafia boss Demmy Marston targets Shang Chi in an effort to curry favour with Fu Manchu before Doug Moench begins his long association with the series in concluding chapter ‘Season of Vengeance…’ (illustrated by Ron Wilson & Milgrom) clearing the decks for explosive action and epic adventure by demonstrating why Fu is the most dangerous ally an ambitious crook could ever encounter…

By this time – the summer of 1975 – the series was one of Marvel’s most successful, spawning guest shots and extra issues galore. Cover-dated September 1974, Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #1 offered even more martial arts mayhem in a quarterly spin-off that opened with ‘Death Masque!’ (Moench, Gulacy & Dan Adkins). To celebrate Shang’s birthday, his father orchestrates a terrifying gauntlet of killers, even as the son infiltrates his administrative Council of 7: the Si-Fan

The double-sized issue also offers apparent change-of-pace yarn ‘Frozen Past, Shattered Memories’ (Moench & P. Craig Russell) as Shang fails to foil a museum robbery; a fact page on ‘Shaolin Temple Boxing’ by comic book Kung Fu pioneer Frank McLaughlin and a parable on racism and psychopathy in Moench, Wilson & Mike Esposito’s ‘Reflections in a Rippled Pool!’

In quick order, Giant-Size Spider-Man #2 (October 1974, by Len Wein, Ross Andru & Milgrom) reinforced the hero’s crossover credentials as ‘Masterstroke!’ finds the wondrous webslinger drawn into battle with the Master of Kung Fu after Fu Manchu frames Spider-Man for attacking Chinese-Americans and sabotaging New York’s power grid. Eventually the duped heroes clear the air Marvel-style in ‘Cross… and Double-Cross!’ before uniting to foil the madman’s true scheme to mindwipe America from the ‘Pinnacle of Doom!’

MOKF #22 (November) sets up the next phase of Shang’s life as a secret agent. In ‘A Fortune of Death!’ (Moench, Gulacy & Dan Adkins) he saves Nayland Smith and Blackjack Tarr while foiling another attempt to destroy America’s complacency and security before Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #2 (December 1974, by Moench, Gulacy & Jack Abel) declares ‘The Devil-Doctor’s Triumph’ with romantic distraction Sandy Chen enticing our young lonely warrior before tragically teaching him the power of deceit while courting his aid to rescue her father from his father…

With Gulacy going from strength to strength in the Giant-Size tales, Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson stepped in for Moench’s next twisty epic; beginning in MOKF #23 as Shang agrees to quash his father’s potential alliance with a Nazi war criminal, necessitating a lethal voyage up the ‘River of Death!’ The bloody debacle goes completely off-script in ‘Massacre Along the Amazon!’ (Milgrom, Alan Weiss, Starlin, Walt Simonson & Sal Trapani) as Si-Fan, neo-Nazis and indigenous forest people clash, leading to Shang running a savage gauntlet in brutal conclusion ‘Rites of Courage, Fists of Death!’ (Gulacy & Trapani).

Vince Colletta inks Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #3 (March 1975) as ‘Fires of Rebirth’ introduces British agent Clive Reston (an homage to and descendent of literary icons like James Bond and Sherlock Holmes) as both sides in the unending war seek the last remaining stock of Fu Manchu’s immortality-inducing Elixir Vitae. The hunt catastrophically encompasses Central Park West, the British Museum and Buckingham Palace, involving lethal Phansigars, reanimated Neanderthals and potential new archnemesis Shadow-Stalker before delivering an utterly life-altering surprise to Shang-Chi…

Digging deeper into Romer’s novels, Moench increasingly capitalizes on Fu Manchu’s expansive cast with Master of Kung Fu #26. Limned by Keith Pollard & Trapani, ‘Daughter of Darkness!’ features the Devil Doctor’s recalcitrant first-born Fah Lo Suee (who debuted in either third book The Si-Fan Mysteries/The Hand of Fu-Manchu in 1917 or fourth outing The Daughter of Fu-Manchu in 1931, depending on who you ask) and the son of former valiant Brit Shan Greville and her latest treacherous scheme to supplant her sinister sire using an ancient Egyptian relic…

