Batman: Hong Kong

By Doug Moench, & Tony Wong (DC Comics)
ISBN 978-1-4012-0057-2 (HB)                     978-1-4012-0101-2 (TPB)

This Batman outreach project is a surprisingly engaging piece of Hong Kong cinema in comic form by veteran scribe Doug Moench and the anonymous horde of illustrators used by Comics Supremo Tony Wong to churn out literally thousands of lavishly executed Kung Fu comics that have earned him the title “the Stan Lee of Hong Kong”.

The story itself is fairly unsurprising tosh. A serial killer who webcasts his murders as real-time snuff movies leads Batman to the former British colony and a civil war between a Triad leader and his brother: a cop determined to bring him to book.

Add to the mix a dashing young nephew who loves his family but thirsts for justice and you have all the elements for the next Johnny To, Kazuya Shiraishi or Park Hoon-jung blockbuster nerve-jangler.

Although a touch stiff in places and a little disorienting if you’re unused to the rapid art-style transitions of Hong Kong comics (artists and even forms of representation – paint, black line wash, crayon etc. can vary from panel to panel) this has a lot of pace and fairly rattles along. In this anniversary year, Batman: Hong Kong is still loads better and more accessible than many outings for the caped crusader of recent years and well worth the time and effort of any diehard Dark Knight aficionado in sech of a rarer flavour.
© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure

By Hergé & various; translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-810-9 (HB Unicorn) 978-1-40520-622-8 (PB Unicorn)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-811-6 (HB Rackham) 978-1-40520-623-5 (PB Rackham)

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

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

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

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

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

Having recently discovered the word balloon in imported newspaper strips, Remi decided to incorporate this simple yet effective innovation into his own work. He would produce a strip both modernistic and action-packed.

Beginning in early January 1929, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets appeared in weekly instalments, running until May 8th 1930. Accompanied by his garrulous dog Milou (Snowy to us Brits), the clean-cut, no-nonsense boy-hero – a combination of Ideal Good Scout and Remi’s own brother Paul (a soldier in the Belgian Army) – would report back all the inequities of the world, since the strip’s prime conceit was that Tintin was an actual foreign correspondent for Le Petit Vingtiéme

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

During the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, Le Petit Vingtiéme was closed down and Hergé was compelled to move the popular strip to the occupiers’ preferred daily newspaper Le Soir. He diligently continued producing stories for the duration, but in the period following Belgium’s liberation was accused of being a collaborator and even a Nazi sympathiser.

It took the intervention of Resistance hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist and by providing the cash to create a new magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which Leblanc published and managed. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a weekly circulation in the hundreds of thousands.

These adventures come from the Golden Age of an iconic creator’s work. Despite being produced whilst Belgium was under the control of Nazi Occupation Forces during World War II, the qualitative leap in all aspects of Hergé’s creativity is potent and remarkable.

After his homeland fell to the invaders in 1940, Georges Remi’s brief military career was over. He was a reserve Lieutenant, working on The Land of Black Gold when called up, but the collapse of Belgium meant that he was back at his drawing board before year’s end, albeit working for a new paper on a brand-new adventure. He would not return to Black Gold, with its highly anti-fascistic subtext, until 1949.

Le Secret de La Licorne ran from June 11th 1942 to January 14th 1943: a rip-roaring adventure mystery of light-hearted, escapist thrills, to create a haven of delight from the daily horrors of everyday life. It and its continuation remain a legacy of joyous adventure to this day. It’s also the first co-created with cartoonist, journalist and full-time ghost writer Jacques Van Melkebeke (AKA George Jacquet) who silently collaborated on Blake & Mortimer, Hassan et Kaddour, Corentin, Les Farces de l’Empereur and many others.

On completion it was collected as a full-colour book in 1943, re-mastered in 1946 and serialised in French newspaper Coeurs Vaillants from Mach 19th 1944.

After the dramatic and fanciful far-fetched exploits of The Shooting Star, Hergé returned to less fantastical fare with The Secret of the Unicorn which begins as Tintin buys an antique model galleon at a street market. He intends presenting it to Captain Haddock, but even before he can pay for it an increasingly desperate number of people try to buy, and even steal it from him.

Resisting all efforts and entreaties, he tells his effulgent friend of the purchase, ‘though not that a minor accident has broken one of the masts. The Captain is flabbergasted to hear of the model! He has a portrait of his ancestor Sir Francis Haddock, painted in the reign of King Charles II, in which the exact same ship features!

On returning home Tintin finds the model has been stolen, but on visiting the first and most strident of the collectors who tried to buy it from him finds that the man already has an exact duplicate of the missing model.

After much hurly-burly Tintin and Haddock discover that Sir Francis was once a prisoner of infamous pirate Red Rackham, but escaped with the location of the villain’s treasure horde. Subsequently making three models of his vessel “The Unicorn”, the sea dog placed part of a map in each and gave them to his three sons…

Someone else obviously has divined the secret of the ships and that mysterious mastermind becomes ever more devious and ruthless in his attempts to obtain the complete map. Events come to a head when Tintin is kidnapped, which is a big mistake, as the intrepid lad brilliantly turns the tables on his abductors and solves the mystery. With the adventure suitably concluded, the volume ends with our heroes ready to embark on the no-doubt perilous voyage to recover Red Rackham’s Treasure

For which we must turn to the next volume in this glorious repackaging of one of the World’s greatest comic strip treasures… Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin!
The Secret of the Unicorn: artwork © 1946, 1974 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai.
Text © 1959 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.

The concluding tome of an epic saga, Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge ran in Le Soir from February 9th to September 23rd 1943 and topped that thrilling mystery chase to secure three sections of a pirate map with a glorious all-out, all-action romp in search of the loot itself. During that period the artist met Edgar P. Jacobs, who became his assistant on the daily strip…

Tintin and Haddock are quietly assembling the requirements for their proposed treasure hunt. However, when a loose-lipped sailor is overheard by an enterprising reporter, the endeavour becomes a cause celebré with a horde of opportunists claiming descent from Red Rackham.