John Buscema & Frank Springer unite to depict Moench’s ‘Confrontation’ as the family war intensifies over possession of the last dregs of Elixir Vitae and conflicted Shang is pressed to pick a side after the collateral death of an innocent bystander after which Wilson, Ed Hannigan & Aubrey Bradford join Moench and Trapani for #28 as ‘A Small Spirit Slowly Shaped…’ finds Shang Chi invading his childhood home in Honan to save Nayland Smith from his ascendant sister…

Slightly askew of the tight continuity, Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #4 (June 1975) absurdly enquires ‘Why a Tiger-Claw?’ in a surreal comedy thriller from Moench, Pollard & Trapani as Shang encounters Groucho Marx tribute and living force of irascible nature Rufus T. Hackstabber when a mundane bank robbery leads to a rebellious Si-Fan assassin with a personal agenda and big ambitions…

Wrapping up the martial arts mastery is a short piece from Iron Man Annual #4 (August 1977): an out-of-place Kung Fu vignette by Roger Stern, Jeff Aclin & Don Newton. ‘Death Lair!’ stars the long dead but never forgotten Midnight on a mission of murder for Fu Manchu and targeting Vietnamese rival and old Iron Man enemy Half-Face

Adding value to the package are Starlin & Milgrom’s original art for the cover of Special Marvel Edition #15; Roy Thomas’ editorial from that issue and assorted house ads, a spoof ad from official fanzine F.O.O.M. and an unused Starlin & Milgrom cover for #17.

In recent years, Shang Chi’s backstory has been forced to adapt and alter. His father has been reinvented as Zheng Zu, Mr. Han, Chang Hu, Wang Yu-Seng and The Devil Doctor and in the end, you have the ultimate choice and sanction of not buying or reading this material.

If you do – with eyes wide open and fully acknowledging that the past is another place that we can now consign to history – your comics appreciation faculties will see some amazing stories incredibly well illustrated: ranking amongst the most exciting and enjoyable in Marvel’s canon.
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Batgirl volume 1: Silent Knight


By Scott Peterson, Kelley Puckett, Chuck Dixon, Damion Scott, Mike Deodato Jr., Pablo Raimondi & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6627-1 (TPB)

Way back when, after Gotham City was devastated in a massive earthquake (see Batman: Cataclysm and Batman: No Man’s Land in 2000) it was written off and abandoned by the US government in a spookily prescient foretaste of what would happen to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. Amidst the rubble, a number of heroes struggled to protect the innocent. One of these was a brand-new incarnation of Batgirl.

As the crisis ended and a semblance of normality returned to the battered metropolis, the new heroine got her own series and a mentor in the form of Babs Gordon, the wheelchair-bound crime-fighter called Oracle, who was also the first Batgirl.

The new operative is an enigmatic problem. Raised in utter isolation as an experiment by martial arts super-assassin David Cain, she cannot communicate. Part of the process creating Cassandra Cain was depriving and overriding her language centres in an effort to make combat her only communication tool. An apparent runaway, she was briefly adopted by the Batman as another weapon in his never-ending battle, before the more humane Oracle becomes her guardian and teacher.

In this first paperback/digital volume – spanning April 2000-March 2001 by collecting #1-12 of the monthly series and first Annual – the new Batgirl is trying to find her way, bereft even of the ability to learn, whilst revelling in the role of defender of the helpless, but her development as a human being threatens to diminish her capacity as a weapon, and the mystery of her past would indicate that she is possibly a two-edged sword in Batman’s arsenal…

In a bold experiment, initiating writers Scott Peterson and Kelly Puckett eschewed the standard format of individually titled stories to craft a continuous string of high action, deeply moving episodes which saw the neophyte street warrior battle the dregs of Gotham City while attempting to adapt to a life where not every person was her enemy.

Fast, furious, frenetic, visually expressive incidents (illustrated by Damion Scott with inkers Robert Campanella & Coy Turnbull) are interspersed with flashbacks to her lethal and cruel formative years with Cain pitting her against assassins and worse, while keeping a stunning secret of her natal origins all for himself…

In contemporary moments, Cassandra prowls the streets determined to honour her saviour Batman and sole friend Babs, battling thieves, thugs, rapists and all the worst human predators the city can throw at her.

All too soon, her first failure – to preserve an innocent life – leaves her emotionally wounded and susceptible to metahuman attack, even as Batman discovers his new operative may have blood on her own hands. Complicating the crisis, a telepath Cassandra rescues boosts her ability to speak, but inadvertently destroys her gift to read body language leaving her helpless against ordinarily easy opposition.

As Batman hunts and confronts Cain to clear Batgirl’s reputation, the embattled, dauntless wild child continues to risk her life in Gotham: going rogue and defying the Dark Knight to patrol the streets until she is targeted by Lady Shiva Woosan.

The world’s deadliest assassin has personal reasons for testing herself against Cassandra, and provides a cure for her lost battle assessment sense, but only to further her own insane agenda…

As Batman further unravels the convoluted mystery of Cassandra’s origins, Batgirl returns to duty, but again confronts failure at metahuman hands. Barely recovered, she finally faces her father and helps save Commissioner Gordon (in ‘Mute Witness’ from Batgirl #12 by Chuck Dixon, Dale Eaglesham & Andrew Hennessy). Her never-ending battle pauses for now after Batgirl Annual #1 takes her to Madras, India for ‘Introducing: Aruna’ by Peterson, Mike Deodato Jr. & John Stanisci.

Joining her mentor Batman and shapeshifting local hero Aruna, Cassandra explosively confronts millennia-old prejudice and ingrained racism whilst hunting for an abducted Bollywood child star exposed as a member of the “untouchables” caste. The shocking tragedy is supplemented by an origin for the shapeshifter, courtesy of Peterson, Pablo Raimondi & Walden Wong

Spellbinding, overwhelmingly fast-paced and terse to the point of bombastic brevity, this is a breakneck, supercharged thrill-ride of non-stop action that still manages to be heavily plot-based with genuine empathy and emotional impact. Truly superb comic storytelling which should be on every fan’s wish-list or bookshelf.
© 2000, 2001, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Avengers: Hawkeye


By Mark Gruenwald, Brett Breeding & Danny Bulanadi, with Stan Lee & Don Heck; Mike Friedrich, George Evans & Frank Springer, Steven Grant, John Byrne & Dan Greene, Jimmy Janes & Bruce Patterson & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-3723-8 (TPB)

Clint Barton is probably the world’s greatest archer: swift, ingenious, unerringly accurate and augmented by a fantastic selection of multi-purpose high-tech arrows. Other masked bow persons are available…

Following an early brush with the law and as a reluctant Iron Man villain beginning in 1964, he reformed to join the Mighty Avengers where he served with honour and distinction, despite always feeling overshadowed by his more glamorous, super-powered comrades.

Long a mainstay of Marvel continuity and probably Marvel’s most popular B-list hero, the Battling Bowman has risen to great prominence in recent years, boosted no doubt by his filmic incarnation.

This brash and bombastic collection – available in paperback and digital formats – re-presents breakthrough miniseries Hawkeye #1-4 and debut from Tales of Suspense #57 (September 1964) plus the first costumed appearance of occasional wife and frequent paramour Bobbi “Mockingbird” Morse from Marvel Super Action #1 (January 1976) and a more-or-less solo outing for each from Avengers #189 (November 1979), and Marvel Team-Up #95 (July 1980) respectively.

Written and drawn by the hugely underrated and much-missed Mark Gruenwald, ably assisted by inkers Brett Breeding & Danny Bulanadi and running from September to December 1983, Hawkeye was one of Marvel’s earliest miniseries and remains one of the very best adventures of Marvel’s Ace Archer.

Much like the character himself, this project was seriously underestimated when first released: most industry pundits and the more voluble fans expected very little from a second-string hero drawn by a professional writer. Guess again, suckers!

In opening chapter ‘Listen to the Mockingbird’, he is moonlighting as security chief for electronics corporation Cross Technological Enterprises when he captures a renegade S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, who reveals that his bosses are all crooks, secretly involved in shady mind-control experiments.

After some initial doubt, Barton teams with a svelte and sexy super-agent in ‘Point Blank’ to foil the plot, gaining in the process a new costume and instant rogues’ gallery of archfoes such as Silence, Oddball and Bombshell in third chapter ‘Beating the Odds’.