A more persistent but innocently intentioned distraction is a deaf and daffy Professor named Cuthbert Calculus who wants to use the expedition to test his new invention. He continually accosts Tintin and Haddock. Although his offer is rejected the Professor is not a man to be easily dissuaded. Mostly because he can’t hear the word “no” – or any others…

With the detectives Thompson and Thomson aboard (in case of criminal activity) the small team sets sail on their grand adventure…

This is a rich and absorbing yarn in the classic manner, full of exotic islands, nautical drama, mystery and travail, brilliantly timed comedy pieces and even a surprise ending. The restrictions of Belgium’s occupation necessitated Hergé’s curtailment of political commentary and satire in his work, but it apparently freed his Sense of Wonder to explore classic adventure themes with spectacular and memorable results. Although not the greatest of stand-alone Tintin tales, in conjunction with The Secret of the Unicorn this story becomes one of the best action sagas in the entire Hergé canon.

These ripping yarns for all ages are an unparalleled highpoint in the history of graphic narrative. Their unflagging popularity proves them to be a worthy addition to the list of world classics of literature, and stories you and your entire clan should know.
Red Rackham’s Treasure: artwork © 1945, 1973 Editions Casterman, Paris & Tournai.
Text © 1975 Egmont UK Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Harvest Breed

By George Pratt & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-692-7 (HC)        978-1-84023-701-6 (Titan Books UK edition HC)

Sometimes even the best of intentions and greatest of artisans don’t quite produce the best result. Master illustrator George Pratt returned tangentially to the Vietnam War for the backstory of this memorable supernatural thriller starring the Dark Knight, but the overall results fall short of his superb par, as established with the landmark Enemy Ace: War Idyll. Even so…

Bruce Wayne is tortured by bloody nightmares of devils and sacrifices as a mysterious killer seeks to re-enact a murder-ritual based on the points of a cross.

Such ritual has been attempted many times throughout history, but on this particular occasion the stakes seem much higher – and far more personal.

Only a girl named Luci Boudreaux, escapee and survivor of the Hell on Earth that was Viet Nam seems to have any answers to the dilemma…

Although painted with astounding passion and skill, and frequently offering unforgettable imagery, the story seems to have been sadly neglected and is – quite frankly – a bit of a mess, with war veterans, voodoo priests, faith-healers, demons and an uncomfortable misunderstanding of the relationship between Batman and Police Commissioner Jim Gordon muddying a rather tired old plot.

Even so, there are plenty of movie blockbusters that have got away with far less to great acclaim and for richer rewards.

If you love bleak and moody style over content, or can always find room for the blackest crannies infested by the darkest of knights, you might want to hunt this down and give it a shot.

So, even if you’re not a Bat-completist, in this anniversary year, there’s still a reason to step out of the light into forgotten realms with the world’s most popular superhero.
© 2000 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection volume 3 1966-1967: Spider-Man No More

By Stan Lee, John Romita, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Marie Severin & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1023-5 (TPB)

Outcast, geeky high school kid Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and, after attempting to cash-in on the astonishing abilities he’d developed, suffered an irreconcilable personal tragedy. Due to the teenager’s arrogant neglect, his beloved guardian Uncle Ben was murdered and the traumatised boy determined henceforward to always use his powers to help those in dire need.

For years the brilliant young hero suffered privation and travail in his domestic situation, whilst his heroic alter ego endured public condemnation and mistrust as he valiantly battled all manner of threat and foe…

Spanning August 1966 to September 1967, this fulsome, titanic, full-colour Epic Collection (available as massive paperback or ephemeral eBook) gathers the gems from Amazing Spider-Man #39-52 plus Annuals #3-4 and a deliciously daft snippet from spoof mag Not Brand Echh #2, heralding the start of a brand new era for the Astonishing Arachnid with Peter and his ever-expanding cast of cohorts well on the way to being household names as well as the darlings of college campuses and the media intelligentsia.

By 1966 Stan Lee and Steve Ditko could no longer work together on their greatest creation. After increasingly fraught months the artist simply resigned, leaving Spider-Man without an illustrator.

In the coincidental meantime John Romita had been lured away from DC’s romance line and given odd assignments before assuming the artistic reins of Daredevil, the Man Without Fear. Before long, he was co-piloting the company’s biggest property and expected to run with it.

After a period where old-fashioned crime and gangsterism predominated, science fiction themes and costumed crazies began to predominate as the world went gaga for superheroes and creators experimented with longer storylines and protracted subplots…

When Ditko abruptly left, the company feared a drastic loss in quality and sales but it didn’t happen. John Romita (senior) considered himself a mere “safe pair of hands” keeping the momentum going until a better artist could be found but instead blossomed into a major talent in his own right. The wallcrawler continued his unstoppable rise at an accelerated pace…

When Amazing Spider-Man #39 appeared with the first of a 2-part adventure declaiming the ultimate victory of the hero’s greatest foe, no reader knew what had happened – and no one told them…

‘How Green Was My Goblin!’ and ‘Spidey Saves the Day! (“Featuring the End of the Green Goblin!”)’ calamitously changed everything whilst describing how the arch-foes learned each other’s true identities before the Goblin “perished” in a climactic showdown. It would have been memorable even if the tale didn’t feature the debut of a new artist & a whole new manner of story-telling…

The issues were a turning point in many ways, and – inked by old DC colleague Mike Esposito (under the pseudonym Mickey Demeo) – they still stand as one of the greatest Spider-Man yarns of all time, heralding a run of classic tales from the Lee/Romita team that saw sales rise and rise, even without the seemingly irreplaceable Ditko.