As the constant hunt and struggle wears on, Barton succumbs to – but is not defeated by – a physical handicap and wins a wife (not necessarily the same thing) in explosive conclusion ‘Till Death us do Part…’ wherein the sinister mastermind behind it all is finally revealed and summarily dealt with.

In those faraway days both Gruenwald and Marvel Top Gun Jim Shooter maintained that a miniseries had to deal with significant events in a character’s life, and this bright and breezy, no-nonsense, compelling and immensely enjoyable yarn certainly kicked out the deadwood and re-launched Hawkeye’s career. In short order from here the bowman went on to create and lead his own team: The West Coast Avengers, gain his own regular series in Solo Avengers and Avengers Spotlight and his own series, consequently becoming one of the most vibrant and popular characters of the period and today as well as a modern-day action movie icon…

Hard on the heels of the epic comes ‘Hawkeye, the Marksman!’ (by Stan Lee & Don Heck from Tales of Suspense #57) wherein villainous spy the Black Widow resurfaces to beguile an ambitious and frustrated neophyte costumed vigilante hero into attacking her archenemy. Despite a clear power-imbalance, the former carnival archer comes awfully close to beating the Golden Avenger …

Augmented by a Howard Chaykin frontispiece from black-&-white magazine Marvel Super Action #1 (January 1976), former Ka-Zar romantic interest Dr. Barbera Morse is reinvented by Mike Friedrich, George Evans & Frank Springer ‘Red-Eyed Jack is Wild!’. Using unwieldy nomme de guerre Huntress, Morse devotes herself to cleaning up corruption inside S.H.I.E.L.D., no matter what the cost…

Avengers #189 then reveals how Hawkeye got his job at CTE as ‘Wings and Arrows!’ (by Steven Grant, John Byrne & Dan Green) pits the new security chief against alien avian interloper Deathbird, before Huntress becomes Mockingbird for MTU #95. Crafted by Grant, Jimmy Janes & Bruce Patterson ‘…And No Birds Sing!’ ends the long-extant S.H.I.E.L.D. corruption storyline as Morse and Spider-Man join forces to expose the true cancer at the heart of America’s top spy agency…

Packed with terrific tales of old-fashioned romance, skulduggery and derring-do, this book is a no-nonsense example of the straightforward action-adventure yarns that cemented Marvel’s reputation and success. But oh, the tension, the tension…
© 2015 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Spirou & Fantasio volume 15 – Shadow of the Z


By André Franquin, with Jidéhem & Greg; translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-419-9 (Album PB)

Spirou (whose name translates as both “squirrel” and “mischievous” in the tongue of the Walloons) was created by French cartoonist François Robert Velter – AKA Rob-Vel – for Belgian publisher Éditions Dupuis in response to the phenomenal success of Hergé’s Tintin at rival outfit Casterman.

The legendary anthology Le Journal de Spirou was launched on April 21st 1938 with this other red-headed lad as lead of the anthology weekly comic which bears his name to this day.

He began life as a plucky bellboy/lift operator employed by the Moustique Hotel (a reference to the publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique) whose improbable adventures with his pet squirrel Spip eventually evolved into high-flying surreal comedy dramas.

The Spirou cast have been the magazine’s vanguard for most of its life, with a phalanx of truly impressive creators carrying on Velter’s work, beginning with his wife Blanche “Davine” Dumoulin who took over the strip when her husband enlisted in 1939. She was aided by Belgian artist Luc Lafnet until 1943 when Dupuis purchased all rights to the feature, after which comic-strip prodigy Joseph Gillain (“Jijé”) took over.

In 1946, Jijé’s assistant André Franquin assumed the reins, slowly retiring short, gag-like vignettes in favour of longer epic adventure serials, introducing a wide and engaging cast of regulars. He ultimately devised a phenomenally popular nigh-magical animal dubbed Marsupilami, with the wondrous critter debuting in Spirou et les héritiers in 1952.

On January 3rd 1924, Belgian Franquin was born in Etterbeek. Drawing from an early age, he began formal art training at École Saint-Luc in 1943 and when the war forced the school’s closure a year later, Franquin found animation work at Compagnie Belge d’Animation in Brussels. Here he met Maurice de Bevere (Lucky Luke creator “Morris”), Pierre Culliford (AKA Peyo, creator of The Smurfs) and Eddy Paape (Valhardi, Luc Orient).

In 1945 all but Culliford signed on with Dupuis, and Franquin began his career as a jobbing cartoonist and illustrator, producing covers for Le Moustique and scouting magazine Plein Jeu. Throughout those early days, Franquin and Morris were being trained by Jijé, at that time the main illustrator at Le Journal de Spirou. He turned the youngsters and fellow neophyte Willy Maltaite – AKA Will (Tif et Tondu, Isabelle, Le jardin des désirs) – into a perfect creative bullpen known as the La bande des quatre or “Gang of Four”. They promptly revolutionised Belgian comics with their prolific and engaging “Marcinelle school” style of graphic storytelling.

Jijé handed Franquin all responsibilities for the flagship strip part-way through Spirou et la maison préfabriquée, (LJdS#427, June 20th 1946. The eager beaver ran with it for two decades, enlarging the scope and horizons until it became purely his own. Almost every week fans would meet startling new characters such as comrade and rival Fantasio and crackpot inventor the Count of Champignac.

Along the way Spirou & Fantasio became globe-trotting journalists, endlessly expanding their weekly exploits in unbroken four-colour glory. They travelled to exotic climes, exposing crimes, revealing the fantastic and clashing with a coterie of arch-enemies such as Zorglub and Zantafio and one of the first strong female characters in European comics – rival journalist Seccotine (renamed Cellophine in the current English translation).

In a splendid example of good practise, Franquin mentored his own band of apprentice cartoonists during the 1950s. These included Jean Roba (La Ribambelle, Boule et Bill), Jidéhem (Sophie, Starter, Gaston Lagaffe) and Greg (Bruno Brazil, Bernard Prince, Zig et Puce, Achille Talon), who all worked with him on Spirou et Fantasio. In 1955, a contractual spat with Dupuis saw Franquin sign up with rivals Casterman on Le Journal de Tintin, where he collaborated with René Goscinny and old pal Peyo whilst creating the raucous gag strip Modeste et Pompon. Franquin soon patched things up with Dupuis and returned to Spirou, subsequently co-creating Gaston Lagaffe (now known in Britain as Gomer Goof) in 1957, but was obliged to carry on his Casterman commitments too…

From 1959, writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem assisted Franquin, but by 1969 the artist had reached his Spirou limit. He quit, taking his mystic yellow monkey with him…

His later creations include fantasy series Isabelle, illustration sequence Monsters and bleak adult conceptual series Idées Noires, but his greatest creation – and one he retained all rights to on his departure – is Marsupilami, which, in addition to comics tales, has become a star of screen, plush toy store, console and albums.

Plagued in later life by bouts of depression, Franquin passed away on January 5th 1997, but his legacy remains: a vast body of work that reshaped the landscape of European comics.

Cinebook have published Spirou and Fantasio’s exploits since 2009, initially concentrating on Tome & Janry’s superb pastiche/homages of Franquin, with infrequent doses of the original article also available in paperback and digitally.

Here, in the sequel to Z is for Zorglub (also by Franquin, Greg & Jidéhem) we head back to 1960 for a return engagement with a super-scientific arrogant buffoon whose believes he is the rightful ruler of Earth and the solar system thanks to his discovery of the mind-bending “Zorglwave”.

Previously, the smug weirdo had used his hypnotic rays to make Fantasio one of his mind-controlled Zorglmen whilst attempting to destroy their inspirational boffin acquaintance: mushroom-mad Count Champignac. Apparently, they were at school together…

After an epic encounter, Zorglub was outwitted by Spirou, Spip and the Marsupilami, and all his grand plans scuttled, but as this volume opens our heroes are cleaning up in the generally placid hamlet of Champignac-in-the-Sticks where one last Zorglman is still prowls, armed with a paralysis ray and causing a catastrophic kerfuffle…

Sadly, no sooner do our heroes solve that problem than Zorglub himself turns up to reclaim the last of his evil machines and advanced aircraft: keen to resume his duel with the kindly Count. An inconclusive clash results in Zorglub heading off for his last hidden base – creating a shocking swathe of chaos and destruction in his wake – unaware that he has left a crucial clue.