With #41 and ‘The Horns of the Rhino!’, Romita began inking his own pencils and although the debuting super-strong criminal spy proved a mere diversion, his intended target, J. Jonah Jameson’s astronaut son, was a far harder proposition in the next issue.

Amazing Spider-Man #42 heralded ‘The Birth of a Super-Hero!’, wherein John Jameson is mutated by space-spores and goes on a Manhattan rampage: a solid, entertaining yarn that is only really remembered for the last panel of the final page.

Mary Jane Watson had been a running gag in the series for years: a prospective blind-date arranged by Aunt May who Peter had avoided – and Ditko skilfully not depicted – for the duration of time that our hero had been involved with Betty Brant, Liz Allen, and latterly Gwen Stacy.

Now, in that last frame the gobsmacked young man finally realises that for two years he’s been ducking the hottest chick in New York!

‘Rhino on the Rampage!’ gave the villain one more crack at Jameson and Spidey, but the emphasis was solidly on foreshadowing future foes and building Pete and MJ’s relationship. Next comes Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 3 and ‘…To Become an Avenger!’ as the World’s Mightiest Heroes offer the webspinner membership if he can capture the Hulk. As usual, all is not as it seems but the action-drenched epic, courtesy of Lee, Romita (on layouts), Don Heck, & Esposito is the kind of guest-heavy power-punching package that made these summer specials a child’s delight.

The monthly Marvel merriment resumes with the return of a tragedy-drenched old foe as Lee & Romita reintroduce biologist Curt Conners in #44’s ‘Where Crawls the Lizard!’ The deadly reptilian marauder threatens Humanity itself and it takes all of the wallcrawler’s resourcefulness to stop him in the concluding ‘Spidey Smashes Out!’

Issue #46 introduced an all-new menace in the form of seismic super-thief ‘The Sinister Shocker!’ whilst ‘In the Hands of the Hunter!’ brought back a fighting-mad Kraven the Hunter to menace the family of Parker’s pal Harry Osborn. Apparently, the obsessive big-game hunter had entered into a contract with Harry’s father (Green Goblin, until a psychotic break turned him into a traumatised amnesiac). Now, though, the hunter wants paying off…

Luckily, Spider-Man is on hand to dissuade him, but it’s interesting to note that at this time the student life and soap-opera sub-plots became increasingly important to the mix, with glamour girls Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy (both superbly delineated by the masterful Romita) as well as former bully Flash Thompson and the Osborns getting as much – or more – “page-time” as Aunt May or the Daily Bugle staff, who had previously monopolised the non-costumed portions of the ongoing saga.

Amazing Spider-Man #48 launched Blackie Drago; a ruthless thug who shared a prison cell with one of the wall-crawler’s oldest foes. At death’s door, the ailing and elderly super-villain reveals his technological secrets, enabling Drago to escape and master ‘The Wings of the Vulture!’

Younger, faster, tougher, the new Vulture defeats Spider-Man and in #49’s ‘From the Depths of Defeat!’ battles Kraven until a reinvigorated arachnid can step in to thrash them both.

Issue #50 featured the debut of one of Marvel’s greatest villains in the first of a 3-part yarn that saw the beginnings of romance between Parker and Gwen. It also contained the death of a cast regular, re-established Spidey’s war on cheap thugs and common criminals (a key component of the hero’s appeal was that no criminal was too small for him to bother with) and saw a crisis of conscience force him to quit in ‘Spider-Man No More!’.

Life being what it is, Peter’s sense of responsibility forces his return before he is trapped ‘In the Clutches of… the Kingpin!’ until he ultimately and tragically triumphs in ‘To Die a Hero!’ This gang-busting triptych saw Romita relinquish the inking of his art to Esposito.

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #4 follows as Lee – with his brother Larry Lieber & Esposito handling the art chores – crafts an epic battle-saga wherein Spidey and the Human Torch are tricked into appearing in a movie.

Sadly ‘The Web and the Flame!’ is just a deviously diabolical scheme to kill them, devilishly orchestrated by old enemies The Wizard and Mysterio, but the titanic teens are up to the task of trashing their attackers…

From the same issue – and all courtesy of Lieber – come pictorial fact-features ‘The Coffee Bean Barn!’ – face-checking the then-current Spider-Man regulars – while sartorial secrets exposed in ‘What the Well-Dressed Spider-Man Will Wear’ and superpowers are scrutinised in ‘Spidey’s Greatest Talent’.

Also included are big pin-ups of our hero testing his strength against Marvel’s mightiest good guys, a double-page spread ‘Say Hello to Spidey’s Favorite Foes!’ plus another 2-page treat as we enjoy ‘A Visit to Peter’s Pad!’

With the action over there’s still time for a hearty ha ha as Not Brand Echh #2 shares an outrageous comedy caper from Lee, Marie Severin & Frank Giacoia starring the Aging Spidey-Man! Here ‘Peter Pooper vs. Gnatman and Rotten’ reveals how rival comics icons duke it out for the hearts and minds of fandom in a wry jab at the madness of the era’s Batmania craze.

Also on view are gems of original art – including unused pages – and Romita’s first sketch of Mary Jane, plus a painted cover repro from Romita & Dean White.

After a shaky start The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became a popular sensation with kids of all ages. Before long the quirky, charming, thrillingly action-packed comics soap-opera was the model for an entire generation of younger heroes impatiently elbowing aside the staid, (relatively) old thirty-something mystery-men of previous publications and hallowed tradition.

This book is Marvel and Spider-Man at their peak. You really should read it.
© 1966, 1967, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Batman/Deadman: Death and Glory

By James Robinson & John Estes (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-213-4 (HB)                    978-1-56389-228-8 (TPB)

Everybody thinks they know Batman but to only a select few are the secrets of assassinated trapeze artist Boston Brand also revealed. An ordinary man in a brutal, cynical world, Brand was a soul in balance until killed as part of a pointless initiation for a trainee assassin.

When the unlucky aerialist died, instead of going to whatever reward awaited him, Rama Kushna, spirit of the universe, offered him the chance to solve his own murder. That opportunity evolved into an unending mission to balance the scales between good and evil in the world. The ghost is intangible and invisible to all mortals, but has the ability to “walk into” living beings, possessing and controlling them.

Gotham City: Batman gradually regains consciousness, realising he is facing a squad of armed, trigger-happy police and holding a knife to the throat of a hostage. The scene is a nightclub-turned-charnel house and all evidence before the hero’s widened eyes indicates that he is the murderous culprit…

Suddenly clear-headed and rational, he drops his victim and escapes the SWAT teams, determined to find out what has happened since he lost consciousness. Stepping broadly out of character, Batman uses magical items taken from villainous sorcerer Felix Faust to perform an eldritch rite and snags his prime suspect, Boston Brand. Unfortunately, old comrade Deadman is not the guilty party, but does reveal that a rich man who has sold his soul to the devil is responsible for all the Dark Knight’s woes.

Meanwhile, Albert Yeats, terminally ill and imminently dying, is running for what’s left of his life, hunted by things he doesn’t know and can’t understand…

Determined to renege, Frederick Chaplin has offered another’s soul in exchange for his hellbound one, and the devil has accepted. Yeats had been chosen by the universe to reincarnate as the Messiah in his extremely imminent next life, but that can’t happen if he’s paying Chaplin’s tab in the Inferno.

Deadman has been watching over Yeats until he safely passes, but when Batman is first possessed and subsequently distracts the Ghostly Guardian with his spell, Yeats is left alone and unprotected…

Now the kid is in the wind and the heroes must find and shield him long enough to die safely: a task complicated by an entire city hunting what they still think is a murderous Bat-Maniac, whilst the real possession-killer – a phantom, satanic counterpart to Deadman called the Clown who has spread terror and death for 70 years – is loose to spread his own unholy kind of havoc…

Intriguing and pretty, but lacking much of the emotional punch of earlier Batman/Deadman pairings, Death and Glory looks great even if it feels rather dispirited and glib in its attempts to blend urban horror, all-out chase action, cod-religion and hidden histories with a millennial feel-good factor. The result is a top-rate outing for Boston Brand but a rather forced and unlikely performance from the Dark Knight.

Nevertheless, fans of both heroes will find lots to love here and Estes’ painted illustration will win the approval of most comic art lovers. This book is still available through physical and online outlets, in both paperback and hardcover editions but not yet as digital delight…
© 1996 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Nova Classic volume 1

By Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Ross Andru, Carmine Infantino Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6028-1 (TPB)

By 1975 the first wave of fans-turned-writers were well ensconced at all the major American comic-book companies. Two fanzine graduates, Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, had achieved stellar successes early on, and then risen to the ranks of writer/editors at Marvel, a company in trouble both creatively and in terms of sales.

After a meteoric rise and a virtual root-&-branch overhaul of the industry in the 1960s, the House of Ideas – and every other comics publisher except Archie – were suffering from a mass desertion of fans who had simply found other uses for their mad-money.

Whereas Charlton and Gold Key dwindled and eventually died and DC vigorously explored new genres to bolster their flagging sales, Marvel chose to exploit their record with superheroes: fostering new titles within a universe it was increasingly impossible to buy only a portion of…

As seen in this no-nonsense compilation collecting the first dozen issues plus a crossover with Amazing Spider-Man #171 (September 1976-August 1977), The Man Called Nova was in fact a boy named Richard Rider. The new kid was a working-class teen nebbish in the tradition of Peter Parker – except he was good at sports and bad at learning – who attended Harry S. Truman High School, where his strict dad was the principal.

His mom worked as a police dispatcher and he had a younger brother, Robert, who was a bit of a genius. Other superficial differences to the Spider-Man canon included girlfriend Ginger and best friends Bernie and Caps, but he did have his own school bully, Mike Burley

An earlier version, “Black Nova” had apparently appeared in the Wolfman/Wein fan mag Super Adventures in 1966, but with a few revisions and an artistic make-over by the legendary John Romita (Senior), the “Human Rocket” was launched into the Marvel Universe in his own title, beginning in September 1976, ably supported by the illustration A-Team of John Buscema & Joe Sinnott.

‘Nova’ – which borrowed as heavily from Green Lantern as the wallcrawler’s origin – was structured like a classic four-chapter Lee/Kirby early Fantastic Four tale, and rapidly introduced its large cast before quickly zipping to the life-changing moment in Rider’s life when a colossal star-ship with a dying alien aboard transfers to the lad all the mighty powers of an extraterrestrial peacekeeper and warrior.

Centurion Rhomann Dey was tracking a deadly marauder to Earth. Zorr had already destroyed the warior’s idyllic homeworld Xandar, but the severely wounded, vengeance-seeking Nova Prime was too near death and could not avenge the genocide.

Trusting to fate, Dey beams his powers and abilities towards the planet below where Rich is struck by an energy bolt and plunged into a coma. On awakening, the boy realises he has gained awesome powers… and the responsibilities of the last Nova Centurion.

The tale is standard origin fare beautifully rendered by Buscema & Sinnott, but the story really begins – after text feature Nova Newsline! – with #2’s ‘The First Night of… The Condor!’ as Wolfman, playing to his own strengths, introduces an extended storyline featuring a host of new villains whilst concentrating on filling out the lives of the supporting cast.

There’s still plenty of action as the neophyte hero learns to use his new powers (one thing the energy transfer didn’t provide was an instruction manual) but battles against winged criminal mastermind Condor and his enigmatic, reluctant pawn Powerhouse only lead the green hero into a trap…

Nova #3 debuts another brutal super-thug in ‘…The Deadly Diamondhead is Ready to Strike!’ (illustrated by new art-team Sal Buscema & Tom Palmer), but the battles are clearly not as important as laying plot-threads for a big event to come. The next issue

features the first of many guest-star appearances – and the first of three covers by the inimitable Jack Kirby.