Soon the heroic gang are off to Palombia – home of wild Marsupilami – landing just in time to become embroiled in the madman’s latest outrage: dominating the local toiletries market through his hypnotic devices. With all that operating capital, his conquest of Earth is assured…

As economic unrest drags the Palombian populace towards destitution and revolution, the Count perfects his anti-Z wave technology and our heroes’ counterattack, but unknown to all, a malicious old enemy has formed a third faction to exploit Zorglub’s grand scheme for shoddy personal gain. When he’s finally exposed, the monster resorts to the death-ray even Zorglub was too ashamed to use but has underestimated Spirou, the Count and the marvellous Marsupilami. The end is a sudden, shocking, comeuppance but we have not seen the last of Zorglub…

Stuffed with an astounding array of astonishing hi-tech spoofery, riotous chases, sight gags and verbal ripostes, this exultant escapade is a fast and fabulous fiesta of angst-free action and thrills. Readily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with beguiling style and seductive élan, this is pure cartoon gold, truly deserving of reaching the widest audience possible.

Buy it for you, get another for the kids and give copies to all your friends…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1962 by Franquin, Jidéhem & Greg. All rights reserved. English translation 2018 © Cinebook Ltd.

The Spectacular Spider-Man: Lo, This Monster


By Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, John Romita Sr., Jim Mooney, Bill Everett & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2064-7 (TPB)

The Amazing Spider-Man was always a character and concept which matured with – or perhaps just slightly ahead – of its fan-base. That thought might well have contributed to a rare Marvel misstep during the 1960s as the House of Ideas increasingly challenged the dominance of DC; finally collected here in its own nostalgia-soaked trade paperback and digital tome for your delight and delectation…

After a shaky start, the Wondrous Wallcrawler quickly became a sensational “must-see” with kids of all ages. Before long, the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics drama would become the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the (relatively) staid thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

You know the story: Peter Parker was a smart-but-alienated teenager bitten by a radioactive spider during a high school science trip. Discovering he’d developed astonishing arachnid abilities – which he augmented with his own natural chemistry, physics and engineering genius – the Parker did what any lonely, geeky nerd would do with such newfound prowess: he tried to cash in for girls, fame and money.

Crafting a costume to hide his identity in case he made a fool of himself, Parker became a minor media celebrity – and a criminally self-important one. To his eternal regret, when a thief fled past him one night, he didn’t lift a finger to stop him, only to find when he returned home that his beloved guardian uncle Ben Parker had been murdered.

Crazed and vengeful, Peter hunted the assailant who’d made doting Aunt May a widow and killed the only father he had ever known. When, to his horror, he discovered it was the self-same felon he had neglected to stop, and that irresponsibility had resulted in the death of the man who raised him, the traumatised boy swore to forevermore use his powers to help others…

Since that night, the Wondrous Wallcrawler has tirelessly battled miscreants, monsters and madmen, with a fickle, ungrateful public generally baying for his blood even as he saves them.

Already the darlings of college campuses and media intelligentsia, the Amazing Arachnid’s rise increased pace as the Swinging Sixties closed, with Peter and his ever-expanding cast of comrades well on the way to being household names. Stan Lee’s scripts were completely in tune with the times – as perceived by most kids’ parents at least – and an increasing use of soap opera plots kept older readers glued to the series even if the bombastic battle sequences didn’t.

In 1968, the company finally broke free of a restrictive distribution deal and exponentially expanded. All these factors combined to prompt a foray into the world of oversized mainstream magazines (as successfully developed by James Warren with Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella) which could be higher priced and produced without restrictive oversight from The Comics Code Authority. The result was the quarterly Spectacular Spider-Man #1-2 (July-November 1968): a genuinely wonder-filled thrill for 9-year-old me, but clearly not the mainstream mass of Marvel Mavens…

Re-presented here are both issues, material from the unpublished third and a variety of background supplements, beginning with that first bombastic booklet.