‘Nova Against the Mighty Thor’ introduces The Corruptor: a bestial being who transforms the Thunder God – with one magic touch – into a raging berserker whom only the new kid on the block can stop, before ‘Evil is the Earth-Shaker!’ pits the lad against subterranean despot Tyrannus and his latest engine of destruction, although a slick sub-plot concerning the Human Rocket’s attempt to become a comicbook star still delivers some tongue-in-cheek chuckles to this day…

Issue #6 saw those long-laid evil mastermind plans begin to mature as Condor, Diamondhead and Powerhouse return to capture Nova, whilst their hidden foe is revealed in the Frank Giacoia inked ‘And So… The Sphinx!’

The Egyptian-themed bad guy is another world-class, immortal impatiently awaiting his turn to conquer the world…

Meanwhile, young Caps has been abducted by another new nasty who would eventually make big waves for the Human Rocket….

‘War in Space!’ sees Nova a brainwashed ally of his former foes in an invasion of Rhomann Dey’s still orbiting star-ship. The awesome craft will be an invaluable weapon in the encroaching war with the Sphinx, but the boarding raid results in Nova being marooned in deep space once his mind clears.

On narrowly escaping, Rider finds himself initially outmatched and outfought by Caps’ kidnapper in ‘When Megaman Comes Calling… Don’t Answer!’: a tumultuous, time-bending epic that concludes in #9’s ‘Fear in the Funhouse!’

Nova #10 began the final (yeah, right) battle in ‘Four Against the Sphinx!’ with Condor, Diamondhead and Powerhouse in all-out battle against the immortal mage whilst the hapless Human Rocket is caught in the crossfire, after which ‘Nova No More’ focuses on the hero’s short-term memories being removed to take him out of the game. The tactic only partially works since he’s back for the next issue’s classy crossover with the Spectacular Spider-Man.

Closing out this collection ‘Who is the Man Called Photon?’ is by Wolfman, Sal Buscema & Giacoia: teaming the neophyte hero with the much more experienced webslinger in a fair-play murder mystery, after Rich Rider’s uncle is killed by a costumed thief.

However, there are ploys within ploys occurring and after the mandatory hero head-butting session, the kids join forces and the mystery is dramatically resolved in Amazing Spider-Man #171’s ‘Photon is Another Name For…?’ courtesy of Len Wein, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito.

Enthusiastic and action packed, this tome offers lots of competent, solid entertainment and beautiful superhero art and Nova has proved his intrinsic value by returning again and again. If simple, uncomplicated Fights ‘n’ Tights fiction is what you want, look no further.
© 1976, 1977, 2013 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Crisis on Multiple Earths volume 1

By Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky, Bernard Sachs & Sid Greene (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-895-2

As I’ve frequently mentioned before, I was one of the “Baby Boomer” crowd which grew up with Julie Schwartz, Gardner Fox and John Broome’s tantalisingly slow reintroduction of Golden Age superheroes during the halcyon, eternally summery days of the early 1960s. To me those fascinating counterpart crusaders from Earth-Two weren’t vague and distant memories rubber-stamped by parents or older brothers – they were cool, fascinating and enigmatically new.

…And for some reason the “proper” heroes of Earth-One held them in high regard and treated them with obvious deference…

The transcendent wonderment began, naturally enough, in The Flash; pioneering trendsetter of the Silver Age Revolution. After successfully ushering in the triumphant return of the superhero concept, the Scarlet Speedster – with Fox & Broome at the writing reins – set an unbelievably high standard for costumed adventure in sharp, witty tales of science and imagination, always illustrated with captivating style and clean simplicity by Carmine Infantino.

The epochal epic that literally changed the scope of American comics forever was Fox’s ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ (Flash #123 September 1961, and reprinted in loads of places, but not here): introducing the concept of alternate Earths to the continuity and by extension the multiversal structure of the future DCU as well as all the succeeding cosmos-shaking yearly “Crisis” sagas that grew from it.

Moreover, where DC led, others followed…

Received with tumultuous acclaim, the concept was revisited months later in Flash #129 which also teasingly reintroduced evergreen stalwarts – Wonder Woman, the Atom, Hawkman, Green Lantern, Doctor Mid-Nite and Black Canary: venerable members of the fabled Justice Society of America. Clearly Editor Schwartz had something in mind…

That tale directly led into the veteran team’s first meeting with the Justice League of America and the start of an annual tradition. When ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ brought us the notion of Infinite Earths and multiple iterations of costumed crusaders, public pressure had begun almost instantly to agitate for the return of the Greats of the “Golden Age”. The Editorial powers-that-be were hesitant, fearing too many heroes would be silly and unmanageable, or worse yet, put readers off. If they could see us now…

These innovative adventures generated an avalanche of popular and critical approval (big sales figures, too) so inevitably the trans-dimensional tests led to the ultimate team-up in the summer of 1963.

This gloriously enthralling volume – available in trade paperback and digital incarnations – is the first of a glorious sequence of collections celebrating Infinite Diversity in Infinite Costumes (extra fanboy kudos if you get where I filched that from!) and re-presents the first four JLA/JSA convocations: stunning superhero wonderments which never fail to astound and delight. It also comes with context-conveying Introduction ‘1 & 2 = Crisis’ from wonder-scribe Mark Waid detailing even more cool facts behind the phenomenon…

The comic book catharsis commences with the landmark ‘Crisis on Earth-One’ and ‘Crisis on Earth-Two’ (from Justice League of America #21-22, August & September 1963) combining to form one of the most important stories in DC history and arguably one of the most crucial tales in American literature: at least the stuff with pictures in it.

Written by Fox and compellingly illustrated by Mike Sekowsky & Bernard Sachs, the yarn finds a coalition of assorted villains from each Earth plundering at will, meeting and defeating the mighty Justice League before insufferably imprisoning them in their own secret mountain HQ…

Temporarily helpless, “our” heroes contrive a desperate plan to combine forces with the champions of another Earth to save the world – both of it – and the result is pure Fights ‘n’ Tights majesty.

It’s impossible for me to be totally objective about this saga. I was a drooling kid in short trousers when I first read it and the thrills haven’t diminished with this umpty-first re-reading.

This is what superhero comics are all about!

The buying public clearly agreed and one year later ‘Crisis on Earth-Three’ and ‘The Most Dangerous Earth of All!’ (Justice League of America #29-30) reprised the team-up of the Justice League and Justice Society, when the super-beings of a third alternate Earth discover the secret of trans-universal travel.

Unfortunately, Ultraman, Owlman, Superwoman, Johnny Quick and Power Ring are villains on a world without heroes who see the costumed crime-busters of the JLA/JSA as living practise dummies to sharpen their evil skills upon.

With this cracking thriller the annual summer get-together became solidly entrenched in heroic lore, giving fans endless entertainment for years to come and making the approaching end of school holidays less gloomy than they could have been.

(A little note: although the comic cover-date in America was the month by which unsold copies had to be returned – the “off-sale” deadline – export copies to Britain travelled as ballast in freighters. Thus, they usually went on to those cool, spinning comic-racks in the actual month printed on the front. You can unglaze your eyes and return to the review proper now, and thank you for your patient indulgence of an old and misty-eyed man…)

The third annual event was a touch different; a largely forgotten and rather experimental tale wherein the educationally-challenged and extremely larcenous Johnny Thunder of Earth-1 wrests control of the genie-like Thunderbolt from his otherworld counterpart: employing its magical powers to change the events which created of all Earth-1’s superheroes.

With Earth-1 catastrophically altered in #37’s ‘Earth – Without a Justice League’, it’s suddenly up to the JSA to save the day in a gripping battle of wits and power before Reality is re-established in #38’s concluding chapter ‘Crisis on Earth-A!’.

Veteran inker Bernard Sachs retired before the fourth team-up, leaving the amazing Sid Greene to embellish the gloriously whacky saga that closes this tome: one springing out of the global “Batmania” craze engendered by the Batman television series…

A wise-cracking campy tone was fully in play, acknowledging the changing audience profile and this time the stakes are raised to encompass the destruction of both planets in ‘Crisis Between Earth-One and Earth-Two’ and ‘The Bridge Between Earths’ (Justice League of America #46-47, August & September 1966).

Here a bold – if rash – continuum warping experiment drags the twin sidereal worlds towards an inexorable hyper-space collision. Meanwhile, making matters worse, an awesome anti-matter being uses the opportunity to break into and explore our positive-matter universe whilst the heroes of both worlds are distracted by the destructive rampages of monster-men Blockbuster and Solomon Grundy.

Peppered with wisecracks and “hip” dialogue, it’s sometimes difficult to discern what a cracking yarn this actually is, but if you’re able to forgive or swallow the dated patter, this is one of the very best plotted and illustrated stories in the entire JLA/JSA canon. Furthermore, the vastly talented Greene’s expressive subtlety, beguiling textures and whimsical humour add unheard-of depth to Sekowsky’s pencils and the light and frothy comedic scripts of Fox.

These titanic tales won’t suit everybody and I’m as aware as any that in terms of the “super-powered” genre the work here can be boiled down to two bunches of heroes formulaically getting together to deal with extra-extraordinary problems. In mature hindsight, it’s obviously also about sales and the attempted revival of more sellable super characters during a period of intense commercial competition between DC Comics and Marvel.

But I don’t have to be mature in my off-hours and for those who love costumed dramas, who crave these cunningly constructed modern mythologies and actually care, this is simply a grand parade of straightforward action, great causes and momentous victories.

…And since I wouldn’t have it any other way, why should you?
© 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Detective #27

By Michael Uslan & Peter Snejbjerg with Lee Loughridge (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1401201852 (HB)                        978-1401201074 (TPB)

Oooh! Ooh! More Batman!! …Ish.

Not so long ago and for a brief while, DC’s experimental Elseworlds imprint, where familiar characters and continuity were radically or subtly re-imagined, was a regular hive of productivity and generated some wonderful – and quite a few ridiculous – stories.

Moreover, by using what the readers thought they knew as a springboard, the result, usually constricted into a disciplined single story, had a solid and resolute immediacy that was too often diluted in regular, periodical publications where the illusion of change always trumps actual innovation in long-running characters.

A fine example is this intriguing pulp mystery and generational drama blending the lineage of the Wayne family of Gotham City with covert societies and the secret history of the United States of America.

April 1865, Washington DC: President Lincoln overrides the objections of Allan Pinkerton (who had created the Secret Service to protect him) and goes to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. His assassination prompts the infuriated security genius to create a dedicated clandestine force beyond the reach of everything but their mission and their own consciences…

April 1929, Gotham City: a doctor, his wife and their young son exit a movie theatre where they have thrilled to the exploits of Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro. Suddenly, sneak thieves confront them and in the struggle Thomas and Martha Wayne are gunned down, leaving a grieving boy kneeling over their bloody corpses. Family butler Alfred packs the coldly resolute boy off on a decade-long world tour to study with masters of criminology around the globe…

Lincoln’s murder was planned by a cabal of Confederate plotters named the Knights of the Golden Circle. Their leader, an early eugenics-inspired geneticist named Josiah Carr, outlines a Doomsday vengeance plot that will take decades to complete…

January 1st 1939: Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham ready to begin his life’s mission, but is diverted when crusading newspaperman Lee Travis reveals the existence of the Secret Society of Detectives and invites the young man to become their 27th operative since Pinkerton…

Charming and relentlessly compelling, this superbly pacy thriller follows two time-lines as the founding Detective hunts the Golden Circle through the years, enlisting the covert aid of many historical figures such as Kate Warne (America’s first female detective), journalist and President-to-be Teddy Roosevelt and biologist/monk Gregor Mendel whilst Wayne closes in on the climax of the Doomsday plot with the aid of Babe Ruth and Sigmund Freud. He even confronts customised versions of such classic Bat-foes as Catwoman, Scarecrow, Hugo Strange and the Joker.