Following a painted cover – Marvel’s first – by John Romita (senior) and illustrator Harry Rosenbaum, the main feature of Spectacular Spider-Man #1 was ‘Lo, This Monster!’ by Lee, John Romita (senior) & Jim Mooney: an extended, political thriller with charismatic reformer Richard Raleigh tirelessly campaigning to become Mayor, but targeted and hunted by a brutish titan seemingly determined to keep the old political machine in place at all costs…

Rendered in moody wash tones, the drama soon disclosed a sinister plotter directing the monster’s campaign of terror… but his identity was the last one Spidey expected to expose…

Also included in the magazine and here was a retelling of the hallowed origin tale as described above. ‘In the Beginning…’ is crafted by Lee, with brother Larry Lieber’s pencils elevated by inks-&-tones from the legendary Bill Everett. Rounding out the experience is a tantalising ‘Next issue’ ad which neatly segues into an all-Romita painted cover and the magazine experiment’s premature the conclusion…

Three months later The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 came out. It was radically different from its predecessor. To offset disappointing sales, Marvel had swiftly switched to a smaller size and added comic book colour. It also sported a Comics Code symbol.

A proposed third issue which would have debuted the Prowler never appeared. It was to be the last attempt to secure ostensibly older-reader shelf-space until the mid-1970s. At least the story in #2 was top-rate…

Following monochrome recap ‘The Spider-Man Saga’ Lee, Romita & Mooney dealt with months of foreshadowing in the monthly comic book series by finally revealing how Norman Osborn had shaken off selective amnesia and returned to full-on super-villainy in ‘The Goblin Lives!’

Steeped in his former madness and remembering Peter Parker was Spider-Man, Osborn plays cat and mouse with his foe, threatening all the hero’s loved ones until a climactic closing battle utilising hallucinogenic weapons again erases the Green Goblin personality… for the moment…

A full colour teaser for never-seen #3’s “The Mystery of the TV Terror!” leads off the extra features, followed by a Dean White version of #2’s cover which fronted 2012’s Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man vol 7 and house ads from various 1968 Marvel comics for Spectacular Spider-Man #1 & 2.

Also included are Romita’s original pencils for the covers of both, with the painted end-products by Harry Rosenbaum and Romita respectively and a 1988 text feature from Marvel Visions #29 detailing ‘The Greatest Comics Never Seen’, and offering sketches and unused pages of the antihero we know as The Prowler (who was legendarily invented by schoolboy John Romita Jr.).

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. If you fancy a taste of something simultaneously tried-&-true and spectacularly radical, this might be the book for you.
© 2019 MARVEL

Aquaman: Deadly Waters – The Deluxe Edition


By Steve Skeates, Jim Aparo, Neal Adams, Nick Cardy & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1779502940 (HB)

Aquaman is one of a handful of costumed champions to survive the superhero collapse at the end of the Golden Age. For most of that time he was a rather nondescript and genial guy who – when not rescuing fish and people from sub-sea disasters – solved maritime crimes and mysteries.

The Sea King was created by Mort Weisinger & Paul Norris, debuting in More Fun Comics #73 (November 1941) in the wake of and in response to Timely Comics’ antihero Namor the Sub-Mariner. Strictly a second stringer for most of his career, Aquaman nevertheless continued on beyond many stronger features; illustrated by Norris, Louis Cazaneuve, Charles Paris, and latterly Ramona Fradon who drew almost every adventure from 1951 to 1961.

When Showcase #4 rekindled the public’s taste for costumed crimefighters with the advent of a new Flash in 1956, National/DC updated its small band of superhero survivors, especially Green Arrow and Aquaman.

As the sixties opened, Aquaman was appearing as a back-up feature in Detective and World’s Finest Comics. Following a team up with Hawkman in Brave and the Bold # 51 and a try-out run in Showcase #30-33, Aquaman made his big leap. After two decades of continuous nautical service, the marine marvel finally got his own comic book (cover-dated January/February 1962).

Now with his own title and soon to be featured in groundbreaking must-see cartoon show the Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure, our Finned Fury seemed destined for super-stardom, but despite increasingly bold and innovative tales presented with stunning art, his title was cancelled just after the decade closed. Towards the end, outrageously outlandish crime and sci fi yarns gave way to grittily hard-edged epics steered by revolutionary editor Dick Giordano and hot new talents Steve Skeates & Jim Aparo that might arguably be the first sallies of comic books’ landmark socially conscious “relevancy” period…

This compelling compilation – collecting Aquaman volume 1 #49-56 (February 1970 to April 1971) – is available in hardback and digital formats, offering potent dramas that changed perceptions of the amiable aquatic avenger forever as well as concluding his first foray as solo headliner…

Way back in Aquaman #18, (December 1964 and not included here) the marine marvel met extradimensional princess Mera, who became ‘The Wife of Aquaman’ in one of the first superhero weddings of the Silver Age. Talk about instant responsibilities…

A few years later new scripter Steve Skeates and equally fresh-faced illustrator Jim Aparo began an epic extended tale wherein the Sea Lord abandoned all regal responsibilities to hunt for his beloved after she was abducted from his very arms.

After rescuing Mera (in an extended epic collected in a previous volume) Aquaman moved back to Atlantis just in time to become embroiled in one of the earliest incidences of righteous eco-advocacy in American comics. Issue #49 stylishly blends a trip to Alaska, industrial waste dumping, greedy factory owners and an old ally acting as judge, jury and executioner while blowing up chemical plants in terse, potent thriller ‘As the Seas Die’.

With Aquaman and young partner Aqualad reeling from indecision over genuinely momentous issues, the tone abruptly switches for #50 as ‘Can This Be Death?’ sees Aparo stretch his creative muscles and enter the realms of psychodelia when the sea king is ambushed by aliens and banished to an incomprehensible otherworld.

The plot is ostensibly triggered by vengeful archenemy Ocean Master, but Skeates provides plenty of twists and surprises for Neal Adams to cover in his back-up slot ‘Deadman Rides Again!’

A complex braided crossover unfolds over the next three issues with Aquaman surviving bizarre threats and incomprehensible rituals in his exile realm, while the ghost of Boston Brand acts invisibly and intangibly to save the Sea King and prevent an alien invasion plot.

‘The Big Pull’ in #51 sees Aquaman assisted by a mute, nameless companion as he searches for a way home, whilst ‘The World Cannot Wait for a Deadman’ finds the spirit flitting between dimensions with shapeshifting enigma Tatsinda, before the parallel plots converge and complete in #52’s ‘The Traders Trap’ – with Aquaman accidentally abandoning his faithful companion to slavers and returning to face fresh hellion Black Manta before ‘Never Underestimate a Deadman’ sees the extraterrestrial invaders sent packing by the ghost and his new pal…

An element of wry satire underpins ‘Is California Sinking? in #53, as agents of O.G.R.E. dupe a wealthy conservative to buy a nuke and bomb Atlantis in the deranged conviction that his actions will prevent the Golden State from being submerged by tectonic forces. This all happens – and fails – without Aquaman’s interference since he’s still dealing with Black Manta…

It’s back to the surface and a return outing for the gangster who orchestrated Mera’s kidnap in #54 as ‘Crime Wave!’ in a chilling psychodrama which sees ordinary citizens engulfed in mind-controlled malevolence after being “killed” by “Thanatos”. Strangely, a brush with humanity’s death-urge doesn’t do much to stop Aquaman…

Seeking to clear up a loose end, Aquaman seeks to liberate his former otherworldly companion in #55’s ‘Return of the Alien!’ but gets a big shock when he confronts the slavers after which short sharp salutary vignette ‘Computer Trap!’ offers a never-untimely parable warning of the perils of mechanisation, dangers of conformity and benefits of youthful rebellion.

Despite producing some of the most avant-garde, intriguing, exciting and simply beautiful adventures of Aquaman’s entire career, Skeates & Aparo signed off with the next issue, more victims of the industry shift from Super Hero to supernatural themes. Aquaman #56 saw the series cancelled but the creators went out with a typically multi-layered bang as ‘The Creature that Devoured Detroit!’ saw the Sea King battling a mammoth unstoppable fungal bloom inundating Motor City, thanks to perpetual sunlight caused by a satellite designed by a vigilante to cut crime by abolishing night and shadows…

The madcap, trenchant and action-packed yarn is counterbalanced by a short Aquagirl yarn warning of ‘The Cave of Death!’

Augmented by a brace of Skeates-scribed ‘The Story Behind the Story’ text pages from Aquaman #52 and #54; creator biographies and a truly stunning gallery of eye-catching experimental covers by Nick Cardy, this collection is a treasure of lost wonders, worthy of far more attention than they’ve received. Time to balance those scales, adventure fans…
© 1970, 1971, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.