Best of all there’s a deliciously wry cameo from the Golden Age Superman as well as a magnificent surprise ending to this two-fisted tribute to the “Thud-and-Blunder” era of the 1930s pulps…

This is a conspiracy thriller stuffed to overflowing with in-jokes, referential asides, pop culture clues and universal icons that make The Da Vinci Code and its legion of even more tedious knock-offs look like a bunch of dry words on dusty paper. The only flaw is that writer Uslan and artists Snejbjerg & Loughridge were never able to create a sequel…

And just in case you’re wondering…Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) featured the very first appearance of a certain Dark Knight…
© 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

SHAZAM!: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

By Bill Parker, C.C. Beck, Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, Otto Binder, Denny O’Neil, Elliot S! Maggin, Roy Thomas, Joey Cavalieri, Alan Grant, Jerry Ordway, Steve Vance, Kurt Schaffenberger, Curt Swan, Gil Kane, Barry Kitson, Peter Krause, John Delaney & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1674-0 (TPB)

Superhero movies season is hurtling down on us now so let’s cash in a bit…

Hard on the heels of the superb Shazam!: Monster Society of Evil collection came a most welcome addition to DC’s much missed Greatest Stories… line: an anthological review featuring some wonderful moments from the stellar, if chequered, career of the World’s Mightiest Mortal.

First seen in the February 1940 issue of Whiz Comics (#2 – there was no #1) and cashing in on the sales phenomenon of Superman, the big red riot was the brainchild of writer/editor Bill Parker and young illustrator Charles Clarence Beck.

Drawn in a style reminiscent of early Hergé, ‘Introducing Captain Marvel’ saw homeless orphan Billy Batson lured into an abandoned subway tunnel to a meeting with millennia-old wizard Shazam. At the end of a long, long life fighting evil, the white-bearded figure grants the lad the power of six gods and heroes (Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury) and urges him to carry on the good fight. In thirteen delightfully clean and simple pages Billy gets his powers, has his secret origin revealed (he’s heir to a fortune embezzled by his crooked uncle Ebenezer), gets a job as a radio reporter and defeats the mad scheme of Doctor Thaddeus Bodog Sivana who is holding the airwaves of America hostage.

Originally dispensing the same sort of summary rough justice as his contemporaries, the character soon distanced himself from the pack – Man of Steel included – by an increasingly light, surreal and comedic touch, which made Captain Marvel the best-selling comics character in America. For a period, Captain Marvel Adventures was published twice a month, and he was the star in a number of other titles too.

(Billy’s alter ego could beat everybody but copyright lawyers; during his years of inactivity the trademarked name passed to a number of other publishers before settling at Marvel Comics and they are never, never, never letting go. You can check out their cinematic blockbuster version this summer…)

In the formative years there was actually a scramble to fill pages. From Captain Marvel Adventures #1 (1941) comes an untitled drama of alien slavers produced in a bit of a hurry by Golden Age Dream-Team Joe Simon & Jack Kirby.

It’s probably fair to say that this rambunctious rarity is included for its name-value alone, but the third tale, ‘The Trio of Terror’ (The Marvel Family #21, 1948), is prime stuff from Beck and brilliant prolific writer Otto Binder, full of sly whimsy as three demons escape the netherworld to plague ours.

Many of the storytelling innovations we find commonplace today were invented by the creative folk at Fawcett – the original publishers of Captain Marvel. From Captain Marvel Adventures #137 (1952) comes ‘King Kull and the Seven Deadly Sins’ by Binder and Beck, wherein a beast-king from a pre-human civilisation frees the embodiments of Man’s greatest enemies to plague the planet.

These are wholesome tales for the entire family, however, so don’t worry – “Lust” has become “Injustice” and “Wrath” is “Hatred”, here.

There are two yarns from the good Captain’s final year of Golden Age publication. DC, in their original identity of National Periodical Publications, had filed suit against Fawcett for copyright infringement as soon as Whiz Comics #2 was released, and the companies had slugged it out ever since. In 1953, with sales of superhero comics decimated by changing tastes, Captain Marvel’s publishers decided to capitulate.

DC eventually acquired all rights, titles and properties to the characters. But that last year saw some of the best tales in the entire run, represented here by the wonderfully surreal ‘Captain Marvel Battles the World’ (Captain Marvel Adventures #148, September1952, by Binder and Beck) and ‘The Primate Plot’ (The Marvel Family #85, July 1953): a dramatic and very funny precursor to the movie Planet of the Apes, by Binder and Kurt Schaffenberger.

Beck returned to commercial and magazine illustration, but Binder & Schaffenberger soon joined the victorious opposition, becoming key Superman creators of the next few decades.

In 1973, DC decided to revive the Good Captain for a new generation and see if his unique charm would work another sales miracle during one of comics’ periodic downturns.

From the comicbook re-titled, for those pesky copyright reasons, Shazam!, the tale that bought him back was written by Denny O’Neil, and illustrated by the returned and resurgent Beck.

‘In the Beginning…’ and ‘The World’s Wickedest Plan’ (Shazam! #1, February 1973) retold the origin and explained that the Captain, his super-powered family and all the supporting cast (there’s a very useful seating chart-cum-biography page provided for your perusal) had been trapped in a timeless state for 20 years by the invidious Sivana Family who had subsequently been trapped in their own Suspendium device.

The sales and fan rivalry of the Man of Steel and The Big Red Cheese (Sivana’s pet name for his stout-hearted nemesis) had endured for decades, and in 1974 Julius Schwartz took full advantage by having the two finally – if notionally – meet.

Superman #276 featured ‘Make Way for Captain Thunder’ by Elliot S! Maggin, Curt Swan and Bob Oksner, a trans-dimensional tussle to delight 10-year-olds of all ages. Incidentally, Captain Thunder was one of the options considered in 1940 before Fawcett went with the Marvel name.

Beck was profoundly unhappy with the quality of stories he was given to draw and soon left the series. One of his assistants and stable-mates from the Fawcett days had been a Superman Family mainstay for nearly twenty years and smoothly fitted into the vacated lead-artist position. Kurt Schaffenberger was delighted to again be drawing one of his all-time favourite assignments again, and his shining run is represented here by #14’s ‘The Evil Return of the Monster Society’ scripted by Denny O’Neil in 1974.

Captain Marvel’s blend of charm, drama and whimsy made and remade many fans, even prompting a live action TV series, but never enough to keep the series going in such economically trying times. Despite its cancellation, however, the series persevered in back-up slots in other magazines and the character still made the occasional bombastic guest-appearance such as 1984’s DC Comics Presents Annual #3.

‘With One Magic Word’ saw Sivana appropriate the mystic lightning that empowers Billy Batson, leading to a Battle Royale with not just the Marvel Family but also the Supermen of both Earth’s 1 and 2 (this was mere months before Crisis on Infinite Earths lumped all these heroes onto one terribly beleaguered and crowded world).

This cracking 40-page romp was plotted by long-time fan Roy Thomas, written by Joey Cavalieri and illustrated by the fabulous Gil Kane.

Now fully part of the DC universe Captain Marvel popped up everywhere. He was even a long-suffering straight man in Justice League International for a while…

From L.E.G.I.O.N ‘91 #31 (1991), by Alan Grant & Barry Kitson, comes the wickedly funny slugfest ‘Where Dreams End’, as the big guy has to try and reason with a drunk and hostile Lobo, and when he once more had his own series, spinning off from the superb original graphic novel The Power of Shazam!, a new high-point of quality entertainment was achieved – and sustained – by Jerry Ordway, Peter Krause & Dick Giordano.

‘Yeah – This is a Face Only a Mother Could Love…’ (from The Power of Shazam! #33, 1997) is a powerful, poignant treatment of intolerance and the collateral damage of superhero encounters where Billy tries to help a school-friend hideously scarred by his arch-foe the Arson Fiend. It’s possibly the best executed and least known story in the book.

This lovely compilation ends with a zesty delight from all-ages Adventures in the DC Universe (#15, 1998). Here Steve Vance, John Delaney & Ron Boyd create a testing time for Billy when Zeus decides to see if his modern beneficiary is actually worthy of his power in ‘Out of a Dark Cloud’.

The original Captain Marvel is a genuine icon of American comics history and a brilliantly conceived superhero for all ages. This collection, which only scratches the surface of the canon of delights produced over the years, is a perfect introduction to the world of comics and one that will appeal to readers of any age and temperament. Still available in paperback, let’s hope the modern hoopla convinces DC to rerelease it in both printed and digital editions…
© 1940, 1941, 1948, 1952, 1953, 1973, 1974, 1984, 1991, 1997, 1998, 2008, DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Nine Lives

By Dean Motter, Michael Lark & Matt Hollingsworth (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-853-2 (HC)                    978-1-84023-358-2 (Titan Books HC edition)

This March sees the 80th anniversary of the Bat-Man’s debut and gosh-by-golly I’m getting pretty stoked with all the anticipation. I trust there to be some fuss about the event. I’m also getting my Nerd on by indulging myself in a few fond looks back. Here’s another taste of the amazing influence the Dark Knight has exerted over the decades, and one more tome just begging for a new edition and some digital exposure…

The depictions and narrative signatures of the post-war genre “Film Noir” are powerful and evocative, celebrating a certain weary worldliness as much as stark lighting and visual moodiness ever did. That said, this murky world seems a natural milieu for Batman tales, but there are precious few that make the effort, and so very few of those successfully carry it off.

This superb alternative adventure published under DC’s Elseworlds imprint (wherein the company’s key characters are translated out-of-continuity for adventures that don’t really count) is a magnificent exception, combining hard-boiled detective yarning with the icons of gangster movies.

1946: Selina Kyle was a woman everybody wanted, and who exploited that fact fully. When The Batman finds her ravaged corpse in the sewers, there’s no shortage of suspects. Was she murdered by a high-society big-shot like Oliver Queen, Harvey Dent or Bruce Wayne, desperate to keep her quiet, or was one of her more sinister consorts-du-crime to blame?

Gangsters like jilted embezzler Eddie Nigma, mob-boss ‘Clayface’ Hagen, The Poker Joker, The Penguin or even the stone-cold hit-man Mr Freeze might have snuffed her in an instant if expedient, and seedy gumshoe Dick Grayson knows that he’ll be just as expendable if he digs too deep into the private affairs of the Highest and Lowest denizens of Gotham. But somehow, he just can’t let go…

Reconfiguring key figures of the venerable mythos as such recognisable archetypes – although perhaps obvious – is still a wonderfully effective way to revitalize them. The plot is as engrossing as any movie masterpiece and the human analogues of the bizarre and baroque Bat-cast are just as menacing even without outlandish powers and costumes. And through it all lurks a bizarre vigilante dressed as a bat, once again a mad element of relentless chaos that he can no longer be in his regular mainstream comic outings…

Although a pastiche derived from many sources, Nine Lives is a brilliant and engrossing read, seamlessly and stylishly blending mystery, crime-caper and sophisticated suspense thriller with moody visuals and a cynical tone that will show any hold-out naysayer that comics have as much to offer as any other creative medium.

Hunt this down and make it yours or pray that it’s due for a fresh release ASAP.
© 2002 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.